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Writing Pulp Fiction

When I was growing up, I read a lot of pulp fiction. I just didn't know it at the time. From Sherlock Holmes to Tarzan to John Carter of Mars to Doc Savage to the Hardy Boys to Nancy Drew to the tons of private eye and western fiction I loved, I was reading pulp.

I loved the larger-than-life heroes, the daring escapes, the action, the evil villains and the landscapes in exotic settings on this world and others. Conventional novels just didn't work for me. They were too ponderous and filled with characters who struggled with everyday problems (which, I discovered when I grew up, was quite a feat in and of itself).

Give me rayguns and fliers and Tharks! Give me a quest to rescue the most beautiful woman of two worlds!

I was happy!

More than anything, keep me entertained! Keep the plot moving!

I think that's where a lot of indie book authors are really hitting their stride and connecting with audiences who want those kinds of books. I know I do. Apparently there are a LOT of us out there.

As soon as I could spell, I started writing stories. My mom hung onto stuff I wrote when I was in third and fourth grade. They were bad. Really bad. But things happened in the stories. Quests were undertaken. Heroes struggled against great odds in exotic places.

I still hold a fondness in my heart for young Shalum, Prince of the deeps. (Shalum, taken from SHALLOWS, get it?) I wrote about a hundred pages on that story one long summer. I finally gave up on it because I realized I didn't know what I was doing, wasn't headed anywhere, didn't really have a villain strong enough to maintain the plot.

So I wandered around just writing bits and snippets, trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. Gradually, I came up with a process that helped me get through my first book at the end of ninth grade. It was 308 pages of handwritten pulp mayhem about a character I called Hades, the Man from Hell. It was my riff on the Spider and Doc Savage, and it was set in 1932 in New York. Didn't live during those years. Still haven't been to New York City.

But I'd learned how to finish something.

After I became a published author and started selling a lot of books (7 in the first 6 months I was a professional--by which I mean sold my first book), I refined the process. My secret was that I outlined but kept it flexible.

I knew I hadn't invented the wheel, but I'd certainly re-invented it. That was a pretty cool accomplishment for a guy who'd grown up slopping pigs and pumping gas at his father's gas station.

Then I discovered Lester Dent's Master Plot Formula after I became serious about learning my craft. (Actually, I was desperate because I was writing a LOT of books in several fields.) To my surprise, Dent's plotting techniques were a lot like mine! When I first encountered interviews with Dent over his craft, he'd called his process the Triple-O plotting plan. The O's stood for Objective, Obstacles, Outcome.

When I thought about this discovery, I realized I shouldn't have been surprised. After all, I'd spent a number of formative years reading the Doc Savage series. Lester Dent, under the house name Kenneth Robeson, had written 165 of the original 181 adventures. (Noted pulp historian Will Murray found another Dent manuscript and is now continuing the Doc series under the series title the Wild Adventures of Doc Savage.)

I realized I'd picked up the plotting process through osmosis. At least, a literary equivalent. I was kind of proud of that!

Later, while still honing my craft (something you do forever when you're in a field that you love--ask any actor, painter, carpenter, etc.), I discovered James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure and learned even more about why I did what I do. Or, more precisely, how I did it.

Several of Bell's books offer great insights to writing, but How to Write Pulp Fiction really resonates with the writers and readers of today. When Amazon first unleashed the Kindle on the world (and that is literally what Jeff Bezos did), I told other authors I knew that we were seeing a pulp Renaissance. Publishers, for whatever reason, had gotten away from some of the lighter fare we'd been enjoying, and they'd inflated the 60,000 word novel to 90,000. I wasn't able to read a book in a night or two without missing on sleep or screwing up my schedule.

I missed those short, slam-bang adventure stories. Thankfully, they're back. For writers who want to understand how to tell action-packed stories that never let up to attract an audience, Bell's new how-to book is a gem. I found I knew most of it, just like I had with Dent's plot formula, but it reaffirmed everything I thought I knew and reminded me I was on the right path.

The book is an enjoyable read, even if not enlightening to pros, but it reminded me of why I fell in love with what I do. And continue to fall in love with writing over and over again.

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