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Sunday, July 8, 2018

“Ehhhh, Mr. Sapio...this is Harlan Ellison. We need to talk.”

With I heard these words on my answering machine* I knew I was pipik-deep in serious shit. For those of you unacquainted with the legend of Harlan Ellison, allow me to introduce you. He wrote, sorry...speculative fiction for more than sixty years. He wrote episodes for several popular TV shows including Star Trek and The Flying Nun. He wrote hundreds of short stories, novellas, screenplays, and scathing criticisms. He won dozens of awards. He was as well-known in the genre of science fiction as anyone could be. He had a years-long friendship with the uber-brilliant Isaac Asimov which manifested itself in public dueling put-downs, each trying to out-insult the other, claiming the other was the bigger blowhard.
His prose, like himself, was without restraint. He once claimed an executive at Warner Bros. had the “intellectual and cranial capacity of an artichoke.” He was fired from a job at Disney on his first day for describing his idea for a pornographic film featuring several of the company's beloved characters.
He pulled no punches anywhere in his life, and often wrote about the most disturbing things. He gruesomely described the murder of Kitty Genovese, imagined people trapped in a cyber-landscape, unable to speak. His end of the world featured a Deathbird soaring over a devastated wasteland abandoned by a tattered and insane God. His lexicon was impressive; my vocabulary practically doubled looking up words like meretricious, fantod, widdershins, and my favorite, undinal.
Legend has it Ellison sent 200 bricks (postage due) and a dead rodent to a publisher who pissed him off. He may or may not have locked one of his five wives out in the snow...naked. His language was rife with vulgarities. His opinions would never be regarded by anyone as subtle.
You either loved him or stayed the hell away from his ever-boiling bile.
And this is the guy I managed to piss off.
I've had a few death threats in my time. Not just the usual drunken, swaggering barroom banalities, but ones with unmistakably genuine lethal intent. I've been cornered by a gang of drug ruffians who let me know under no uncertain terms that I was one syllable away from an ignominious demise in a back alley. I've had a greatly put-out boyfriend come after me with a rusty blade after I attempted to woo, okay, steal his girlfriend. But nothing remotely as colorful as the threat I would receive from Harlan Ellison.
To wit: Back in the 1980s, I'd seen the movie A Boy and His Dog, which the credits said was based on Ellison's novella Vic and Blood. This cheesy, terrible movie starred a young Don Johnson and a highly intelligent, wisecracking dog. It quickly became a personal favorite. Curious, I sought the original story and became a fan of Mr. Ellison's work, reading every volume of his I could find.
Fast-forward to June or so of 2001: I had been a playwright for several years. I'd recently been honored with a major award and was feeling pretty darn peachypoo about my ability. Remembering that a certain short story of Ellison's had always fascinated me because of the ethical and moral dilemmas it raised, I thought, Well, Albee-to-be, why not turn it into a one-act? Wouldn't that be a great subject? Of course it would!
So I sat down behind my PC and proceeded to type out what I envisioned was a rather gutsy first draft of what I hoped HE would see as a credible dramatic rendering of his original idea.
(You can see where I'm going with this, can't you? It's a train wreck in slo-mo. Like jabbing a sleeping ogre with a pitchfork and asking him to admire the instrument's polish. Read on.)
So I sent it along to HE's agent with a polite and respectful letter explaining who I was and what I wanted permission to do.
I heard nothing for three months. Then, on September 21, 2001, I got the call. Even though I'd correctly interpreted the tone of HE's attitude, I still managed to entertain the slimmest of possibilities that it might not be too bad. He left a number. I called him back.
I wouldn't say I received a drubbing. Or even a chewing out. I was told in no uncertain terms by the man himself that my transgression violated not only copyright laws but the laws of respect, historical tradition, and nature. I was obviously the imbecilic spawn of a leprous pig and a brick. My unbelievably dimwitted transgression would no doubt cause major geologic faults to slip, thereby causing a reign of physical catastrophe so severe we'd be back in the ice ages by Wednesday.
Who was I, he railed, to tamper with a writer's work? Who did I think I was, he snarled, to steal an idea and rewrite it for myself? The fury coming out of the telephone receiver was so intense that it made a wall calendar across the room spontaneously explode into fiery fragments. And up until now all I'd said was “Hello, this is George Sapio returning Mr. Ellison's call.”
I was warned that unless I wanted every lawyer in Los Angeles attaching all I owned I'd leave the project alone and never try to make contact with him again. Meekly, I agreed. On the other end the phone slammed down with vehement finality.
A week later I received another call. “Mr. Sapio, this is Harlan Ellison.”
Oh Christ. I dreaded another onslaught. “What did I do this time?”
Instead he chuckled. “No, Mr. Sapio. After speaking with my wife, Susan, I realized I may have been too harsh on you.” Clearly a woman for whom sainthood would be too trifling an honor, I thought. I sent her a grateful virtual hug.
“I'm gonna send you a contract and I'm gonna pay you $20 to do up a first draft, after which I will read it. If I like it we will proceed. If I don't I will tell you so in no uncertain terms and we will hear no more about this. Do you understand?”
“But... I already sent you a sample ten-page first draft.”
“I'll read that later. In the meantime Susan will send you the contract. I advise you to take this seriously and not fuck around.”
Holy SHIT. I was on fire for for a week. Lil ol' Me...I was working, that's not right...I was working with Harlan Ellison. One of my literary idols.
One week later he calls again. This time there's not even time for a hello.
Every word of that conversation is still etched in letters two feet tall and a yard deep into the granite of my memory:
“This is the worst piece of shit I've ever read. By anyone, anywhere.”
“Whoever told you you could write was a fucking moron.”
And the finale:
“If you ever try to write and market this execrable pile of vomit I will sue your fucking ass. I will take everything you have right down to the switch plates. I will then come to your house, rip out your alimentary canal and strangle you with your own intestines. Am I clear?”
I am by no means the only person to be a target of Harlan Ellison's vitriol. There have been many over the years. And to be perfectly fair, looking back at the script I sent, he was right. It was effluent. Amateurish. Cloddish. I really wish I had done it better.
Few people have passed through this life as loudly as he, or with as much passion. While not every story he wrote may have won an award (although many did), every one was written with a gripe, a lesson, a skewering, a condemnation, and cries for generosity, civil humanity, and love. Responding to criticism about his less than rosy outlook, Ellison wrote that he preferred to be sand in the cogs rather than grease, because, he said, sand makes things slow down and require periodic examination and restructuring, while grease just makes the giant machine operate faster without any oversight.
And recently he passed away at age 84. To me it seemed as if he was much older, maybe because I've been aware of him for so long. 
I wonder where his soul is now. He wrote about so many dimensions and alternate realities that he may just have had his pick about what comes next. I'd like to think that might be true.

