Ask Bwana #48

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

I discussed this a few years ago, but it’s probably time to mention it again.

When you option a book to Hollywood, they pay you a certain negotiated amount in coin of the realm for the right — not the obligation — to buy the book at a far higher price by some specified date in the future, usually one or two years. In exchange for that payment, you agree not to sell it anywhere else until the option has expired.

That’s the way the world works. If someone wants you to keep a story, a book, a screenplay, anything off the market for a specified period of time, they must give you an option payment. Otherwise, why should you willingly refuse other offers of money for an item they might buy in the future?

This week two different beginners told me that they have contributed stories to anthologies (not the same book, not the same editor) and each was told that the editor wanted to keep it for a couple of months and see what else came in, but right now he was pretty sure he was going to buy it.

Do you notice anything wrong with that? He’s taking advantage of them because they’re beginners. Do you think anyone could get away telling a Silverberg or an Ellison or a Willis that “I want to hold your story for a few months, and if nothing better comes in, I’ll buy it.”

What he’s doing is, in essence, asking for a free option. And the answer, of course, is: No. If he guarantees in print to buy it, and you’re willing to wait for your money, fine, that’s your decision. But if he simply wants you to hold it off the market for a few months while he sits there hoping something better will come in, then he should give you an option payment in exchange for your doing what he wants.

No, he almost certainly won’t give you one. But what he’s doing is unethical — and if he’s only a very occasional freelance anthology editor he may not even realize it — and you have every right to submit the story elsewhere while you’re waiting for him to make up his mind. What if you sell it elsewhere before he makes a decision? That’s the risk he takes without an option payment, just as you take the risk that he might reject it four or six months up the road.

Okay, on to this issue’s questions:

QUESTION: Do you have any advice for a writer who married outside the industry, and needs to explain to the light of his life that the dancing girls in the Worldcon candid gallery who seem to be taking advantage of him — with enthusiastic cooperation, given the idiot grin on his face — are just fans, and nothing to divorce him over?

ANSWER: I assume this is a serious question, though it’s difficult to believe. Anyway, I’d say the best thing to do is drag her along to Worldcon so she can see for herself. (No, I’m not saying that every spouse who has no visceral interest in science fiction should be dragged along — but on the other hand, most of them aren’t so upset by photos they’ve seen that their mates are asking me how to avoid a divorce.)

Failing that, hunt up some con reports — there are dozens available — which point out that the dancing girls and naked girls and muscular near-naked barbarian warriors and what-have-you were omnipresent throughout the Worldcon and did not limit their interest strictly and solely to you.

Finally, realize that most people who appear in public in provocative outfits (or nothing at all) usually have no objection to being photographed. Go to the various web sites with Worldcon photos — there are dozens — and find some shots of these particular ladies lavishing their attention on some other writer, and then show them to your spouse.

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QUESTION: I keep hearing about “lag time.” What is it, and how long is it, and why should I be concerned about it?

ANSWER: “Lag time” is the amount of time between when you sell a story and when it actually appears. I’d say it’s usually a year, give or take — and the only reason to be concerned about it is if you start alerting your friends and relatives to look for that first sale you just made last month, and it doesn’t appear for a year and a half, by which time they’ll assume you were, shall we say, a bit less than truthful?

I’ve just pulled up the records of some of my most recent sales, including lag times. Maybe this will give you a better idea.

“Old MacDonald Had a Farm” sold to Asimov’s at the 2000 Worldcon, and appeared in print at the 2001 Worldcon. Lag time: twelve months.

“The Chinese Sandman” sold to Black Gate. Lag time: seventeen months.

“Flower Children of Mars” sold to Mars Probe. Book came out last month. Lag time: nineteen months.

“The Shackles of Freedom” sold to Visions of Liberty. Lag time, fifteen months and counting.

“A Moment of Your Time” sold to Macrocosms. Lag time: twelve months and counting.

“Reflections in Black Granite” sold to Tales of the Wall. Book came out three weeks ago. Lag time: eight months.

“The Amorous Broom” sold to Masters of Fantasy. Lag time, nine months and counting.

“Robots Don’t Cry” sold to Asimov’s in June, 2002. Gardner Dozois was assembling the February, 2003, issue when he bought it. Not scheduled yet.

“Here’s Looking at You, Kid” sold to Asimov’s in July, 2002. Gardner Dozois was assembling the March, 2003, issue when he bought it. Not scheduled yet.

“The Burning Spear at Twilight” sold to Alternate Generals 3. Not scheduled yet, but it will be at least a year, depending on when the anthology, still incomplete, is turned in.

