Frequently Questioned Answers
‘Where do you get your ideas?’Harlan Ellison developed the definitive answer to this question: Schenectady. He says there’s a little old lady in Schenectady, New York, who runs an idea factory. It’s a subscription service: every month she sends him a new idea.
Many persons have regarded this claim with the cold, jaundiced eye of the sceptic, a ludicrous thing to do given Mr. Ellison’s legendary devotion to the strictest standards of veracity. Oddly enough, however, he has not been able to produce reliable witnesses in support of his Schenectady story . . . until now.
You see, I, too, am a subscriber to the Schenectady Idea Service, now a division of Lex Murphia, Inc. Unlike Mr. Ellison, I can’t afford the regular subscription service, so I have joined a program called ‘Schenectady Proving Grounds’. Every night the SPG sends me one or more ideas, which I normally receive and process in the form of nightmares. The ideas are rated by a customized Nielsen machine connected to my occipital lobe, rigorously screened for quality, and graded for the various subscribers. If an idea passes quality control, it is sold to a paying subscriber such as Mr. Ellison. If it fails, I get to keep it. If it causes me to leap out of bed, twitching violently and screaming in mindless terror, it is repackaged and sold to Stephen King at a premium rate.
‘How did you decide to become a writer?’Let me ask you this. What makes you think it was a decision? How do you know I’m not a mindless writing machine, a deranged Usenet bot that got out of control and that nobody can figure out how to shut off? (The accusation has been made.) How do you know I’m not a changeling from the Commonwealth of Letters, who, thoroughly annoyed that he wasn’t earning the fame and glory he felt he deserved as a fictitious character, crossed over into reality to bemuse people with rare and outré bits of autobiography, carefully dolled up as fiction to protect the guilty? How do you know? Huh? You don’t. So, why don’t you ask a sensible question instead?
‘Such as?’Such as, ‘How did you become a writer?’
‘OK, OK. How did you become a writer?’I’m not telling you.
‘It seems to me you’re getting awfully passive-aggressive here.’That’s not a question, that’s an insult.
‘Let me rephrase that. You ARE getting awfully passive-aggressive here. Now, will you knock it off, or would you rather I introduce your Chiclets to the back of your throat?’Better. Still an insult, but at least it’s a question.
You see, my poppets, back in the Upper Oolitic Silurian Period, when I were a lad, we didn’t have any of this newfangled modern entertainment, like the Internet or television or CDs or weather or sex. We—
‘Wait a minute. You didn’t have sex back then?’No, and we’re not getting much of it now, either. As I was saying, we—
‘Then where did you come from, anyway? Did the Stork bring you, or were you dug up under a rosebush?’Current academic thinking tends towards some kind of mad-scientist theory. Of course, that may be because all too many current academics think science works pretty much the way Mary Shelley portrayed it, and have never met a real live scientist. I’m not saying there are no mad scientists, just that they don’t take up monster-making as a hobby.
Suffice it to say that the question of where I came from is a difficult and cussed one, and we have nothing but the vaguest kind of circumstantial evidence to go on. Which won’t stop 37 different biographers and graduate students from coming up with their own cockamamie theories. Expect to be greatly entertained, but not informed, when you hear of these.
Now, where was I?
‘Back in the Upper Oolitic Silurian Period. What happened then?’Life slithered out of the oceans to try its luck on dry land, a harsh and unforgiving environment, but one that had a signal advantage for a sharp operator such as myself.
‘Which was . . . ?’It was, as its moniker would suggest, dry. (Did you ever walk into that one!) For a budding primordial author, this made all the difference in the world. You see, it made books a practical invention. Back when my predecessors (I would call them my ancestors, but there’s this injunction for libel, you see) lived in the oceans, they had tremendous difficulty handling books. Paper has a well-developed tendency to turn into a rather unhelpful fibrous paste when soaked in sea-water. Various substitutes were tried, but there remained the difficulty of getting the ink to stick to the pages instead of washing off into the sea, or just bleeding away from the tip of the pen. The problems were, in fact, insurmountable.
