The Cortland Review


Mark Doty
Mark Wunderlich interviews Mark Doty

Bruce Canwell
Writers on Writing 5: It Takes All Kinds

R.T. Smith
A Day in the Life of poet and editor R.T. Smith.

Bruce Canwell


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. You’re getting positive feedback from editors, maybe you’re 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 be.

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 don’t 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. "You’re 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 Ellison’s 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 he’s created that he can’t 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 issue’s 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 won’t publish in a national magazine. . .and I fear, from what I’ve seen and heard in the last few months, he’s becoming known more as a Perfectionist Pest than anything else. He can’t 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 won’t say it’s 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 office?"

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 what’s 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 writer’s 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


2002 The Cortland Review