Dale Lucas

author and screenwriter

The Good We Fail to Do

On NPR this morning I heard a story about a group of Pakistani comedians who are making YouTube videos in an attempt to humanize Muslims to the western world and show that not all the world’s Muslims are murderous, radical monsters. In essence, I’m fine with this, because I do believe that innocent people should not be punished for the actions of a radical minority embedded in their larger ethnic/social/political/religious group.

But one of these comedians said something that rang false with me, and it got me thinking.

“You can’t blame all Muslims for the actions of these barbarians,” he said, “that would be like blaming all Germans for the actions of Hitler.”

Well, actually, I do hold all Germans of the generation that lived through Hitler’s rule, warmongering and programs of genocide responsible—to some extent—for his actions, because everyone who lived in Germany at that time was, in one way or another, explicitly or implicitly responsible for the rise of National Socialism, for Hitler’s installation as chancellor, and for the endurance of the Nazi security state and Hitler’s war in Europe.

Every German who let their emotions respond to the Nazi party’s paranoid, self-aggrandizing, us-versus-them propaganda instead of letting their intellect and moral compass lead them was responsible for putting the National Socialist Party in power.

Every German who devalued the power of Hitler’s cult of personality, who laughed or scoffed or ignored the signs that his and his party’s insanity were infecting the nation, and who still failed to cast a vote during free elections in opposition to that party was responsible.

Every German who stood by and let Hitler and his party take power, suspend the rule of law, and drive their country toward fascist radicalization and war without raising their voice in protest, or joining an opposition group, or even simply trying to flee the country and find a new home—a better home—elsewhere is responsible.

Every German who had doubts or misgivings but still joined the Army or the SS and allowed their bodies and souls to be hazarded to feed Hitler’s mania and the evil agenda of the Nazi party was responsible.

Every German who sat by and said nothing, did nothing, while their neighbors who were Jews, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, Romani, Slavs, or simply brave dissidents were systematically denied their rights, isolated in ghettos, then shipped off to slave or extermination camps is responsible.

In other words, as far as I’m concerned, every German who did not take opposing action, or at least raise their voices in opposition to their neighbors, their nation, and the world, in order to explicitly condemn and oppose the Nazi agenda and Hitler’s madness was at least partially responsible for the oceans of blood that ultimately stained Hitler’s—and Germany’s—hands. Could speaking up and acting in opposition have gotten many of these people hurt, or imprisoned, or even killed? Absolutely. Dissent is a dangerous business, after all—especially when one’s adversaries are inhuman monsters who think that those who disagree with them deserve nothing less than death.

But if enough of those people had raised their voices in opposition, it is at least possible that the monsters could have been isolated, denied power, and reduced to the cartoonish, ignorant buffoons that they were, instead of the avatars of hatred and death that they became. What if a few hundred more people had voted in those parliamentary elections? What if a few thousand more people had taken to the streets to oppose the Nazification of their country, or to defend their neighbors who were headed for slave labor, mass graves and gas chambers? What if just one German general in command of one crack division of troops had decided enough was enough and appealed to his men to fight in defense of Germany itself and its good name, and not just for the glory of Hitler and the Nazi party?

Maybe some or all of those opposing forces would have been overcome and silenced—but at least they would have died knowing they stood in opposition to evil…and the world would know that someone in Germany cared enough about the soul of their nation to try and keep it from so spectacularly damning itself.

(Incidentally, there were a number of people who took such stands against Nazi evil—Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Valkyrie conspirators come immediately to mind. Apparently, some 77,000 Germans were executed in the course of war for charges related to opposing the ruling regime—but that’s still less than one tenth of one percent of the total pre-World War II population of Germany.)

So, yes, I believe that innocent Muslims should not be punished or terrorized for the actions of a minority of terrorists among them. But, that belief comes with the caveat that, if Muslims really want the world not to see them as terrorists, barbarians and bloodthirsty monsters, then everyone who opposes terrorism must speak out against it.

Expose and deliver those who would plan and perpetrate evil to the authorities.

Drown out the imams who preach hatred, death and jihad by shouting, vigorously, that love and compassion and humble service are the paths to salvation, not death and bloodshed.

When your children speak with malice or ignorance, correct them, and show them, with your own lives and actions, that malice and ignorance have no place in a well-lived life or civilized society.

Where you are imprisoned by willful ignorance, ask questions and seek answers.

Where you are oppressed by fear and violence, rise up.

And if you want the west to embrace you, with your faith and your values intact, then ask yourself if you have done everything you can to make your embrace of the western values that you can share in—free worship, the free exchange of ideas, the right of every individual to seek their own path and determine their own destiny—readily apparent to those you seek to live beside.

And the above goes for all of us in the west as well: if we are not opposing our own radicals, fundamentalists, terrorists and warmongers—be they Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist, Fascist, Communist or otherwise—then the evil that those individuals do in the name of their tainted ideologies is always, at least a little bit, something that we all bear a shared responsibility for.

Like Voltaire said: “Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.”

The Book in the Drawer

Every author has a book in the drawer.  Most have several.  These are the books we wrote early on that generally fell short of our expectations but taught us a great deal about our craft and our limitations.  Some of them are not as bad as we think; most are far worse.  They may provide spare parts for later novels—a basic storyline, a stable of characters, some good scenes ripe for transposition—but they are rarely salvageable in their present state, no matter how many times we rewrite or polish them.

I have two drawer novels.  The first, Family Blood, was written in high school and concerns vampires.  It’s about 60,000 words long and full of big ideas and shaggy, undisciplined prose.  There’s also a lot of shooting and gunplay, along with some fast motorcycles and copious references to what hard rock or heavy metal bands the main characters listen to.  For these and many other reasons, Family Blood will never, ever see the light of day. 

