NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations — July, 2001
I’ve recently received a number of e-mails and letters on two subjects that are germane to Ask Bwana and Speculations, so I’ll take this opportunity to answer them.
First, seven people wanted to know, now that I’ve handed in the first seven years of Ask Bwana to Farthest Star for book publication, do I intend to keep writing the column?
The answer is: I’ll keep writing as long as a) publisher Kent Brewster keeps paying me, and b) no more than 50% of the questions are repeats of previously-asked questions. Once the percentage climbs above that, we’re speaking to a new generation of hopeful writers, and they can simply pick up the book or purchase some back issues of the magazine to see the answers — which will not vary — to their questions (which also won’t vary much).
Over the past two years, sixteen people have asked me why I continue writing for a magazine that has interviewed semiprozine editors who were clearly trolling for submissions, lists penny-a-word markets, and has a brag shelf for what Bwana clearly considers to be non-professional sales.
The answer is: I am responsible only for what is said in the Ask Bwana column. Publisher Kent Brewster, who foots the bills, is responsible for the contents and overall slant of Speculations. If he feels like putting out a magazine that extols penny-a-word markets and brags about no-advance novel sales, that’s his business — but since this purports to be a magazine for embryonic professionals, perhaps that’s even more reason why Ask Bwana, which never loses sight of what being a professional writer is all about, should remain here as a balance and a reminder.
Okay, on to this month’s questions:
QUESTION: A nationally syndicated columnist seems to have lifted most of her weekly piece from a short story I had in a semiprozine a few years ago. What should I do?
ANSWER: Probably nothing. Unless your syndicated columnist subscribes to the semiprozine or mentioned in print that she read it, proving that she had access to something with such a tiny circulation would be next to impossible. Proving that she in any way damaged your professional reputation would be even harder. (And if you sell only to semiprozines, proving that you have a professional reputation might be a humiliating exercise in futility.)
One exception: if you’re discussing real, true-blue, word-for-word plagiarism as opposed to just paraphrasing, hand the semiprozine and the weekly piece to a good copyright lawyer and turn him loose on her.
QUESTION: I’ve been a guest of a large regional convention for the past few years, but now the concom has split into a pair of warring factions, each of which is determined to throw its own version of the same con. All things being equal, which has the potential to do more damage to my career, picking sides or avoiding both? How seriously should I take fan politics, anyway?
ANSWER: You’re a pro. These are fan feuds. They don’t affect you. Stay aloof from the fighting and remain friendly with both sides. None of the stuff they’re throwing at each other will stick to you.
QUESTION: It’s Hugo-nominating time again as I write this letter, and I’ve just been going over the annual issue of Locus that recommends scores of books and stories in each category, and I see that some of the ones I’m nominating aren’t listed. This got me to thinking: Just how important is it to a writer to make the Locus recommended list? Has anyone ever made the Hugo final ballot without being on the list?
ANSWER: You’d naturally rather be on the Locus list than off it, just as you’d rather be on anyone’s list than off it, but in truth stories that don’t make the list go on to do just fine. I’ve been up for 20 Hugos (I won’t count the Best Editor ones, since Locus doesn’t recommend for that category) and either 7 or 8 of those nominees (including a winner) weren’t on the Locus list. And I’m certainly not unique.
2008 update: I’ve been nominated for 11 more since writing the above, and won another, and I doubt that even half of them were on the Locus list. Clearly you’d rather be recommended by Locus, SF Weekly, and all the other print and online magazines that make recommendations,but just as clearly it’s not essential to making the ballot.
2012 update: More ditto. I’ve been up for five more, and none were recommended by Locus. I think if they start recommending me again, I’d start worrying.
QUESTION: I’ve been invited to participate in a shared-world anthology, based loosely on the WildCards/Thieves’ World model. I won’t own the rights to the universe, but I will own my own characters and have veto power over anyone else’s use of them. Can you please point out the pitfalls I need to watch for? It’s short fiction, but has the potential to earn quite a bit of money moey. . . should I have an agent look at the contract?
ANSWER: The pitfall is simple: since you don’t own the universe, you will need permission, which may be legally withheld, every time you want to write in it, and every time you want to sell your story exclusive of the anthology in which it appears. Owning your character doesn’t mean a thing. (Why not? Easy. You create Character A, which you own, and put him in Universe B, which you do not own. I come along and want to use Character A, even offer to split the proceeds or make some other financial arrangement. You say yes . . . but the owner of Universe B says no. So much for your freedom to do what you want with the character.)
