Ask Bwana #28

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #28 — July, 1999

I just finished my sixth day of teaching Clarion, and the students seem to have saved up their best quotes from the various workshops with the intention of putting them on a t-shirt. I happened to get my hands on a copy, and I thought you might like to see where our next Hugo winners and wildly comic writers are coming from.

On dialogue: “It’s starship dialogue — it takes forever to get from point to point and it all takes place in a vacuum.”

On empathy: “I would have had a problem with a Lizard God in my purse.”

On humor: “It’s been a long time since I read The Old Man and the Sea . . . but this was much funnier.”

On not quite comprehending a criticism: “I felt like Helen Keller in an amusement park.”

On good taste: “I don’t mind mass murder, I just don’t think it should be gratuitous.”

On praising something: “I really like your use of manuscript format here.”

On minor annoyances: “I hate it when writers use all these letters.”

On revising the map: “Alaska didn’t work for me.”

On the audience: “I knew when I started out that this was a story that would appeal to a very small demographic, which would be me.”

On quitting too soon: “There need to be more scenes between them after she’s dead.”

On suspending disbelief: “Sea turtles never struck me as combat animals.”

On easy endings: “I’m not sure the virus ex machine works for me.”

On pacing: “The destruction and death of everyone at the beginning seemed a little abrupt.”

On showing all sides of the issue: “Emotionless killer cyborgs are people too.”

On word choices: “I don’t think you use the word ‘throbbing’ enough.”

On straying from the theme: “This isn’t a journey, it’s a continental tour.”

I submit to you that no one who displays this kind of wit — especially before noon — can fail to sell for long.

They made a believer out of me, these eighteen Clarion students. When I saw the stories they submitted with their applications, I knew one of them was good enough to sell right now, and I thought three others would sell someday, and that fourteen of them were probably wasting their time and money.

Then I came to Clarion to teach the fourth of its six weeks — and the improvement was almost beyond comprehension. I read seventeen stories that I think are either saleable right now, or will be with just a quick polish, and many more that, with work, can be made saleable. I know now that only one student wasted the tuition, and that’s because that student is already on a par with the instructors and didn’t really need the class.

I had come to Clarion, not quite sure that writing could be taught. Oh, I knew that if they had potential, we could help them realize it a little sooner than they might on their own, but I had truly thought it was the best we could do. It turns out that it was the least we did.

I view it like advertising. 80% of what gets done doesn’t work — but that 20% that does work makes all the difference in the world, and since, like Madison Avenue, we don’t know which 20% it is, I suppose we’ll keep doing the whole thing over and over.

With one more true believer who’s seen it work: me.

Okay, on to this issue’s questions.

QUESTION: I’m pulling together a list of SF that will hopefully get a bunch of eighth and ninth graders interested in doing science. Any suggestions?

ANSWER: I’m probably in a minority, given the plethora of Heinlein and Norton fans, but I think the best science fiction novel for early teens is A. E. van Vogt’s The Voyage of the Space Beagle. It’s very easy to comprehend, it shows a ship running under a very familiar format that predates Star Trek by a quarter of a century, it presents a competent and likeable crew — all scientists — confronted by a series of BEMs (Bug-Eyed Monsters) each more dangerous than the last (and one of which was swiped for the movie Alien — or so says the court settlement), and has a van Vogtian superman, which is to say a mental rather than a physical superman. The superman just happens to be the master of a brand-new science that saves the day every 50 pages or so.

Beyond that, any of the Heinlein juveniles are fine; I think Citizen of the Galaxy and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, are probably the best of them. Any of Norton’s old Ace titles should do the trick; check them carefully, though, as a majority of them are fantasy.

The Lensman series by Doc Smith is back in print in trade paperback this year, thanks to Mike Walsh’s Old Earth Books. They’re a bit antiquated, but Doc created a lot of likeable heroes, galaxy-threatening villains, nifty space battles, and is probably no more juvenile than Star Trek or Star Wars. His science doesn’t work, of course, but it’s the prime example of what we used to call super-science, and it should get kids a lot more interested in science than the real thing ever did.

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QUESTION: The Isaac Asimov Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing has a $5 entry fee and is only open to undergraduate students currently in college. Would it be worth the time and money to submit to this contest?

ANSWER: I’m opposed to paying money for someone to read your writing no matter what the reason, but I suppose for only $5 and for a scholarship named after the Good Doctor, what the hell — go ahead if you want.

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QUESTION: If I published a webzine and bought first world serial rights, could I archive (on the web, for free public access) past issues? Or would that no longer be considered “serial” publication?

ANSWER: I’ll offer an opinion, but I urge you to check with a lawyer who specializes in the internet.

I think if you bought first rights and exercised them — which covers the initial publication and nothing else — then you probably do not have a right to run the story a second time, for free or for money.

The problem is not with the term “archive,” so much as it is with the “issue” of the webzine and how its equivalent of “shelf life” is defined in the contract. Did you buy the right to let people pay for hits on the story until the next issue comes out, or for a specified period of months or years?

