Be Productive, Persistent, and Professional

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’ve written often in this space about my admiration for the pulp writers of old. As I was learning the craft myself, I often turned to these writers for inspiration. Not just for their stories, but their practices as well. I found they did three things above all—they were productive, persistent and professional.

Productivity

The first mark of the successful pulp writer was productivity. They wrote. They wrote a lot. And they usually wrote on manual typewriters, several of them producing up to a million or more words a year.

Frederick Faust, aka Max Brand

Indeed, perhaps the most prolific author of all time, Frederick Faust (better known by his pen name Max Brand) wrote 4,000 words a day every day for about thirty years. How on earth did he do it? Especially since he drank whiskey all day and then, when finished with his fourteen pages, settled down to his serious drinking? (I do not recommend this method.)

Pulp writers had to be productive. They had to put food on the table, especially during the Depression. They were often being paid a penny a word. (Erle Stanley Gardner figured out that if he used a character’s full name in dialogue attributions, it was an extra penny. Thus, you’ll see his Perry Mason stories filled with: “Come in,” Perry Mason said. “Hello,” said Paul Drake. “Shall I stay?” asked Della Street.)

Be productive. Set a weekly quota of words. What can you comfortably do? Up that by 10% and keep track of your daily output on a spreadsheet. Review and adjust your quota every year.

“The most critical thing a writer does,” said the late Robert B. Parker, “is produce.”

Persistence

In the pulp days, if you wanted to break into a market, you had to overcome hundreds of rejection slips. In the 30s and 40s, the golden age of pulp, most magazines had headquarters in New York. Many a writer moved to the Big Apple so they could walk around and knock on doors and meet editors personally.

While they waited for a break, they continued to write and cop “hobo soup” at the automat. (That’s where you’d get a cup of hot water and dump in a healthy dose of ketchup, salt & pepper, and stir, then crumble in saltines—all these ingredients were free.)

Now, with digital self-publishing a viable option, you don’t have to wait to be published. But in most cases you’ll have to wait to make significant headway in the market. How long will it take before you start seeing more than coffee money come your way? That all depends on how productive you are (see above) and if you operate like a professional (see below).

Professionalism

The pulp writers approached writing as a job. They had to. They didn’t have time to sit around cafés gabbing endlessly about theories of literature. So they studied the markets, figured out what worked in those markets, and learned how to make their own writing better.

You can do the same. Study markets, expand your craft, and keep writing and adding your own spices.

When pulp writers sent in a manuscript, they made sure it was typed cleanly. When they talked to an editor, they made sure they spoke cleanly, for burning bridges was a fast route to the soup kitchen.

They had egos, sure, but they kept them in check because publishing is a small world. On occasion they’d push back on an editor messing with one of their stories, but they tried to keep it respectful. It was a good thing Twitter did not exist in the 1930s.

Professionalism still matters. Even if you self-publish, readers will pick up a vibe about you, stretching from the design of the books themselves all the way through your social media footprint.

So be wise about your profile, remembering what Erle Stanley Gardner said: “I serve the reading public.”

So should you. Which is why I’m happy to announce a new book, one I’ve wanted to do for a long time. It’s designed to teach the secrets of the great pulp writers, everything from how to be more prolific to the best plotting methods to my exclusive Start-a-Plot Machine.

HOW TO WRITE PULP FICTION is available now. Here’s where you can get it:

KINDLE

NOOK

KOBO

PRINT VERSION

A final word on pulp fiction. A certain class of literati has sniffed at its very existence. I even read one jeremiad that claimed commercial fiction writers have “sold their souls” to the “devil” of profitability, and how can they even look at themselves in the mirror?

Yeesh.

Well, I continue to shave in the morning and my mirror is clean, and I delight in what a successful pulp writer named William Wallace Cook (writing under the pen name John Milton Edwards) wrote over 100 years ago:

The tale that moves breathlessly but logically, that is built incident upon incident to a telling climax with the frankly avowed purpose to entertain, that has no questionable leanings or immoral affiliations—such a tale speeds innocently an idle hour, diverts pleasantly the harassed mind, freshens our zeal for the duties of life, and occasionally leaves us with higher ideals.

An honorable goal, I would say.

So, TKZers, how are you stacking up on the three Ps—productivity, persistence, professionalism?

17+

45 thoughts on “Be Productive, Persistent, and Professional

  1. Excellent post! I am glad to hear that entertaining our readers, and perhaps adding in a bit of wisdom here and there, is just as worthwhile a goal as writing the next literary classic.