Now, with books, you compute lag time differently. You count not from when you sell them — since you frequently haven’t written anything more than a brief outline when you sign the contract – but rather from when you deliver them. To wit:

The Return of Santiago, delivered to Tor in March, 2002, currently scheduled for February, 2003. Lag time, eleven months, and that’s assuming Michael Whelan, who’s incredibly busy, delivers his cover painting on time.

2012 update: he didn’t, and I wound up with a different cover artist.

With a Little Help From My Friends, delivered to Farthest Star in December, 2001, scheduled for late August publication. Even with a small press, lag time will be nine months.

The Science Fiction Professional, delivered to Farthest Star in November, 2001, scheduled for late August publication. Lag time will be ten months.

The fastest I’ve ever had one published? Fictionwise.com had “Water-Skiing Down the Styx” ready in two weeks.

The slowest? TOR took four and a half years to get Alternate Tyrants out.

Does the length of lag time mean anything? Not really.

Do they get the Name Authors out fastest?

Oddly enough, no. Oh, they try to — but Name Authors sign “leader contracts” specifying ad budgets, cover art, print runs, all that nice stuff, and there’s only one leader a month, so frequently the beginner’s unexceptional novel will get out months ahead of the Name Author’s, which has to wait for a leader slot to open up.

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QUESTION: Can you give me a quick test for whether a character is cardboard or not? I’ve heard the same critique from my group more than once, and when I ask them to point out some famous cardboard and non-cardboard characters, all I get are conflicting answers.

ANSWER: Back in the Bad Old Days, any kind of twitch qualified as characterization. One character stuttered, one spoke with an accent, one couldn’t stop drinking coffee, one used five-syllable words, and so on. These days that’s not allowed. Your characters must have believable traits and outlooks, not twitches, that ring true and differentiate them from other characters.

The most common failings I’ve seen in beginners’ manuscripts? Not all protagonists are brave. Not all brave men are competent. Not all heroines are beautiful. Not all people tell the truth all the time. Not all villains — in fact, not any — think of themselves as vIllains, and they do not view their evil deeds as evil.

Barsoom (or Cimmeria, or substitute the world of your choice here) would have been a lot more believeable if it had had a few more street sweepers and haberdashers and plumbers and a few less swordsmen.

Avoid those common pitfalls and you’re at least halfway there.

2012 update: We’ve come a long way. Carol just reminded me that a science fiction novel I wrote back in the 1960s was praised by two different critics for its “unique characterization.” Translation: the heroine was ugly.

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QUESTION: An acquaintance of mine who writes computer game add-ons — modifications of a famous first-person running-and-shooting game, to be exact — thinks that one of my short stories would be a perfect setting for such a thing. Given that there’s no money in it for anyone — “modders,” as these folks are called, are expressly forbidden by the owners of the game engines from turning a profit — should I go ahead and let him use my universe? I must confess the idea tickles my ego; being able to run around my own mile-long spaceship shooting bad guys really sounds like fun…but are there hidden traps I ought to be watching for?

ANSWER: I’m sure there are hidden traps, and I’d make especially sure that an agent or lawyer saw to it that I still owned every aspect of my universe — but this is out of my realm of experience, and Bwana is just smart enough to not give advice on subjects of which he is ignorant. Sorry.

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QUESTION: Help! I’m drowning in maps . . . can you please talk more about world-building? Do you create the setting first and then the story, or do you flesh in the universe around the plot?

ANSWER: “There are nine and sixty ways, of constructing tribal lays, and each and every one of them is right.” Kipling said that. Kipling was an optimist, but probably fifteen or twenty are right, depending on the situation.

Which is to say: construct the world in whatever way makes you comfortable — and remember that you don’t have to do it the same way each time. Is the world essential to the plot, like Dune or Mesklin? Then obviously it has to be created with meticulous attention to detail. Is it just a world where interesting people and/or aliens interact? Then it needn’t be fleshed out as thoroughly (which isn’t to say you can be slipshod about it; it had better circle a G-type star if it’s an Earth-like oxygen world, it had better be pockmarked with craters if it’s anywhere near an asteroid belt or the equivalent of the Oort Cloud and has no atmosphere in which incoming objects can burn up, and so on.)

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QUESTION: How do you handle it when you need to bring your readers up to speed in a hurry? Prologues and fables seem to work for you . . . please talk about strategies for painlessly integrating info dumps into one’s prose.

