Looking at Harlan

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Harlan Ellison is in his eighties now. When I first encountered him in the pages of Starlog in the seventies, he was “the angry young man” of science fiction. To begin with, he didn’t like being called a science fiction writer. Right away this was jolting to the kid version of me. What is this guy talking about, I wondered, why is that so important to him? Being categorized in a ‘gutter’ genre really got to Ellison. He wanted to be known as A Writer, not one of those sci-fi guys. Forty years later, he seems to have gotten his wish, in a way.

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For much of his career his work has been illustrated by his friends Diane and the late Leo Dillon. Their distinctive and striking work is perfect for Ellison’s work, a mix of the beautiful and the ugly, the human and the twisted. Few writers have found such perfect visual representation. The Dillons’ covers for Ellison separate his work from the Star Trek/Star Wars science fiction which has overtaken the field.

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Today Ellison is relatively quiet. He has had health issues, and a few years ago said he didn’t think he would last much longer. A biography was published to little fanfare. His most frequent publications now are not major events but boutique publications of his old stories.

I don’t follow Ellison closely. Months go by without word on what he’s up to.

It doesn’t matter. The damage has been done.

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Ellison was the writer who made me want to be a writer. He was a personality–a wiseass, a rebel, someone who went everywhere and knew everyone, who had legions of ex-girlfriends and shelves of awards. He pissed off all the right people. His politics were not those I’d been brought up to believe, but he was convincing in his championing of women’s rights and free speech. He was a one-man demolition team, assaulting the stodgy old ways, the dumb old ideas. He was a genuine feminist, demanding women be treated the same as men under the law. Ironically, he is now seen as some neanderthal for a sexist gag I won’t go into because the whole thing is so damned stupid in terms of the crime and the tidal wave of punishment to his reputation that has resulted.

I haven’t mentioned any of my favorite Ellison works. That’s for another essay.

Ellison’s work is superbly VISUAL, which is why it has inspired so much fine illustration. It’s a sad loss to the movies that his career as a screenwriter has been so disjointed. Imagine a world of Ellison original science fiction movies instead of another goddamned lifeless Star Trek sequel. James Cameron was famously “influenced” by Ellison’s Outer Limits scripts; too bad they couldn’t have gotten together professionally.

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I’m finding it’s impossible to write coherently about Ellison as a whole–there’s too much to talk about. There are many facets to his career, but his personality and the vivid style of his writing are, I think, two of the most important. In an age of visual SF flooding the mainstream, I wish more SF fans would turn to his harrowing, non-P.C. short stories. They aren’t comfortable–which is one reason they are not embraced as completely as they should be. An ultra-liberal, Ellison doesn’t just accept his beliefs, he challenges them, as well as the readers’, and that may be why his voice has grown faint in the field. SF fans preen that they are forward-looking and progressive, but they’ve become the complacent, stodgy folks who look down on the angry, the challenging, and the uncomfortable. Which makes Ellison just as dangerous as ever.

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A Quick and Effective Way to Shuffle Your Writing Brain

This is going to be a short one, but it’s surprisingly useful if you’re stuck in your writing. It’s simple and can be used for general cobweb-clearing purposes.

Randomly pick up a couple dozen novels from your shelves. This works with books you’ve read and ones you haven’t, though I prefer as-yet-unread novels for reasons that will become clear. I suppose non-fiction is just as useful but fiction just seems to do it for me. Short story collections work, too, of course. Look, I just want to get through this once without you interrupting, ok?

Sit in your comfy chair. Pen and notepad are allowed but not necessary. The point isn’t finding specific solutions to specific problems but breaking the logjam when you can’t write. Beverage and Depends as needed.

As rapidly as you can, read the first page of every one of the books. You could open to a random page, too. I prefer the page-one approach. I’m too busy to explain why.

There are many ways you can mix this up. Use books of the type you’re writing now, or books from any genre BUT the one you’re writing in. Only books from women. Books with unhappy endings.

