Posts tagged ‘James Blish’

Ben Bova

Ben Bova

In the beginning of his career, young Ben Bova had a good job writing about the hardware his employer, Avco-Everett Research Laboratory, dealt with, but a yearning to write something less confining, particularly science fiction. When he began trying his hand at that he got a welcome from John Campbell, arguably the top editor in the field, who was fond of nuts-and-bolts science fiction anyway. But even that wasn’t quite satisfying.

In Milford, Pennsylvania, three established writers — James Blish, damon knight and Judy Merril — had just banded together to start the first in the long subsequent series of Milford Science-Fiction Writers Conferences. Ben signed up and became one of their early graduates.

For those unfamiliar with writers’ conferences, it often seems that even the best of them appear to be almost as much encounter groups as writers’ tutorials. Enrollees are expected to spend one or more weeks in shared housing, to each write a new story of some kind at regular intervals, and then to sit in a circle setup to have other participants discuss his or her story, sometimes to the point of exploring what hidden emotions had caused him or her to write it. It is a pressure-cooker environment and it was my personal observation that many writers who had gone through the experience — Cyril Kornbluth and Algis Budrys — for example, went through post-Milford periods of writing little or nothing for a time.

I still think that is a danger for those attending writers’ conferences, but as far as Ben Bova was concerned I could not have been more wrong. Whether because of Milford or simply because some of the synapses in his brain re-hooked themselves into new patterns, beginning around that period, his fiction began to show deeper insights into his characters, and thus were better books.

Or it simply may have been that he went through an even more demanding tutorial when John Campbell unexpectedly died, and Street & Smith hired Ben to replace him. I have long held that being an editor of other people’s stories is one of the best ways to improve your own writing. (I’m pretty sure it helped for me.)

Anyway, Ben was a great disappointment to Street & Smith. Not as an editor; he kept up the standing of the magazine. May even have improved it, as when Ben manumitted the writers from the I-hate-smut fervor of John Campbell’s (and also Ben Bova’s) associate editor, Kay Tarrant, who had made it her calling to expunge anything that hinted at the possibility of excretion or intercourse from every story, a step which added some parle to the magazine. No, what disappointed the elder gods was just tenure. They had hoped for an editor who would stay on the job for thirty or forty years, like Campbell, and through all that period continue to act as the small but welcome cash cow Astounding/Analog had always been for them. That didn’t happen. Bob Guccione came along with an offer Ben couldn’t refuse to become fiction editor (later managing editor) of Omni, where he stayed until the magazine itself died

Which was probably a good thing for Ben’s writing career, because it freed him to put in his time writing the more than 100 successful books that now grace his shelves.

Judy and Merril in happier days.

Judy and Merril in happier days.

Well, let’s not draw this out any longer than we have to. Judy asked if I wanted to buy the house back from her, I said yes, Judy went off roaming somewhere, I don’t know where, and my new Significant Other, Carol Metcalf Ulf Stanton, and I began moving ourselves in.

There are a fair number of details about that period that I’m not sure I remember right in the area of what happened before which. One of those things is where the kids, Merril and Ann, were at that point. I think most probably that at least at first all three of them were with Carol and me. (Three. Judy’s Merril, our Ann and Carol’s Karen, daughter of her marriage to L. Jerome Stanton.) And for a time there, I don’t think a very long one, Judy and I were tolerating each other.

Then we weren’t.

We disagreed over how we were going to share Ann’s time, somewhat civilly at first, and then very uncivilly. I don’t know how that would have worked out, because it was around then that Danny Zissman appeared at my front door, and he was the bucket of gasoline that set our fires roaring,

Danny was Judy’s first husband, Merril’s father. Unknown to me, he had been having his own troubles with Judy, over custody of Merril, and he was fed up. He had been talking to lawyers, he said, and, on their advice, he was about to sue Judy for Merril’s custody. He thought he had a pretty good chance of winning, on the evidence, he said, listing fifteen or twenty things Judy had done, but he wanted to make winning a sure thing. Which it would be if I would join him with both of us suing Judy at once.

Oh, that was the siren song, all right.