ANSWER: I like prologues — not long ones, nothing that feels like an info dump — because the reader will allow you a few pages to set the scene without beginning the action or introducing the main characters. There are entire sections of how-to books on writing science fiction that are devoted to avoiding or camouflaging info dumps, which seems to be what you’re asking. Just remember that, as the late James Blish used to say, the future equivalent of “Damn!”, written for a contemporary audience, is “Damn!” — and if I pull a gun, I’m not going to tell you what it is, how it works, and what the effects of a bullet entering someone’s body will be.

Probably a simpler way of summarizing it is to quote the late John Campbell’s description of science fiction: it is the mainstream literature of the future.

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QUESTION: I’ve been asked to host a “kaffeeklatsch” at Worldcon. How do these things differ from normal panels, please? Have you ever seen one go bad? If so, how?

ANSWER: There’s nothing mystical or mysterious about them. If you’re hosting a kaffeeklatsch at Worldcon, you’ll be assigned a time and a room (or part of a room). There will be a table with ten or twelve chairs. There will be free coffee (usually luke-cool) and free doughnuts (usually stale). The first nine or eleven people to sign up will join you for this feast, and for the next hour you’ll just sit and talk with them. They’re your fans or they wouldn’t be there, and they’ll doubtless have a number of questions to ask you, everything from what stories and books you have forthcoming to what your office looks like to how to write a story. Just be polite and cherish them — remember, if you never write another word it will have precious little impact on their lives, but if they never buy another one of your books, it’ll have a more serious impact on yours.

I usually bring along things to give away: cover flats, foreign editions of my books, copies of matte paintings Hollywood has prepared for movies they expect to make of my stories, whatever. I always make sure I bring twenty or twenty-five such things, since occasionally I’ve had to preside at two tables when there was enough fan interest (and enough room), and I always autograph them before handing them out, which seems to make the fans happy.

Once in a while you get a pleasant surprise. At LACon III (Los Angeles in 1996) I had the first kaffeeklatsch of the convention, at about noon on Thursday, right after opening ceremonies. I was initially displeased by this, since one could reasonably expect another 2,000 attendees to show up Friday and I didn’t want any fans who wanted to attend the kaffeeklatsch to miss it for that reason. As it turned out, that was the best possible time to have it. The hotel didn’t understand the difference between a kaffeeklatsch and the plush pre-Hugo party for nominees, and they wheeled in a dessert cart that must have held 500,000 calories, plus freshly-brewed pitchers of regular, decaf, and even espresso.

(By 3:00 PM they’d been informed of their mistake, and kaffeeklatches for the rest of the con got the usual cold coffee and stale pastries.)

And once in a while you get an unpleasant surprise. At the Millennium Philcon last year, my kaffeeklatsch — and it was not unique — had neither coffee, pastries, nor even privacy. Which should tell you more about these shindigs than you ever wanted to know.

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QUESTION: I don’t understand what the fuss is over fanzines. Are they how fans communicated before the Internet. or something more? Which do you read, if any, and why?

ANSWER: Yes, they are precisely how fans communicated before the Internet (even before conventions), and how many of them still communicate. I don’t know the count today, and I wouldn’t include all-media-fiction publications, but prior to the wiring of America, there were perhaps 700 different fanzine titles being published every year.

Many of our professional writers got their starts as fans, and many published their own fanzines. A partial list would include Frederik Pohl, Cyril M. Kornbluth, Wilson “Bob” Tucker, Donald A. Wollheim, Ray Bradbury, Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Jack Chalker, James Blish, even me.

Which ones do I read? Challenger, Mimosa, File 770, Fosfax, The Burroughs Bulletin, Argentus, Tangent, Sleight of Hand, Ansible, e.I., The Proper Boskonian, Outworlds, Stet, Plotka, maybe fifteen others. I read them for a number of reasons: some are extremely well-written, some are extremely informative, some are published by friends, some have excellent reviews, some have fine artwork — the reasons are as varied as the publications. Mostly I suppose I read them because science fiction has been my life for forty years.

2012 update: I should add that I still write for some of them. I’ve been in every issue of Challenger for maybe a dozen years, and I was in about 15 issues of Lan’s Lantern before editor George Laskowski died. I’ve written a few pieces for Argentus, maybe nine or ten for Mimosa, occasional pieces for others. I consider it a way of paying my fannish dues, because I was a fan before I was a writer, and I remain one.)

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QUESTION: Your collaborator Janis Ian wrote an article for the May Performing Songwriter Magazine. . What I found most interesting was a quote from writer Mercedes Lackey, who said that posting one of her “Arrows” novels over on Eric Flint’s Baen Free Library tripled the royalties for the entire series, and this: “There’s an increase in all of the books on that statement, actually, and what it looks like is what I’d expect to happen if a steady line of people who’d never read my stuff encountered it on the Free Library — a certain percentage of them liked it, and started to work through my backlist, beginning with the earliest books published.”