My second drawer novel was my first attempt at writing a novel as an adult (okay, a college student).  Finally titled The Path of Dragons (I say finally because it had many titles while in progress) it’s epic fantasy in the Tolkein or George R. R. Martin vein.  It’s very long, shamelessly overwritten, alternately dreary and feverish, and consumed my writing life for approximately five years.  None of you will ever read this book, because, much like Family Blood, it’s the work of an apprentice and, despite some nifty ideas, some memorable characters, and some affecting imagery, it sucks.

Nonetheless, birthing and raising both of these beautiful mistakes taught me a few things, which I’d like to share with you now.  I’d like to be an optimist and think that I can help the aspiring writers among you just skip past the plodding and painful process that is the composition of a future drawer novel… but the simple fact is, nothing I can tell you can save you from this writerly rite of passage.  In order to write a good novel, you must write at least one—and sometimes two or three—bad ones.  You must fail utterly before you start to succeed.

But, at the very least, maybe I can help you not to lose hope.  You can see that someone else has been there before, and you can, hopefully, see the lessons to be learned from the bad books that will help you write good ones.    

Brevity is the soul of wit

If your first novel is over 100,000 words long, it probably sucks.  Period.  End of story.  Why so many of us start out swinging for the fences and trying to write something epic when we’re young, inexperienced, and have lived only small lives of quiet desperation full of piddly melodrama mystifies me.  It’s probably that whole hubris of youth thing.  You’re young, you’re ambitious, you’re full of ideas, you want to throw them all in the same pot and cook them up into a heady and delicious stew.

But it never really works out, does it? 

More likely than not, your 250,000 word first novel wallows in unnecessary description, cavorts in the not-so-fascinating interior lives of its main characters (and its enormous supporting cast), and pumps literary and thematic steroids into what is, at best, a 60,000 word pot-boiler.  While there is a time and place for attempting an epic, sprawling, multi-characters extravaganza, it’s probably not your first time out of the gate.  Having written a 250,000 word epic that only deserved to be a 60,000 word potboiler qualifies me to make that statement.

The antidote?  Your first time out, aim for brevity, focus and economy.  Forcibly limit yourself to telling a small story well before you try to assemble all the moving parts of a large one.  Read writers who write short, tight books and even study some good books on screenwriting—which is all about structure, focus and narrative momentum. Those lessons should serve you well.

Know the territory (that is, your genre)

Another mistake I made: trying to write in a genre which I liked, but didn’t really understand in all its breadth and complexity.  When I started The Path of Dragons, I had read The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings, some Michael Moorcock, Robert E. Howard, and Lloyd Alexander.  That was the extent of my understanding of the fantasy genre: great writers all, but, by and large, writers of a bygone age.  Moreover, my stated intention when I set out upon this quest was to write an epic fantasy enriched by the attention to character interiority and sharp, evocative prose that I found in the books that filled my college literature courses.  I would take what I had learned reading Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway and translate that to a narrative with knights and swords and dragons and sorcery.  I’d blaze a new trail by writing gritty, realistic fantasy where there was no good and evil, only complex people making tough decisions in the face of troubling realities.

But guess what?  I was only blazing a trail in my own mind.  In fact, a number of writers had already hacked roads through the wilderness of gritty, well-written, character-driven fantasy.  During the period when I was working on The Path of Dragons (1998 to 2003), Tad Williams completed his Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy, George R. R. Martin published A Game of Thrones, Steven Erikson published The Gardens of the Moon, and R. Scott Bakker published The Darkness That Comes Before.  All of these books were big, epic fantasies full of morally ambiguous characters moving in landscapes displaying a level of world-building worthy of Tolkien but decidedly short on dewy-eyed ooh-aah.  As I struggled to create something that I thought was ground-breaking and one-of-a-kind, I was really just floundering around on paths already beaten by my older and far more experienced contemporaries.  That they blazed trails where I hoped to follow need not have deterred me—but I would have better understood what I was up against, what was really original and what was merely re-tread, if I done more research into the cutting edge of my genre and not relied solely on my knowledge of the ‘classics.’  I also would have seen how high a bar these writers had already set, and maybe, just maybe, I would have stopped in my tracks and decided to do a little more leg work (for instance, researching what was new and groundbreaking, and engaging in more conscientious world-building) before diving into the composition of the book itself.

As it happened, I encountered a couple of these authors (Martin and Williams) when I was roughly halfway through The Path of Dragons… but by that time, it was too late.  I had written too much to turn back or throw away what I already had, even though I knew, deep down, that works like Memory, Sorrow and Thorn and A Song of Ice and Fire were game-changers, and that I was late to the game.    

No matter how hard you try, it’s gonna suck

I read this, heard this, was told this a number of times.  But, I believed it didn’t apply to me.  Technically, The Path of Dragons wasn’t my first novel, after all, but my second.  Ha ha!  Victory!  Likewise, I knew—just knew—that I was the exception to the rule.  I would work so hard, craft such powerful prose and create such unforgettable characters that I would beat the odds and produce a stunning work of uncommon brilliance as a young writer—a work to be hailed by both fans and critics as epic fantasy for the ages.

But I didn’t.  Because I just couldn’t believe that my first adult attempt at writing a novel would, well, suck.  But it did. 

Oh, sure, it wasn’t a train wreck.  There are still passages of Dragons that I can read with fondness and admiration and say, “Hey!  Looky there! This kid’s not bad!”  But passages of not bad can’t save 250,000 words of ho-hum.