In other words, you only bought one-time rights . . . but you haven’t told me how your contract defines the end of that one time. With a magazine, it’s a dated product, and when it is superceded by the same title with a later date, it is officially out of print. I have no idea how it works with your particular webzine.

2008 note: It’s still tricky, with so many pro and amateur webzines being available seemingly forever. The trick for the writer is to either get a reversion date, or if that’s out of the question — and with many webzines it will be — then a date when you can re-sell the story elsewhere. For the publisher, the trick is to write a contract the legally lets him sell hits or subscriptions to the webzine for whatever period of time he has in mind, which may well be the lifetime of the webzine.

2012 update: Not much has changed. Stories I sold to e-zines in 2005 and 2006 are still available in those zines on the internet.

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QUESTION: What do you think of the Del Rey on-line writers’ workshop?

ANSWER: After my experience at Clarion, where a bunch of embryonic writers have been turned into a bunch of polished writers knocking at the door to pro-dom, I’m going to have to reconsider and pay it a visit. If I could be wrong about Clarion, I could be wrong about any other workshop, so no more generalizing — I’ll consider each one separately.

2012 update: Having experienced a bunch of such venues, it is my considered opinion that far and away the two best are Clarion and the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. Each produces far more major writers than any other four or five venues put together.

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QUESTION: If you write and sell a story to a magazine, is it okay to resell that story verbatim as a chapter in a novel?

ANSWER: Sure, and the field has a long history of doing just that. Isaac Asimov’s three Foundation novels were originally 9 Foundation stories. My own Kirinyaga novel was originally 10 connected, sequential stories. George R.R. Martin won a Hugo in 1997 for excerpting a novella from what became a best-selling fantasy novel. Jack Dann did the same thing to win his Nebula. And so on, and cetera, and cetera.

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QUESTION: About a year ago I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and prescribed medication that seems to really help me keep my mind on my writing. I’ve completed more stories in the last twelve months than I’d written in the preceding five years. Unfortunately, none are selling, and I’ve gotten several comments from editors that all boil down to “your writing isn’t nearly as interesting as it was a year ago.” I love being able to finish my stories .. . . but I’m starting to worry that the medication is screwing up my ability to write well. Any ideas?

ANSWER: You wouldn’t ask your doctor to tell you how to sell your stories, and you shouldn’t be asking Bwana, a writer, a question that should only be answered by expert medical practitioners. Obviously the medication is affecting your ability to sustain your stories (and, I assume, your concentration), but, just as obviously, not having the medication was affecting your ability to function in the real world. This is clearly a question for your doctor; it’s likely that there’s an alternate treatment or medication which may (note the word: may) be effective, but he’s thousands of times more likely to know about it than I am.

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QUESTION: Why do magazines bother serializing novels?

ANSWER: A number of reasons. Sometimes it’s the only way to get a major writer, like Lois McMaster Bujold, on the cover and in the table of contents, when she hasn’t written any short fiction in years. Sometimes it’s the magazine’s policy (as it is Analog’s) to almost always be serializing a novel so that the readers will be anxious to buy the next issue in order to find out what happens next. Sometimes they are offered the serial by a Name writer whom they are happy to have in the magazines under any circumstances. And sometimes the editor feels the novel is so special that he’s willing to ignore his own format and serialize it (as Asimov’s serialized one of William Gibson’s novels a few years ago).

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QUESTION: I’ve been offered a review column in a respected semiprozine. (Yeah, I know . . . but still, it’s professional money and a steady gig.) Are there any hidden gotchas I should worry about before writing reviews?

ANSWER: I have no problem with a pro writer doing book reviews for pro rates for a semi-prozine, or even semi-pro rates. And no, that’s not a contradiction to previously-stated positions. I’d object to someone planning on a career as a pro writing fiction for a semi-pro market, but unless your name is John Clute or Tom Easton, you’re not going to make your living as a professional reviewer/critic anyway — and we already have a Clute and an Easton.

Gotchas? No. Pitfalls? Yes. No matter how blasé they are about bad reviews in public, most writers have memories longer than elephants and can carry 600 pounds’ worth of grudge. You could find friendships shattered, and the day could even come when someone whose novel you trashed is in a position to buy your novel, or ask you to write a story for his anthology, and has been writing that 5-page-long single-spaced rejection letter in his head ever since the day he read your review.

It might not happen at all . . . but it’s something you should at least know has happened in the past and might happen again — to you — in the future.

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QUESTION: Please define the term space opera, and supply a few examples.

ANSWER: A space opera is a story in which the science fictional elements are gratuitous, and could be jettisoned with no serious loss to the story.

Examples? Most of the work of Edmund Hamilton, early Jack Williamson, Space Hawk by Anthony Gilmore, whole issues of Planet Stories, movies such as Outland (which was literally High Noon set on a space station). Six-guns become blasters, horses become one-man spaceships, and they usually have a lot more action than extrapolation.