Are you interested enough in her results yet to let Eric put up one or two of your out-of-print masterworks and see what happens? If not, what would it take to get you to give it a try?

ANSWER: I have a feeling I’m going to be getting provocative questions about Baen’s Free Library every issue. I answered them in Speculations #47. My opinion hasn’t changed.

No, I will not let Eric put up any of my out-of-print books for free. Fictionwise.com pays me four digits plus a huge royalty rate for doing precisely that. Why in the world would I give it away for free when I have a ready market that pays me substantial sums?

What would it take to get me to give it a try? Probably a cross-section of thirty or more established writers at all levels of the field swearing that it enhanced their sales, plus the total collapse of all paying electronic markets.

2012 update: Well, here we are ten years later, and now I put my reverted titles — about 35 of them — up on Amazon, Barnes, Apple, Kobo, the web page, etc. myself. I would never do it with a new novel, for reasons I’ve explained at length in other venues, but I am thrilled with the money these reverted titles, which were just gathering dust, are making. Santiago alone is selling a few hundred copies a month at $6.25 US, and I’m getting 70% from Amazon, 65% from Barnes and Noble, 100% if you buy it from my web page, and so on. Hard not to like those results.

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QUESTION: I have a friend who actually has enough fiction credits that he’s an active member of SFWA. Problem is, he thinks I’m off my nut (not his words, but that’s the gist of it) to consider Worldcon the best place to make contacts — like editors, agents, etc. He says he knows several pros who have written articles who say the opposite.
How say you, O Bwana?

ANSWER: I only quote Kipling once per column. Consider him quoted again.

Well, let me take that back. I’m being too generous to wrong thinkers. When all is said and done, the very best way to meet editors and agents is to go to New York after scheduling appointments with everyone you want to see.
After that, there are three main gathering spots: Worldcon, World Fantasy Con, and Nebula Weekend.

I prefer and strongly recommend Worldcon for the reasons I’ve given before: it is a lot easier for a newcomer to connect with a busy and popular editor or agent at a six-day function than a two-day or three-day one. Also, Worldcon’s very size is one of its best assets, because with fifty parties going on every night, it’s a pretty good bet that — unlike the Nebulas and World Fantasy Con — every editor and agent you want to see won’t be crammed into two or three publishers’ suites, surrounded by 300 hungry and better-known writers who are all after what you’re after: a little self-promoting time with said agent or editor.

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QUESTION: I’ve got four novels in print and two more on the way, and my publisher doesn’t want to hear about supporting a book tour. Should I go ahead and do what Wil McCarthy did — a multi-state tour, supported by local fans and authors — on my own time and money? Or should just keep writing?

ANSWER: Of course he doesn’t want to hear about supporting a book tour. Are you on the New York Times bestseller list? No? How about the Publisher’s Weekly bestseller list? Still no? Well, are you at least on the USA Today bestseller list?

You’re not on any of them? It doesn’t mean you’re a failure, or that you don’t have a fine future in the field. In fact, if you’ve already sold six books, you have a bright future indeed. But let’s try to be realistic. What will, say, a twelve-city, sixteeen-day tour cost your publisher? $7,500 US in plane fare (if he’s lucky and gets cut rates), another $2,500 US in hotel bills, probably $1,750 US in your per diems for meals, plus miscellaneous, plus having his publicity director, who should really be pushing Robert Jordan or David Eddings or Larry Niven, take a week setting up all your TV and radio and press interviews (and it won’t be easy; after all, why do they want to give air or print space to a beginner who hasn’t hit the bestseller lists yet and whose name is unknown to their readers or listeners or viewers?)

Okay, we’re not talking a fortune here. If your publisher can’t lay his hands on a quick $13,000 US to $16,000 US, he’s not going to be in business long. And of course a twelve-city tour will sell some books — maybe as many as 250 extra per city. But if he spends the same money on an established author, not even a Goodkind or a Feist or a McCaffrey, but just a solid journeyman author, he’ll sell an extra 800 per city.

And if he sends one of his superstars out, even with better per diems and better accommodations, he’ll sell an extra 3,500 a city, maybe more.

Easy call, isn’t it? In all honesty, your career doesn’t merit a tour yet. If I were you, I’d concentrate on writing and hope that I turned out something good enough for my publisher to foot the bill for a tour in the future, rather than a) taking time away from my work, b) paying my own expenses now, and c) running into massive indifference as the author of four books that no one outside the field has ever heard of.

Nice 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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