A Tough Day for Writers
It was difficult enough yesterday to hear that someone had gone to the offices of a local newspaper in Maryland, The Capitol Gazette, and shot an unknown number of people, five of whom died.
I’ve been a reporter for a magazine and a freelancer for a local paper. This hit home. But life wasn’t done with the tragic yesterday.
Harlan Ellison has died.
I can barely type those words, and I have trouble accepting a world without him in it. His writing will be with me forever, but the thought that irascible curmudgeon won’t do another rant, won’t demand that writers be paid, won’t upset the publishing establishment is depressing.
“I Have No Mouth. And I Must Scream.”
In the late 1960s, I purchased a copy of the March 1967 issue of IF: Worlds of Science Fiction. Inside was a story that rocked my brain, “I Have No Mouth. And I Must Scream,” by a writer I’d never heard of, Harlan Ellison.
The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic world occupied by the last four humans on earth. They are manipulated and tortured by an artificial intelligence, but humanity being what it is, they find an escape, except for one, whom the AI punishes. The title of the story is also the story’s last line, and when I read it, I was astonished that someone could write like this.
I immediately started reading anything by Ellison I could find and became mesmerized by his style, his dystopian approach. He won Hugo and Nebula awards for his speculative fiction, but he also was a journalist, a crime writer, a horror writer…a writer.
In Los Angeles, where he moved to pen TV shows (among them my favorite Star Trek episode, “City on the Edge of Forever”), he would often set up shop in the front window of a book store with an aging manual typewriter. Using his two-fingered typing method, he’d write a story based on a first line pulled from a hat by a book store customer. As he finished a page, the bookstore owner would tape them in order in the window, and people would stop by and read, waiting for every new page.
A Chance Encounter
In 1974 WorldCon, the international convention that bestows the Hugo Awards, was in Washington, D.C. Ellison was going to be featured there, and I had to go. For someone who’d just graduated from college and had not yet started her teaching job, I had to save up babysitting, dog-walking, and horse-grooming money to pay the fee.
I contacted a student of mine from student-teaching days, and he agreed to come with me. On day one of WorldCon, I drove to McLean and picked him up and drove into D.C.–my first time driving myself. But it all went smoothly. Parked in the hotel, picked up my ticket and event schedule, and wandered around to get my bearings.
A group of people, exclusively young men, were grouped in a hallway of the hotel. A tall, white-haired man I immediately recognized. Isaac Asimov. I’d read a lot of his work, too, and he and Ellison had an on-going “feud” about hard sci-fi and spec-fic. (They actually were good friends, but the fans believed in this feud, so…)
I got closer, and sure enough, the other person in the hallway debate was Harlan Ellison. A small man in stature, I was dry-mouthed with being star-struck, but I worked my way forward until Ellison was only a few feet away.
“I don’t have time for this drivel,” he said. “I have an appointment I have to get to.”
Now, I never once thought I’d get to speak with him, but I was immediately sad that this encounter would be too brief.
Then, he was beside me, hand on my arm. “I have an appointment with this young woman. Excuse me.”
Me? Of course, I went with him–I was too stunned not to–seeing my friend’s concerned face as Ellison led me away. Ellison was a notorious womanizer. He was married several times, most lasting only a year or two, except for his last marriage, which lasted 32 years.
Ellison escorted me into a holding room where people about to go on stage for a panel waited. He ordered everyone out, and they obeyed. He and I sat down in side by side chairs, and he asked, “What brings you to WorldCon?”
This was 1974. Women or girls were rare at cons, and I was 22 years old and damned good-looking then.
I didn’t want to say “You” and be an idiot, so I said, “I want to write science fiction.”
“Why?” he asked.
“Because of you.” Then, the fan girl took over. “I’ve read everything you’ve written.”
A thoughtful scowl, and he said, “I doubt that. My bibliography is over 50 pages long.”
There was the irascible Ellison I’d read about. I felt like a fool.
