Hell's Cartographers - Some Personal Histories of Science Fiction Writers

Drawn to this work because it features 2 of my preferred SF authors (Harry Harrison and Frederik Pohl) discussing their lives and careers, I found the entire book entertaining and enlightening. I learned many details about these six authors that I had not discovered before. Of course, I certainly couldn't reprint the entirety of each piece here, but I would like to share the introduction, written by Brian W. Aldiss, along with excerpts from the individual pieces and, to me, one of the more interesting sections, the final pieces titled How We Work. I would encourage the purchase of this publication for anyone interested in seeing the careers of these authors from their own perspectives circa 1975.


Hell's Cartographers Published by Harper & Row, 1976

Introduction by Brian W. Aldiss, written February 1974

"A Few years ago, there was a man living down in Galveston or one of those ports on the Gulf of Mexico who helped make history. He did not enjoy that honour - a feeling shared by many who find themselves in that position."

"His name was Claude Eatherly, and at one time he was something of a legend. For all I know, he still lives down in Galveston, for all I know he still feels himself to be one of the scapegoats of history. For Major Calude Eatherly, back in 1945, piloted the weather plane which flew over Hiroshima and reported that cloud conditions were suitable for the dropping of the first A-bomb."

"The responsibility for the deaths which followed rode hard on Eatherly's shoulders, although nobody until then had mistaken him for a thinking man. He liked drink, gambling, women, and horseplay, and read nothing more profound than comic books. Then he got mixed up with lethal technology."

"After the war, Eatherly became a misfit and eventually a jailbird, before being turned into a myth-figure by some of the dark father-figures of our time - politicians, psychiatrists, philosophers, preachers, and publicists. Even Bertrand Russell weighed in."

"It was not the importance of Eatherly's life as such. The extraordinary crucifying incident in which he was involved was what gave him significance."

"This volume contains brief autobiographies by six eminent science fiction writers. With only one exception, we are all within a few years of the same age. We were all old enough to appreciate the spectacle of the mushroom clouds rising over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There are few things more vexing than modesty exercised upon someone else's behalf, so I trust my contributors will forgive me if I say that some of our interest is, like Eatherly's, extrinsic."

"For the atomic bomb meant something particular to science fiction writers and readers. Despite our differences, we held at least two items of faith unshakably. One of them was - and it is curious to look back to the forties and see how absolutely bizarre, lunatic even, was this faith then - that space travel waited just round the corner (well, so it did, and we were right, although on many of the details we were instructively wrong)."

"The other item of faith concerned science fiction itself, by which was meant at that time magazine science fiction, disreputable stuff which has only recently been graced by such sociologists' terms as Alternate Literature. We believed that sf was genuine merit. More, we saw those merits as being unique."

"Whatever else the A-bomb meant to Eatherly and all the rest of mankind, to a small handful of us it meant vindication. We who had been regarded as mad were proved dangerously sane. The Future had happened, and blown the lid off the Old Order."

"From then on, we wrote sf with greater confidence, treated it more seriously, and were ourselves treated by our critics with slightly less scorn and by our readers with positive veneration. Never have critics and readers in any field been more divided than they are over sf."

"Science fiction, to my mind, is not a matter of prediction, and never has been, although prediction is one of the ingredients which makes it fun. Rather, it mirrors the present in such a way as to dispense with inessentials and dramatize new trends. In my own fiction, each decade would typically present some central image which differed from the one before: in the forties and early fifties, a bleak landscape cleared of people by some almost-forgotten catastrophe; in the fifties, men imprisoned in huge spaceships and technologies; in the sixties, men's minds altered by drugs or engines; and now - well, maybe a great windjammer, fully automated and computerized, bearing the goods that formerly went by air, its complex rig of sails operated without the need of human crew.There's always a new scenario round the corner."

"My thought was to invite the men who have been most successful in inventing such fictional scenarios to write a brief memoir of themselves. They were asked to be as frank as possible about their lives and to discuss their involvement in the world of science fiction."

"The result is a book of unique significance. We have been weather men flying above alien cities, and we have not delivered our reports before. When we began to write, it seemed as if we were doomed by our beliefs to work in obscurity. Yet it turned out that there was something prodromic in our approach to life; what we had to say proved to be on a subject with which millions of people of our generation were concerned; and, as a result, our books have been reprinted and translated all round the world (not least in Eatherly's old target, Japan, one of sf's global capitals). We are an entirely new sort of popular writer, the poor man's highbrows."

