Ask Bwana #29

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #29 — September, 1999

This column is one issue shy of its fifth birthday, and it occurs to me that while people have been throwing around phrases like option clauses and sub rights and the like, no one has actually asked about them — and it’s important that you understand what they mean.

You see, it’s all very well to talk about advances, and on a good contract the advance is the single most important thing.

But on a bad contract, it’s almost the least important. Even Heidi Fleiss would be amazed at how many ways a publisher has of screwing you.

Let’s look at the option clause for starters. New writers just love option clauses. It makes them feel all warm and rosy. “Look,” they want to say — “see how much my publisher loves me? He wants my next book too!”

Well, let’s take a good, hard look at that clause. What it does is give him an option, not an obligation, to purchase your next book. That’s fair enough; he’s investing some minimal ad and publicity money on this one.

But the wording of this friendly little clause can be a killer. As a writer, you want to limit it as much as you can. As a publisher, he wants to broaden it as much as he can. Let’s examine why.

You sell him Linebackers of Neptune’s Moons. The publisher wants an option on your next book. He says so in print — and he puts limitations on himself, too, nice fellow that he is. He says that he has the right to match any bid anyone else makes on your next book, which means that he can’t buy a potential bestseller for peanuts, and he adds that he must exercise that option with 60 days of publication of your current book.

What a sweet guy! He loves your writing, that’s for sure. Wants your next book. And he’ll only make you wait 60 days before he bids or decides to let someone else publish you. One of nature’s noblemen, and isn’t it nice to feel wanted?

Now let’s take a cold, hard look at what it really means.

First, he didn’t specify which book. Just your next one. Okay, let’s say your next one is on The Life Cycle of the Safari Ant, or Hillary Clinton’s Run for the Senate.

Obviously he doesn’t want either of these books: he’s a science fiction, or at least a category fiction, publisher.

But you’ve given him an option. And when does he have to exercise it? Not when you hand in your current book sometime next year. Not when you proof the galleys. Not when you get to see the cover sketch. But 60 days after your book is published.

Which is to say, he can prevent you from selling anything, from a sequel to your novel, to a book on ants, to a book on Hillary Clinton, for possibly as much as three years. Maybe they will have learned more about ants by then, making your book obsolete, and maybe they won’t, but you can bet your ass (and your potential sale) that no one’s going to want to read about Hillary Clinton’s run for the Senate a year or two after she’s either made it or chosen not to.

So what kind of option do you want?

You want to limit it as much as possible. If you’ve been around awhile and have any clout, you can word it so that the option is strictly for sequels to Linebackers of Neptune’s Moons. If you’re a newcomer, you can at least limit it to your next science fiction book.

And under no circumstances should you allow the publisher to wait until after your next book is published to exercise his option. You’ll insist that it be exercised 30 or 60 days after your current manuscript has been delivered and accepted.

And what if you don’t have a new manuscript 30 or 60 days after you hand in the current one? No problem. Your publisher’s option will give him a matching or topping privilege, which means you can’t sell your next science fiction book elsewhere until he sees the manuscript and decides whether or not to bid on it, a decision that he’ll have 30 or 60 days to make once he receives it. This is fair: if he’s published you, taken a chance on you and invested some money in you, he deserves a fighting chance (but no more than that) to keep you. And you, on the other hand, deserve the right to make a living without being slave to an option clause that could conceivably stop you from selling any type of literature anywhere in the world for the next few years.

Next issue I’ll show you why when those nice fellows offer to handle your foreign rights for the same or even a smaller percentage than an agent gets, you should run the other way as fast as you can.

Okay, now on to this month’s questions:

QUESTION: How do I tell the print run of an anthology?

ANSWER: You ask the publisher. If he won’t tell you, you ask the editor. If he won’t tell you, you ask the printer. If he won’t tell you, you’ll probably never find out. There is no reason why print runs should be such deep dark secrets (well, one reason — it makes it easier to lie about sales and royalties), but that’s the way it’s always been in this field, and it’s not likely to change anytime soon.

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QUESTION: I’m currently working on two novels at the same time. When I get stuck or frustrated with one, I work on the other, and vice versa. How do you choose which novel to write? Do you start it before you know what the ending will be?

ANSWER: I tend to only write on one novel at a time, though I’ll often take a few nights off to write some short stories while I’m working on it. And yes, I always know what the end will be before I sit down to write anything. I do not understand writers who allow their books and stories to “grow organically,” or who love being surprised by what their characters do next. My stories are carefully plotted, because if they weren’t they would read like they weren’t. As for the characters, I pull the strings, they do the song and dance. That’s why I’m the writer and they’re the characters.

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QUESTION: Have you ever written anything for kids? If so, are there any rules to follow besides the ones that apply to grownups? And who were your favorite authors when you were a kid?

