Harlan Ellison Got Dissed By His Writing Professor In College

Harlan Ellison, who died at 84 last year, was one of our most prolific and influential science fiction writers. He published 1700 short stories and over 50 books, writing scripts for Outer Limits and Star Trek among other shows.  His work influenced James Cameron when he filmed Terminator, and that’s just a start when it comes to his cultural impact.

But when Ellison attended Ohio State University, a professor passed judgment and said he had no talent for writing. Irascible even as an undergraduate, Ellison punched his professor and was expelled.

You’d think a professor wouldn’t feel the need to be so harsh and unequivocal–but you’d be wrong.

I’ve known creative writing professors who treat students like dirt. One was notorious for humiliating students by telling them their work was shit. He could make students cry or tremble with fear.  Another would only let favorite students read aloud, clearly sending the same ugly message to everyone else in her class. These professors are not anomalies: I know from sources across the country that dissing student writing is a commonplace in creative writing workshops at the undergraduate and graduate level.  A good friend was told she would never publish because she apparently hadn’t suffered enough.  Soon afterwards, she had a story accepted at a fine literary magazine.

I faced deeply disparaging criticism in my MFA program. A story that I thought was a breakthrough was demolished by my workshop, and the professor delivered the coup de grâce. He said it was nothing new and the kind of thing I could write in my sleep.  I felt bludgeoned.

But a few weeks later it won first prize in the program’s writing contest which was judged by a famous editor. When I shared the brickbats from my workshop, she growled, “Don’t change a goddamned word!”  I then sold it for a lot of money to Redbook, which at the time had 4.5 million readers, and the story launched my career as an author.  My professor’s comment at the next workshop?  “It’s still shit, but now it’s shit with a prize.”

Taking writing workshops to develop and hone your craft is a good idea, but not everyone commenting on your work comes from a pace of creative nurturing and encouragement–or even neutrality.  Too many of them want to tear you down for whatever twisted reasons of their own. You don’t have to punch out your professor or anyone who disparages your work, but it’s wise to listen to all criticism with your shields up, as if you were in Star Trek.  Remember what Kirk says to Sulu: “Steady as she goes.”

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-six books in many genres, and his latest is mystery is State University of Murder.  You can take writing workshops with him online at writewithoutborders.com.“Studying creative writing with Lev Raphael was like seeing Blade Runner for the first time: simply incredible.”—Kyle Roberts, Michigan

“The Expanse” Gives “Leviathan Wakes” The Juice it Needed

People often complain that a movie or TV series isn’t “as good as the book.”

With SyFy’s The Expanse, the opposite is true: the writers have improved a dull, sometimes amateurish novel. Yes, I know Leviathan Wakes has a great cover blurb from George R.R. Martin. But that’s not surprising: one of the people who wrote it is his assistant (James S. A. Corey is a pseudonym for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). It also got a Hugo Award nomination. Again, anything with that kind of pedigree is sure to get noticed and generate sales.

expanse

But it’s a long-winded novel that never really lives up to the clever premise of fierce rivalry between Earth and its smarter, classier, richer colony Mars. Their mutual pawn is the resource-starved Asteroid Belt, peopled by low-gravity creole-speakers who resent being looked down on.

There are some good action sequences in Leviathan Wakes, which tries to blend a classic PI novel with “space opera,” but the book rarely comes alive. That’s too bad, because the authors have come up with some great details like carpeting that’s more durable than stone and a colorful Belter dialect that blends many languages.

expanse shotThe overall problem might be the co-authorship. Chapters alternate between the third person point of view of an executive officer of a ship bringing ice to the water-starved Belt (Holden) and a detective on the Belt looking for a lost rich girl (Miller). That girl weirdly becomes a major third character even after she dies, haunting Miller’s imagination (and worse). It’s a shame, because she’s a bore and just won’t shut up.

The low-gravity Belters are tall and thin-boned, angry, underprivileged, resentful, and violent–but we don’t see and hear enough of them. Instead, we get lots of shallow characterizations throughout; sketchy settings; a thinly-imagined future where they still have bagels, sushi, and metal coffee pots; and writing that barely serves its purpose or even falls flat. What’s it supposed to mean that Holden walks with “uncommented athleticism”?

Expanse_ShipHolden and Miller don’t meet for a few hundred pages and when they do, the writers retell events from each protagonist’s shallow perspective, which gets tedious. Neither one is very compelling when it comes down to it, and as a team, they’re twice as dull.  Almost as dull as the flat ending.

But none of that matters in The Expanse, which revs the book up with a sexy cast, excellent FX, and a tighter, leaner story line. Scenes that drag in the novel speed by. And you don’t have to deal with bad prose, just commercials which you can fast forward through.

Martin was more than kind to the authors of Leviathan Wakes, but they don’t even approach his mastery of the writing craft.

Lev Raphael’s books — from mystery to memoir — can be found on Amazon.