Ask Bwana #54

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

If you’re going to be a freelance writer, and you live alone or your spouse is not employed and insured, then sooner or later — probably sooner — you’re going to need health insurance. One uninsured major medical bill can totally wipe you out. (Example: my wife had two surgeries in 1999 that cost an aggregate of $135,000 US. The insurance company picked up $133,000 of it.)

There was a time, and hopefully it will come again, when SFWA was able to supply health insurance to any of its members who were willing to pay $45 US a year to become affiliate members of the National Writers Union. Until last year they had a wonderful plan through Aetna for less than $550 US a month for a family. Then Aetna decided that only sick writers subscribed to the plan (I believe that less that 30 of SFWA’s 1,200 members were on it), and dumped NWU. They went to Unicare, which offered a somewhat lesser plan for a somewhat higher price — $820 a month. But as of July 1, Unicare dumped them too . . . and they’ve yet to get a replacement plan that is willing to insure (ugh!) writers.

2009 Update: 6 ½ years later they still haven’t got a replacement plan.

2012 update: we may or may not have Obamacare, depending on the election, which is being held a few weeks after I write it; and if we get it, it may or may not be worth the powder to blow it to hell.

I was one of the SFWA members who bought his insurance through NWU. So, when it became obvious that they couldn’t deliver a plan this year, I began looking around. After all, I’ve also sold mysteries, Westerns, travel books, and poems; I’ve edited; I’ve even sold screenplays. I found 13 writers’ organizations in which I qualified for membership, and my wife, who co-edits a line of books and co-authored a pair of screenplays, qualified for a couple of women’s groups.

Then Reality raised its ugly head. Four of the organizations got their insurance through NWU, and of course couldn’t provide any. Four others simply didn’t offer any insurance plan. That left five for me and two for Carol — and all of them offered very nice health insurance plans . . . but only if you lived in New York. A couple covered California and Illinois as well. But not a single one covered most of the other states, including Ohio, where I happen to live.

So I began looking into insurance on my own. Turned out to be impossible. I am 61 years old, and a diabetic, though not on insulin. Most of the companies didn’t want to cover me. Carol is 60, and had cancer 4 years ago. None of the companies would cover her.

All right, I figured. I can’t get individual insurance — but then, I’ve never had individual insurance. I’ve always gotten it through a group — and it just so happens that I had a ready-made group: my sub-Chapter S Corporation, Kirinyaga Inc.

Now, the law says no corporate group of from 2 to 50 can be turned down, so the first thing I did was put Carol on salary so we had a group of 2. (That will cost me an extra couple of thousand dollars each year in FICA.) Then I joined the local Chamber of Commerce to get the lowest rates. Then I spoke to some insurance agents.

The best price we could get for a plan comparable to NWU’s Aetna plan that had cost us $550 a month only a year ago was $2,250 a month. A minimally acceptable Blue Cross plan, which I finally purchased, was $1,450 a month.

The purpose of this is not to share my problems with you — but to warn you that there are problems if you have to buy your own health insurance. The older you get, the more expensive it becomes. The sicker you get, the more difficult it is to obtain . . . and if you come down with anything really serious, even if like Carol you are completely recovered, you are uninsurable as an individual unless you already have coverage, which by law cannot be taken away for that reason as long as you keep paying your premiums.

If you are thinking of going freelance fulltime, and you either aren’t married or your spouse isn’t insured by his or her employer, consider long and hard whether you really want to lose some of those benefits you are getting through your current employment. If you’re 23 and healthy, it probably doesn’t matter; if you’re 42 and have a condition or two, it probably does; and if you’re 60, it absolutely does.

I’m not saying not to go fulltime. I’m just pointing out that this is a major and absolutely necessary expense that most writers don’t think about, but which you really had better consider before saying good-bye to your boss.

Okay, on to this issue’s questions:

QUESTION: I read that a new magazine called Argosy is starting up in the fall. I realize Argosy has been dead for 30 years, but can somebody just go ahead and start publishing a new one? Isn’t the Argosy name somebody’s property?