    We do need to adhere to good work ethics, especially with so many opportunities in this digital age to be otherwise.

    Congratulations on the book launch. Looking forward to reading it!

    • You hit it, Cecilia. What was it Twain said? A “classic” is “a book which people praise but don’t read.” Twain always thought of himself as an entertainer, too.

      Thanks for the good word.

  2. Congrats on the new book. I would humbly add another “p” to your list. In this day, unless you’re a Very Big Name, you have to include promotion.

    • I agree, Terry, so long as that added “p” doesn’t take away from the other three! The best marketing remains the quality of your books. I’ve seen too many new authors stressing over animation on their websites, or Facebook ad buys, or blog tours, or tweet blasts, etc. … at the expense of productivity.

      Luckily, there are a few basics one can learn to “turnkey” while keeping the writing up.

  3. Your book comes at a perfect time so I just downloaded it. I need to write a rough draft of an inciting incident before Tuesday for an on-line class so I’ll be using your Start-A-Plot Machine this morning! Thanks.

  4. “…such a tale speeds innocently an idle hour, diverts pleasantly the harassed mind, freshens our zeal for the duties of life, and occasionally leaves us with higher ideals.”

    Worthy goals indeed, especially in today’s troubled world.

    The nicest compliment about my new book came from a lady in Florida who was stranded without electricity for five days from Hurricane Irma. Fortunately her Kindle was charged up and she said my story had helped her pass the time under miserable circumstances. I felt humbled and honored.

    Looking forward to diving into your new book and thanks for doing a print edition to dog-ear, mark up, and wear out!

  5. I had to get your book just to discover the definition of Pulp Fiction. I mean I know about the paper from wood pulp thing, but beyond that, had no idea how anybody really defined pulp fiction. I came away with “anything that isn’t plodding literary work.”

    It’s a nice wake up call to hear how writers wrote not that many decades ago. Makes us sound like a bunch of big babies comparatively speaking. Those typewriters, UGH! Even in the dark ages when I was in “office science” in high school, our electric typewriters had correction tape. I don’t think they had even that option. And the thing is, the accuracy of the books printed was far more accurate than now, where it’s not uncommon to find errors in book copies, whether Kindle or print.

    • Erle Stanley Gardner actually had to wear bandaids on his fingers sometimes, as he pounded those manual keys. Later he got smart and used a dictaphone and a team of secretaries!

  6. Great column. I’m doing Nano this year (plus working a full time job plus doing a show that opens December 1). That has upped my productivity.

    My favorite Christmas gift (when I was nine) was a typewriter. My aunt let me use her IBM Selectric when I was eleven. These days I prefer pen and paper. I’m constantly on the go and those are portable. My sketch book and sticky notes work wherever I am (during lunch at the office, backstage, at the park). I also have a notebook for each project with sticky notes on scenes I need to add. Saves a lot of time.

    • I learned on a manual, and it was quite a transition. I stayed up all night once typing a law school paper and then discovered a big error in the middle that couldn’t just be corrected with White-Out. I screamed and woke up my wife.
      When the Kaypro came in right after I graduated, I snapped it up. I was in heaven.

  7. Congratulations, Jim, on your new release. And thanks for writing it. I look forward to begin reading it tonight. I also second Debbie’s comment on appreciating a coming print version.

    Reading about the pulp writers is inspirational. It certainly motivates us to crank up the three Ps.

    How am I stacking up on the three Ps? Horribly. But there’s nothing that gets me as motivated as writing stories for my grandchildren.

  8. A friend of mine, an intellectual type, an English professor emeritus in fact, caught me reading a Zane Grey novel once. My cheeks burned as I said I didn’t know why I liked Zane Grey books because they were so full of cliches and such. She said, “Oh yeah? Well, he probably INVENTED those cliches!” I’ve never been embarrassed about reading pulp fiction since!

    • Not to mention all the “cliches” in Alexander Pope and Shakespeare.

      “Fools rush in,” by Pope, maybe leads the pack.

      Can’t help sharing lines from Pope that forever stick in my mind:

      A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
      Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
      There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
      And drinking largely sobers us again.

    • People can say what they want but in the 89 years since its publication, no novel has EVER knocked Zane Grey’s “Nevada” off the pedestal as my all time favorite novel.

