Ask Bwana #47

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

I handed in The Return of Santiago to Tor a couple of months ago, and just found out who my cover artist will be an hour before I sat down to write this column. I mentioned it on the Resnick Listserv (you can join it through my web page at if you’re so inclined), and one of the fans asked me which characters I wanted to see in the painting.

Okay, it’s an innocent enough question, and in point of fact I know exactly who I’d like to see — but no one was going to ask me, and if I volunteered it, no one was going to listen to me.

So I thought I might spend a moment or two discussing what we’ll call the Limits of Authorial Power.

No author decides what will go on his book’s cover. That is the prerogative of the cover artist — who, in turn, would never dream of telling the author what to write — and the Art Director, whose name is probably unknown to 97% of all the authors whose books he designs.

That’s it. Division of powers, call it what you will — but there’s a limit to what an author can demand (well, okay, there are 7,362 limits to what an author can demand) and cover art falls beyond that limit.

So do other things. Like movies.

Every time I option a book to Hollywood (lowering the odds against it being made from a million-to-one to 500-to-1), some fan will ask: “Did you keep artistic control?”

The answer, of course, is: No, I thought I’d rather sign the contract and get the money.

I don’t control what goes into movies based on my books or stories. Ernest Hemingway, who was acknowledged as the greatest living author during his heyday, didn’t control what went into his movies. Tom Clancy, who makes $20 million US a book and has clout most tycoons only dream of, constantly complains that he can’t control what goes into his movies.

And yet those questions never stop: control, control, control, be it cover art, advertising, movies, whatever.

This is a capitalist society. The rules say that the man with the money is in control. When we discuss cover art, the publisher is the man with the money. When we discuss movies, the producer is the man with the money.

I was trying to think of situations in which an author has total control — and I couldn’t. He doesn’t even have it on a book he wrote on contract. Any editor can ask for changes — and reject it, to quote standard contract languages, “if those requested changes are unduly withheld.”

So add it to the realm of the mythical and the impossible: Unicorns. Gorgons. Faster-than-light spaceships. Dragons. And Total Artistic Control.

Okay, on to this month’s questions:

QUESTION: I think you may have been a tad rough on some of the wannabees in your last “Ask Bwana” column. Given that there are maybe twenty or thirty people actually making a living writing science fiction at any given time, what’s the harm in the rest of us listing our amateur credits in a feature clearly labeled The Ego Shelf?

ANSWER: If was clearly labeled The Amateur Appearance Shelf, I’d have no problem with it. The problem I have is that it’s delusional. Bear with me while I explain what I mean.

Once upon a time my wife and I bred and exhibited collies, and we were pretty successful at it. During the 12 years we were active, we were the country’s leading breeder of champions 3 different years, and the leading exhibitors 3 different years (not the same years).

And during those twelve years we saw otherwise intelligent and perceptive people make the same mistake over and over. A breeder or exhibitor would take a collie into the ring, a dog that was superb in one area and faulted in another (which is par for the course; there are no perfect dogs, any more than there are perfect books or stories). And the dog would win. And win again. And again.

Now, in the beginning, the exhibitor knew that the dog was winning in spite of his faults — but the more he won, the easier it was for the breeder to believe he was winning because of his faults, that if he won so often those faults must actually be virtues.

It was delusional, and if you don’t recognize the faults of your animal (or your story), you are not likely to improve upon them in the next generation.

Transfer that to Speculations. If you take satisfaction in bragging about amateur “sales” (which are not sales at all), if you feel that you have done something exceptional by finding an editor who will run your story without paying for it, then you are less likely to recognize its faults, become dissatisfied with its quality, and improve upon it the next time out of the box.

Simple as that. I find myself repeating almost every issue that this column is aimed solely at people who want to be professional writers. If you get sufficient satisfaction out of seeing your name in print everywhere but on a check, then this column and its advice are not for you.


QUESTION: It’s been almost three years since your Clarion experience. Are you keeping track of your students? If so, how are they doing?