When we moved to dry land, after a little anatomical difficulty, a matter of inventing lungs and legs and things, we applied ourselves joyously to the great idea of Books, which showed such brilliant promise that we were willing to abandon our safe, cosy, accustomed life in the bosom of the waters, just to breathe the rare Parnassian air of the . . . You get the idea. We were pretty excited, I can tell you. Without weather or sex or Photoshopped nude pictures of Britney Spears, our recreational options were, shall we say, limited.
‘So then you became a writer?’No, then I became a reader. I read lots of books when I could get my prehensile paws on them, which wasn’t always because when I was growing up, we were very poor. You see, another thing we hadn’t invented yet was money.
So I did what any child would do when deprived of its toys: I made my own. I started writing the sort of things I fancied I’d like to see in books if I could afford to buy them. Soon my problem was solved.
‘You mean you got paid for your writing and could buy books?’No, no, no, of course not. Perish the thought.
‘I see. Then your own books were enough to entertain you, and you didn’t want to buy other people’s anymore?’Er, no, not as such.
‘Then what?’I got so busy writing that I didn’t have time to read all those books I couldn’t afford to buy. Since I couldn’t solve my fundamental problem, I plastered little subsidiary annoyances all over it until it was completely hidden from view. It was like covering up a crack in the wall with hideous wallpaper, or hiding the security flaws in Windows by—but no, forget that; it can’t be done. Between reading how-to-write articles, and attending seminars, and listening to the conflicting advice and critiques of my writer friends, and corresponding with editors by snailmail (which really was carried by snails in those days; turtles would have been faster, but turtles had a union), and Hoovering the cat, etc., etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseam, I couldn’t have found time to read books even if I had wanted to.
I was, as they say, hooked.
That was just a touch over 400 million years ago, unless my watch has stopped. I have spent most of the intervening time waiting to hear from publishers. This process is not as slow as it used to be. The invention of the rejection slip was a great time-saver. Before that, they used to send large carnivorous dinosaurs round to eat the aspiring author. After the K-T event wiped out the dinosaurs, there was a considerable time when publishers had no way to reject anybody at all. By the time the rejection slip came along, they had a backlog of over 60 million years’ work. Whole cultures died out, whole species of writers became extinct, waiting to hear from the dinosaurs of London and New York. To this day, the publishing industry has not caught up with the slush of the ages.
Remember this, the next time you submit anything to an editor.
‘Speaking of which, how should I go about becoming a writer?’How should you? How SHOULD you?! Ask instead how you should murder your mother, how you should contract leprosy, how you should sink your whole fortune in Enron at $300 a share, or—but I need not multiply examples.
But if you have no more choice about it than I had, I can recommend a few halting steps that will help you develop the skills you’ll need.
1. If you are male, identify the 100 most gorgeous girls you have ever seen but not personally met. Walk up to each one of them, a complete stranger, and ask her, sincerely, romantically, and desperately, to marry you. If you aren’t arrested or committed to a psychiatric ward, you will gain invaluable experience in handling rejection.
If you are female, do exactly the same thing. Do not approach 100 killingly handsome men. They may be psychopaths or professional bigamists. If they say ‘yes’ (and at least one will, in a sample of 100), you won’t learn anything about rejection. But you will learn the perils of dealing with a vanity press.
2. Go to a heavy metal concert, preferably in a major stadium with an audience of at least 30,000 screaming headbangers. Try to get the attention of the band during the first set. If you actually succeed, ask them to play a Barry Manilow song. This will prepare you for dealing with publishers via the slushpile.
3. Accost 500 random people in the street. Ask them if they like your cousin Jacob Griselda Fizbin McBong, and when they are going to have tea with him (her? it??) next. Their reactions will give you a pretty good idea of the fame and public adulation you can expect as an author. Jacob Griselda Fizbin McBong is far better known to the average man in the street than you can ever hope to be.
4. If you still harbour secret ambitions to Be A Writer, go and read ‘The Eye of Argon’. Ask yourself if you would really be caught dead keeping that kind of company.