"We wrote against the grain and were accepted against it. We wrote for kicks and ha'pence. There is a certain emphasis on finance in our memoirs, and with reason; for the smaller the payment, the larger it looms. We had faith in what we were doing; individualists through we were, it transpired that the faith virtually created a movement. A lot of people needed to re-dream our nightmares."

"What we see today is the too-easy acceptance of sf. The sharp idiom we created has blurred to become one of the bland flavourings of mass media; the unembarrassed must we espoused is one of the jades of television. And the younger writers now writing have an entirely different approach to their art. They have found how easy it is to rely on formula, or how simply success can come through self-advertisement."

"For us it was different."

"Well, that's a good motto for this volume. Where I think the difference showed in our work was that, for all our slight-of-hand with the wonders of space-and-time, our fiction gained its power by having as unspoken topic one of the great issues of the day: the sense that the individual's role in society is eroded as society itself becomes wealthier and more powerful. This is certainly so with novels as unalike as Pohl and Kornbluth's The Space Merchants, Silverberg's The Time Hoppers, and Knight's A for Anything, Harrison and Bester, in their most characteristic fiction, allow the individual much more latitude; their heroes can save worlds or defeat the solar system; but nobody who ever meets them is likely to forget the oppressions of the decadent society in Tiger! Tiger! Or of the hunger-line crowds of Make Room! Make Room!"

"I chose the men I did because they were friends of mine, through not always particularly close friends, since the Atlantic separates us much of the time; although it is true to say that I have danced the samba with Damon Knight's wife, because it was one of those mad nights in Rio de Janerio; while I have been reasonably stoned with Fred Pohl and his wife Carol in the Tokoyo hotel room of our Russian pal Julius Kagarlitski; and so on."

"They were also chosen because I admired their innovations in sf. Knight published In Search of Wonder, the first book of critical reviews of sf, and it would be hard to overestimate the influence of his cool appraisals in a field over-fond of puffery. Bester was quite simply the popular writer who showed greatest verve and swagger in short stories and novels; although he does not realize it, he is something of a cult figure in England. One man in his time plays many parts; Pohl has played all the parts in the sf world, fan, editor, writer, advisor, ambassador. Among his other lesser virtues, he was the first guy in the States to buy one of my stories. Silverberg made a great deal of money from sf; in his exemplary piece, he relates how sf made him a millionaire - and it is a story which gives me a great deal of pleasure. He provides a deep insight into what it means to be a popular writer."

"Harrison had to be in here, simply because we co-edit books. We co-edit books because we work well together and get pleasure from so doing. I cannot recall all the odd places in which Harrison and I have found ourselves together. My life would be poorer in many ways without his friendship."

"The sixth writer is me because I could not bear to he left out. I originally approached seven writers. The seventh was Michael Moorcock. Because there has always been a bond between Moorcock and me; because I am one of the handful of people who know just how much lifeblood Moorcock gave to his sf magazine. Moorcock was the only guy who said he could not talk about himself. True modesty."

"The rest of us, happily, have no such qualms. I hope at a future date to produce a second - who knows, even a third and fourth - volume of Hell's Cartographers, since I am convinced that this is the way in which I can most easily earn posterity's gratitude. And the book, in a sense, follows naturally after my history of science fiction."

"The overall interest in this volume resides, I think, in the fact that vital parameters of our six lives lie between the Bomb and the Apollo. These two events mark out our skeptical approach to life from both those writers of a generation before us and those of a later generation. We have all been keeping the reading public reading for two or more decades; this is how and why we did it."

"My particular thanks go to Miss Nancy Neiman of Weidenfeld and Nicholson for all her understanding and assistance."


Robert Silverberg Sounding Brass, Tinkling Cymbal

About the publication of his first novel, Revolt on Alpha C


Revolt on Alpha C - First published by Thomas Y. Crowell in 1955

"That novel! Its genesis went back almost three years. When I was editor of my high-school newspaper in 1951 a book appeared for review, a science-fiction novel for boys, published by the Thomas Y. Crowell Company, an old-line New York firm. Steeped as I was in Wells and Heinlein and Stapledon and such, I reviewed this clumsy, nave book scornfully, demolishing it so effectively that in the summer of 1953 the publishing company invited me to examine and criticize, prior to publication, the last manuscript by that author. I read it and demolished it too, with such thoroughness that the book was never published. This time the Crowell editor asked me to the office and said, in effect, 'If you know so much about science fiction, why don't you try a novel for us yourself?' I accepted the challenge."

