Posts tagged ‘Collaborating’


Messy files art - public domain


Thank you for bearing with us. It’s a little hard to believe that it’s been over three months since Fred died. As you might imagine, we’ve had much to do since then.

Elizabeth Anne Hull and Frederik Pohl

Elizabeth Anne Hull and Frederik Pohl

The blog team — which is to say Betty, Cathy, Dick and Leah — have been regrouping, sorting and pondering where to go from here.

Fred will remain a very real part of this blog for some time to come.

Going through his files, Leah found literally hundreds of pieces of writing that he intended for the blog. Some of them were old articles — written with a typewriter on paper — that he meant to give new life here. Others were written on purpose for the blog, but were never posted.

We’d like to give you a look behind the scenes of “The Way the Future Blogs,” so you can see how that happened, and how Fred will still live in his blog.

When his editor Jim Frenkel coaxed Fred to start a blog (“like that new young guy”), Fred was nearly 90 years old. He’d started his writing life on manual typewriters. He adapted to computers, but slowly. Although he had a lifelong fascination with science and technology, Fred, like a surprising number of science-fiction writers, was a late adopter for his personal use.

Right up until the exigencies of collaborating with Arthur C. Clarke on The Last Theorem demanded a switch to a more modern word processor, Fred was still using the antiquated WordStar with Dick’s expert legacy support to get contemporary computers to run it. Up till then, Fred resisted e-mail as well as new software, not to mention the web.

Collaborating with someone in Sri Lanka changed all that, and Fred finally embraced 21st-century connectivity … to a point.

He didn’t want to learn about all the bells and whistles of blogging, and since he had the use of only one hand, his typing wasn’t internet-ready. That’s where Leah came in. A professional journalist and blogger, she took on the task of blogifying Fred.

We settled on a system: Fred would write a blog post and e-mail it to Leah. She’d copyedit, fact check, format it for WordPress, add links and images and post it. At least, that’s how it was supposed to work.

Filing, even in the dead-tree days, was never Fred’s forté. He’d write things and then lose them in his computer. He rarely used folders, putting everything — blog posts, fiction, correspondence, et al. — in “My Documents.” He’d allow Microsoft Word to name his files and then forget their filenames.

Once Fred wrote something, he was done with it, and he went on to think about the next thing. Sometimes he wrote blog posts but never passed them along. Did he think they needed further polishing? Did he forget about them? Did he think he had sent them when he actually hadn’t? We’ll never know.

Fred found the process of attaching files and emailing them tedious, so he’d save them up in batches, and later get Cathy to email them in bulk. Sometimes she couldn’t find files because they had different filenames than Fred had told her. Cathy’s resourceful at searching, but some documents she never found. Sometimes Dick was called upon to use specialized tools to retrieve files Fred had lost or accidentally deleted.

Since Fred’s death, Leah’s been combing through his computer and sorting the files, a process that required opening and reading every single one. Along with published and unpublished fiction, insertions for an expanded version of Fred’s biography, The Way the Future Was, and the material Fred had written for its forthcoming sequel, she found many unposted blog entries, and those will start being posted here soon.

In the last months before he died, Fred and Leah went through his trunk files, work he’d written years ago — some previously published and some not. He set aside a big stack of articles that he wanted to share on the blog. Since they’re on paper and must be scanned, OCRed and edited, getting them online will take a while, but you’ll see those here, too.

Meanwhile, Betty’s decided to get back into writing for this blog, so you’ll see regular posts from her, as well. Leah will continue editing and blogifying and may weigh in from time to time. Dick will be behind the scenes making sure all our computers stay online and running, and Cathy will keep everybody in communication. So the gang’s all here, even — virtually — Fred.

We hope you’ll keep reading!

The blog team

The Last Theorem


When I was writing The Last Theorem with Sir Arthur Clarke, I found it necessary in the story, for plot purposes, to have the hero, Ranjit Subramanian, spend a prolonged period in a jail, in solitary confinement.

