For ten weeks in 1954, then twenty-year-old writer Harlan Ellison adopted the alias of teenager Phil “Cheech” Beldone and joined a NYC street gang called the Barons all in the name of research—an endeavor that nearly cost Ellison his life on more than one occasion, from the gang initiation ritual to the final savage, bloody rumble against a rival gang in Prospect Park.
Fast-forward seven years to 1961 when Ellison attended a gathering in NYC and encountered an old “friend” named Ken Bales to whom Ellison had loaned a typewriter—which Bales promptly hocked. While at the party, Ellison took the opportunity to demand compensation from Bales. A few days later, two detectives arrived at Ellison’s apartment based on an anonymous report of drug parties and illegal weapons. Was Bales the caller? Ellison seemed to suspect as much.
Known for this vociferous anti-drug lifestyle, Ellison explained to the detectives that there were no illegal narcotics in his apartment and the weapons, taken from a street gang, were now used as part of his popular lectures on juvenile delinquency. After allowing the detectives to search his apartment, Ellison is relieved to learn that no charges will be filed for narcotics—but they will have to arrest him on possession of an unregistered firearm, as a .22 caliber pistol was among the gang weapons.
Thus begins the second part of this memoir—Ellison’s vivid and dramatic description of his 24 hours in jail. Here is where the narrative runs longer than necessary and I can understand why many readers consider it whiny.
Memos from Purgatory is an unflinching, up-close-and-personal examination of street gangs and the callous NYC legal system of the times. It was one of Harlan Ellison’s bestselling books for nearly 25 years. While the material is obviously dated, the color of Ellison’s honest and raw narrative has not faded. I think the same can be said for most of his work.
Of course, what Harlan Ellison book would be complete with an expository introduction? In this case, my 1983 ACE paperback edition contains three intros, one written for this book and two from each previous printing. Ellison’s commentaries are nearly as enjoyable his stories!
Goodreads is kind enough to send a weekly email alerting me to recent blog posts from some of my writer friends. With my project load and generally frenetic schedule for the past four to five months, it’s been a struggle to maintain my own blog, let alone keep up with everyone else’s.
However, today I took the time to read the latest three posts from Kristen Lamb on her Warrior Writers blog. The first one caught my attention because it’s something that’s been on my mind for more than a few years: Is Facebook Dying? What’s Killing It? In her analysis, Kristen posits that when social media was new, it was FUN and people enjoyed connecting with one another. Further, most people maintained a friendly rapport, but then we became comfortable with this novel method for connecting (and in many cases reuniting) with others.
We all know that it doesn’t take much to ruin a good thing, and if the human race excels at one specific skill, it’s destroying almost everything we touch. Additionally, it only takes a few to ruin it for the majority.
Spend a just minutes on any social media platform and you’ll see what I mean—posts and comments replete with hatred, racism, threats, abuse, derisiveness, and good ol’ fashioned ignorance—especially during election years and most especially during this one. As the old adage goes, there ain’t nothing new under the sun. Humanity has always found a way to quickly turn every method of communication ever invented into a shit show.
In the case of social media, just as it was in the case of bulletin boards back in the 90’s, it’s easy to talk trash when you’re sitting at a keyboard, using your favorite movie, TV, or comic book character as an avatar and posting under a fictitious name.
With anonymity comes ersatz courage.
Here’s an episode from Harlan Ellison’s Watching from the early days of the Sci-Fi channel, when they actually knew how to spell “Sci Fi”. In this segment, Harlan discusses the appalling behavior of computer bulletin board users (remember those days?). Ignore the inane vampire novel ad in the middle of the episode.
Just goes to show, this behavior ain’t new, folks! Technology may change, but human behavior is a constant. Today, people continue their proud displays of disgusting ignorance on Facebook and Twitter (and other social media sites that I do not frequent and probably never will) with increasing fervor.
Kristen compares this adolescent stage of social media to the petulant and volatile demeanor of teenagers, something I’ve often pondered, considering how even allegedly mature adults conduct themselves like juvenile-goddamn-delinquents!
The question is, will social media ever mature beyond this? Probably not, and honestly, I don’t have time or patience for it.
Kristen concludes her post with a theory that Pokemon Go might actually be the next level of social media, and one that could kill Facebook—or at least deliver it a solid punch in the gut. One cannot argue that Pokemon Go is drawing people out of their houses and into the wild. It’s forcing people to interact face-to-face (y’all remember how to do that, right?), providing physical activity, and returning “social” to its original definition.
