Penny for Your Thoughts?


I am fascinated by pulp fiction.



But what is it, exactly?

I’d heard of penny dreadfuls, dime novels, and pulp fiction, although I didn’t know much about them.

These cheap magazines and books have a rich history.

Pulp fiction got its name from the pulpy paper it was printed on. It was inexpensive to make and cost very little to buy. How much? Oh, um, something like, I don’t know… A penny and a dime? Yes. And that’s where they got their names.

These were made for the masses. And they were loved. I mean…what was not to love? They were accessible, quick to read, and, maybe most importantly, affordable.

Dime novels (US) and penny dreadfuls (UK) were widely read in the late 19th century. Later, pulp fiction magazines found their way onto shelves, succeeding dime novels and penny dreadfuls but preceding comic books (which some say were just distant relatives of pulp fiction—I can totally see that).

The stories themselves introduced (some) unforgettable characters and were written by (some) well-known authors. Among them, Ray Bradbury, Agatha Christie, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dashiell Hammett, H.P. Lovecraft, Upton Sinclair, Mark Twain, H. G. Wells, and Tennessee Williams. According to Mashable, Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye started out as a pulp fiction book. (This one is sitting on my bookshelf and I had no idea it began its life as pulp.)

These stories were so popular, publishers continued to print them during The Depression and WWII era. Literacy was on the rise as well as a desire to escape “real life”.

But escapism doesn’t have to be well-written.

I’m not going to dump on the stories but I will say they weren’t known for their breath-taking writing. They are not “literary”. Far from it. They’re jam-packed with story. That’s pretty much it. It’s non-stop action, good guys vs. bad guys stories. Okay, that’s oversimplifying it a bit but you get the gist.


Pulp Fiction 1

“Oh dear, something is not quite right here!”


So why am I all fired up about this?

It’s appealing to me on many levels.

I’ve had a strangle-hold on myself for months. I enjoy writing on my fiction site, Lemon Shark Reef, because the restrictions I’ve placed on myself don’t apply as much (if at all) over there. I love that site. *swoon*

But I’m all over the place. Which, on one hand, is a really good thing. I love writing from prompts, challenging myself to a set word count, trying new voices, creating new characters. I have so much variety in my short fiction—it’s kind of awesome.

However. When I sit down with any decent amount of time, I just stare. I don’t know what to write. Not because I don’t have any ideas but because I have too many. I also have all that fab flash I could expand into a (longer) short story. Or even a book.

I should revel in the fact that all those ideas are just floating around waiting to be grabbed.

Should. It’s not where I’m living right now.

My post about getting the hell out of my own way? Yeah. Really? How?

By placing more limits on myself.

You heard me.

I had a frickin’ epiphany.

Amidst the chaos of my life, I need some order. (If you had suggested even a few years ago that I should let someone tell me what to write and how to write it, I would have laughed in your face. I know. I’m rude.) Yet, here I am. Inviting it in.

Please, for the love of all that is good and covered in chocolate, someone tell me what to do.

Ah! A formula. There’s a popular blueprint by Lester Dent. (Which is such a cool name, he could have been his own character in a pulp. Just saying.) So why don’t I just go ahead and follow that, write something, and get back to my life.

I tripped across this great post on Twitter by Icy Sedgwick, who writes pulp fiction. I was intrigued. She says we should try writing this. Hmm…

Pulp fiction is so far out of my comfort zone I’m going to need a passport.

But, hey, I already have a map, right? So I can’t get lost. And, when I get there, I’ll learn the language through the immersion method, explore the famous landmarks (there are tons of sites with archived pulp).

I might love the land of Pulp! Eh. I might not. But I will have an adventure and, right now, that’s just what I need. Ditch the perfectionist and bring on the fun, you know?

Pulp was cranked out. Quick and dirty. Tell the story. This would really get you writing a book (or three) in a short amount of time. With much of pulp fiction, it didn’t have to be good, it had to be done.

This genre or type or kind or whatever of writing has the good, the bad, and the ugly of storytelling. Pulp novels were also known as “potboilers” which is a not-very-nice term to describe crappy writing that pays the bills. Some authors have called their own pulp a potboiler, hurling wicked rude literary insults at themselves. Others have said it’s a fun way to practice the craft and, hey, while you’re at it, look at my pulp that’s now a famous book (and movie).

My thoughts?

As far as books go, there is good writing and bad writing in every genre, in self-published as well as traditionally published.

