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Reflections: How To Write by Robert Silverberg
 

 

A few weeks ago, at a dinner party at the home of Charles N. Brown of Locus, the young woman seated next to me told me that she was studying my recently reissued anthology Science Fiction 101, because she intended to write science fiction herself and wanted to learn all she could about how to get her career launched.

"That’s easy," I told her jovially. "You don’t even need to read the whole book. Just read Alfred Bester’s ‘Fondly Fahrenheit’ and Cordwainer Smith’s ‘Scanners Live in Vain’ and write a story that’s as good as those two–that’ll get your career going!"

I was just being playful, of course. Those two stories are essentially inimitable masterpieces, the Bester a paragon of story construction and exuberant style, the Smith an eerie adventure in visionary strangeness told with deceptive simplicity. Telling a novice writer that she should make it her goal to begin her career with stories on that level of quality makes no more sense than telling a rookie baseball player that a good way of attracting attention would be to break Barry Bond’s home-run record in his first season. Easy enough to say but next to impossible to do, and not really necessary, either. Trying to match the absolute summit of achievement in your chosen field right at the outset of your career is a worthy enough ambition, and now and again it can actually be done. (Roger Zelazny’s Hall of Fame classic "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" was written close to the start of his career. Vonda N. McIntyre won a Nebula for one of her first published stories, "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand." Ted Chiang won one for his very first, "Tower of Babylon." And, for that matter, "Scanners Live in Vain" was the first published story of Cordwainer Smith.) But there are other and more easily feasible ways to get yourself started as a science fiction writer.

Learning as much as you can about the craft of storytelling, for instance, and then producing solid, competent, perceptive, honest stories that reflect your individual view of the universe in general and the human condition in particular–that will get you into print, at least. The Hugos and Nebulas will follow eventually, or perhaps they won’t–but let such things look after themselves. What you wanted to do was write and get published, right? Awards, fame, money, are all things to worry about later.

And in fact my Science Fiction 101 was intended to help just such people as my dinnertable neighbor that night at the Locus headquarters. (It was first published in 1987 under the title, Robert Silverberg’s Worlds of Wonder, and I will shamelessly tell you that the publisher of the new edition is iBooks, Inc. and the price is $14.)

The book opens with a long autobiographical essay in which I describe precisely what it was like to be a young would-be writer yearning to get his start, fifty-odd years ago. Why, I wondered then, did people like Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Jack Williamson, and Henry Kuttner sell every word of fiction they wrote, whereas the pitiful little stories I was sending to the magazines came back with the speed of light? "They, so it seemed to me, were the elect. They were the ones who had been admitted to the sanctuary, while I stood on the outside glumly peering in. Why? I thought it was because they knew some special Secret, some fundamental trick of the trade, that was unavailable to me." And I devote the rest of my introductory piece to the tale of my quest to learn the wonderful secret of writing stories that some science fiction magazine would be willing to publish.

The first step, I decided, was to read a book on How to Write Fiction. Off I went to the library and found one such book that had already been recommended to me: Thomas H. Uzzell’s Narrative Technique: A Practical Course in Literary Psychology, a book first published in 1923 that for a long time was the standard textbook on plot construction.

As I say in my introduction to Science Fiction 101, the Uzzell textbook terrified me: "I’m utterly certain that I put the book aside with a sinking feeling in my stomach. The art of fiction seemed as complicated and difficult to master as the art of brain surgery, and plainly you had to learn all the rules before the editors would let you through the door. Violate even one of Uzzell’s commandments and it would be immediately apparent to any editor that the manuscript before him was the work of an incompetent. . . . I felt I could no more manage to write a proper story than I could walk on water."

I have a copy of Uzzell on my desk right now: 510 closely packed pages, dealing in the most minute detail with every aspect of story construction: the emotional purpose of a story, the effects it should achieve, the materials out of which it is built. There were chapters on "the character story," "the complication story," "the thematic story," "the atmosphere story," and, most horrific of all, "the multi-phase story." The reader was offered instruction in such things as "technique of fusing effects," "importance of two ideals," "thematic narratives didactic and dramatic," and "general formula for dramatic intensity." And each chapter ended with an appalling set of homework assignments, more grueling than anything I had to deal with then in my real-world existence as a high-school junior.

