Ask Bwana #39-40

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations — November(?), 2000

Usually I start this column with a little introductory essay — and I will this time, too. But it just happens to be in answer to a question that came in for Bwana, so we’ll work it as a question with a longer-than-usual answer.

QUESTION: If I’m not writing something Deep and Meaningful, does that mean I’m a hack? I’m asking because I’ve noticed you have an unusually wide range of voices, from humor to tragedy. When you’re working on a funny piece, do you ever feel like you’re wasting your time?

ANSWER: Humor is an honorable profession, dating all the way back to Jonathan Swift and beyond. In the first half of the just-concluded century, American letters abounded with humorists: John Kendrick Bangs, James Thurber, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Ring Lardner, Thorne Smith, H. Allen Smith, S. J. Perlman, Will Rogers, tons of others.

Somewhere along the way Americans lost the ability to appreciate more than one mainstream humorist at a time. The latter half of the century had its humorists — Peter de Vries, Max Schulman, Jean Shepard — but rarely more than one at a time.

With one exception. As the mainstream was divesting itself of humorists, science fiction was accumulating them. From Stanton A. Coblentz, who thought he was being funny, our humorists have increased in a straight-line trajectory through Eric Frank Russell, Fritz Leiber, Henry Kuttner, Fredric Brown, Robert Sheckley (who was the best of us all), and on to the present day: Esther Friesner, George Alec Effinger, Connie Willis, Robert Asprin, Harry Harrison, John Sladek, and a pair of legitimate bestsellers: Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams.

Are we prophets without honor on those days we’re being funny? The record says otherwise. “Allamagoosa” won a Hugo. So did “Even the Queen.” Others have won Nebulas.

Humor is a legitimate art form, and science fiction is the last field where it is welcomed at any length.

So in answer to your question, no, I do not feel I’m wasting my time when I write humor. I’ve done six humorous novels, and just last summer had a collection of 37 funny stories called In Space No One Can Hear You Laugh. I can’t think of any other field that would allow me such leeway to write humor, and since I personally enjoy writing it more than writing serious stuff, I plan to keep doing it whenever the mood suits me.

2008 Update: Make that 9 humorous novels, and upward of 70 funny stories alone or in collaboration.

2012 Update: 10 humors novels and more than 125 funny stories alone or in collaboration.

And never once has it been suggested that I am not a writer of substance and quality because I also write humor. (It may be suggested for other reasons, but never that one.)

In fact, in an America that can’t remember Mort Sahl and thinks what Mark Russell does is witty and incisive, in a country where a movie called (and personifying) Dumb and Dumber can gross $100 million domestically, I’d say we need more written humor for grown-ups, not less.

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QUESTION: So where were you in Issue #39?

ANSWER: Right here. Publisher Kent Brewster sent the Ask Bwana questions to an invalid e-mail address, and, probably because of time constraints caused by his recent marriage, never followed up.

But I’m not in hiding and not hard to find. I have a web page, through which you can e-mail me. I have five valid e-mail addresses. I have a Listserv with over 250 members who correspond with me (and each other) every day and know how to reach me. I am listed in the SFWA Directory. Just about every book and story editor in New York knows how to contact me. My agent knows how to contact me. Hell, I’m listed in the phone book.

I’m sure Kent had what seemed valid reasons to him to assume I was out of touch with the world, but on my behalf I want to point out that I’m right where I’ve always been, and can be contacted the same way I’ve always been contacted.

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QUESTION: Have you ever done a comic book? Are there any special traps I need to watch for?

ANSWER: I’ve only done one — Conan #40, which was probably a quarter of a century ago. I didn’t especially enjoy it — I’d been invited to do it by the editor, so I thought I’d see what the experience was like — and I seem to remember that they took forever to pay. Still, I’m no comic book writer, and I’m not the guy to ask about them. Probably you should speak to Len Wein or Harlan Ellison, who have both spent a lot of time in that field.

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QUESTION: Is the presence of multiple editors — or any other sort of deal where a story or novel has to jump through more than one editorial hoop before being accepted — a warning sign that a market should be avoided?

ANSWER: It depends on the editors and the conditions. Tor, for example, seems on some days to have hired half the people in the field as contributing editors . . . but however many they actually have, a writer there only works with one.

And sometimes editors leave. I sold the Widowmaker Trilogy to Janna Silverstein at Bantam. While I was writing the first book, Janna left for an editorial position on the West Coast and I got a call from Tom Dupree telling me he had become my editor. Six weeks later he left for Avon, and Jennifer Hershey became by editor. When I finally handed in the manuscript two months later, Jennifer had taken another job and my Bantam editor, then and now, was Anne Groell. So I had 4 editors on one book — though only one editor ever actually saw the finished manuscript.