As for an agent, you could use one if serious money is involved . . . but if it pays you, let’s say, seven cents a word and you write 5,000 words, do you really want to pay an agent $52.50 US just to look at a short story contract (especially if she says it stinks and you don’t write the story and don’t get paid), and does a reputable and busy agent really want to vet a low-paying short story contract if you’re not a regular client?
QUESTION: If a publisher came to you and said “I’ve got 1,000 people willing to pay a dollar apiece if you’ll e-mail them an original short story, to be not less than 5,000 words in length,” would you do it? How about a hundred people with ten bucks each, or ten thousand, each paying a dime? In other words, how do you rate circulation versus money?
ANSWER: I’m not quite sure what this question is about. You’re asking me, a writer, to take on a publisher’s concerns (circulation), and all I’m really concerned with is writing the best story I can for the most money I can get.
But I don’t like the proposal as worded. I, the writer, have no interest and no intention of e-mailing my story to 1,000 readers; that’s the publisher’s job.
Further, the pay should be dependent on the size of the readership. That’s why Playboy can pay $5,000 US or more for a short story and deliver a few million readers; why Omni with its former paper circulation of a few hundred thousand readers could pay $1,500 US; and why Asimov’s and F&SF, which only reach maybe 35,000 readers, can only pay $400 US for the same thing. The value is based not on the merits of the story but the size of the readership, and this proposal seems to wind up paying the same amount no matter how many or how few people receive the story.
2008 Update: Omni no longer exists, and Asimov’s and F&SF are each selling about half of the figure stated only seven years later.
2012 update: No change in the print zines, but I suspect some of the e-zines reach far larger readerships. And why shouldn’t they? Most are available for free.
QUESTION: I heard you give a speech about Hollywood, and why they don’t like science fiction writers. You pointed out that we specialize in ideas and they specialize in emotion, that we are verbal and they are visual, and a lot of other differences. You mentioned a few classics that writers and fans thought could be great science fiction films that Hollywood would never make. The one thing you didn’t do was suggest which SF books would make good Hollywood films. Could you do so now?
ANSWER: You have to understand up front that the average short story has more than enough material to make a movie, and the average novel has far too much. Having stated that caveat, I would add that the SF books that would make the best movies are those that do not rely heavily on ideas, those that are simple and straightforward, preferably those that are cross-category (appealing to another audience as well as a sf one). Titles? Eric Frank Russell’s Wasp. Clifford D. Simak’s Way Station (but not his award-winning City.) Robert E. Howard’s Red Shadows (the collected Solomon Kane stories). Heinlein’s young adult novel Double Star (but not his Hugo-winning Stranger in a Strange Land). Asimov’s The Caves of Steel (but not any book in the Foundation Trilogy). James White’s All Judgment Fled and Lifeboat (but not most of his beloved Sector General books).Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (but pruned down to the original novella; not the novel.)
QUESTION: I have a pretty clear idea of how to go about becoming a professional writer — write, send it in, write the next one, and hold out for professional publication. I want to be a professional editor, however…how does one go about doing that? Is there a Clarion for editors?
ANSWER: To the best of my knowledge, there are no Clarions or workshops for editors. What you do is apply for an editorial job, probably reading slush (than which nothing is more boring and less rewarding), and work your way up. The only other way would be to establish a name for yourself as a writer, parley that into some anthology sales, buy some award-winning or at least award-nominated stories (or get some Best Editor nominations yourself), and then apply for an editorial position when one opens up.
QUESTION: How much nonfiction do you write? Do you sell different rights, or is it still First North American Serial Rights?
ANSWER: I write articles about science fiction, writing, horse racing, collie breeding and exhibiting, and Africa. I sell the same rights as when I sell fiction: first North American Serial — and if it’s been commissioned for a book of articles, worldwide nonexclusive.
QUESTION: Have you ever sold to an in-flight magazine? I’ve read some very interesting fiction at 30,000 feet . . . any hints on breaking into American Way?
ANSWER: No, I’ve never sold to any in-flight magazine. I know the pay is considered pretty good, and the competition is considered very tough. Good luck.
