Ask Bwana #52

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

I just handed in an original anthology, New Voices in Science Fiction, which DAW Books will publish at the end of the year. Based on that book, and a bunch of stories I’ve purchased from new writers for I, Alien, a 2004 anthology, I would have to say that the future of the field is in good hands. There are a bunch of good young writers out there.

Usually when I edit an anthology, it’s based on a theme — alternate Kennedys, future Sherlocks, contemporary dinosaurs, whatever — and as such, I feel an enormous obligation to work with the writer, no matter how long it takes, no matter how much rewriting is involved, until the story is good enough to publish, because it would never have been written if I hadn’t asked for it. I mean, seriously, how many top SF writers do you think all decide to write an alternate Kennedy story in the same calendar year?

But for New Voices in Science Fiction, which SFWA asked me to edit, there were no assignments, no themes. It worked just like a magazine, and I rejected more stories than I bought — but even the stories I rejected were usually pretty well-written.

Where did they fall down?

They were by (mostly) young writers, and being young, they hadn’t read enough of the field to know that Heinlein told it better 40 years ago — and while I’m thinking of it, so did 20 other guys.

So, a word of advice: more than any other field, you must be well-read in science fiction if you hope to make a career writing it. This is not a field you can come to cold, unless you’re a movie director who, like Lucas or Roddenbury, insists on putting 1935 pulp magazine stories up there on the screen.

Okay, on to this issue’s questions:

QUESTION: I’ve been invited to be Guest of Honor at a very small convention. This is the first time I’ve ever been asked, and I’m very excited — and a little bit nervous. I’m not a good public speaker. Should I read my Guest of Honor speech or try to memorize it? Should it be about me, or about writing, or about science fiction? Help!

ANSWER: You’re the Guest of Honor, so you should speak about anything you want to speak about. If you’re uncomfortable speaking in public, don’t try to memorize your speech. A few of us, me included, give all our speeches off the cuff, without notes — but 1) we’re comfortable in public, 2) we’re used to public speaking, and 3) it’s probably not the first time we’ve given a variation of that particular speech. There’s nothing wrong with you reading your speech — and if you type it out, you can get a little extra mileage out of it by giving it to a fanzine to publish when you’re done. Or, if even reading a speech makes you uncomfortable, suggest to the program chairman that they do a question-and-answer session with you.

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QUESTION: Please pick the top X warning signs — you, as usual, pick the X — that a half-written novel isn’t really ready to see the light of day.

ANSWER: Easy enough.

1. You don’t know what comes next.

2. You don’t know what comes next, and you don’t much care.

3. You wish it was done so you could move on to some project that really interests you.

4. It feels a) thin b) bloated c) dull.

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QUESTION: I’ve been reading this column for 8 years, so I know you think that Worldcon is the place to do business, and that you advise getting your editors away from the hotel when you eat with them so you won’t be interrupted when you’re making your pitch or otherwise talking business. Yet it seems that every Worldcon I see you eating with Robert Silverberg, and with Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith, and with bunches of old-time fans, and I’m pretty sure you’re not doing business with any of them. So why don’t you obey your own advice?

ANSWER: I spend seven or eight days at Worldcon. That’s 21 to 24 meals, not counting time in the bar or in private sessions at parties. I usually have 8 to 10 business meals. That leaves me a dozen or so meals with my friends, especially those that I tend not to see the rest of the year. Surely you will allow me that small luxury, won’t you?

2012 update: Not much has changed. At the recently-concluded Chicon 7, I had dinner with the committee on Wednesday night, an enjoyable obligation I fulfilled as the Guest of Honor. On Thursday afternoon I had lunch with Leonid Korogodski, the publisher of Silverberry Press; Thursday evening I had dinner with Shahid Mahmud, publisher of Arc Manor and of the Stellar Guild line I am editing — and during dinner I signed Nancy Kress to a Stellar Guild contract. Friday I had lunch with Shahid Mahmud and Bob Silverberg and his wife. I had dinner Friday with Luigi Petruzzelli, my Italian publisher. On Saturday I had lunch with Ruhan Zhao and Wu Yan, friends in the Chinese SF publishing industry; and I had dinner Saturday with Bill Shafer and jos crew from Subterranean Press. Sunday night I had dinner with my agent, Eleanor Wood. But I was there for 9 days, I had maybe 23 or 24 meals, and you saw me at any meal except those 8 meals I ate with old friends, fannish and pro alike, at every other meal. If you’d seen me at some of them, you’d still be asking why I don’t follow my own advice.

