Recently over at Codexwriters, a conversation got started about Harlan Ellison's teaching style. Apparently, he has a reputation as a bully. I have some insight as to why. But, the bigger question was: Are his methods effective?
I'm not here to defend Harlan Ellison or condemn him. I can say that my writing changed after a week with him, and can never know if I turned back the clock what my writing would have evolved to without the Ellison encounter. It's possible I would have gone on to write exactly as I write today--or possibly better, or possibly worse.
But I took two things away from that week that forever changed my attitude toward my own writing. To boil those two things down:
1: Only show people your best work. Before Harlan, I used to workshop every thing I wrote. There was no trivial bit of unfinished crap that I didn't consider worthy of other people's eyes. I had a workshop mentality--I would show people my unpolished, unfinished work, get their reactions, then tweak it. I didn't pay much attention to detail on my early drafts, and was lazy about spelling, grammar, etc., because, hey, this was only a dress rehearsal, not the real show. I wasn't giving stories to people so they could read and enjoy them, I was giving them to people so they could tell me what was wrong with them. I was letting other people do part of my creative thinking for me. This works fine in workshop world, where everybody turns in poor work. But in Harlan world, it was asking for grief. I made the mistake of writing a story and turning it in without reading it, due to the time constraints of the workshop. Whether the story was any good or not is irrelevant. Harlan started tearing the story apart in the first sentence, because there was an obvious, easily fixed spelling error. When I defended it as a workshop piece, not something I would send to an editor, he tore into me, and said that if I didn't care enough to make sure that my first sentence was free of mistakes, I didn't care about my readers, period. In retrospect, he was right. I didn't care enough about making my writing look professional, even under a terrible time crunch, even for a workshop story. I told him it wasn't the best I could do, but I'd be glad to mail him a copy of the best story I'd ever written. He wasn't interested. It was too late. I didn't get a chance for Harlan to read another James Maxey story until I published work in a market he read.
I'm not making any kind of claim that I write error free work today, or that everything I write is golden on the first draft. I actually write horrible first drafts. But I no longer workshop a piece until I'm sure that it's something I'm happy with. I view every story that I give to someone to read--even my peers on critique groups--as a chance to gain another loyal James Maxey fan. If I write a story that isn't up to that standard, I spike the story without showing to to people.
2: Every word is important. Without revealing any names, there was a writer at that Odyssey that turned in a story that had a pretty good story idea but was written in a fairly plodding, workmanlike voice that buried the clever premise under banality. In his critique of the story, Harlan broke a cardinal rule of workshopping: He said, "Here's how I would write this story." Then he proceeded to give us five hundred or so words of a new opening. The very same story, the very same premise, even if memory serves, the same opening scene, but this time written in a style where every word popped. I wasn't just drawn in by the premise, I was drawn in by the voice and the energy of the prose. And the style wasn't anything particularly fancy. Harlan made it clear that the keys to his written style was that he wrote with his mouth--one breath, one idea. Every sentence made you want to hear the following sentence. Of course, this is unfair on many, many levels. Harlan is a master of style, so of course he was going to do better than some unpublished writer in a workshop. And, he was reading out loud, and it's hard to know if what was on the page would have translated in my head into that dynamic, enthralling Harlan voice. Still, it was an eye-opening experience, hearing the dull story transformed into a brilliant story just by changing the style in which it was told. Since then, I've always strived to make sure my stories sound good when read out loud.
To put it more succinctly, pre-Harlan, I thought the key to good writing was to tell a good story. Post-Harlan, I realized that a good story isn't going to get a chance at being read unless it's matched with great writing.
I saw people humiliated in the course of Harlan teaching these things. I, personally, reached one of the lowest emotional points of my life due to that week. But, six years on, I'm glad I had the experience. Orson Scott Card asks wanna-be fantasy authors, "What is the price of magic?" In my case, I feel like I sometimes, every now and then, write magic. And the price I paid was that one stressful week. I think it was worth it.