Now, if you mean that you’re dealing with a situation where you have to please multiple editors at the same time, I’d be a bit leery of it. What if one likes your book and one doesn’t, if one wants changes and one doesn’t? Just as in collaborations, someone has to have the final say. If you’re dealing with more than one editor at once, make sure the one who likes your writing has that final word.

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QUESTION: Have any of your books ever been banned? If so, what did you do? If not, what would you do?

ANSWER: No. I had high hopes that The Branch, in which the two villains are God and the Messiah, might be banned, but it wasn’t. (Side note: it was made into a movie, and the Andorran producer/director was subsequently kicked out of his church and forbidden to work in Andorra for a period of 15 years, all thanks to The Branch.)

What would I do? Probably — and I mean this seriously — hire a publicist to disseminate that fact as widely as possible. The best sf publicist I know is Ellie Lang, but I think she’s currently attached to a publishing house; if she wasn’t available, I’d ask around for names.

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QUESTION: I’m just about to sign with a small publisher for my first 3 novels. I recognize that as a new author I’ll need to do a lot of my own marketing. What suggestions can you make, what should I avoid, and how do I make myself stand out?

ANSWER: You’ll hear all about visiting every book store you can find and autographing copies, or perhaps about making friends with some distributors . . . but the fact of the matter is that there really isn’t much you can do, compared to what your publishers can do. (And, alas, a small publisher can do far less than a mass market New York house.)

There are a couple of things, though. One: send copies to every pro, semi-pro and fanzine reviewer. Your publisher won’t give a damn if everyone loves it — all he’ll care about are the sales figures — but if you can put together a hefty package of favorable reviews and send it to various foreign publishers, you may be able to influence them to purchase your book. After all, if an editor whose English is lacking has two books on his desk by writers whose names are unknown to him, and one has 2 good reviews and the other (yours) has 23 good reviews, well, it’s an easy call, isn’t it?

Another thing — and this is considerably more difficult for a beginner — is to chop out a 15,000 to 30,000-word section and sell it to a prozine before the book comes out. You’ll reach 30,000 or 40,000 people who have never heard of you, and hopefully get them looking for your book when it comes out.

2008 Update: cut that number in half these days, alas.

Also, give your publisher a list of conventions you’re going to be attending in the 6 or 8 months after each book comes out, and make sure the dealers who will be at those cons have an ample supply of the books — ample to sell, and ample for you to do autograph sessions.

What to avoid? I’d sure avoid holding up the cover, or setting a pile of them in front of you, when sitting on panels at conventions. It tends to scream “bush league!” at the audience.

Also, if being interviewed by a fanzine (or anyone else), I’d go out of my way not to make it sound like I’d written something that will put The Foundation Trilogy or Neuromancer in the shade, even if I thought I had. A little self-deprecating humor will get you a lot more friends and readers than playing the role of the Pompous Self-Important Beginner.

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QUESTION: Do you consider it paying on acceptance if a magazine pays first, without a contract, upon accepting a manuscript?

ANSWER: I consider it sheer idiocy on the part of the magazine. It is legally a gift; they haven’t bought a thing.

There was a time when almost all magazines wrote their (truly onerous) contracts in tiny print on the back of the check, just above where the writer signed, and if he signed (and most writers couldn’t and still can’t afford not to sign), he was not only endorsing the check but signing the contract.

That was finally ruled illegal, and now all contracts come separately. Which means that if you sign a check and nothing else, you haven’t sold the magazine a damned thing. Not first North American Serial rights, not foreign rights, not electronic rights, not nuthin’.

I wouldn’t hold them up for more money — magazine publishers do talk to one another, especially if they feel someone’s ripping them off, and while the word “blackball” is never spoken the concept can still be practiced — but I would sure as hell feel that I was in a very strong negotiating position if the magazine tried to grab anything but the minimal rights I wanted to sell them. If you’re selling First North American Serial, and they ask for electronic, strike out the grab for electronic. That could be a deal-killer most places these days — but not with a guy whose check has already been cashed.

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QUESTION: I have a script I’d like to sell to television, but nobody I’ve contacted will talk to me unless I have a “packaging company” representing me. What’s that, and how do I locate one?

ANSWER: Movies and TV are almost closed industries. There’s so much money involved that they make it very hard for a writer to break in.

With movies, which constitutes my entire experience, you don’t need an agent if you have contacts, since all an agent in Hollywood does is put you together with people who might have work for you. Once an offer is on the table, you turn it over to your Hollywood lawyer, not your agent.

