Un-Screwing the Writer

Thanks to our dear friend Jeff Sexton, who sent in this clip of sci-fi superstar Harlan Ellison cutting loose with one of his tastiest rants.

If you haven’t got three-and-a-half minutes, here are a few tidbits from Mr. E’s sulfuric screed:

“I don’t take a piss without getting paid for it.”

“I’m supposed to give a freebie to Warner Bros.?  What, is Warner Bros. out on the sidewalk with an eyepatch and a tin cup?”

“It’s the amateurs who screw things up for the professionals by giving it away for free.”

“Pay me! Cross my palm with silver!”

“Are they any less the media whore than I? I think not. I sell my soul, but for the highest rate.”

Of course, Harlan Ellison is not a media whore. He’s a pro in the best sense of the word, who has delivered some of the choicest speculative fiction ever, on dozens of Star Trek episodes and his own shelf of novels, not to mention “the greatest sci-fi movie never made,” the adapted screenplay to Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot.

Then what’s he so exercised about? He doesn’t like getting screwed (in this case by studios and producers trying to exploit his work for their own profit while stiffing him in the process.)

Most of us don’t have Harlan Ellison’s high-end problem. Most artists and entrepreneurs are giving it away—and grateful to be able to do even that. But we’re all getting screwed and we’re all in the same boat.

What’s worse, we boarded that vessel of our free will. We’re crewing, we’re swabbing the decks—and, even though we know it, we’re still fighting like mad just to stay aboard.

The problem is that we as artists and entrepreneurs don’t control the means of production or distribution. If we want our work to get “out there,” we have to make a deal—with a bank, a movie studio, a record label, a publishing house. Art and commerce inevitably clash, and we know who comes out on the short end of that.

Here’s what I think. You and I (and anyone else who wants to un-screw themselves) need to acquire two critical skills.

First, we need the faculty to assess our work objectively. When we have that, we’re free. No one can bully us, no one can intimidate us, no one can low-rate our material. We need the capacity to self-evaluate, self-validate and self-reinforce. Harlan Ellison has that. He knows when his stuff has chops, and he won’t back down to anyone who tells him it doesn’t.

That certainty can’t be faked. Is our work ready for prime time? If it isn’t, what do we need to do to get it there? Once it is there, we need to know that, unshakably. We need to ascend beyond our own petty Resistance, our own negative self-judgment and self-sabotage, our own “I’m not worthy” mind-set.

Second, we need to know how to fight for our work. This is the only way writers, artists and entrepreneurs can keep themselves from getting screwed by more powerful marketplace forces. Maybe this means becoming a hyphenate: a writer-producer, writer-performer, writer-publisher. Maybe it means acquiring an independent funding source. Maybe it means mastering the arcane arts of new media and social media. Maybe it simply means going to bat for our own material and selling the hell out of it.

This is no longer Writing/Music/Filmmaking 101. This is 501. This is Olympic level, pro level mastery. Do I possess it? I wish I did. But we can all take a lesson from Harlan Ellison’s tell-it-like-it-is pugnaciousness. He’s not just a writer or an artist; he’s a champion for his own material, for his children. He knows their worth and he won’t let anybody give them anything less.

You have convinced me, Mr. Ellison. I thank you, and I’m gonna pay you. So, if you’re out there somewhere, send an address to [email protected]. The check will be in the mail.


Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

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A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.



Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.



Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"



  1. Ulla Lauridsen on September 14, 2011 at 2:01 am

    Prime example: Emily Dickinson. She knew her worth, the world didn’t. She was right.
    Of course, you’ll never know for certain whether you are in her class or only think you are. Time will tell. Some of the bestselling authors of her day are completely forgotten now.

  2. Jeremy on September 14, 2011 at 5:14 am

    “Or I’m gonna come down to your office and burn it to the ground, how ’bout that?”

    Love it! He makes some great points, as do you Steven, especially this:

    Most artists and entrepreneurs are giving it away—and grateful to be able to do even that.

    I hate to be cynical, but I imagine the people and companies asking us to give it away know we are grateful and take full advantage.

    I don’t like to think I’m being suckered–I think of it as paying my dues, free now equals cash later–but maybe they know that too, and by the time I acquire the two critical skills you mention and demand cash, they’ll move on to the next turnip.

    Only option is to acquire those skills NOW, and produce prime-time art. Thanks Steven.

  3. Jeff on September 14, 2011 at 5:49 am

    Wow! Awesome stuff, Steve.

