The Epic of Space

The following are the words of E.E. Doc Smith describing the writing of his Lensman books. I found it on a corner of the Internet, and I know not if it is still in copyright. If anyone objects I will take it down. Until then, I hope you find it as fascinating as did I:

The Epic of Space

How do I write a space story? The question is simple and straightforward enough. The answer, however, is not; since it involves many factors.

What do I, as a reader, like to read? Campbell, de Camp, Heinlein, Leinster, Lovecraft, Merritt, Moore, Starzl, Taine, van Vogt, Weinbaum, Williamson-all of these rate high in my book. Each has written more than one tremendous story. They cover the field of fantastic fiction, from pure weird to pure science fiction. While very different, each from all the others, they have many things in common, two of which are of interest here.

First, they all put themselves into their work. John Kenton is Abraham Merritt; Jirel of Joiry is Catherine Moore.

Second, each writes-or wrote -between the lines, so that one reading is not enough to discover what is really there. Two are necessary-three and four are often-times highly rewarding. Indeed, there are certain stories which I still re-read, every year or so, with undiminished pleasure.

Consider Merritt, for instance. He wrote four stories “The Ship of Ishtar,” “The Moon Pool,” “The Snake Mother,” and “Dwellers in the Mirage”-which will be immortal. A ten-year-old child can read them and thrill at the exciting adventurous surface stories. A poet can read them over and over for their feeling and imagery. A philologist can study them for their perfection of wording and phraseology. And yet, underlying each of them, there is a bedrock foundation of philosophy, the magnificence of which simply cannot be absorbed at one sitting.

In this connection, how many of you have read, word by word, the ascent to the Bower of Bel, in “The Ship of Ishtar?” Those who have not, have missed one of the most sublime passages in literature. And yet a friend of mine told me that he had skipped “that stuff.” It was too dry!

These differences in reader attitude, however, bring up the very important matter of treatment. It is a well-known fact that many readers, particularly those whose heads are of use only in keeping their ears apart, want action, and only action. Slambang action; the slammier and the bangier the better. It is also a fact that some editors will either reject or rewrite stories which do not conform to such standards. Since it is practically impossible to read such a story twice, however, the type is mentioned only in passing.

Something besides action, then, is necessary. What? And how much? And should the characters grow, or not? Many writers-good ones, at that-do not let their characters grow. It is easier. Also, it allows a series of stories about the same characters to go on practically endlessly; being limited only by the readers’ patience. Personally, I like to have my characters grow and develop; even though this growth limits sharply the number of stories I am able to write about them: It would seem as though anyone, after a few days or weeks of study of any good book on “How to Write the Great American Novel,” could emerge with a clear understanding of such basic things as plot, conflict, situation, incident, suspense, interest, treatment, and atmosphere; but unfortunately, I didn’t. Authorities differ. I don’t know yet whether there are three basic plots, or eleven, or whether an author has a brand-new plot when he changes his hero from a bright young lawyer to a brilliant young physicist, and his heroine from a wise-cracking brunette stenographer to a witty blonde stewardess. I don’t know yet whether the incomparable Weinbaum’s “Trweel,” which-or who?-rocked Fandom on its foundations was a new plot, a new school of thought, or an incident. So, while I will probably use some of those words, I will use them in the ordinary, and not in the technical, sense.

Besides action, a good story must have background material and atmosphere to give authority, authenticity, and verisimilitude. It must also have characterization-character-drawing-to make its people real people and not marionettes dancing at the end of the author’s string. To balance these factors is not easy, since they are mutually almost exclusive-not entirely so, since much can be shown in action sequences-and since the slower-moving material must not detract too much from that intangible, indefinable asset which writers and editors call “story value.” Nor does the choice lie entirely, or even mostly, with the author; for the public cannot read stories which editors will not publish. I wrote three stories (not scientific fiction) which were not slanted, but which were written exactly as I wanted to write them. I liked them; but editors did not. Hence they will remain unpublished.
Character-drawing, however deftly or interestingly it is done, does operate to slow down the action of a story.

Background material and atmosphere are usually slower still. Philosophy, even in small doses, is slowest of all.

Yet any story, if it is to live beyond the month of its publication, must be balanced. Hence the often-heard accusation of “wordiness” hurled at so many writers is almost never justified. I do not believe that any author writes words merely to fill up space. He uses words just as a mechanic uses tools or as an artist uses colors and brushes, and with just as definite an aim in view. The casual reader may not know, or care, what that end is, but in practically every case the author has known exactly what he was trying to do with everyone of those words. He may have been using them for atmosphere, for character-drawing, for a subtle imagery or philosophy perceptible only to the reader able and willing to read between the lines, or for any one of a dozen other purposes. Thus, the action fan begrudges every word which does not hurl the story along; and does not like Lovecraft, saying that he is “wordy.” To the reader who likes and appreciates atmosphere, however, Lovecraft was the master craftsman.