As far as pulp goes, what I’ve found is that there are a lot of articles leading back to Lester Dent’s famous formula and cool historical facts. But what I’m not seeing is a definition. So I’m still stuck, by the end of it all, on my original question: “What IS pulp fiction?”

I’m left with the answer that there isn’t a clear answer. It is its history. It is its formula. It is what it is.

And I want to write it.

How dreadful can a penny dreadful really be? Only one way to find out.


Do you read pulp fiction? Have you read dime novels or penny dreadfuls? Which characters do you know from pulp? (Tarzan doesn’t count. Sorry. Everyone knows Tarzan.)

Are you going to try writing some pulp fiction?


38 thoughts on “Penny for Your Thoughts?

  1. Holy shit, the girl wrote an epic long post and I loved it. I was about to point you in the direction of Icy’s post. I read it too. That girl is wicked cool I love her style.

    So wait one darned second here, Brentyn… are you guna write pulp?

    FYI, I still don’t know what the definition is!! did you check the urban dictionary?

    Also, you want to know what to write? I am waiting on two bloody stories from you.

    That boy… you know the one that doesn’t have a happy place… I want it. I want that story.

    I also want the story about the girl who drowned her sister. Write them up to 17,000 words, and submit them to the writers for the future sci-fi /fantasy comp.

    Why are you still reading? GO… WRITE.

    Liked by 4 people

    • This is one long post, I know. So, yes, I am going to write pulp. At least try. I think it will be fun. I don’t know what the definition is, either, but I think it’s pretty much its own history and formula. That’s its definition.

      Yes! Let me get some words on paper that are longer than 99 and I’ll get to the unhappy boy and the unhappy girl. (I sense a theme with my characters…) What’s the “Writers for future sci-fi/fantasy comp”? Or do you just mean submit to a competition somewhere?

      Okay! I’m going! I’m writing! (But some pulp first!)


  2. I love this. There’s a lot to come back to – I might need Lester Dent’s formula at some point and haven’t time to read it at this point in time (book-marking..) in case it is THE answer or the answer I’m thinking of in response to what to do with all those ideas – I think its Scrivener! Ha. I would wouldn’t I!? But have you thought about writing episodically and just pouring out what seem like isolated ideas until there are enough to spin a web around? Nothing is edited out before it has begun that way – it can be diverted elsewhere of course..
    Maybe you’re not asking anyway – it seems you’ve found at least part of the answer and I’m delighted you’re so revved up. So revved up in fact – you can see it in the length of this post alone! ❤️
    I love all the historical links in this. I’m laughing at the Brits snobbery implied in the name of publications for the working class – “Penny Dreadfuls” – You still hear the term used by older generations about poor novels they come across.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Exactly. I kept looking for “What is pulp fiction” and just got the history, mostly. So, like I said, it is what it is. And I think most of us have been reading it (or a relative of it) for years without knowing. Like Raymond Chandler, for example. Ooh…it really does look fun to write. Thanks so much for inspiring me! ❤


  3. I’ve read some of the original pulps at various times in life and I really enjoy the pulp experience when it’s done well (and, of course, tastefully!). The good ones are well-written without being literary. Even modern authors who can be said to be writing in the pulp tradition tend to be the ones I gravitate towards when all I want is a fun story. That, to me, is the essence of pulp stories — they are fun, fast-paced, action-packed, good vs. evil (even if the good guy is dirty around the edges, s/he does the right thing), race to the finish line with good winning. Yeah!

    So, go for it! Write a pulp story! See how it goes, see if it’s for you. And then share with the rest of us. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Exactly. Well-written without being literary. That’s what I’m thinking. (And what I’m going to try to accomplish.) Also, I want to have some fun and freedom while I’m writing. So, yes, on that count, too – a fun story. I love your “essence of pulp”. That’s the best definition I’ve seen yet! ❤ Perfect. And you know my “good guy” will be a bit dirty around the edges. Thanks for your support. I’ll see how it goes! (Then, maybe, share it.)