"I had attempted a novel once before, at the age of thirteen. It began as two short stories, but I subsequently combined them, elaborated, padded most shamefully, and ended up with an inch-thick manuscript that must have been one of the least coherent hodgepodges ever committed to paper. The outline of the book I suggested to Crowell in September 1953 was better, but not much. It concerned the trip of four young space cadets to Alpha Centauri on a sort of training cruise. No plot, not much action. The cadets are chosen, leave for space, stop at Mars and Pluto, reach Alpha Centauri, become vaguely entangled in a revolution going on there, become disentangled and go home. Some novel."

"Every weekend that autumn I wrote two or three chapters, working swiftly despite the pressures of college. When eight chapters were done I submitted them and received an encouraging note urging me to complete the book. It was done by min-November: nineteen chapters, 145 pages of typescript. I sent it in, heard nothing for two months, and on a Sunday in January 1954, received a stunning telephone call from the Crowell editor: they were sending me a contract for my novel. Of course, some changes would be required before it could be published."

In March I was sent a severe four-page letter of analysis. Anticlimax after anticlimax, they said; first part of book fine, last half terrible. Though immensely discouraged, I set to work rewriting, trying to build complications and a resolution into my rudimentary story. On 5 June this revision came back to me: I had allowed my main protagonist to achieve his goal by default rather than by positive action, and the publishers wouldn't let me get away with that. I promised to spend the summer considering ways to restructure the book; meanwhile Crowell would consult an outside reader for suggestions and evaluations."

"The summer passed. I did no writing, though I began vaguely to hatch a completely new plot turning on my hero's climactic conversion to the revolutionary party. At the end of October the long-awaited reader's report on the manuscript landed in the mailbox of my campus apartment. It made the job I had done on that unpublished book the year before look like praise. What was wrong, I learned, was that I really didn't know how to write. I had no idea of characterization or plotting, my technique was faulty, virtually everything except my typing was badly done. If possible, the reader said, I should enroll in a writing course at New York University."

"A year earlier, I might have been crushed; but by the autumn of 1954 I had sold a couple of competent if uninspired short stories, I had written five or six more that seemed quite publishable to me (ultimately, I sold them all), and I felt that I had a fairly firm technical grasp on the art of fiction, however faulty the execution of my novel might be at the moment. Instead of abandoning the project, I spend three hours considering what I could do to save it, and in the afternoon I telephoned my editor to tell her that I proposed a total rewrite based on the conversion-to-revolution theme. By this time she must have come to doubt her original faith in my promise and talent, but she told me to go ahead."

"I knew this was my last chance. The first step was to throw out the first nine chapters, which had survived intact through all the earlier drafts. They were good, solid chapters - it was the end of the story that was weak, not the beginning - but they had little relevance to my new theme. I compressed them into two pages and got my characters off to the Alpha Centauri system as fast as I could. In six weekends of desperate work the new novel, wholly transformed, was done. And on 2 January 1955 - one year almost to the hour since I had been notified that a contract would be offered me - I received a wonderful telegram: CONGRATULATIONS ON A WONDERFUL REVISION JOB ALL SET TO GO."

"Revolt on Alpha C was published in August 1955, to generally indifferent reviews. ('inept and unreal. A series of old-hat adventures' said the New York Times). Perhaps that was too harsh a verdict: the book is short, innocent, a little foolish, but not contemptible. It remained in print, in its Crowell edition, for seventeen years, earning modest but steady royalties until the printing was exhausted. A paperback edition published in 1959 seems to still enjoy a healthy life, having been through seven or eight printings so far, and in 1972 the book was reissued on two microfiche cards as part of the Xerox Micromedia Classroom Libraries series. This strange persistence of a very young author's very unimportant first novel does not delude me into thinking I must have created a classic unrecognized in its own day, nor do I believe it has much to do with my latter-day prominence in science fiction. That Revolt on Alpha C remains in print after nearly twenty years is no more than an odd accident of publishing, but one that I find charming as well as profitable. My father never ceases to ask if the book still brings in royalties, and he is as wonderstruck as I that it does."


Alfred Bester - My Affair With Science Fiction


The Demolished Man - Winner of the first Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1953

Alfred Bester talks about his first meeting with John W. Campbell, Jr..