The lesson I learned—and that I now impart to you—is not that the first, sucky novel shouldn’t be attempted at, or even that the first (or second) sucky novel can somehow be avoided.  The lesson I learned was this: if you know the first couple novels may suck, don’t waste a lot of time on them.  Come up with a story that moves you; prepare for composition by reading in your genre and working up a solid outline (so that you know what you’re competing with and where you’re headed); then give yourself a reasonable deadline and write the book.  When that first book’s done, put it away and start another one.  With any luck, you can put a couple of sucky novels behind you and move on to doing good work in the time it took me to write a single, bloated, unsalable novel.

Your book sucks?  No worries.  Internalize its lessons, put it away, and start a new one.

Which brings me to the final lesson I learned from the bad books in my drawer: there is no shame in writing a bad book.  The shame only comes from not recognizing how bad the book is, and not learning from it once it’s complete.  If you’re doing your job right as a writer, then every book will be a struggle, and every book will teach you important lessons.  But the work is never in vain, the time spent on composition and revision never wasted, if you are sensitive to what your book is teaching you, and if you work hard to internalize those lessons and utilize them in future endeavors.

I bring up the drawer novel for a reason.  We live in an age where it is now possible for any shmo off the street to pound out a couple hundred-thousand words, run a spell check on it, then ‘publish’ their work as an e-book or a print-on-demand paperback and thus unleash a half-baked, misshapen literary homunculus upon an unsuspecting world.  While I admire the determination it takes to write a book, along with the spunk it takes to cast that book out in the world to let a cruel and indifferent marketplace decide its merits, I would also like to caution would-be self-publishers about the rush to publication. 

There’s a lot of dreck out there, folks.  Boatloads of it.  Every self-published novel that gets released before its time—without the proper editing, vetting, soul-searching and polishing—basically lowers the value of every well-wrought and carefully composed self-published novel on the market.  Just because you can ‘get it out there’ doesn’t mean you should.  So I’m asking each and every one of you who might consider the self-publishing route to also ask yourself this important question before unleashing your work upon the world.

Is this my first foray?  My second?  Is it truly ready for public consumption? 

Or does it, perhaps, belong in a drawer?

Answer that question with brutal honesty, and you may just prove yourself to be a real writer. 

Novella Vogue

Fit-in-the-hand Perfect!

Fit-in-the-hand Perfect! (Photo credit: Robert Burdock)

About a year ago, I got a bee in my bonnet: I was going to write a novella. I’ve written a couple dozen short stories and five novels, but I’ve never attempted the oft-marginalized, in-between story form known as the novella. I was a fan of the form, certainly—some of my favorite works by Stephen King are his novellas (The Mist, The Body, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption), and one of my favorite ‘novels’—Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—is, in fact, a 30,000 word novella. So, why shouldn’t I give it a go, I asked myself. It’s a respectable and challenging literary form (in the words of Ian McEwan, “the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated ill-shaven giant”—the novel); it won’t be as long or involved as a novel would be; but it would give me more room to move in than a short story might (full disclosure: I love reading short stories, but I find drumming up short story ideas and writing short stories to be a kind of torture. I mean, really, why would anyone who wrote fiction want to be so… so… brief?). As I do when undertaking any new literary foray, I took it upon myself to try and do some research to see just what other writers had to say about novellas—their pitfalls, things to remember when tackling them, how to develop and approach them, things to aspire to. But, I ran into a small problem…

Very little has been written on how to write a novella.


So, what is a novella?

Perhaps, before we go on, we should take a moment to define just what a novella is (for those of you not in the know). While the demarcations are fuzzy, the general consensus is that a novella is a work of prose fiction that is longer than a short story but shorter than a novel. While everyone has their favored numbers, the general consensus suggests that a novella seems to be between 15,000 and 50,000 words (that’s quite a range, when you think about it). While modern publishing tends to discount and ignore the novella because the costs of printing are often not worth the scant sales such a brief work might yield (unless it’s part of a collection by a writer who already has a strong following), novellas were, in the 19th and early 20th century, an important part of any writer’s oeuvre: a work that, in the words of the bestseller Dan Simmons, “allows the writer—and, with luck, the reader—to breathe deeply of character, setting, theme, and unrushed narrative without the added pollutants of subplot, ancillary characters, chapter breaks, and the inevitable digressions which cloud the atmosphere of all but the most perfect of novels.” (I really couldn’t have said it better.)

In the days when most fiction was published in magazines, the novella was a sought-after writer’s bread-and-butter, short enough to be featured in a single issue—or serialized in two or three—but long enough to make readers feel they were getting ample bang for their buck. To sweeten the deal, the form was equally popular in both high-brow publications (‘the slicks’) and low-brow (‘the pulps’). Some of our most famous and enduring literary works are novellas, from Charles DickensA Christmas Carol (about 30,000 words) to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (43,000 words) to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most popular lengthy work featuring Sherlock Holmes, The Hound of the Baskervilles (okay, Hound is 60,000 words, which is technically outside the limits I set forth above; still, 60,000 words is a pretty short novel, and some have claimed that novellas actually top out at70,000 words, so I’m going with it as an example). Other famous novellas include James Joyce’s The Dead (16,000 words), Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis (22,000 words), Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (26,000 words), John Steinbeck’s The Pearl and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (both about 30,000 words).

What do we know about novellas?

So, we’ve got a respectable form practiced by everyone who’s anyone on the literary landscape, from old guard masters like Henry James to fantastically popular modern writers like Stephen King (who ironically refers to the novella as “an anarchy-ridden literary banana republic”). June is, apparently, National Novella Month (who knew?). If the novella is so damned popular among writers, why, then, is there such a dearth of material concerned with how to write them? Writers from Edgar Allan Poe to John Gardner have opined on the virtues of clarity, economy and unity of effect when composing a short story; and writers from E. M. Forster to Walter Mosley have offered us book-length works about how to construct and then beautify the complex architecture of a novel. Why hasn’t anyone taken the time to address the no-less particular—if less-often practiced—discipline that is the novella? Is it simply because no rules or prevailing theories exist? Or could it be that great writers simply don’t know what makes the puzzling but piquant form that is the novella so attractive when undertaken, or so effective when successful? Could it be that, since it is an intermediary form, the novella is something of a mystery? A mixed bag necessitating the clarity, economy, and unity of effect of the short story, couched in the load-bearing architecture and craftsmanlike accentuation of the novel?