ANSWER: I wrote one thing for kids. Back in late 1976, just when we were moving from the Chicago area to Cincinnati, I got a call from Rand McNally, which publishes Young Adult books as well as maps. They knew I’d written a bunch of articles on horse racing, and to them, one sport was pretty much the same as the other. They had about 50 photographs of Olga Korbut and Nadia Comenici, and they wanted to put out a book on gymnastics before everyone forgot who those two young ladies were. So I agreed to write it. I got to Cincinnati a week ahead of Carol, went to the library every night, took notes, came home, and wrote. The only obeisance I made to Young Adults was to avoid words of more than three syllables. I had the book finished the day before Carol arrived. It was like cramming for a test. You know how the second the test is over you forget everything you learned? Well, we saw some gymnastics on television less than a month later, and I couldn’t describe or recognize a single move they were doing. The book was called Gymnastics and You, and it won something called the Bookworm Award as the Best Young Adult Nonfiction Book of 1977. Paid royalties twice a year from 1978 until 1995, 33 checks in all, something my science fiction has yet to do.

2008 update: I wrote a series of Young Adult novels — one science fiction, one fantasy, one mainstream — for Watson-Guptill about 2 to 4 years ago. Really enjoyed it — and was amazed by how little obeisance I had to make to their tender sensitivities, sexual and verbal.

My favorite authors when I was a kid? Edgar Rice Burroughs. Albert Payson Terhune, Walter Farley, and even sexy, funny, adult Thorne Smith. A lot of others, none of whom were ever associated with kids’ books. (Well, neither should Burroughs have been, but in the early 1950s that’s the way he was being marketed, more shame to Grosset & Dunlap.)

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QUESTION: Why did you begin to write in the first place? And who do you have to thank for it?

ANSWER: My mother was a writer, and my father did a little writing on the side. I don’t think, growing up in that household, that I ever seriously considered doing anything else for a living. I was selling at 15, and writing full-time by 22. I’ve never been a cargo hand or a short-order cook or any of those nifty things you see on dust jackets; all I’ve ever been is a writer. Well, and an editor, too.

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QUESTION: I’m fifteen. When will I be old enough to start writing professionally?

ANSWER: It’s not when will you be old enough, but rather when will you be good enough. Chip Delany sold at 20; Ray Lafferty didn’t sell a word until he was 50. They were both brilliant from the outset. I suppose it depends on when you master your craft and when you have something worth saying.

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QUESTION: How do you feel about online writers’ workshops? Assuming I can trust everyone to keep my work private, and cannot find any other source of critique, should I participate? And how do you feel about “public” workshops, such as the Del Rey and Zoetrope workshops?

ANSWER: I’m not quite a born-again workshopper, but readers of this column know that I didn’t think much of workshops at all until I taught Clarion this summer and was absolutely amazed at the progress those young men and women had made between the time they wrote their admission stories and the time I saw them during the fourth week of the session. I am now convinced that Clarion works. But I think I would have to judge each workshop on a case-by-case basis, since so many I have seen in the past did not work.

Or you can judge for yourself. Take a look not just as what the Del Rey and Zoetrope workshoppers are producing today, but look at what they produced three and six months ago and see if they’ve made any progress, or if the good ones were always good.

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QUESTION: I need my characters to be speaking future-speak, and everything I try seems hopelessly stilted. Any tips for writing slang or dialect?

ANSWER: James Blish once said that the future version of “Damn!”, written for a modern audience, is “Damn!” You might consider that before you start creating a language no one can follow.

Are there tricks? Sure. None of them are codified, but we all have our own methods. I was told that Mr. Ahasuerus, a blue-skinned alien who is a major character in my four-book “Tales of the Galactic Midway” series, sounded very alien and very consistent; my answer, which I think flabbergasted the critic, was that the only change I made in his dialogue, as opposed to everyone else’s, was that he went four books without ever uttering a contraction.

This leads me to think that it’s more important that your futurespeak sound different than that it be a carefully worked-out language such as you find in Riddley Walker or A Clockwork Orange.

There are writers who know linguistics and can come up with consistent alien tongues — C. J. Cherryh and Ursula K. Le Guin come to mind — but I persist in believing that you needn’t scrap your story if you don’t possess their unique skills.

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QUESTION: Most of the material in Speculations revolves around short fiction. Yet we all know that you can only make a living writing novels. Is it easier to break in via short fiction, and thus all of the interest, or is something else going on here?

ANSWER: As to why Speculations seems primarily concerned with short fiction, says Bwana with an enormous sense of relief, you’ll have to ask publisher Kent Brewster about that. All Bwana does is answer the questions that are put to him.