"I wrote a few stories for Astounding, and out of that came my one demented meeting with John W. Campbell, Jr. I needn't preface this account with the reminder that I had worshipped Campbell from afar. I had never met him; all my stories had been submitted by mail. I hadn't the faintest idea of what he was like, but I imagined that he was a combination of Bertrand Russell and Ernest Rutherford. So I sent off another story to Campbell, one which no show would let me tackle. The title was 'Oddy and Id' and the concept was Freduian, that a man is not governed by his conscious mind but rather by his unconscious compulsions. Campbell telephoned me a week later to say that he liked the story but wanted to discuss a few changes with me. Would I come to his office? I was delighted to accept the invitation despite the fact that the editorial offices of Astounding were then the hell and gone out in the boondocks of New Jersey."

"The editorial offices were in a grim factory that looked like and probably was a printing plant. The 'offices' turned out to be one small office, cramped, dingy, occupied not only by Campbell but by his assistant, Miss Tarrant. My only yardstick for comparison was the glamourous network and advertising agency offices. I was dismayed."

"Campbell arose from his desk and shook hands. I'm a fairly big guy but he looked enormous to me, about the size of a defensive tackle. He was dour and seemed preoccupied by matters of great moment. He sat down behind his desk. I sat down on the visitor's chair."

"'You don't know it,' Campbell said, 'you can't have any way of knowing it, but Freud is finished.'"

"I stared. 'If you mean the rival schools of psychiatry, Mr. Campbell, I think-'"

"'No, I don't. Psychiatry, as we know it, is dead.'"

"'Oh come now, Mr. Campbell, surely you're joking.'"

"'I've never been more serious in my life. Freud has been destroyed by one of the greatest discoveries of our time.'"

"'What's That?'"

"'Dianetics.'"

"'I never heard of it.'"

"'It was discovered by L. Ron Hubbard, and he will win the Nobel peace prize for it,' Campell said solemnly."

"'The peace prize? What for?'"

"Wouldn't the man who wiped out war win the Nobel peace prize?'"

"'I suppose so, but how?'"

"'Through dianetics.'"

"'I honestly don't know what you're talking about, Mr. Campbell.'"

"'Read this,' he said, and handed me a sheaf of long galley proofs. They were, I discovered later, the galleys of the of the very first dianetics piece to appear in Astounding.'"

'"Read them here and now? This is an awful lot of copy.'"

"He nodded, shuffled some papers, spoke to Miss Tarrant and went about his business, ignoring me. I read the first galley carefully, the second not so carefully as I became bored by the dianetics mishmash. Finally I was just letting my eyes wander along, but was very careful to allow enough time for each galley so Campbell wouldn't know I was faking. He looked very shrewed and observant to me. After a sufficient time I stacked the galleys neatly and returned them to Campbell's desk."

"'Well?' He demanded. 'Will Hubbard win the peace prize?'"

"'It's difficult to say. Dianetics is a most original and imaginative idea, but I've only been able to read through the piece once. If I could take a set of galleys home and - '"

"'No,' Campbell said. 'There's only this one set. I'm rescheduling and pushing the article into the very next issue. It's that important.' He handed the galleys to Miss Tarrant. 'You're blocking it,' he told me. 'That's all right. Most people do that when a new idea threatens to overturn their thinking.'"

"'That may well be,' I said, 'but I don't think it's true of myself. I'm a hyperthyroid, an intellectual monkey, curious about everything.'"

"'No,' Campbell said, with the assurance of a diagnostician, 'You're a hyp-O-thyroid. But it's not a question of intellect, it's one of emotion. We conceal our emotional history from ourselves although dianetics can trace our history all the way back to the womb.'"

"'To the womb!'"

"'Yes. The foetus remembers. Come and have lunch.'"

"Remember, I was fresh from Madison Avenue and expense-account luncheons. We didn't go to the Jersey equivalent of Sardi's, '21,' or even P.J. Clark's. He led me downstairs and we entered a tacky little lunchroom crowded with printers and file clerks; an interior room with black walls that made every sound reverberate. I got myself a liverwurst on white, no mustard, and a coke. I can't remember what Campbell ate."

"We sat down at a small table while he continued to discourse on dianetics, the great salvation of the future when the world would at last be cleared of its emotional wounds. Suddenly he stood up and towered over me. 'You can drive your memory back to the womb,' he said. 'You can do it if you release every block, clear yourself and remember. Try it.'"

"'Now?'"

"'Now. Think. Think back. Clear yourself. Remember! You can remember when your mother tried to abort you with a button hook. You've never stopped hating her for it.'"

