Robert Silverberg Speaks of a Writer’s Beginnings

from L. Ron Hubbard presents Writers of the Future Volume 1

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What a wonderful idea—one of science fiction’s all-time giants opening the way for a new generation of exciting talent! For these brilliant stories, and the careers that will grow from them, we all stand indebted to L. Ron Hubbard.

We were all new writers once—even Sophocles, even Homer, even Jack Williamson. And I think we all must begin in the same way, those of us who are going to be writers. We start by being consumers of the product: in childhood we sit around the campfire listening to the storyteller, caught in his spell, lost in the fables he spins, envying and admiring him for the magical skill by which he holds us. “I wonder how he does that,” we think—concerned, even then, as much with technique, the tricks of the trade, as we are with the matter of the tales being told. So we go off and wander in the woods by ourselves for a little while, thinking about the storyteller’s story and how he told it, considering his opening few words and how they drew the audience in, and how he developed his narrative, and brought it to its climax, and how he managed to finish it in such a way that when he looked up, eyes glowing, and grinned at his listeners, everyone in the campfire circle knew beyond doubt that the story was over. We ponder such things, perhaps even tell ourselves a little story just to see what the process feels like, and then, perhaps the next day, we turn to a couple of our classmates and say, “I heard an interesting story last night,” and so we begin.

Photo of Robert Silverberg Roger Zelazny Gregory Benford and Algis Budrys

We begin young, most of us. That’s most notably true, I suspect, in the field of science fiction, where prodigies are the rule rather than the exception. It’s not hard to understand why: science fiction, like other forms of fantasy, is uniquely favored by the young reader, and so by the young storyteller. Thus we see Isaac Asimov selling stories at eighteen, and writing the classic Nightfall at twenty-one; we have Algis Budrys on every magazine’s contents page before he was twenty-two, Harlan Ellison doing the same, Bradbury famous for his weird tales at twenty-three, Theodore Sturgeon turning out Microcosmic God at about that age, Frederik Pohl not only a professional writer but a magazine editor at twenty-one, and so on and so on.

Of course, there are those professional writers whose first published stories appeared when they were thirty or forty or even seventy years of age. I think here of Robert A. Heinlein, starting his career at the age of thirty-two after leaving the Navy, or Gene Wolfe, who was thirty-four when he sold his first story, or Ursula K. Le Guin, first published at thirty-three, or “James Tiptree,” who must have been about fifty. But even late bloomers like these, I’m quite sure, were writing stories long before they ever bothered to get them published. Perhaps Heinlein was different—it’s my guess that Heinlein had never written a story in his life until he sat down to turn out a completely satisfactory one on his first try one day in 1939, because that’s the way I imagine Heinlein has always done things—but surely Le Guin and Wolfe and “Tiptree” were storytellers from childhood on, furtively scribbling curious little things and hiding them in desk drawers, or at best sharing them with a trusted playmate. Every professional writer I know—again, with the possible exception of Heinlein—began telling stories as soon as he knew what a story was.

And how does one know what a story is? By listening to them, before one can read; by reading them, insatiably, a little while later; by taking them apart, soon after that, to find their essential components; and, finally, by writing them. I remember that process in myself: the appetite for vicarious experience that could never be sated, the stacks of books carried home from the public library at age six or seven, the sheets of lined paper clumsily covered with “stories” that were really just reworkings of things I had read or heard, and, finally—by age eleven or twelve—the first stories that were something more than imitations, however crude they might be and however much they might owe to my previous reading. Out of all this came the awareness, by the time I was thirteen, that I might actually be able to create stories that other people would want to read, if only I could discover the secrets of the trade. And then, all during my adolescence, the single-minded quest to identify those secrets and penetrate to the heart of the storytelling mysteries.

I remember reading books with titles like The Narrative Art and The Structure of the Novel and even Writing to Sell. They taught me useful things, sure. So did a book called Greek Tragedy, by H.D.F. Kitto, which taught me nothing at all about science fiction but everything in the world about the relationship of plot and character. (I often recommend it to young writers, who look at me in bewilderment when I do. Generally they shrug my recommendation off, I suppose. So be it.) But I really learned about fiction by reading it. If a story held me and moved me and awed me and startled me, I read it fifty times to see how the writer had done those things to me. I looked at the opening paragraph and the closing paragraph and hunted for relationships between them; I measured the mix of dialog and expository narrative; I checked the length of paragraphs, the quantity of adjectives and adverbs, the use of punctuation, and a lot of other things. I counted the number of characters, and how many of them appeared on stage per thousand words. I studied the way complications piled up as a story unfolded.

Oh, I worked at it! I read Heinlein and Asimov and Clarke, Henry Kuttner and James Blish and Cyril Kornbluth, Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance, Bradbury and Sturgeon. I read Conrad and Faulkner, too, and Kafka, and Thomas Mann, and Joyce and Ibsen and especially Sophocles. In particular the writers I studied closely were the ones just a few years ahead of me—Robert Sheckley, Poul Anderson, Algis Budrys, Philip K. Dick, and a few others: I figured their secrets might be easier to isolate than those of the more experienced writers. (It wasn’t so.) By the time I was eighteen I had absorbed this great mass of words, I had derived from it a handful of basic principles so simple I could list them on a single page (but I’ve never let myself be talked into doing it), and I set out to write some stories.

Since then I haven’t given much thought to theoretical matters; but I don’t need to, because the theory is as much a part of me as the marrow of my bones, and can be taken for granted just as readily as one’s bone marrow is. I know no other way to go about the business of becoming a writer. Sit by the campfire, listen to the storyteller, arrive at some sense of what is being done, and start doing it yourself. And very shortly, if you really are a writer, you will have so deeply internalized the principles you sought so hard to find that you stop thinking about them at all; you merely tell your stories, in what you know to be your own way. And it is your own way: but also it’s the way in which all tales have been told from Homer and Sophocles down through Kipling, Hemingway, Bradbury, Sturgeon, McCaffrey, Zelazny, whoever. Once upon a time, you say, there lived so-and-so in such and such a place, and while he was minding his own business the following absolutely astonishing thing happened to him. And so you begin; and they gather close about you, for they cannot choose but to hear.
—Robert Silverberg