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?

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So Your Self-Published Novel is Just Sitting There

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Frank Gruber

Frank Gruber

Heard from a writer the other day who is frustrated that his two novels are sitting somewhere near the bottom of the Sea of Amazon, with nary a fish swimming by. He wondered if he should even bother writing another.

You know what I told him? Be thankful you’re not trying to break through back in 1934!

Yes, the Great Depression and the era of the pulps. You think you’ve got it hard? How about all those writers wearing out their fingers on manual typewriters, hoping to sell a story for a penny a word? How about the ones who pulled their life savings so they could move to New York for as long as the money lasted and make the rounds of the publishing offices?

Let me introduce you to one of them. His name was Frank Gruber. He was a successful pulp writer, then came out to Hollywood to write for the studios. In the 1950s he hit it big as a TV writer for Westerns. In1967 Gruber published The Pulp Jungle, a memoir of his time trying to break into that market. He moved to New York in July of 1934 with a plan to get published within six months.

My physical assets consisted of one portable Remington typewriter and my wardrobe which, aside from what I was wearing, fit very comfortably into one medium size suitcase. I had sixty dollars in cash, but paid out ten dollars and fifty cents of it for a week’s rent in advance at the Forty-fourth Street Hotel. I squandered another ten dollars over the long weekend, so that on Tuesday morning, when I went out to size up the pulp jungle I had approximately forty dollars.

I had one thing else … the will to succeed.

Because money was tight, Gruber ate a lot of “tomato soup” at the Automat (these were popular in the city, like cafeterias, where you put money in a slot to open a window that held a sandwich or whatever). Hot water for tea was free. So what a lot of people did back then was get a bowl for soup, fill it with hot water, pick up some cracker packs (free), sit down at a table and pour half a bottle of ketchup into the water. Voila! Tomato soup. There were days when this is all Gruber ate.

During his first five months Gruber completed forty stories.

All were rejected.

It was desperation time. Then Gruber got a call from an editor who liked him, but hadn’t bought his detective fiction. He asked Gruber to try a Western. So he wrote two stories and submitted them. Then he got a call from an editor he’d pestered, who knew Gruber was a fast writer. The editor said they needed an adventure story the next day to fill out the magazine. Could he do 5500 words overnight? Of course, Gruber said, without any idea of character or plot.

Twelve hours later, at eight in the morning on a Saturday (when the story was due) he had the 5500 words, but no time for corrections. He took the pages to the offices himself.

Then didn’t hear anything.

He went back on Tuesday to see if they had rejected it. The editor said, “Oh, sorry, we forgot to call you. We pay on Friday. Can you give me another story for next month?”

Then the two Westerns he’d submitted earlier sold for a grand total of $34.

He was in!

But this was just the beginning. Even a successful pulp writer (who was writing for a living) was usually just a step or two ahead of the landlord. They had to keep producing, keep selling.

I poured it on in 1940, producing more than eight hundred thousand words. The more I wrote, the more I had to write. I was making commitments all over town and I had to deliver.

This was a common theme among the pulpsters. Gruber tells about a writer named George Bruce who used to throw parties in his small Brooklyn apartment. One night the place was jammed with thirty-plus people. At ten o’clock Bruce announced he had a 12,000 word story due the following morning. He went to a corner where his typewriter was and pounded it for four hours, ignoring the party swirling around him. At two o’clock in the morning he announced he was finished and poured himself a glass of gin.

Gruber also got to know perhaps the most prolific author of all time. His name was Frederick Faust, but you know him by his most famous pen name, Max Brand. When Gruber met him they were in Hollywood working at Warner Bros. Studios. Faust had, by that time, written and published approximately forty-five million words.

Frederick Faust, aka Max Brand

Frederick Faust, aka Max Brand

When Gruber asked him how on earth he did it, Faust asked Gruber if he could write fourteen pages in one day. Gruber said he’d certainly done so (fourteen pages is about 4,000 words), but had also gone two or three weeks without writing a line.

That was the secret, Faust said. He wrote fourteen pages a day, every day, “come rain or shine, come mood or no.”

That works out to one and a half million words a year.

The really remarkable thing about Fred Faust’s output was that he was the “biggest drinker” Gruber ever met. Faust would put away a thermos of whiskey during his morning writing hours. His lunch would be washed down by several more drinks. “When he went home at five-thirty,” Gruber writes, “he had a light supper and then settled down to his serious drinking.”

Faust was one of those extremely rare individuals who could drink like that every night and still operate in the morning. I do not recommend this method.

I do, however, recommend Faust’s seriousness about a quota. I’m a piker compared to guys like Faust and Erle Stanley Gardner. I aim for 6,000 words a week! But I can tell you my yearly output for the last 15 years. I keep track on a spreadsheet. This is the most important writing advice I know. [My best year, by the way, was 2010 – 347,768 words.]

So here’s my message for you if you’re tempted to pull a woe-is-me:

  • Your pulp forbears would shake their heads at how good you’ve got it. You can publish yourself and to a virtually unlimited market! Without cost! They would have thought that possibility was science fiction back in ’34.
  • If you don’t write to a quota, they’d have no sympathy for you.
  • If you don’t pay at least some attention to the market, they’d think you were daft.
  • If you don’t try to get better at your craft, they’d tell you you’d be better off as a plumber, and the sooner the better.
  • If you want to make it, they’d tell you to keep working, because the work never stops.

I wrote a little book some time ago called Self-Publishing Attack! In it are my five “absolutely unbreakable laws” for self-publishing success. While some of the technical items have changed since I published it four years ago, the laws that make up my system remain unalterable.

And the last law is: Repeat over and over the rest of your life.

Are you prepared to do that?

If you are, then somewhere Frank Gruber is smiling.

[NOTE: Gruber would be pleased as pulp to know that his signature series character from the 1930s is still around, in both digital and print. I refer to Oliver Quade, the Human Encyclopedia.]

So what do you think of Frank Gruber’s Depression-era work ethic? Still valid today?

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