  9. Mr. Bell. I’ve already got your new book. Thank you for writing it. I love the pulp writers and their books.
    I remember when I picked up my first Raymond Chandler book (not exactly a pulp writer). On the back, Chandler was called a slumming angel. That lit my imagination. So did the pulp writers of science fiction, especially those who were discovered by John Campbell, like Isaac Asimov, Clifford Simak, Robert Heinlien and so many others.
    But my favorite was Kenneth Roberson (Lester Dent) who wrote the Doc Savage books, sixty of them. Those books were so easy to get swallowed up in. I get the feeling Dent and the others spent little time overwrought by the nits and lice of writing. They didn’t have time for writer’s block, tracking daily sales, or general angst. They wrote. That’s your Production P.
    I just looked at some of the Doc Savage covers again and noticed that the author’s name was very small and at the bottom of the cover in a simple font. The words Doc Savage and the title were large and dramatic. To me that says the story was more important than credit for writing it. That was how they built a brand.
    Lester Dent’s formula for a great pulp book is here: http://www.paper-dragon.com/1939/dent.html. I have it on my desk. Also, Karen Woodward has a series of great articles on Dent and his way of writing that is a compliment to your book. We could do worse than learn from those great writers.

    • Brian, as you’ll see, I feature Lester Dent prominently (including his formula). I read his bio, BIGGER THAN LIFE, in preparation. He was certainly one of those quintessential pulp writers, with an amazing output. I’m currently reading LADY AFRAID, one of the novels he wrote post-Doc Savage. The guy knew how to spin a yarn … and end a chapter!

      I have a copy of Dent’s one-page, typewritten formula grid hanging in my office.

    • Ahh, Doc Savage. Thanks to some unknown reader who left a box of books in my dorm room at my Air Force technical training station, I spent nine months reading the entire series plus dozens of other sci-fi novels. The only ones I still recall are the adventures of Doc, Monk, and the rest of the team on the 86th floor of a New York City skyscraper. With all the remakes of the past years, maybe it’s time for a new Doc Savage movie. Or TV series. Thanks for igniting the fond memories, Brian.

  10. Amen and congrats and the new book, Jim.

    I can only add a quote from my own favorite pulp writer:

    “I write everyday except Sunday. Never less than four hours, never more than eight. I get going at 9:30, 10 or 10:30; take a short lunch break; work after lunch until I can sense things going stale. Then I quit, because I have learned that once I feel that way, I am just doing stuff I will be forced to destroy.”

    That’s John D. MacDonald talking, who made his early living doing the PPPs.

  11. I have been waiting for your book, Mr. Bell. [No, I didn’t know about it–I mean, generally.] My fiction professor at the University of Oklahoma was Foster-Harris (William Foster Harris), in my opinion, the king of western pulp writers.

    Though I aspire to write thrillers, my style is built upon his teachings Surely, he wasn’t the only pulp writer who can teach us–me, most of all–things that will help us.

    Gotta git on down th’ road. Soup’s gonna be on, directly.

  12. OMG, definitely buying this!
    I was a pulp writer back in college. Over 1,5 million words in series of 50 crime western novels/novellas, all on typewriter. Happy days.
    But those days and all I had learned put me in trouble today. I simply can’t grasp that ‘first draft is a crap, you have to rewrite and rewrite’ state of mind. Why on earth would anybody want to write badly, just so to fix it later, when you can write your best in the first draft?

    Cheers, Mike (pen name, of course)

  13. Congratulations on your launch, Jim. Good post. Mark Twain had the last laugh. The “literary” writers of his period are forgotten, but Twain continues to entertain.

  14. I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year and I have averaged just over 4,000 words/day for these first few days, but that was only possible because a few things just happened to fall into place to give the time and privacy I needed to make it happen. I can’t even imagine continuing this pace every day. Especially for years.

  15. Thanks for the motivation. In answer to your question, I’m doing it. Some days it’s hard, but I’m doing it. Posts like this one help me keep going.

  16. Congratulations on your book release, Mr. Bell. I’ll snag the physical version as soon as I find it (I like to underline).

    I love the pulps. I can’t get enough.
    I always see people reading novels on airplanes, books they might have picked up at a departure airport someplace. I’ll print out a few inches of pulps from my favorite pulp websites, hole-punch the lot and put them in a binder. Then I’m good to go as far as Narita or Shanghai (with a possible break for a nap). Some are crap, but many are good. Some are truly surprising.
    My writing reads like pulps, but not good pulps, as yet. Thank you for the inspirational post. I intend to set a few goals.

  17. You forgot the fourth “P” – Procrastination. That’s my bugbear.

    However, you have a sale here in Left-Pondia, and I look forward to reading – and learning from – it.

    I write old fashioned British whodunits in a modern setting, and I’m sure they (and I) would benefit from a little pulp writing know how. Thanks again.

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