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QUESTION: This month I note a full-page color ad for a self-published novel on the back cover of Analog, which causes me to believe that the short fiction business can’t possibly be in good shape. How’s it looking from Bwana’s perspective?

ANSWER: I don’t know what one has to do with the other. Would you be happier if Analog sold its back cover to the Rosicrucians, or the latest fad diet, or the Playgirl calendar? Look, their job is to sell ads, and I don’t see that selling them to a self-published book puts any less money into the till then selling the same page to General Motors.

That said, the short fiction business isn’t in good shape, but it has nothing to do with Analog’s back cover. Read the average sales figures of the magazines in the February issue of Locusany recent year’s February issue — and you’ll know why the field is not in good shape.

2009 update: Nothing’s changed — which is to say the magazine field has been on a steep downhill trajectory from the day I wrote that to the evening I’m writing this.

2012 update: The three digests seem to have leveled off — though F&SF had gone bi-monthly in the interim, but we now have — depending on the day — from 15 to 18 e-zines that pay pro rates, which helps to make up for the death of a few printzines and the huge hole Marty Greenberg’s passing left in the anthology field.

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QUESTION: At a convention last year, someone asked you which was your favorite among your own works, and you very clearly differentiated your favorites from your best — but you never gave the criteria. Could you now?

ANSWER: Sure. I judge the best, not in terms of sales (or else it would be Santiago), but in terms of the skills and originality I brought to it, and to me my best novel — certainly not my most-honored or most popular — is Paradise.

My favorite is a whole different ballgame: which book did I most enjoy writing? For years it was Adventures; a couple of years back it became The Outpost. The only thing they have in common is that they both contain a ton of humor, and I enjoy writing humor.

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QUESTION: I know from talking to you at some parties that you favored the war against Saddam Hussein. I also know that you sell almost everything you write to France, and are considered quite a star there. How do you balance making so much money from France with what I assume is your opinion of the French?

ANSWER: Don’t go assuming before you ask. I like almost every French writer, editor and fan that I know. Paris remains my favorite city. Some of my closest friends are French. I happen to think that the current French government is silly and duplicitous — but I don’t hold that against my French friends and fans, just as I assume they don’t blame me personally for trying to pack the Supreme Court in 1937, suborning the constitution in 1973, or seducing an intern half my age and lying about it under oath in 1995.

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QUESTION: What’s a good gentle answer to give a fan who’s confusing my character’s politics with my own? (Caveat: this is happening online, so whatever I say will undoubtedly wind up in the hundred-year Google archive and be used against me forever.)

ANSWER: Just tell him the truth — and don’t expect him to believe it if you’re a good writer.

I think all writers come across this situation sooner or later. In my case, it reached its pinnacle when I was writing the Kirinyaga stories, which are told in the first person of an elderly Kikuyu witch doctor who rejects all aspects of Western culture. I never got so tired of being called a white racist, a black racist (a lot of people reading the stories didn’t know I was white), a sexist pig, an anarchist . . . after awhile, I decided the only rational response was to be flattered that I’d defended positions that were totally opposed to my own beliefs with such conviction that my readers thought I must believe them.

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QUESTION: I’m coaching a one-shot writers’ workshop for young people, who will actually be writing on the spot and not delivering critiques of previously written work. Any pointers, or favorite exercises, or anything at all? If you could deliver one message to a roomful of teenage wannabees, what would it be?

ANSWER: I honestly don’t know what the hell you can teach a bunch of teenaged wannabees in one afternoon. As for one message, I suppose one of these might fill the bill:

1. If you don’t have an irresistible urge to write, then don’t even consider it as a profession. You’ll be up against thousands of people who begin with your skills and ten times your motivation.