That could be it. But that doesn’t help me. I’m a conscientious writer who doesn’t undertake anything until I’ve done my homework first. How could I even attempt a novella (I bemoaned) without first considering some prevailing theory on the hows and whys of its composition? (It could be argued that I’m just being too fussy and using a dearth of research as an excuse to avoid starting. I’m just going to ignore that suggestion in my best passive-aggressive fashion and carry on…)

Alas, all the bemoaning in the world—coupled with lots of internet searches—yielded me little of value aside from a number of blogs and essays either praising the form, or celebrating its current vogue status (writers continue to work in the milieu, and one small press publisher—Melville House Books—has an entire line dedicated to classic and contemporary novellas). But, as for how to’s? Very few in sight.

So, in the tradition of any number of do-it-yourselfers, I decided that if notes and theories on the composition of the novella didn’t exist, I’d just create my own. Below, then, is what I offer: what I’ve gleaned about the writing of a novella, based upon ample reading, some practice, and some interdisciplinary considerations. Take this primer for what it is, and feel free to comment upon or add to it.

It Might Be a Novella If…

The first question to answer is this: does the story I envision fit the novella format? There’s no easy answer to that. Admittedly, you might only start to think you’ve got a novella on your hands once you’ve begun what you thought was a short story and found that it keeps growing, and growing, and growing…

But, nonetheless, there might be some indicators that what you’re writing (or what you’d like to write) is suited to the novella form. Consider:

• Does the story have between three to five settings, or set-pieces (for instance: the sheriff finds that the outlaw escaped from the county jail; he follows the outlaw into the wilderness; they finally have a showdown in a box canyon)? A short story can’t always support so many, and a novel can support far more. Thus, if what you’re envisioning falls in this range, you might have a novella on your hands.

• Does your story involve a limited cast of characters? Say, three major speaking roles and only a handful of others to add some color?

• Is the emotional or psychological journey of a certain character at the heart of the story? Is your story, in the words of English professor Warren Carriou, “concerned with personal and emotional development rather than with the larger social sphere”? (To revisit my example with the sheriff—does the sheriff’s pursuit of the escaped fugitive and final showdown with him bring about some sea change in the sheriff’s self-image or worldview?)

• Does your tale require a slow burn to effectively reach its climax? A slow burn that won’t work in the cramped confines of a short story, but that might bog over the course of a novel? A slow-burn tale of suspense with a powerful climax—think Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows or Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw—is ideal for the novella form.

• Is your tale best understood as an oral history? Put another way: lots of short stories and novels are told from the first person POV, with the vague understanding that the narrator is telling us about something that happened to them in the past. I’ve found, though, that the novella is particularly inclined toward this conceit: the tale told by a narrator who is, themselves, a character in the story, said tale being long enough to unfold at a luxurious pace, but short enough to unfold in one sitting. Thus, many novellas have this sense of being oral histories: someone’s reminiscence of an important episode in their lives. While this is not a requirement, I would suggest that a tale that seems to cry out for such treatment might, in essence, be crying out to be born as a novella.

Now that you’ve decided that your tale is a novella, we move on to more technical considerations, such as—

Finite space

One of the most particular requirements of the novella is length. The novella falls within a broad but fairly well established range of word counts. It’s definitely longer than a short story, and it’s definitely shorter than a novel. When dealing with finite space, it behooves one to keep the plot focused, the subplots minimal (or nonexistent), and the dramatis personae limited. In this regard, one could see writing a novella as not dissimilar to writing a screenplay: you’ve only got about 120 pages of heavily formatted prose to work with in a screenplay, so you’ve got to make sure that every line of dialogue, every slug line of action or description, every scene and every set piece supports and encourages the momentum of the story. There is no room for long digressions about cetology or the whaling industry (Herman Melville!), no excuse for virtuoso run-on sentences that carry on for pages and pages (William Faulkner!), and limited narrative resources, making large, sprawling casts of characters hideously impractical (Leo Tolstoy!). No, like the screenplay, the novella should be guided by a single problem or central conflict; should remain focused on a small, manageable cast of characters; and should, at the best of times, adhere to the dramatic unities of a brief timeline and limited settings. Which brings me to—


—questions of construction! Screenwriter William Goldman once said that in screenwriting, structure is everything. I would argue that the same could be said of a novella. Whereas a short story can simply show us a slice of life, and a novel can sprawl about in a hundred directions across decades of story time, a novella should probably have a very definite through-line that unfolds in a very tight, sturdily-constructed narrative space.
A screenwriter’s trick that I’ve long utilized when building story architecture is this: boil down the main thrust of the story into four simple statements.

• Who is the protagonist?

• What do they want?

• Who/what opposes them?

• What happens if they fail to get what they want?

Even if you eschew writing a formal outline, answering those questions and keeping them before you like a compass and map will help guide you through the wilderness that is your in-progress story.

If you want to go further, you might want to look closely at dramatic structures (three act or five act), or perhaps metanarratives like Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey to help you structure your novella before writing it. An especially effective form that might be helpful is Drew Snyder’s Save the Cat! beatsheet, which was designed for screenwriters but which offers a narrative skeleton perfectly applicable to a tightly-plotted work of fiction like a novella. No matter what form you want to employ to help you in the planning stages, I would argue that the exigencies of finite space and narrative structure demand some sort of outlining before the writing begins.