In general, it’s easier to break in via short fiction, because if we go on the assumption that your first attempts at any type or length of fiction are likely to be unsaleable, you’ll get a lot more bad stories out of your system in a given period of time than bad novels. Also, if you have an exceptionally innovative idea, you can probably sneak it through a magazine with mildly sub-par writing, while you can’t get away with that in a novel.

Another reason to start with short fiction is because if you can make some award ballots or otherwise distinguish yourself, you’ll probably get enough more for your first novel to make the wait worthwhile.

2008 note: As each prozine dies — and the ground is littered with their corpses — that advice, valid when given, becomes less so each day. We now have four print prozines in the US, and two high paying e-zines . . . but according to Locus, we published over 1,600 new science fiction and fantasy books in 2007. Think about it.

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QUESTION: Are paperback books really dying?

ANSWER: Of course not. Take a look at your local superstore.

What is happening is that trade paperbacks are becoming more and more common, for a number of reasons.

First, mass market publishers like them because, with the smaller print runs, they can keep all the copies in circulation and not have any in the warehouse at year’s end, avoiding the consequences of the Thor Power Tool Ruling. (Don’t ask; look it up on the Internet.)

Second, it seems that small press publishers have chosen the trade paperback as the publication of choice. They can’t afford to print a few thousand hardcovers, and they haven’t got the clout to place 20,000 or more mass market paperbacks in the stores . . . but they can show a handsome profit on a print run of 4,000 to 6,000 trade paperbacks that go $17.95 US apiece, and they can get them distributed in those quantities.

But no, the mass market paperback is definitely not an endangered species.

2012 update: That was true in 1999. It is definitely not true in 2012. The mass market paperback is moribund, and I’d be surprised to see it still around in ten years. The reason has to do with the huge advance in technology over the past decade, and especially with the Kindle and the Nook. Look at it this way: you’re a publisher, you’ve published the hardcover of a book, and it’s time for a cheap mass market edition. You can pay for color separations, paper, printing, binding, shipping, national distribution, local distribution, give the bookstore 40% of the cover price, and gobble 50% returns . . . or you can make a electronic version of that same book in both .mobi (Kindle format) and epub (Nook format) in five minutes, sell it on Amazon, Barnes, Apple’s iBookstore, and all the other electronic venues for the same $8.00 US you would charge for the paperback, and you are in profit when you sell the very first copy. It’s really as simple as that.

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QUESTION: Which do you prefer in the beginning of a story, a slam-bang hook or a vivid image that’s thematically symbolic? Are novels different?

ANSWER: It’s not a matter of what I prefer. As a reader I have my own idiosyncratic tastes, and very few of the authors I like, in or out of this field, ever make a bestseller list.

It’s what you have to do to sell, and mostly what you have to do is come up with such a strong narrative hook on the first page that the first reader — most of whom are expected to reject 20 to 30 stories an hour — doesn’t put your story right back in the envelope after reading the first two paragraphs.

Max Schulman, the creator of Dobie Gillis and a lot of far funnier if less-well-known fiction, one suggested that the ideal opening paragraph for a novel would be: “Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Four shots ripped into my groin, and I was off on the adventure of my life.”

Too bad he was being facetious, because, for beginners, it was damned good advice. Editors allow the established pros a little more time to get into their stories, once they’ve proven that they have an audience.

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QUESTION: Where is the boundary between science fiction and techno-thriller?

ANSWER: I would suggest that artistically the boundary is the date: present day, obeying all the known laws of science, not extrapolating too much, it’s a techno-thriller. Future, bending a law here and there, extrapolating heavily, it’s science fiction.

I would also suggest that none of that matters, that the real difference between the two is determined by the marketing team, not the writer or editor. If it’s a house that has a few Tom Clancy clones that do well, they’ll want to call it a techno-thriller if they possibly can. If it’s a house that has some of the better-selling sf writers and hasn’t fared well with Clancy clones, they’ll market it as science fiction.

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QUESTION: I’ve found a story of mine online, but the places and names have been changed. How should I proceed?

ANSWER: You can proceed by giving me a little more information. Was this a story you submitted somewhere? If so, was it submitted to a paying market? If the answer is yes to both, did the contract allow the editor to change the places and names? If so, you don’t have much recourse.

Is the story appearing under your name? If not, and you can prove it was stolen, then you have a winnable lawsuit. Also, if you sold it and didn’t give them permission to change your name, you have a lawsuit. The problem, as always in these cases, is to determine whether it’s worth winning.

Is it a story you have not submitted, but something you workshopped and thought was protected? If so, check the rules of the workshop and the network (and remember, a lot of networks claim that anything posted there is their property, not the poster’s.) Again, before paying a lawyer thousands of dollars to sue a penniless opponent, make sure it’s worth the effort.

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QUESTION: I was wondering if you’d seen the contract, acknowledgement, and release sent by Wizards of the Coast to the fiction authors in SFWA. I had a story in Dragon many years ago and am strongly tempted to just sign and take the money . . . but it looks like I’d be giving weight to their side of the argument, which is that they had the right to do this all along. Any opinions of the whole mess?

