Ask Bwana #50

BWANA #50

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations — March, 2002

I received the following note from editor/publisher Kent Brewster attached to this month’s Ask Bwana questions:

Editor’s Note: for our fiftieth issue, we thought it might be interesting to dig up a few of the questions that Bwana’s already covered in the past and see if he had a fresh take on any of them.

My first reaction was: what kind of flighty sonofabitch does he think I am? I don’t change opinions like I change shirts. This is going to be a waste of time.

Then I got to thinking about it, and looking over The Science Fiction Professional, the book that contains the first seven years of Ask Bwana columns. And of course my opinions have changed.

The world changes, circumstances change, and only a fool doesn’t acknowledge it.

For example:

When the Ask Bwana column began, there was a healthy, viable midlist. It’s gone the way of the dodo.

Three years into the column, not a single electronic publisher was paying for new fiction or reprints. Whatever I said about e-zines then is certainly invalid now.

Four years into the column, Amazing, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine, Aboriginal SF, and Science Fiction Age, were all viable markets. Today, as the column concludes its eighth year, none of them exists. But Warren Lapine is turning a stable of semiprozines into legitimate prozine markets.

Five years into the column every experience I’d ever had with workshops was negative. My stint at Clarion changed all that.

During the lifetime of the column, Avon has become Eos, Warner Questar has become Warner Aspect, Bantam has become Bantam Spectra, and Dell Abyss had vanished altogether. There have been major editorial changes at Del Rey, Bantam, Roc, Eos and Warner. Magazines have come and gone. Electronic publishing has evolved, devolved, and evolved again.

So of course my answers are going to be different in many instances. If it bothers you, try asking yourself: what is the hobgoblin of little minds?

And on to the questions:

QUESTION: In past issues you’ve given strong advice against “giving away” one’s work to penny-a-word markets. Most of those markets have either dried up and blown away, gone electronic, or raised their rates; there are a few remaining, however. Do you still say three cents a word is an absolute limit? Are there any markets out there that pay three cents a word that you would not care to be published in?

ANSWER: All of ’em.

Look, the name of any game is to compete at the highest levels of your profession. In this field, when you’re speaking of the highest level for short stories, you’re talking about the digests — Asimov’s, Analog and F&SF — and scifi.com, plus the top of Warren Lapine’s growing line of magazines (probably Absolute Magnitude), and most of the original anthologies. They all have two things in common: first, without exception, they run the 100 best stories each year (probably the 200 best, but I’m being generous to the competition), and second, they all pay at least double your three cents a word.

2009 update: add the e-zines such as Jim Baen’s Universe, Subterranean, Clarkesworld, and the other ten that are paying pro rates.

2012 update: Jim Baen’s Universe is gone, but in its place are at least a dozen e-zines paying a nickel a word or — usually — better.

Three cents a word gets you into SFWA, but it doesn’t get you out of debt.

Sell a 4,000-worder for three cents US a word every single week of the year — that’s 52 sales a year, more than anyone since Bob Silverberg in his physical prime, 40 years ago — and your income will not reach $6,500 US per annum, barely half the official poverty level. It’s a totally unrealistic figure. It is really time for SFWA to raise that minimum pro rate to at least a nickel a word, which still won’t put you on Easy Street, but at least acknowledges that things cost a bit more now than when we created the 3-cent-a-word rate a third of a century ago.

2009 update: it’s now 5 cents US a word to qualify for SFWA, and that’s not a hell of a lot better.

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QUESTION: I noticed you changed your tune about writers’ workshops after you taught at Clarion. Have you had any further workshop experience since then? I’m particularly interested in your take on one-shot at-con workshops, and online workshops. Do they work?

ANSWER: I haven’t changed my tune about writers’ workshops. I’ve changed my tune about Clarion, which takes the best wannabees that can be found and subjects them to six weeks of intensive work. I’ve led a pair of 2-day workshops in the past couple of years, one here, one in Canada, and they don’t compare. You only have time to criticize a single story by each author, you can’t confer with him as it progresses, you can’t do more than generalize about what makes good and bad stories in the time allotted.

I confess to not having seen any online workshops since I gave up on Compuserve’s many years ago. Possibly they work; I simply have no empirical knowledge of them.

2012 update: To Clarion I must add L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future. I don’t know their workshop methods; I’m merely a judge of their annual Contest. But this is a Contest whose winners have included Eric Flint, Patrick Rothfus, Tobias Bickell, and a dozen other writers of that quality, so many that it can’t be overlooked or ignored.

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QUESTION: I note you’re a big Fictionwise.com booster, now that they’re selling a ton of your material. Are you still saying that there aren’t any e-zines that you’d sell first rights to?