“But if you want to be a writer,” he said, “do it. Start and don’t stop. Write what comes into your head. Don’t censor it. Don’t worry about what people think. Write it down. Now, don’t try to write like me, because no one can do that. Write like you.”
There was the egotistical Ellison I’d also read about. But he was kind to me. I suspect my youthful good looks had something to do with it.
We chatted for about twenty minutes. He asked what I’d written, if I’d had anything published. Rejections only I told him. “Keep at it. You’re not a writer unless you’ve been rejected.”
“Well,” he said, standing, “thanks for getting me away from the troglodytes. Enjoy the con and keep writing.”
And he was gone.
I have remembered that encounter for 44 years and cherished it. I accepted he probably forgot it as soon as he left the room.
Some years later in one of his stories, he had a scene where a woman had an embarrassing issue with her period. He didn’t write derisively about it but with tenderness and care. It was so similar to what happened to me on the second day of the con, I’ve always wondered.
Rest in Peace
I’d heard Ellison had had a stroke a few years ago which had essentially ended his writing but not his irascibility. I have a good-sized collection of his works, and they are now precious to me. For the rest of my life I can go look at how he put words together in such an incredibly beautiful and horrific way.
I didn’t take one piece of his advice. I still do try to write like him. When I write something horrific, something that makes people look away in distress or disgust, it comes directly from him through me. I always wanted to tell him that.
And yesterday he died in his sleep. Not fitting. Not the way he would have written it. If he had, there would have been drama, a fight to the death, and dystopia. He went silent into that good night.
I have a mouth. And I’m screaming.
Getting Ready for Tinker Mountain
I’ve made my to-do list for the next week so come Sunday afternoon, I can hit the road and arrive in Roanoke for this year’s Tinker Mountain Writer’s Workshop. It’s the tenth anniversary, with a lot of extra workshops and new instructors. As usual I’m nervous, excited, and, well, nervous.
The past two years have been very positive experiences. Last year, for example, led to having an agent review a manuscript. (He turned it down but said lots of positive things.) The first year I attended was the first time any of my MSS had been critiqued by total strangers, and they liked it, they really liked it. This year is the first time a portion of one of my genre MSS is being critiqued by strangers. The workshop I’m attending is “Crafting High Quality Genre Fiction,” and the instructor is Laura Benedict. She also happens to be the spouse of my first Tinker Mountain instructor, Pinckney Benedict.
The forty pages I sent in comes from an MS titled A War of Deception, which is loosely based on the Robert Hansenn spy case from the early 2000s. I say loosely because it started out as a fictionalized version of that event with my U.N. spy characters in the mix. It turned into a study of revenge when what I intended to be a subplot became the main plot. The title comes from a Sun Tzu quote in the Art of War, one of my favorite books: “All warfare is based on deception.”
I’m sure I’ve mentioned my love affair with the Art of War before. I had the audio book on my iPod and listened to it every day on the way to work. It was that kind of workplace at times. Plus, Sun Tzu has a lot to say about spies and espionage which resonates today.
Anyway, the nervousness comes from having my genre fiction workshopped. It’s a first, though the material workshopped in my first Tinker Mountain visit was a speculative fiction piece I submitted because I didn’t have anything else ready. However, I don’t consider myself a speculative fiction writer. A lot of my flash fiction falls into that genre but only because I’m not sure I could sustain a full-length spec fic novel, even that particular manuscript. It seems I inadvertently channelled Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale when I wrote it for NaNoWriMo a few years ago. When Pinckney encouraged me to work on that MS, I explained about the striking similarity to Atwood’s dystopian piece–“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” he said. Ms. Atwood may not think so, however.
This year’s MS is one of my “historical thrillers,” to borrow a term from Alan Furst, a writer of espionage fiction I hope to emulate. It’s got a mole in the FBI, sex, violence, marital discord, and two mysteries to be solved. I hope I have a third great experience. Even if the rest of the workshop hates it– Ack! Let’s not put that in my head!
