A Love Tap From Harlan Ellison

Paolo Bacigalupi, interviewed at Wired Science, on getting unsolicited feedback from someone who can't be ignored:

Harlan Ellison called me up out of the blue.  It was soon after the short story had come out and I was in my house mopping the floor and I get this phone call and this man on the other end was like 'This is Harlan Ellison, do you know who I am?' and I was like 'Yeah, yeah, um yeah.' So he says, 'Go get your story.'  So I do. He then proceeds to basically critique every single aspect of my entire story.

He starts out by saying 'At first I thought that you were some sort of professional writing under a pseudonym because, you know, nobody has a name like Bacigalupi, I know the Abbot and Costello routine blah blah blah...' He goes off about how Paolo Bacigalupi is obviously a pseudonym or a joke name of some sort. Now he's getting a bit worked up. He says, 'You know, I thought you were a professional, and then I got to page 5 and right down there at the bottom you used the word jerked... and then 2 sentences later you used the word jerky--you took all of the power out of the fucking word!'

I'm sitting there on the line sort of terrified of this man just haranguing me. At the end of that whole conversation - a conversation in which he critiques, line by line, my entire story - he finishes up by saying, 'Well you got some potential, but don't write in genre, it's a waste of time. Don't get stuck in it like I got stuck in it.' And then he hangs up.

That was the last thing that I heard from this guy--I don't know what it was--sort of like a love tap I guess, but I actually sort of got to me. I proceeded to write a bunch of stories that weren't science fiction. I wrote historical fiction novels set in China, I went on and wrote a landscape... I don't know what you call it... sort of landscape porn I guess is the best word for it.  You know, one of those love of place and the rural west sort of stories. Then I wrote a mystery/western story and none of those genres is related to sci-fi in any way, shape or form, and none of them sold.

At the end of all of that, I'm sitting there with all of the rejection letters in my hands and thinking: Well, you know, actually I kind of liked writing science fiction and then I went back into it and started doing the short stories, and that's when I started writing things like "The Fluted Girl," and "The People of Sand and Slag" and started finding my niche. It's been a long process.