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QUESTION: What do you think of a form reject accompanied by marketing materials for the magazine in question? Just tacky? Or a warning flag that they’re not worth dealing with in future?

ANSWER: Tacky and a half. And no, I don’t think I’d bother dealing with them in the future.

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QUESTION: All things being equal, if you were editing an anthology and had to choose between a story with a strong idea and mediocre characters or a mediocre idea with strong characters, which would you pick?

ANSWER: Invalid question. Every anthology I ever edited was by invitation only, which means I would have assigned every story and wouldn’t get two back that I had to choose between.

And if the situation you described ever came up, I would send both stories back for rewrites.

But since you obviously want me to tell you which I consider more important, characters or ideas, I’ll be happy to: in or out of science fiction, I’ll take characters every time.

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QUESTION: Is it true that nobody’s books are being bought out of the slushpile any more?

ANSWER: No, it’s not true. But remember: slushpile sales have always constituted a tiny percentage at both book and magazine publishers.

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QUESTION: When dealing with a market that lists a range of pay rates (3 to 7 cents US per word, for example), is it acceptable to specify that I’m offering the story at no less than a nickel US a word?

ANSWER: Now, that is an interesting question, one I’ve never come across before.

I suppose it’s acceptable to tell the editor your minimum on the front end, but I think it might be wiser to wait until he’s made you an offer.

Why? Because if you are, let’s hypothesize, an unknown, and it’s his policy not to pay a nickel a word to unknowns, he will not even read your story. Why bother, since you’ll never get together on a price?

But if he reads it and wants to buy it and offers four cents a word, and you counter with a nickel . . . well, maybe you’ll get it and maybe you won’t, but do you see that you’re in a far better bargaining position? He’s already on record as wanting to buy it; under those circumstances, now that he’s decided it’s good enough to run in his magazine, you’re much likelier to get him to raise his offer by a penny a word.

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QUESTION: What are the longest and shortest times you ever spent writing a novel?

ANSWER: I assume you mean a science fiction novel. I did Sideshow in about three weeks, and Santiago in about 8 months (though I spent a month in Africa and wrote half a dozen short stories during the same time period.)

Back in my starving-writer days, Paul Neimark (later to become the author of the bestseller She Lives!) and I collaborated on a funny erotic novel for one of the New York sex houses and completed it in a single day. Of the more than 200 “adult” novels I wrote from 1964 to 1975, I never took as much as a week on any of them.

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QUESTION: Who are your favorite science fiction artists? What’s your single favorite piece of science fiction artwork, and (if it’s not the same), your favorite among your covers?

ANSWER: From the old days, I like Virgil Finlay best, followed by Margaret Brundage — and because I grew up on the Edgar Rice Burroughs books, I’m also partial to J. Allen St. John.

After the pulps died, and before today’s very fine crop of artists, I tended to like Roy G. Krenkel, Frank Frazetta, Ed Emshweller and Kelly Freas.

Among today’s artists, I think my favorites are probably Michael Whelan, Bob Eggleton, Vinnie DiFate, Don Maitz, and Donato Giancola, but there are a dozen or more other artists I’d be proud to have painting my dust jackets, including David Mattingly, David Cherry, Jim Burns, Kelly Freas (who I’ve had off and on over a 30-year period), and a number of their peers.

2008 note: These days you can add Dan Dos Santos and John Picacio to the list.

2012 update: And now you can add Seamus Gallagher, who has been doing my Weird West series for Pyr.

I think my favorite SF painting is Virgil Finlay’s cover (for, I believe, Famous Fantastic Mysteries) of A. Merritt’s The Snake Mother. Of my own jackets, it’s Michael Whelan’s cover painting to Paradise: it’s an alien, on an alien landscape, with alien vegetation and alien animals in the background, and you take one look, and you know it’s East Africa.

2008 note: Paradise is still my favorite, but Bob Eggleton’s 2007 cover to Ivory, and Dan Dos Santos’s 2008 covers to Stalking the Unicorn and Stalking the Vampire come very close. Throughout my career I’ve been blessed with fine cover artists.

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QUESTION: I’m thinking of starting an on-line journal. Is this going to be a huge waste of time?

ANSWER: Probably. But if it makes you happy, why not do it anyway?

And as John Scalzi proved a couple of years ago, sometimes it can lead to a Campbell Award, a Hugo nomination, and a bestseller.

See you next issue.

About Mike

According to Locus, I am the all-time leading award winner, living or dead, for short fiction. I have won 5 Hugos (from a record 37 nominations), a Nebula, and other major awards in the USA, France, Japan, Spain, Croatia, Catalonia, and Poland. I'm and author of 74 novels, over 260 stories, and 3 screenplays, and the editor of 42 anthologies. My work has been translated into 27 languages. I am currently the editor of the Stellar Guild line of books, and Galaxy's Edge magazine.
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