Ask Bwana #56

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations — March, 2003

Sooner or later everyone gets an idea for someone else’s universe — a great Barsoom or Pern or Lazarus Long story. No reason why not.

The question is: what do you do with it?

Ordinarily I begin each column with a little essay about some aspect of the field, but this time I’m going to try something else. A very bright fellow on the Resnick Listserv wrote me an open letter there, and suggested that I quote both the letter and my answer in Ask Bwana, that he couldn’t be the only person with this particular question/problem.

So here we go. His questions will be in italics.

Dear Mike,

I realize that your opinion of writing original stories within the framework of another writer’s created universe is less than encouraging, and I tend to agree with most of your arguments on the matter. However, no rule or policy should be absolute, and I see that you yourself have strayed outside of this position on one or more occasions.


My objection is to those people who want to write only in someone else’s universe, and at novel length. I have a collection from Dark Regions Press titled Solo Flights Through Shared Worlds. But in every case, they were short stories that took a few days rather than a few months or years, and, more to the point, in every case I was invited to write them by the copyright holder.

My problem, is with people who slavishly want to use other people’s characters and universes to the exclusion of their own. This bespeaks a certain laziness, as well as a clear and present paucity of imagination. Even the Lara Croft novel I wrote that just came out is not really a shared world book; I’ve never played the game its based on, and I created her weapons, her patterns of speech, her companions, and a plethora of things that writers of the next two Lara Croft books, both assigned, now have to follow.

This, of course, is a matter of taste — mine. I’ve said often enough in print that I’ve never held any kind of writing, from pornography to Star Trek #1,067, against the writer who has to pay his bills. My objection is to the conditions that have created an audience that is so dumbed down that they’d rather read the same thing over and over rather than something new and innovative (and I’ll be damned if I can prove the publishers wrong, based on the sales figures . . . but that doesn’t mean I like it.)

My dilemma comes from an idea which leapt into my head early this morning, as I was reading Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. While jotting down the basic framework of the idea in my notebook, I found myself filling several pages of notes and ideas for a series of stories growing out of one basic premise. These stories explore the social, ethical, religious, and legal ramifications of that premise and climax with the story of the last human in the Galaxy (which, by itself, is hardly a new concept — but the dilemma addressed in that story may be, at least within this context).

It was this final story that first came to me. However, while laying down the background to set the story up, I found that I had stumbled upon a much bigger idea than that one story could hold. I now see a series of connected — but completely independent — stories culminating in a final macro-resolution. Each story would be fully resolved, but the final story would add an additional level of resolution to the series, completing the gestalt.

Now, here is my problem: Yes, I could exert more effort — considerably more, I admit — and make this series completely and totally mine, independent of any of Asimov’s stories or ideas. By doing so, I would have a series of (hopefully) good stories that might even, if I’m both good and lucky, be somewhat memorable. However, much of the bite of the conflict within these stories revolves around Asimov’s famous “Three Laws of Robotics.” To write these stories without using these basic axioms would be to deprive them of much of the weight and impact they would otherwise have. To independently create something equivalent to Asimov’s three laws would not only appear (if not, in fact be) derivative, it would also encumber the action and pacing of the stories.

You can imply the three laws or something very similar without explicitly stating them. Half the science fiction writers alive assume that robots will be imbued with something akin to the three laws, despite the fact that our smart bombs have clearly invalidated them.

This would be like having to build a basis for defining gravity before relying on the interaction of orbital objects. Asimov holds a somewhat Newtonian seat in the fictional depiction of future robotic technology. His concepts — particularly those of the three laws — are so broadly accepted that any future robotic stories that don’t take them into consideration (if only to establish a framework where they don’t apply), does so at the peril of being considered naive or worse.

That’s just not so. Except for the one story I wrote for Foundation’s Friends, where I was obligated to use Isaac’s robots, I have never created a robot that was programmed with the Three Laws. More to the point, some of the great robots in science fiction history — Cliff Simak’s Jenkins, John Sladek’s Roderick, Lester del Rey’s Helen o’ Loy — were not programmed with the three laws. You want a wildly non-Asimovian robot? Try Sheckley’s oversexed vacuum cleaner in “Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?”

I have read dozens of stories which rely upon those “laws” within their own story context, but which show no official endorsement by Isaac, his widow, or any publisher. Whether this implies that the three laws are an “acceptable” conceit in the public domain — like blasters, time travel, or even robots themselves — or whether it just means that some authors are playing fast and loose with Isaac’s intellectual property rights, I have no way of knowing — nor do I really want to wander down that questionable path.