Unity of effect

Beyond issues of space and architecture lie fuzzier atmospheric considerations, such as unity of effect. This is a concept first articulated by Poe, in his The Poetic Principle. Therein, the great master insisted that a short story or tale is most effective when it can be read in one sitting, and thus impart a unity of effect upon its reader: a concentrated feeling, supported by the tale’s diction, syntax, atmospherics, and subject matter. While a novella may or may not be readable in a single sitting, it will be consumed over a shorter timespan than a novel, and thus, unity of effect should be considered. Per Ian McEwan, “the demands of economy push writers to polish their sentences to precision and clarity, to bring off their effects with unusual intensity, to remain focused on the point of their creation and drive it forward with functional single-mindedness, and to end it with a mind to its unity.”

So, are you setting out to thrill the reader? To titillate? To oppress or horrify? To urge laughter or tears? While a novel can wring all these feelings and more from their readers, your novella will probably be more effective and pack more punch if it goes for just one overall effect and really sticks to it. When revising, take great care that every word, every sentence, every paragraph, every scene supports that single feeling. Want to make sure you stay focused? Write that feeling you’re after—in a single word—at the top of your outline. Horror! Pity! Terror! Irony! Revelation!

Whatever it is, keep it foremost in your mind as you compose and then rewrite.

Okay, I’ve Got a Novella. Now What?

Well, that’s entirely up to you. Chances are, no major publisher will care a whit for your intermediate-length work of genius because, as both Dan Simmons and Stephen King pointed out in their most famous novella collections (Simmons’s Lovedeath and King’s Different Seasons), publishers hate novellas, even from established writers. Sure, sure, literary lights like Ian McEwan and Denis Johnson occasionally get to publish a stand-alone novella, but generally, you’re S.O.L. unless you’ve got enough novellas to fill a book-length manuscript, or unless your name is Stephen King and people will gladly buy copies of your grocery list.

But all is not lost. In the brave new world of e-books and self-publishing, it’s never been easier to make your novella available for mass consumption at almost no cost to yourself, and very reasonable cost to your potential fan base (99 cents seems to be the magic number when it comes to pricing novellas). Thus, the novella is to writing and publishing what the self-pressed single or EP was to the indie rock scene: a handy way to reach potential fans, to spread the word on your literary intentions, and to test the mettle of your product in a cutthroat marketplace. You may not make enough from the sales of your self-published novella to buy a pizza, but isn’t it worth it if you manage to attract a few more fans, or glean some feedback as to what worked and what didn’t about your not-so-magnum opus?

So, what are you waiting for? We finally live in an age where a novella need not lie helplessly in a drawer for want of a venue, and tackling the form is a great way to put your writing through its paces and use all the narrative tricks and tools at your disposal. Getting writing, already!

(And if you’re still wondering what ever became of the novella I wanted to write—well, I abandoned the first but finished a second.  It’s mellowing, awaiting a rewrite as we speak.  Perhaps, when I dive back in to polish it, we can revisit the novella again and talk about some of the finer points of mastering this most mercurial of literary forms…)

What We Talk About When We Talk About Pulp

Pulp Heroes I

Pulp Heroes I (Photo credit: Terry McCombs)

I get asked this question a lot, especially when I’m telling someone about my neo-pulp novel Doc Voodoo: Aces & Eights.  “It’s a throwback to 1930s pulp,” I’ll say, “like the Shadow or the Spider.  You’ll love it!”

Some people get it, some don’t—but even the ones who get it often ask, “Yeah, but what does that even mean?  What is pulp fiction?  Other than a movie by Quentin Tarantino?”

We can certainly discuss what it really means, in a historical context—but if we’re going to do that, we should also probably discuss what ‘pulp’ means as a descriptor in a modern context, too.  So, in the interest of installing a definitive answer here on the blog site (or, even better, inspiring spirited debate), let’s bat this question around until we get an answer.

Just what the heck is pulp fiction?

Per wikipedia:

Pulp magazines (often referred to as “the pulps”) are inexpensive fiction magazines published from 1896 through the 1950s. The term pulp derives from the cheap wood pulp paper on which the magazines were printed. Pulps were the successor to the penny dreadfuls, dime novels, and short fiction magazines of the 19th century. Although many respected writers wrote for pulps, the magazines are best remembered for their lurid and exploitative stories and sensational cover art.

Note the key words in that paragraph: cheap, lurid, exploitive, sensational.  Generally speaking, that’s the reputation that fiction labeled ‘pulp’ has retained: cheap and sensational.  We really shouldn’t be surprised that such an assumption still sticks to fiction published in magazines with titles like Spicy Detective Stories and Snappy.  But is the best pulp fiction of that era really so cheap and sensational that it’s ultimately disposable?  I’d argue not.

Consider that some of the twentieth century’s most popular writers got their start in the pulps: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich, David Goodis, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Elmore Leonard, Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft… While many of these writers aren’t household names, and while some still fail to carry weight with the literary establishment, the fact is that a powerful minority of them remain not only popular, but influential.  In some cases—Hammett, Chandler, Heinlein and Lovecraft stand out—their stature and appeal beyond the realms of the merely ‘popular’ is indisputable.  Even writers of hero pulps like Lester Dent (who created Doc Savage) and Walter Gibson (who created the Shadow) continue to exert a powerful unseen influence on modern pop culture.  Twenty-first century America is obsessed with superheroes, after all, and superheroes were arguably born in the pulps.  These are great, indelible, embraceable writers of vital and bracing popular fiction—and they all hailed from the cheap, lurid, exploitive, sensational ghetto of the pulps.