ANSWER: I try to keep track of the better ones. Toby Buckell is on the Campbell ballot for Best New Writer this year, so I’d have to say his credentials are in order. I collaborated with Toby on a story entitled “The Shackles of Freedom,” which will appear in an anthology called Visions of Liberty, and I’ve bought stories from him for two anthologies I’ve edited: Men Writing SF as Women and New Faces in Science Fiction (both titles are still subject to change.)

2008 update: Toby has sold four novels, and made the Nebula ballot for Best Novel in 2008.

Tom Gerencer has sold a handful of stories, and is currently collaborating with his hero, Robert Sheckley, on a novel. I collaborated with Tom on “Ocean’s Eleven”, which appeared in the anthology Oceans of Magic, and was (for a couple of weeks, anyway) the best-selling fantasy story on I’ve bought stories from Tom for the same two anthologies Toby is in, and got him the assignment to write the Afterword to Dimensions of Sheckley, an omnibus volume I edited and introduced.

I collaborated with Mark Stafford on “The Demons of Jupiter’s Moons”, which will appear in the upcoming anthology (I just got the galleys and cover last week) Sol’s Children.

When I saw David Barr Kirtley’s brilliant story, “The Black Bird”, at Clarion, I told him that if I was editing an anthology or a magazine, I’d buy it in a New York minute. I finally got a chance to put my money where my mouth was, and purchased it for New Faces in SF.

2008 update: I’m not keeping score, but it seems to me that David has sold over a dozen stories since I wrote this.

I’ve heard from two or three other Clarion students, and have encouraged them as best I can. Which, in a way, is what the collaborations are: a means of getting them into print and encouraging them to keep writing.

2012 update: Toby keeps on chugging along, and recently had a book make the New York Tmes bestseller list. He’s also starting picking up Guest of Honor gigs from conventions. David’s still a presence in the field, and Tom, after departing for a few years, recently got married and tells me he’s getting back to writing.


QUESTION: I realize that just about any idea can be grown into a novel with varying degrees of success, but whether it should is another question. How do you tell the difference between a novel-sized idea and one that ought to be kept within the boundaries of a short story?

ANSWER: It’s mostly a matter of instinct and experience. I suppose the best way for a beginner to determine it is to see if he can tell his story in 30 or 50 pages. If not, then he probably has the makings of a novel.

Now, unless you’re Robert Ludlum, no single idea spins out to 200,000 words without a lot of padding . . . but if you’ve got 20,000 to 30,000 words’ worth of an idea, then cast around for sub-plots. Have you got a couple of interesting supporting characters? (Very few books that aren’t straight heroic action/adventure follow just one character.) Is the problem facing the protagonist of such a nature that no simple or easy solution is viable? (This needn’t be a military or scientific problem. It can be something as seemingly simple as a relationship.) Is your future or altered present interesting enough to support an entire book — and is it integrated into your plot? (How do I mean that? Easy. Take a look at Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man; without that background, there’s no story. Look at Larry Niven’s Ringworld; without that foreground, there’s no story.)

If you decide it’s worth a novel, write three or four chapters, and then stop and look — and I mean really look at it. First, does it grab your attention from the outset and keep it? Second, does it feel padded? Is there a lot of unnecessary detail? Try it out on some friends who are honest enough to tell you if they’re bored by it.

If it passes all the tests, then try it out on an editor who will send you a contract if he agrees.


QUESTION: How do you feel about submitting to open theme anthologies? Is writing a story on spec without any guarantee of selling it a bad idea, or just something a writer looking to break in has to do?

ANSWER: I tend not to write for open anthologies. I get more than a dozen invites a year to closed anthologies, which are in effect guaranteed sales, which allows me to write a few stories and collaborate on a bunch of others, all with the certain knowledge that the stories are pre-sold.

If I’m going to write on any theme of my choice for a market that’s not guaranteed (and we all do it — it’s called the professional magazine market) then I’m going to submit that story to one of the prestige prozines — usually Asimov’s in my case — where I get a wider readership and more recognition. (Proof of the pudding: my last 13 Asimov’s stories have been Hugo nominees; my last 20 anthology stories, including some very good ones, haven’t been.)

Now, that’s a valid approach for me, an established writer. For a beginner who has time on his hands and isn’t overwhelmed by too many deadlines and assignments, sure, take a crack at it. If the anthology turns you down, you can always submit it to a prozine. And until you’ve sold a flock of stories, you’re not going to be up to your ears in guaranteed assignments anyway.


