Why I Write Pulp Fiction

James Scott BellGuest Blogger: James Scott Bell

With the e-publication of my new suspense collection, One More Lie, I’m happy to count myself as a writer of pulp fiction.

What is pulp fiction anyway? Please don’t get anywhere near confusing it with the nihilistic, over-praised and much too often over-copied film of the same name. True pulp fiction goes back to the magazines that used cheaper pulp paper in order to sell in great volume to a voracious reading public. These magazines had their heyday in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.

It was fiction for the people, for the guy on the crowded subway going to work, or the busy mother with five kids who got a little reading time at night. It was for the people who wanted to be caught up in a fictive dream. It was not written in a style aimed at some elite literati. It was about dames and thugs and gats and roscoes. Femme fatales and corrupt police. About the American dream gone wrong and how crime does not pay. And it produced many superb writers along the way who transcended the genre.

Some stories became classics, in style and substance as well as plot. The Maltese Falcon, first serialized in the pulp magazine Black Mask, is a great American novel. It is what Shakespeare might have written had he been born in 1894 and walked the mean streets.

And how can you beat this opening to the famous story “Red Wind” by Raymond Chandler?

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. 

I’m there. I’m seeing a slice of the human condition. At the time, Chandler was capturing a part of Los Angeles life that hadn’t been given light before. He and another writer of the day, James M. Cain, were innovative in that.

But the thing I like most about pulp fiction is that it has to grab the reader and not let go. A storyteller with a “message” won’t have a chance to deliver it unless he or she can make good on that basic, page-turning promise.

Pulp writers were prolific. They had to be, at a penny a word. Erle Stanley Gardner, like me an ex-lawyer looking to make a living as a writer, came up with the character Perry Mason. He got a penny a word at first, so in his stories you always see both names used whenever he describes a character. Like this:

Perry Mason entered his office and greeted his confidential secretary, Della Street, with a fond hello.

“It’s about time,” Della Street said.

“What’s about time?” Perry Mason rejoindered taking a seat behind his desk.

Before Della Street could answer there was a quick knock and the door, and the private detective Paul Drake walked in.

“Hello, beautiful,” Paul Drake said to Della Street.

You get the idea. Each time it was an extra penny earned! (You have to love how lawyers think, don’t you?)

One More Lie So this is why I write pulp fiction. I love to spin a good yarn and illuminate a little slice of the human soul along the way. The pulp market dried up, but now e-publishing has given it new life. I have two collections out now, Watch Your Back and One More Lie. Each has a title novella and three stories. I might have made a penny a word in 1930 and hammered out a meager existence. This new digital market pays much better and the shelf life never goes away.

I see this as supplementing my print work. As Rachelle points out repeatedly, fiction authors have to build a platform. This is one way of doing it.

And it lets me be prolific, lets me keep testing new ways to grab readers, lets me keep doing what I’ve always wanted to do––write.

Do you have a “guilty pleasure” kind of book or movie or TV show you go to for escapism?

If you’d like to read the first chapter of ONE MORE LIE, you can do so by clicking here.

Watch Your Back

James Scott Bell is the bestselling author of Deceived, Try Dying, Watch Your Back and many other thrillers.

Under the pen name K. Bennett, he is also the author of the Mallory Caine zombie legal thriller series, which begins with Pay Me in Flesh. Jim served as fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest magazine, to which he frequently contributes, and has written three bestselling craft books for Writers Digest, including the #1 writing bestseller, Plot & Structure.

  1. enderrose says:

    So you admit you write crap , well at least you admitted it.

  2. My husband, Charles Boeckman, age 91, wrote pulps starting in 1945, under the name Charles Beckman, Jr. When you read those long ago stories typed on a manual typewriter with a sheet of carbon paper sandwiched between two sheets of typing paper and no way to erase or correct mistakes, you might have a greater appreciation for the skill of many of those writers. You see, at one cent a word (the standard rate), the only way to make any money writing pulps was to turn them out fast. So my husband and many other writers wrote first draft.
    That means they did not revise! Try that and see if you can write an entire story with no revisions.

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  6. Wendy Lawton says:

    Great re-introduction to pulp fiction, Jim. Rachelle, thanks for letting Jim worm his way onto your blog. You might not have been quite so generous had Jim shared his definition of literary agents with you. 🙂

    My guilty pleasures: Historical English mysteries like Anne Perry. Can’t get enough.

