Ask Bwana #41

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations — March, 2001

In this field, it’s impossible to pay back. The people who helped you break in and develop your skills simply don’t need your help. So instead of paying back, you pay forward.

I did it last year, with Putting It Together: Turning Sow’s Ear Drafts into Silk Purse Stories, which you’ve honored by placing on the Hugo ballot.

I’ve got another one coming this year, and I’ve had a lot of help on it from other pro writers. The one question we hear most often from the outside world remains “Where do you get those crazy ideas?”. . . but from inside the field, from hopeful writers, the question we hear over and over again is “How do you write an outline? How do you pitch a novel to an editor?”

So . . . coming out from Wildside Press, hopefully by this year’s Worldcon, is I Have This Nifty Idea . . . , a collection of proposals and outlines that sold to editors and resulted in very successful science fiction novels.

I edited it, but, like I said, I had a lot of help. In the book you’ll find Robert Silverberg’s outline for Lord Valentine’s Castle, which got the biggest advance in science fiction history at the time it was sold. You’ll see Kevin J. Anderson’s proposal for The Saga of Seven Suns, which sold this spring for more than a million dollars. Other proposals, synopses and outlines include Katherine Kerr’s forthcoming The Snare, Jack Dann’s bestselling The Memory Cathedral, Jack Chalker’s classic Midnight at the Well of Souls, Kathleen A. Goonan’s Nebula nominee, Crescent City Rhapsody, Nebula winner Walter Jon Williams’ The Rift and Metropolitan, Campbell winner Laura Resnick’s In Legend Born, 8 movie synopses by Hugo winner Charles Sheffield, my own Walpurgis III, The Branch, The Widowmaker Trilogy, and The Return of Santiago, Hugo and Nebula winner Joe Haldeman’s classic The Forever War and 1968, Susan Matthews’ forthcoming Angel of Destruction, Jack McDevitt’s The Hercules Text, Nebula winner Robert Sawyer’s Illegal Alien, The Terminal Experiment, and Starplex, Hugo winner David Brin’s background synopsis for The Uplift Universe, Terry McGarry’s forthcoming Illumination, Barry Malzberg’s Campbell Memorial winner Beyond Apollo, Alan Rodgers’ Bone Music, and Stephen Leigh’s forthcoming Silence.

It this a plug? It sure as hell is. I think this book will benefit almost every writer who has ever wondered what successful proposals and outlines look like.

Is it a conflict of interest, using my column here to push a new book?

Not a bit. The writers in this book, well-established pros all, took no advance and submitted their material free of charge. They’re paying forward.

2008 Update: It was nominated for the 2002 Hugo Award for Best Related Book. And it outsold every other book I ever did for that publisher. I gather it’s still being used in colleges and elsewhere.

Okay, on to this month’s questions:

QUESTION: When you did your Alternate anthology series, how much guidance as to what the final product would look like did you give your authors? What would be the “normal” range, if there is such a thing? I’m dealing with an editor who has given me a fairly detailed plot outline; what’s the difference between writing a story to order like this and work-for-hire?

ANSWER: That’s two questions, actually.

Whenever I edited an anthology, I would tell the writers I had invited to participate what the theme was, what the pay was, what the deadline was, and a general notion of what I wanted. For most of the pros, that was more than enough. For a few, they would bounce ideas off me until they came up with one we both liked, and every now and then I’d get an exceptionally lazy, busy or insecure writer who wanted me to plot the entire story, which I would do. The newcomers — and I had them in every anthology, without exception — usually wanted a little more input, and often had to revise or rewrite, but that was about the only difference. In the four-year period that I was actively editing anthologies, I bought a Hugo winner and 6 Hugo nominees from established pros, and found a Campbell winner and 6 Campbell nominees from beginners. It evens out.

2012 Update: I still edit anthologies, but never in the quantities I did back in the early-to-mid 1990s.

The difference between writing a story to order for a theme anthology — we’re not talking a shared-world anthology, like, say Thieves’ World or Liavek — and a work-for-hire is that you own the copyright for the theme story. You’re not using anyone’s copyrighted characters, which differentiates that type of story from the shared-world story or work-for-hire novel.


QUESTION: Call me crazy, but I’ve recently taken over editorship of a semiprozine. We have a good reputation, but I want to attract more and better material. What are the top three things that I a) should do, and b) should avoid? (We already pay on acceptance, and I’ve already asked if we can increase our rates to professional levels; the answer was no.)

ANSWER: Okay, you’re crazy.