    What strikes me about Harlan is a sort of parallel between him and Paddy Chayefsky, another writer you’ve covered on this blog and who fought like hell for the value of his work. And unlike Harlon Ellison who probably popped out of the womb cursing out the doctor, Paddy seems to have developed an alter ego, specifically for the purpose of defending his work. At least according to his biographer Saun Considine in his bio Mad As Hell. Here’s a brief blurb about the book I stole from Amazon:

    “Considine’s characterization of his subject as a man split in two is facile; he plays off “Paddy”–scrappy, Bronx-bred–with “Sidney”–devout, artistic, intellectual.”

    I often think all writers need to develop a scrappy alter ego capable of doing what, perhaps, the more sensitive or artistic parts of their personality are temperamentally unsuited to do.

    What do you think?

  4. Stacy on September 14, 2011 at 6:27 am

    Sadly, I had never heard of Harlan Ellison before I saw the documentary Dreams with Sharp Teeth. But this rant made me like him immediately.

  5. Baker Lawley | Catfish Parade on September 14, 2011 at 6:30 am

    Wonderful stuff, Steve. Thank you. Your two points are so great–to me, it’s harder for creative types to achieve the first one, the honest assessment of our work. It takes so long and it’s hard to see through the haze of our enthusiasm.

    But I think that before they gain this ability, many creatives do develop the second ability to fight for their work. Oftentimes, we do this one too soon, unfortunately. The biggest complaint from literary agents is that they see so many manuscripts that just aren’t ready yet. But once we know the worth of our work, it’s a much better argument when we do fight for it.

    Thanks for this, Steve!

    • Kat on September 20, 2011 at 3:13 pm

      Hi Baker,

      I think that you’re right, “the honest assessment of your work” and, to see through all the enthusiasm is difficult. However, I also think two things come in to play here. 1. The Muse. 2. The willingness to be wrong.

      1. The Muse. If you rely on the Muse then you are trusting in something beyond yourself and beyond your polluted perspective and insecurities. If we (as creative people) make it about trust that the “creative information” we are receiving is from a pure place then what are we wrestling with? Not, the “disillusioned enthusiasm?” The enthusiasm could be confirmation that we are on the right track and have conquered the Resistance that usually is kicking our arse? Trust is a major component we need to know within that your enthusiasm is warranted.

      2. Be willing to get it wrong. If others don’t agree that your work is “ready” maybe it’s not. If what they say resonates with your Spirit and not with your Ego then it could be that the Muse has led you to this feedback. If your relying on the relationship you have with the Muse, or whatever Source you trust in, we can get around the dilemma you speak of. What is hard is the “Resistance” to trust in something beyond you. If your enthusiasm has led you to falsely believe your work is “all that and a bag of chips” and it’s not, ok. It will hurt but to not be open to the pain is Resistance too. Maybe, your “undeserved enthusiasm” will take you to another place to learn a valuable lesson. Here, you can deepen your relationship with that Source and it will let you know when your enthusiasm is on point.

  6. tolladay on September 14, 2011 at 6:56 am

    Harlan’s professional attitude is pure gold, and is true for any profession.

    My day job is photo-retouching, and I don’t get out of bed to retouch for less than $100 an hour. I stumbled upon being a professional in that field, and work damn hard to keep myself one. One of the ways to do so is to demand of myself professional grade work, and demand of others that they recognize it.

    Becoming a professional as a writer is quite a challenge, and the worst issue I have Steve nailed. It is difficult to tell when your words are worth 50 cents, and when they are worth $50 grand. Little by little I’m getting better at sensing when I’m writing crap, and when I’m writing gold. It took me over ten years to be good at retouching, good enough to see it, so I assume it wil take a similar time to be a good writer.

    The funny thing is, the more you charge, the more respect you get. I was terrified I would run out of clients when I once raised my rates. Turned out to be the best thing I ever did.

  7. Melinda on September 14, 2011 at 7:53 am

    The documentary and the post both have great insights. There is a point where writers, artists, musicians etc. have to realize that what they are doing has value – if it does -for other people and also be able to realize that their creations may only have value for them -the creators. Maybe this changes with each creation or maybe there’s a set point where skills reach a standard and never fall below that. I appreciate the thought-provoking information. There’s a lot to mull over.

  8. Michael Kelberer on September 14, 2011 at 7:54 am

    Always loved Harlan Ellison’s attitude, and now, in the context of the War of Art, I appreciate it so much more. A true Pro.

  9. Stephen S. Power on September 14, 2011 at 8:40 am

    I don’t dispute that Ellison should be paid something for his contribution to the DVD, as should the other contributors, but what I heard was not a professional defending his right to compensation, but a violent piece of crap proud to have verbally abused some poor licensing assistant in pursuit of his own self-aggrandizement.

    As an editor, I would think twice, then twice again about ever working with him for the simple reason that unless his work would make an absolute fortune for my company, it just wouldn’t be worth the hassle. So I’m all for authors like him setting his own means to sell his own work. That way people like me wouldn’t have to deal with him.