  7. patrice says:

    That was really interesting! I really enjoyed the part about Perry Mason. Imagine being so careful to write for every penny. I have to admit that prior to reading this, I knew nothing about pulp fiction. (Nothing-nada-zero!)I’d heard the term and knew there was a movie title, but I never gave it much thought. I actually watched Perry Mason reruns on TV as a kid. Thanks for the information. I want to read your first chapter now.

  8. Roger Floyd says:

    Pulp fiction writing may work for you, but as an unpublished writer, if I were to submit a novel written the way you describe Gardner’s Perry Mason, I have no doubt an agent or publisher would either throw it out or at least tell me to clean it up. I seriously doubt they’d accept it like that. It may have worked for Gardner or Hammett, but it’s not for everyone.

  9. Harriet McDonald says:

    Loved your first chapter. Wandering now over to pick up my Kindle. Thanks, by the way for a great article. Never thought of my own dabbling as pulp fiction but, by jingo, I believe that’s what it is.

  10. Carrie says:

    Hmm, I don’t think I’d ever read pulp fiction before; or, perhaps I had and just never realized it. 🙂

    Okay, a question…I’m a writer with a few shorts published on ezines who’s looking to publish a book at some point; is it “wise” to try to establish oneself via e-publishing or should one seek out traditional publishing?


  11. Vella Munn says:

    I have to wade in here with a bit of correction about what writers of early-day pulp fiction were paid. Granted this is only one experience, but my grandfather, Homer Eon Flint, was one of those early writers. His last published story, released a few months after his mysterious death in 1924 earned him $400. I’m guessing the story ran around 60,000 words because it was released as a three-parter.

  12. Thanks for this great post, James. I haven’t read any of your fiction works, since I pretty much stick with kid lit across the board, but I read everything you write about writing. You are the best, and your books have helped me tremendously. Thank you many times over.

    : )

  13. Kristin, related to Hammett? It’s in the genes! Keep writing.

  14. I’m laughing, but I’ve learned something today! I read a lot of pulp fiction as a teenager (especially Dashiel Hammett, especially because he’s a distant relation!) and always wondered why surnames were repeated so much.

  15. Beth K. Vogt says:

    Thanks for both the definition and the most excellent example of pulp fiction. “Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.”
    I smiled at that line. Not sure my husband would … but I did.
    For escapism … yeah, I confess. I read People magazine, back to front. Really: back to front. It’s just the way I read a magazine.

  16. CG Blake says:

    My guilty pleasures are reading Carl Hiaassen and Elmore Leonard and watching The Office. I also enjoy, Behind the Music on VH-1.

  17. Thanks for the kind words, everyone.

    And speaking of Sherlock and Perry Mason, I hear Robert Downey Jr. is going to do Perry as the start of a new franchise. I like him, like the new Sherlock, but I have to say, if I were ever to get in trouble with the law, I would want…Raymond Burr!

  18. Now I know! Thanks for teaching us once again, James.

    I still think Plot & Structure is the best book money I’ve ever spent.

  19. Janet says:

    I like the concept of writing pulp fiction as a way to establish one’s platform!

    Perhaps that’s what I’ve subconciously doing by crafting short stories and entering writing contests. That is my guilty pleasure. When I can’t stomach working on non-fiction rewrites any longer and I’ve promised myself and the fellow who wants to publish my work not to start a novel in earnest until the NF revisions are completed, I justify dashing off a short to get the fiction adrenaline out of my system. That’s not exactly breaking my promise, is it? ; )

    I’m sure glad you’re writing pulp fiction. I spent a lot of time in my teen years in the company of Perry Mason and Della Street. I love a good gumshoe story.

  20. Jillian Kent says:

    Hi Jim,
    As Marcus said, “Your are the man!” Love what you’re doing with e-pulp. Makes me want to do it too, but I guess I better finish my 3-book series first or I might drive Rachelle crazy.

    Loved that opening from Raymond Chandler. My guilty pleasure escapism is almost anything Sherlockian. 🙂

  21. Ruth Madison says:

    Very inspiring!

    My guilty pleasure is reading chick lit. I love the lightness and humor of them.

  22. Love pulp fiction and have read as many Perry Mason books as possible. Never realized the reason for the use of full names. I love John MacDonald and his Travis McGee books. Will definitely seek out yours for relaxing reading.