The obvious way to get that to happen was to have Ranjit get tangled up in the Sri Lankan civil war between the governing Sinhalese, who had been in the habit of keeping all the positions of power for themselves, and the rebellious Tamil Tigers, who wanted to share in the governance. (Both Sinhalese and Tamils were uninvited immigrants from India. The Sinhalese, however, had arrived earlier.)

The war was ongoing and bloody,and it dovetailed nicely with my general plans for the novel, so I happily wrote some ten or twenty thousand words embodying that material. I got quite a few pages further along in the story, sending twenty- or thirty-page chunks on to Arthur as I finished them for his comments, suggestions and approval.

By then Arthur was beginning to be ill. He still read everything and gave me feedback, but it took him longer. I was running fifty to seventy-five pages ahead of his reading, but I didn’t worry; since I knew that what I was writing was pretty good stuff.

It was, however, the wrong pretty good stuff.

Arthur’s next letter was longer than usual and much more alarmed. Had I forgotten (he asked) that he was a guest in the country of Sri Lanka, and his permanent-residency permission could be revoked at any moment when the government came to think of him as an embarrassment?

Well, actually I had forgotten, and not because I hadn’t been told. As far back as the 1950s when we were touring Japan together — maybe even earlier — Arthur had let me see how precarious he thought his residency was. There was never a suggestion that the Sri Lankan government had made any threats or issued any warnings. If anything like that had ever happened, Arthur didn’t mention it to me. As far as I could see, the problem was that Arthur loved Sri Lanka, had made it his permanent homeland and was worriedly aware that a couple of bureaucrats in Colombo could kick him out of the land he loved at any moment, for any reason or for no reason at all.

If I didn’t give that the importance Arthur did — if I let myself forget about it in writing that draft of the novel — it wasn’t that I had truly forgotten. It was simply that I couldn’t believe that the Sri Lankan government would ever consider antagonizing the man who, through his books, was the finest press agent and ambassador that any struggling Third World country could ever imagine having.

On the other hand, I could readily believe that governments as a class are all too likely to shoot themselves in the foot, doing stupid, self-harming things. Arguing from principles of reason and common sense didn’t pay when you were talking about governments. And anyway it was Arthur whose ox would be gored, and thus his decision to make, not mine.

So, not without a few tears, I threw away some twenty thousand words of perfectly good copy about the Sri Lankan civil war and replaced it with (as I now believe) some actually rather better words about 21st-century high-seas piracy and the American custom (especially during the disastrous reign of America’s worst president, ever, George W. Bush) of farming people you wanted to make disappear into the penal systems of democracy-challenged countries.

That’s how collaboration works, my children. You get to have the literary skills and talents of your collaborator working for you, which is a useful thing. But sometimes you get unexpectedly ambushed by his (or her) hang-ups as well. That can be a serious pain in places where you don’t want a pain. But sometimes it can all work out for the best.

Part 5 of “Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl — The Conversation,” recorded 26 June 1978 at The Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.

The Futurians by Damon Knight

Audience: Could you elaborate on how you co-write with someone?

Pohl: With Cyril Kornbluth? Well, it’s different with different people. It’s like being married! Incidentally, Alfie, have you ever collaborated on fiction?

Bester: Never. I’ve never collaborated in my life. I’ve strictly been a loner always.

Pohl: I’m afraid I’ve been much more promiscuous than you have!

Bester: I’m curious, too, Fred. What was it like working with Cyril?

Pohl: Well, Cyril Kornbluth and I grew up together. We began writing together when I was about 18 or 19 and Cyril maybe 15. We belonged to a thing called the Futurians; it was a science-fiction fan club in New York in the late ’30s and early ’40s. There’s a book by Damon Knight called The Futurians, which I think is in print here now, full of all sorts of libelous, slanderous gossip about all of us. Much of which is true, but he shouldn’t have said it anyhow! People like Isaac Asimov and Don Wollheim and others would have paid him well not to publish the book.