Now, I don’t watch TV, so I don’t write for it. But I’ve spoken to a number of TV writers. Most, indeed almost all, have agents. Most, indeed almost all, live in the Los Angeles area (vital for a TV writer, much less so for a movie writer). I’ve not heard the term “packaging company” before, but it seems logical that producers and production companies want one-stop shopping — i.e., they want to deal with one agency or entity that supplies director, writer, and actors. It’s the kind of thing Michael Ovitz specialized in for years when he was Hollywood’s most powerful agent at CAA, and it does make life easier for the people putting the project together.

So talk to someone from the show — preferably a writer — and find out who’s packaging it, then contact the packager.

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QUESTION: I know you’ve seen this one before, but with the advent of Harry Potter — and the subsequent marketing push behind the Redwall and Narnia books — I’d like to hear your take on the current state of the young adult market. Worth pursuing? Or will it be dead and gone before my book hits the shelves?

ANSWER: It’s worth pursuing if you want to write young adult books. It’s not if you’re just looking for a quick buck. And I’d expand that to every field of literary endeavor: editors can tell the difference between hack books and honestly-conceived books, and they really don’t want the former.

(So why are there so many hack books on the stands? Not because the editors and publishers can’t tell the difference, but because they can’t buy what isn’t submitted to them, and there are not enough — there have never have been enough — honestly-conceived well-written books.)

Remember: even successful hack books require a certain degree of skill. And that same degree of skill, brought to a legitimate project, will probably make it saleable.

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QUESTION: Do I really have to write a million words of crap before I can write anything good? If it gets published, will I wind up regretting it later? How do I know it’s crap, if an editor is willing to pay for it?

ANSWER: In general, you have to write a lot of crap — most of it very minimally better each day or week or month — until you know how to write well.

Is that always true?

Cyril Kornbluth, who was selling at 15, would say No. So would Chip Delany, who was selling books to Ace at 20. So would Robert A. Heinlein, who sold his first story and just about every other one he ever wrote. Ted Chiang, Nick DiChario, a host of others, would same the same thing.

But they are in a minority.

And then there’s the way around it so many of us chose over the years: sell in another field, preferably under one or more pseudonyms, until you’re good enough to write what you want and sign your own name to it.

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QUESTION: Do your characters ever “take over” and run away with the story? I’ve heard other writers talk about it, but it’s never happened to me . . . am I missing something?

ANSWER: Never. I’m the writer, they’re the characters. I pull the strings, they do the song and dance.

I can conceive of my characters taking over — but only if I haven’t done my preparation, if I don’t know what I’m going to say when I sit down to write. And I’m a disciplined writer who always knows what he’s going to say, if not precisely how he’s going to say it.

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QUESTION: I am in the possession of a series of very creepy fan letters. This guy knows where I live and that I’m scheduled to appear at an upcoming horror convention, and he’s made it clear that he’s going to be there too. I do not under any circumstances wish to come face-to-face with this person . . . so what should I do, if I still need to go to the con?

ANSWER: If there is any real or implied threat, notify the FBI (if you’re traveling interstate) as well as the local cops. If he’s just an obnoxious kook you wish to avoid, tell the con committee. Ask for a liaison (read: bodyguard), and have the committee warn this guy before he shows up that he’s frightened the hell out of one of the pro participants and they’re going to be watching him like a hawk.

And then, if you’re still uneasy, stay home. There are worse things than missing a convention.

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QUESTION: I just joined SFWA because of three sold short stories. My first novel is coming out next year. Is it cost-effective to campaign to get it on the Nebula ballot?

ANSWER: Let’s first try to figure out what a Nebula nomination is worth. And the answer is: not much. Remember: the Nebula was created in 1966. There are 140 Nebula winners (35 years times 4 winners a year) walking the Earth; there are over 700 Nebula nominees. Not exactly a selling point. I’d say it’s worth zip, but let’s be wildly optimistic and say it’ll bring you an extra $1,000 US in sales and an extra $1,000 US on your next book contract, over and above what you might have been expecting.

2008 Update: there are now 172 Nebula winners and over 825 Nebula nominees walking the Earth. Not the most exclusive group around.

So what’s the best way to get on the ballot? Simple. Send a copy of your book to all 1,200 voting members. Is that a hardcover we’re talking about? If it is, we’re talking about using your 50% author’s discount to send a $12 US book (half of the $24 US retail price) to 1,200 members — or, an expenditure of $14,400 US to realize a gain of $2,000 US tops. We won’t even mention postage and packaging.

