You Can’t Judge a Pulp by its Pitch

With our own open submission period fast approach, and in light of Corey McCleery’s post on the short story he’s writing for a Superversive anthology, I feel that I need to issue some clarifications on just what it is we’re looking for as a magazine that has had the attention of the Pulp Revolution.

First, I feel it’s important to point out that Cirsova was doing what Cirsova was doing prior to folks talking about a Pulp Revolution, and we intent do continue doing what we’ve been doing regardless of what directions either the folks involved in the Pulp Revolution movement do or what the Superversive movement does in response.

A lot of folks have said “I’ve got this great idea for X where Y happens in Z; there will be plenty of Q and T!” and I’ve absolutely encouraged people to write them.

But the thing is, a Pulp is much more than its pitch. A lot of pulp stories, when you try to distill their plots down to a sentence or two, come across as the wildest, most off-the-wall gonzo nonsense you can dream up. Except when you actually read the stories, they’re not only internally consistent, they often take themselves and the wild situations therein fairly seriously. While there might be some humor, the elements in the stories are usually not played for laughs. And I think that’s part of where we differ from some of the “Retro-Pulp”/”New Pulp” stuff, in that we’re not using the aesthetic for kitsch or playing it for laughs. It’s a very difficult concept to get across. It’s also why I think it’s worthwhile to show by example, which is why I strongly recommend folks read the pulps (particularly those that I’ve reviewed, because they are literally the context I’ve been using and measuring other stories against) and read previous issues of Cirsova to get an idea of just what I’m looking for.

Now, why did I bring up McCleery’s post?

Well, in addition to trying to define Superversive in his post, and trying to show that they are not mutually exclusive, he gives a pitch for his story that he is advertising as being a Superversive Pulp story:

It’s about a man, a man confronted with the injustices of a tyrannical usurper trying to slay the woman he loves, and to defend her, he becomes something greater than he is, using self-discipline and training to go from a plain warrior to someone of unmatched prowess. He’s morally straight and kind, but has courage in the face of incredible adversity, won’t shirk from trouble because it’s, well, trouble, and also refuses to do the wrong thing when that would make life easier, but compromise his conscience. Right there, that checks off two boxes listed above (Aspiring/Inspiring and Heroic).

He travels the world I have made, sees wonders, sees beauties unearthly. He goes into the most dangerous of places, and grows stronger for it.

He is guided by virtue, and eventually meets up with some other characters, many of whom are morally questionable. Through their interaction with him, these characters become more selfless, virtuous, and heroic themselves, and go from morally grey to heroes (there’s the Aspiring/Inspiring). In this world, there’s a clear line denoting what is good and bad, and that the evil usurper is bad, a cutthroat despot who isn’t scared to shed innocent blood (and she does this out of envy and desire for power, not because she was abused as a child or was a psychopath). Good is good, bad is bad, and while the hero isn’t %100 good, he aspires to be good (thus, the Virtuous box is checked).

And ultimately, the hero fights to restore the throne to the rightful ruler, and does so. He is not a pawn of chance, incapable of making his own decisions. He decides, and those choices have consequences. His actions have an effect, and he doesn’t react to the world, but proactively acts (thus fulfilling the Decisive category). And lastly, I’m not deconstructing ideals of heroism or other healthy cultural paradigms (thus fulfilling the Non-Subversive category).

So, I’m writing a Superversive story, one that will be published in a magazine.

Here’s the catch. It’s being published in Astounding Frontiers, Superversive SF’s pulp revival magazine. The description above is accurate, but focuses on the Superversive themes, not the pulp.

My story is about a soldier, charged with guarding the elegant and demure Space Princess, scion of a star (She kind of glows). He teams up with a stoic yet wise Void-wielding pseudo-Buddhist attack monk lizard alien man, a rough-and-tumble yet oddly maternal cyborg techno-necromancer (who’s art is drawn from Daoist philosophy), a giant crustaceanoid barbarian who’s bulletproof and very violent, and the crustaceanoid barbarian’s love, a sorceress insectoid-alien who is refined and demure (as refined and demure as an insectoid lady of high breeding level can be).

He flies in a ship that sails through the ether, and goes from a soldier to a sorcerer-knight who wields the ether and the Void, among other powers. He breaks into the vault of the imperial sorcerers to plunder its knowledge, and fights the horrendous beast that lurks in the heart of a sun. There’s travelling through the myriad avenues of death, Way Cool armor forged from the substanceless Void, action and heroism aplenty.

My story has battles on space ships, duels to the death, a classic romance, and a Space Princess, ethereal and beautiful. It has sorcery used alongside laser cannons and futuristic technology, where a battle can take place with scrambler beams or ether blades. Settings include the deadly library of sorcery, an ancient temple, and ruins of an M.C. Escher palace that is suspended in the heart of a hollow sun. It looks at genre distinctions and laughs in their face.

