Monday, April 10, 2017

Writing for the Pulps: Henry Kuttner

As far as science fiction is concerned, Henry Kuttner is one of the original Big Three of the Golden Age, alongside van Vogt and Heinlein. Not only did he write for science fiction magazines, he wrote comics, hero pulps, and other adventures, often behind any of a score of pseudonyms.

In the Writer's 1941 Year Book, he offered this example of writing advice.

Let's see if I can winnow out a few important items. Take a look at this quotation:
Throughout a lavish tropical diner, Morgan watched Harlean narrowly. The man scarcely touched hi food. He was blind drunk. He spoke little, save to order the boy to replenish his glass... 
Dave Vern, who was editing for Ziff-Davis at the time, stabbed the passage with his finger. "The reader doesn't see it. It could happen anywhere. But this yarn is supposed to be set on a South Sea island. Put youself in your character's places, Kuttner. What are they eating? What does Harlean look like? Visualize the scene for me."

It was good advice. Here's how the passage looked, in print:
They ate curried meat that night, with shark-fin soup and poi made from vegetables and breadfruit. Morgan polished off a tin of sardines with relish, but preferred to ignore the little pickled octopus in the lacquer bowl at his place, Munching the melon-like pulp of a papaya, he watched Harlean narrowly.
 The man had scarcely touched hi food. He was blind drunk. His thin face remained utterly impassive, but his eyes were feverishly bright. He spoke little, save to order the boy to replenish his glass... 
"Another thing ," Vern told me. "Your villain's too ordinary. Give him some tags that will stick in the reader's mind. Make him a Yankee - a red-haired New Englander who looks like a Puritan but acts like the devil himself. Maybe he carries a sword cane. Everybody on the island's afraid of him. But don't say so. Show it in action. When the man walks into the toughest dive in the island, everybody else shuts up. And parade those tags, too. It's a good way to keep the reader from getting confused."

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