I don’t know why, after 40 issues, people are still asking Bwana how to sell to or edit semiprozines when they know what he thinks of them.

All right, very briefly: hunt up some Name writers you know and convince them to sell you some trunk stories, or reprints of stories almost no one’s seen. With no Name on the cover, you’re at an enormous competitive disadvantage.

Get the best cover artist you can afford. Your cover is your prime selling document.

I can’t think of a third thing, other than raising your rates. The best third thing would be to reconsider your career as a non-professional.

(Remember: if this is exactly what you want from the field, then Bwana’s advice isn’t for you. It is aimed solely at those who wish to become professionals.)


QUESTION: I’ve been following Harlan Ellison’s case against the Internet, and it seems to me that he’s gone way over the top, in an effort to make as many people as angry as possible. It’s particularly bothersome the way he tars Internet publishers and pirates with the same brush; whether Harlan likes it or not, Net publishing is here to stay. What do you think of Harlan Versus the Internet Pirates? Worth supporting or not?

ANSWER: I think you’re putting words in Harlan’s mouth. He knows Internet publishing is here to stay. If you don’t believe me, check, and you’ll find Harlan has sold them a bunch of stories.

Harlan’s not the only one fighting piracy. He’s just the loudest and most visible of us. SFWA’s attorney, M. Christine Valada, has probably spent at least half her time on this. Almost every writer has fans who will tell him when and where he’s been pirated, and the instant we find out we have to fight to defend our rights, for a number of reasons:

1) If you do not protect and defend copyrighted and trademarked material, you stand in some danger of losing the protection of copyright and trademark.

2) If you do not attack pirates at every opportunity, you are sending a message that you don’t think your property is worth defending, and that you will not defend it should it be pirated again.

3) It is, plainly and simply, robbery. Every time you post one of my novels for free that, say, Fictionwise or Amazon or Barnes & Noble is trying to sell in electronic form, you’re stealing a few dollars out of my pocket. Let it be downloaded 30 or 35 times and now it’s no longer a misdemeanor, you’ve robbed me of enough money that it’s a felony.

Is the problem being over-exaggerated?

Not a bit.

I’m a popular writer, but I’m in no sense a superstar like Ray Feist or Robert Jordan or Robert A. Heinlein. I’m just a writer who’s been around a couple of decades, and won some awards, and made a living in this field.

But I have been pirated 16 different times that I know of, and probably more than I don’t. Often it’s a teen-aged kid who doesn’t know it’s against the law. Sometimes it’s a misguided fan who wants to share his love of my work with a bunch of friends.

But just as often it’s someone who knows exactly what he’s doing. There’s a web site run out of the University of Moscow that we still haven’t been able to shut down. There’s a felon named Geoff Burnes who has pirated about 15 science fiction writers, and according to the FBI is one hell of a hacker, running his web site in Australia, via Rome, Cairo, and finally Britain, where he may or may not live.

How many thousands of dollars have they cost me? There’s no way to know.

How many millions have they cost all writers? Ditto.

Is Harlan right to go after pirates wherever he finds them?

You bet your ass he is.

2012 update: with the growth of the web, the piracy problem is epidemic now. If I’m being pirated as few as ten times a month, that’s a very successful month for me, or for any other writer of stature in any field. SFWA’s no help these days; it wrings its hands and decries piracy, but it disbanded its anti-piracy committee a few years ago. All you can do is keep a watchful eye, ask your fans and friends to do the same, learn how to write a DMCA notice, and report pirates to the publishers, most of whom have attorneys on retainer, as well as to writers.


QUESTION: I remember back in the days of GEnie that you and a bunch of other professionals worth heeding were online in real-time chat rooms. Do you ever do any live online chat these days? If so, please say where and when, and whether you think it’d be worth the time for a beginner to attend?

ANSWER: I do online chats whenever someone invites me to. I’ve done them for Asimov’s whenever I’m up for a Nebula or a Hugo, I’ve done them for Delphi, GEnie, CompuServe, even AOL. But those are “special events,” an interview as opposed to a chat.

These days there’s usually a chat for the Resnick Listserv on Thursdays (you have to join the Listserv to participate, but there’s no cost; you can join through my web page at — and I frequently stop into the “lobby” during coffee breaks while I’m writing (usually after 10:00 PM at night).

2008 Update: I no longer stop by the lobby. The networks, and their chat rooms, seem to be dying, at least in terms of science fiction. There’ll never be anything quite like GEnie was for almost a decade, and these days there aren’t even a hell of a lot of imitators.

