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The Pulp Work Ethic
From the Editor's Desk
Monday’s manifesto on Pulp Speed sparked interest among our readers. This prompted me to delve into the archives and pull out a few articles I wrote two years ago on the Pulp Work Ethic to help add historical context to the origins of pulp speed.
- Frank Theodat
Fans of pulp fiction gravitate to the heroic characters and whacky plots, not just in their original magazine form, but in other adaptations such as paperbacks, comic books, films, and radio plays. People read the pulps for their extravagant plots and exotic locales, but they stayed for larger-than-life characters, like The Shadow, The Spider, and Doc Savage.
Critics of pulp fiction, back then and even now, see the books as nothing more than trashy tales that appeal to people's lowest sensibilities. Pulp writers were seen as hacks writing for money and not real artists. Whatever your impressions of pulp fiction are, no one can deny that the best of the pulp writers paved the way not just for modern genre fiction, but for future masters of the craft. To say there is nothing we can learn from the pulp writers or that they were hacks is both naive and shortsighted. Some of the best writers today, in traditional or independent publishing often possess the same traits found in those pulp fictioneers. Two of which I will highlight here: unrelenting speed and a no-nonsense attitude. Together, they form what I call the Pulp Work Ethic.
The first book I came across that illustrates what life was like for the pulp writers in their day is Frank Gruber’s The Pulp Jungle, a memoir about his rise as a pulp writer in New York City during the Great Depression. The second is The Penny-a-Word Brigade, a collection of articles published by veteran pulp writers from “Writer’s Digest” during the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s edited by Ed Hulse.
Deep into The Pulp Jungle
Frank Gruber recounts his long journey to becoming a working pulp writer.
During his youth, he consumed a steady diet of children's books written by Horatio Alger about young boys in rags-to-riches stories. These books inspired him to pursue writing and brought on an onslaught of rejection slips in his mailbox. In the late ‘20s, he published his first story in a Sunday school magazine for two dollars. Gruber then landed jobs as an editor for several farmer’s life magazines, drawing a hefty salary that took away from his writing time.
As “luck” would have it, the Depression hit and the only viable work he could find was writing for the pulps. If only he could just break in!
From there on, the book follows Gruber’s uphill battle to submit to editors all over New York City. He gives accounts of the struggles of his peers as well. He recalls his friend, Steve Fisher, failing to sell his stories, leading to his eviction from his apartment the day before Christmas, carrying only a suitcase and his typewriter. Other anecdotes include writers going to the local diner for “hot tomato soup”, a simple dish in the ‘30s. Gruber would take a couple of packets of ketchup and stir them in a cup of hot water. Delicious.
Gruber would go for months writing somewhere around 30 to 40 stories. Each one was rejected. It wasn’t until 1934 when an editor called telling Gruber that although they didn’t like his adventure or detective stories, they wanted a western. Gruber admits at this point in his life, he had no experience writing Westerns whatsoever. This was not going to stop him.
He was handed a Western magazine and studied it word by word. Later that night, he wrote two short stories and submitted them. Each story was less than 2,000 words. A few days later the same editor called him asking for a 5,500-word spy story to hit the printers in the morning. What follows is Gruber pulling an all-nighter to write a short story for Secret Service Operator #5.
“I sat down at the typewriter. By eight o’clock I had created Captain John Vedderes of Military Intelligence...by ten o’clock I had come up with Leone Montez, the beautiful spy who was working for the ‘mysterious power’...by twelve o’clock I still needed plot ....”
Then comes the best line in the whole chapter.
“By eight o’clock in the morning, all fifty-five hundred words were down on paper, eighteen pages. There was no time to retype. I delivered the story at nine o’clock.”
Gruber didn’t have time to rewrite anything, just sending it in hot from the typewriter. Most writers during this time didn’t rewrite stories. It was hard to edit on an Underwood or an Olympia.
A few days passed and the editor called telling him that he was buying his stories. All three of them.
Gruber finally made it! The rest of the book details his ups and downs, from his time in the pulps to his screenwriting career in Hollywood. The book is out of print and most copies for sale are quite expensive, but if you’re interested in learning more about Frank Gruber’s career, I highly recommend it.
Other famous pulp writers included Lester Dent, Sally M Singer, Leigh Brackett, Max Brand, Norvell Page, and the immensely prolific King of the Pulps, H. Bedford Jones, who wrote hundreds of novels and short stories during his tenure. It was said that Jones was so prolific, he had multiple typewriters to write multiple stories at the same time. These writers were able to bang out words at alarming rates cumulating anywhere north of 2 million words or more in a year. Since this was their only source of income, many wrote every day regardless of what got in the way. Writer’s block was nonexistent during this time.
