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The Penny-a-Word Brigade – Book Review (Pulp Fiction)

Since Christmas, I have been working to finish my second book. Unlike the first, in which I strived to capture the essence of the 1960s TV detective, my second is focused on the single hero pulp. These characters of the 1930s and 40s included Doc Savage, The Phantom Detective, Operator #5, and of course my personal favorite The Shadow.

As I have chronicled here before, my journey to fandom with pulp fiction began in the mid-seventies with Volume 1 of Steranko’s History of Comics. In the pages of that volume, the author outlines in detail the link between the success of the single hero pulps and the birth of the comic hero.

With my interest in the world of pulps growing, I began to read more and more background information on the writers behind some of the 20th century’s greatest literary creations. Tarzan, Zorro, Captain Future, Sam Spade, and more were all born from the minds of these writing machines. It never seemed possible to me that men and women could write so much, so fast, and so gripping as the pulps I began discovering and reading.

Walter Gibson, the creator of The Shadow, famously wrote a million words a year for ten straight years. There are other stories of pulp writers who could crank out 50,000-word novellas in a day while sitting on a park bench with their “manual” Smith-Corona typewriter. (If in your lifetime you have never used a typewriter, then do it just once. You will have a new appreciation for a generation of writers.) Never a word about editing, reworking, or any of the truly painful parts of writing. Boom, it was done, on to the next story.

Of course, this folklore has haunted me for years as I struggled as a writer. No matter how hard I tried I could not write that fast and be that creative, or that perfect, simultaneously, if at all. Which is why when I saw Blood ‘n’ Thunder’s publication of The Penny-a-Word Brigade: Pulp Fictioneers Discuss Their Craft I had to read it from cover to cover.

Naturally, I hoped that some secret would be revealed within the pages of that book to mastering writing at a voluminous perfect pace. No such luck! Instead, I read a host of honest stories of just how hard writing is, and how each one of the wordsmiths handled the craft. Lester Dent creator of Doc Savage offers up his Master Fiction Plot, Joseph T. Shaw of Black Mask gives a lesson on writing good dialogue, while Robert Erisman, editor of Marvel Science Stories outlines how to build a story brick by brick.

I want to take a story that I sold to Argosy and show, from start to finish, how I produced it – from story idea to check.

Robert Erisman – 1941

Also within the pages of The Penny-a-Word Brigade are some depressing accounts of being a factory writer, and the pressures assorted with cranking out prose to make a living. There are other accounts of the greed of publishers, the fear of a demising marketplace as tastes changed, and even how to write a whodunit.

YOU, TOO, can become a murderer. In this article I’ll attempt to show how it may be done – in plain English, how to write whodunits.

Henry Kuttner – 1941

For me, the entire book was an eye opener, that put a whole new light on the pulp fictioneers and the creation of pulp literature and the characters that patrolled their pages.

One of my favorite stories was This is the Way I Make my Bread by Frank Gruber. Gruber was a prolific pulp writer and turned out dozens of novels, mostly Westerns and Detective stories.

I’m faced with the typewriter and a nice clean sheet of paper. I look at the paper and put my fingers on the keys and I try to concentrate and words will not come. This is exquisite agony.

Frank Gruber – 1941

It was a statement I could relate with, and coming from a man who bragged he could write a complete mystery novel in 16 days and use the other 14 days of the month to knock out a serial for a magazine.

The articles in The Penny-a-Word Brigade are filled with timeless suggestions on writing that can be as useful today as they were in the 30s and 40s. There are some references to magazines that no longer exist, going to the post office, typewriters, and listening to the radio which dates the prose but doesn’t take away from the lessons between the covers.

What did I learn from The Penny-a-Word Brigade? Well, no incredible secrets to creating prose out of thin air I can tell you that. Only that writing is hard work, has always been so, and will always be so. That just like today, there was editing, reworking, and many rejections. Which is why if you’re a writer, reader of pulps, or a historian of bygone literature, then this is an informative and educational book you should pick up and read.

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