The Space Merchants

    Our most famous collaboration.

When I seriously began trying to be a writer — by which I mean when I began to write stories with beginnings, middles and ends — I began feeling the need to have other people around who were doing the same thing.

I wasn’t the only one. It was quite common for three or four, sometimes more, beginning writers to get together for a few hours after dinner — perhaps in someone’s apartment or, more likely, an office, because the chances of finding enough typewriters to go around would be better there — and everybody start typing at once. Then when we had something complete, we would show the story to the other guys, or maybe read it aloud to everyone at once, for criticism.

I don’t know that the presence of others made my own writing any better, but it did encourage me to do more of it. This is a good thing in itself. The very best way to improve as a writer is to keep right on writing until it gets good.

I hooked up briefly with two of these mutual-assistance groups. In neither case did we talk to each other about what we were going to write until we had written it. That was just as well, in a way, because what I wrote was almost always science fiction and in that the others had no interest at all. (A feeling I reciprocated about their light boy-girl comedies or sports.) I yearned not just to practice the mechanical skills but to hear trade talk about science fiction.

Then — blessed day! — along came the Futurians.

The Futurians were one of the New York area’s science-fiction fan clubs, but they were a little different from the others. We didn’t just want to read sf and talk about it. We wanted to make it — to write it, or to become editors of it or in some other way to become professionally involved in producing it, and to make that sort of thing our lifelong careers. So naturally, inevitably, we started our own writing group.

Actually, it might actually be more accurate to say we became one, because even the non-obsessed fraction of our members were mildly interested in the writing. All we needed was a place to set our portable typewriters — and then, when three of our members decided to club together on a joint apartment at 2574 Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn that would also be the club headquarters, that problem was solved. We called it the Ivory Tower (it was on the fourth walk-up floor), and there we wrote. Three or four of us at a time, sometimes more.

The diligent ones, first to last, were Cyril Kornbluth, Dick Wilson, Donald Wollheim, Robert A.W. Lowndes, Dirk Wylie, James Blish, Damon Knight and, of course, me. Member Isaac Asimov rarely joined us in these sessions. He was as eager as anybody else, but he had to work regular shifts at his mom and pop’s candy store and so had to do most of his practice writing alone. (Well, except for a couple of minor collaborations with me, which are in his book The Early Asimov.) And, as you see, quite a few of us made the professional cut — some, like Isaac, almost excessively.

In fact we had a kind of success that writers’ workshops seldom achieve. Why? There may have been several reasons, but perhaps one of them was that there was a particular exercise we did that most workshops don’t do. We didn’t give each other just criticism and moral support. We began doing something else. We began to collaborate.

There are many ways of collaborating,. I think the traditional way goes with two writers getting into a room with a pot of coffee and a typewriter. One of them sits down at the typewriter and types their names and addresses and a title for the story and then looks expectantly at the other. Who says, “Okay, let’s start with he meets the girl. She gets out of a taxi, but when she closes the door and it starts away her dress is caught and the skirt is pulled off.” While the other one is typing away. And they keep on doing that, maybe changing places from time to time, until the story’s done.

What all the ways have in common is that two (or occasionally more) people are involved, and the hope is that if one gets stuck the other will come up with a way to get out of it. Or, when it’s working well, one has an idea for a bit of business and the other takes it and runs with it.

I’ll give you an example from life. When Cyril and I were writing The Space Merchants long, long, long ago we had some scenes in a food factory that we called Chlorella Costa Rica, where people were farming algae to turn into food for poor people. I said, “Why don’t we give them some actual meat? They can have an Alexis Carrel chicken heart that just keeps growing and growing and they chop steaks off it as it rotates.”

And Cyril said, “Fine,” and began to type and made the whole Chicken Little bit out of it. If you’ve read the book you know how fine that was; if you haven’t take my word for it. It was fine.

You have just seen one of the reasons why I loved collaborating with Cyril, but what I’m saying is that collaborating can help, even if you don’t have two writers who work together as productively as Cyril and I often did. It is often helpful to a newbie to collaborate, even with another newbie, just for the sake of the life support and discipline they can give each other.

Enough for now. Next time I’ll tell you how collaborating can help you even when you don’t have anyone to collaborate with.

Related posts:
Fred’s Distilled Writing Wisdom,
Part 1, Part 3, Part 4


  1. Les Males Herbes magazine says:

    Nice thing, changing the algae for the meat! In some way, it makes the story more raw, maybe anticipating all the transgenic stuff with food of nowadays…

    On the other hand, I agree with the good points about collaboration, but don’t forget also the bad ones! Sometimes working with other people can force you to “cut off” the more risky plots, turning the stories into something milder, isn’t it?

  2. Joe Fodor says:

    As I recall, the correct address for the Ivory Tower is 2754 Bedford Avenue, Apt. 4D. I live just down the street from there — one of my goals in life is to get Borough President Marty Markowitz to affix a plaque to that building. So much came from that one little apartment!

  3. Stefan Jones says:

    I love mentioning “Chicken Little” to friends and co-workers when news reports about vat-grown meat turn up.

    But I hate even more the fact that our world is world is starting to look like the one in The Space Merchants.

  4. laura says:

    i’m curious to know what is your ethnicity…are you of estonian origin?

  5. JJ says:

    Kornbluth’s “Chicken Little” subplot is indeed memorable; when describing The Space Merchants to friends, all I need say is “It’s the book with the in vitro chicken.” and they know exactly the book I mean…