      Liked by 1 person

    • You might have read pulp (or something related to it) without knowing it. Unless you strictly read literary fiction. The formula has been used by many authors who don’t write pulp. Either way, I think it sounds like fun to write, too. I hope so. If not, at least I tried. 🙂 I figure it will get me writing long pieces. And if it does become a passion, that would be good, too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You know, you’re right – I have read lots of pulp fiction. I was thinking about your post later & started looking at titles in my library. I was thinking of a much narrower genre. Thanks for expanding my horizons! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your support, as always. ❤ I think it's a great idea, too, so we'll see… Anyway, I'm going to get words on paper and perhaps… *gasp* a book! *falls over* That would be so nice. Hopefully, with pulp, I can ditch the self-editing as I write. Thank you. #mast

      Liked by 1 person

  4. In Australia, with the banning of book and magazine imports after the outbreak of World War II Frank Johnson gave up literary highbrow and produced pulps. There were some exceptional writers published in these pulps such as poet Kenneth Slessor. Johnson produced pulp fiction (quick and dirty publishing) in vast numbers. They included comic books, crime paperbacks, humour magazines, boxing and racing fiction and adventure stories. They sold incredibly well in their thousands from news vendor stands. Pulps were throwaway items accessible to everyone. Cover, image and text were designed to capture the reader and because they were designed to be chucked away, in addition to the cheap paper they were printed on, they are now rare and incredibly valuable.
    Blood in the Bagnio
    The Dolls of Death

    Literary or something else? Story or structure? This is an argument I constantly have. Firstly what do you mean when you say literary? The dictionary definition is creation of a new creative work such as new novel etc. If you take that definition all writing is literary writing. You could mean that it has artistic value and the structure and word usage is innovative and new. My take is: literary writing is often in genre but transcends these genre boundaries either because of their originality, their use of language or just the sheer brilliance of their dealing with the genre within which they are writing. Many offer a world view that is important and most survive past the time in which they were written. Dickens wrote for the masses and yet he survives as did Shakespeare. So what is most important – I personally think it is the story. I don’t care how great the writing is if the story is a load of garbage and doesn’t hold my interest I will not read it. I don’t believe I will ever be a literary writer but I hope that most who read me will enjoy/relate/get something out of/ have a laugh/ out of what I have written. I don’t think it matters what you write Sarah as long as you write what you want to. I can tell you that you’ll take your readers with you without any problem whatsoever. I love going to the reef as well to read what you put there.

    I’d better stop without telling you of the pulp I’ve read and the penny dreadfuls as I’ve taken up so much space already. Why do you get me on a rant. Just tell me to shut up. The piece on identity is now published if you are interested.

    Liked by 3 people

    • That’s it: “quick and dirty publishing in vast numbers…accessible to everyone.” That is pulp. But, like you said, there were some good authors in that lot. And, yes, despite so many copies selling, they are worth a lot now. There are archived sites but some real-world exhibits (I think Stanford University has a collection of pulp fiction with around 8,000+ titles).

      Okay. I was trying to be nice here but, honestly, “literary” can be quite snobby. People who read ONLY “literary” fiction are often ones who will read anything on the NYT bestseller list or has an embossed lit. award on the cover. They are also often the ones who wouldn’t be caught dead reading young adult novels and judge others who read YA. Some. Only some. And they are snobs who are missing out on so many good, fun, entertaining reads just to say they read the latest “literary” book. Whatever. The funny thing is, Irene, they’re the first to say how much they love Shakespeare or the “classics” which, like you said, were written for the masses. 😀 That said, I’ve read some books where the writing is so good it makes me want to cry. I know I won’t ever be “literary” but I really don’t care. I’ve never wanted to be. It’s not who I am. I have a distinct voice that is…um…not literary. But it’s me. And you’re you. And I love your writing.

      I also love reading your comments. And that my posts can get you to rant. 🙂 Look forward to reading your piece on identity.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I love YA novels and some of them are definitely literary. At first I worried that perhaps I had lost the ability to read adult until I realised that it is the subject matter that tends to get me in. I was also surprised at the books that are classified as YA such as To Kill a Mockingbird for example which I think is an absolute gem. I know what you mean about the writing moving you to tears. One author from years ago Richard Church does that to me and also Henry Miller. In my mind I do think you have a chance at being literary whether you want to be or not as you tackle world issues with your wonderful distinct voice. But really it doesn’t matter does it. As long as we write what we want to and as long as we touch someone then I have to admit I’m pretty chuffed. 😀

