Ask Bwana #44

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations some time in 2001-2002?

Seven years. That’s how long Speculations has been around, and how long I’ve been writing the “Ask Bwana” column for it. Amazingly, the questions are still coming in, and about half of them are not questions I answered one or three or six years ago. Amazing.

On the other hand, half of them are questions I’ve answered in previous issues, and it occurs to me that we could all save a lot of time — the questioners (you) and the questioned (me) — by collecting the first seven years of this column in a book published by a science fiction specialty press that can get it distributed to the people who most need it, as well as placing it with Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com.

So the moment I finish this column, it and all its predecessors will go off to my good friend Ralph Roberts at Farthest Star, to be published sometime in 2002 (definitely before the Worldcon), with the probable title of The Science Fiction Professional, subtitled The First Seven Years of Ask Bwana. I may even twist Publisher Brewster’s arm to write an introduction to it.

Okay. On to this month’s questions.

QUESTION: Last year I had a novelette published in an online venue. At the time it was published, the market was paying top dollar and treating writers like royalty. As of now, they’re acting like complete amateurs, if not criminal scum. Should I just forget about the possibility of my work earning any critical acclaim — or being reprinted somewhere else — on its own merits? Or should I keep pushing for those Neb recs?

ANSWER: I don’t think you should “keep pushing for those Neb Recs,” now or ever. It really doesn’t fool anyone, and making the Nebula Preliminary Ballot is no great shakes. Maybe eighty to a hundred pieces of fiction make it every year, so you’re hardly in exclusive company. Also, a lot of pros take offense when they see people pushing for recs, which, let’s be honest, is properly called campaigning.

As to the rest of your question, let’s stay honest and admit that right now, in November of 2001, if your e-story isn’t published by scifi.com or Fictionwise.com, it’s not going to get any meaningful critical acclaim anyway. As for being reprinted somewhere else, that depends on what your contract allows. They may or may not be criminal scum, but you’re not, and you have to obey the terms of the contract you signed. And, of course, even if you do have the right to sell the reprint at this time, it also depends on how good the novelette is, and whether you can find an editor who is willing to pay for it. Reprints are a lot harder to sell than new stories; there are far fewer markets for them.

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QUESTION: I’ve just sold my first novel. My publisher wants Book Two — a second stand-alone novel, not the second book in a series — as soon as possible. Please list some pointers for avoiding the dreaded “sophomore slump.” Should I, for example, try to sell them a series?

ANSWER: The first thing you should do is kiss your publisher’s feet. You can’t know how rare it is for a publisher to ask a new author not to write a sequel or a series, and how important and liberating it is for the author to establish early on that he has enough range so he doesn’t have to be tied down with one series, one universe, one concept, or one set of characters. One of the rarest things in this field these days is a novel to which there are no sequels or prequels; I think it’s a shame and a disgrace, but it’s also an immutable fact of publishing life.

Anyway, you must have a story you want to tell that is totally unrelated to the one you just sold. Tell it. I think most sophomore slumps come about because new writers are being shoe-horned into seven-book trilogies that they aren’t prepared to write, and indeed that shouldn’t be written, except to satisfy an audience raised on TV that wants the same characters and the same plots every time out of the box.

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QUESTION: My writers’ group thinks I’ve written a SF romance novel. If I publish it, do I risk being stereotyped as a “romance writer” as often happens in the mainstream? How bad is that sort of pigeonholing in SF, anyway?

ANSWER: Unless you write something of surpassing brilliance or shocking incompetence, one book of any type isn’t going to stereotype you.

How bad is that kind of pigeonholing in SF? Not bad at all, if you intend to write the same kind of book throughout your career — and bothersome as hell if you want to explore all kinds of styles, concepts and approaches.

I have to add that, while I oppose stereotyping of any kind, being known as a science fiction writer whose plots are often romances hasn’t hurt Catherine Asaro, who makes the Hugo or Nebula ballot (or both) just about every year.