Some authors are better than others, of course. There are poor mechanics, too; and poor artists. For that matter, I wonder if any artist ever painted a picture that was as good as he wanted and intended it to be? Great stories must be logical and soundly motivated; and it is in these respects that most “space-operas”—as well as more conventional stories—fail. A story must have action, conflict, and suspense. An author must get his hero into a jam; and, whether not he really must marry him off, he usually does so, either actually or by implication.

Now it is (or at least it should be) apparent that if the hero has even half of the brain with which the author has so carefully endowed him, he is not going to land his spaceship and, without examination or precaution, gallop heedlessly away from it, specifically to be captured by ferocious natives. Yet how often that precise episode has occurred, for exactly that reason! Similarly, if anyone connected with the take-off of a rocket-ship—especially an experimental model—had any fraction of a brain, there would be just about as much chance of a beautiful female stowing away aboard it as there would be in the case of a 500-mile racer at Indianapolis. Yet that atrocity has been used sickeningly often, to introduce effortlessly an interference with the hero’s plans and to drag it by the heels a love interest that does not belong there.
Now sound, solid motivation is far from easy—a fact which accounts for the rather widespread use of coincidence.

This dodge, while not as bad as some other crimes, reveals mental laziness—excepting, of course, when it is an element in mass-production methods of operation.

I have found motivation the hardest part of writing; and several good men have told me that I am not alone. It takes work—plenty of work—to arrange things so that even a really smart man will be forced by circumstances to get into situations that make stories possible. It takes time and thought; and many times it requires extra words and background material whose purpose is not immediately apparent.
To refer to an example with which I am thoroughly familiar, what possible motive force would make Kimball Kinnison, an adult, brilliant, and highly valued officer of the Galactic Patrol, go willingly into a hyper-spatial tube which bore all the ear-marks of a trap set specifically for him? I could not throw this particular episode into the circular file, as I have done with so many easier ones, because it is the basis of the grand climax of the final Lensman story, “Children of the Lens.” Nor could I duck the issue or slide around it, since any weakness at that point would have made waste paper of the whole book. Kinnison had to go in. His going in had to be inevitable, with an inevitability apparent to his wife, his children, and—I hope and believe—even to the casual reader.

That problem had me stumped for longer than I care to admit; and its solution necessitated the introduction of seemingly unimportant background material into “Galactic Patrol,” which was published in 1937, and into the two other Lensman novels which have appeared since.

Now to go into the way in which I write a space story, specifically, the “Lensman” series, since it is in reality one story. Early in 1927, shortly after the “Skylark of Space” was accepted by the old Amazing, I began to think seriously of writing a space-police novel. It had to be galactic, and eventually inter-galactic, in scope; which would necessitate velocities vastly greater than that of light. How could I do it? The mechanism of the “Skylark,” even though employing atomic energy, would not do. There simply wasn’t enough of it, as several mathematicians pointed out to me later in personal correspondence—and as both Dr. Garby and I knew at the time. Also, the acceleration employed would have flattened out steel springs, to say nothing of human bodies, into practically monomolecular layers. Mrs. Garby and I knew that, too-but since the “Skylark” was pseudo-science, and since it was written long before the advent of scientific fiction, we could and did use those two mathematically indefensible mechanisms. This space-police yarn, however, would have to be scientific fiction.

I would not use mathematically impossible mechanics, such as that too-often-revived monstrosity of a second satellite hiding eternally from Earth behind the moon. Since the inertia of matter made it impossible for even atomic energy to accelerate a space-ship to the velocity I had to have, I would have to do away with inertia. Was there any mathematical or philosophical possibility, however slight, that matter could exist without inertia? There was—I finally found it in no less an authority than Bigelow (Theoretical Chemistry-Fundamentals).

Einstein’s Theory of course denies that matter can attain such velocities, but that did not bother me at all. It is still a theory—velocities greater than that of light are not absolutely mathematically impossible. That is enough for me. In fact, the more highly improbable a concept is—short of being contrary to mathematics whose fundamental operations involve no neglect of infinitesimals—the better I like it.
Other great drawbacks, philosophical or logical rather than mathematical, were the difficulties of communicating with strange races and the apparent impossibility of having my policemen invent or develop an identifying symbol which all good citizens would recognize but which malefactors could not counterfeit. The only emblems which I could devise led, one and all, to the old “deus ex machina” plot, which therefore was the one I adopted; with, of course, details tailored to fit the broad scheme I had in mind and to put in a new twist or two.