Harlan Ellison was famous for demonstrating this. He would sit in a bookstore with his trusty typewriter, be given a simple (sometimes even ridiculous) prompt, and spend the afternoon punching out a story in real time.
The discipline, consistency, and output of the pulp writers continue to both amaze and depress me. I aspire to turn out that many words of fiction a year with nothing held back. Sometimes doubt stops me cold, but then I remember H. Bedford Jones. He believed any amateur writer could eventually learn to write and sell commercial fiction if they so choose.
"Yes, it is simple to write stories. We are taught to do it in school, and we keep right on doing it. In it, most of us find the outlet for a great craving, which is usually repressed yet nonetheless insurgent - the craving to create something. His need for hunger and love satisfied, man then seeks to create, being fashioned in the image of God; and if he can make his creative work supply his needs if he can make his imagination pay his bills, he is in the seventh Heaven."
Buckle Down and Write
I came across an article on ThePulp.net written by famed pulp writer, Erle Stanley Gardner.
Gardner was asked by H. Bedford Jones to give his advice to aspiring writers looking to cash in on the pulp magazine gold rush. Originally published in 1932, Buckle Down and Write, details the attitude and the courage it takes to stick with writing and the impact it had on him. Pumping out words from their typewriters was no easy task but it was the best way to make a fine living in those days. Several magazine editors needed short fiction and novels of crime, science fiction, westerns, and the weird to name a few to feed the demand for a hungry readership.
What I enjoy most about Gardner’s piece is how his advice is universal and can easily apply to the aspirations of anyone looking to dive into the craft of writing. The Pulp Work Ethic is, ultimately, nothing more than unrelenting discipline to show up every day to your writing chair to produce words. Excuses be damned. Gardner was working as a full-time professional as well. So much of his time and energy went into managing his law practice but he still had aspirations to be a writer. Not for any literary or artistic passion mind you. His primary motivation was cold hard cash.
“So I decided I wanted to vacation some. I wanted to get out more and see the world. How could I do it? Obviously by saving money, which was something that never appealed to me very much, or by getting some source of income that could be carried around with me, building a business that was independent of offices.”
Gardner spent five years writing, learning, and perfecting his tools with his vision clear in his mind. He comments on how he churned out terrible work to editors in the beginning, still refining his craft but committed to sending out his stories to magazines.
“Writing is just as much of a profession. Therefore, I just want to get the money out of writing badly enough to put in five years before expecting a single sale. Otherwise, I won’t even start to write. So I decided on a five year apprenticeship.”
When he finally broke in, Gardner soon realized how much joy he got out of writing that he continued to have a successful and lengthy career. He came for the money but stayed for the storytelling, penning roughly 150 novels throughout his career. His Perry Mason series sold over 300 million copies and is ranked #3 in the best-selling book series of all time as of 2019.
Gardner encouraged all those who wished to find similar success with his trade to make an honest commitment to themselves to write, study, and keep going regardless of how many rejection slips he or she received. He spent many nights in his office, hovering over the typewriter, his fingers sometimes numb on the keys and eyes heavy fighting to stay awake. He was often exhausted from the demands of his day job. He made the time to learn; to write and get better in the small hours of the night, day in and day out.
“So I figured I was a manufacturer of stories, that the magazine was the jobber, and the public the consumer. I started trying to find out what the public wanted.”
He approached his fiction with the eye of a former salesman; reading through magazines to see what was being bought, understanding the needs of the audience, talking with editors, and studying the market, but I don’t think that is a bad thing. At least not in the beginning.
I worked as a sales rep for tech companies over the years and this approach makes perfect sense to me. My days were filled with finding accounts, understanding their business needs, speaking with the right people, and seeing if we can help solve their problems. The skills you learn in sales transfer quite well as a writer trying to establish a career. Constant rejection, the need for thick skin, long hours, high failure rate, and a “can-do, take-no-prisoners, and get-shit-done attitude” can serve you well in the long term.
It may not be romantic but I can relate to Mr. Gardner’s methods here. There is after all a business side to storytelling if one is interested in making a living or becoming a professional.
I encourage you to take the time to read the rest of Gardner's article. If you are a fan of the pulps, a writer, or a student of history then you won't be disappointed.
I believe the Pulp Work Ethic can be achieved by anyone. Because at the end of the day, the best writers were paid the most because they were master storytellers. They knew how to entice and reward the reader for their time. There is no reason we cannot do the same now. As I often say in the P3 Office:
Write Fast, Write Clean, Publish Often
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