"Around me there were cries of 'BLT down, hold the mayo. Eighty-six on the English. Combo rye, relish. Coffee shake, pick up.' And here was this grim tackle standing over me, practicing dianetics without a license. The scene was so lunatic that I began to tremble with suppressed laughter. I prayed. 'Help me out of this, please. Don't let me laugh in his face. Show me a way out.' God showed me. I looked up at Campbell and said, 'You're absolutely right, Mr. Campbell, but the emotional wounds are too much to bear. I can't go on with this.'"

"He was completely satisfied. 'Yes, I could see you were shaking.' He sat down again and we finished out lunch and returned to his office. It developed that the only changes he wanted in my story was the removal of all Freudian terms which dianetics had now made obsolete. I agreed, of course; they were minor and it was a great honour to appear in Astounding no matter what the price. I escaped at last and returned to civilization where I had three double gibsons and don't be stingy with the onions."

"That was my one and only meeting with John Campbell and certainly my only story conference with him. I've had some wild ones in the entertainment business but nothing to equal that. It reinforced my private opinion that a majority of the science fiction crowd, despite their brilliance, were missing their marbles. Perhaps that's the price that must be paid for brilliance."


Harry Harrison - The Beginning of the Affair


Bill, The Galactic Hero - Published in New Worlds in August 1965

Harry reflects on the writing of Bill, the Galactic Hero

"At that period a novel a year was the most I could do and the thought of losing a year's book income was not to be considered. Until then all of my novels had been serialized in ASF, bringing in nearly three thousand dollars with the bonus, and the novel I had in mind was certainly not for Campbell."

"Eventually the artist triumphed over the businessman, ears became numb to the sound of hungry children crying in the background, and I contacted Damon Knight. Damon was acting as an sf literary scout for Berkley Books and I was sure he would be simpatico to my needs. I sent him the first (and only) chapter I had written of an experimental novel titled 'If You Can Read This You Are Too Damn Close.' With it were some one page character sketches and a few words about the kind of novel I wanted to attempt. Damon liked it and went to bat for me and extracted a $1500 advance from Berkley. Taking a deep breath I climbed to my office in the attic, looked out across the frozen Oresund to the snowy shore of Sweden, and began writing 'Bill, the Galactic Hero.'

"It was a shaking experience. I was doing less than half my normal wordage every day and greatly enjoying myself - at the time. Laughter all day at the typewriter - how I do enjoy my own jokes - instant depression when I came down for dinner. Upon reading, the stuff seemed awful. Or awfully way out; there had never been anything like it in sf before. Then back the next the day for some more chuckling and suffering. Joan was a pillar of strength at this period, reading the copy and laughing out loud and saying it was great and get on with the job and stop muttering to yourself. I got on with it, finished it, had it typed and mailed off to Damon."

"Who rejected it saying what I had here was an adventure story loused up with bad jokes. Take the jokes out and it would be OK."

"Although everything eventually ended happily this was one of life's low moments. Tom Dardis, the editor-in-chief at Berkley, seemed to like the book, but he did not want to go over the head of his paid adviser. It was Tim Seldes, the Doubleday sf editor, who broke the ice. He greatly enjoyed the book and said he would buy it for that firm. Cheered on by this assurance Berkley agreed to publish it was well. In England, Hilary Rubinstein was then editor for Gollancz and he read, enjoyed and bought it as well. (Thus beginning a long and enduring relationship for he is now a literary agent, the best in Britain, and mine of course.) Fred Pohl bought the serial rights for Galaxy and Mike Moorcock did the same in Britain for New Worlds, then in the first flower of its new personality after Mike had replaced Carnell as editor."

"Here was a message of some kind. Sf was growing and contained within its once pulp boundaries new and different markets. Bill was positively not an ASF serial and had not even been submitted there. (In later years I discovered that my judgment had been correct in this at least. One day John Campbell asked me why I had written this book. I said I would tell him if he told me why he had asked. His answer was that he had seen my name on the paperback and bought it - as if he did not have enough sf to read! - and had hated it. (I made some sort of waffling answer and worked hard to change the subject). I felt that there must be a bigger market out there than I had imagined and perhaps I could now write for myself and please readers at the same time. This was a momentous discovery and marked a new period in my writing. Not that I didn't do the familiar to stay alive. Deathworld 3 and a number of Stainless Steel Rat books were still in the future, but I found I could experiment with new ideas and forms and still hope to sell them as well. This has a happy ending in that I now usually write only the kind of novels I want to write and enjoy good serial and book sales."


Damon Knight - Knight Piece


Damon Knight with Kate Wilhelm

I cannot say how completely I enjoyed this essay by Damon Knight. He goes into a lot of fun details concerning the early days of science fiction, shares stories about (now) well-known authors and the beginnings of The Futurians. Following are a few paragraphs about his relationship with Horace Gold, editor of Galaxy.