Having the Lensmen’s universe fairly well set up, I went through my collection, studying and analyzing every ‘cops-and-robbers’ story on my shelves: from Canstantinescu’s “War of the Universe,” which I did not consider a masterpiece, up to the stories of Starzl and Williamson, who wrote literature worthy of the masters they are. I then wrote to the editor of Astounding, describing my idea briefly and asking whether or not he considered it advisable to go ahead with it, in view of the good work already done in the field.

He wrote back one of the most cheering letters I have ever received. I will not quote it exactly, but its gist was that it was not the pioneers in any field who did the best work, but some fellow who, coming along later, could take advantage of their strengths and avoid their weaknesses — and he thought that I could deliver the goods.

Thus encouraged to go ahead (I always did do better work while being patted on the back than while being kicked in the seat of the pants) I drew up the preliminary, very broad outline. As fundamentals, I had inertialessness and the Lens. I had the Arisians and their ultimate opponents, the Eddorians. I had a sound psychological reason why the real nature of the fundamental conflict should never be made known to any member of Homo Sapiens; since that knowledge would have set up an ineradicable inferiority complex throughout the Patrol.

It soon became evident that the story could not be told in a hundred thousand words. There would have to be at least three stories; and when the outline was done, it called for four. The point then arose: how could each book be ended without leaving loose ends dangling all over the place? I have never liked unfinished novels—I fairly gritted my teeth when Edgar Rice Burroughs left Dejah Thoris locked up in a doorless cell while he wrote the next book! By taking the Boskonians one echelon at a time, the first two years could be ended satisfactorily enough.
The third, however, was getting so close to the ultimate conflict that I had to do one of two things, neither of which I liked: either leave loose ends or apparently use the ancient and whiskery device, of the “mad scientist.” After some experimental writing, I adopted the latter course. Please note, however, that neither I as the author nor Mentor of Arisia ever said anywhere that Fossten was either mad or an Arisian; although I have had, time and again, to go over the whole episode word by word to convince certain critics of the truth of this statement.

From the first quarter of the broad, general outline, only a few pages long, I made a more detailed outline of “Galactic Patrol;” laying out at the same time a graph of the structure, the progression of events, the alterations of characters, the peaks of emotional intensity and the valleys of characterization and background material.
Each peak was a bit higher than the one before, as was each valley floor, until the climax was reached; after which the graph descended abruptly. My graphs are beautiful things. Unfortunately, however, while I can’t seem to work without something of the kind, I have never yet been able to follow one at all closely. My characters get away from me and do exactly as they damn please, which accounts for my laborious method of writing.

I write the first draft with a soft pencil, upon whatever kind of scratch-paper is handiest. This draft is a mess; so full of erasures, interlineations, marginal notes, and crossovers to the other side of the paper that I can’t read it myself after it gets cold. The second draft is written, a day or so later, from the first—with variations. It is also in pencil, but isn’t so messy; except when radical changes are necessitated by departures from the outline a few chapters later. My wife can read most of it, and she types what we call the “typescript;” in reality the third rough draft. This draft, in various stages of completion, is read and heatedly discussed by the Galactic Roamers; a fan club in Michigan and Los Angeles. Comments and suggestions are written on the margins; on some hotly-contested points they cover the entire backs of pages. I accept and use the ideas which I think are better than my own original ones; I reject the others. By rights, these friends of mine should have their names on the title-pages and a share of the loot, but to date I have been able to resist the compulsion to give them their due.

From the typescript, after the last “final” revision, my wife types the “original,” which goes to Campbell.

And as soon as it has been shipped I always wish that I had it back, to spend a few more weeks on the rough spots.

I have already mentioned the Galactic Roamers as a group. E. E. Evans pointed out the fact that “Triplanetary,” having been laid in the Lensman universe, should be, was, and MUST BE the first story of the Lensman series, instead of “Galactic Patrol.” Ed Counts found flaws and suggested corrections in my handling of the Red Lensman in the grand climax. The planet Trenco was designed and computed, practically in toto, by an aeronautical engineer who was in part responsible for the Lightning, the Constellation, and the Shooting Star. Dr. James Enright, of Hawaii, psychologist and psychiatrist, solved some of my knottiest problems. Dr. Richard W. Dodson, nuclear physicist, helped a lot. So did Heinlein. So did many others, not only in the United States, but also in such widely-separated places as Australia, Sweden, China, South Africa, Egypt, and the Philippines. It is bromidic, but true, to say that two heads are better than one. It has been my experience that fifty are still better.

In conclusion, if you want to write a space epic, go to it. This is the way I do it. The remuneration per hour does not compare with what a bricklayer earns, and it’s harder work-I have done them both, and know.

However, I get a terrific kick out of writing; especially out of the fact that quite a good many people really like my stuff.

Besides, you may find a way that is easier or better than mine: maybe one that is both easier and better.