So, off to do laundry, water plants, and pack, etc., and be ready for a worthwhile week of workshopping, craft lectures, and writer friends that is Tinker Mountain Writer’s Workshop.
Friday Fictioneers Comes ‘Round Again
This is the time of year for me where the time seems to fly by, and I look back on a week and wonder how it got to be Friday. Of course, this never happened when I worked in an office. I’d get to Wednesday, and Friday seemed a million miles away; and there were never enough hours in the day to get done what had to be done.
By the way, there was a significant anniversary this week for those of us who work or worked in aviation, namely the fifth anniversary of the “miracle” on the Hudson. I wrote about it in my other blog, but some might find it interesting. Click here to read “Serendipity on the Hudson.”
We had a very lovely photo prompt for today’s Friday Fictioneers, but a couple of days ago I watched a documentary on the history of the Celts and had human sacrifice on the mind. So, there you go. Once again, a pretty picture evokes a dark story. Oh, yes, my various therapists over the years have had a field day. Today’s story, “Grasping for Straws,” is both topical and historical, with a dash of speculation. As usual, if you don’t see the link on the title in the line above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select the story from the drop-down list.
Ladders to Friday Flash Fiction
By some sort of odd coincidence, both Friday flash fiction exercises I participate in (Friday Fictioneers and Flash! Friday) have ladders in their photo prompts today. One is commonplace; the other unusual, and both different enough that one story won’t fit both. Not that I’d do that anyway. Both brought lots of interesting thoughts to mind.
Friday Fictioneers’ photo prompt brought back to mind a favorite episode of mine from the classic Twilight Zone series. I’ve mentioned before that watching that series and seeing the stories penned by not only Rod Serling but people who became some of my favorite writers (Bradbury, Matheson, and many more) made me want to write.
Serling was an amazingly erudite man who had such a grasp of human frailty, and he reflected that in his tales of the other worldly and macabre. Almost single-handedly he made the term “speculative fiction” credible in a literary environment that dismissed such writing as pulp. (That, unfortunately, still happens to a certain extent.) He wrote or adapted to a screenplay ninety-nine of the original 156 episodes, including the one I’m paying homage to in today’s Friday Fictioneers offering, “Reincarnation.”
If you’ve never watched the original offerings of Twilight Zone, give them a try. Ignore the black-and-white presentation and the sometimes cheesy special effects and pay attention to the stories, the words, which are masterful.
As usual, if you don’t see the link on the title above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select the story from the drop-down menu. If you want to read the story for Flash! Friday, which features a ladder as well, click here or click on the Flash! Friday tab above and select the last story (Escalera del Jacobo) on the list.
Life Gets in the Way
Last week was a slow writing week. I didn’t even get a chance to sit down and compose until Friday morning. Some spring clean-up, some things I’d been putting off around the house, babysitting, and other obligations intervened. That’s life, but by the time Friday rolled around I not only missed writing, I kicked myself for not making the time to write.
And the weekend of April 5-6 was certainly inspiring. I attended the Tom Wolfe Seminar at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA. Wolfe, a 1951 W&L graduate, is so admired by his classmates that they endowed an annual seminar in his name, which pairs Wolfe and another author for a weekend of panel discussions of the author’s work. W&L faculty also present a scholarly address on a particular work of the featured author.
This year the featured author was Jennifer Egan, a Pulitzer winner for A Visit from the Goon Squad. I’d read “Goon Squad” right before the Pulitzer announcement because I’d heard it was a novel in stories, something I was interested in exploring. Some of the stories intrigued me, though the PowerPoint story gave me a flashback to working days and countless, bad PowerPoint presentations. I wasn’t entirely sure what I thought of the book as a whole, though the writing was excellent.