Now, I’m a child of the 70s and 80s. I don’t need an online game to get me outdoors. I love the outdoors. I love walking, I love fishing, I love the beach, I love state parks. Get me outside as often as possible! However, if Pokemon Go is what inspires the troglodytes to vacate their caves for a few hours, then I’m all for it because most people have a tendency to mind their manners when face-to-face than when face-to-screen.
Kristen follows up her post about the imminent demise of Facebook with Breaking Facebook Dependence–How to Create an Enduring Author Brand. In summary, Kristen explains that social media sites may come and go, but a good blog is forever. She encourages writers to post their thoughts and experiences on blogs rather than social media sites. Not only do blogs “offer an intimacy with authors second only to the books they write”, not only do they “make us leaner, meaner, faster and cleaner at what we do: writing”, but the reach of social media is limited and anything you post there is ephemeral. Most of it is invisible to search engines and it’s gone in a few days after all of your friends and contacts have “Liked” and commented on it and have moved onto the next 50 captivating posts-du-jour from their other social media friends.
Yet, blog entries, if properly titled and tagged, are searchable and will remain as long as the Internet. People can and will continue to find and/or stumble upon your blog posts years later and could potentially become subscribers or readers who purchase your books.
Now, please don’t take this as a string of excuses, but in addition to writing and editing, I work full time in the IT industry. When I come home, I often have a few hours of chores and errands to complete and possibly a 60-90 minute workout to destress and keep myself in shape before I can sit down to work on the current writing project. I’m often up until midnight, and no, I’m not waking up at 3:30 or 4AM to write when I already need to be up at 5AM for work. The only other activity that gets me out of bed that early is fishing.
So I cannot always make the time to blog consistently. I do not blog “two to three times per week” as some experts recommend. I blog as often as I can. Look, if you asked me, “How would you like to use this next hour or two—make progress on your current writing project or write a blog post?” My answer will ALWAYS be “work on the current writing project”. EVERY TIME. It is far more important to me to finish the the next short story, the next scene, the next chapter in the novel, or to research something for a story, than it is to write a blog post.
While I agree with Kristen that blogging makes us write “leaner, meaner, faster, and cleaner”, so does short story writing, so does flash fiction writing, and so does a few rounds with an experienced editor over your novel.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not at all against blogging. After all, you’re reading this missive now. I blog as often as I can and I enjoy it. In fact, I’m writing this blog post over my lunch hour, when I had originally planned to start my next short story, because Kristen’s comments struck a chord.
My point? In order to maintain sanity as writers, we should prioritize our workload. This is nothing revelatory, you all know this. That doesn’t make it any less challening, though, does it? Or any less frustrating.
For example, over the winter, I finally outlined a science fiction novel that had seen minimal progress over the past five years, while I wrote and published other books and stories. Excited that I now had a fully developed plot, I wrote the first four chapters from January to April—then put the project aside as my publisher and I were prepping a new anthology to be released on August 1, but the pre-launch was scheduled for July at Shore Leave 38. It went very well and you can read about it here
Elsewhere in the Middle Eternity is the second installment in a speculative fiction anthology series that I created. I
am not only the editor, but the project manager as well which means I work with the writers and the artist to bring stories, cover art, and interior illustrations together. We financed the project through Kickstarter, so I had to record the video for that, write the blurb, and create the reward levels.
What’s more, it was spring, which always brings with it yard work and one or two home renovations and yes, spending time outdoors!
I didn’t completely put aside writing during all of this. For the past few years, I’d wanted to enter a story into the annual Rehoboth Beach Short Story contest sponsored by Cat and Mouse Press. Rehoboth Beach is a quaint coastal town in Delaware with the feel of an old neighborhood rather than a resort town. I consider it my second home—if only I could afford a house there! Well, this year, the contest’s theme matched a story that had been percolating in
the back of my mind for a year or more so I finally wrote it in April and submitted it in May. Winners will be annouced on August 1, the same day Elsewhere in the Middle of Eternity will be released. Should be an interesting day so stay tuned!
During the month-long Kickstarter campaign in May, my blog was active with semi-weekly author interviews for our anthology, which generated spikes in donations. Since then, I’ve been promoting the book on my blog, of course, but I also heeded Kristen’s advice and began blogging about “high concept” topics like vacations, day trips, museum visits, and even this post about social media and, yes, blogging. At the moment, I have a fair number of followers, but I’m working to build my audience here.
Addtionally, July gave my wife and I a scare as a family member was rushed to the hospital for life threatening complications and again days later as a result of a severe infection.
After all that rambling, have you forgotten about the science fiction novel I was working on? Wouldn’t blame you if you did. Well, I didn’t forget about it and now that the dust is settling on the aforementioned projects and emergencies, I hope to get back to it again…in between editing stories for the third annual anthology to be published by my local writing group next year and the final two Microsoft exams I need to take to complete yet another IT certification.