What I would prefer is to get permission to use the “Three Laws of Robotics” (or at least the implied essence of them) within my stories. It would be even nicer (but by no means necessary) to be able to refer to some of Isaac’s specific characters and/or places in the stories to lend them more credence (and, admittedly, to greatly expand their potential market). I would not need to include or manipulate them, but merely use their existence as a richer background, allowing a shorter story to concentrate on the immediacy of the characters and plot.

If you can get it, fine. I’d be willing to wager 50-to-1 you can’t. If they’re going to give permission, it’ll be to an established author, there’ll be a major deal on the table, and the estate will take half the money. Take a look at who has been authorized to write Asimov stories: Greg Benford, Greg Bear, David Brin, Michael Kube-McDowell, and (while Isaac was still alive) Robert Silverberg. You have yet to sell your first science fiction story, a fact that will not be lost on the Guardians of the Franchise.

In other words, I would rather not have to re-invent radio simply to broadcast a few specific programs.

Consider what you just said. Part of being a science fiction writer is to re-invent it in a new way each time out of the box.

And now consider whether you really want to give (at least) half the money away, after humbly begging the copyright holders to turn over a valuable franchise to an unknown writer and hoping they don’t laugh you out of the room. Remember, this isn’t an anthology that they initiate and where you’re one of dozens of writers; you want permission to, in essence, write an Isaac Asimov novel — and given Brin’s, Silverberg’s, and the others track records, it’s almost guaranteed to be a bestseller . . . unless the public perceives that it isn’t as brilliantly-written and carefully-conceived as those books by our best and our brightest, and the franchise dies a painful death. If you were the copyright holder, what decision would you make?

(Hulbert Burroughs, son of Edgar Rice Burroughs, once confided to me that ERB Inc. received about 100 letters a year from earnest — and invariably unpublished — writers who wanted permission to write a Tarzan or Barsoom book, or better still, be officially named as Burroughs’ legal successor. Which is to say: you’re not unique.)

So much for economic considerations. Let me suggest an artistic reason not to write an Asimov book:

You write the book. You must of course submit it to the copyright holders for approval, even before your editor approves it. And they write back and say, “It’s a brilliant piece of work, but Susan Calvin wouldn’t do this, and Robot AL-76 wouldn’t do that, and such-and-so doesn’t exist in Isaac’s universe, so you’ll have to change all these things. Yes, we realize it’ll seriously weaken the story and create tons of extra work for you, but we’re the Sacred Guardians of Isaac’s Universe and we can’t let you make any changes to it . . . especially when we didn’t seek you out, but you came to us.” (This very scenario has happened to more than one Star Trek writer, even writers of enormous talent such as the late George Alec Effinger, who complained long and bitterly to me about it.)

You are theoretically a creative guy who wants to enter a creative field. I think you’ll be happier creating your own universe rather than borrowing someone else’s.

Okay, on to this issue’s questions:

QUESTION: Okay, so Worldcon was horrible, and the industry is in dismal, rotten, awful shape. Why are you making such a big deal about it?

ANSWER: This column is written for the benefit of new professional writers and hopefully soon-to-become-professional writers. What could possibly be more important than a totally honest appraisal of the current state of the field, and a dozen suggestions of alternate-but-not-unrelated markets to help supplement an income that is rarely sufficient for beginners in good times and is even harder to come by these days? Or do you think beginners should ignore what’s going on in the industry where they hope to make all or part of their living? If you were a banker, would you be as disdainful of all information about interest rates? If you were a football player, would you be as cavalier in your ignorance of the kind of defenses you would face?

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QUESTION: Is there anything — besides continuing to work, and being aware of bear traps — that a new or new-ish writer can do to actually help turn things around?

ANSWER: First, be lucky, over which, alas, you have little influence. Second, be better than your competitors—by which I mean, in this instance, be more commercial than your competitors. Third, honestly survey the market and see where you are most likely to fit in—fantasy trilogies, sharecrop books, stand-alone science fiction, collaborative novels, short fiction, whatever. I’m not saying any particular plan is right, but I am saying that you must have a plan. If it doesn’t work, you can always adjust it as you get to know your skills and weaknesses — and the market’s ever-changing needs — better.

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QUESTION: I’m doing a shoestring tour to promote my first novel. (It’s a real book from a real publisher, not a vanity-press job.) Could you please name a few cities or metropolitan areas where I’d be most likely to find readers who’d buy my book?

ANSWER: No, I can’t . . . and Bwana doesn’t fake it when he doesn’t know an answer. There must be a real or imagined market for your book or your publisher wouldn’t have bought it. He should have — and be more than happy to share — some demographics of where your particular type of novel sells best, or at least to whom, so you’ll have some notion of what kind of stores, talk shows, newspaper interviews, whatever, to spend your time on and which aren’t worth the effort. My own guess is that unless you do as thorough a tour as Ray Feist did with as good and commercial a first novel as Magician, you’re better off letting your publisher do the promotion while you sit down and go to work on your next book.