    Burn the person’s office down? Really? Lighten up, Francis.

    • Jim on September 14, 2011 at 12:54 pm

      Have to agree with Mr. Power on this one. I’m all for authors getting paid what they and their work are worth, but do we have to be abusive and downright mean to people? I don’t think we have to act like Mr. Ellison to make our point. Steven Pressfield is one of the nicest people in the world, and he’s kind of successful:). I’m just saying that the world’s a better place when we’re all civil to each other. Mean people suck. Mr. Ellison would do well to remember that.

  10. Trish on September 14, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    To address Mr. Power’s point:

    Many many years ago, I met Mr. Ellison when my sci-fi writing class visited him in his home. He gave a talk in his (amazing!) library and then chatted and signed his books if we’d brought any. He was kind and gracious while still being outrageously Harlan Ellison.

    And who’s to say that that assistant wouldn’t have taken politeness as weakness or consent? It is a ruthless business.

    • Stephen S. Power on September 15, 2011 at 7:38 am

      I have spoken to people like the young woman countless times in the publishing business and when I’ve had to work with Hollywood. She had no authority to negotiate, just a list of people and a stack of releases she needed to get signed. Politeness, weakness, verbal consent: none of those mattered to her, just the signatures she can show her boss at the end of the day so they can make their production dates. She cannot compel the signatures. She can only send out the form and follow up.

      If Ellison doesn’t want to sign, fine. If he wants to be paid, fine. If he wants more than WB can pay, fine. But if he wants to be abusive, not fine. If he wants to crow about being abusive, he needs help, I don’t care how nice he was to guests.

      Her mistake was calling Ellison directly and not his agent, who would have certainly treated her with more respect while no less firmly advocating for his client. I bet she doesn’t make that mistake again. And word will get around through the grapevine that you just don’t want to deal with Harlan Ellison (of course that branch of the vine’s has been growing for years). At least she’ll have a decent story to tell over drinks.

      • Stacy on September 18, 2011 at 8:40 am

        There’s a deeper issue going on here than whether Ellison should have been “nice.” The real problem here is that so many writers said yes to this. The actual rates for paying writers is on the decline, and that can be attributed directly to writers who give away their content.

  11. Maureen on September 14, 2011 at 6:18 pm

    Well, now the amateurs are getting paid for it. Saw a little junior high kid on fanfiction.com, mentioning that her collection of fanfiction drabbles about Holmes and Watson was now over on the Kindle, with a bunch of new material. And somebody was buying the book.

    Of course, Harlan doesn’t talk about how the girl is now going to have to get a tax lawyer, because books are taxed different than a part time job, and nobody has ever been able to explain to me how that works, much less to a junior high kid. And whatever you do with the IRS is bound to be wrong… so obviously there are some serious problems with not giving it away.

    • Stacy on September 18, 2011 at 7:41 am

      Maureen, I’d be interested to know how books are taxed for the author. I thought the IRS classified working writers under “self-employed” and taxed them the same way they would anyone who is self-employed.

  12. Linda on September 14, 2011 at 11:12 pm

    Now that’s good publicity! I’d never heard of Harlan Ellison before, and I certainly wouldn’t have seen that DVD, but now I shall go and buy one of his books. Perhaps we should all take up ranting?

  13. Michael on September 15, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    Can I use that? LOL!

  14. Justin on September 15, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    I hear Trump is an asshole. Doesn’t seem to be hurting his pocketbook.

    Rock on Mr. Ellison, rock on!

  15. Chris L. Robinson on September 16, 2011 at 5:05 am

    “YOU could got to the store and buy it, motherf*cker!”

    LOL! Sure that will be the funniest thing I’ll hear all day!

  16. Stacy on September 18, 2011 at 8:46 am

    Here’s a handy and rather hilarious chart that will help you decide if you should work for free. Note the opinion on whether you should work for “exposure.”


    I’m buying this as soon as I can afford it and hanging it on my wall.

  17. Kat on September 20, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    Owwwee! If Mr.Harlan Ellison likes it…I Love it! This is Juicy(yes, with a capital J)in every sense of the word. I am sorry, he didn’t rip them a”new one” he ripped them several. One for each day of the week! I appreciate his candidness though. It was REAL and many individuals that work in creative/industries need a reality check and Mr. Ellison was going to make sure they cashed it that day, yes sir! Some can’t handle this beyond blunt response but, that is just a consequence for trying to “screw a pro.” There is a confidence, an assurance that comes with such a spirited response. All I gotta say is, “Bartender, I’ll have what he’s having.” Great post! (leaves to go watch video again)

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