As a matter of fact, I would argue that it’s the free-wheeling, off-the-map nature of the ‘pulp ghetto’ that made it such an ideal place for writers with distinct voices and world-views to develop their craft and hawk their wares.  In this sense, the pulp ghetto was not unlike the theoretical construct at the heart of Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Hypothesis.  Turner’s theory suggests, essentially, that American democracy was born not of European political theory and philosophical tradition, but of the everyday exigencies and dynamic tensions of life on an ever-moving, ever-evolving frontier.  Likewise, the realm of pulp fiction in the 1930s and 40s constituted a frontier of sorts: a place where writers working with edgy ideas and experimental modes of storytelling could let their freak flags fly, so long as they delivered compelling prose on a deadline.

Like any frontier, the pulp ghetto was a crucible in which tired and outmoded story forms could be incinerated, mad experiments could be undertaken, and wondrous new forms (such as the hard-boiled detective story or sword & sorcery, both born in the pulps) could be seeded and bloom.  Just as Turner argued that frontiers—both real and conceptual—are necessary for the evolution and growth of cultures, so I would argue that fiction, in order to remain both vital and transformative, must have a frontier of its own to evolve in.  And that frontier, once upon a time, was the ‘pulp ghetto’, where the literary establishment held no sway, where the only exigencies were narrative and imagination, and where the primary dynamic tensions were between a writer’s ambition and a reader’s attention span.  This, I would argue, is what made the cheap, lurid, exploitive and sensational world of pulp fiction a garden of delights, rather than a den of iniquity: it was in that ghetto, on that marginalized frontier, that a new generation of first-rate American prose stylists and storytellers found their voices and their audiences.

But pulp fiction died out long ago, didn’t it? 

So what happened to that ghetto?  Why don’t we still have pulp magazines in the modern era, where a new generation of untried wordsmiths can cut their teeth and hone their storytelling skills?  History tells us that the ‘Golden Era of the Pulps’ ended post-WWII, when war-time paper shortages, followed by a post-war explosion in cheap media alternatives spelled the death knell of the pulps.  But, I would argue, all was not lost: the spirit of adventure and the sense of immediacy born of the pulps lived on in two of the pulps’ most well-known inheritors—the comic book and the mass market paperback.  It was there, in the ten cent, six color adventures of superheroes and gangbusters and the pocket-sized novels plucked from pharmacy or bus station racks that the spirit of the pulps survived.

I would argue that this is where I and my fellow Gen X-ers first encountered ‘pulp fiction’—even though we neither knew it nor recognized it by that name.  When we were kids, comic books were still cheap entertainment (versus the $4 per issue investments they’ve become) and were readily available at the local 7-11 or newsstand (as opposed to only being available in specialized comic book shops that are often hostile to idle browsing by ‘outsiders’).  Likewise, the Ace or DAW or Signet paperbacks that many of us devoured were only a couple bucks, and could be found everywhere, from the corner Walgreen’s to the Waldenbooks at the local mall.  It was in those comic books that we shared the pulp dreams of a new generation of hero writers, from Jack Kirby, Dennis O’Neal and Chris Clairmont to Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman.  And it was in those paperbacks that we discovered not only the pulp writers of yore—visionaries like Heinlein, Asimov, Lovecraft and Howard—but also a new generation of sensational writers who flew their freak flags proudly and sought to give their ‘ghetto’ new philosophical depth and narrative heft—writers like Michael Moorcock, Robert Adams, C. J. Cherryh, Piers Anthony and Brian Lumley.  By the 70s and 80s—when we grew up—pulp magazines were already mothballed to the bins of memory and nostalgia, but pulp fiction—fiction that dared to dream out loud, fiction that took you places and showed you things you hadn’t previously dared to imagine, fiction that, above all, sought to engage and entertain you… well, pulp fiction hadn’t gone anywhere at all.  It was, in fact, flourishing.

Okay, fine—that’s what it was.  You still haven’t told me what it is

Which brings me to the present.  It’s true that brick-and-mortar book stores are dying daily, but in those stores and on those shelves, we still find mass market fiction delineated into genre ghettoes that cultivate large numbers of loyal fans.  Today’s pulp fiction includes Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, the mysteries of Nora Roberts and the gloriously pulpy tech thrillers of James Rollins.  These authors may be selling truck-loads of mass market books priced at $7.99 a pop, but the fact remains that they are the heirs to the pulp mantle, writing the modern equivalent of yesteryear’s pulp fiction—and they and their readers aren’t suffering for it.  Beyond these obvious, bestselling examples, there are literally thousands of authors producing new work every week in the pulp tradition, and delivering it to readers via traditionally published books or via bottled lightning as e-books on Kindles and Nooks across the country.  The pulp magazine is dead—but pulp fiction—fiction that is gloriously, aggressively, unapologetically vivid, sensational, and entertaining—lives on.

Hell, it thrives.

So, that’s what I’m talking about when I talk about pulp fiction.  I’m talking about pure, unadulterated entertainment; I’m talking about glorious flights of fancy and terrifying plunges into human depravity; I’m talking about hard-boiled detectives, combat magicians, scientists with loaded guns and globe-trotting, femme-baiting international men of mystery.  I’m talking about fiction painted in primary colors that’s not trying to impress me or depress me, but simply to engage me, to enrage me, to thrill me, to chill me; not fiction as tasteful meditation or somber prayer, but fiction as freakshow, fiction as mainline addiction.  If mainstream lit is the classical guitarist in the Ivory Tower, pulp fiction is the hard-working busker in the street.

That’s pulp fiction: cheap, lurid, exploitive, and sensational, but also skillful, vivid, fearless, immediate.

And still very much alive.