QUESTION: I know that every author — even me — gets to do an official autograph session at Worldcon. Yet I often see you and some other Big Name Writers signing at other venues. How does this work, and how do I get in on it?

ANSWER: How it works is simple; how you get in on it is up to you and the dealer.

I always spend an hour signing at Larry Smith’s table; he’s been a friend for close to a quarter of a century, and he’s usually got the biggest stock of my books in any dealer’s room. I always sign at the Asimov’s table or booth, because they ask their writers to do so. Back when Kristine Kathryn Rusch was editing F&SF and I was selling to her on a regular basis, I signed at the F&SF booth whenever they had one. The last time Worldcon was in Los Angeles, the Dangerous Visions people asked me to sign at their table, and I did. Last year I signed at the Wildside Press table because they had just brought out one of my books, and another was on the Hugo ballot. The year Kirinyaga came out from Del Rey, I signed free copies at their booth. Depending on what dealers are there, and who asks me, I’ll sign just about anywhere. I don’t get rich on it, but it keeps the dealers happy, and that in turn keeps me happy.

So, if the dealers want you to sign — and make sure they do; it can be humiliating sitting there for an hour or two signing only one or two things — by all means accommodate them. If you have a new book out and your publisher has a booth or table (most don’t), and they want you to sign, do so. But for the most part, it’s a reactive thing: they ask, the writer agrees.


QUESTION: You seem to have your roots in organized fandom. How important to your career have these connections been?

ANSWER: Enormously, and in almost every way possible. First and foremost, I knew almost every editor and agent on a personal basis before I started writing professionally in the field. (I’ve been a pro since 1957, when I was 15 years old, and a full-time pro since 1964, but except for three ill-considered novels in the late 1960s that I wish I could have back, I didn’t write any science fiction until 1980. Prior to that I was a fan, who just happened to write professionally in other fields.)

Fans have given me enormous feedback. I admit I don’t need it all that much now (though an incisive comment is always helpful), but it was very useful when I was breaking in.

These days my fans patrol the internet for me, warning me of any case of piracy they see (and there are a lot), and alerting me to new markets.

Fandom melds my professional and leisure interests, since both are science fiction.

And of course, fans make books like Putting It Together and the forthcoming Once A Fan . . . and columns like “Ask Bwana” possible.

I owe fandom just about everything. They are my friends, my support group, my critics, my technical advisors — and they pay my bills. What more could one ask?


QUESTION: A while back I seem to recall hearing that you’d sold a novel to Hollywood. How’s that gone? Have they actually made the movie?

ANSWER: I’ve sold two novels to Hollywood — Santiago and The Widowmaker — and optioned 7 more novels and 3 short stories. So far nothing has hit the screen, which is probably par for the course.

Santiago continues to have the best chance. It’s been under continuous option since 1989. I have actually signed two production deals, and been paid four times for various drafts of the screenplay. It’s currently in the hands of Ed Elbert and Jonathan Sanger — Elbert produced Anna and the King, and Sanger headed Tom Cruise’s production company for five years — and they assure me that it’ll be filming within a year, which means the odds are probably only about 15-to-1 against.

The Widowmaker was sold to Miramax, which — it’s one of my standard convention speeches, so I won’t bother repeating it here — signed me to write the screenplay and then paid me enormous amounts of money not to write it. Then, after I’d cashed the checks and told everyone the project was cancelled, they demanded the screenplay after all, and then cancelled it again. A former Miramax exec is currently trying to get it made; I’d give 30-to-1 against.

The one book of mine that has been made is the rather sacrilegious novel The Branch. It’s another speech, so again I won’t bother with details here, but I’ll tell you this much: it was written, produced and directed by a native of Andorra, who was kicked out of his church and his country for making it.

2012 update: Well, Santiago is in its 23rd continous year of being optioned and unmade. 🙂 I have at the moment 9 other properties under option, and I am writing — under contract; I know enough never to spec a script — a non-science-fiction screenplay in collaboration with producer/screenwriter Harry Kloor.