ANSWER: I haven’t seen the contract and release, but I’ve heard them discussed. Endlessly.

It seems to me that if you’re not dealing with Wizards of the Coast any longer, you might as well take the money. This is the best deal SFWA could manage, and it’s hardly worth suing them for a single story. You might get $400 US, and your lawyer will probably cost you $20,000 US minimum if you have to go to court. And since SFWA engineered the deal and has signed off on it, even if you’re a SFWA member you’re not going to get SFWA’s lawyer or agent to fight on your behalf.

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QUESTION: Here’s a very basic question — do I trust the Word Count tool in my word processor or should I estimate word count with some other formula?

ANSWER: Most of us old-timers — and by that, I mean those of us who were writing professionally before the advent of the computer — used a very simple method, one that most of us still use today: Unless you’re using some obscure type size or paper size, you’re probably getting 10 words a line and 25 lines a page. That’s 250 words a page, which is pretty much the standard rule of thumb.

2008 update: trust the count you get from Word. These things have gotten a lot more accurate.

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QUESTION: Maybe I misunderstood something in Wil McCarthy’s article in last issue, but I can’t imagine someone selling five or six books and then spending the rest of their life writing and marketing works of comparable quality but getting rejected. Does this really happen?

ANSWER: Sure it does. More and more often. What happens is this: you sell your first few books based on their quality, which means you’re basically selling to one person: your editor. After the figures come in, you are now selling to the people you really want to sell to: your audience. But if your audience is too small for your publisher to show a profit, it doesn’t matter how good your books are or how much your editor likes you, you’re out of work.

Now that the chains are refusing to handle certain poor sellers, the only way those authors can stay in business — it’s humiliating, but more and more of them are doing it — is to reinvent themselves by writing under pseudonyms. Until the chains and the distributors can see the contracts, they cannot know that Publisher X’s much-hyped new writer is actually Publisher Y’s disaster who sold 6,372 copies of his last paperback.

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QUESTION: How much revising do you do?

ANSWER: The only proper answer is: As much as is necessary.

Yeah, I know, that’s not what you want to hear. I can tell you how I revise, I can tell you why I revise, I can even tell you when I revise (after each chapter, and I never proceed until the chapter is set in stone) — but thanks to computers, I can’t tell you how much I revise.

Once upon a time it would have been easy. If I handed in a 500-page novel and I’d gone through 1,500 pages of blank paper, I’d know I’d revised all or part of 1,000 pages, or that I did an average of three drafts. But since it’s all done on a screen now, and I move copy with a keystroke and make bad paragraphs disappear into the ether instead of the waste basket, I honestly, truly, cannot even guess at how much revising I do.

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QUESTION: Which of the prozines use first readers?

ANSWER: It changes so quickly I can’t tell you for sure any more. I know Asimov’s does. I know The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction did when Kris Rusch was editing it; I don’t know if Gordon van Gelder has first readers, but when you consider he’s also editing the science fiction line at St. Martin’s Press I can’t imagine he hasn’t got some. Analog traditionally has no first reader. You’d have to speak to Scott Edelman and the others about their magazines. Just write them an e-mail — every one of them seems to have a web page — and ask. Or ask them at a convention. It’s not a secret; they’ll be happy to tell you.

2012 update: about half the professional-level ezines use slush readers these days. Makes senense. When they pay pro rates and you don’t even have to spend postage to submit, there are going to be a lot of stories piling up each week.

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QUESTION: I’ve noticed that I have difficulty writing about what I know, which is the opposite of the old cliché. I wonder if you can be so involved in the “now” of a subject domain that you have difficulty getting to the “what if” of that domain. And if that’s the case, how do you break out of it?

ANSWER: I’ve never encountered this problem. I’ve encountered this kind of talk though, and it’s got a little too much writerly mystique in it for my taste. Writing is 95% mechanics and 5% art and inspiration; if it ever becomes 90% and 10%, you’re probably talking Nobel Prize. So I’d say the odds are 20-to-1 that what’s lacking here are your mechanics.

So what do you do? You examine what kind of story you want to tell, you forget the “now” and the “what if” and all the other stuff college professors who can’t write love to talk about, and you simply ask yourself what is the best, most effective way to tell this story? If it works best in the future you set it there; if it has the most emotional resonances set on another world you set it there; if it belongs in a mildly alternative here-and-now, you set it here and now.

Then you make notes. You write outlines. You do every single bit of preparation you can think of so that when the time comes to write the story, you’ve already got most of your vision on paper and now you’re just using the tools of your trade — the mechanics — to translate it into an effective, evocative fiction story.

Nice questions. See you all 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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