This Is How I Do It (And You Can, Too)

English: my typewriter

A while back, I offered some damn good reasons to write a novel, because I’ve written a few and I know a number of people who would like to give it a go themselves.  I’ve found that all sorts of folk have the kernel of a book inside them, or stories to tell, but they seem befuddled by how to build a narrative and translate the images in their heads into words.  Thus, because you’ve all been waiting with baited breath for some insight into what I do and how I do it (oh, my sarcasm is delicious…), I offer this: a glimpse into how the mind of this writer snatches ideas, builds them into stories, and hammers them into some readable, reasonably-entertaining form.

First: Images and Ideas

I find that my ideas don’t start with people or events: they start with a basic notion of the type of story I’d like to tell, or perhaps an image that suggests a world I’d like to explore.  From the outset, then, it’s setting and tone that attract me, not necessarily story or character.

Doc Voodoo: Aces & Eights, was born of a determination to tell a story in the tradition of Prohibition-era hero pulps like The Shadow or The Spider (albeit, with modern attitude).  I didn’t conjure up an image of Doc Voodoo and then decide what world he’d fit into: rather, I saw the world—mobsters, Tommy guns, jumping jazz and Manhattan at midnight—and I consciously created a hero to move in that world.

My Roman-era supernatural spy thriller, Ordo Arcana was born of an image: a rabbi and a Roman centurion standing before a glowing gate through which some nameless Lovecraftian horror was about to pass.  From that image was born a supernatural police procedural set in a real historical time and place.

Again and again, this is how it begins: I see an image—a window into a world.  I want to understand how that world works, who lives there, and what struggles they might endure.  I see the clanking pistons and chuffing engines of a steampunk Victorian Age and wonder what would happen if such a hyper-industrial world was threatened by paranormal forces.  I see a galaxy-spanning, space-faring confederation and wonder how such a far-flung civilization could find social or political cohesion.  I see the Runic banners and martial ceremony of the Third Reich, the black uniforms and death’s head regalia of the Shunstaffel, and I wonder what magical forces lie behind that very earthly evil, and what sorts of specially-trained paranormal commandoes might be employed to fight the real second world war—the shadow war that might have unfolded just beneath the surface of mundane reality.

(Note the persistence of supernatural tropes.  Like most writers, I didn’t choose my subject—it chose me.  While not every story I’d like to tell involves the supernatural, it seems to be the persistent obsession of my imagination.  Your imagination might have a completely different obsession—solving puzzles, seeking justice, recreating shadowy corners of history, rendering everyday mundane life in glorious detail.  The key is: don’t fight the basic impulses of your muse.  If it wants dragons, give it dragons; if it wants high tech, give it high tech; and if it wants the quiet moment and the psychological epiphany—well, shit, give it those, too.)

Images spark ideas.  Ideas spark images.  As the two wind together to form a strange sort of Celtic knot of inspiration, I find myself drawn from merely daydreaming about an idea into the next stage: research and brainstorming.

Second: Research and Brainstorming

My good friend and publisher, Matt Peters, once described me as a research hound who wrote stories to support his compulsive desire to learn stuff.  I suppose this is as good an explanation as any of why I seem obsessed with telling stories in a vast array of times and places, employing the supernatural, the preternatural, and the merely unpleasant or unknown.  The here and now is never good enough; ‘what I know’ is always too limiting.  I want to learn more, to know more, to imagine that I’ve done more—and so, I research, and I write stories to give that research form and function.

My research often starts on Wikipedia (which I maintain is a great place to start, but a lousy place to settle), moves onto the net, then finally ends up in books and magazines, where all the dross I’ve acquired by dredging wiki and the web can be solidified, refined, and double-checked.  At this stage, the story itself is vague, just images and ideas. Characters haven’t been named; worlds haven’t been built; no outline or inkling of plot exists.  At this stage, I’m literally testing the boundaries of my chosen subject or era against the boundless possibilities that my imagination conjures.  I’m drawing maps and charting pyramids of power, making timelines, compiling lists.  I’m learning what day-to-day life in, say, 17th century England was really like, so that I can better imagine who my Restoration-era mage-detective might be, as well as who might aid him and who might oppose him.  I’m brainstorming all sorts of ideas as my research sows and quickens them, but I’m settling on none.  Often, during this stage, a curious thing happens: I actually start to generate multiple ideas of very different hues, all around the same basic tropes and themes.

At this stage, there are always three things I do, in an effort to order my thoughts and create a sense of something real gradually coming together.  First, I start an MS Word file to record my thoughts, notes, and ramblings.  Second, I try to come up with a title—at least a working one (when I’ve done so, I also create a title logo with just the right font—something that might look good on a book cover).  And finally, I create a soundtrack—an iTunes playlist consisting of dozens of tracks—usually culled from my collection of movie scores—that helps establish the mood and atmosphere that I’m aiming for in my new endeavor.  As odd as the last two things might seem—creating a logo? a soundtrack?—I must admit that no idea is ever ‘real’ for me until I’ve taken these two steps.  That logo and that soundtrack help to focus my imagination, acting as keystones for all the research, brainstorming, and story-building to come.  (And yes, it often happens that the perfect logo and soundtrack that I start with are not what I eventually settle on—but hey, you’ve got to start somewhere, right?)

Third: Labeling and Outlining

At some point in my researching, I realize that it’s time to start building the story itself.  Research and brainstorming don’t stop at this stage—they just shift from being my primary focus.  What’s necessary at this stage is the naming of parts (labeling) and the mapping of plot (outlining).  This is a very difficult stage, because it’s the point at which all my nifty ideas about my story—all those characters and incidents and twisty-turny ballyhoos that I think are so fascinating—get thrown against the proverbial wall to see if they’ll stick.  Inevitably, a lot of them don’t, but by losing some things, I gain sharper focus on others.

