Mass Effect: Andromeda is a failure. A massive failure. A failure so large, the company shuttered the “Mass Effect” series entirely and even shut down the studio that made it. You see…
It only sold three million copies.
Three. Million. Copies. Of a game that costs $60 apiece, and requires a $400+ piece of equipment just to play it.
When’s the last time a book sold three million copies… and was considered a failure?
Folks, books are a niche market right now. Novels are a niche of a niche, Fantasy & Science Fiction novels a niche of a niche of a niche, and as for short stories… they just don’t exist.
It didn’t use to be this way. Back in the heyday of the Pulps, they sold like mad. Argosy, the first Pulp magazine, sold 1,230,000 copies in 1924. Adventure magazine, the mag that TURNED DOWN Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, had a circulation of 460,000 in 1924.
People bought Pulp stories. They bought them a lot. What changed?
Self-centered and self-satisfied jagoffs abandoned what made the genre popular, and started pushing what they thought the audience should read, not what the audience wanted to read. People hated it, and instead stopped reading.
These Epic Level jerkfaces ruined the market for the rest of us, and now it’s time to set things right. With that goal in mind, I present…
Daddy Warpig’s Guide to Pulp Superstardom!
If you want to sell, and to help drive the expansion of the reading audience, you MUST start with one central tenet:
THROW AWAY YOUR PRIDE.
Strip yourself of the need to be admired for the sheer magnificence of your prose, strip yourself of the need to be lauded as a brilliant intellectual, strip yourself of the desire to instruct the audience in the way they should live their lives, strip yourself of the need to write “important” work, strip yourself of any goal save one:
Give the audience what they want. And what they want is fun.
Fun. Enjoyment. Pleasure. Fiction—entertainment—is ONLY about giving the audience pleasure.
They must ENJOY it. Or it’s useless to them.
Even the most exacting and intellectualized description of the physical laws of the universe and how your imagined device circumvents or exploits them is only of value to the reader as it gives him that jolt of pleasure he receives when he encounters a clever or novel idea.
People not buying your books? You’re either not giving them what they want, or you’re not good enough at doing it yet. Both these things can be fixed. You CAN succeed.
(Technically speaking, you may also be failing to market your books. That can be fixed, too.)
How to make things fun: If you want to write stuff the audience will love, first you have to write stuff that the audience will UNDERSTAND. First time, every time.
Pick words that drive your point home. Dump excess words. Dump overly complicated words. Hone your prose to a razor sharp edge of clarity and impact.
Direct. Simple. Powerful. Visceral. MAXIMUM IMPACT.
People read stories to FEEL, so your stories must make the audience feel. Nothing. Else. Matters.
Words are a delivery system for fragments of thought that push emotional buttons in the reader. The better the reader understands your words, the more effectively you can push their buttons.
Make it vivid. Make it immediate. Make it moving.
Find those emotional buttons and punch them hard. Include a variety of experiences: moments of triumph, moments of terror, moments of tenderness, of poignancy, of awe, of self-reflection, of humor, of defeat, of betrayal, of self-sacrifice. Write material that is entertaining, engrossing, and pleasurable to read.
Grab the audience at the beginning. Never let them go. Never give them an excuse to let their mind wander, to get bored, or to wonder what’s on TV right now. You have to be better than movies, better than video games, better than watching paint dry or you. Will. Fail.
Skip the cerebreality. Don’t speak to your audience’s brains: speak to their emotions. An evocative story appeals to everybody, an overly cerebral approach pretty much only appeals to overly cerebral readers.
Never miss a chance to make it awesome. Rain down amazing things on your readers—but not things you have to explain with paragraphs of MEGO. (That’s “my eyes glaze over” for you heathens in the crowd.)
Pick likable, relatable, admirable main characters. Ideally, the heroes should be people you’d “want to have a beer with”. At the very least, they should be someone the audience can empathize with. Let the jagoffs write stories with main characters who are jagoffs—you are here to give the audience someone to cheer for.
Don’t drop too much description or explanation on the audience—they slow the story down. You don’t need constant violence in a people pleasing novel, but you always need MOMENTUM. Always keep the story moving.
Get good advice and listen to it. In decades past, great editors used to foster writers, to bring them along and train them to harness their talent. Opportunities for this are vanishingly rare today, so if you can find a friend or a wise mentor who can help teach you—go for it.
