pulp fiction

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Any reading is good reading. Reading something stupid doesn’t make you stupid. And reading something you disagree with doesn’t mean you give up your beliefs.

As we said at book club, you need a balanced book diet. You can’t read nothing but Proust without burning out just like you can’t read nothing but dime-a-dozen mystery/romance/werewolf novels.

I heard at book club that pulp fiction takes it name because if they didn’t sell, publishers would pulp the books. They were so cheap that they’d just destroy them. So maybe it’s no wonder pulp fiction gets a bad name. It’s looked at as the literary novel’s trashy younger sister–you know, the one no one takes seriously and who you’d be embarrassed to take out on a date.

But good writing is an exception to the rule you get what you pay for. If it takes you somewhere new, if it’s entertaining, if you stretch your brain in a new way, well, that’s worth a lot. Even if it’s not serious, critically acclaimed, prize-winning writing.

But if it’s not award-winning, what is pulp fiction? Is it genre? Is it storytelling for a mass audience? How would you define it? Like the Supreme Court and pornography, I’ll know it when I see it. But it’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference.

Before Ender’s Game became a novel-turned-movie coming out soon it was just the first book in a new science fiction series. Before Harry Potter vanquished Voldemort he was the main character in a new fantasy book. Charles Dickens’ novels first came out in parts in magazines. Sherlock Holmes is the star of the mystery genre, and Frankenstein’s monster the king of horror. But why are those novels considered literary instead of pulp? Why are they studied in school instead of trashed after reading?

Stephen King is one of my favorite authors, and his books are often at the center of a literary versus pulp debate. His writing is clean and entertaining. His imagery and mood building are stunning. His characters and stories are human and lovely and scary and real. His books have symbolism and themes and other things lit classes love to analyze. But his work is prolific, easy to read, and sometimes contains monsters or twists in reality. So though he can write circles around most, he is often shoved into a less serious category.

It’s much more fun for me to read King than other “literary” works. I’ve never finished Pride and Prejudice (love the movie), but I couldn’t put down The Shining. Reading can be fun and easy and still worthwhile. So ease up, pulp-fiction haters.  Don’t you want to have some fun? Don’t you want to know how to tell a story that’s grabbed so many readers and held them at rapt attention?

That is a skill that few can do. So even if it’s not your favorite, you can learn from pulp. And you can stop looking down your nose at writers who have sold millions on millions of books.

So let’s cut this snobbiness out. My challenge to you is to pick a book in a genre you haven’t read before. Dive into a fantasy, a romance, a horror story, a mystery, and let’s meet back here and talk about it.

how to write short: word craft for fast times

how to write short

Reading How to Write Short by Roy Peter Clark (Kindle here) gave me stage fright. Or, I suppose, blog fright. How could I live up to his excellent examples? Lucky for me, he includes clear advice on how to sharpen short writing, and I’m happy to follow it. Most everyday writing is 300 words or less–unless your job is, well, a writer. We text and tweet and email a lot more than we write novels. (Even those who write novels, I bet.)

Short writing is often overlooked for its novel-length counterpart. After all, tweets don’t win Nobel Prizes–at least, not yet. But short writing has value. And an aspiring writer can learn from every kind of writing, Clark says. Like the back of cereal boxes, or OKCupid profiles, or–my fave–fortune cookies.

For those quick to say texting, tweeting, and other short writing is ruining our language, we went through this recently with telegrams and turned out ok. People were charged by the word, so abbreviations and crafty cutting were the norm. And now we’re doing it again–but digitally in tweets and emails. (I used to scoff, but now I’ve embraced abbreviations. They can be useful, especially in a tweet, and they can also be sort of hilar.)

Some short writing is both storytelling and communication. After all, letters tell a story. Clark says early novels used letters to tell important parts of the tale. I just finished Where’d You Go Bernadette, composed almost entirely in messages–updated with emails and faxes, of course. Our current family book club book House of Leaves is made up of documents and journal entries. These long stories are told through short writing, just like much of our own life.

My friends and I have an ongoing group text. That communication, made up of bursts of texts, abbreviations and inside jokes, tells a beautiful story. Clark’s more serious example is of mom and daughter texting during a shooting. Those texts kept a family in touch, helped a girl stay safe, and later told a story to us with much more directness and immediacy than 30,000 of the killer’s own words from his manifesto.

Clark also talks about the newsworthiness of Twitter. Short, to the point, continuous updates can place us directly in a story. His example comes from tweets on the ground after an earthquake. An example in my own life comes from Hurricane Sandy. I learned so much more about what neighborhoods were safe and where damage occurred than I could have from more traditional (and longer) news sources. Tweets like “just saw the lights go out on Water St.” (a made up example based on a real event) are just a few words long but communicate critical information.

You don’t need a lot of words to create a powerful piece of writing. In fact there’s a genre of stories only six words long. You may remember Hemingway’s “For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” which I love not only for its emotional impact but also its clever use of punctuation. Larry Smith, editor and publisher of SMITH Magazine and founder of Six-Word Memoirs, championed these short stories. I think mine would be “Girl with plan finds new adventure.” (A close second was “Left-handed editor who writes alright.”)