QUESTION: What is it about Africa that keeps drawing you back?
ANSWER: It seems to me that, no matter what a writer’s politics, if he writes science fiction there are two things with which he agrees: first, if we can reach the stars, we will colonize them; and second, if we colonize enough of them, we’re going to come into contact with an alien race.
Now, a real alien would probably breathe chlorine, ingest lead, excrete bricks, and smell colors. I’m not interested in them, because I don’t understand them. When I create an alien, it’s for the purpose of holding the human condition up to the light — or to a crazy funhouse mirror — to examine it.
So where do I most often go to find (or, rather, extrapolate) believable aliens, culture in conflict, and the end results of colonization?
Easy. If you want to see 51 excellent and totally different examples of cultures in conflict, and of the lasting effects of colonization not just on the colonized but on the colonizers, all you have to do is go to Africa.
You want an alien society? Forget about Hal Clement’s Mesklin and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom, and turn your eyes to Kenya.
Here is a modern, 20th-Century nation, totally capitalistic, pro-Western, with its very own metropolis (Nairobi, population 2.5 million) and a number of sophisticated industries.
But not a single one of Kenya’s 40-plus tribes had a word for “wheel” in 1900.
Not one of them entered the 20th Century with a written language.
There is no word for “woman” in Swahili. Women don’t matter in this society.
90% of the population claims to be Christian, but 80% see their witch doctor far more often than their minister or priest.
80% of all Kenyans of both sexes still undergo circumcision ceremonies as teenagers.
Until a few years ago, English was the official language of Kenya; less than 5% of the population could speak it.
Kenya’s president, Daniel arap Moi, makes a salary of approximately $20,000 US a year. He has nonetheless managed, in two short decades, to acquire ownership of two million acres of prime farmland, Kenya’s entire fleet of DC-3 airplanes, every Mobil gas station in the country, and every Mercedes taxicab in Nairobi. The wild part is that nobody minds — because the chief is supposed to be tougher and richer than the rest of his people.
You think you can’t transfer that society to Planet X and get a couple of serious extrapolations out of it?
Or try Uganda. Everybody knows about Idi Amin — but how many people know that Dr. Milton Obote, who succeeded him, killed even more Ugandans than Amin? Or that General Tito Okello, who overthrew Obote, also killed more of his own countrymen than Amin?
What kind of society, once considered “the pearl of Africa” by no less a statesman than Winston Churchill, can produce three such genocidal maniacs in succession?
How can there not be a science fiction novel or two in a society that continually lines up to be slaughtered by its own leaders?
Can Nazi Germany ever exist again? Well, on a trip to Malawi in 1990, I saw a number of houses and buildings decorated with red stars. When I asked about them, I was told by my guide that they were all owned by Indians, and had been marked for demolition. Now, the last time an ethnic minority’s homes and businesses were marked by stars, they were yellow and not red, and the country was Germany and not Malawi.
“Sharia” is the name of the Islamic custom/law that allows the victim’s next of kin or family to decide what punishment is meted out to his killer in the Sudan. Included among the choices are crucifixion and boiling in oil. Both have been implemented in the past 12 months.
How much further does anyone have to look for science fiction ideas and alien societies?
2008 update: to say not much has changed would be incorrect — witness Zimbabwe, which has gone straight to hell in a handcart. But not much has become any less alien.
QUESTION: Is it possible to be a successful fiction author while writing nonfiction — news, manuals, science, whatever — as your day job? Can you please give some examples?
ANSWER: Sure it is. Examples? They abound in this field. Cliff Simak was a reporter, and ultimately the managing editor, for the Minneapolis Star. Isaac Asimov spent his early adult years teaching science and writing about it, while writing science fiction at nights. Jim Blish worked in an advertising agency. Cyril Kornbluth spent a few years running some kind of news agency in Chicago after World War II, when he was producing his best work. Barbara Delaplace is a tech writer by day; so are a number of other SF writers. And cetera.
QUESTION: I buy the SFWA Bulletin on the stands (it never used to be available to non-members), and the column I most enjoy is the Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues. You and Barry hardly ever agree on anything. The wild part is I read his argument and say, “Yeah, that seems right”, and then I read yours and say, “No, wait a minute, this seems right” — and I go back and forth between you and you both make sense and you never agree. So which is you is really right?