If it ain’t one damn thing, it’s another…or two…or three…
I’m burned out again just from writing about everything that’s been burning me out all year! As such, it was refreshing to read Kristen’s latest post, Stress & Burnout—How to Get Your Creative Mojo Back, where she explains how and why your mind and body react to stress and what to do about it. I already practice some of the advice offered, such as freewriting. Don’t overthink it, just break away from your current project and write something different. For example, I did that back in June over another lunch hour, and then revisited the piece earlier this week. After some revisions, it resulted in a lovely vignette that will be my submission to the aforementioned writers group anthology.
This was probably the longest blog post I’ve ever written. My apologies, but I hope I’ve directed you to some useful information on Kristen’s blog.
There are quite a few excellent entries in this collection of what Harlan considers his suspense and mystery tales. I would argue that some of these are crime dramas with a twist. One entertaining story in particular, Eddie, You’re My Friend, seems to be the odd one out as it does not fit the theme of this anthology.
I found it hilarious—and typical of Harlan—that the introduction is 40 pages, about four times longer than the average story in the book!
My favorites include:
Status Quo at Troyden’s – When Mr. Huggerson’s monthly check from his son is $20 less than usual, he worries that he will not be able to afford rent and food. After working up the temerity to ask his landlord for a reduction in rent, Huggerson ends up in a position he never expected.
Nedra at f:5.6 – Veteran photographer Paul Shores has photographed countless women in his career. Nowadays, the most gorgeous models—nude or otherwise—no longer arouse him. Then along comes Nedra, and everything changes. She agrees to pose for him—and much more. Yet, there is something odd about her pictures…
Toe the Line – Professional car thief Eddie Cappen is finally getting out on parole and thanks to the warden’s favorite catchphrase, Eddie conjures a nearly foolproof method for jacking cars—until he makes a fatal mistake.
Pride in the Profession – Ever since he witnessed his first hanging at the tender age of eight, Matthew Carty became fascinated by the art and science of the gallows. Years later, Matthew builds a reputation as a master executioner—until his final job shows him that even the best make mistakes.
The Children’s Hour – With the Earth on the brink of destruction, the United Nations meet to discuss matters of peace. Somehow, a horde of children manages to enter the hall and disrupt the meeting with a simple warning: stop fighting or we’re leaving the planet.
Thicker Than Blood – After a poor business decision, Roger Singer finds himself $12,000 in debt. After his pleas for help are rejected by his wealthy in-laws, Roger hatches a dangerous scheme against them.
Ormond Always Pays His Bills – After his secretary learns of his corrupt business practices, corrupt construction company owner Hervey Ormond murders her and attempts to dispose of the body—using his company’s concrete. However, Ormond soon learns how much of an utter bitch karma can be.
Tired Old Man – While attending a party of has-been writers, successful author and screenwriter Billy Landress encounters veteran suspense writer Marki Strasser. After an intense and deeply personal conversation, Billy steps away to get a glass of water for Strasser, only to find him gone—or was he ever there to begin with?
An unexpected honor came today when fellow writer and GLVWG member David Miller asked me to type up the improv speech I gave on Saturday at the Lower Macungie Library local author event. David shared it with other members of the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group today.
The exercise provided an opportunity to polish the speech, improving the focus and making it less frenetic as improv routines can sometime be. Truly, it’s a touch of personal history about my journey as a writer and to honor those who have mentored me, guided me, and eventually invited me to publish with them.
Send the Elevator Back Down
Comedian Steven Wright once told this joke: “When I was little, my grandfather used to make me stand in a closet for 5 minutes without moving. He said it was elevator practice.”
Today, I’d like to talk to you about elevators.
There’s a wonderful quote making its way around the internet from actor Kevin Spacey. “If you’re lucky enough to do well, it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down.”
I began writing in the realm of fan fiction back in the late 1980s. For the uninitiated, fan fiction is generally a story based on your favorite characters from television or movies such as Captain Kirk, Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones, the list goes on. I know people who wrote fan fiction based on everything from Bonanza to Quantum Leap.
I found fan fiction to be a marvelous training ground for storytelling. Of course, I couldn’t sell these stories because they were based on copyrighted characters, but I did pass them around and the general feedback was overwhelmingly positive.
It was at about this same time, when I began attending an increasing number of science fiction conventions such as Farpoint, Shore Leave, and Balticon in Maryland and I-CON in Long Island, New York. In addition to meeting so many actors I’d grown up with, I also met many of my favorite writers such as Harlan Ellison, Peter David, Michael Jan Friedman, Howard Weinstein, Bob Greenberger, Steven H. Wilson, and others.