QUESTION: I’ve been asked to stand in for a nominee who’s not going to make it to Worldcon. What’s it like backstage, please? How does one dress (and act) properly for the Hugos?

ANSWER: Most of the women dress to the nines for the Hugos (I’m talking about the participants and nominees, not the audience). I’d say 40% of the men wear tuxes, and 45% wear suits or sports jackets and ties. There are always a couple, like perennial winner Charles Brown of Locus, who almost always shows up in a Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts, but most people dress up.

Backstage? I assume you mean the pre-Hugo party. Nominees, presenters, and their guests are allowed in, and usually the convention has laid out a spread of pastries to die for. Sometimes, like in Philadelphia (2001) and Los Angeles (1996) they lay out food as well (by food I mean cold cuts and the like). Often they serve champagne. At some point someone will display “this year’s” Hugo (the rocket is always the same, but the base is different each year). Usually there will be photographers who take photos not only of every individual, but each group of nominees (i.e., all the short story nominees, all the fanzine nominees, etc.)

At a certain point, usually 8:00, we’re marched out to our reserved seating. It’s here that some of the committees show a singular lack of common sense. One year they insisted that the nominees sit with their own groups — so if a husband was up for one award and a wife for another (as was actually the case with Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch) they were not allowed to sit together. Sometimes we march in to something as silly and wrongheaded as “Pomp and Circumstance.” Once we marched into a totally darkened auditorium while the Toastmaster was five minutes into his opening routine, and we spent most of the remainder of his routine feeling around for our seats.

The most poorly-run Hugo ceremony in my experience — and I think I’ve experienced more of them than any writer except Robert Silverberg — was at the 2000 Chicon (and I think most of the participants would agree.) The best would be a title shared by perhaps half a dozen thoughtful Worldcons.

2012 update: as life has become less formal, so has the choice of clothes for many of the nominees. A few still wear tuxes and gowns, most at least wear coats and ties and the ladies’ equivalent. After 15 years of tuxes, I decided I’d rather be comfortable, and have worn short-sleeved shirts to the past few.


QUESTION: I’m busily editing the first draft of my first novel — which, when finished, will be unsolicited. So, which makes for the better slush piles to try my luck — publishers or agents? Or both?

ANSWER: I’ve said this so many times I feel like it’s a recorded message, but here goes again: just as Groucho Marx wouldn’t join any country club that would have him as a member, an unpublished writer doesn’t want any agent who will have him as a client. (Yes, there are exceptions. But very few.)

So you want to send your novel to a publisher, not an agent. Now, rather than worry about which houses are historically the most open to first novels — a meaningless question, since editorial staffs change — what you want to do is find the right editor for your book.

One way is to read everything — or at least become cognizant of everything — that’s coming out to see where you have the best fit.

But that’s not enough.

You don’t want just the right house; you want the right editor. Let me suggest that the best single way to find that editor is to go to a Worldcon, a World Fantasy Con, or a Nebula Awards weekend, meet the editors, and see which one you’d be most comfortable with and which one seems most interested in you and your work.

And yes, there’s a very valid reason for this: since most of the houses have multiple editors, they all now follow the same rule: if one editor from a publishing house rejects your manuscript, they have all rejected it. Which is to say: you can’t go to the Nifty Publishing House, submit to Editor A, get rejected, submit to Editor B, get rejected, and then submit to Editor C and get a contract. It makes for far too much inter-office friction. If the book’s a flop, Editors A and B go to the publisher and tell him that they knew it, any fool would know it, and you know what that makes Editor C; if the book’s a hit, Editor C goes to the publisher . . . but I think you get the point. It’s just not worth the sniping, back-stabbing, and general aggravation.

And that is why on something as important as your unagented and unsolicited first novel, you really want to meet the editors before submitting.


QUESTION: Can a professional editor really tell on the first page whether a story is going to work or not? I know most of your editing was done for invitation-only anthologies, but did you ever buy an unsolicited story that didn’t grab you immediately?

ANSWER: Let’s reword that just a bit. A professional editor cannot always tell on the first page whether a story is going to work — even a story by a Hugo-winning writer. But 99 times out of 100, he can tell on Page 1 (or even Paragraph 1) of a bad story that it’s not going to work. So can most slushpile readers (also known as First Readers).