ANSWER: Ownership of the title did change hands. This happens all the time. Amazing Stories has had 5 owners and will be revived again in 2004. Weird Tales has changed hands either five or six times, depending on whether you count its paperback incarnation.

The reason is simple enough: a new owner hopes to not only bring new insights, editorial standards, and distribution to a magazine, but if he can pick up some of the old readership, so much the better. In the case of Argosy, the most recent readership would be a hunting and fishing crowd . . . but the magazine, when it published fiction, ran science fiction, mysteries, Westerns, sports and adventure, and since no one’s doing that today, the title may convince some fans who know what Argosy once was to subscribe. Makes perfect sense to me.

2009 Update: the revived Argosy, a beautiful and fascinating magazine, lasted only three issues.

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QUESTION: Recently on Slashdot someone asked a fairly technical question about antimatter, for research in writing an SF novel. Lots of interesting replies came up, along with a note of caution warning the writer not to use any of the answers, since in his view the people who posted them could sue for a piece of the action if the book sold. I don’t need legal analysis about fair use or whether or not an idea can be owned, just a quick answer: was this guy a bonehead, or should I really be wary of asking questions online?

ANSWER: If the answer is not specific to a single respondent, if it is accessible from a number of people or from the internet or from a library, then of course no one can sue you.

If you ask a scientist about something that only he can answer, and he hasn’t published that answer anywhere, and you don’t get his permission, then yes, he can sue you — but it would be difficult for him to prove damages, especially given how long it would take him to get to court.

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QUESTION: I’ve read Heinlein’s advice to new writers: write, finish what you start, don’t rewrite without an editor’s request, send it out, and keep it out there if it bounces. Would Bwana care to add anything to those rules?

ANSWER: Bwana disagrees with one of those rules. If a story bounces once or twice, it’s entirely possible you sent it to the wrong market. If it bounces a number of times, then you may safely conclude that the editors are trying to tell you something, and if you don’t rewrite it you’re putting it at a competitive disadvantage. (Translation: You’re a jerk if you don’t rewrite it under those circumstances.)

Now, if your skills and track record are equal to Heinlein or Bester or someone in that category, the above advice is not for you — but by the same token, you’ll never have a story rejected half a dozen times.

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QUESTION: I’ve heard that you need to repeat Heinlein’s rules over and over, learn from your mistakes, spend years developing skill and collecting knowledge, and then you get lucky. I’m not clear on this “lucky” notion; how big a factor is random chance when a new writer is trying to break in?

ANSWER: Luck is most often a matter of an opportunist pouncing on an opportunity. A lucky beginner is a beginner who writes a good story and markets it to the right editor at a time when the editor is looking for just such a subject or length.

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QUESTION: I always read the Resnick/Malzberg Dialogue first when I open a new copy of the SFWA Bulletin. Is there anything you two don’t disagree on? Or do you argue opposite sides of an issue even when you don’t believe in them?

ANSWER: We both agree that God outdid Himself when He made Sophia Loren. Beyond that, we disagree about many things concerning the profession of science fiction — but you have to understand that we come at science fiction from different directions, in terms of the experiences we’ve had, the money we’ve made, the awards we’ve won, the disappointments we’ve suffered, everything. Barry’s opinions are not right for me, and mine (I reluctantly confess) probably aren’t right for him.

But you also have to understand that we’re dealing with more complex issues than usually crop up in Ask Bwana, and we’re writing for an audience of established writers, so we try to pick subjects that, unlike most of the questions I’m asked here, don’t have a single right answer.

2009 Update: We just handed in our 43rd 4,500-word Dialogue, and we still don’t agree on much.

2012 Update: we just handed in our 60th column, and a collection of the columns titled The Business of Science Fiction was a 2011 Hugo nominee. More to the point, when we run through all the Ask Bwana columns here, we’ll start posting the Dialogues.

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QUESTION: My writers’ group keeps telling me I’m great with plot but lousy on theme. How do you know when you’ve written a satisfying thematic resolution? Do you have the theme in mind before you start the book, or do you let the story run off and hope the theme catches up by the end?