ANSWER: The field is in a state of constant flux, nowhere moreso than in the area of electronic publishing. My experience with Fictionwise.com has been incredibly lucrative, and since they’re still cutting handsome royalty checks every three months, I have absolutely nothing negative to say about the experience. But, as everyone knows, they’re a reprint house.

As for selling first rights to an e-zine, I’ve already done it. It was a very funny collaboration with Janis Ian that had no expectation of any nominations from any award-giving body — and we got paid more than any of the prozines were paying.

In today’s market, I would certainly consider selling an award-quality story to Ellen Datlow over at scifi.com . . . but look at the record: she just won a Hugo for Best Editor, and two of the stories she’s purchased have won Nebulas, while others have been nominated. That means that a quality story will not get lost or overlooked there.

I’m not aware of any other e-zine that can promise you a similar audience, so I would not sell what I felt to be an award-quality story to any other e-zine. But money talks, and if an e-zine offers me more than I can get from a print magazine for a competent-but-not-award-quality story, I’ll certainly be willing to sell it to them.

2009 update: as I said above, there are now 13 e-markets — as of January, 2009; it changes all the time — paying pro rates. Some have been around for a few years, long enough to be considered Established Markets.

2012 update: Say hello to the pro-rate e-zines: Clarkesworld. Subterranean, Lightspeed. Abyss & Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Chizine, Daily Science Fiction, Brainharvesting, Cemetery Dance, Flash Fiction, Cosmos, Cobblestone, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Redstone, Strange Horizons, Shock Totem, The Pedestal. Will they all be here next year, or even in 6 months? Of course not. But those that die will be replaced by more of the same.

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QUESTION: Please list the top X number (you pick the X) of warning signs that it’s time to quit writing.

ANSWER: Okay, here we go:

1. You can no longer compete in the marketplace. In other words, you can no longer sell to markets that once upon a time were predisposed to like (and buy) your work.

2. The critics (and fans) point out that you’re repeating yourself. (The bullshit answer is “I’m exploring my themes at greater depth,” quote courtesy of Barry Malzberg’s Gather in the Hall of the Planets.)

3. You can no longer force yourself to sit down and work. (Yeah, we all have days like that — but the pros overcome it.)

4. You are no longer passionate about your work.

5. Fulfilling your commitments is more bother than it’s worth.

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QUESTION: I note you’ve had some success in scriptwriting over the years. What’s the worst thing about dealing with Hollywood, and how can I avoid it if I’m dead set on going into the business myself?

ANSWER: It’s a terrible business. They lie. They have absolutely no respect for writers. They cheat. They wouldn’t know writing talent if it spit in their eye. They try to create art by committee. They write 100-page contracts, break them with astonishing frequency, and never pay fines or go to jail. They think all writers are interchangeable. They don’t trust a good script, and tend to have it rewritten over and over until everything that was good about it is gone. They make you a profit participant, and then offer you net points, which aren’t worth the paper they’re written on (and are known as “dummy points” among the cognoscenti.)

And you know what? None of them is the worst thing.

The very worst thing about Hollywood is that they pay you so much money that writers who should know better tend to put up with all of the above.

In answer to the second half of your question: you can’t avoid it. That’s why they pay you so much. Otherwise no one would put up with it.

2012 update. Nothing’s changed. You’re still dealing with the geniuses who wanted to arrange an author tour for the recent remake of Pride and Prejudice.

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QUESTION: If you were a new writer, already owned The Elements of Style, and had exactly the price of one more book about writing, which would it be?

ANSWER: I assume you mean a book about writing science fiction, since that’s the subject in these here parts.

I can’t limit it to one, because I’ve already learned the basics, and I don’t know which book teaches them best. So instead, let me recommend a handful.

Turning Points: Essays on the Art of Science Fiction, edited by Damon Knight.

The Craft of Science Fiction, edited by Reginald Bretnor. Pay special attention to the Pohl and Spinrad articles.

I Have This Nifty Idea, the 2002 Hugo nominee, edited by me. Useful if you want to learn how to pitch a novel. (A Hugo nominee.)

How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, by Orson Scott Card. (A Hugo winner).

The SFWA Handbook, edited by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith. (A Hugo nominee.)

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QUESTION: What do you think of participating in the online community? Valuable resource, colossal distraction, insidious time sink, or what?

ANSWER: All of the above. It depends how you use it, what you’re willing to put into it, and what you hope to get out of it.

2012 update: that was either an early answer or an incomplete one. Every domestic editor and movie producer I’ve dealt with, who is still in the business, is on Facebook, and most are on Google+. Ditto for at least half my foreign editors. It’s fun to schmooze with them online, but it’s also an economic necessity.