To me, the why of writing matters much more than the length. Long or short–and long writing sprouts from short writing after all–good storytelling matters. Communication matters. Ideas matter. And all can be told with just a few words.


on writing (and editing)

stephen king on writing

I’ve never understood the idea that you can’t write in books. Or bend pages, or have spines cracked or covers ripped or all the other things that can happen to books. I’ve also never gotten the argument that Kindle books “aren’t real books” or aren’t worth reading or are just so unfair to books they should be protested.

Sure, some books are collectibles. And books, like any other object you spend money on, shouldn’t be thrown around or not cared for responsibly.

But a book is ink on bound paper. What matters, the reason people defend this ink with all their might, is the story inside–the words (and worlds) between the covers. And if you dogear your favorite page, or underline a beautiful line, or read a book so many times the cover falls off, isn’t that really loving books? And isn’t judging someone for the way they consume those words against the entire idea of sharing stories–the idea that many people can read the same words and feel the same things and go somewhere new together?

So my position is this: read. Read any way you want, anywhere you want, draw in the margins, highlight long sentences, rip out a page to mail to your friend, listen to an audiobook, read on your phone or a computer or a new thing that hasn’t been invented, no matter how you do it just, my goodness, read.

I think, though I’ve never met him, that Stephen King would agree with me. In his book On Writing (Kindle version here), he says “books are a uniquely portable magic.” He says he listens to an audiobook in the car and brings another book with him wherever he goes. He reads because reading and writing are a part of him. He couldn’t separate them from himself if he tried. He is a writer.

I am an editor. I edit for a living, which basically means I read what people write and make it better. There’s a thousand different ways to do this, and the really good editors spend a lifetime getting really good. On Writing is my favorite book on writing and editing. It’s filled with truly practical advice (my favorite of which is “only God gets it right the first time and only a slob says, ‘Oh well, let it go, that’s what copyeditors are for'”).

Stories seem like magic sometimes, but writing and editing are mechanical skills just like any other. It takes practice to be good at them, and there are some rules you need to know and times you need to break them. On Writing lays them out beautifully, mixed in with some autobiographical stories from King. If you have any interesting in writing or reading, and even if you don’t, I’d highly recommend it.

page127 stephen king on writing

Some of my favorite guidelines from On Writing:

Write a lot. Delete all the boring parts. This should cut you down by a lot. The more you can cut, the better. The goal isn’t length, it’s clarity and solid writing. In On Writing, King says, “Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts.”

Stop hedging. If you think something is great, don’t tell me why you think so, tell me why it is great. Be assertive in your writing. It’s scary, I know. What if other people don’t agree with your opinion? Well, if you’re assertive, I bet you can convince most. And the ones who disagree with you will disagree with your intelligent, sure writing and not a wishy-washy piece that couldn’t decide.

I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing…You probably do know what you’re talking about, and can safely energize your prose with active verbs. And you probably have told your story well enough to believe that when you use he said, the reader will know how he said it…Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation.

Trust your readers. You’re a reader, and I’m a reader, and I think we’re pretty smart. They will figure it out if you show them. You don’t have to tell them over and over. King puts it this way:

If I have to tell you, I lose. If, on the other hand, I can show you a silent, dirty-haired woman who compulsively gobbles cake and candy, then have you draw the conclusion that Annie is in the depressive part of a manic-depressive cycle, I win.

King also says the object of a story is “to make him/her forget, whenever possible, that he/she is reading a story at all.” Clean writing is a part of the magic. If a reader gets hung up on trying to understand a sentence or trips on “form” when you meant “from,” it interrupts your story, makes reading an effort, and does a disservice to both the reader and writer. Take pride in your work, and turn in clean copy.

Write simply, and in active voice. Avoid the passive tense and passive verbs: “I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.” I see a lot of passive voice in my line of work and I work to put it down flip it and reverse it. King’s example: “The meeting will be held at seven o’clock” versus “The meeting’s at seven.” It usually wont be this simple to detect, but 99% of the time active voice will make your writing better.

But most importantly, keep reading. “You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.”

I loved this book because it’s 300 wonderful pages on my work. I believe in what I do, and it was nice to get some back up by one of my favorite writers. I loved King’s personal stories, too. When he started writing, he sent his stories to any magazine taking submissions. He kept his rejection slips on a nail in his bedroom. Pretty soon, the nail filled up with slips, so he replaced it with a stake and kept on writing. He worked at a laundry and as a teacher, and he met his wife and started a family. And he kept writing. He battled alcoholism, and kept writing. He sold paperback rights to his first novel for $400,000, and kept writing. His perseverance and passion are contagious, and it’s great for readers and writers alike.

(I bought this book on my own and am not being paid to write about it. But I am a part of the Amazon Affiliates program, so if you buy it through my links, I’ll receive a little bit of money for it.)