All of my editing was done for invitation-only anthologies — and no, I never bought an unsolicited story that didn’t grab me immediately. In fact, I have only bought one unsolicited story in the whole of my anthology-editing career — Nick DiChario’s “The Winterberry,” his second professional sale, which was nominated for both a Hugo and a World Fantasy award. When you get one like that, you don’t worry about whether it’s solicited or not . . . but I hasten to point out that I’ve gotten exactly one like that in 14 years of editing anthologies.

2012 update: The above doesn’t mean that I don’t buy stories from new writers. I’ve bought over 40 first stories, and quite a few second and third stories. I just don’t read stories I haven’t requested/assigned. How do I find all these new writers? Clarion, Writers of the Future, and workshops. Recommendation from friends. Recommendations from workshoppers. Occasionally they make direct contact with me at a convention, and if I’m impressed, I ask them to send me a sample of their work. So editing closed anthologies does not mean they’re closed to beginners, but that they’re closed to unsolicited stories.


QUESTION: What happened to the horror field? Can anyone besides Stephen King sell horror or dark fantasy these days?

ANSWER: It’s still around. It’s weaker and frailer, but it’s still breathing. I certainly wouldn’t tell Peter Straub or Jonathan Carroll that it’s vanished.

Kensington — a/k/a Zebra — a company whose business practices I have taken exception to for a couple of decades, nonetheless must be commended for keeping a horror line going. It’s mostly erotic horror, but at least it’s within the ballpark. Other lines, like Dell’s, have been cancelled, but individual books still appear.

2008 Update: this was clearly before the market dominance of what has come to be known as the paranormal romance, which was called the vampire romance until very recently.

2012 update: I have so far managed to elude the onslaught of zombie books, but based on their quantity — I can’t speak to their quality — I’d say the horror field is still alive and ticking,


QUESTION: You didn’t attend the Nebulas this year, yet I’ve seen photos of you at other Nebula weekends. Were you tipped that you were going to lose, or were you boycotting it for some reason, and if so what reason?

ANSWER: No, to the best of my knowledge, neither winners nor losers (and I’ve been both) have been tipped for close to 20 years now.

I wasn’t boycotting the Nebulas. I had deadlines to meet, and as I’ve mentioned numerous times in this column and elsewhere, I nail down my assignments for the year at the Worldcon, a venue I personally find much more relaxing and conducive to business. When it’s been convenient I’ve gone to Nebula banquets — a couple in New York, where I could visit editors and my agent and see some plays; a couple in Los Angeles, where I could visit some producers I was dealing with — but when you’re a full-time writer, it is occasionally brought home rather forcefully by demanding editors that you write in order to attend functions like the Nebulas and not the other way around.


QUESTION: My agent went from 10% to 15% two years ago. When it happened, I told him: Okay, you got an instant 50% raise in pay. I expect you to earn it by boosting my income 50% in the next two years. I’m making more now, but nowhere near that much more. Am I justified in leaving him?

ANSWER: Five or seven or ten years ago, I might have said that you were justified. After all, he got a 50% raise just by announcing it; you only get one by producing 50% more or selling 50% better.

But today the situation has changed. The last few 10% holdouts among agents have all gone to 15% (a couple have grandfathered their older clients, but none of them are accepting new clients at anything but 15%). So if you leave him, you’re just going to wind up with another agent who’s charging you 15%, and by your own admission your earnings have increased in the last two years. I’m not telling you to stick with your agent; I’m just saying that if you choose to leave him, his move to 15% two years ago is not a valid reason for so doing.


QUESTION: I have here a bounce note that says the market can’t use the story “in its present form.” How do I tell an outright rejection from a request for rewrite?

ANSWER: A rejection says “I am not buying this story.” A request for a rewrite says: “Please rewrite this, lose the kid sister, kill the sex scene, have the horse hit by a Corvette instead of a Ford Explorer, and shorten it by at least 1,500 words — and if you do this, I’ll probably buy it.” What you got was a rejection.

Okay, 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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One Response to Ask Bwana #47

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