There I was, holding my stack of novels and comic books eagerly waiting to get them signed and to chat with bestselling authors I never thought I would meet. Little did I know that when I was waiting in autograph lines, I was actually waiting for the elevator.
Over the years, I continued to write and to glean advice from many of the aforementioned writers who would return as regulars to Farpoint and Shore Leave. I appreciated their patience and guidance, hoping I was not making a nuisance of myself.
Of particular note was Steven H. Wilson. By the time I met him, Steve had just written a few issues of Star Trek and Warlord for DC Comics and was beginning to craft what would become his science fiction audio drama series, The Arbiter Chronicles. Like me, Steve had also started in fan fiction, but was further along the road than I was. Yet not so far that getting there seemed daunting. I wanted to be that guy.
Steven also founded Farpoint in 1993, and it was at that convention where I came in second place in a writing contest. Steven personally encouraged me to keep writing. Little did I know that the friendship we were forming was also the elevator door opening.
Flash forward to 2007 and Steve had already won both the Parsec and Mark Time audio awards for his podcasts of The Arbiter Chronicles. He had also self-published his first novel based on that series and had received an excellent review from the Library Journal.
By this time, I had moved on from fan fiction and had outlined an original paranormal mystery novel. I asked Steve for the particulars of self-publishing, as the option certainly interested me. However, the business aspects of it seemed a bit overwhelming at the time (not so much today) so I asked him if he was accepting submissions. He agreed and two years later, Testing the Prisoner was published by Firebringer Press, followed in 2013 by my second paranormal mystery, By Your Side.
By 2010, I was attending Farpoint and Shore Leave as an author guest, which I still do today. The reviews for Testing the Prisoner were outstanding and I was beginning to blog.
I was now in the elevator and let me tell you, it was nice and shiny in there.
In June of 2012, I received an email from the aforementioned Bob Greenberger, who is a fantastic SF writer in addition to his long tenure as an editor at DC Comics. Along with another comics veteran Paul Kupperberg and fellow award-winning writer Aaron Rosenberg, Bob had co-created a new fantasy series called ReDeus. Deus is, of course, Latin for God. Slap the “Re” in front of it and it becomes a bit of a pun as in “Again God”. The series ponders what would happen if all of the ancient mythological gods returned to Earth in the 21st century. It was to be published by Crazy 8 Press, a small press formed by Bob, Aaron, Michael Jan Friedman, Peter David, Glenn Hauman, and Howard Weinstein.
Bob was reaching out to other Shore Leave writer guests to see if they would be interested in contributing a story to their first anthology. What an honor! I eagerly accepted, knowing very little about mythology. Bob then sent the series bible with a story deadline of about two weeks. Yikes! They wanted to debut the book at the upcoming Shore Leave convention in August.
The elevator was going up…and fast! I remember researching and writing furiously until 2AM and even writing while on a Saturday conference call for my day job. I work full time in IT. Another technician and I had to migrate a physical server to a virtual machine. If you’re not a tech geek, don’t worry about it. The point is that it became a 12-hour ordeal. When it was the other tech’s turn to take over for a few hours, I wrote like a maniac. I finally finished and submitted the piece on my birthday, July 1.
Two days later, it was accepted with minor revisions. Not only was I published in the first volume, Divine Tales, I returned for the second, Beyond Borders—where all stories take place outside of the USA. I was invited back for the third volume, Native Lands (stories of Native American gods), but was overwhelmed with recording the audio for By Your Side and planning my upcoming wedding. I politely declined, avoiding the risk of promising a story, then failing to deliver.
It was during this time when I decided to pitch an idea to Steve Wilson. I know several wonderful writers who came up in fan fiction and had moved onto crafting original fiction. Some were submitting to magazines but getting nowhere. I knew their work was outstanding and I wanted to find a way to showcase them. I asked Steve if I could submit a collection of their original genre stories with an eye toward publication. Steve agreed, as long as I edited. He and I also tossed in a few of our own tales.
At Shore Leave in 2014, we launched Somewhere in the Middle of Eternity, an anthology of SF, fantasy, and paranormal fiction. Through this book, we brought about five new authors to the public eye and showcased the wonderful work of an Allentown artist.
What a joy it was for me to see these writers at their first launch, signing books and engaging with readers. I had just barely started my own elevator ride when I was holding the door open for others to take the journey with me (thank you, Steve!). In three months, we’re launching a second volume, Elsewhere in the Middle of Eternity, and possibly a third in 2018.