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QUESTION: I’ve got a son who’s had severe problems in school, and he learned to read at the age of ten on Star Wars books. He is currently sixteen. Having devoured my entire collection of classic, non-franchise SF — including some of yours — he is now writing without a net, in his own universes. (No sales so far, but he’s getting encouraging scrawls on his rejects.) Are you still dead set against franchise fiction? If so, can you talk some more about why? Is it just that it’s work-for-hire, or is it that it’s set in somebody else’s universe?

ANSWER: I’m going to have to divide this answer into sections.

1. Why don’t I personally like to read franchise fiction? Because I found TV so intellectually offensive that I gave up watching network shows in 1982. I do not feel culturally deprived, and I have no desire to read books based on series that are too dumb to watch.

2. Why don’t I want to write franchise fiction? Because I’m more interested in telling my own stories about my own characters, and I have never been able to understand any writer, in a field that gives us all time and space to play with, who would rather tell stories about second-hand characters in a third-hand universe. Gene Roddenbury and George Lucas may or may not tell interesting stories, depending on your taste — but they are their stories. If you don’t want to tell your own, I don’t know why you wanted to become a writer in the first place.

3. Why do I think they are damaging to the writers? Well, let me hedge a bit here, because these days most of the writers are established professionals who know how to push a noun up against a verb. But when new writers were getting the assignments, I felt the very nature of the form prevented them from learning their craft. You say “Detroit,” everyone know what you’re talking about; but that shouldn’t happen when you say “Vulcan.” As a science fiction writer, you should learn how to present a new planet or race or concept in your story — but the nature of franchise fiction mitigates against it. Also, one of the most basic rules of fiction, honed and developed over the centuries, is that your protagonist must grow and change from his experiences — and yet that is not permissible in franchise fiction. I have always felt that any new writer, working in franchise fiction, would emerge from it at an enormous competitive disadvantage, since it encourages bad writing habits and approaches.

4. Why do I think they are damaging to the field? Because they’ve essentially killed off the midlist. There was a time when a writer could take ten years to build an audience, could see his advances grow as his readership grew . . . but that’s not the case these days. The midlist — those books paying from, say, $17,500 US to $40,000 US — is taken up with sure-selling media books. That means for a new, bottom-list, and/or unestablished writer to be able to make a living in this field requires an enormous leap of faith on the part of his publisher, a willingness to jump him from $7,000 US to $45,000 US — and very few publishers have that kind of faith, especially in these economic times.

2012 update: make that midlist pay from $10,000 US to maybe $25,000 US. As more than one editorial pundit has pointed out, $40,000 US is the new $100,000 US, thanks to our economy’s 5-year death spiral.

4a. There’s another problem, too. The endless Trek and Wookie series have encouraged the publishers to seek series in all types of fiction. I truly believe that the science fiction novel to which there are no sequels or prequels or spinoffs is an endangered species. And, need I add, I think that’s tragic.

End of numbers. Okay, all that’s on the one hand. There are some things to be said about the other side of the coin.

1. I had mistakenly assumed that all writers viewed media books the way I do — as good-paying hackwork, to be produced and forgotten as quickly as possible. I was in error. In conversations with some very fine writers who write franchise fiction for all or part of their living, I’ve discovered that a goodly number of them, probably a majority, actually love writing these books. I will never understand why, but I will grant that that is indeed the way they feel, and the term “hackwork” is not in their lexicon, that they lavish the same love and care on their media books that they do on their “own” novels.

2. And of course, there are economic reasons for writing franchise books. I have never blamed any writer for writing whatever he had to write, from pornography to media books to whatever, to pay his bills and put food on the table.

And let’s be honest: if you work it right, and you’re lucky, there is a handsome living to be made in franchise books — and sometimes it carries over. Kevin Anderson not only got rich off franchise books, but carried his audience over first to the Dune sequels, and now to his own new series, for which he got a sizeable advance, based in goodly part on the sales record of his franchise books.

Some writers who cannot make enough money with their own books try to strike a balance: they write franchise novels so they can afford to write the non-franchise novels which pay and sell less.

I have also said that some writers get labeled as writers who can only write franchise or sharecrop books, and find it almost impossible to sell their own works — and that’s demonstrably true. But to be honest, some mighty fine writers have done franchise work and never found it a hindrance to selling their own books — Joe Haldeman, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and Susan Shwartz, to name three.

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QUESTION: Why isn’t there ever any good science fiction on TV?

ANSWER: Why limit it to science fiction? This is a medium that thinks Gilligan’s Island and The Beverly Hillbillies are classics.

The problem lies in the numbers. Sell 15 million copies of a book, and you’re doing 300% better than Stephen King, the top-selling writer of all time. Reach 15 million viewers with your network TV series and you’ll be cancelled.

And, especially with the dumbing-down of America (at least in part due to television), you don’t reach and hold an audience of 25 or 30 million people with challenging, thought-provoking series. Unless you throw in a couple of murders and some naked women.

Okay. I’ve seen ’em before, but somehow they felt new.

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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