This is a stage at which you might find yourself creating place-holders, and then asking if you really need them or not.  You thought the hero would have a dashing, ne’er do well best friend and compatriot, but now that you think about it—is that really necessary?  You thought that the heroine might be cold as ice and tough as nails—but on second thought, maybe she needs to be softer?  More human?  More vulnerable.  Hell, at this stage, you can find yourself swinging wildly back and forth between possibilities—one minute, sure that your protagonist is male, the next, tossing his masculinity out the window and leaving a female in his place.

This is also when you have to think about the basics of story and structure.  Who is my hero (or heroine?)  What do they want?  What do they need?  What happens when what they want and what they need are in direct opposition?  And who (or what) stands in their way?  Is there a MacGuffin?  (A MacGuffin, for those of you not in the know, is a treasure or object that everyone in the story wants, but that is ultimately of little importance.  Think of the Heart of the Ocean jewel in Titanic)  Is there a ticking clock?  (Because ticking clocks—literal or figurative—increase suspense.)  Will the hero win, lose, or fight to an impasse?

Long ago, I synthesized all the useful tricks I learned about story structure—be it Three Act structure, the Hero’s Journey, Lew Hunter’s thirty-step screenplay outline, or Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat screen story structure, into a worksheet.  This worksheet gives me thirty cells, labeled with the steps of the Hero’s Journey, and broken into three acts.  By trying to lay out the basics of my story in a solid framework, I can easily see what sort of a story I have on my hands.  Is the first act too long?  The middle too short?  Am I spilling over my thirty story steps, indicating that I’ve probably got a very looong novel or screenplay in mind?  This is the stage at which you lay out your story in miniature, to see if it will stand or fall.

Once you’ve got a workable outline—a road map—composed, the time has come to really get your hands dirty.

It’s time to start writing the book.

Fourth:  Drafting

Every writer’s different, so a lot of what I offer here is optional.  Some writers just like to dive in.  They start with a vague notion of what they’re doing and they let intuition guide them.  God bless those folks… I can’t work that way.  I often veer far off the road map that my outline provides, but the simple fact is that I don’t have the confidence to go veering if I don’t first have the map to veer from.  If I get lost in the woods after following my intuition, I need a compass to get back on the right path.  The outline is that compass.

Likewise, I think having a solid outline in place makes the writing of a first draft a lot less scary.  If you have that outline ready, all you have to do is sit down every day and write about whatever comes next on the outline.  By chipping away at it, bit by bit, you make progress, and a book full of characters and scenes and incident starts forming where once there was only a vague synopsis.  You can choose almost any daily goal you want: five hundred words, one thousand, three thousand.  The key is regularity, tenacity, and momentum.  Now is not the time to tweak and alter; now is not the time to polish and shine.  Now is the time to build your story—word by word, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter—until you reach the end.  Only when a completed draft is attained should you make any attempts at revision.

I completely fail to take my own advice in this regard, by the way (proving once more what liars and hypocrites we writers be).  The closest I ever came to completing an entire draft of a novel before stopping to take stock and revise was my first draft of Doc Voodoo: Aces & Eights, which I wrote two-thirds of before losing steam and laying it aside.  That not-quite-complete draft then sat for almost a year before I picked it up again.

When I’ve finally got a finished draft, it’s time to do two things: take a short break from the book (say, six or eight weeks); then dive in for a lot of revision and polishing.

Fifth:  Revision, Revision, Revision

Revision is the part of writing that some people hate most.  Myself?  I actually enjoy it.  To me, that’s when the book really becomes mine.  Any fool could have written the drivelI wrote in that first draft… but only I can nip and tuck my sentences, re-structure my paragraphs, wheedle over word choice, excise sub-plots and punch up action scenes in such a way as to make the work mine.  When I meet writers who are competent, but cop to rushing through the revision process, I shake my head: smart revision and conscientious polishing is the difference between a good read and a great one.  Don’t skimp on it, because your laziness—just like your hard work—will be evident.

How many drafts, you ask?  Well, that depends on you.  I don’t think there’s a magic number.  Stephen King suggests three drafts and a polish.  Steven Pressfield suggests up to fifteen drafts, using each draft as the opportunity to concentrate on just one element (character, action, sub-plots, theme, etc).  My rule of thumb?  I just keep tinkering until I can’t stand to tinker any more.  Then I show the book to some trusted readers, they tell me everything that’s wrong with it, and based on their input, I find the reserves for one more pass, to address everything they brought to my attention.

Bringing me, at last, to abandonment.

Yes, that’s right: abandonment—the unnamed sixth step in my ‘process.’

A wise man once said that books aren’t finished, they are abandoned (Oscar Wilde, methinks), and I’ve come to find that this is true.  Realistically, you could tinker with your book forever and never make it perfect.  But, while working hard to create the best work you can, there must come a point when you say, “Okay, that’s it.  I can’t do anything else to make this better without starting over from scratch.”  That’s the point at which you either put the book in a drawer, or you send it out into the world to see if you can snag an agent or interest a publisher.  I won’t go into the ins and outs of that process here—I’ll simply say, if you’ve written a book and polished it to some conclusive form, those are your only two realistic options.

So, you see, it’s really quite easy: five (okay, six) simple steps from the stirrings of an idea to a finished draft of a novel.  You brainstorm images and ideas; you do research and build an outline; you pound out a first draft, one sentence at a time; then you polish, polish, polish until all that’s left is to abandon your baby and force it out into the world (or forget about it).  Sure, those six simple steps may take you years to complete—but they are just steps along a road, benchmarks of progress that can be aspired to, practiced and attained.

So what are you waiting for?  Get to work, already!  Sooner begun, sooner abandoned, I always say.