"I had first met Horace Gold in 1950, shortly after the first issues of Galaxy appeared. He was a bald, stocky man, restless and energetic, boastful, innovative, brilliant - all the things that Galaxy was. Under all this there was a hard core of despair. Once when he reached for some small object on his desk it toppled and broke. 'Gold touched it,' he said glumly. After the war Gold had developed an extreme case of agoraphobia, and now never left the East Side apartment where he lived with his wife and young son. There were frequent parties there, and he spent hours in telephone conversations. I was always uneasy around Gold because he was the only editor who was buying my stuff with any regularity and because I wanted to like him better than I did. I have since felt the vibrations of similar feelings from writers I have published. It's easier to like someone who is dependent on your favours than it is for him to like you."

"Once I called Horace to ask how the magazine was doing, and he asked me as a favour to write to the publishers praising the first issue. I thought this was an odd request, but said I would, and wrote a letter beginning, 'At H. L. Gold's suggestion, I write to tell you what a great job I think he is doing as editor of Galaxy.' They showed the letter to Gold, and he told me his wife thought I was knifing him, but he realized I was merely nave. After that, every time something went wrong at Galaxy, Evelyn said, 'Oh, well, Damon can always take over.'"

"Gold had an incurable habit of overediting stories; as Lester once said, he turned mediocre stories into good ones, and excellent stories into good ones. He bought Edgar Pangborn's beautiful 'Angel's Egg' and showed it to several writers in manuscript, then reqrote some of its best phrases. He changed the description of the 'angel' (a visitor from another planet) riding on the back of a hawk 'with her speaking hands on his terrible head' to 'with her telepathic hands on his predatory head.' According to Ted Sturgeon, when the issue came out and the story was read in the printed version, three people tried to phone Gold to curse him for a meddler. Sturgeon got in the habit of marking out certain phrases in his manuscripts and writing them in again above the line in ink. Gold asked him why he did that, pointing out that it made it difficult for him to write in corrections. 'That's why I do it,' Sturgeon replied."

"Gold was certainly one of the best idea men in the business, and contributed more to the stories published in Galaxy than will ever be known. Blish complained that his invariable response to an author's idea was to turn it on its head, but in fact sometimes he merely turned it sidewise, to its great benefit."

Once Horace called me up in Canadensis and proposed that I become what he called a utility writer for Galaxy, writing stories to order on whatever themes Horace needed at the moment, and under pseudonyms - 'maybe even under women's names'. I wanted to say no but didn't dare, and agreed with such faint enthusiasm that Horace knew what I meant, and was disappointed twice - once for my refusal and once for my failure to come out with it. I know now that editors are constantly disappointed by authors' unwillingness to fight, and would often rather have a forthright 'no' than a weak-kneed 'yes'."


Excerpts from the ending section of this book, called How We Work

Robert Silverberg:


A Time of Changes Nebula Award winner for Best Novel, 1971

"But, as readers of my early stories know, the prose was simple, functional stuff, the plot showed signs of improvisation, the narrative flow as often congested with padding: when no inspiration came I nevertheless kept my agile fingers moving with the action, however inconsequential or irrelevant, spinning. As I matured this method of work no longer sufficed for me, and by the time of my first 'new' fiction - in the mid-sixties - I was very much more careful, doing detailed outlines before beginning, pausing to rewrite scenes that didn't seem acceptable as they came from the typewriter, going back to put in inserts, in short doing a great deal of planning and revising. Still, most of what I was publishing through 1967 or so was basically first-draft stuff - written more slowly, conceived with greater care, but even so not subjected to any systematic process of overall rewriting. My years as a high-volume producer had given me skills of expression and improvisation that allowed me to say what I wanted to say clearly and effectively in a single try."

"What I wanted to say, though, became ever more complex and difficult to express, and during the late sixties my working methods evolved toward what they are today, so very different from my habits of fifteen years ago. I still work in a faithful five-day-a-week routine, although my hours now fun only from nine to noon, and the holiday weeks are more frequent. I no longer try to set a fixed schedule of pages per day, however, being content to work at whatever pace is necessary for each day's task; and so, wheras in 1957 I could tell you on 3 October what I would be writing on the 12th of December (and almost certainly be right), I now have no idea how long it will take me to finish any project. I used to short stories of up to 7,500 words in a single day; now they require, sometimes, six to eight weeks, and writing novels, once a job of two or three weeks, has become an endless procedure."