  23. What a good article! My guilty pleasures are Jack Reacher novels and The XFiles.

  24. Diana Dart says:

    Your passion and intensity are contagious, JSB. My copy (made of pulpy paper) of Art of War for Writers is already well worn. Looking forward to enjoying the titles above. “Fiction for the people?” Count me in.

  25. Kecia Dilday says:

    My guilty pleasure is (some not all) reality TV, which I think serves a similar purpose as pulp fiction did–escape and entertainment. It’s exciting that e-publishing is reopening favorite genres to new audiences! I think it should still be named pulp–digi or no. 🙂

  26. Wendy says:

    Ah…spinning a good yarn and illuminating a little slice of the human soul along the way…this is stuff of life!
    Fun to read more about you.
    ~ Wendy

  27. Adam, thanks for adding the great John D. to the conversation. I have a complete set of his 1950s paperback originals (a couple of first eds) and I like those even more than the McGees. They were variable in style, but always superbly written. He could have been one of our leading literary writers, only he had to make a living!

    And that knight errant idea is what animated Chandler, and why I prefer him to the nihilism and darkness of so much current noir. I try to tell that kind of story in my Ty Buchanan novels.

    The two novellas referred to in this post are of the James M. Cain variety: confessional, the consequences of our actions, which is another way to tell a “moral” tale.

  28. Adam Porter says:

    Love the tone and vibe of the pulp mysteries. As a FLA boy, I am particularly drawn to the sparse but evocative style of JD MacDonald. Travis McGee opined some things about the Sunshine State in the 60s and 70s that seemed prescient bordering on lunatic at the time…then in the following decades we watched them all come to pass.

    Re-reading those stories today I love the knight errant beach bum and his damsels in distress…and I routinely have to catch my breath when Travis looks up and describes a world that hadn’t happened yet.

  29. Jim, you’ve revived pulp fiction, although I agree that we need a new name for it now that it’s mainly electronic. What you’re doing is a testament to what you preach–write what you love.
    Rachelle, thanks for letting us get to know James Scott Bell a bit better.

  30. Peter DeHaan says:

    I appreciate the explanation and history of pulp fiction (and agree with your assessment of the movie that co-opted the name).

    I’m excited to see how you are using new technology to give life to an old genre, building a platform for yourself while doing so.

    You show us and prove that there are options out there for writers — we just need to be creative and innovative enough to figure them out. Well done!

  31. That was the most compelling definition of pulp fiction I’ve ever seen. And pulling out “The Maltese Falcon” as a member of pulp fiction hooked me. That’s one of my favorites.

    Now I’m going to wander over to that first chapter of your book.

    But first: am I the only author nowadays who’s been ever so slightly tempted to pack a few extra words into those magazine stories for the extra pennies? I don’t think it would work these days; we cut a lot more from stories now, but just tempted?

  32. Maine Character says:

    “Nothing like the lean, gritty lines of pulp fiction,” Maine Character said to James Scott Bell.

  33. I like the description of pulp fiction as being for the masses. Reading is liberating.

  34. Marji Laine says:

    Your point of how the evolution of e-reading has brought back pulp fiction hits home. I can certainly see how it could be useful to an established author. Excellent article!

  35. Arlee Bird says:

    If it’s digital can it still be accurately called “pulp fiction”?

  36. Fun! I published my first e-book this summer (after 4 traditionally-pubbed books) and just blogged about it today over at the WordServe Water Cooler.

  37. Ilana DeBare says:

    Haven’t read your pulp fiction, but have found your fiction craft books really helpful. May have even quoted one in my blog at one point. Thanks!

  38. Tina says:

    Read a Perry Mason book not long ago, and the complete names were driving me crazy – thanks for explaining.

    Reading Plot & Structure now. Thanks so much for your very clear and understandable how-to books.

  39. I love me some JSB!

    Just finished The Art of War for Writers. Superb! And Plot & Structure? Indispensable!

  40. S. Wiersma says:

    Thank you for explaining what pulp fiction is! Whenever I hear the term, I think of pulpy orange juice. I don’t like pulp, so I never much liked the thought of pulp fiction. 😉 Now I know better!

    • marion says:

      This is a long shot!
      Are you Sjoerdje Wiersma, originally from Bolsward? Or a relative?
      If so, please e-mail me.
      In any case, good luck with your writing!

  41. James Scott Bell … you are the Man!

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