a guest post by KH Koehler
There was an interesting discussion on Facebook the other day—where all the most interesting discussions take place. To paraphrase, fellow pulp writer William Meikle stated that he was frustrated by how easily some people dismissed his work, which made me think how, yes, pulp writers have often had a long, hard time of it in the past.
The consensus seems to be that unless you’re an author of literary fiction—that is, works that hold high literary merit in society, whether it touches on social commentary, political criticism, or a focus on the human condition—that somehow you are a substandard writer, a hack, a purveyor of what was commonly known as “pulps” in the not-too-distant past, and, going even further back in history, “bloods,” or “penny dreadfuls.”
Pulps and penny dreadful have long been the literature of the “common people,” and many writers like H. Rider Haggard and Robert E. Howard (and, more recently, James Patterson) have built long-lasting careers—and even legacies—on them. But, let me tell you, they are hardly common pieces of work. Anyone who insists that such literature is unworthy of accolades or, god help us, is easy to write, is plain wrong and has never written a pulp in their life.
First of all, the vast majority of pulp fiction is written in some kind of series format. It can be a format that is created by the author in the form of a commissioned original series, by the company or publisher of the books themselves, or even by a large corporation. Commissioned original pulps are the kind of series where the publisher, be in small press, mid-sized or large, requests a series from an author and the author maintains the full Copyright and some control over the direction of the series. Essentially, the author creates the series for the publisher but continues to own it. Then there are publishers who offer work-for-hire to authors who want to write in already long-established, open-ended series where the author does not hold Copyright or other control over the project. These would include novelizations for movies, TV series, and the like.
There is a long, historical precedent for this style of mass-production literature. Going back to the nineteenth century, Street & Smith Publications, the publishers of such popular pulps as The Shadow and Doc Savage, specialized in inexpensive magazines and dime novels—often printed on “pulp” paper, which is how such publications came by their name. Their series could run for hundreds of volumes, written by dozens of different writers, which may sound easy in theory, but creating and establishing a series—and successfully continuing it for years or even decades—requires an inordinate amount of work. World-building can be vast and complicated, and trying to keep one or more (or even many) authors onboard with the way the world works takes effort. Plus, different writers have different styles, thus, over time, the tone of a series can change drastically.
Even if a series only has one author, that author has to maintain continuity over what may come to be dozens of books. Books, by their very nature, progress over a series of obstacles toward a climax and denouement, imitating the way real life works. And yet the author has to maintain a certain amount of inertia in order to maintain the interests of his or her readers. At the same time, original ideas and interesting new twists are expected to crop up organically and at almost every turn. In other words, series need to progress, but not end. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Modern day pulps—and I’m including series fiction like Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who, and Supernatural tie-in novels—operate pretty much the same way as they did decades ago, establishing new stories, characters and ideas, but without tipping the giant, top-heavy boat in any way.
Now, aside from that challenge, there are others in writing in this format. If an author is writing their pulp series in any kind of semi-traditional way, there’s a good chance they may wind up writing about a different time period than their own. Many modern pulps are set in Victorian England, or the Wild West, or any number of different, colorful historical periods. Writing in historical periods requires its own ziggurat of research just to get the period technicalities right. There is no room in writing for sloppy research, and if you think you can “fake it until you make it” in historical fiction, then you are sadly mistaken, because I guarantee you that no matter how well you think you know a time period, there will be at least one reader out there who knows it better than you, has a Ph.D. in it, and can point out all your errors, probably in a spotlight review that’ll be seen around the web.
Most pulps also deal with esoteric subjects: science fiction, firearms, crime, historical locales and conflicts, and the social issues of the time period they are written in—all subjects that require additional research to pull off effectively. Even if a writer’s pulp consists of some form of magic realism, it still requires that the author create guidelines for magic usage, or a theological belief system, or any number of complicated world-building blocks to create a fictional reality that doesn’t feel sloppily cobbled together. Many writers even extend themselves to real-world research in order to make their writing more authentic, including speaking to law enforcement, firearms expert, historians, language experts, librarians, and the list goes on.
There really is no such thing as a thrown-together book, and pulp novels, though they may appear “easy” to write, are hardly the exception. In many ways, because the subjects of pulps are so diverse and colorful, it requires an exceptional amount of effort to pull together a series that readers are willing to come back to and read again and again. Yet pulp writers are often given tight deadlines, and their books experience fast turnarounds, meaning that for a writer to make a proper living by writing pulps, they need to be churning out an extraordinary number of words.
Contrary to what some people believe, pulp writers don’t usually have the advantage of going to writers’ retreats, or escaping to lakeside homes to tap away at their next work in the comfort and silence of a controlled environment. Since they are responsible for writing quick, punchy books in relatively short periods of time—sometimes only a few months, and sometimes only a few weeks—they have to produce a plethora of wordage and still manage to maintain the quality that their reader’s have come to expect.
No matter how fast a read or seemingly simple a concept, I promise the next pulp novel you read, whether it’s an old-time mystery novel, or the latest release from your favorite modern pulp wordsmith, represents only the smallest percentage of the time, effort and research the writer put into it. But I hope you will read the next one, and the one after that, and come to appreciate it for the dedicated art form it is.
And who knows…you may be inspired to write your own someday.
K.H. Koehler is the author of various novels and novellas in the genres of horror, SF, dark fantasy, steampunk and young and new adult. She is the owner of KH Koehler Books and KH Koehler Design, which specializes in graphic design and professional copy-editing. Her books are widely available at all major online distributors and her covers have appeared on numerous books in many different genres. Her short work has appeared in various anthologies, and her novel series include The Kaiju Hunter, The Mrs. McGillicuddy Mysteries, Anti-Heroes, Planet of Dinosaurs, the Nick Englebrecht Mysteries, and The Archaeologists. Visit her website at https://khkoehlerbooks.wordpress.com.
Purchase Dinosaur Valley (The Archaeologists #1) the latest pulp adventure from K.H. Koehler, at Severed Press and Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01LRQNNAO/