The Poetics of Science Fiction and being paid by the word

I found The Poetics of Science Fiction on and downloaded it and am mostly enjoying it and learning things from it.

Stopping to note, though, the section on Pulpstyle, which is actually pretty cool and illuminating in a few ways (specifically comments about the use and effects of particular pulpy techniques). But then–

More noticeable than these stock lexical variations are adverbial qualifications to reporting-clause verbs. This addition of adverbials helped the pulp writer to earn an extra few half-cents. Characters rarely just say or sigh or mutter something; they do it „meditatively‟, „savagely‟, „bitterly‟, „softly‟, „curtly‟, „briskly‟, „carefully‟, „doubtfully‟, „uncomfortably‟, „profoundly‟, „heavily‟, „dispassionately‟, „beatifically‟, „urgently‟, „tiredly‟, „unhappily‟, „drily‟, „unsympathetically‟, and so on. Even more profitably, pulp writers often expanded adverbial qualification into an entire extended phrase, so characters do things „hurriedly and efficiently‟, „slowly and thoughtfully‟, „extending his arms in a similar gesture‟, „in Rod Blake‟s voice‟, „between a cough and a sneeze‟, „sighting the ion-gun at the nine flapping, rapidly vanishing things scuttling across the red dusty planet‟, and so on.

Now, this stylistic feature is inarguably part of the described style. He goes on to quote a few sentences:

Blake stared. He stared with steady blank gaze at that perfectly impossible Japanese maple. He gawked dumbly.


Rod Blake sat down and laughed. He laughed, and laughed again.


“Let’s move.”

They moved. They moved hastily back across the sand dunes to the ship.

The author here explains this as a product of the writers wanting to make more money–they were, after all, being paid by the word, and therefore had no incentive to be efficient, and on the contrary plenty of incentive to pad things out.

Here’s the thing. Publications that pay by the word don’t generally just want huge-ass manuscripts. They have upper limits–either explicitly stated in their guidelines, or unstated but definitely influencing what they’re likely to buy and publish. When you’re writing for such a publication, there’s no percentage in needlessly padding out your story for a couple extra cents. In my experience, you’re far more likely to be ruthlessly economizing, slashing whatever you can to fit your story in the amount of space you have.

And speaking just from my own experience, these examples don’t sound like deliberate padding to me. They sound like hurried writing. In fact, they all remind me very much of the more egregious examples on display in the work of Lionel Fanthorpe, who rather notoriously wrote whole novels over a period of days, hundreds in the space of a few years, mostly by, from what I can tell, free-associating into a tape recorder and passing that off to someone else to type out.

And I gather the writers for these pulps weren’t making their money on the extra cent or two in every ms–they were making it by sending out as many stories as they could to as many magazines as would buy their work. They had to write quickly and efficiently–no long and careful polishing for the successful pulp writer!

And editors aren’t–weren’t–stupid. They had a certain amount of money to spend, a certain number of pages to fill, and readers to satisfy. The whole “it was so long because he was paid by the word” thing is just foolish–the editor would reject it or if you were lucky cut it down or demand you cut it down to within acceptable limits. And the result needed to be something the magazine’s readership would probably enjoy, or at least enjoy enough to be willing to buy the next issue, otherwise the magazine would lose readers and hence advertising dollars.

No, those repetitions and extra words are more likely due to super-fast writing, by people who weren’t (yet, or ever destined to be) very good writers, who were typing on paper that cost them money to begin with and a fair amount of effort to make corrections on, and who had a pressing need to finish the story and get a new blank page onto the platen ASAP.

Seriously, I’m enjoying this book, but I do wish the “it’s padded out because they were paid by the word” thing would be seen for the foolishness it is.

4 thoughts on “The Poetics of Science Fiction and being paid by the word

  1. T
    TinBane says:

    You tried contacting the author, and linking them to your article on it?

    As someone who has long resigned themselves to being limited to a literary consumer, I love the idea that you can read so much from someone’s prose, although it does make me feel a little like I’m unknowingly being judged from now on, whenever I send an email 🙂

    1. Ann says:

      I didn’t. Partly because I didn’t think of it, but even if I did, I think I wouldn’t. Based on my own experience of people talking about my work, I’d rather come across it on my own and be able to take my time thinking about it or just not see it if I don’t want to, than have the author or someone else point it out to me. Academics may be different, I don’t know.

      it does make me feel a little like I’m unknowingly being judged from now on, whenever I send an email 🙂

      I’d never have come to that particular conclusion if I hadn’t done that sort of thing myself, or seen lots of other people do it. So a lot of it is just having read and written lots. But–yeah, that’s part of what’s terrifying about writing, writing anything. But, you know, you’ve gotta communicate and in the end, well, it mostly doesn’t matter, right? 😀

  2. n
    nm says:

    What bothers me (as a former academic) about the assumption “adjectives and adverbs come from trying to pad the word count,” which on the face of it is actually rather clever, is not that it’s probably mistaken. No, what bothers me is that it’s not all that difficult, these days, for someone in the academy to get hold of someone who’s paid by the word to write, maybe even someone who is primarily paid by the word to write, maybe even people who are paid by the word to write genre fiction of one sort or another, and ask that person, “do you find yourself using more adverbs than you would otherwise, to get your word count up?” And yet this writer didn’t do that. It’s not like you’re wondering why medieval scribes used goose quills rather than chicken quills,* or something else that can’t be directly checked with someone involved in the practice.

    *I have no idea whether medieval scribes used goose quills in preference to chicken quills.

    1. Ann says:

      Actually, it wouldn’t surprise me if this author had in fact done that research–asked someone currently writing at such pay rates, or reading the account of someone who did write during that time, or during the forties or fifties.

      On the LJ posting of this, someone commented that they’d heard Fanthorpe himself say he wrote the way he did because he was paid by the word–but a bit of poking turns up the fact that he was trying to very quickly fill a quota (he’d get paid for a novel of a particular length) and would just abruptly end the story once he’d reached that length. In other words, he wasn’t actually padding to make extra money, he was writing super fast to fill up the required pages. Not the same thing, IMO, and yet he described this himself as padding because he was paid by the word.

      I think people do a thing where a particular narrative or description is so conventional that they use it even when actually it doesn’t apply–because the narrative says it must actually apply and must actually be a valid description of what’s happening. Even when, actually, it isn’t. And I think the “padding because they’re paid by the word” is one of those. Fanthorpe wasn’t going to make more money off a novel because he had more words in it–he was going to make more money by turning out more novels in a shorter amount of time. But there’s no pat phrase for that, but there is certainly a long history of amusing jokes about how Dickens wrote the way he did because he was paid by the word.

      It wouldn’t at all surprise me if this author had asked, gotten the pat answer, and not stopped to think about it.

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