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QUESTION: I recently came across a short story contest offering a $100 US prize for the best SF story, with no limit on the number of entries and no rules concerning whether the story had been published or not. It sounds like a great, risk-free chance at making a C-note, except it also sounds like it might be somebody’s cattle call for good story ideas (like, for instance, a Hollywood producer). Am I paranoid or should I be afraid? Very afraid?

ANSWER: I wouldn’t be afraid, but I’d certainly be very suspicious. I suppose the first thing to do is read those rules carefully and find out who owns the submission. If the contest-holder does, then he’s probably going to claim that he owns the ideas and characters as well.

I’d also wonder why the contest doesn’t stipulate that it only takes unpublished stories. I mean, they surely don’t expect someone to submit a Hugo or Edgar winner . . . but since they don’t explicitly state it, it makes you wonder about their competence, if not their honesty.

So, as I say, I wouldn’t be afraid, but I would sure as hell be suspicious. And cautious.

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QUESTION: I’ve written the first three volumes in a series of juvenile hard-SF novels. Selected beta-testers in the fifth and sixth grades want more, but so far I’ve had no luck selling it. Should I expect selling a YA or juvenile series — think Goosebumps, but on the Moon — to be harder or easier than finding a “regular” publisher?

ANSWER: Let me ask you a question first. Did you ever think of seeing if the first volume was good enough to sell before you took the time required to write the second and third — and if not, don’t you consider that a counter-productive use of your time?

OK, let’s get real: 5th-grade beta testers aren’t editors and can’t be expected to react like editors. You’ve had no luck selling it, which should tell you more about it than your 5th and 6th graders. I would think — and this is not a field I’ve sold to — that selling to a Y A market would be more difficult than finding a “regular” publisher (by which I assume you mean a category adult science fiction publisher), if only because I’m not aware of any publisher that specializes in YA science fiction, or even has a YA science fiction department. This means you’re trying to sell a hard-science trilogy (or more) in a field where the editors probably have no expertise, and the publishers seem to have insufficient interest.

2012 update: Thanks to Harry Potter, there are now several publishers with YA SF/F lines. The most recent is Pyr, which has turned over almost a third of its science fiction to Young Adult books.

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QUESTION: What are the odds, really, of breaking into one of the top prozines?

ANSWER: I think I’ve reported before that Asimov’s gets about a thousand slush submissions (i.e., from unknown, unagented writers) per month, and buys about three a year, making the odds a somewhat intimidating 4,000-to-l against you. I would assume Analog and F &SF get similar numbers of submissions, and probably don’t buy more than half a dozen slush stories per year each, which, if indeed they do buy that many, lowers your odds to 2000-to-l.

Book publishers don’t get as many manuscripts per month, but then, except for Tor, they don’t buy as many manuscripts per month, either. Frightening? Sure. Depressing? To most people. And yet . . . and yet, every writer whose name you know, not just the bestsellers and Hugo winners but all the writers, the journeymen as well as the superstars, faced those same odds and beat them. The deck and the numbers are stacked against you — I’d be lying if I said otherwise — but if you’re good enough, and persistent enough, and (yes) lucky enough, you’ll beat them. Thousands ahead of you did.

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QUESTION: I’ve got a science fiction notion that I think would make a great musical play. Of course, I’d have to get a composer/partner, but I’m wondering if it’s worth the effort. Not that I doubt my idea, but has a fantastic musical ever made it to Broadway?

ANSWER: Broadway has had more than its share of fantastic musicals. Science fiction has historically bombed when done in musical form. The most elaborate flop of all time was Carrie, adapted from Stephen King’s novel (and yes, it’s a science fictional concept, even if it’s handled like horror). It was such a bomb that a wonderful book covering all the musical flops since World War II was entitled Not Since Carrie, since every time a new musical flops, the critics tend to say that “Not since Carrie (has there been such a turkey).”