* A device for recording messages for when you were not at home. Pre-mass cell phones.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Obstacles. Those bits in the middle.

We've all had issues with obstacles--those pesky road blocks that all protagonists have to navigate successfully in order to achieve their goals. Every play needs 'em. But some playwrights have trouble finding them.
I almost always know the beginnings and endings of my plays. Can't start unless I do. I usually also know of some first-act cliffhanger or Momentously Dramatic Moment I need to have happen.
Some folks road map their projects, using index cards or spreadsheets. I think I envy that technique, but I also wonder if by the time I've drawn out the entire plot I may have lost the urge to write it. I say this because I tried it. I spent more time trying to arrange the cards so I could see them all at once, but half of them fell off the wall and behind my desk and they are still back there, presumably talking amongst themselves and the dust bunnies. 
I tried again with the string-path thing, sticking things on the wall and running strings between relevant items. Although that was a complete disaster (it made me dizzy), I did end up with a ten-minute play set in a spider web and about a dozen new political conspiracy theories so it wasn't a complete loss.
In any event, how do we negotiate the ascent up the shark fin (see diagram)? What gauntlets do we design for our protagonists to bravely fight through? What are the individual obstacles? How do we playwrights find them?

I usually take a look at the world of the play itself and see what difficulties it may provide organically.
Assuming I have my basic characters and a general idea of the world of the play, I start to think about some of the following things. Let's start with the basics:
- What does the protagonist want?
- Why does he/she want it?
- Is the protagonist good, evil, or complex?
- Why does the antagonist try to foil the protagonist's efforts?
- Is the antagonist good, evil, or complex?
- Where are the ethical limits/moral boundaries for both protagonist and antagonist?
- What actions do I initially envision the protagonist taking? What would be the results of those?
- What would be the next logical step?
- What would be the next illogical step?
- What dramatic moments do I imagine taking place within the play?
- What are the breaking points for the protagonist/antagonist?
- What are the protagonist's flaws and how does he/she work against him/herself?
Next, let's look at the world of the play in all of its aspects.
Is the world “real” as we know it, hard-wired and limited by our current reality, or is set within magical realism? If not real, what rules apply that don't in the real world (because even in magical realism there have to be rules) and how do these exceptions affect the characters? What limitations or freedoms does that world impose or allow?
Politics: What are the political aspects and boundaries? Are the characters discriminated against? Do they discriminate? Are they endowed with political power or under political restraint? What are their views? Are they active or passive? What form does the government take? Democratic? Authoritarian? Absent?
Sexual/gender: What natural empowerments or liabilities do the sexual/gender aspects of each character impose? What views of life? What past experiences? What possibilities for the future? What ways of creating joy in a relationship? What ways of destroying a reputation? Are they out or closeted? Are they bigoted or welcoming? Is it against the law to be anything but straight...or gay?
Geographical: How does the physical world of the play affect the characters' actions? Is it oppressively hot or freezingly cold? Is it dangerous? Is it unremarkable? Is it lush? Destroyed? Post-apocalyptic or Garden of Eden? In what settings does the world of the play take place: a bar, bowling alley, a castle, a resort, a tenement, a living room, a detention center? What aspects of your setting can be used to challenge a character?
Physical/Medical: Look at the physical traits of your characters and see how they relate to the world around them? What aspects make it easier/more difficult for them to interact? Are they too good looking? Shunned for disabilities? Comely/plain? Sick? Contagious? Can they speak/hear/see?
Other things to think about:
- Time/date/era of the work
- Technological: age of the plow/industrial revolution/computerization/cybernetics?
- Psychological: are there any neuroses/phobias/past events that may inhibit action?
And: Is the protagonist's goal actually reachable? Or are they doomed to failure?
I examine all the elements of the world my characters inhabit and I look to see how they can either aid or work against them. Every particular in the world of your play may serve as an organic problem or a tool used by another character to trouble your protagonist.