ANSWER: You know you’ve written a satisfying thematic resolution when your vast experience tells you that you’ve done so. If you don’t have enough experience to evaluate your own writing, and I suspect most readers of this column do not, then you’ll know when your editor tells you so by sending you a contract. If you workshop your stories, you’ll have (occasionally useful) input from others.

I prepare carefully, even when writing humor or adventure, and I always know my theme before I start. As I’ve said here and elsewhere, I pull the strings, and my characters do the song and dance. It’s never the other way around.

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QUESTION: I’ve read your less-than-favorable comments about E.T. and Blade Runner and a bunch of other SF movies . . . but don’t you think Hollywood’s getting better at it in the past couple of years? I really enjoyed the new Matrix movie and Hulk this year, and I thought Signs should have been nominated for an Oscar. What’s your opinion?

ANSWER: I would have sworn a decade ago that science fiction movies couldn’t possibly get any dumber.

I’d have been wrong.

Let’s briefly examine the three films you seem to think are sterling examples of science fictional cinema.

Signs. Would you travel 50 trillion miles or so for a little snack? That’s what the aliens did. If they’re here for any other reason than eating people, the film never says so. Okay, let’s leave aside how much they’re paying in terms of time and energy to come all this way just to eat us for lunch. What is the one thing we know will kill them? Water (which also killed the Wicked Witch of the West, a comparison that was not lost on most perceptive viewers). Okay, what are we composed of? More than 90% water. So the aliens came all this way to poison themselves, and then forgot to die until someone hit them with a baseball bat. Even dumber than E.T.

The Matrix Retarded . . . uh, sorry, make that Reloaded. You’ve got this hero, Neo, with godlike powers. He can fly as fast and far as Superman. He can stop a hail of bullets or even bombs in mid-flight just by holding up his hand. So does he fly out of harm’s way when a hundred Agent Smiths attack him? Of course not. Does he hold up his hand and freeze them in mid-charge? Of course not. Can Neo be hurt? No. Can Agent Smith be hurt? No. So why do they constantly indulge in all these easily avoidable fights?

You have the creator of the Matrix explain that the first Matrix was perfect. It only had three or four flaws, which is why he built five more versions of it. Uh . . . excuse me, but that’s not that way I define “perfect.”

It’s dumb from start to finish. The whole world runs on computers. So why is the underground city lit only by burning torches? And cetera.

Hulk is taken from a comic book, so I guess they thought that gave them a lot of leeway . . . but even a moderately bright 6-year-old ought to know that if attacking the Hulk and shooting him can’t hurt him but just makes him bigger and stronger, the very last thing you want to do when he’s busy being the Hulk rather than Bruce Banner is shoot him or annoy him, rather than simply wait for him to change back into his relatively helpless human form. But a 4-star general, a man in a class with Tommy Franks and Norman Schwartzkopf, can’t seem to figure that out.

Dumb. Dumb, Dumb.

*Sigh* No, I don’t think SF movies are getting better. Never mistake good special effects for stories that make a modicum of sense.

2012 Update: You don’t really want to see me do that to still more movies, do you? Suffice it to say that they haven’t gotten any better or any smarter. Well, what the hell, I’ll mention one, just because it grossed about a billion dollars: Avatar. Now, leaving aside the question of when Mankind forgot how to construct self-propelled wheelchairs, let’s move ahead to the climactic battle, in which a bunch of primitive warriors, armed with spears and bows and arrows, defeats a mechanized military that is capable of FTL speeds and similar improvements over the current state of military science. Now be honest: does anyone out there really think a bunch of similarly-armed primitives could defeat, say, the 101st Airborne, let alone a military that is thousands of years advanced upon that? DUMB!!!

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QUESTION: How long did your first novel take you to write? And: may we please know the shortest, longest, and average work time for a Resnick book?

ANSWER: My first was a 60,000-worder that took about a month when I was a teenager (and alas, reads like it and always comes back to haunt me at autograph sessions; I really should have listened to the first dozen editors who bounced it).