2. Never do an editor’s job for him. Once you write it, don’t say, “Oh, Gardner will never like this; I’ll try it elsewhere.” Maybe he will hate it, but let him decide for himself. He can’t buy what he can’t read.

3. More than half the writers in the country are not full-timers. There’s no law that says you can’t write at nights and on weekends until you know you can make a living at it.

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QUESTION: God help me, I am reading slush. I’ve got about a hundred short stories a week to look at, and I want to give as many of them as fair a shake as possible. How can I do it without losing my enthusiasm for writing?

ANSWER: I assume you’re being paid for it. Slush reading is the most onerous job in publishing, and the first thing any slush reader should aspire to is graduating to any other duty at all. So hopefully this won’t last too long.

How can you give each of them a fair shake? This is going to sound cruel, but 95% of them don’t deserve a fair shake. Read the first page; if it doesn’t grab you, and the story was in the slush pile, you can be reasonably sure the rest of it won’t grab you either, so don’t waste your time reading it. (Back when I edited a men’s magazine — well, a trio of them — they used to fire any slush reader who couldn’t reject 30 stories an hour. Dope it out.)

I have to assume that reading so much garbage will inspire you to go home and write something worth reading, if only because you realize an hour into the job just how terrible 99% of the competition is.

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QUESTION: How important is it that my novel be reviewed in Locus?

ANSWER: Not at all.

Let me expand on that. It’s better to be reviewed anywhere rather than to not be reviewed — but an awful lot of good books don’t get reviewed in Locus. I’ve heard writers joking about how much better they did in the awards or their royalty statements with books Locus (or Chronicle, or Analog, or whoever) didn’t review than with the ones they did.

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QUESTION: I’ve been invited to participate in a “virtual” panel discussion, first via e-mail and then live in real-time chat. The result will then be archived for future discussion. This feels an awful lot like I’m giving away my writing . . . but it’s probably not too much more effort than being on a panel at a real convention. What sort of rights should I insist on retaining, if any?

ANSWER: If you’re willing to appear on a panel at a convention, you should be willing to participate in a virtual panel — with this caveat: if they plan to sell the archived panel and chat, then you should ask for some percentage of what they sell it for. If it’s available to thousands of people for free, it can only help your reputation, so don’t bother to insist on anything. All that’ll happen is that you’ll get labeled a major pain in the ass, and they’ll replace you with someone else who understands the value of publicity.

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QUESTION: I was recently at a convention where you were the Guest of Honor. I hadn’t seen or met you before, and I was very anxious to hear what you had to say. Yet on the panel I attended, a local pro totally dominated the conversation, and you seemed content to let him do so. Weren’t you annoyed? And don’t you think you owed it to people who came to see you to shut him up?

ANSWER: I’ve only been Guest of Honor once in the past half year, so I assume I know which convention you’re talking about. That particular convention scheduled me for 6 one-hour panels and a one-hour Guest of Honor speech in something less than 48 hours. I figure anyone who came there probably heard more of my opinions and comments than any human really needed to. The local pro who dominated the panel you’re remembering is a friend of mine, and I wasn’t going to be rude and tell him to shut up. First, what he said was interesting; and second, I’d already given the speech and 4 of the 6 panels, and I figured the audience could do with a bit of a rest. And I wasn’t totally silent (I never am); I just didn’t speak as much as he did.

The same thing will happen if you put me on a science or high fantasy panel. I usually don’t know those subjects as well as some of the other people on the panel, and I try not to pontificate on subjects about which I’m relatively ignorant.

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QUESTION: Who are your favorite cover artists (of your own books, I mean)?

ANSWER: I’ve been blessed with great cover artists from the outset. My first couple, back in the 1960s, were Jeff Jones and Kelly Freas, and I’ve gone on to have Michael Whelan (3 covers), Boris Vallejo, Donato Giancola (5 covers), Don Ivan Punchantz (3 covers), Kelly Freas again (actually, I get Kelly about once a decade), Dorian Vallejo, Kevin Johnson, Jim Burns (4 covers), George Barr, Ed Emshwiller, John Harris, Barclay Shaw, Bob Eggleton (on a Russian hardcover), Peggy Ranson, Paul Youll . . . how could anyone be unhappy with a line-up like that? Therefore, let me offer a totally political answer: my bestselling books have had covers by Michael Whelan and Donato Giancola, so they are (at present) my favorite cover artists.