But we all belonged to this club and we all wanted to write and we all tried. Cyril and I began working together and as we were just beginning to write we developed a lot of each other’s writing habits. We started much the same way, we were used to each other. Then the war came along. He went one way and I went another. And then we got together again on The Space Merchants. And with Cyril, because we had this background of common experience and common attitudes, writing was almost painless on most of what we wrote. We published altogether I think, seven novels and maybe 30 or 40 short stories.

Bester: Did you collaborate line by line?

Pohl: Mostly what we did was talk to each other for a while. He’d come out to my home in Red Bank, where we kept a room for him with his own typewriter, and we’d sit around and drink for a while, and when the booze ran out we’d start to talk seriously about what sort of book we’d plan to write. And we’d think about a situation and talk about a few characters and what might happen to them, and as long as the conversation was flowing we’d keep on talking. We didn’t put anything on paper.

And then when we were beginning to flag, and it felt like it was ready to write, we’d flip a coin and the loser would go up to the third floor — Cyril’s typewriter was in one room there and mine was another — and he would write the first four pages. And then at the end of those four pages, which would stop in the middle of a line or a word sometimes, he’d come down or I’d come down, and say, “You’re on.”

We called it the “Hot-Typewriter System” — just keep the thing going day and night — and we did in fact usually work straight through.

Bester: Now it’s you that’s on, right? You go upstairs, you read the first four pages. Now, did it ever happen that you came down and said, “Cyril, you’re out of your mind. They can’t do it that way?”

Pohl: Not once. A couple of times when we were towards the end of a novel and getting a little giddy we’d play tricks on each other. There was this scene at the end of one novel when, at the bottom of the last page I had somebody look through a microscope and the next line was, “What did he see?” and I said it was Charlie Chaplin in a bowler hat. Then I went down and said, “Take it from there.”

But he fooled me — he just crossed out that line. Usually we didn’t even cross out a line, we just drove from line to line. Page 5 to 8 would be Cyril’s and page 9 to 12 would be mine; we just kept on going until we came to the end of the book. This was rough draft and it always got rewritten all the way through, by one of us, almost always by myself except for the case of one novel, Wolfbane, which was the last writing Cyril did before he died, and there was quite a lot of revision involved in the rewriting. But basically, when we were finished, the novel was there, and it would sometimes only take five or six days to do a whole novel, because we’d work straight through for 24 hours a day.

Bester: I’ve another question! Timewise, sometimes the four pages would take four minutes, four hours, four days, what?

Pohl: Well, there’s a great incentive to speed when you know that the other guy is down there having a great time, and you want to break it up as quickly as possible, so usually it only took a couple of hours. You know that the other guy is waiting, and if you don’t get down there pretty soon he’ll be off to a bar somewhere. So we worked pretty fast. It’s a good way to write a book with two people who are close enough in their ways of work that they don’t kill each other.

I wrote a novel with Lester del Rey once and we almost did kill each other. He was one of my closest friends up until that point. Now we’ll never write another word together.

Continue reading ‘Me and Alfie, Part 5: Collaboration and the Futurians’ »

Admiral of the Little Wooden Navies and Dean of the Ipsy-Wipsy Institute

L. Sprague de Camp, left, and Fletcher Pratt, 1941.

L. Sprague de Camp, left, and Fletcher Pratt, 1941.

When I was eleven or twelve I uncritically, but obsessively, read every scrap of science fiction I could put my hands on. This primarily meant every back-number sf magazine I could buy for a nickel (as against the extortionate 25¢ cover price for current issues on a newsstand) in the second-hand magazine store. One of the first of those, I think, was an early Amazing Stories Quarterly, and its principal content was a novel called A Voice Across the Years.

