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Recently on Metastellar’s Long Lost Friends YouTube show, we were delighted to spend a couple of hours talking to science fiction legend Larry Niven.
Niven has won every major award in his field, including the Hugo, Locust, and Nebula. He was the 2015 recipient of the Damien Knight Memorial Grand Master Award. His work is primarily hard science fiction, using big science concepts and theoretical physics. It was a great honor and pleasure to speak to him.
During the interview, he shared the exciting news that his classic 1970 novel Ringworld is in development with Amazon and MGM. Akiva Goldsman is writing the pilot and serving as executive producer, and Alan Taylor is on board to direct the pilot. It’s still early days, and Niven remained pretty tight-lipped, realizing that in Hollywood anything can happen. But he was hopeful that his pivotal novel is on its way to the screen.
He starts talking about it at the 16-minute mark in the video above.
“I shouldn’t talk about this because contracts are complicated,” he said. “But there’s been some action lately.”
It’s about time! We are all excited and hope to hear more information soon.
Collaborating with other authors
Niven is well known for collaborating with other writers, so we asked him for tips about how to make collaborations work.
How does he find collaborators?
“In most cases, they find me,” he said.
He’s Larry Niven, so of course, they seek him out. But more than that, what was clear as he talked about his many collaborative relationships, was that Niven has always been open to the possibilities of partnering with other writers. He thrives in that environment. Many of his collaborations came organically when fellow writers suggested they work together on a particular project.
Once, chatting with a friend, an idea came up and the two embarked on writing the story together. And famously, his ongoing collaborations with Steven Barnes began when Barnes decided he wanted to learn how to write science fiction and introduced himself to Niven at a club, adding, “I’m a writer.”
Niven replied, “Great. Tell me a story.”
Instead of telling him a story, Barnes handed him a manila envelope containing three short stories which Niven then read.
“And long story short, we wound up collaborating the easiest way possible,” Niven said.
That relationship continues to this day.
Though Niven may have more writers approach him than most of us, one of the key takeaways was Niven’s openness to the ask.
“Edward Lerner came out of the blue and suggested he wanted to write on Known Space. And he had some ideas I found attractive, so we wound up producing five novels based on Known Space,” he told us.
Five novels. Wow.
Known Space, by the way, is the setting of about a dozen novels and several collections of short stories. It also became a shared universe in the spin-off Man-Kzin Wars anthology series, which currently has twelve books in it. Niven’s collaboration with Lerner includes the five books in the Fleet of Worlds series, all set in the Known Space universe.
In improvisational theatre, the number one rule is: “Yes, and…” Which means you take what the other artist says and develop it. Add building blocks.
Niven is a master of the “Yes, and…” principle. He’s there, ready to work with another mind to build a new story. He’s open to the game.
Nuts and bolts of working with collaborators
There are Niven’s top five tips on working with co-authors.
Tip one: It’s not for everyone
Niven told us that some people shouldn’t collaborate. So, his first tip was to figure out where you fit in the that paradigm.
Niven said a writer may run into difficulties, “If your individual vision of the universe is too different from somebody else’s.”
Niven pointed out that it’s not for everyone. “Robert Heinlein was maybe the best of us, and he never collaborated.”
And it may take actually trying to work with someone else in order to determine if works for you.
Tip Two: Trust your partner
“You need to trust the guy you’re working with. So don’t work with an amateur,” Niven said. “By the way I’ve broken every one of these rules.”
Tip Three: Figure out where the bucks stops before you start writing
When asked about maneuvering through ego landmines, Niven gave us his third tip.
“One of you has the veto power,” he said. “And you decide that before you get into writing. Someone has to be able to say no, we won’t do it that way. Yes, we will do this.”
When you work with Niven, he has veto power. It’s only right.
Tip Four: – Ways to Make Use of Your Collaborators
We wondered about how to get started if you have a person you want to work with, but you don’t have a specific project in mind?
“Let me give you this because it’s worth keeping in mind,” he said. “If you’re thinking about collaborating and you don’t have an idea you’re both willing to jump on right away, hand your collaborator a story you gave up on, and see what he can do with it. I did that with a story called ‘The Locusts’ and we were a Hugo contender that year.”
That story is available in the anthology Limits.
“Once I was writing a story, and it got too depressing,” Niven said. “I couldn’t go any further with it. Steve swallowed that and came up with a reasonably happy ending.”
That’s Steven Barnes who was also Niven’s collaborator on “The Locusts.”
Tip Five: Hard concepts through simple language
Talking about integrating deep concepts into writing, Niven said, “…use simple language, contractions make it easy. The ideas are the complicated part.”
And we’ll finish with one of Niven’s Laws to remember as we work: “It’s easier to destroy than to create.”
Watch the full interview below.