2009 update: Add Bob Eggleton, who’s done 6 covers for me in the last three years; John Picacio, 5 covers; Dan Dos Santos, 2 covers; Stephan Martiniere, 1 cover; and David Mattingly, 2 covers, to my list of favorites. One of these days some publisher will assign Don Maitz and Vincent diFate to a pair of my books, and then I’ll have had just about all the ones I most admire.

2012 update: I finally got Don Maitz (on Blasphemy) and Vinnie diFate on my Worldcon Guest of Honor book (Win Some, Lose Some), and I’ve also been captivated by the work Seamus Gallagher has done on my recent spate of “Weird Western” novels.

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QUESTION: Have you ever unconsciously written somebody into a story? If so, what did you do when your former friend came after you with a machete and no sense of humor at all?

ANSWER: Unconsciously, no. Consciously, many times. Usually they come up and thank me. I don’t think anyone’s every expressed anger at finding himself in one of my books or stories.

In fact, these days a number of us — Harry Turtledove, Lois Bujold, David Gerrold, myself — auction the right to be written into our books or stories every couple of years, the proceeds going to a fannish charity like DUFF or TAFF, or a pro charity like the SFWA Medical Fund. People usually pay more to get into a story than any of us sells the story for.

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QUESTION: I know you’ve collaborated with 30 or 40 different partners. Do you always split the pay 50-50, or are there occasions when one half of the team gets more than the other, and if so what are those occasions?

ANSWER: I’ve always split 50-50. I can conceive of certain situations in which both parties would agree to an uneven split, but I’ve never found myself in that situation. The most obvious such occurrence would be when dividing a substantial advance for a book, when one author’s name and reputation is huge and the other’s is not.

2009 update: the number of collaborators is now 44.

2012 update: it’s up to 52 now — 47 on short stories, 3 on novels, and 2 on screenplays.

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QUESTION: After a very long struggle I’ve been diagnosed with depression. Fortunately my medication works wonders; I feel better now than ever. Unfortunately, I can’t write worth a damn on Xanax. Have you ever known anybody in my situation who managed to keep working? If so, how’d they do it?

ANSWER: You’re asking the wrong party. I don’t know anything about medications. I’d advise you to speak to a doctor, or find a writer who’s taking whatever drug you’re on and see how he adjusts to it.

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QUESTION: Of all the book publishers you’ve worked with, which one is your favorite? Which one(s) will you never work for again?

ANSWER: Anyone who pays me is my favorite, and anyone who isn’t paying me today is my potential favorite. There is no publisher I will never work for again (which is not to say there aren’t any I won’t work for next week or next month).

Look, if you’re going to be in the field for any length of time, you’re probably going to find yourself working for a lot of publishers. If Publisher B buys you away from Publisher A, of course you prefer Publisher B — this year. If Publisher C doesn’t want anything to do with you, naturally you don’t like them — until they hire the editor from Publisher A or B who likes your stuff and wants to buy it.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that publishers change, editors change, policies change, and there’s no sense carrying a grudge or making hate lists. I’ve sold to Tor, Bantam/Spectra, Del Rey, Ace, New American Library, DAW, Warner’s, Phantasia Press, Lancer, Paperback Library, Berkley, Axolotl, Farthest Star, NESFA Press, WFSA Press, Old Earth, Misfit Press, Obscura Press, Donald M. Grant, Wildside Press, Dark Regions Press, Science Fiction Book Club, Easton Press . . . and they are all my favorites. Maybe not all at the same time, maybe not every day of the year, but any publisher who pays me money to publish my books is aces with me.

2009 update: add Pyr, Subterranean, Golden Gryphon, Baen, Phobos, Isfic Press, Meisha Merlin, Watson-Guptill — and nothing’s changed: they’re all my favorites too.

2012 update: add Silverberry Press, Arc Manor, PS Publishing, amd American Fantasy Press — and they’re also all my favorites.

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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