Don’t confuse / bore / repulse the audience. This makes them hate your stuff. It isn’t fun. They will not buy it.
Don’t go too dark. Too much tragedy, brutality, or horror is wearying and depressing. Not fun. Life may—at times—be a dark and brutal slog, but entertainment never should be. Not if you want the reader to return.
Audiences want escapism… they want to be taken out of the world, they want to thrill with tales of heroics, of brave heroes and scumbag villains where good has to fight hard, but wins in the end (preferably in a way they didn’t see coming). Too much real world darkness spoils the immersion: it reminds the reader of what they’re escaping from.
Popular fiction must be pleasurable to read, it must evoke emotion without jarring the reader, it must be familiar. Audiences generally desire works which are reminiscent of what came before: different enough to be novel, familiar enough to be comfortable. They desire the experience of “What if I were reading my favorite book again for the very first time?” GIVE THEM THAT EXPERIENCE. Don’t go too weird.
Popular fiction is the pop music or comfort food of literature: it gives the reader pleasure. It’s fun. Note I said comfort food, not junk food. Good pop literature doesn’t have to be brainless, a waste of time, or morally abhorrent.
Some may wonder why I haven’t talked about the moral dimension. That’s because I take it as read: if you’re a moral person, you’ll produce moral stories and vice versa. The state of your soul isn’t my concern. Seeing you (and the Pulp Revolution as a whole) succeed is.
Folks, I want you to succeed. I want you to make a living at this, I want you to grow your audience and the reading audience as a whole. I want to see millions of Pulp fans wandering the land on an epic quest to find the next awesome Pulp novel, eagerly buying books from all the Pulp Rev writers, reading and enjoying and LOVING everything we write.
I want the Pulp Revolutionaries to write well, to write awesomely, to write with such passion and conviction that Amazon crashes because so many people are trying to buy your stuff and the servers just can’t handle it anymore. I want you to BREAK THE DAMN INTERNET. I want you to become a Pulp Superstar. I want you to SUCCEED.
You have. To choose. To succeed.
You have to throw away your preconceived ideas, your intellectual baggage, your philosophical notions about writing, AND YOUR PRIDE. Humble yourself and give the audience what they want. Only this matters.
Make it fun or go home. That’s how you become a Pulp Superstar.
Note: This piece has been amended since its publication to restore text cut from the original post.
Jasyn Jones, better known as Daddy Warpig, is a host on the Geek Gab podcast, a regular on the Superversive SF livestreams, and blogs at Daddy Warpig’s House of Geekery. Check him out on Twitter.
Don’t be wordy. Flooding your audience with excessive verbiage hampers their ability to quickly and painlessly comprehend the meaning (explicit and implicit) you are trying to convey. Indeed, lengthy discourse and too-formal language serves as a barrier to comprehension. It may be a barrier the sufficiently dedicated, educated, or intelligent can climb with ease, nonetheless it is a barrier and one cannot presume that the audience will be sufficiently motivated to devote the time or attention necessary to decode your communications, or indeed that they possess the capability of doing so. Modern audiences—for good or ill, and comparing modern writing with, example gratis, that of the Colonial period will reveal how simplistic and (to be less judgmental, if more ridiculous) streamlined the conventional mode of discourse has become—are simply not familiar with lengthy or complex sentence structure, not used to reading such, and their skills at decoding this are weak, at best. One can take pride in one’s abstruse language choices, sniff at the debased faculties of the common man and insist that (so to speak, and please forgive the cliche as it is apt in this instance) the mountain come to Muhammad, and feel righteous and superior thereby, but rest assured that even if one’s language truly is transcendent and awe inspiring, the vast majority of the audience will neither appreciate it, nor expend the time necessary to read it, *much less comprehend it*. One can lament the times in which one lives (and I do, at length, in moods that, at different times, vary between weariness, sorrow, and scathing black humor (and sometimes all three at once)), but lamentations do not change facts, and if one seeks commercial success, it is the writer who must cater to the audience, and not vice versa. As with so many other endeavors, your choices in this matter will determine the level of success you can achieve. Writing to the modern mode—or, rather, making compromises with the modern mode such that, even if one’s language is redolent of prior times and higher aspirations, it is more readily accessible to the modern reader—is simply a compromise one must make to find an audience willing to read one’s own blatherings. There are many forms of entertainment readily available, from video games to movies to sports, and most do not demand of their audience that which they cannot give (and the most successful never do). Schoolmasters and college professors may be able to make demands of their students; minstrels and penners of doggerel may not. As is the case in so many cases, humility here will pay great dividends. Never forget this: as a writer, you are the penner of cheap tales of entertainment and mirth, not a professor, pundit, or prophet, and if you will not cater to the needs and desires of your audience, there are ten thousand other would-be penners alight in the wings, pathetically eager to perform the task you are too elevated and erudite to perform, and thus steal your audience (and any money they may have otherwise spent on your more elevated, but less appealing bundles of prose). And if they will, and you will not, financial success will rest upon them and not you. As with all things, you must decide which you value more: your style or your success.
