I’ve written more than once here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook of my love for the pulp fiction tradition, especially in the science fiction and fantasy genres. Though there have been some recent events in SF/fantasy fandom that may have temporarily co-opted the term “pulp” in a negative way, the lessons we can all learn from these early practitioners of the genres we love are as varied as they are valuable.
I touched on some of those things in my post What Pulp Can Teach Us, but that really only scratches the surface.
I believe it’s fair to say that both the science fiction and fantasy genres as we know them today were not quite invented in the pulp magazines of the first half of the twentieth century, but this is where they came into their own, where the archetypes and expectations that still define those genres were worked through, experimented with, and ultimately cemented into place.
As I touched on in the article The Shelf-Life of Sci-Fi Storytelling for Prologue Books, the SF/fantasy pulps were proving grounds, on-the-job training camps, and advance bases for exploration for people who became some of the undisputed giants of the genres, from Edgar Rice Burroughs through Ray Bradbury to Philip K. Dick, it was the pulp magazines that grabbed hold of what was considered a second-rate genre that no “serious” author, let alone any “serious” publication would sully itself with and not only published them but embraced them, encouraged them, provided them a living, and built a community of authors and fans that built the genres more or less from scratch.
I will grant that looking back at the massive history of the pulp magazine tradition, there are some red flags that quickly unfurl. These were products of a (thankfully) lost time, of a segregated America where blatantly racist images of minorities and a systematized degradation of women was commonplace—at least in the lurid cover art.
But as I’ve said before, an author who sets out to write a “pulp” story in our more enlightened times is under no obligation to adopt the retrograde morays of decades past. A new movement, which was discussed in my interview with Pro Se Production’s Tommy Hancock, called New Pulp, is taking what was great about those stories—that storytelling tradition—and filling in the details from a contemporary sensibility.
I have to be honest, my approach to storytelling changed when I first encountered Lester Dent’s Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot. This led to a discussion here of the definition of a formula in the post: Formula vs. Recipe.
What Lester Dent achieved with that document wasn’t to lay out a strict formula that made for a long string of roughly identical stories. Instead, and what continue to be enormously useful to any genre author—writing in any genre—are his reminders along the way. He does use language that makes the “formula” feel purpose-built only for hardboiled crime stories, but it’s easy to read it as I think it really was meant to be: a set of prompts and warnings that can help keep your story on track, keep it entertaining—and no, there’s nothing wrong with entertaining!—character-focused, and vibrant.
I was so impressed with that document, and so reenergized in my lifelong appreciation for that style of writing that I set up an in-person class called the Pulp Fiction Workshop. In that class we met for a few hours one Saturday and went through Lester Dent’s “formula” in detail, talked about the history of pulp and the wide array of genres (including romance, war stories, fight stories, etc.) it covered. Then everyone went away for a few weeks and wrote a 6000-word short story with Dent’s advice in mind and we met on another Saturday to read those stories and discuss the perils and pitfalls, the pleasures and pains, of writing in the pulp tradition.
It was a fantastic experience.
Now I have a great relationship with the good people at Writer’s Digest, who’ve been running my successful Worldbuilding class (starting up again July 2, by the way!). I brought this idea to them and they loved it.
The first online WDU Pulp Fiction Workshop starts this Thursday—and yes, there is still time to sign up. In that course we’ll do the same thing we did in the in-person course, except we’ll stay in closer touch along the way. We’ll start with a close look at Lester Dent’s formula then start in on writing. Over the next four weeks, everybody writes a 6000-word short story, in any genre, and we’ll look at it in fourths along the way. You can choose to share it with the rest of the students, or just with me, and I’ll provide feedback and additional advice along the way, with each week taking a deeper dive into Lester Dent’s advice—and some advice of my own and from other sources.
And at the end you’ll have a 6000-word short story that I absolutely promise you will be as much fun to write as it is to read.