If you’re lucky enough to find success and you know talented, burgeoning artists, give them a chance to blossom by sending the elevator back down. If you’re just beginning your career, as I am, attend conferences and library events. Network with those further along the road, and learn as much as you can about your craft.
You never know what can happen simply by waiting for the elevator.
In an ultra-religious agrarian community known as Cypress Corners, young Devon has become an outcast not only for questioning authority, but also for falling in love with Rachel, a farmer’s daughter who has been betrothed to Garth, the local blacksmith. Garth and Devon had been friends since childhood, and since Rachel and Garth do not love one another, the blacksmith is all too happy to turn a blind eye toward the “secret”—and forbidden—romance.
While living out his temporary exile in the hills beyond the town, Devon survives on care packages brought by Rachel, who sneaks away from town after evening prayers. When his penance is complete, the town elders escort Devon back to Cypress Corners, expecting him to repent. Yet Devon remains recalcitrant and soon discovers that the Creator’s Machine, from which the Elders receive their instructions for leading the community, is broken. The Elders have since learned how to record their own orders into the machine and play them back at will.
After attacking the Elders and stealing the recording device, Devon tries to reason with Rachel and her parents, but they do not believe him. Knowing he will soon be arrested, Devon flees for the hills. While there, he discovers a portal that leads to a strange and wondrous place. Devon soon learns that he, and everyone in Cypress Corners, is aboard an ancient interstellar Earth vessel known as the Ark.
Upon finding a library computer, Devon learns that the Ark’s purpose was to transport millions of humans from a dying Earth to a new home across the galaxy—until an accident diverted the ship from its course and sent it on a path directly toward a star. If the Ark cannot be repaired and its course corrected, the ship and everyone aboard will be dead in five years.
This mysterious catastrophe, having occurred 400 years ago, also terminated communications between the thousands of communities aboard. As a result, no one in Cypress Corners is even aware of the other societies, or the truth about their very existence.
Can Devon convince the Elders of this new information and enlist their help in repairing the ship, or will they sentence him to a brutal end for his blasphemy?
Edward Bryant did an admirable job of adapting Harlan Ellison’s screenplay for The Starlost into the novelization. The chapters are brief, averaging about 5 pages, and the pacing is solid.
It would not be a Harlan Ellison book without an introduction as interesting as the story itself. This time, Harlan describes the debacle that ensued from the time he pitched The Starlost all the way through the ineptitude of the producers in marketing it, and their ignorance in utterly misinterpreting the series bible that they had pressed him into writing on an impossible deadline.
As a result of his experiences, and his dissatisfaction with the quality of the production, Harlan removed himself from the television project and demanded that his nom de plume, Cordwainer Bird, be used in the credits. Harlan was known to employ this pseudonym as a symbol of his objection to the mistreatment of his work by others.
Harlan Ellison built his career on the short story format and as a result, became one of the most awarded living writers. I have many of his collections in my library, which was why I recognized most of the material in this anthology.
Deathbird Stories consists of 19 tales, originally printed between 1960 and 1974, all loosely gathered here under the theme of modern gods. While some of the stories, such as “Neon”, “Along the Scenic Route”, and “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” seem to miss that mark, many of the stories directly fit the theme or at least, contain supernatural elements.
Some of my favorites include (along with Harlan’s taglines for each):
The Whimper of Whipped Dogs – When the new god comes to the Big Apple, its Kyrie Eleison turns out to be a prayer Kitty Genovese simply couldn’t sing. But thirty-eight others knew the tune.
Along the Scenic Route – God, in the latest, chrome-plated, dual-carb, chopped & channeled, eight-hundred-horsepowered incarnation. God’s unspoken name is Vroooom!
On The Downhill Side – Posing the question: does the god of love use underarm deodorant, vaginal spray, and fluoride toothpaste?
Neon – Kurt Weill and Max Anderson wrote, “Maybe God’s gone away, forgetting His promise He made that day: and we’re lost out here in the stars.” And maybe He/She’s just waiting for the right signal to come back, whaddaya think?
Basilisk – Have you ever noticed: the most vocal superpatriots are the old men who send young men off to die? Well, it might just be that the heaviest reverential act when worshipping the god of war is to be the biggest mutherin traitor of them all. Check Spiro, I think he’s having a seizure.
Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes – The god of the slot machine: new religions, new souls, new limbos.
Paingod – If God is good, why does He send us pain and misery?
Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans – Reality has become fantasy; fantasy has become reality. 35mm constructs have more substance than your senior congressman, but Martha Nelson is real, no matter what you think. And the search for your soul in a soulless world requires special maps.