I get what you’re saying, but I really can’t agree with this.
I just say to myself “Is it a good idea if John C. Wright simplifies his prose?” I can’t bring myself to say yes.
And if it’s so unsuccessful, why is George R.R. Martin so successful?
Why does Tolkien routinely outsell even today virtually all modern fantasists?
Something about that advice is just off. Hemingway-esque prose can be good, but you’d do better just to learn how to write GOOD prose – which is a lost art.
Of course, Hemingway-esque prose properly done could be wonderful. See: Nick Cole’s Wasteland series.
Let me give you one more.
The stripping down of prose began with the futurists. Heinlein wrote in the style of Hemingway, and Campbell tore down Asimov’s prose to tbarest of bare bones.
We’re supposed to be going back to the style of the pulps. Regress harder, right?
So why are we taking cues from the futurists about prose…and nothing else?
Think about it.
Language is a flexibie tool so I think both Jasyn and Anthony are both right. You can subtly introduce say a short wordy letter from x century because It’s a treasure hunt or you can have a character who represents the audience who doesn’t understand the prose but is the vital clue to the adventure. So solving it.
In some It’s not either or but a both…and with respect to prose.
I think Dan Brown has done it clusmily. Pulp writers can do it far better.
Sorry so solving it by progressive unpacking the meaning for the adventures climax is very satisfying for the readers. They got to help the characters and story move along to its conclusion
A lot of books are cheap throwaways, written to an exact formula of what the target audience wants and expects. Being a cheap throwaway isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s simply a book that’s enjoyable the first time that most readers wouldn’t bother reading twice. Enduring success is a little harder to pin down. It’s a combination of an author writing his vision, in his own voice; what brings him joy, employing resonant archetypes (consciously or not), and publishing his books at the right moment in history. Most authors hope their books will endure, but makework spun to a target audience is a surer bet. I guess I don’t care that much about being either, or I wouldn’t publish my latest as a serial on my blog or hold onto my day job that gets me away from my screen.
From a reader’s perspective, I have to add that reading is essentially an intellectual and imaginative pursuit. Claiming people read only for the feels seems a bit…off. What about interesting ideas, wit, puns, odd turns of phrases, mysterious clues followed into the unknown? Curiosity has to be a huge part of why people read.
“Strip yourself of the need to be admired for the sheer magnificence of your prose, strip yourself of the need to be lauded as a brilliant intellectual, strip yourself of the desire to instruct the audience in the way they should live their lives, strip yourself of the need to write “important” work.”
This part is easy. Too easy, and now I’m suspicious. Jokes aside, a good post. A call to arms, so to speak.
> When’s the last time a book sold three million copies… and was considered a failure?
While ME:A is a bad game, it consumed roughly 800-1000 man-years nevertheless.
Let’s imagine a book takes about 1 man-year, a thousand times less.
3000 copies sold may or may not be called a failure, but it’s nothing to write home about.
> You’re either not giving them what they want, or you’re not good enough at doing it yet.
Or you’re not good at getting yourself known to potential readers.
I’m pretty sure there are some great new pulp writers around and quite a lot of those whose book or two can be enjoyed in a rainy day (and that’s a pretty good accomplishment).
The main problem is organizing and supplying the audience to read the damn yarn and to say if it’s good.
Any run-off-the-mill fanfiction site for any fandom has it much better as the audience is already organized, there’s a scene, there’s a system to work with or work against.