Daniel Keyes’ classic Flowers For Algernon became a British musical called Charlie and Algernon, starring the old Phantom of the Opera himself, Michael Crawford. It struck out. That probably had something to do with a soft-shoe dance featuring Charlie and a six-foot-tall mouse. They brought it to New York anyway, with P. J. Benjamin in the starring role. It ran twelve performances and died an unmourned death. Via Galactica lost its entire multi-million-dollar investment in about a week’s time. And it was so poorly written that for the only time in history, the producers inserted a synopsis into the Playbill so the audience would have some slight notion of what was supposed to be happening. Metropolis, based on the silent movie, actually had a respectable run in London with Brian Blessed heading the cast, but it died here. Return to the Forbidden Planet didn’t fare any better. A musical based on Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine never even made it to Broadway. Even It’s a Bird. It’s a Plane. It’s Superman flopped despite good reviews and a fine score.

Fantasy, on the other hand, does just fine. You’ve got classics like Lerner & Loewe’s Brigadoon and Sondheim’s Into the Woods, major hits like Damn Yankees, Finian ‘s Rainbow, Peter Pan, and The Wiz, Tony winners like Cy Coleman’s City of Angels, even surprise off-Broadway smashes like Little Shop of Horrors (more sf as a movie, more fantasy as a play).

The problem these days is that even a small, low-budget musical costs millions to mount, and for every musical hit on Broadway there are six or seven flops.

2012 update: The fact that the average Broadway ticket costs over $100 US hasn’t helped. And the flops keep coming. I thought the best musical of 2003 was Amour, a charming French import about a man who can walk through walls. It ran 17 performances.

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QUESTION: Is writing poetry a worthwhile effort? I know it won’t make any money, but will it at least open doors with prose publishers?

ANSWER: It’s a worthwhile effort if you enjoy writing poetry. I can’t imagine that any poem of less length and impact than, say, John Brown ‘s Body or Spoon River Anthology will do you one iota of good with prose publishers, but that’s not why you write poetry anyway.

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QUESTION: I need to read some good examples of how to write from the alien point of view, hopefully longer works. I have on my shelf Dr. Asimov’s The Gods Themselves; can you please recommend some more examples?

ANSWER: Let’s break that down into alien viewpoint characters and alien narrators. A pair of wonderful alien viewpoint characters, Coeurl and Ixtl, can be found in A. E. van Vogt’s classic Voyage of the Space Beagle. James White specialized in alien viewpoint characters as his Sector General series progressed; some of the better examples are The Genocidal Healer and The Galactic Gourmet. No one ever did better aliens than Stanley G. Weinbaum, though they were never viewpoint characters. Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker depicts one alien race after another, culminating in the most bizarre alien of them all, the Star Maker himself.

As for alien narrators, I had one in my Hugo/Nebula-winning novella, “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge,” and another in my Prix Tour Eiffel winner, The Dark Lady. (I list the awards only because it would be presumptuous to suggest my own works if they didn’t have such bona fides.) And you’d have serious difficulty coming up with a narrator more alien than the one in Richard Matheson’s brilliant classic, “Born of Man and Woman.”

Cybernetic intelligences could rightly be considered aliens as well. Probably no one has handled them any better than David Gerrold did in When H.A.R.L.I.E. Was One.

But these are just the merest handful. Science fiction abounds with excellent aliens, many of them far better than the ones in The Gods Themselves. From Aldiss and Brin right down the alphabet to Zelazny, almost every major science fiction writer has created at least one memorable alien, and many turn them out by the dozen.

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QUESTION: If you ran into fanfic — amateur-written fiction — set in one of your universes, what would you do about it?

ANSWER: I would tell the author I was flattered, but that I was also the sole copyright holder to those characters and worlds, and that he would have to cease and desist. If it was online, he’d have to take it off immediately; if it was in print, he’d have to destroy all copies of it. If he failed to do so, I would have no choice but to take legal action. Those characters and worlds and incidents are my property, and I believe in protecting my intellectual property as vigorously as I would protect my physical property.