Turns out Egan never intended that book to be a novel, in stories or otherwise. She knew she had this cast of interrelated characters, and she had decided to write a story for each character; but she wasn’t calling it a “novel” in her own head. Nor did she call it a collection of short stories, though that’s what she intended it to be. It wasn’t until the paperback edition came out that the words “A Novel” appeared on the cover, but that, Egan stated, was likely at the publisher’s instigation–as if “Pulitzer Prize Winner” wouldn’t boost sales.
In truth, I read the book over a period of several weeks, and I think it’s a work you need to finish in a single sitting or not over a protracted amount of time. Otherwise, you tend to forget the connections and the fact that a minor or barely mentioned character in one story is featured in another. So, this seminar, then, along with the two scholarly explorations by W&L professors Christopher Gavaler (“Goon Squad as Pulp Fiction”) and Jasmin Darznik (“The Art of Discontinuity: Time and Memory in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad“), brought the characters back to mind. And the connections clicked. “Goon Squad” is a book I recommend.
Egan’s speech–“Journalist as Novelist; Novelist as Journalist”–was thought-provoking as well. She admits she’s an “accidental journalist” and took advantage of a job offer from The New York Times Magazine to conduct research for her novel Look at Me. The emphasis on research as a journalist improved her lot as a novelist, Egan stated, and she lauded the recent trend in writing non-fiction along the lines of fiction and vice-versa. In all, a very inspiring talk, and Egan was self-deprecating; no swelled-head Pulitzer diva in the house.
This past weekend I attended a two-day workshop on Speculative Fiction by Edward M. Lerner and hosted by WriterHouse in Charlottesville, VA. It wasn’t so much a craft workshop as an in-depth explanation of what speculative fiction is, the elements of speculative fiction, its place in the current publishing market, and its related fandom. Lerner, who has co-authored with Larry Niven in addition to publishing several “hard” sci-fi novels on his own, is very knowledgeable of the topic and gave an excellent presentation with plenty of opportunity to ask questions. In truth, it was more of a refresher for me because I’ve read spec fic since I was a teen, but it did inspire me to give writing sci-fi a second (or third or twentieth) chance.
Why? Well, Lerner himself is a physicist, but he has written sci-fi books on nanotechnology, medical thrillers, and other non-physics topics through research and contacting subject matter experts. That approach doesn’t put it out of my wheelhouse, even though I’ve always thought I didn’t have the science chops to pull off writing sci-fi. However, the first story I had published in eFiction Magazine was sci-fi–“Without Form or Substance.” It was about time travel, but, unbeknownst to me until Lerner’s workshop, I used time travel as a trope. It was there and central to the plot, but the details of how it worked were unnecessary.
So, a great workshop for inspiration or, rather, renewing inspiration. If you live near Charlottesville, VA, give WriterHouse a look. In addition to providing space for actual writing, its workshops are always top-notch.
After all that, here’s hoping this week is more productive. I’d cross my fingers, but I need them to type.
Friday Fictioneers Marches On
We’re approaching the end of March already. My, how the year speeds by, and here I am with a weekend more or less free of literary conference/workshop pursuits. Don’t worry, that changes next weekend with the annual Tom Wolfe Lecture Seminar at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA.
And March is defying all mythology of coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb. It came in like a lion, behaved like a lamb for a few days, then dumped a spring snow storm on us at the beginning of this week. All gone now, though it was pretty. Annoying but pretty.
I have a stack of recently purchased books to read and taxes to do, but what’s that compared to Friday Fictioneers? And apparently snow-pocalyses in March put me in a dystopian frame of mind for this week’s story, “Doom and Gloom.” If you don’t see the link on the title, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select the title from the drop-down list. I cleaned up the web site a bit this morning, so you don’t have to scroll through so many stories.
Let’s cross our fingers for Spring’s quick arrival so we can enjoy some perfect weather before we start complaining about how hot it is.
And if you missed Wednesday’s short post about a recorded interview with me at The Bookcast about my book, Spy Flash, click here to have a listen. Yes, you’ll get to hear what I sound like and note that I used “um” and said “exactly” too many times! If you’re an indie author needing some publicity for your work, check out The Bookcast.