2012 Update: Welcome to the future. Facebook has something like 500 million members, and any of them can chat there. Google+ has something like 100 million and growing, and also offers chat rooms. But to this day, nothing’s ever quite matched the ambience of those late-night GEnie chat rooms where it seemed like half the science fiction writers in the business were gathered.


QUESTION: What do you think of Novel Dares, in which the participants are encouraged to “dare to be bad” and crush out a novel in 30 days? Have you ever actually seen a good book come out of an exercise like this?

ANSWER: Never. I’ve seen a bestseller come out of something like that, years ago; it was called Naked Came the Stranger, by “Penelope Ashe.” It was turgid and all but unreadable, but it was loaded with sex and it did very well.

I’m not saying you can’t write a good book very fast. Barry Malzberg wrote Herovit’s World and Galaxies in about a week each, and for my money they were the two best science fiction novels of the 1970s. I think the only science fiction novel I myself ever did in under a month was Sideshow, but it managed to go through 4 printings, sell to a bunch of foreign markets, and spawn some sequels.

I don’t think the time limit is the problem. I think “daring to be bad” is the antithesis of “striving to be good,” and I rather suspect novelty projects like this will always be great fun to write and wind up totally without redeeming social or literary value.


QUESTION: I’m thinking about participating in the Worldcon writers’ workshop. Have you ever done one of these? If so, was it worthwhile? If not . . . well, I know you taught at Clarion and it changed your mind about such things; would you ever consider teaching a one-shot workshop?

ANSWER: No, I’ve never done one. Clarion did change my mind about Clarion-style workshops — but remember: Clarion was 6 weeks of intensive study. The Worldcon workshop is one or two days, right? I really don’t know how much you can learn in such a compressed time period. But why don’t you go and then report back to Speculations about the experience?


QUESTION: Okay, so now we’re seeing the delayed but inevitable after effects of the dot-bomb: All those spiffy professional e-zines seem to be going away, or retrenching, or not buying fiction any more. I know you’ve heard this one before, but I’ll ask again: given that all the pro and semi-pro print markets are bouncing my work, should I trunk it or look into semi-professional-level e-zines?

ANSWER: They’re not quite all going away. Linda Nagata just won a Nebula for “Goddesses,” a novella that initially appeared on; and some of the writers on are making money hand over fist.

That said, I’ll certainly agree that most of the start-ups have folded, being the greatest tragedy. None of which has much to do with your question, which seems to be: since all the pro markets, and all the semi-pro print markets, are bouncing your work, should you look into placing it with a semi-pro e-zine?

The answer won’t surprise anyone who’s been reading this column for any length of time: If you want to be a professional writer, you have to sell to professional markets. If you want advice on submitting to what Bwana calls “penny dreadfuls,” you’re going to have to get input from someone else.

And considering that, by your own admission, all the semi-pro print markets have rejected you, perhaps they were trying to tell you something, like: work at getting better. I’m almost sure they were not trying to tell you: find an obscure semi-pro e-market that is so desperate for material that they’ll take your stuff.

Now, I know that sounds cruel, but if you want to be a professional, if you want something more than to just see your name in print or in phosphors (which anyone can do these days), then when every market, including the semi-pro ones, tells you you’re not ready yet, listen to them and work at becoming ready. In the long run — hell, even in the short run — putting unsaleble pap on the internet doesn’t enhance your position in or out of the field.


QUESTION: When you need to research background, how do you go about it? Contact an expert? Go to the library? The Internet? Or what?

ANSWER: I try to write about things I know—or, since I’m a science fiction writer, things I know more about than my readers do. When this isn’t possible, I go to the Resnick Listserve (a group of about 140 fans, writers, and editors) and put forth my problem, and invariably someone has an answer to it.

2008 Update: its size has since doubled, and about 20 of them have broken into (professional) print in the interim.

Failing that, I use my computer’s search engine. I think posting your problem on CompuServe and will also prove beneficial. I wouldn’t advise AOL; they may be the biggest, but they seem to be at or near the bottom in terms of science fictional sophistication.

2008 Update: Just Google it.


QUESTION: How smart would it be to sell a story to China’s Science Fiction World? They claim to have a monthly circulation of 500,000 readers, but they only pay two cents US per word.

ANSWER: As the computer says, Insufficient Data.

For example, does Science Fiction World accept American reprints? If so, then you should certainly sell it here first, since our prozines pay much better and rarely take reprints.