The shortest science fiction book? I did a Battlestar: Galactica novelization in 4 days back in 1980, and probably couldn’t have told you a single plot point a week after I handed it in. The shortest non-science fiction book? Paul Neimark (author of the bestseller She Lives) and I collaborated on am amonymous sex book for Bee-Line back in 1967 and finished it in a single day.

The longest is more difficult, because for the past 15 years I always take a break from whatever novel I’m working on to write a few short stories. I think the absolute longest time (given the caveat that I didn’t work on it every day) was about a year for the relatively short A Miracle of Rare Design. My usual time ranges from 3 to 6 months, though I just did the Lara Croft novel I mentioned last issue on a very tight deadline, and handed in 430 manuscript pages in something under 6 weeks, while writing all my regular columns plus a novelette at the same time period.

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QUESTION: What do you think of Baen Books’ WebScriptions program? For $15 US a month, you get Web access to four books from Baen’s front list. Would having this in your contract make you more or less likely to want to sell to Baen?

ANSWER: Baen is the one publisher in the field I’ve never sold to, and I’d love to sell them something, with or without this program, just to make my portfolio complete.

2009 Update: I’ve now sold them 2 anthologies, and Eric Flint and I are collaborating on a novel for them.

2012 Update: And I’ve since sold them again.

I’ve had remarkable success with Fictionwise.com, so I must confess I’d be reluctant to sell e-rights to anyone else, though these days the author doesn’t always have that choice. Baen has always been more computer-aware than the other sf publishers, so I don’t imagine many authors are unhappy with his deal.

2009 Update: Jim Baen was always years ahead of the curve in terms of computers and marketing, and it is now clear that he was with Webscriptions.

2012 Update: Fictionwise.com sold to Barnes & Noble a couple of years back, just about the time the technology for self-publishing your backlist became so widespread and easy that even a computer semi-literate like me could manage it — and of course, 70% from Amazon, 65% from Barnes [not through Fictionwise], and 100% from your web page beats whatever royalty rates publishing houses and companies like Fictionwise are paying for those same backlist titles.

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QUESTION: Are there any remaining taboos in science fiction?

ANSWER: Is there a subject that you absolutely cannot write about? No. Are there some that would be very difficult to place? Sure. For example — and this isn’t a joke — I wouldn’t want to try to sell a novel in which the villain was a black lesbian. (And I hasten to add that if it was done well enough, it would probably sell sooner or later . . . but with difficulty.)

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QUESTION: What’s the current state of the original anthology market, please?

ANSWER: Same as always. Marty Greenberg is behind about 90% of all SF anthologies, and Byron Priess and Bill Fawcett pretty much split the rest. Now and then Bob Silverberg or someone sneaks through without one of the above names attached — Lou Anders just did — but it’s not easy.

2009 Update: Byron Priess was killed in an auto accident a few years ago, and Bill Fawcett isn’t editing as many anthologies. Marty Greenberg is still behind most of them, and for the past couple of years there’s no question that Lou Anders has been editing the best of them.

If you’re a writer looking for anthology markets, they’re out there in quantity . . . but as I’ve pointed out a few times here and elsewhere, most are of necessity by invitation only.

2012 Update: We lost Marty Greenberg about a year ago, and even before he died the original anthology market was — and is still — tanking.

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QUESTION: Any pointers for a new guy trying to break in? Do you usually get your opening hook down first before continuing the story, or do you come back and put it in after completing everything? What can I do to improve my opening hook?

ANSWER: I don’t necessarily come up with a hook before plotting the story (in fact, I rarely do), but I definitely come up with my opening before I sit down to write. I’ve reached the point where editors will give me a few pages rather than a few sentences to capture the readers . . . but I always try to remember that the readers won’t necessarily agree with the editors, so I try to grab them as quickly as I can.