"I still begin with a title and a brief statement of theme. Then, on the backs of old envelopes, come structural notations having to do with overall form and texture of the work, lists of characters, bits of background data, suggested sequences of chapters. I usually have the beginning and the end of any story fairly clear before I start; the middle is subject to development once the story acquires life of its own, and so I constantly write memoranda to myself as I go along. (The final paragraphs of Born With the Dead presented themselves to me, unbidden, while I was watching 'Last Tango in Paris,' and quite distracted me from the movie; the moment the film was over I grabbed pen and paper and wrote everything down, feverishly, before it vanished. Some day I must go back and see the second half of 'Last Tango' again.)"

"I never try to get away with one-draft writing any more. Using old letters, advertising circulars, bits of manuscript, or any other sheets of paper with one blank side, I write (single-spaced) a paragraph or two, go back and do it again, do it three or four times if necessary, then try another passage, and so on until I have a thousand words or so of work that I consider acceptable. At this point I usually type a fair copy, double-spaced, and put it aside; then I continue with more rough work, and so I proceed through the story, now doing new material, now revising, now retyping, the final manuscript constantly growing as I plough onward into new territory. Very frequently I discover that I have been premature about committing the early pages of a story to final-copy form: it has become almost customary for me to halt, thirty or forty pages along, realize I've made a false start, consult frantically with my wife (who has the unique privilege of seeing works in progress, and only in their earliest phases, when I'm least sure of myself) and go back to page one. This creates a mound of blank-on-one-side waste paper out of what for a while had been my 'final' draft, but I recycle it into drafts to come."


Alfred Bester:

"It's tough explaining preparation. It means that every item of life, no matter how minute, must be observed and noted. You never know when it may become useful, perhaps never, but it must be there waiting. I don't know how many times I've combined notes made years apart into one story. This means that the author must split her personality. Half of him is participating in the scene; the other half is watching himself and the other members of the cast keenly. It's rotten. It's hell. It's a price an author must pay."

"Dedication: I don't write two hours a day, or four, or eight; I write twenty-four hours a day. I can't help myself. I keep thinking story, even in my sleep, not as an observer but as a participant. I'm inside the story. I'm all the characters. Of course it must be understood that many of these stories never come to fruition, let alone writing. I pass them off as fantasies and let them go. A few of them still haunt me, however, and I often wonder whether my unconscious is making its own notes."


Harry Harrison:

"In the morning, anywhere between eight and ten, I go to the studio (called that instead of study of office by reflex from the art days) and put in a day's work. When I am writing I emerge at cocktail time in need of strong drink. When I am editing I emerge at the same time in greater need since most editing is such drudgery. When I am working at a piece of fiction I stay with it for as many days as it takes. Early on, in honour of the Christian work ethic, I used to work the six day week and take Sunday off. I found this broke the motion of a book so I began to work straight through on the first draft. Since I average about 2,000 words a day this means at least a month of continuous writing. That's fine. It also means weeks off at a time when others are in their offices. There are really only three advantages to the freelance life. (1) You can live wherever you wish. (2) You can work the hours you want. (3) You can wear comfortable clothes and old shirts while on the job and save a fortune in suits and white shirts."

"I work from an outline always, more or less detailed, but always an outline. Many pages of a book, just a firm idea in mind for a short story. I know writers who start a story with no idea how it will end; I would rather die first. I am a firm back-plotter and must know the ending before I begin, then expend writing energy disguising the fact that I always know what is coming next."

"My study contains a long desk, formerly from a drafting room, cut down so the whole thing is at typewriter height. On this are in and out baskets for correspondence, a holder for paper and stationary, the telephone - with a switch to turn it off so it won't ring - and a calculator so I can figure how much money I am owed at any given time."

"The carbon-set is a must. Early in life I found I needed copies of letters uncopied, carbons of manuscripts lost in the mail and such. Now a carbon goes in with anything, other than labels or envelopes, that I put in the machine."

"I labour this way until the first draft is done. Less than a week for the usual short story, the mentioned month at least for the novel. If the work to hand is a book I take an extra large drink after I type those fine words THE END and lay the whole thing aside for a bit. A week usually. Joan and I take a weekend in Mexico, or some such place, and sun, water, food and drink cleanse the mind. Then I begin the rewrite, something that gets progressively harder each time through. I do try to get through the book at least five times. I write very tightly and rarely do more than change words right on the page, punctuation, grammar, the usual thing. When this is finally done I emit what is called an intense sigh of relief. Some writers retype their mss, thereby finding a chance for more rewrite, but since I am the world's worst typist I bundle the entire thing off to my typist, the pearl-beyond-price, Mrs. Fitzhamon. (First making a Xerox of the rewritten ms. which differs a good deal from the carbon.) She lives near Brighton and makes no errors and finds all of mine, and if you have ever had a bad or indifferent typist you will understand how good a superlative one can be."