All right, maybe it’s a paperback. You’re not a Name, so it’s not a $7 US or $8 US paperback, it retails for $6 US. You buy 1,200 copies for $3 US apiece. You’re out $3,600 US — and if you send it priority mail, you’re out another $4,200 US (the minimum cost for priority postage, as of January 7, 2001, is $3.50 US.) 2008 update: make that $4.80 US.

And that doesn’t count packaging, which is probably another 50 cents per book, or $600 US. So even pushing your paperback will cost you over $8,000 US — and writers don’t care about paperbacks. They might nominate your hardcover because they can trade it in to the local second-hand bookstore for a few bucks, and they’d like you to send them another one next year — but there’s not much they can do with a paperback. (Read it? You must be kidding. The average pro writer is years behind on his reading, and falling further behind every day. Novels by beginners don’t go to the top of the pile.)

Get the (depressing financial) picture?

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QUESTION: A convention has asked me to speak on some panels, and they’re willing to give me a free membership, but they say that because my husband is not a pro writer, he has to pay his own way. Is that the way these things work?

ANSWER: That is the way these things work only if you don’t stand up for your rights. Historically, every convention except Worldcon comps not only the writer/program participant, but also his Significant Other (and usually his offspring or parents as well, if they happen to be tagging along.)

Lately there have been a few cons that decided they were only going to comp the speaker’s membership and not his Significant Other’s.

On the exceptionally rare occasions this has happened to me (and it never happens again from the same committee), I explain that although this goes against all tradition, I am perfectly happy to pay my wife’s membership fee — and I hope they are equally happy to pay my standard speaking fee, which is $700 US an hour. (Your fee may not be anywhere near that high — but just make it an even $100 US an hour and no one will challenge it; that’s just about the rock bottom rate.)

You’d be surprised how quickly the convention committee decides to go back to the traditional method of comping speakers and their Others — especially when you explain that you plan to suggest your approach to every other speaker they have invited.

I don’t feel it’s a scam, either. I do charge for speaking to colleges, high schools, business groups, indeed everywhere except science fiction conventions. If they plan to use my name to draw paying customers (and they wouldn’t invite me if my name had no drawing power), and they plan to have me speak on 3 or 4 panels, the very least they can do is comp my wife as well. They will still come out hundreds of dollars ahead — and if they can’t see it this way, then they can pay me those hundreds or thousands of dollars, and I’ll be just as happy.

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QUESTION: I just saw the magazines’ sales figures in the February Locus, and they seem to still be headed straight downhill. How long can they continue to stay in business?

ANSWER: It’s a question that we all worry about. In 15 years Analog has gone from over 100,000 to 47,000 and Asimov’s has gone from over 100,000 to 30,000. F&SF has gone from 72,000 in Kris Rusch’s second year of editorship (less than a decade ago) to 29,000 in Gordon Van Gelder’s second year of editorship. Science Fiction Age, Galaxy, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine and Amazing have all folded. Worlds of If was revived for a single issue in 1986 and folded.

It’s frustrating. I don’t think anyone can put out better magazines than Gardner Dozois and Stan Schmidt are editing right now. I don’t know how a science fiction magazine can appeal to more media fans while still producing good stories as Science Fiction Age did. I thought Kris Rusch was as good an editor as F&SF had since Anthony Boucher retired more than 40 years ago.

Based on the figures, I assume Analog can handle a few more years of attrition, but I think Asimov’s, F&SF, and Realms of Fantasy, which I haven’t even mentioned, are all getting close to unprofitability. I hope their editors and publishers can turn it around.

2008 Update: the sales figures are worse today.

If not, then there will be only two legitimate markets for original short fiction: Martin H. Greenberg’s anthologies, and the internet. I sell to both, and I’m sure neither Marty nor my internet editors will take offense when I say that I find that prospect incredibly depressing.

(Yeah, there’ll be a bunch of semi-prozines too . . . but until they can get their word rates and circulations up, I don’t think they figure in the mix.)

2008 Update: and here is where the world of SF publishing has changed more than anywhere else. In seven short years, the three highest-paying short story markers are all e-zines, and there are another half dozen paying pro rates. The two new print magazines — the resurrected Argosy and the resurrected Amazing both folded in their first year.

2012 Update: the future arrived just in time. Asimov’s and Analog now have electronic editions as well as print editions, and the influx of e-subscriptions have kept both profitable. F&SF has gone bi-monthly, but there’s no indication that it’s moribund. And as I write these words, there are 17 e-zines paying what SFWA deems to be professional rates.

Good set of questions. 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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