I suspect you will not get through your whole stack of 24+ books. Ideas will start moving. You’ll wonder where the characters will go next and come up with your own answers. You’ll have a collection of fresh opening images, showing you how other writers do it.

Give it a real try–get the stack together and read one page from each of the books.

I promise you will become unstuck.

I’m doing this today, mostly with books I’ve previously read (because storage):

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Give it a shot.

With Enough ROPE

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ROPE is considered a misfire from Alfred Hitchcock. Based on a play inspired by the Leopold and Loeb case, it stars Farley Granger and John Dall as two pals (gay, but you couldn’t say it at the time) who murder someone for kicks. They place the body of in a chest in their apartment and proceed to have a dinner party attended by the victim’s father and fiancé. Also in attendance is the murderers’ former house master at school, played by Jimmy Stewart. During the party and its aftermath, Stewart suspects that the boys may have taken to heart Stewart’s teaching of the Nietzschean philosophy of superior people being allowed to do what they please–including murder.

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Stewart contemplates murder but ends up just calling down for more scotch.

Rope is known for being Hitchcock’s first color film and one of his experiments in style. There are only a couple of obvious cuts in the movie, from the first shot to the murder itself and from the killers to Stewart as he begins to think something is up with these two snobs. Otherwise it is a series of long takes that end with the clumsy gimmick of the camera moving to a character’s back to cover the transition to the next reel. It’s considered lesser Hitchcock, but it has much of interest, including the uncommon theme of the responsibility of those who dispense philosophy to impressionable school kids. Stewart is a sort of detective who discovers that the ultimate culprit in the murder is himself. Rope is a distant cousin to Vertigo in that the hero is a pretty despicable person, in this case a nihilist whose idea of dinner conversation is a serious discussion of why intellectuals like himself should be allowed to bump off the rude and the useless members of society.

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Cloud City

The ‘one shot’ gimmick works to create a sense that we are in this apartment with these people for the shortest, least-fun dinner party in history. The view of New York outside the large windows is spectacular, though it is about as realistic as the similarly-hued Cloud City matte paintings in The Empire Strikes Back. The dreamlike look of the world outside is important for creating visual interest when the whole movie takes place in one apartment.

John Dall is a classic snob villain. Farley Granger looks like he’s going to crack from the opening seconds, and he’s very good, but Dall looks like he’s getting a suspiciously sexual high off what they’ve done together. You instantly believe that this guy would knock someone off for kicks, and that if Granger doesn’t get his act together he’s going out that big window.

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I think I deserve applause for not making an obvious gay crack when I posted this picture.

Much of the focus of discussion of the movie these days is the homosexual connection between the Granger and Dall characters. While it is obvious–the screenwriter spells it out for those who want to pretend folks didn’t even THINK of such things back in the good old days–it is just part of the whole. This angle grew in importance in succeeding decades, putting the other subject matter aside. Now that homosexual liaisons are no longer controversial movie material, the movie’s true identity has re-emerged. It’s not about homosexuality, it’s about elitism and the dangers of being an intellectual. The main characters are well-bred and/or educated folks who would kill the rest of us like vermin if they had their way. Hollywood’s traditional anti-intellectualism is the real backbone of Rope. An easy target, yes, but a valid one. It’s significant that Nazis are referenced, as the killers and their old mentor are fascists in all but name, believing they have the right to decide life or death for those beneath them, even if in Stewart’s case this belief is unrecognized until now. Stewart is revealed as a useful dupe, who doesn’t even realize he supports the equivalent of ‘death panels.’

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“He’s kidding about the ‘death panels,’ right?” “Of course he is, now shut up and play.”

Rope may not be a classic but it’s not the failure it has been made out to be by all but the Universal publicity department (it’s labelled ‘An Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece’ on the DVD case). It’s not a deep examination of its issues but it uses an interesting theme to support a talky 82-minute experiment in style that deserves more love than it gets.

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Giant James Stewart wonders who that guy is supposed to be.