ANSWER: If one of us was always demonstrably right and one was always demonstrably wrong, we could never have sold the column. The answer is that Barry is right for someone with his career, and I’m right for someone with mine.
QUESTION: I was at a convention where you were a panelist three times. Each time you showed up less than a minute before the panel started and honestly seemed not to know what the topic was — and yet when the panel began, you were well-informed and erudite. Was that all an act, and if so, whose benefit was it for, and why bother?
ANSWER: It wasn’t an act. When you’ve been to a couple of hundred conventions and sat on maybe 750 panels, there are no new subjects, there will be no questions from the audience that you haven’t heard dozens of times, and it’s a counter-productive use of your time to spend long hours preparing for the panels. I’m no different from most long-time pros. I make a note of when and where my panels are, and that’s really all I need to know until I get there. Once there, someone on the panel or in the audience can tell me the subject, and then, like every other pro whose done 83 “Sex in science fiction” panels or 102 “What will the 23rd Century be like?” panels or 47 “Advice to new writers” panels, I’m ready to address the subject.
QUESTION: I am a man. I have just sold my first two novels, long fantasy quest books, using a female pseudonym. I use my initials in my business dealings, and my publisher doesn’t know my gender — and all of a sudden he wants a photo of me for the back cover or end flap of my books. Quick: what do I do?
ANSWER: First and foremost, don’t go out and watch a performance of The Most Happy Fella tonight. (Sorry. “In” joke. It’s a famous musical where the male lead sends a phony picture to the woman he’s supposed to marry and everything ends up okay anyway.)
Seriously, be honest with your publisher. You’ve already sold the books and got the advances; he’s not going to cancel the contract. If he agrees that the reasons for your pseudonym are valid, he simply won’t run any photo at all.
QUESTION: I’ve seen NESFA’s award-nominated Jack Williamson bibliography and Farthest Star’s huge bibliography of your work, and I think they’re very impressive volumes. I’d like to publish one of my own work to impress publishers and editors here and abroad. How do you go about it? Do you pay them to publish it?
ANSWER: Of course we don’t pay them to publish our bibliographies. We’re professionals, remember? In my case, an academic named Fiona Kelleghan devoted a couple of years of her life to the project. She was paid for it, and collects royalties, and the deal was between her and the publisher. I’m just the subject of the exercise; I had absolutely nothing to do with the contract.
2008 update: Fiona has moved on to other things, and the next edition is now being prepared by Adrienne Gormley. I’m told it’ll top 900 pages, which astounds even me.
2012 update: Adrienne has turned the second edition of the bibliography in to Farthest Star, which has announced that it’ll be out at Chicon 7.
QUESTION: Worldcon’s on the horizon again, so I figure it’s time to ask The Question: where does one look for the Secret Pro Parties, and how does one get into them? As I walk down the corridors past the locked doors, I can almost hear all the writers and editors chuckling at the poor clueless beginners who are looking for them. You’ve said before that you’ll answer any question. Okay, Mr. Big-Name Pro — answer that one.
ANSWER: There probably are some Secret Pro Parties, but I don’t believe I’ve ever gone to one. And if they’re private, it would be rude of you (or of me) to barge in when we’re not wanted.
I’ve pointed out many times in these pages that most business at Worldcon gets done during meals (preferably away from the hotels) and at parties at night. But while it’s almost impossible to talk business in a sardine can like the Tor or Baen parties, or at a Bantam dinner attended by no one but writers, or with 50 hungry writers crowded around in the SFWA suite, this doesn’t mean there aren’t dozens of other venues every night where business can and does take place. I’ve probably made half a dozen deals in the never-crowded Cincinnati hospitality suite over the years, another few in various Boston suites, one major 2-book deal in a New Orleans party suite, one in a coffee shop in the Peabody Hotel in Orlando at about 4:00 in the morning, one in the lobby of the Anaheim Hilton during LACon III, and so on. None of them were at your (quite possibly mythical) Secret Pro Parties. All of them were in uncrowded, relaxed surroundings at Worldcons. Anyone who wanted could have sat next to me and heard every word of the negotiation, though thankfully most people were too well-mannered to do so.
Anyway, I know it must be difficult for a beginner to believe, but the pros really aren’t hiding from you behind locked doors. See you next issue.