Damon Knight:

"By the time I feel ready to start a short story I usually have a pretty clear idea of its form, and have written down a list of scenes. A novel is different, and I always write reams of background material first. Then I throw out most of it and write more. This is a terribly inefficient way of making a novel, and it partly accounts for the fact that I have written so few."

"I am particular about the names of characters, and at one time kept a list of good ones, crossing them off as I used them. Names in stories should have the variety and absurdity of real names. They can be used to suggest what part of the country a character comes from, what his parents were like, etc; they can also be used, as Hammett used them, to give subliminal cues about people in a story."

"I write one draft and correct it heavily for style, etc. If part of it gets too bad, I cross it out and write in a new version; I often throw pages away and start over, but I try to keep the work up to a satisfactory level as I go, rather than running out a complete first draft and then correcting the whole thing. This is not efficient, either."

"I think I can tell by the look of a page whether it is well proportioned or not. If I know where I'm going in a scene it will come out in approximately the right form and length, but if I am just noddling around hoping for inspiration to strike, it will go on drifting forever."


Frederik Pohl:


Frederik Pohl

"How do I write? Any way I can. There is a disciplined way, an inspired way and a way of desperation. The inspired way is most pleasurable; it is joyous to conceive a story, sit down at the typewriter and bring it to birth in a single sitting. Unfortunately inspiration hardly ever lasts past the first ten pages, so that only works for short stories, and not many of them. The way of desperation is surest, the times what I have so boxed myself in that I have no choice but to write. I try to avoid the post-deadline, bills-due, editors-screaming sort of desperation that makes it hard to work because it is uncomfortable, and also because often enough it produces bad work. But sometimes it produces good work, too - I cannot say why sometimes it is the one and sometimes the other - and anyway, without at least a little desperation I am not sure I would finish many stories."

"So year in and year out I mostly rely on the disciplined way. For me the procedure is simple. Once a day I sit down at my typewriter, roll a sheet of paper in and do not get up until I have produced four pages of copy. If I am going well, maybe I'll produce more; but however badly things are going, I will produce those four or die for it. It's as simple as that. Sometimes it takes forty-five minutes to write the four pages, sometimes twelve hours. But when I am on my quota system editors smile at me, I meet deadlines. I produce satisfying amounts of material and all the world is mine."


Brian Aldiss:


Brian W. Aldiss in his study

"Much of my time - Harry says the same thing - is spent doing nothing. I suppose I work about nine months of the year and, during that nine months, I do a six-day week every week. I'm in my study by 9:30 or 10, remaining there till about 4:30, with an hour or two break for lunch, when I may, or more likely may not, take a stroll. For half of those days, my time is spent answering correspondence from all over the world - I must be mad to do it. Half of the rest of the time, I do nothing, either sitting and gazing relaxedly out of the window at the twentieth century unfolding, or walking about twitchily with ideas half-formed, occasionally picking out a book from the shelves and reading an odd page. Only in the rest of my time do I actually manage a little fiction."

"My study is at the top of the house, a spacious and comfortable area with cacti, sofas, an easy chair, three desks, and thousands of books. Phone, radio, tv, cassette-player, electronic calculator, photo-copier, intercom; but no booze or cigars. I never smoke or drink when I'm writing, except on occasions at the end of the day when I'm getting a bit ragged."

"An understanding wife is one of a writer's greatest assets. Not only is Margaret my first and shrewdest reader, she makes it easy for me to slip off for the odd week to a cottage in the depths of the country, where I work in absolute peace, sometimes writing for twelve hours a day (but I never go without being clear about what I wish to write.)"

"People always want to know how long it takes to write. Novels impose different schedules, just as they need different approaches. The fastest novel I ever wrote was Dark Light Years, because I did it in a fit of anger. It was all complete in a month - but I did nothing else in that month except write or do nothing. Barefoot In the Head occupied me for over two years. The average time is about a year. Billion Year Spree took the best part of three years to write. Now that I'm moderately successful, I want to spend more time over novels - instead, I seem to spend more time over correspondence."


Original content 2013-2017 Paula's Reading Room. All rights reserved.