        Liked by 1 person

    • I had two things to do today (aside from clean the whole house, dig chickens out of the snow and all those other Mum things no-one counts..) – I still haven’t written the damned bio for Charli but it’ll soon take precedent over the other – paid – piece of work – because that’s the way I like to procrastinate – most important/ urgent/ public first! I’m distracted by much more interesting things like searching for Scrivener templates for pulp fiction and reading an excellent essay by Irene Waters.
      Yeah thanks,
      thanks a bunch!
      Go away and write now! 💓💓💓

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Ha! All fired up and rearing to go. Who would have predicted pulp fiction would get the engines going? I wish you well, Sarah. I hope that as you try this formula, you find your own voice, the one that’s within waiting on your hearing it. Then we’ll hear the explosion! Wow! That will be fantastic.
    I hated the feel of that cheap paper. Never took to reading those sorts of books. I think the Westerns that my dad read sometimes probably fit the categories you describe. He read many of them interspersed with more literary titles.
    Enjoy the ride, Sarah. I think you’re in for a wild one! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • I know, right? It’s weird. You just never know what will come along and sweep you off your literary feet. Thank you. I don’t know if it’ll be the thing for me, but I’m excited to try it. And, if it’s not, well…at least I’ll get something written. 🙂 (I know what you mean about that wood pulp paper. It’s awful.) I think you’re right. Regardless of whether I stick with this or not, it’s going to be a wild ride. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I haven’t read any penny dreadfuls or pulp fiction really. But I can totally see the appeal. I enjoy monsters and mayhem. Some of my Cera Chronicles probably fall into the pulp fiction category. Heh. Now I’m inspired to go research it more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you might be right about Cera… I think she’s a modern-day (well-written) pulp fiction novella. (I was actually thinking that.) And it is SO appealing. Especially if I don’t have to live up to your standard of writing. *ahem*


  7. I LOVE pulp! I read all the dime novel westerns and every comic book and even pulp versions of the classics. For years, I’ve told my daughter that *one day* I was going to revive dime novel westerns. Then I encountered this problem with my novel, Rock Creek — research led me to cut all my North Carolina chapters, almost half the book! My novel needed a sharpened focus on what happened in Nebraska. I thought, a second novel? A prequel? Nah, that didn’t feel right. Then I thought — here’s my dime novel western opp. The thought of creating a pulp fiction character out of Sheriff Cobb McCanles was like dreaming up the perfect recipe for chocolate cake! Then you write THIS! Yes! I want to jump on your pulp bandwagon! I would so love it if you got some kind of pulp challenge going to spark ideas and build a pulp community. Thank you for sharing the map! I’ll be back to read responses.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Can’t say I’ve read much of what would be labelled “pulp fiction” but I think there is something worthwhile to create in every genre. I don’t read mystery / suspense novels, but one day I just picked “Mystic River” off the shelf and was mesmerized and entertained, along with lingering food for thought. And of course “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” is a better film than “Citizen Kane”.

    Before my return to writing of poetry after a long drought you couldn’t get me near particular forms. Free Verse or Die. Don’t tell me how many syllables or lines I can use — Oh, the oppression of self expression!

    Yet now I have embraced being told what I can and cannot do. I found some tennis net does help my creative focus — because it sounds like you, my creative flow is an uncontrollable torrent jumping the banks and flooding the plains.

    The novelist Don DeLillo was once asked if he ever had thought about writing short stories. He responded he had tried, but they always turned into novels. I get what he was saying.


  9. I’m so sorry, I’ve missed so many of your posts Sarah, I’m such a straggler 😦 Love it when I am here, late or not, I can’t stop, your great posts and then all the wonderful comments and discussions too… I had no idea that The Long Goodbye was a pulp either…you’ve given me a good history lesson here on its history. For what it’s worth, I think you should go for it, why not? When our minds go in all these different directions (I struggle with this constantly and slump into despair over it sometimes), it helps greatly to have a focus… I don’t get the literary snobbery thing one bit. But then what do I know? A power packed story that draws the reader in is what counts isn’t it? Pure escapism. For those times when we don’t have the energy to stop and pontificate (I love that word, ha!). And I can’t imagine that anything you write could possibly be dreadful… keep us posted lovely lady 🙂 ❤


  10. I think the great thing about trying this type of genre is the practice in plot, something I’m personally not so good at, though not quite ready to delve into the pulp. Look forward to the results of your endeavours.


  11. Hi Sarah,
    I know Sacha and Sue and Donna. I met you on her site. I liked your comments to her. I didn’t know my sleeping less was due to getting older. I guess it’s good– I’ll be more productive.


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