The Dangers of Formulas, Pulp Fiction and the Pressures of Self-Publishing

(This post might come off a bit hateful. I apologize in advance; I have a really strong opinion about many aspects of writing, which shouldn’t be much of a surprise. This post is also very focused on fantasy writing.)

While procrastinating from my daily wordcount goal today, I stumbled upon a post written by successful fantasy author, Michael Moorcock, wherein he thoroughly discusses his strategy for writing a novel in three days. A relief from the thousands of writing blogs out there all writing the same posts about writing, I clicked on the post.

And God, did it bother me.


In the post, Moorcock starts off with the obvious: outline your plot, outline your memorable scenes, get some characters ready, unplug the Internet (I really need to remember this), tell everyone to leave you alone for three days, and etc. It does have some good tips; I would suggest any writer to read it, if simply just to understand his stance. But then we start getting extremely specific tips, which is when you realize that Moorcock isn’t joking when he’s telling you exactly how to write a novel in three days.

For example, some quotes:

Model the basic plot on the Maltese Falcon (or the Holy Grail — the Quest theme, basically). In the Falcon, a lot of people are after the same thing, the Black Bird. In the Mort D’Arthur, again a lot of people are after the same thing, the Holy Grail. It’s the same formula for westerns, too. Everyone’s after the same thing. The gold of El Dorado. Whatever.

The formula depends on the sense of a human being up against superhuman force — politics, Big Business, supernatural evil, &c. The hero is fallible, and doesn’t want to be mixed up with the forces. He’s always about to walk out when something grabs him and involves him on a personal level.


And then you have even more specific tips like:

Prepare an event for every four pages.
Very often a chapter is something like: attack of the bandits — defeat of the bandits.

And finally, by the end of the post he gives you an outline of how you should write a 6,000 word story for practice, detailing every 1,500 words.

So. The Master Plot itself.
Divide the 6000 word yarn into four 1500 word parts. In each 1500 word part, put the following:
1) First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved–something the hero has to cope with.
2) The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble. (He tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem.)
3) Introduce ALL the other characters as soon as possible. Bring them on in action.
4) Hero’s endevours land him in an actual physical conflict near the end of the first 1500 words.
5) Near the end of first 1500 words, there is a complete surprise twist inthe plot development.

Okay. Firstly, to be fair, I don’t mean to bag on the guy. Moorcock made it clear that his guide is for writing pulp, and that he’s of the opinion that pulp is guaranteed to sell. My problem then isn’t with Moorcock himself (although I’ve never read any of his books and now don’t intend to), but the the promotion of writing pulp and pulp itself.

Before I get any further, I’ll clarify how I currently understand pulp (pulp fantasy, specifically).

ImagePulp is cheap.

Pulp fantasy is to fantasy geeks as most erotica is to middle-aged women. There are four categories in terms of how a fantasy story is written: “Low” fantasy, “High” fantasy, science fiction and pulp fantasy. (Skip/skim this if fantasy does not interest you, or read this for a more thorough discussion).

*Low fantasy — The most popular example of “low” fantasy is GRRM’s A Song Of Ice And Fire. The focus is humanity. Human fears, human achievements, human drama, human conflict. Magic is either rare or weak, but the focal point of the story is how the Average Joe saves the world in his own Average Joe way.
*High fantasy — Probably best referred to as anti-pulp writing. Think of Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings. Less focus on humanity and more on general, universal conflict. Heavy use of magic, but the magic is explained in its own way, showing that the writer is striving to make sense of it. The characters are strong but not perfect. We follow heroes born as heroes, but these heroes are flawed. Salvatore’s Drizzt series is good high fantasy. Malazan, Dark Tower, lesser so, somewhere between high and low, but probably closer to high.
*Science fiction — Technology is as important to the story as characters are. Instead of bullshit explanations for magic, we have bullshit explanations for technology.
*Pulp fantasy — Think cliche. Muscular heroes with no flaws, large-breasted women who fall in love with the hero, extremely out-of-this-world plot and generally, whatever the writer can think of without refining the idea to make sense. No effort is made for realism.

Pulp fantasy is also largely known as Conan-inspired work.


