Some of SF Signal’s readers are aspiring writers, so we thought we take this week to ask some published writers in the genre to dispense with some useful writerly advice. Here’s what we asked them:
Q: What’s the best writing advice you ever received and who gave it to you?
And here are their collective words of wisdom…
started writing fiction in the 1950s and has since built a remarkable catalog of novels and short stories. He’s won several Hugo and Nebula Awards throughout his career, for both his writing and his editing of numerous anthologies. His entire bibliography is too long to mention, but some well-known titles include the Majipoor
series, A Time of Changes
, The Book of Skulls
, Son of Man
, Downward to the Earth
, and Dying Inside
. Some of his most famous pieces of short fiction include “Hawksbill Station”, “Born with the Dead”, “Sailing to Byzantium”, and “Passengers”. Robert Silverberg was also the recipient of the 2004 SFWA Grandmaster Award.
The best piece of advice I ever got came from Lester del Rey, the veteran writer and editor who, when I was in my twenties, had become a sort of Dutch uncle, or perhaps even a second father, to me. At the beginning of my career in the mid-1950s I had trouble selling my most ambitious stories, the ones that I thought were the best in me, whereas the minor, more conventional pieces sold quite easily to the magazines. There were several reasons for this. The main one was that I was competing for slots in those magazines with the likes of Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber, James Blish, Alfred Bester, Damon Knight, C.M. Kornbluth, and other greats of that golden era for the science-fiction short story. What I was writing, at the age of 21 or 22, might have been ambitious but it still wasn’t in a class with what those more mature writers were doing. On the other hand, all the magazines, even the top ones, were constantly in need of conventional 5000-worders for the back of the book. It seemed to make more sense to me to churn out competent potboilers for those magazine editors instead of trying to knock Sturgeon or Leiber or Knight out of the top place in the issue, and very shortly I was earning a nice living indeed writing formula fiction at a fast pace. (I was, in fact, earning more per year than any of my literary heroes by the third year of my career.) By playing it safe this way I was indeed able to pay the monthly rent, and then some. But I wasn’t contributing anything worthwhile to science fiction, and, though I didn’t realize it just yet, I wasn’t even acting in my own best interests.
It was Lester who pointed out to me that I was working from a false premise. “Even if all you’re concerned with is making money,” he said, “you’re going about it the wrong way. You’re knocking out penny-a-word stories as fast as you can, and, sure, you’re pulling in the quick bucks very nicely. But you’re shortchanging yourself, because all that you’ll ever make from what you’re writing now is the check you get for it today. Those stories will die the day they’re published. They won’t get into anthologies and won’t be bought for translation and nobody will want you to put together a collection of them. Whereas if you were writing at the level that I know you’re capable of, you’d be creating a body of work that will go on bringing in money for the rest of your life. So by going for the easy money you’re actually cutting your future income.”
I pointed out that when I wrote at the level I was capable of, I had trouble selling the stories. He laughed at that. It was a temporary phenomenon, he said. Now that my name was established — I had won a Hugo my second year as a writer, and my name was in all the magazines — the editors would pay more attention.
I began to upgrade the product. Everything sold; and, encouraged by the steady acceptance of what I thought of as my “real” science fiction, I moved quickly away from my hack markets, most of which had died off anyway. And, sure enough, I started to get my stories into anthologies, I sold them to British and French and German magazines, I got offers from publishers to do collections of my work. Lester had been right: the quick buck wasn’t the best buck. Simply in terms of a basic goal of making money from my writing, I had taken the wrong track, because junk was never reprinted, and good stories lived on and on. And, of course, even then I knew that I wanted more out of a career in science-fiction than just making money, because I had been a reader before I became a writer, and I had dreamed of writing the sort of work that had the same impact on readers that the work of my great predecessors had had on me. If I simply had wanted to be a hack, I would have done a lot better writing for True Confessions. So I shifted away from the kind of churn-‘em-out stuff I had done in my earlier years, and people began to notice the change. The Hugos and Nebulas and guest-of-honor invitations followed, and, many years later, the Grand Master award — and simply on the financial level I did a lot better than I would if I had, Gernsback forbid, spent my whole life writing potboilers. Probably I would have figured all that out on my own. But Lester del Rey’s blunt words, back there in 1957 or 1958, brought me to my senses a lot faster than would otherwise have been the case.