Writers On Writing 5
It Takes All Kinds
All right you accept the inherent worth of The Scrawl and believe writing
may be not simply a pleasant hobby, but a way to spend your days, to earn a living.
Youre getting positive feedback from editors, maybe youre even making those
crucial first sales, and you know deep within your bones that you are on the road toward
becoming a capital-P Professional.
Now is the time to begin asking yourself what sort of Professional you want to
You will be tested, you know. At times in your career some Suit will put the
squeeze on you, and how you react will determine what sort of Professional you are.
Skeptical? Consider these three case studies:
STUDY THE FIRST: If you dont know the name Harlan
Ellison, you need to punch up your reading list. Essayist, scenarist, short story writer,
raconteur, editor, novelist, Ellison is does it all and does it at least well, as
attested by his list of awards: his mantel holds multiple Edgars (Mystery Writers), Bram
Stokers (Horror Writers of America), World Fantasy Awards, Hugos and Nebulas (the major
SF/fantasy trophies); he is the only four-time winner of "Most Outstanding
Screenplay" from the Writers Guild of America. It is in this last incarnation, as TV
screenwriter, that we will consider Mr. Ellison.
Early in his forty-plus year career, while working on a 1960s science fiction series
(no, not Star Trek; not The Outer Limits, either, nosy!), Ellison was in a
story conference regarding one of his teleplays. A Suit suggested a ludicrous change to
the climactic scene. Ellison said the idea was both idiotic and pure folly; he refused to
make the change.
"Oh, yes you will," said The Suit. "Youre the writer, and all
writers are toadies."
Ellison said not a word in response. He rose from his chair, walked the length of the
conference room table. Then he punched The Suit square on the jaw knocking
him clear out of his chair before vacating the premises at top speed.
LESSON: Be prepared to defend the integrity of both your work
and yourself but before you decide to follow Harlan Ellisons path and
throw that punch, remember (A) you better be convinced you are as talented as H.E. is if
you expect to get future work and (B) the 1990s are far, far more litigious than the
1960s. . .
STUDY THE SECOND: The Internet introduced me to a person with whom
I share a handful of interests; we have stayed in contact for a half-dozen years now. This
person has never been less than polite, witty, and charming; this person has done me many
more small kindnesses than I am ever likely to be able to repay.
This person is also editor of a not-for-profit musicians newsletter. In a recent
e-mail this person wrote of the headaches caused by a talented, well-liked local musician
who is re-starting a column for the newsletter (the musician is referred to herein as
"Chaing Kai-Shek" to protect delicate 90s sensibilities):
. . .Man, is it a pain. Chaing Kai-Shek wants to know 1) what page [his column] is
going to go on, 2) the type size, 3) can I print out the final version at 600 DPI, 4) a
"log" of any editorial changes I make to his copy, and. . .5) can I use a logo
hes created that he cant seem to get to me in any file format Word or
Pagemaker can read without breaking it up into its component parts.
Last week, the deadline for the October issues copy was Thursday evening; on
Friday evening (after taking the newsletter to the printer Friday morning) I came home,
opened my e-mail, and found 6 messages from Chaing, two of which were his column (version
1 and version 2, where he cleaned up typos).
Chaing wants to be more nationally (rather than regionally) known for his teaching and
performances, but he wont publish in a national magazine. . .and I fear, from what
Ive seen and heard in the last few months, hes becoming known more as a
Perfectionist Pest than anything else. He cant see the forest without focusing on
each individual tree.
LESSON: There is a line between defending the integrity of
your work and being a nitpicking scuttlefish: try not to cross it.
STUDY THE THIRD: Regular readers of this space may remember I
spend a fair amount of time plying my trade in the comic book arena; until now only a
small percentage of you were aware I spent over ten years ten years!
submitting material to various comics publishers before I made my first sale.
Around 1992 comics sales were approaching modern highs and quality was dropping as
publishers rushed to flood the "boom" market. I had submitted some material that
must have had some merit, because the editor on the receiving end actually called
me back (a rarity in this field, where over-the-transom material is concerned). During our
conversation the editor said he could not use the ideas I had presented, but encouraged me
to send more before cautioning, "I wont say its impossible for a
writer to break into comics, but when I need a story done in a hurry, why should I call
you when I can walk down the hall and have an assistant editor do it right here in the
The answer to that question was instantly on the tip of my tongue: "Why? Because
your job is to produce the best comics possible, not do whats most convenient
for you. And if that means giving me work instead of some A.E. sitting two doors down, you
owe it to your audience to dial my number!"
It was all right there but I swallowed it, mumbling something
non-confrontational instead. I never did get work from that editor. . .
LESSON: On that day, I was not the Professional I wanted to
be. Truth be told, to this day I am still not the Professional I want to be. But I
continue to get better at it, and you will too.
One of the facts of the writers life is that there are plenty of Suits, and an
even greater number of opportunities to learn that the wise general knows when to mark
time and marshal his forces, and when to charge full speed ahead.
Final Installment: Writers on Writing 6:
The Dickens of it