2012 update: I forgot to add that the quickest way to lose your copyright is not to defend it when it’s being abused.

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QUESTION: A friend of mine has just received notice of acceptance — not a check; they pay on publication — from what I consider to be an unforgivably schlocky market. The editor is a twenty-year-old kid who still lives with his mother, and the market is a blatant knockoff of one of the small press’s finest venues. Should I warn her against allowing her work to be run there, or simply celebrate her five dollar “sale?”

ANSWER: If your friend was willing to take a promissory note of five dollars from a twenty-year-old kid for her story, I wonder why you want to go to the effort of saving her from herself. If she’s actually celebrating this non- sale, she probably placed it right where it belongs.

It’s also been my observation that most people don’t like being told they’ve acted like fools, even when this information is couched in gentle and diplomatic terms by well-meaning friends.

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QUESTION: So I bought your I Have This Nifty Idea – Now What Do I Do With It — the book with all the successful outlines — and I still don’t know what to do. Do I do a complex, detailed fifty-page outline like, say, Kevin Anderson, or a twenty-pager like Robert Silverberg, or a fifteen hundred-worder like you, or a one-pager like Barry Malzberg or a half-pager like Joe Haldeman? Help!

ANSWER: That book was put together not only to show you how successful writers pitch their novels, but also to show you that, to borrow from Kipling, there are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays. (And probably only thirty of them are wrong.) Which is to say, write the type and length of outline you’re most comfortable with.

I’ll add that the book — and the practitioners — tend to fall into two camps. One camp believes in a long, incredibly detailed outline, which makes the book a lot easier to write, and leaves the purchasing editor no doubt about what she’s getting. I belong to the other camp: I make my outlines as short and vague as I can get away with, because if I get a contract, it might be a year or two before I can get around to writing it, and by then I might have come up with better ideas or characters, and I don’t want to be. locked in to what I wrote two years earlier. Both approaches are valid. Try them out and see which works for you.

2012 update: I Have This Nifty Idea — a 2002 Hugo nominee, is still in print from Wildside Press. I know it’s been used in some college writing courses, and it consists of 33 outlines by 19 science fiction writers, each of which sold, some of them for substantial advances.

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QUESTION: Gardner Dozois does a summation in his yearly Best Of foreword where he remarks on important events of the year. Care to take a crack at it? What happened in 2001 that Bwana thinks we all ought to know about?

ANSWER: Gardner gets paid a hefty fee for that summation, and he takes almost a month to write it. But what the hell — nothing ventured, nothing gained. I think the most important events of 2001 in the science fiction field were:

1. With the corpses of dot-com publishers littering the electronic landscape, Fictionwise.com and scifi.com remained solvent, a pair of prototypes that proved it can be done with the right management.

2. The field lost three print magazines in 2000/2001 — Science Fiction Age, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine, and Aboriginal SF — while failing to resurrect Amazing and Galaxy, and replaced none of them. Definitely not a good sign. The circulation of the surviving prozines isn’t very encouraging, either.

3. Avon Eos — now just plain Eos — got rid of three editors with major SF credentials (Lou Aronica, John Silbersack, and John Douglas).

4. A non-adult non-science-fiction book (Harry Potter, for those of you who have been living in some other dimension) won the Hugo for Best Novel of the Year. Since the 2001 Harry Potter book instantly became the bestselling hardcover novel of all time, I shudder to think of what the voters will do at the 2002 Worldcon.

2012 update: well, 3 out of 4 isn’t bad. E-publishing becomes bigger each year, the print magazines are selling a quarter of what they were selling in 1990, and Avon’s science fiction line all but disappeared with the departure of Aronica, Douglas and Silbersack. On the other hand, Harry Potter has yet to win a second Hugo.

Thanks for your questions and your continued support. It’s been an interesting seven years.

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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