Pulp fantasy started out in the early/mid 20th century because of the rise of Weird Tales magazines that demanded an excessive amount of original fiction to fill their covers. This meant that instead of producing quality fiction, writers were churning out fantasy as quickly as they could to keep a steady stream of paychecks, while trying to maintain a sense of originality to it, which ultimately created an entire subgenre of heroes that had no faults (because there was no time to think of such faults), situations that made no sense, and events that had to be as glamorous and spectacular as possible to make up for the lack of depth (Michael Bay’s Transformers). Around the time of Tolkien and the release of Lord Of The Rings is the turning point of the current of pulp popularized by Weird Tales.


History lesson over. I think it’s important to clarify right now that if you honestly and sincerely enjoy reading and/or writing pulp fantasy, then good for you. But the truth is, pulp fantasy as a subgenre was born out of the need for down-on-their-luck writers to earn paychecks every month. The formula presented by Moorcock exists because of that same situation — publish as prolifically as you can for the sake of selling. Call me ignorant, but I don’t want to read anything by anyone who says that, because I don’t think their work is going to be worth the time. Granted, Moorcock is apparently highly renowned (although he hates Tolkien/C.S. Lewis/Heinlein/Lovecraft so my position against reading his books has now doubled), but there are some things that just put me off of a writer, and a formula such as Moorcock’s is one of those things.

You might wonder why I have such a big problem with Moorcock’s thoughts and pulp fantasy. Simple: I feel like it’s dishonest.


I don’t like detailed formulas because it completely goes against my personal philosophy of what writing should be about. Writing is about using the gamut of your creativity and beyond to create worlds and stories that will resonate with an audience, no matter if that audience is for yourself or for millions of readers. Writing is about scooping into your heart and slapping it onto the page, hopefully refining it enough so other people can make sense of what you’re trying to say, what you’re feeling. Writing is about honing the ability to reach people in ways other mediums cannot even hope to accomplish and hopefully connecting with them to the point that they understand you without even knowing who you are. Writing is about subtly cutting your way into a reader and then prying him or her open unexpectedly.

But to turn the act of writing into a detailed formula where all a writer does is fill in the blanks… it’s dishonest. It’s disingenuous. You’re commercializing art to the extreme, and you’re proud of it. You become the Justin Bieber and the Michael Bay of the writer world, assuming you become wildly successful. And if you don’t become wildly successful? Well, you won’t even have the pride to look back on your books and say, “I can’t believe I wrote that”, because what you wrote has no meaning to you, has none of your heart between the binds. Unless you like writing pulp fantasy, of course, but I don’t think anyone using a formula is writing out of love, but rather for the hope of a quick pot of gold. Why else would you be seeking ways to write a book in three days?


And I’m afraid the self-publishing community is inadvertently pushing this pulp propaganda. Go to any pro-self-publishing forum (KindleBoards is the best one) and look for a discussion where a writer asks “How do I get more sales?” The answer that everyone will say? “Write more books! Publish more books! Go go go!”

I’m not saying it’s not true; it is. Get your name out there, build a backlist, build a mailing list, and one day you’ll get far, hopefully. But I fear a lot of self-publishing writers are taking this advice at face-value. Never take anything at face-value. I’m afraid writers, in their blind rush to become the next self-published millionaire, are churning out — without even realizing it — pulp fantasy. We’ve gone full circle now, and the 2013 version of the 20th century’s Weird Tales magazine is now Amazon’s self-publishing, as writers push out as many books as they possibly can — books with little to no editing, horrible grammar, covers that were made in Paint, and depthless plots and one-dimensional characters — just to “build their backlist”.


And in the end, it hurts everyone.

*It hurts the reputation of self-published writers every time a reader downloads a book written out of a goldrusher’s greed instead of love.
*It hurts reading in general every time someone reads a bad book.
*And most importantly, it hurts fantasy. Fantasy is a small genre when compared to mysteries, thrillers, romance (see for yourself). The more we promote pulp fantasy books that make fantasy readers look like uneducated chauvinistic barbarians, the more we push away potential readers who require more from their reading than simply giant swords and evil sorcerers. The more we promote pulp fantasy books that demand no thought and are simply filled-in formulas, the more we turn writers into pulp fantasy writers, because they learn that that’s the only thing that sells. That’s not the right direction for this genre or for writing in general to go at all. We need to be pushing out innovation and heart, not recycled trite.


The dilemma then is the balance between writing as quickly as you can while maintaining a good book. Us unknowns shouldn’t spend six years on our books like GRRM, but neither should we be publishing without refining our work or even striving for a semblance of heart.

