9 Key Lessons From A Year of Pulp Method Fiction Writing
I sat out at the beginning of 2018 to write fiction short stories every week, following the footsteps of Louis L’Amour, Jack London, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and many others. The general consensus was that meeting the target of 50 short stories was the first step. (You can review all these weekly reports and summaries at the “Great Fiction Writing Challenge.”)
I ended up finding that writing at the million-word-per-year level of Erle Stanley Gardner and H. Bedford-Jones (as well as several other pulp-method writers from the 20’s to 50’s) is actually easier than it seems. There are some caveats, but not very many.
This is my third boil-down of lessons learned – to take it back to a bullet-list and make everything more accessible.
Here’s some statistics right off, to give you the production summary as of Week 48:
- 125 original books written and published.
- 27 of these were anthologies
- 2 were full novels (5oK plus)
- 96 were individual short stories (at least 2500 words plus, usually 6-8K)
- 637,533 words in single fiction books
- added a typical base of 3400 +/- subscribers to my active list (starting from 0)
- 513 blog posts in addition – at an average of 2K per post, this is nearly 2 posts a week, and about 280K additional words.
- total words published on paid platforms were 2,057,564 (as the short stories were published on their own and also as part of anthologies.) And this doesn’t count fiction words also published on free platforms of my own site, Medium, and Wattpad.
And this is just posted here so those who “need” to know I’m walking my talk can have some statistics they can dispute. Otherwise, feel free to ignore these.
“No One School Has All the Teachers”
This is an old oriental saying (Japanese, if not even earlier) that describes the state of advice out there about how to write, as well as how to publish. I named a list of some 7 key figures earlier that I’d held up as examples with the lessons they teach. But none of them had all the answers. They only had answers for themselves and their own production systems. And when I took their lessons and tested them, I only assembled a method of writing that worked for me.
You Can Only Compare Yourself With Yourself
Other people have what works for them. Getting down on yourself because you haven’t already cracked 6- or 7-figures of income helps no one. That is the typical problem with many courses about writing and publishing books – they keep touting the “million-dollar” results – and seldom tell about the quiet successes of people simply enjoying their writing and getting some income from it – enough to at least pay for their expenses (or not.) And I made about as much at the end of this year as I was at its beginning. Because I was working on the writing habit, not the income habit. (And these are both habitual mindsets you train in over time.)
Writing is Regular Work. Regular Action Forms Habits
I set out to write at least one, and possibly two stories each week – and publish them as well. Some weeks I wrote zero. Some weeks I published nearly 10 books. The average was two original fiction books per week. Every couple of months, at least, I collected these up and published them as anthologies. And they generally sell better than the individual books – as a single title. Through this, I developed my own systems for writing, and getting the inspirations I needed. Now they are ingrained as habits. (If it takes 28-40 days to build a habit, what does 196 days give you?)
Prolific Writing is Easy. Making a Living At It is Hard
I had to change my target of 50 short stories at about week 23. Because I was about to pass it. One of the first steps I took was to round up everything I had written as fiction and publish it. All under pen names. Wasn’t that much. A couple of NaNoWriMo wins. Several flash fiction pieces. And then got steadily to work writing. After that 23rd week, I resolved to write and publish 2 stories per week. I’d set that up earlier as a solution to getting out from under the “Feeding the Beast” syndrome some authors have experienced with Amazon. But then I found it was a great deal of fun to help these stories come to life. The joy of writing kept me going. Meanwhile, my existing books (mostly non-fiction) kept bringing me enough income to more than cover my bills – without having to pay for advertising.
Writing is All Long Haul Work – “Overnight Success” is Just More Fiction
Look up the backtrail of any successful author and you’ll be able to find a decade or more of work perfecting their craft and setting up their life to support their writing. All you hear about in the press is the last year or so where it started paying off. So you can’t listen to these “bally-hooed” successes. Again, you have to compare yourself with yourself. Did you write more this year than last? Get more published? Earn more income? Your own analysis will tell you where you can improve. Stories about others can be inspiring – but don’t take them as Gospel. You can only harvest what you plant. And that harvest is more likely a decade or more off. The second best time to start is now. Look up the “prolific authors” on Wikipedia and you’ll find them mostly investing several decades at writing. Several. Decades.
