I’ve been asked to contribute to a Harlan Ellison “tribute” SF anthology. This is…intimidating.
You see, Harlan was the last of the Great Old Ones I worshipped as a teenager, before I ever sold anything. His clarity of prose and fearlessness of voice were a beacon, and his rock-star personae in public speaking triggered my “I want THAT!!” instincts like no other.
At one point he was the most honored living SF/Fantasist, and in my mind, deserved every bit of that. I never, ever expected to be his friend.
But I was. It took many years, and there were many who were closer than me, but we loved each other.
So now I’m asked to contribute to an anthology in honor of him, and I wouldn’t dream of saying “no” even though my pretender voices are screaming at me.
The story is due in February. I’ve decided to take a sliver of the current novel and turn it into a short story. There are multiple reasons for this.
- The novel, “Traveler,” is about a homeless ex-cop trying to catch a time-traveling serial killer. It is a triptych, a three-part structure stretching from 2021 Los Angeles to 2121 Nairobi Kenya to 1921 Tulsa Oklahoma. I am working to create what I call “Horizontal and Vertical integration” between the three sections. The “vertical” integration has to do with thematics. The “horizontal” with plot structure, which must “echo” between the parts. By taking one tiny piece of the story and building a tale around it, I get to create real clarity of structure and theme. Done properly, this will make the subsequent novel much easier to write.
- I’ll be marking my territory, by putting core story aspects out into the market clearly labeled as mine.
- I’ll be experimenting with a technique and philosophy I often suggest to my students: to take a larger work and extract stories from it, to practice and publish. But…how precisely to do that?
I’ve decided to look at this story as an “alternate world” to the novel. Characters, themes, history are the same. The motivations of certain characters are different, as in a novel, I have hundreds of pages and tens of thousands of words to explore. So if the characters have the same names, they might have slightly different histories. This allows me to fully explore an idea in fewer words, while simultaneously exploring the larger notions.
So far, so good.
There’s another reason. I recently wrote the best script of my life. The idea (“Mississippi Shuffle”) seemed to come from nowhere, which means that “the boys in the basement” (Stephen King’s delightful phrase) had been working overtime while my attention was elsewhere. Kewl.
I look at that script, and say: If I did it once, I can do it again. It’s sort of “modeling myself’
What were the physical behaviors leading up to and during the writing?
What were my intellectual/mental patterns?
What were my emotional sets and values?
It’s like threading a needle, or solving a Rubic’s cube. What precisely made a superior performance possible?
Well…here’s one thing I know:
I started with a basic notion. Asked several people what they thought and ONLY after getting that positive feedback progressed to a one-page synopsis. Got approving feedback on that as well.
Then a three-page synopsis. Did the story still work? Everyone was still thrilled. Had to tweak a bit here and there, but we were still on track.
A twenty-page synopsis. Same thing. I was nurturing that seed at every level, feeding and trimming and sheltering it as it grew from a spark to a roaring fire.
I created a SIXTY page treatment, with research, backstory, full character details and more.
Then…I transferred that treatment to WRITER DUET and just started fleshing out scenes and sequences, just expanding by five pages a day. By this time, all of the heavy lifting had been done, and it felt as if I was transcribing a movie I’d already seen. It all just..flowed.
I had already written a 245 page script for TRAVELER when I took a side-trip to write MISSISSIPPI SHUFFLE. The short story will be a chance to peel everything back to a nucleus: what is the core of the story? The characters? What is the world in which all of this happened?
That story will have elements that were not in the 245-page “outline”. Might some of those elements be superior? Its certainly possible.
But what I know is that I started with a log-line, and am cutting the 245-pager down to the seed of what will hopefully be a good short story. I almost froze, because there is a LOT of backstory, and I have to find the right way to tell it organically, in the flow of a much shorter work. This is scary…but all I have to do is five pages of script a day, and that’s mostly dialogue. Easy peasy, takes about 40 minutes if I’m goofing off. And that means that I only need to solve one puzzle a day, one “how do I..?” “would it work if..?”
And even if I’m stuck, all I have to do is CLEARLY describe the problem and go to sleep on it. Chances are very good that in the morning, the Boys In The Basement will have a notion for me.
I remember watching Harlan writing in the window of Dangerous Visions bookstore. Or in the lobby of the Phoenix Sheraton. Just…writing. And what I know is that many of the things I struggle with in writing he had embedded at the level of Unconscious Competence. And I don’t envy him those things, because there is a price for everything we do and become. He paid that price. Chances are very good I spent the same energy learning or doing other things.
Can I write a story worthy of our forty-year friendship? I don’t know. But I’m sure as hell going to try. And if I get it right, I”ll imagine him reading it, clucking over a misspelling or grammatical inelegancy (almost certainly) but putting it down, smiling at me and saying: “you done good, kid.”
That inspires me. A chance to say “Good bye. I loved you.” In the most palpable way possible, one writer to another.
Enough of this. Time to get to work!