I wasn’t at all sure Danny’s own case was as strong as he thought it was. His list of Judy’s misdeeds included some pretty trivial stuff. But there was also some stuff that might sway a judge, and I could see that the two of us suing her together would help both our cases … and, oh, wouldn’t it be nice to have this aggravation out of the way forever? So I mulled it over and then I said I’d join him.

 
I think there is too much suing of people for one thing or another, and I didn’t really look forward to all the bad stuff that was sure to come. I have only very rarely done that sort of thing in my life. Even now I would like to avoid suing that wretch for his vicious book if I can. I had those same feelings about joining Danny’s suit. But I got busy, and began to prepare for testifying.

The bad things began to happen right away.

Continue reading ‘Judith Merril, Part 7: When It All Hit the Fan’ »

I took the writers who had been getting $75 checks from Thrilling Wonder and worked with them to begin selling to Galaxy at twice the rate.

I took the writers who had been getting $75 checks from Thrilling Wonder and worked with them to begin selling to Galaxy at twice the rate.

Let’s talk for a bit about my career as an agent.

Mark Rich has a lot to say about my failings, especially my financial woes, which were considerable. A J Budrys told a funny story about them in one of the last speeches he gave, at the Heinlein Centennial, a year or two before he died. He had discovered what a great agent I was, he said, when I sold John Campbell a story of A J’s that Campbell had turned down cold before A J became my client. And then when he got my check, it bounced.

Funny story? Sadly, also a true one.

But the interesting thing there is that A J didn’t quit the agency. He remained my client until the waters finally closed over my head. And almost all of my other clients, Isaac Asimov and Hal Clement and John Wyndham and Fritz Leiber and all the other household names and the lesser names that I was bringing along gave me an amazing amount of patience, and most of them didn’t want to give up until I did.

And, most interesting of all, most of them were my good friends for the rest of my life.

Do you wonder why?

I’ll tell you why. It was because I was a hell of a good agent.

First, I took the writers who had been getting $75 checks from Thrilling Wonder and worked with them to begin selling to Galaxy at twice the rate, and then I worked with the — magazine writers to turn them into book authors, and I kept looking for new and better markets they could sell to. A few I managed to get into television deals, even into syndicated newspaper cartoon strips. Some I managed to promote from the pulps to the slicks, at many times the rate.

In short, I did everything a good agent did for his clients. (I would like to say that, even today, not all agents are quite that good.) But I did something rather more than that.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what made a good writer — almost any of my dozens of good writers — sometimes be productive and profitable and sometimes be unable to get anything written for days or weeks at a time. I tried several different ways of, first, encouraging the writers to write, and, second, to do so at the top of their form. I finally invented one that worked.

I made a promise to eight or ten of my best (but not always solvent) writers that any time they brought in a new story I would hand them a check for that much wordage.. My rate was low for these incentive checks, at a half cent a word, but then when the story actually sold to a publisher the writer would be credited at the publisher’s scale, not that of my advances.

As a result, if you look at the stories published in the last year or so of my agency’s existence you will find that there were a larger number than usual of really good stories by Budrys, James Blish, Damon Knight and a dozen or so other clients who took me up on that offer. It worked. It got the writers writing more, and sometimes better. It even increased my sales to those markets, a little. And if I were unfortunate enough to become an agent again, I would at once start up something like that for at least a few clients.

But it also represented one more outflow of capital, and there wasn’t enough capital left to flow. Most of my clients didn’t want to leave, but finally, I gave up and folded the agency, and started paying everybody back.

Interestingly, maybe I should say ironically, then two unexpected new lifesavers were thrown to me.

Continue reading ‘What My Clients Thought’ »

Algis Budrys (Photo by William Shunn).

Algis Budrys
(Photo by William Shunn).
 

By the mid-1960s, Algis Budrys had become a darling of the critics. In the field of science fiction, two of the most respected at that time were Kingsley Amis and James Blish. Kingsley said that the way A J was going, he might become the most honored sf writer since H. G. Wells. Jim was less restrained. He thought that A J was becoming the finest writer in a second language since Joseph Conrad. One of A J’s stories had already been made into a film, though not a particularly good one, and his future was bright.

It was at that point that A J basically stopped writing science fiction and went off to Chicago to get into the public-relations business.