Now, a couple of things about this. This is a pitch. It gives you an idea of what the story will be about, but there’s no way to know whether this story is going to be any good or not. Also, that’s a LOT to try to cram into a short story*. Awhile back, I made a one sentence pitch for Schuyler Hernstrom’s The First American as an example of how it could be done (“Lizardmen stole a barb caveman’s dame, so he goes to a wizard who is an astronaut who gene-splices him and gives him a shotgun so he can rescue his dame from the lizardmen”), and that was a novella length work into which all of they X, Y, and Z were crammed. Another thing, I don’t know what deal McCleery has with the Superversives for their publication, so this is in regards to our publication, not theirs or anyone else’s, but as a general rule, unless you’ve finished writing your story, submitted it to me, and I’ve paid you for it, don’t say “here is the story I’m writing that will be published in Cirsova”, regardless of whether I’ve told you that your elevator pitch sounds awesome. That hasn’t happened yet, but it’s something I felt worth pointing out.

But back to pitches. What sounds great in a pitch needs to work out on the page. We’re not specifically looking for gonzo or how crazy and wild you can write a story. There may be a mistaken notion about the Pulp Revolution that to them Pulp is like some kind of Mountain Dew commercial, skiing down a mountain, chased by laser wolves, and screaming “PULP!” A lot of us make joke about that sort of thing, but that’s more about the bants than it is the serious business of writing and critiquing stoires. As for Cirsova, we are not the silly magazine that publishes silly and extreme stories for the sake of silliness and extremity. We’re looking for GOOD stories that are well written and have the potential to be entertaining to readers who enjoy action and romance. Ultimately, that is a far stronger consideration for whether we will acquire a story than whether it falls into a Superversive rubric or a Pulp rubric or a Pulp Revolution rubric, straw or otherwise.

*:Note – Corey’s pointed out that his pitch is for a serial; this is stuff that you CAN work into something longer, like a serial format. For our own submission purposes, since we only take serial works on special basis and by request only (please do not ask), we recommend only cramming in as much as you can reasonably work into 5000-7500 words without spreading your story too thin.

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15 responses to “You Can’t Judge a Pulp by its Pitch

  1. Corey already pointed out that it’s a serial, which is good.

    Honestly, I’m not sure what you’re responding to here. Corey’s deal with Superversive is based on work he’s already written; in fact, you’ll need to ask him and Jason to double check, but I’m pretty sure this is a novel Corey has already written and is serializing online that we’re editing to improve and streamline. Even if it isn’t, we know Corey’s work. He’s good.

    It’s not a pitch for Cirsova magazine.

    If your definition of pulp is contingent on the story being well-written, it’s not a very useful definition of pulp.

    If that isn’t your point, and your point is that we shouldn’t try and just submit pitches to Cirsova…we didn’t.

    Moreover, we wouldn’t be publishing Corey’s work if we didn’t think it was good.

    • I’m not actually responding to Corey’s pitch; I’ve actually spoken with Corey about this before this went live.

      Essentially, what happened was that Corey posted his pitch and I thought to myself “I’ve encouraged a lot of people go really wild with what they are writing and I’ve had people send me a lot of really crazy pitches; I think it would be a good idea to point out that we’re not actually looking for craziness for craziness sake.”

    • It’s not actually the same novel, but it’s a different one.

      I’d say I’m a bit of a better writer than what the one on Wattpad shows (however, if you only look at the second half, that may be a bit more accurate barometer of my writing skills). The Wattpad novel came from a drawing. I drew a dragon-barbarian, and decided to change him up a bit, and write a short heroic fantasy novella (at most short novel) about him, but about ten chapters in (I write a chapter a week, now more) it started to change. It is more of an epic fantasy book, most likely going to be a doorstopper (That’s from sheer amount of plot, not any attempt to fluff it up, I’m cutting it down to doorstopper size). That book, on Wattpad, there’s another deal with, but I’ll write on my site and Wattpad about that soon.

      The other one, the serial you’re going to get now, is what happened when I saw John C Wright’s post on the Space Princess movement, and thought… “I could join that. I liked A Princess of Mars a lot,” but wasn’t a fan of writing a planetary romance. If I was to have a space princess, she would have a nice space ship, or something.” I was going to serialize this myself until I heard of Astounding Frontiers, pitched it to the head boss, and got in (except I didn’t know it and spent the time when that guy was reading my story on the train pacing nervously). Of course, all these other elements listed above began to accrue on later, but now I’m plotting, scene by scene, how the story goes, unlike my Wattpad story, which was written (at first) without much planning at all.