Safety Copies: The Writer’s Best Friend

Writer’s block is about stasis. The blocked writer cannot or will not go forward. It’s about fear: of success, of failure, of screwing up what you think is perfect so far. (It’s amazing how often I’ve tossed or reworked material I thought was perfect.)

If you are frozen, making a safety copy of your work and putting it aside is the simplest and often most effective way to break through. Once you’ve copied your work and put it in your Safety folder, you are free to play with what you have written. Make a list of 25 things you can do with it, the loonier the better. If you are writing a romance, have your hero turn out to be an alien, or your heroine gets elected to congress. The point is not to come up with a solution, but to break the frozen ice that keeps you from fishing in the rushing stream of creativity. You probably won’t make your hero into a robot, but writing that down may make you see he’s cut off from his feelings, or something else.

The point is you are stuck, and you are afraid to proceed. Copying your work and putting it aside removes one source of fear. That alone is progress. You are then free to mess up, destroy, and wreck the thing that’s got you so scared, and guess what? Just because you wrecked it, the world hasn’t ended. Your story is still where it was when the fear began, pristine and untouched.

I suspect that copy will stay where it is while you continue on with the new ideas you get from trashing the perfect thing you made.

I spent weeks wrestling with a story that began with the hero going on vacation. It started as a wistful portrait of the end of a relationship. Many struggles later I admitted that there were elements of something else, something darker in it.

I copied several chapters and moved them to another folder and gave it a title. Now I had two copies of the same material. One became the original story about a man on a vacation. The second became a horror story without any vacation involved. Both began from the same 5k words (which will be modified to fit what follows, but not until I finish both stories).

Look at this corrected galley proof of Balzac’s:

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You have a gift writers of previous eras might have killed for, the ability to preserve your original work so you can have unlimited copies with which to play.

So do it. Play.

Social Surrealism: I ACCUSE MY PARENTS

Jimmy is a high school kid who looks old enough to be a history teacher. With two parents respected by the community–okay, one philandering dad and an alcoholic mom with an addiction to awful hats–Jimmy seems to be on top of the world. He wins the school essay contest, meets a nice girl, and gets a steady job. What could possibly go awry with this budding American success story?

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The compelling answer drives the narrative juggernaut that is I ACCUSE MY PARENTS. A C-level time-killer aimed squarely at the youth of its day (many moons ago), J’ACCUSE 2 is no classic. It’s not even a good-bad movie; the director is Sam Newfield of THE TERROR OF TINY TOWN. It’s a fun time for those who enjoy bad movies or good-bad movies, but it is even more valuable as a record of the acceptable ethics of its time.

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That’s how it always starts: new shoes…

Our boy Jimmy meets a blonde songstress, which is pretty good luck for a high school kid. Jimmy’s parents are the type who’d have let Jimmy choose his gender if that was a thing back then; Dad tosses cash at the boy-man instead of spending time with him, and Mom shows up at Jimmy’s moment of glory at school drunk. To maintain his new jet-set lifestyle, Jimmy goes to work for a criminal mastermind. Bad choices begin to multiply until Jimmy is involved in murder and must flee town and go live with a Jesus freak who runs a diner. But a high school kid on the run can only run so long, leading to the frame story from which the title comes.

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I ACCUSE MY PARENTS shows a boy who goes to a fine all-white school, gets an honest job, dates a nice gal (flawed though she may be) and still tumbles under the influence of organized crime, booze and murder. After all that, the movie and our hero point the finger of blame directly at Mom and Dad. Its message as current as the latest stats on deadbeat dads, I ACCUSE is that rare American film that dares criticize the nuclear family. Its like is not seen again until GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER? took on the imperfections of American parenting. The depiction of Jimmy as victim of ‘respectable’ citizens he happens to be related to is matched only by Timothy Hutton’s Oscar-nominated turn in ORDINARY PEOPLE. (If Jimmy’s parents divorced there’d be no pre-KRAMER VS. KRAMER battle, as Mom and Dad would fly the coop before they’d own up to their responsibilities.)

