Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

Harlan Has Left The Building

Harlan Ellison Died In His Sleep…

I am sure that over the next few days you will hear good and bad things about Harlan, and a ton of Harlan stories, as people like to call them. I have my share as well. Not going to give you many. At least not here.

I considered Harlan a friend. Kris and I got to know him in 1987 when we started up Pulphouse and he was a friend and mentor to us for a lot of years. And I had read his writing for years before that, including The Glass Teat columns.

We were not in touch much the last decade because of distance, health, and other reasons, and I knew he was ailing, but still his death felt like his passing has left the world a bleaker place.

Over the years, Kris and I spent many a night in Ellison Wonderland. We always stayed with Harlan and Susan when in LA for just about anything. And the place really is a wonderland. Harlan hated that I could spot his secret rooms when I would ask him what was behind this or that wall. He couldn’t figure out how I could know until I told him I had a masters in Architecture and could see building shapes and voids.

After that I got to see his building plans for new additions, including the plans for Susan’s office wing, before they were built, and I even made a few suggestions he liked and used.

But right now I want to point out something most of you will not realize about Harlan and how he influenced me.

Harlan wrote some of the classic stories of his time, got more awards across more genres than almost any writer, and never lied to writers. He was a champion of writers, with his most famous three words being “Pay the Writer.”

He would be deadly blunt with writers at times, often making writers angry. He did not believe in patting someone on the head who didn’t deserve to be patted on the head.

So Harlan hated all the crap about rewriting and group writing and editing. He followed Heinlein’s Rules completely and even added a phrase to rule #3… Never Rewrite Unless to Editorial Suggestion. And then only if you agree.

Harlan hated making writing a fancy, special thing, so he started writing in public. He would write in the middle of a science fiction convention. And then after a time he would write sitting in bookstore windows to promote a new book or to help the bookstore through a tight time.

Someone would give him a phrase or title to start with and he would sit in the window, with people peering in through the window, and write a short story from the phrase. He would pull the sheet of paper off his manual typewriter when he finished a page and tape it to the window so those crowded around outside could read what he had written.

As he wrote it.

He wrote clean copy. First draft finished. 

On a manual typewriter. In front of a crowd.

Award-winning stories.

(Many of you just shivered because that hit you in the myth so hard.)

Harlen wrote many, many stories like that, maybe over a hundred by the time he finally stopped. At Pulphouse we were going to do a project called Ellison Under Glass. A three volume collection of all his stories he wrote like that in public. Many of them had won major awards before we even started the project.

But as many projects did with Harlan, it got sidetracked because he kept doing more stories in public and wanting to include them. Eventually we shut Pulphouse down never publishing the books and Harlan was still writing award-winning stories in public.

I learned from Harlan that it does a writer no good for me to tell them a lie or push some myth, to pat them on the head when they don’t deserve it. I am as honest as I can be with writers. And as many of you have discovered, brutally honest about some things.

For decades I have fought the stupidity of outlining, rewriting, and group writing through such things as workshops or beta readers. I find all of it head-shaking stupid.

I learned this from my mentor Harlan Ellison, even before I got lucky enough to meet him and even luckier to become a friend and get to know the true man.

Harlan was a normal human, with human failings. I won’t elevate him above that. And often his opinions were just flat wrong.

But when it came to writing, he told it like it was (in his opinion). He didn’t care if anyone knew he wrote the story in a bookstore window. He knew his work stood for itself.

Of course, he wrote those stories like that for many other reasons besides trying to make a point to writers who would never listen. He was a performer at heart, a carny, and a man in need of a reason to write a new story.

Yes, I said that. He was a normal human, with writer failings just like most of us. His audience, no matter his relationship with them, often forced him to write new work because he put himself in these positions of either failing in public or creating new work. And Harlan’s ego could not allow himself to fail in public. So he created the new work, with the adrenaline of the challenge of an audience watching pushing him forward.

I know that feeling well.

My challenges here (like thirty stories in thirty days or four novels in a month) are my way of writing in public to illustrate what Harlan illustrated for decades to those smart enough to see and learn. And they get me new stories and novels I would never have written otherwise.


I understand why Harlan wrote in public. And I use some of the main reasons in my own writing.

But one thing to keep clearly in mind. Harlan called bullshit on the rewriting myth. And he not only called bullshit, he showed clearly, in public, another way.

And some of us actually listened and have careers because of him.