Why not pulp?
A couple of points to the many discussions.
Read any of he successful indie authors. They have style, but they avoid gobbledegook and MEGO. Case in point: “catskinners book”. Definite style, definite intelligence, no excess words, big words only step in to have the narrators tell you he doesn’t know what they mean.
GPHudson. Super successful indie. Prose can be read by an 8 year old, it is aggressively and noticeably simple. It would make great text for remedial reading classes, and I can tell you as fact, there are far, far too many people who can’t read above that level.
The Revelations Cycle. Readable by any 12 year old.
Nick Cole. Prose so modernised that I actually find it annoying, even though his stories are great and I read them compulsively, but he’s so allergic to run on sentences, embedded clauses, and compound ideas that he writes almost entirely in sentence fragments.
Compare to Dickens. Now, I personally love Tolkien; I read In the Night Land and Wrights sequels/homages and loved them; I have a massive vocabulary and above average IQ… and I refuse to read Dickens. His prose is over cooked, Look At Me I’m Not Working Class CRAP. He’s the original upper middle class SJW asshole.
You’re incorrect about Dickens. Dickens was uber popular, and was never taken seriously by critics until G.K. Chesterton revived his critical reputatio, which is why we read him in schools.
A Christmas Carol – which begins with a scene that does absolutely nothing but have fun with language and maybe establish a mood – is a more enduring story than anything written since…Tolkien?
Dickens is uber popular, even if he’s not to your taste…and the common man LOVED him.
Ok, but the common man now wouldn’t read him with a gun to his head, yeah? Sorry, I might have gone overboard… I hate Dickens.
Why would the common man eschew Dickens? Most of his books are short and the characters are classic. We’ve all met people who resemble Dickens’s characters. If common people don’t currently read him, it isn’t because he’s complicated or obtuse, but because he’s off the radar (except in films).
I know a lot of people who read for fun, and none of them have read Dickens. I have read very little Dickens, and hated it.
I can ask around if you like. How many people do you know who aren’t graduates, but have read Dickens?
How many of the people who read Harry Potter, for example, or for another, Fifty Shades of Gray, have read Dickens, beyond maybe one story, or for high school?
Sure, it might be because he’s off the radar. Why don’t you see how many people, no higher education than high school, on a wage, will read him if you give them the book?
It might be more than I’m guessing. I’m guessing zero, but if you try 20 people, then maybe one.
I’m acknowledging that my dislike of him is unusual and possibly bizarre. I’m not normal, and I have the diagnoses to prove it; I’m always curious as to how good my observations are.
In any case, you could check his Amazon rank against the guys I noted, does Amazon let just anyone see the sales stats? It shouldn’t be had to quantify, at least very roughly.
Not only that he would literally poll his readers as to what kind of ending they’d like to see as well how the story should develop.
I’ve tried to rad the Pickwick papers but haven’t managed to get past the first 30 pages because of some language difficulties but I should give it another shot
I will add, women still read. Why? Because a massive swath of their books, ie romance, are still written to simply be enjoyed. My wife reads romance, she hates the porn aspect, but tells me ” I just want something to read. I just want some entertainment. They’re easy to follow, they don’t make demands.”
And that’s the thing. If you’re writing for people even with my modestly above average intelligence, just meaning you can throw a lot of stuff in there before it becomes hard work for them, you’re writing for less than ten percent of the population.
Publishers have abandoned the working class. Do you want to be a part of he arrogant clique that said “only superior people should read my Very Significant Works”, or do you want to be part of the movement that brings the joy of great fiction back to the people?
My mother works in remedial education. The biggest barrier between those kids, mostly boys, and reading, is that there is nothing fun for them to read. NOTHING.
Do you want to be part of the elitist slurry that stole the joy of books from those kids, and from their parents, especially their fathers, or do you want to be part of the movement that brings it back and gets rich doing it? Do you,want to see good, fun, pulp novels being swapped between fans by the supermarket bag full like women swap romance novels? Do you want to see boxes and boxes of well thumbed pulp novels at yard sales as people clear their shelves for YET MORE pulp fun?
Or do you want to write a pretentious hardback that sits UNREAD on the coffee tables of the kinds of people who like to think they’re better than everyone else?