For example, are you trying to establish an audience among the Chinese, and if so, for stories or for novels? If it’s for stories, to hell with it; no one needs to establish a demand for 2-cents-a-word stories. If it’s for novels, what do the Chinese pay? (That’s an honest question; I’ve appeared in 22 languages, but Chinese isn’t one of them.) If it’s 4 digits and a reasonable royalty rate, go for it; if it’s $500 a book and 2% royalties, it’s not worth the effort.

For example, are you hoping to be invited as an all-expenses-paid Guest of Honor at a Chinese conventions? (Do they have Chinese conventions?) If you think you’ve got a chance, then go for it.

Like I said, insufficient information. But in general, you know what Bwana thinks of 2-cents-a-word markets.

2008 Update: I sold 4 stories to Science Fiction World in China in 2007 and 2008, and can report, years after this column was originally written, that they pay standard pro rates for reprints, and pay fast, always a consideration.

2012 update: I’ve sold still more to Science Fiction World and can also tell you that it’s circulation is about 400,000 per issue. (Compare that with Asimov’s 25,000.) I’ve also sold some reprint novels to China, and can report that they pay a reasonable rate, comparable to many European countries. And while we’re on the subject of China, the Chinese magazine SF King has a circulation of about 250,000 per issue.


QUESTION: I wonder if there’re any tax (or other) benefits to creating an LLC or incorporating as a writer? Tom Clancy’s stuff is copyright Rubicon, Inc. but obviously he plays on a different field than most.

ANSWER: Yes, of course there is good reason for writers to incorporate; otherwise we wouldn’t be incorporated.

A couple of simple examples:

You make, let’s say, $70,000 US a year as a writer. If you’re unincorporated, your self-employment tax — not your income tax, but your self-employment tax (which is the same as FICA and Medicare) is $10,500 US — 15%. But let’s say you earn the same amount as a corporation and pay yourself a $15,000 US annual salary. Now, your federal income tax is the same — you’re being taxed on $70,000 US, minus expenses, same as before — but your FICA is only $2,250 US — a tidy savings, in your pocket, of $8,250 US.

If you’re not incorporated, it makes no difference whether you own or lease your car. You can’t deduct the payments anyway, only the (minimal) depreciation. But as a corporation, you can lease your car and deduct 100% of the payments.

A private citizen can’t deduct his health insurance. But if your corporation buys health insurance for its only employee (you), it’s totally deductible.

Etc, etc, etc. Trust me, you don’t have to be Tom Clancy to need incorporation. That’s why there’s Nightfall, Inc. (Asimov), Agberg, Inc. (Silverberg), Kirinyaga, Inc. (me), The Kilimanjaro Corporation (Ellison), Flinx, Inc. (Foster), and so on. I think anyone who makes a full-time living as a writer and doesn’t incorporate is the recipient of incredibly bad advice.


QUESTION: My agent — who sold my first novel in a month, bless her — shot down every other idea I came up with, until out of sheer desperation I concocted this horrible potboiler of a space opera. It was formulaic, clichéd, and boring, and naturally she loved it, shopped it around, and . . . gasp . . . sold it. I now need to actually write this book, and write it well, because it’s my follow-up effort and needs to sell better than the first book. The problem is that I hate this book and do not wish to write it . . . any advice?

ANSWER: The only after-the-fact advice I have for you is to live up to your contractual obligations, stop complaining, and write the very best book you can write.

I have a lot of before-the-fact advice that won’t do you the least bit of good, but may help someone else out there:

1. Your agent is just what the job description says: the person who markets what you write. She is not your editor. It’s hard enough to get a manuscript past one editor, let alone two.

2. You described the book you must write as “formulaic, clichéd, and boring” and then say “naturally she loved it.” Not, “she agreed to push it” or “she looked at me like I was crazy but said she’d do what she could.” Your missive shows such total contempt for your agent’s taste that I can’t help but wonder why you remain with her.

3. If you knew it was formulaic, clichéd and boring, why in the world did you even show it to your agent?

4. No one holds a gun to your head to make you sign a contract. You knew you didn’t want to write the book. When the contract came in, it was too late to simply say you’d changed your mind and didn’t want to write it after all — but every publisher has clauses that are contract-busters. These days, all you had to do was say you wouldn’t part with electronic rights under any circumstances. Or demand a higher royalty rate. Either of these demands should have caused them to pull the contract back and gotten you off the hook.

But you didn’t do any of them. You proposed a book, they accepted it, you signed a contract, and you have doubtless cashed your advance check. Time to stop whining and considering all the could-have-beens. Time to write a book with such skill that the writer’s contempt for his own ideas doesn’t shine through for all to see.

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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