Thanks, Harlan, for the career, the friendship, the leading by example, and being so damned blunt with writers.

And if Harlan could have read this, I am betting he would have shook his head and said to me with a smile (as he did a number of times), “Smith, your a putz.”

And I would agree, because we would both know that no one will listen.







  • USAF

    Harlan, first met when i was a contributing editor at The Bloomsbury Review. Editor in Chief, Tom Auer, who walked on before Harlan, ADORED Harlan’s work, told everyone to read and listen to Harlan, read read read listen listen listen

    Harlan a decidedly quaderhedronic peg not even looking for a fit anywhere. My condolences to his family and to you Dean, also.

  • Harvey

    You, and Harlan through you, have changed the habits and lives of hundreds or thousands of writers, Dean.
    And that’s not counting the ones who ascribe to the tenets you teach and later give up. I’d bet there are hundreds or thousands who stick to it.

    I’m fortunate to count myself among them.

    After I had time to absorb what you teach and make it my own, I’ve taught a few dozen other writers about Heinlein’s Rules and about Writing Into the Dark and about Daring to Be Bad, etc.

    It didn’t stick with most of them, and that’s fine. It’s their life.

    But it stuck with some, and today those writers are successful in writing and on their way to success in publishing.

    Thank you (and Harlan, and Algis Budrys, and Robert Heinlein et al) for all of that.

    • dwsmith

      Thanks, Harvey. I’ve thinking about doing a post on the one major thing I learned from the each of the greats in Science Fiction Writing that I was lucky enough to know and be around over the decades. Might be a fun and eye-opening post.

  • Josh Lee

    You were the first person I thought of, Dean, when I heard about Harlan. Words don’t seem to cut it at times like this. Bad thing to say in the writing world but you know what I mean. I urged people to just read his stuff. He’s in there. That’s all he would want., anyway, I expect. You and Kris take care!

  • Mike

    Dean – sorry for your loss and hope some of the great memories will pull you through. Harlan was one of the reasons I wanted to get into writing – not so much because of the stories, though I like a great many of them and have probably only scratched the surface of what’s out there – but because I liked his attitude. Never met the man but the documentary about him, called Dreams With Sharp Teeth, gives a dose of a lot of what you mentioned. Plus once you hear him reading one of his own stories, you’ll never get that voice out of your head when you pick one of them up. Truly a Voice writer if there ever was one.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  • JM

    I never met the man, only saw him at a convention once, almost 30 years ago, but from all the conventions I attended, he’s one of less than a half dozen guests whose presence I remember … who left an impression on me. He left such a huge impact on the world, the world will be a smaller place without him in it.

  • Philip

    One of the absolute greats. And so much of his career was based on short fiction, which reminds me of your legendary post about making a living from short stories.

    • dwsmith

      Not by us. But never know, after the dust settles, what Susan will license of Harlan’s work and how.

  • DS

    Harlan Ellison was one of the first professional writers I ever met.

    It was in the 80’s, during one of Harlan’s lecture tour stops. I was a wide-eyed teen, voracious reader (especially of fantasy and sci-fi), and also a beginning/aspiring writer. His talk to the large crowd was wild and entertaining, filled with outrageous stories – here was a real celebrity writer in our midst! His admonitions on the hardships of the writing life were not enough to deter me, but they did shock me at the time (I found out years later he was mostly right).

    The highlight of the show was when he read one of his new stories! That put me in awe, not just because I got to hear a wonderful story from a master writer in his own voice, but he said afterward that it was “just how it came out of the typewriter.” No rewriting! He explained that he was able to do this after being a writer for over 25 years. I thought he might have been embellishing about his skill slightly, as some of his tales seemed a little far-fetched, but now I’m not so sure. I’ve learned from him, Dean, and other long-term writers that this sort of thing is possible; I’ve even had my own experiences with it.

    After the show, I lined up to get a book signed by Harlan and also got his infamous barbed wit/temper directed at me! Seems I was being a little too much the acolyte writer as I hung around at his elbow after getting my book signed, wanting to bask in his presence and collect any pearls of writing wisdom he might choose to bestow on those crowding around him. So he shooed me away like a fly! I believe he even said “Go away, shoo!” I can chuckle about it now, but at the time I was a bit miffed. Ah, Harlan!

    Harlan Ellison gave me someone to emulate, showing that the dream I had, to also be a writer, was possible. For that I’m thankful, and also for the many stories of his I enjoyed and dreamed on.