Thoroughly intimidated, I put Uzzell aside and tried to puzzle out the secret of writing fiction on my own. "That seemed a better way to learn," I wrote. "Uzzell was only confusing and frightening me with his hundreds of pages of how-to-do-it manual. Besides, I hated the idea of doing all those end-of-chapter exercises. So I began to study the stories in the current issues of the SF magazines with passionate intensity. I concentrated on the lesser magazines, the ones that ran simple stories by not-so-famous writers, and I took those stories apart and stared at the pieces, thinking, This is an opening paragraph, This is how dialog is managed, This is as much exposition as you can get away with before the reader gets bored."

And it worked. I will not keep you in further suspense: I did indeed learn how to write publishable fiction, close to fifty years’ worth of it by now, and the way I did it was to study other stories, figure out what made them work, and apply those principles to stories of my own invention. In Science Fiction 101 I reprinted thirteen of the stories that I studied–thirteen of the best science fiction stories ever written–and followed each one with an essay of my own discussing the particular tactics that each writer had used to achieve the effects that made his (or in one case, her) story so effective.

It’s a pretty good book, taken simply as an anthology: along with the Bester and Smith stories, there are gems like C.M. Kornbluth’s "The Little Black Bag," Frederik Pohl’s "Day Million," C.L. Moore’s "No Woman Born," James Blish’s "Common Time," and more, by Damon Knight, Robert Sheckley, Philip K. Dick, and others, an awesome group of stories that serve admirably as prototypes of what great science fiction ought to be. Anyone who wants to be a science fiction writer should indeed study them carefully, not with any hope (at least at first) of matching their quality, but for the sake of seeing what level of attainment it’s possible to reach within our field.

Although I still think that the best way to learn how to write science fiction is by studying the best science fiction you can find and striving to extract fundamental principles of story creation from what you read, it can also be very helpful to read an established writer’s technical analyses of other writers’ published work. That’s why I appended an essay of my own to each of the stories reprinted in SF 101 that discussed very closely the narrative strategies that make those stories work as well as they do. You won’t learn how to write publishable fiction simply by reading those essays, but if writing professionally is your goal they will, I’m quite sure, serve as useful teaching supplements to the stories themselves.

A few other books that I read in the early phases of my career come to mind also. Two that are worth searching out were written by outstanding SF writers whose stories I used in Science Fiction 101–Damon Knight and James Blish. Knight’s In Search of Wonder is a lively and often blistering discussion of well-known science fiction novels of the 1940s and 1950s; Blish’s The Issue at Hand is an equally scathing analysis of SF magazine stories of the same era. Even if you aren’t familiar with all of the works discussed, you will find Blish and Knight postulating certain technical standards for the writing of science fiction that all beginning writers would do well to think about.

Then there’s Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing, which, though ostensibly about playwriting, will tell you everything that old Thomas Uzzell was trying to teach about story construction, putting it in a far less intimidating manner. And, finally, H.D.F. Kitto’s Greek Tragedy, a book I read and re-read when I was in college–and if you wonder how a study of the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides will help you learn how to write successful science fiction, you’ll find the answer in my introduction to Science Fiction 101.


What about that great Secret, which, so it seemed to me fifty years ago, Asimov and Kuttner and Heinlein and Williamson knew, and I didn’t? I did learn it, finally, didn’t I?

Well, yes and no. I can only quote my own words on that from the introduction to Science Fiction 101:

"The secret of the Secret is that it doesn’t exist. There are many things that you must master if you hope to practice the art and craft of writing, but they are far from secret, nor do they add up to one single great Secret. You just go on, doing your best, living and reading and thinking and studying and searching for answers, using everything that you’ve learned along the way and hoping that each new story is deeper and richer than the one before."

There you have it. Editor Dozois is waiting to see those masterpieces, now.

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"Reflections: How To Write " by Robert Silverberg , copyright © 2002 by Agberg and permission of the author.

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