Why?

Well, I don’t know why. When A J took off for Chicago and a brief career as Mr. Pickle in a relish promoter’s PR campaign, it was a surprise to me. Perhaps it was because of the merciless difference between salary income and writer income that I alluded to earlier. By then the Budrys family census stood at six, with four healthy infant sons that needed to be fed every day — and would inevitably need more and more as the years advanced. But I lost touch with him for a year or two.

When I reconnected with him he had escaped from advertising and gone to work as the book editor for Playboy.

That made a certain amount of sense to me, particularly as he was showing signs of getting back to doing writing for me again. I was still editing for Bob Guinn, who had gradually enriched my expense account enough to permit annual trips to spur authors along . When in Chicago, I always spent some time with the Budryses. Their lives appeared to have slowed down and smoothed out.

But in that, too, I was quite wrong.

One day, back at home in New Jersey, I got a phone call from A J. He had news. The Church of Scientology had decided to honor their founder and principal sage, the science-fiction (and everything else, but best known for his science fiction) author L. Ron Hubbard, by establishing a new contest for talented entry-level sf writers that would pave the way for some of them to make the transition to professional success. Since none of the Scientology people knew much about publishing, they needed to find someone who did to save them from making too many blunders, and they had found A J.

“What I’m trying to do for them now,” he said, “is to try to find them major writers who —”

“No,” I said.

“— would be willing to be judges — what did you say?”

“I said, ‘no,'” I told him.

“But you didn’t let me tell you the good parts,” he said,

“That’s right,” I said. “I said, ‘no.’ ”

See how I handled it? A quick, firm decision, and then on to the next thing. No looking back, either.

Except that a few months later, when A J called again to tell me that Theodore Sturgeon, who A J had taken on as my replacement, was gravely ill, and A J was in a really tough spot, and if I could just help him out until he could find someone else. . . .

So I did it. I helped him out, and kept on doing it for the next thirty years.

 
In my defense, I will say that Writers of the Future, now broadened to include artists of the future, is indeed a good thing for beginning writers and artists, who can use all the help they can get. But there it is.

A J didn’t confine his efforts to Writers of the Future for the rest of his life. There was a prolonged, and expensive, period when he tried his luck as publisher of his own magazine Tomorrow Speculative Fiction, but what happened at the end was simply that his health gave out. For the last several years of his life he was housebound in his home in Evanston, Illinois, where he complained that illness had so sapped his strength that he didn’t have energy for anything. Once he said, “There’s a novel I started in January and I’m not even a quarter through it.”

This was sometime in late spring. I said cheerfully, “So keep on plugging away. Sooner or later you’ll get it written.”

“Written?” he said, “I’m not talking about writing a novel. I’m talking about reading one.”

What was wrong with A J’s health was not a single, simple thing. I believe it was diabetes that kept him housebound for so long, but think it was metastasizing cancer that took him away in June of 2008.

He is missed.

 
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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.
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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

 

The Futurians, 1938

Some of the Futurians at my apartment in 1938. From left, front row: Joseph Harold Dockweiler aka Dirk Wylie, John B. Michel, Isaac Asimov, Donald A. Wollheim; center row: Chester Cohen, Walter Kubilius, me, Richard Wilson; top row: Cyril Kornbluth, Jack Gillespie, Jack Robins.

The “Quadrumvirate,” for most of its existence, ran the Futurians. We accreted to the club and to each other by adhesion to other clubs; the first was G.G. Clark’s Brooklyn Science Fiction League, which Donald Wollheim and Johnny Michel had left a shambles after they had kidnapped most of its members, one of them being me; then we began sending radar signals to individuals to seemed to be our kind of people, by which we mostly meant the kind of fan who desperately wanted to become a pro.

We found one of these in Connecticut in a person who was then a member of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, because the CCC not only gave him three hots and a cot for planting trees and doing other things for the environment, it also sent some money back to his family who could use it (remember, this was the time of the Great Depression). That was Robert A.W. Lowndes. Before long, he was able to change jobs, becoming a hospital orderly (thus his nickname of “Doc”) and then he made it to New York and the Futurians.

Continue reading ‘The Quadrumvirate’ »