Enjoy What You Write And So Will Your Readers
This one datum has come up over and over. If you find yourself grinding at writing something, or bored with it – that is also coming through your writing. The only valid reason to write is because you enjoy it. People who try to “make a lot of money” at this never last. It’s just too labor intensive. There are no real short-cuts to creating great fiction. So enjoy all you do. If you’re having fun, and enjoy re-reading your own stuff, then your real fans will like it to0. Reviews mean nothing except to Amazon. Read what you like to get inspiration to write what you like. Then the readers who like your stuff will find it – somehow. At least they won’t put it down when they eventually discover it. Best advice I’ve heard on this is: “Write what you want to read.” And then you’ll be writing for the best idea of an “avatar” you could find.
Writing is Learned by Writing – Lots of It
That’s the sheer bottom line. The biggest breakthroughs I’ve had personally was studying all these courses and craft books – then throwing them all away. Once you’ve internalized (testing these ideas for yourself) then you’ll be able to just sit down and write. You’ll know if the story is going anywhere. By your own gut feeling and interest the writing coming out of your fingers (or through your auto-transcriber program.) But there is no substitute to writing on a regular basis – and working to make every story better than the last. Sure, some authors can crank out 20K words per week, and output a million words per year. Not very many of us. Most writers have their day jobs. Many still write in retirement at the same pace they used to write on a part-time basis. I’ve been blogging and journaling since the late ’90’s. So writing “straight ahead” with no plot per se was more natural to me. But I had some two decades of writing behind me when I sat down to just concentrate on writing fiction. The surprise was that it wasn’t hard work – but it was enjoyable work. And my stories are much, much better now than when I started. But the “writer’s voice” I use is very similar to the one I write my blogs with. Of course, now I know how to make my non-fiction blog posts more interesting to read… Just took a year of dedicated practice.
Follow and Emulate Perennial-Selling Books, not Bestsellers
About 10 years after Louis L’Amour started writing professionally, he was told that none of his books had ever gone out of print. There are a large handful of writers through history who have achieved this. “Max Brand”, Robert E. Howard, Robert Heinlein, Shakespeare, Arthur Conan Doyle, and others are in this small number. Those have set the high bar to reach. History doesn’t care about “NYT Bestsellers” or “Amazon bestsellers”. Look up Gutenberg.org’s top 100 lists. Read these authors. Dissect their best books. Test those methods for yourself. Then all this talk about online advertising and “book launches” will fall into perspective. The first and oldest advice I’ve heard repeated about successful writing is this: “Write A Damn Good Book.” All the clues are there in these perennial sellers. Maybe the language needs to be modernized – like “Romeo and Juliet” became “West Side Story”. Study the books that live forever and yours might, too.
Stories Are Out There Begging to Be Brought to Life
Stephen King tells briefly about this in his “On Writing” – where he says the stories write themselves. Chris Vogler mentions the idea that stories are alive in the appendix to the later editions of his “Writer’s Journey.” I’ve found that inspiration is unlimited. The more you practice using your imagination, the better you get at it. The more you write, the easier it is to find the words and phrases you need. Once you train your inspiration to accept the stories that are talking at you all the time, then you can help them come to life. (And then be prepared for them to queue up waiting for you.) All the possible plots have probably already been written. But a plot doesn’t make a story. The story is from the characters. For me, it was getting the idea of all the characters in a story sitting down at a long table for a script read-through. And I was the only one in the room who didn’t have a copy of that script. Sure, as they went, they’d suggest changes as they interacted with each other. And I would often (if another character didn’t) ask them to “cut to the chase” and keep the pace moving. If I was getting bored from too much dialogue or winded explanation of settings, so were my readers. Just let the stories write themselves – but herd them as you have to.
There is no one-sentence summary for this, each of these lessons have their own action plan to implement.
If I were to tell you one set of datums to boil even these down it would be these:
- Sure, read this. Test everything. Then throw it out if it doesn’t work for you.
- Write your own stories the best you can. Work at your own pace.
- Be true to yourself and your stories.
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