  2. And that is exactly what I am trying to do with the 21st Century Pulp project–to separate the camp imitation from the spirit of adventure.

    For what it’s worth, I’m terrible at writing pitches. I find it very difficult to distill the story down to its essentials–maybe you could write a column sometime on what you believe goes into a good pitch?

    And I do try to remember, when I’m talking about stories I’m working on, to phrase it as “a story for submission to X market” rather than “a story for X market.” Unless it’s a commissioned piece (and I don’t like doing those) it’s not for X until X says it is.

    Heck, the story I’m writing for the anthology I’m putting together will still go through the submission process with the other editors. I might get rejected by my own project.

    • Hmmm… It’s something I could try. Thing is, I’m not a big fan of pitches anyway, because pitches can never really capture what a story is actually like (which is why those “Describe a movie badly” memes are hilarious).

      And I haven’t had a problem with folks saying they’re going to be published by us yet. Just that Corey had mentioned that he was writing a story that was going to be published by Superversive SF, and it made me think “Hmmm… I’ve told a lot of people that I liked their pitches; I don’t want people to think, though, that that means they’re a shoe-in.” Again, not an issue I’ve had yet, but back when I was in the music scene, I did have folks go from saying “we should jam sometime” and me saying “Yeah, sure, whatever” to them telling random people “Yeah, I’m going to start a band with Alex” (sometimes for the purposes of making exes jealous).

      As for the pitch part, I got to thinking “What happens when, after I’ve told someone ‘Yeah, go ahead on your crazy space mutant vampire laser princess cat people story, sounds awesome!’ then I get it and am like ‘This isn’t what I was looking for’, and they say ‘but you said it sounded awesome!'”

      Lastly, I feel like it’s important to convey that even though fans called what we were doing part of the Pulp Revolution, and I hang with those cats and write about both pulp and the Pulp Revolution, that does not mean that Cirsova is going to be a magazine buying stories based on what the Pulp Revolution thinks is cool or pulp and that being a member of the Pulp Revolution will somehow give folks a better shot at getting a story in. We had two issues out and all of our 2016 content acquired before folks started seriously using the term; not all of our contributors will fit into what’s considered Pulp Rev by all of the Pulp Rev folks. For instance, I liked Sword & Flower, beta read for it and helped Rawle get it into a print-ready format, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the sort of story I’d look for for Cirsova. Similarly with Cynthia Ward’s novella that I reviewed over at Castalia House; I enjoyed it a lot, but it’s not quite what I’m looking for either. I’ve had writers with impressive wikipedia pages submit whom I’ve told that they need to read you, Brian Lowe and Schuyler Hernstrom before resubmitting.

      I try to use example when I try to convey just what it is I’m looking for, because both Pulp (whether Pulp Rev or New Pulp) or Superversive are too vague and nebulous and mean too many different things to too many different people to be useful. But if I say “Like Leigh Brackett or Ross Rocklynne” maybe people will have some idea of what I’m actually talking about when I say pulp, rather than some indefinable philosopher stone spun out of poorly articulated notions and concepts that try to capture what those sort of writers did.

  3. Being fairly familiar with the folks in the New Pulp movement I would say the vast majority of them do take pulp seriously and do not consider it a kitsch aesthetic and are not playing it for laughs. The difference I see in PulpRevolution is a stated emphasis on the morality of heroism and good vs. evil–not that this doesn’t exist in much of the New Pulp tales, but I have seen some stories that fail to demonstrate that underlying moral component (even if it is merely a recognition that the character’s actions are wrong).

    • Most of my exposure to new pulp has been publisher-level, and their aesthetics, mission statements and submissions guidelines have probably inadvertently put me off of some pretty good writers. It could also be that I’m not the biggest fan of detective pulps to begin with, nor do I enjoy much of the New Weird I’ve read, and those seem to be major focuses of a lot of the revival stuff. Recommend me some names, and I’ll be sure to look into them.

      • In the Occult Detective category there’s Joshua Reynolds’ Royal Occultist stuff (The WhiteChapel Demon, Jade Suit of Death). It’s a very action-adventure oriented take on the genre, which I enjoy a lot.

        As far as straight up pulp action (which sometimes takes a weird bent) I recommend Derrick Ferguson’s Dillon novels. A good place to start might be Dillon and the Golden Bell, which is one of my favorites.

        You might rightfully say I’m a bit biased because I’ve collaborated with both of them on various projects–but even if that was not the case, these are the sort of New Pulp offerings I would be reading–because I get a big kick out of them.

  4. Pingback: SENSOR SWEEP: Raffish and Déclassé, Freewheeling Roots, Terrible Purpose, and Chunky Salsa – castaliahouse.com

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