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I hate posters that blow all the surprises.

A terrible movie with a message for our time, I ACCUSE MY PARENTS is a classic equal to GLEN OR GLENDA in the long list of movies that are fascinating documents of their time, while being enjoyably bad.

In case you didn’t get my unsubtle hints, this movie is awful. But this cheap movie about social issues is fascinating to see in this era of empty superhero movies made for hundreds of millions.

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With a little effort at awards time, I ACCUSE MY PARENTS probably wouldn’t be any better known than it is now. So there IS justice in the universe!

The Monster of Infrequent Posting Returns

I was doing a decent job of posting daily. It was intended to get me back into my regular writing routine, and it has succeeded. I’m working on the book I was stuck on.

Building an audience is necessary for independent writers.

I have no agent, no publicist, no crack team of ex-military assassins wanted for crimes they did not commit.

I’m just a guy trying to put together a system, a series of books, and a pipeline to those who want to read what I’m writing.

Look at sports. There are plenty of examples of stars who were recognized for their skills but were distracted by celebrity. They were known more for antics than winning.

There are others who are known for sticking to their routine: practice, showing up, keeping fit. They didn’t appear on the gossip pages. They just kept winning.

There is so much writing advice online, but the writers who succeed are the ones who don’t give advice or seek some magical secret though searches of the big names.

You sit. You get off the Internet. You write for eight hours a day. You get as many people to read your work and give feedback. You determine what flaws keep coming up in other peoples’ assessments of your work. You get an editor, if you can afford one. I can’t. You get a designer for your cover if you can afford one. I can’t. You get your work seen by blogging or selling short stories with links to your page where you have an e-mail sign up.

You can skip all of that but “You write for eight hours a day” until you’ve got something other people want to read.

That’s why my own blogging is so infrequent.

Watch this space.

In the Limbo of Writing a Book

I’m in no position to give anyone writing advice, so I don’t. I relate issues I come up with as I struggle along, and hope writers or anyone else can glean something of use from my fumblings.

After writing fourteen thousand words of a new book, which I knew was going to work out, I stumbled. I kept writing. The new book crashed and burned.

A few days after leaving the smoldering ashes, I can see that the main reason it flopped was because it had no center — I didn’t know what I was writing about. I was just moving the characters around.

The book was based on the opening of a different novel. This book was going to act as an introduction to that one, a stand-alone book but also a warm-up.

Those ideas are crippling when you haven’t figured out where you’re going.

I was more interested in finishing something than in thestory itself. I didn’t know where I was heading.

As someone who for years never planned out stories, I resist outlining, but it isn’t such a big deal, just a few signs on the road you want your characters to travel is enough of an outline for me.
I didn’t have that, so the book died.

I don’t know what I’ll do, exactly, but just to keep writing I am working on a new story about a character I like. It’s of a different genre and I’m having fun with it while I figure out what my “real” next novel is going to be. The characters are alive, doing their thing, and I’m just sort of sitting back and watching and taking it all down. I’m writing thousands of words a day as opposed to struggling along, forcing characters to keep moving.

(A sign the writing is poor: Characters do a lot of looking at each other, and I describe them walking. Deadly.)

Books written out of a sense of marketing duty and those written for enjoyment feel different while you’re writing them.

It’s not as simple as “You write for the market or you write for personal enjoyment.” I don’t believe I can write for The Market in that I can build something just because “The Readers” (whoever they are) will buy it. 50 Shades of Gray, fantasy novels, action novels — they’re junk to me. I should be able to knock a few off, make some money. Doesn’t work that way. The writers of those books love those kinds of books.

The balancing act is between your own enjoyment and communicating that on the page so others can partake of your pleasure in the story.

It really isn’t that complicated. It’s just impossible for 99% of the folks who try to write.

If you write what you enjoy, at least one person liked it. But that’s not enough if you want to be read.