Last week, inspired by my reading of his collection Gentleman Junkie, I wondered aloud if we should all be more like Harlan Ellison—an author who found, developed, and protected his own voice, his own career, and steadfastly defended that against all odds and temptations. Obviously, I stand by that, even a full seven days later, but that post got me thinking… who else could we be more like?
Watching a lot of science fiction Booktube recently, another author’s name kept popping up, a name I’m of course familiar with, but one who otherwise never seemed to be in the discussion of all time greats—at least not in most of the circles I found myself in, but then, isn’t he? Of course he is.
He, by the way, is Robert Silverberg. And here’s how I think we should all be more like him:
Robert Silverberg, like Harlan Ellison, wrote not just short stories but essays and reviews, he edited anthologies—and unlike Ellison he wrote novels. Novel after novel after novel. He wrote a lot. If you look at the isfdb.org page devoted to his work you’ll see the following headings:
Magazine Editor Series
Short Fiction Series
Poems (just one)
Interior Art (really…?)
Interviews with This Author
Non-Genre Fiction Series
Non-Genre Novels (mostly softcore porn written under various pseudonyms)
Non-Genre Short Fiction
The page just scrolls and scrolls and scrolls.
His work is divided out into twenty-four categories, which begs the question: How many categories does your isfdb page have? Mine has eight, including a story in the same Star*Drive anthology he had a story in! And you don’t have to scroll very far to get to the end of mine, though it is missing a few things.
Robert Silverberg has written a lot, and I mean a lot of stuff, including a lot of full length novels. And you know what? Most of them are fantastic.
Though not known as the sort of literary giant Harlan Ellison was, you will have to be a pretty young science fiction and fantasy fan not to have read at least a few of his books. His work ranges from earlier “potboiler” SF adventure stories to later works that stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of the epic classics of the genre. You’ll find no richer worldbuilding than in his Majipoor series—on par with Tolkien, Herbert, Martin, et. al.
This is not an author who suffered for a decade on the Great American novel. Just looking at one year, 1958, Robert Silverberg published nine science fiction novels: Aliens from Space, Invaders from Earth, Invisible Barrier, Starhaven, Starman’s Quest, and Stepsons of Terra, Vengeance of the Space Armadas (as Calvin M. Knox), The Shrouded Planet(with Randall Garrett), and Lest We Forget Thee Earth (as Calvin M. Knox); and Love Nest (as Loren Beauchamp). That’s ten novels. In one year. Not just written, mind you, but published.
And there’s more.
I count 70 short stories published in various magazines in 1958. That’s one short story not just written but published every five days.
His one poem was published that year, too, and he also published five essays, and 28 book reviews.
How is that even possible?
A novel every 36 days or so.
A short story every five days.
A book review every two weeks.
And he did that again, more or less, in 1959, 1960…
His mass of output did slow down a bit getting into the 70s and 80s, but if we try to be more like Robert Silverberg by not just maybe writing a little more, but writing a seemingly absurdly lots more, can we achieve even the scantest level of quality? I’ve bemoaned my suffering during and after having written a novel in less than two months, but what if that novel was my own idea, my own world…? I could have roughed it out, an editor could have helped me make it better… but still, ten novels out in one year? Sure, these early novels tended to be much shorter, too, back then, maybe as short as 60,000 words even, but still, if all ten were 60,000 words that’s 600,000 words in one year… exactly theNaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 words in a month. And he also got out all the other stuff.
Clearly this is not something an author can do and maintain a day job.
And in the current state of the publishing business, I don’t see any of the major SF imprints publishing ten new novels by the same author in one year, but then… why not?
In the era of eBooks and print-on-demand, it should be even easier for a publisher to publish more books. I honestly believe a new Robert Silverberg could operate in the 2020s.
Could that be you?
Let me make this challenge even harder, though.
Unlike some of his contemporaries—pulp era “hacks” who poured words out in a quantity over quality struggle to make a living at a penny a word, Robert Silverberg wrote well. Maybe his ten novels in 1958 weren’t quite up to the standards of his later, more spaced-out work, like the Majipoor series, but I’ve read some of these early novel—have more than a few in my Ace Doubles collection—and have been reading Robert Silverberg at least here and there basically as long as I can remember, and still have several more of his books on my shelves waiting to be read. He wasn’t just fast, he was good.
In fact, he was very good.
Maybe, in a similar mechanism to Harlan Ellison writing well because he allowed himself to write what he wanted to write, how and when he wanted to write it, Silverberg wrote well because he gave himself no time to over-think, obsess, revise, second-guess. He would have had to simply sit down and write through today’s idea at typing speed. And he could only do that if he had the same confidence in his voice and ability that Ellison had.
Robert Silverberg found something I think few if any authors now even realize could be possible: a balance between quantity and quality that made him not just a solid working mid-lister, but one of the greats of all time, winner of four Hugo Awards, six Nebula Awards, and three Locus Awards in a massively long career stretching from the mid-1950s to the early 2000s—and at age 87 he’s alive and kicking, which makes me think back to a long-ago post about long-lived SF authors…
So then, the challenge is out there now. Can we—can anyone—be more like Robert Silverberg?
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…and Mr. Silverberg gave me permission to use an excerpt from one of his Majipoor novels as an example in…
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We learn to do complex grammar correctly at the speed of speech. Add in a few patterns (e.g. Dwight Swain’s MRU) and drill them, you might have something.
As that person who was the first in school to understand and the last (if at all) to finish, I finally figured something out: I learned how to do things slowly by only practicing slowly and carefully, but never so slowly and carefully as to memorize the routine.
I’m thinking, if you learn a basic pattern for a scene (e.g. goal, obstacle, action, disaster) and the MRU then you can just slap down practice scenes as fast as you can type. With dictation software, you could go as fast as you can talk.
Not all your ideas are going to be good but you’ll have a lot of stuff to edit or drop. And if your pattern is good, it’ll be great when your Muse starts raining down the golden stuff.
At least, that’s the next step in my plan. Right now I’m just doing a lot of jabbering in my practice stints. That alone has helped my fluency already. Next to educate (draw out) the unconscious raconteur.
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