This doesn’t mean “as shockingly” as I can. “The doorknob opened a cold blue eye and winked” and “One morning the Pope forgot to take her pill” are catchy as all hell, but they are probably responsible for more bad semi-cute openings than any other two sentences I can think of. There’s nothing all that catchy in “Call me Ishmael” or “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times,” but they seem to have accomplished their purpose.

As for improving your hook, read it to anyone who’s willing to listen and see if they want to know what comes next. If they don’t, then you have work to do.

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QUESTION: If you could wave your magic wand and do one thing to save periodical print markets for speculative fiction, what would it be?

ANSWER: I have absolutely no idea, and I’m not going to pretend otherwise. Magazine circulation has been falling precipitously for the past 15 years, and no one seems to know what to do about it.

When we mention magazines, we tend to think of the major ones, which happen to be digests — Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF — and for one brief shining moment, when Science Fiction Age came out, full-sized and filled with color, I thought that this might be the answer. In three months’ time it became the best-selling prozine in the field — but in much less than a decade it was dead and buried due to precipitously declining sales, and while I don’t know the financial picture for its sister magazine, Realms of Fantasy, I know that its circulation is nothing to write home about.

2009 Update: the three digests have continued to decline. Realms of Fantasy died a few months ago, but has been sold to Warren Lapine and will be back in business in another couple of months, though for how long no one can say. It’s still not a healthy field.

2012 update: Realms of Fantasy has been revived twice, and died two, and seems to be permanently dead this time. The digests have discovered e-subscriptions, and I know it’s made the difference between profit and loss for at least Asimov’s.

If the answer was clear, someone would have waved a magic wand before now. I suppose the only thing to do is sell a ton of cut-rate subscriptions and hope a certain percentage of them renew — but F&SF did that during the first couple of years of Kris Rusch’s editorship, and when the cut-rates vanished, the sales figures went back into their downward spiral.

I wish I knew. More to the point, I can think of half a dozen prozine publishers who wish they knew. Warren Lapine is the latest to join the field; maybe he’ll come up with an answer. We can but hope.

Warren’s first attempts went belly-up. His purchase of Realms of Fantasy came some years later.

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QUESTION: Once you’re established and you know you’re going to pretty much sell everything you write, why do you still need an agent?

ANSWER: You may know all the New York editors and publishers, but as this column has mentioned many times, you’ll make even more overseas with a good agent than you make here . . . and it’s almost guaranteed that you won’t make it if you try to keep up with 75 to 100 foreign markets yourself. (Remember: your job is writing, not selling . . . and to the extent you sell, especially difficult-to-contact foreign markets, you cut deeply into your writing time, which is what gives you things to sell in the first place.)

With very few exceptions, writers can’t find every hidden killer clause in a contract that a good agent can find. You probably don’t have any meaningful Hollywood connections without your agent. If you’re not One of the Ones, you can nag publishers for your late payment until the cows come home before you get it, whereas your agent, who probably does represent Some of the Ones, can nag with the unspoken threat that if payment is not received the agency’s Name authors may be offered elsewhere.

Are those enough reasons, or would you like half a dozen more?

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QUESTION: Is there one homogenous audience out there for science fiction, or are there different audiences for SF, fantasy, short stories, and so forth?

ANSWER: There are clearly different audiences. The best example I can give is a personal one. I have been the number 1 or 2 bestselling author at Fictionwise.com — a publisher of electronic reprints — just about every week for the past 3 years, even against such awesome competition as Stephen King and Isaac Asimov. Yet I am definitely not among the half-dozen top sellers at Tor, Bantam, Del Rey, or any other mass market house I’ve sold to lately. Definitely different audiences.

Some top short story writers, who constantly make the Hugo and Nebula ballots, really have to scramble to place their novels at less-than-stellar prices. Some top novelists have trouble placing their short work in major markets.

It’s a combination of taste and perceptions. Fantasy readers want one thing, science fiction readers want another. Paperback readers want one thing; e-readers want another.

That’s probably why we publish more than one work of fiction a year.

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 36 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 41 anthologies. My work has been translated into 26 languages. I am currently the editor of the Stellar Guild line of books, and Galaxy's Edge magazine.
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