But I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I shouldn’t criticize people for what they write, what they read, and in my opinion, I’m not. I just don’t appreciate the formulaic method which Moorcock and other promoters of pulp fantasy have turned writing into. Because I don’t like the idea that people are turning the profession I’ve dedicated my life to into a factory line or something computers will be able to do with algorithms, because everything has turned into a formula. Seriously — isn’t that what we’re trying to get away from with self-publishing? Self-publishing is about freely publishing that which traditional publishers wouldn’t necessarily touch because it might not sell. Don’t turn into that which we’re openly shunning.

Again, I might just be an idiot. The series I’m writing right now is a mix of science-fiction, fantasy, dystopian and post-apocalyptic. Not because I have an inane overwhelming need to be original, but simply because that’s what felt right for the story I wanted to tell. I’m not writing at an eighth grade level, despite that being the majority of readers. I’m not writing what is popular, nor do I even know what that would be other than hardcore erotica. Is there an audience for my book? I don’t know. One reviewer has called it a mix of GRRM and Heinlein, which made me insanely happy. But again, I don’t know. But that’s what my heart is telling me to do, and I’m going to do it, because I know it’s something I’m going to be proud of when I’m done. And If the books ever take off? I’ll be happy knowing I stuck to what I felt is right.


I wish all writers wrote like that, so that we’d have many more amazing books.

17 thoughts on “The Dangers of Formulas, Pulp Fiction and the Pressures of Self-Publishing

  1. Wow!! Finally someone says something intelligent, thank you; I agree with everything you’ve said; for me writing is art, freedom but above all honesty; it makes me sick to my stomach what I’ve been hearing over and over, write more books, it’s a business; they’re treating it like a rat race and the quality is awful, very poor and predictable vocabulary. I’m glad you had the courage to express what many feel.

  2. Very well said (or should I say written?). I couldn’t agree more, and the most lamentable thing of all is that this is the case with pretty much all genres of writing lately. Literature/writing/art are the only disciplines which are so unique to the human capability for imagination which cannot simply be churned out through computers and machines, and yet that is exactly what is being attempted to turn writers into. (As if the fantasy/sci-fi genre does not already have enough false stigmas about being devoid of value). We need more writers in these genres to produce works that possess meaning so that we can redefine the mainstream perception of its value.

  3. So how do you reconcile your hatred for dishonesty with your plagiarism of a Daily Mail article? Talk about disingenuous.

  4. I’m really enjoying your blog, XJ. Very inspiring stuff that makes me want to sit my arse down and get something written. And I agree with what you’re saying here. I’d honestly rather write a couple of stories from my heart and never receive fame and fortune than put my name to something puked onto the page after swallowing a formula. I compare it to modern art. There were the revolutionaries who expanded the idea of what art is, but now it’s sadly acceptable to fling shite on a canvas and exhibit it while the critics wet their knickers in admiration. My belief has always been that as an artist, writer, whatever, you should be tearing out a little of your soul and offering it to the world. I guess pioneers are rare, but sitting comfortably between the two extremes seems like a worthy goal.

    • Thanks for the nice comment. I’m glad you enjoy the blog 🙂

      And I hope the posts don’t leave you with the impression that I think way highly of myself. I’m just trying to put out the best I can do, with my own work, but whatever that “best” may be, I don’t know. Hah.

  5. This is part of why NaNoWriMo is always so difficult for me–I can’t produce a steady output. One day, I’d write 4,000 words, and then I’d write nothing for the next few days. (My word count goal this past year was only 20,000, so it didn’t end up being that big of a deal.) There’s a reason it’s called the creative PROCESS–and the process is different for everyone. Since I spend most of my time at school, I write everything longhand before I type it up into a document that night, scribbling down a few sentences here and there whenever a teacher pauses to change the powerpoint slide. 99% of what’s in the notebook does not end up anywhere close to the finished document. But this process works for me and I managed to create a finished novel out of it.
    I’m not saying that formulas like these are necessarily terrible–it’s good to have some guidelines, especially as a fairly inexperienced writer. But part of my creative process is the trial and error of learning how to build tension, how to make my characters feel real.
    Great, thoughtful piece, XJ.

  6. Great post! Writing is an art. Writing does come from within. I enjoyed your mention of “scooping into your heart and slapping it onto the page”. So often, I read work and wish the author would just break down the walls and give me something of value. Not today.

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