It was, I must say now — though I didn’t realize it at the time — a quite undistinguished story, although an unusual one in two respects. In the story, a couple of human beings from Earth have somehow or other happened to land on a civilized planet far, far away, where they are welcomed by being given wardrobes of new clothing. The garments fit them perfectly, because each one was custom made by a machine that measured every part of them and then cut and stitched fabric to an exact fit.

I had not seen any such voluminous discussion of science-fictional tailoring, or indeed of any kind of haberdashery, in any other story, and I was fascinated. I am afraid that at the time I may have been suffering from the delusion that every marvelous invention I saw described in any story was probably going to become reality before long — after all, that’s what had happened with radio, the airplane, the submarine and many other marvels, hadn’t it? So I thought it likely that before long Macy’s would have these machines in their boys’ department to make my first machine-created pair of knickers. (Please remember that I was then maybe eleven years old.)

The other unusual thing about the story was its by-line. It was signed “by Fletcher Pratt and I.M. Stephens.” I had never seen a joint byline before. I had never heard of collaboration. Did it mean that two different people had somehow written a single story? And if so, how?

However they did it, it sounded sort of unpleasant to me — certainly not like anything I would ever want to do myself.

Continue reading ‘Fletcher Pratt’ »

What the Other Guy Does

I said earlier that there are many, many ways of collaborating, and there are.

There’s taking what somebody else knows all about but has no writing skills; you get him to talk about whatever it is or give you a rough draft of what he has to say and you make it good. (I did something like that for Ian Ballantine with a couple of early novels that had originally been written by someone else, Turn the Tigers Loose and The God of Channel One.)

There’s the kind where one partner is thought to have the better ideas so he writes a sort of outline of the story and the other fellow fleshes it out. (Which I did for a number of not very good stories with Cyril Kornbluth and for two, not that much better, with Isaac Asimov — those two are still available for anyone who really, really wants to read them in Isaac’s book The Early Asimov.)

Actually, I rather like taking someone else’s draft and making it publishable. The nine or so books that I wrote with Jack Williamson were done more or less that way. The first of them, Undersea Fleet, he gave to me as a jumble of notes and scenes. He had worked over the material a dozen different ways without ever having it jell into a novel, so he turned it over to me to get a fresh view on it.

The other eight books we did were mostly written on purpose as collaborations, bearing in mind that Jack lived in New Mexico and I in either New Jersey or Illinois. Although we traveled together now and then, we rarely sat down to write together. What we did was to exchange letters over a period of, usually, some months, talking about something we’d like to see in the book — perhaps a new scientific theory (we got a lot of mileage out of the steady-state hypothesis until it was proved wrong). And when we’d thought up all the complications and implications we could Jack, bless his soul, would sit down and write a complete first draft and mail it to me. Then I would do a lot of work on it and we’d give it to the publisher.

The absolute best collaboration technique I’ve come across was the one I used when writing with Cyril Kornbluth, and we discovered it by accident. The way it worked, Cyril would come out to our house on the river in Red Bank, New Jersey, where we kept a room for him on the third floor with his own bath, bed and typewriter. Then he and I would have dinner, and he would have a drink or two while I had coffee, and we’d chat about what we’d like to see in the new book — characters, situations, settings, whatever interested one of us. When we thought we had enough to start writing we’d flip a coin. The loser would go upstairs to his typewriter and write the first four pages. Then he’d come down and say, “You’re on!” And the other guy would go up and write the next four, and so on, turn and about, until we got to the page that said “The End.”

At this point we had a whole book, though not a truly finished product. Somebody, usually me, had to go over that manuscript and fix errors, incongruities and infelicities, maybe add some explanations and transitions and stuff and do a little polish, and then we’d give it to the publisher.

There was only one thing wrong with this system. It worked fine with Cyril, and not at all with any other writer in the world. I know this because I tried with several, including several really good ones, and that sort of telepathy that kept the two of us on message without ever explicating exactly what the message was never materialized.

Except with one writer whom I had never thought of.

Continue reading ‘Fred’s Distilled Writing Wisdom, Part 3’ »


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