I want to see Pulp / adventure / F&SF books become as popular for men as Romance novels are for women.
MASSIVE market, mostly ignored.
Romance novels appeal only to a niche audience of women who happen to buy a lot of books, i.e. not the majority of women. That’s the thing: finding that niche is lucrative, perhaps more lucrative than trying to appeal to a broad swartg
…to a broad general swath of men *or* women.
Uh, that niche is bigger than the entire male readership of everything, as far as I can tell. I’d bet a dollar there are 3-4 romance readers out there for every F/SF reader.
And yeah, they buy 10* as many books. Why? And before you say “porn”, some of the most successful romance writers don’t “do” sex scenes.
I mean, people have come up with all sorts of reasons why Warpig’s basic premise MIGHT be wrong, and zero evidence that it IS wrong, and further, the observable data supports his hypothesis.
If you think modern scifi has stripped down prose, you’re ignoring the fact that the jargon, concepts, etc., that fulfill its emotional need to be SCIEEEEEENCE fiction is utterly incomprehensible to most people. It uses lots and lots of pretentious language – of quantum physics, of neurology, of astrophysics, and so on.
And it sells like an overripe turd compared to a genre that seeks always and only to entertain.
Romance has always been a bigger seller than sci fi…when genres became delineated in that way. So has mystery. Science fiction was a weird niche genre with a small target audience even in the pulp era. Claiming that pulp sold well is one thing (it did). Claiming that sci fi was huge in the pulp era is quite another. I would guess sci fi is more mainstream now due to blockbuster films than it ever was.
I have quibbles with some of DW’s article, but not the idea that sci fi would do better to reach its target audience. Romance is a sure bet for authors because the stories meet their niche audience. And there isn’t just one. There are all kinds of romance niches with readers who will buy book after book. And make no mistake; they’ll quit buying an author who turns their particular style into something it isn’t.
What I’m arguing in my last comment isn’t that sci fi authors shouldn’t try to entertain, but that aiming at an audience of men everywhere is foolish. Authors need to find their target market and give those readers what they want. If that’s space opera with no technical jargon, give it to them. If the audience wants a lot of science detail, give it to them. One of the most popular mystery authors in recent times, Kathy Reich,is a scientist writing all kinds of forensic scientific detail, and her audience expects it.
Ok. I tend to come off pretty aggressive, so first up, thanks for engaging patiently! I’m loving the conversation. I guess what I’m saying is pulp used to encompass a lot of F/SF as thrilling adventure for all, in space!
I absolutely agree that if you have a niche that wants, say, bleakly pessimistic neuro-deterministic hard sci fi, then give it to them! Heck, I read and enjoyed Blindsight.
I Do think men and boys, as an overarching category, and thereby every niche market or audience subset, have beeen abandoned entirely byt he publishers. Looking back on the kid I was, I feel like he’s been discarded. Looking at my son I feel he’s been discarded, but to his generation, the publishers don’t matter anyway.
But like you say, give your audience what they want; that is what’s been lost; humility and service.
I’d love to have the hot rod nerd chops to write car pulp. I know a lot of car guys and there was never any fiction for them in bookstores. You know, hot rod and cute girl on the cover, simple plot motif like save the princess, but in a hot car, revenge, but in a hot car, and so on… like the first MHI books did for gun nerds 🙂
Like some pulp guys are doing now for fight scenes, only for car chase scenes!
Just gonna throw this out there…. but Romance is a pulp-inspired genre, sourced from back in the day. “Spicy” pulps and romance-geared stories were part of the Westerns, SFF, Sports theme dynamic as its own thing. For Women zines existed as the ancestor of what the romance genre is today. Quick, easy to consume, satisfying to the reader in the sense of a story happened and they were able to empathize with the characters involved. Out of all the genres born from pulp themes, perhaps Romance has been the one to remain truest-to-form while SFF and others veered off…
Also, and idk whether this is actually the case, but aren’t Thrillers a successful and popular modern-day genre as well (in regards to both female and male readerships)?
Mystery/thriller/crime is a huge fiction genre that men read, maybe the biggest, but it still has a higher female readership. Men outnumber women in nonfiction of most varieties, science fiction (if you leave out fantasy), and westerns. Those are from Statista stats.
Jack Vsance disagrees with your point about prose.