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QUESTION: What’s the absolute longest you’re willing to wait between a sale and publication of a short story?

ANSWER: It depends on the contract. Most stipulate publication within 24 months or the story reverts to you and the money stays with you. Every now and then there are unavoidable delays; then it’s up to you whether to pull the story or not. If you do, there could be consequences the next time you want to sell that editor or publisher; if you don’t, you could have a fine story held in limbo for an unconscionable length of time. It has to be your call.

(And there are compromises. I currently have three stories that have been in press for more than 2 years, all with anthologies that have been delayed. I haven’t — and won’t — pull the stories, but I informed the editors that since the 24 months are up, I was selling each to a totally different medium: 2 went to Fictionwise.com, the electric publisher, and one went to an audio publisher. In each case, the editor who commissioned it will still oversee the first print publication, in each case it was clearly them and not I who was in breach of contract, and in each case these editors were old friends I had dealt with before. And yes, there are certain circumstances under which I’d just grin and bear it and wait. And wait. And wait.)

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QUESTION: Every year around this time I find myself writing a holiday-themed short story or two, and every year it’s too late to send it out. Am I doomed to trunk every one of these things, or is there some time frame when I should be submitting them? Do major markets ever accept holiday-themed stories from new writers?

ANSWER: You seem to be laboring under the delusion that Christmas not only comes but once a year but once an eternity as well. If you finish your story too late for this year’s Christmas (or Easter, or Thanksgiving, or St. Vitus Dance Day) issue, what is wrong with submitting it for next year’s? Magazine lag time being what it is, most of the prozine editors, if they buy seasonal stories, will want an 8-to-11-month lead time anyway. (Okay, 5 or 6 months if your name is Willis or Haldeman.)

Do major markets ever accept holiday-based stories from new writers? If they accept anything from new writers, then why not holiday stories? I know of no stricture against it. Just write a better one than the few hundred holiday-story submissions you’ll be competing against.

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QUESTION: I’m a senior in high school and my Honors English teacher says I am wasting my time and talent by writing science fiction. (No sales yet, but I am only submitting to professional print markets and am getting some very encouraging personalized rejects.) How badly will a track record of selling genre fiction actually hurt my reputation as a “literary” author, should I choose to go that way in the future? And: am I wasting my time and talent in that Honors English class?

ANSWER: Stephen King has written science fiction on occasion, but he’s not a science fiction writer. He gets about $20 million a book. Dean R. Koontz got his start in science fiction, wrote halves of some old Ace Doubles, but he’s clearly not a science fiction writer. He gets about $10 million a book. Kurt Vonnegut got his start in science fiction and probably still writes it, but he’s convinced the world he doesn’t have anything to do with science fiction, and he’s one of the darlings of the New York Literary Establishment. And so on.

These days no good writer gets hamstrung by being defined as a writer of science fiction or anything else. Chip Delany and Ursula Le Guin are worshiped by the academics. Ray Bradbury and Raymond Chandler are accepted as two of the greatest American literary artists of the 20th Century. Louis L’Amour, our foremost writer of Westerns, has had better than 20 Ph.D. theses written about his work.

There is no longer any stigma in being a category writer, and to be honest, these days — even in this horrible down market — the average category writer out-earns the average mainstream writer. And the average non-category literary writer qualifies for food stamps and probably welfare.

Finally: No, you’re not wasting your time in your Honors Class. How are you going to write about self-important but very ordinary middlebrow people if you don’t learn how they think?

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QUESTION: A month ago my second novel — the middle book of a trilogy — was published, and it didn’t do nearly as well as the first book. My agent is giving me vague non-answers about when (or if) the third book will be published. What should I do now?

ANSWER: This is a phony question, because there’s no way you’d know how your novel’s selling after just a month. But it’s an interesting question, so let’s pretend it’s legitimate:

What should you do now, you ask? The first thing you should do is give me the necessary information. In this case, it’s: Did you sign a contract for the third book? I assume from the wording of your letter that it’s written. If it’s paid for, yes, sooner or later they’ll publish it. If it’s not sold, then the first thing to do is get a straight answer from your agent or get a new agent.

(No, I’m not saying to fire an agent who can’t sell your book; an agent can get a quicker read and perhaps a better contract, but he can’t sell an unsaleable book. I’m saying to fire an agent who won’t give you an honest answer about your book or your career. If you can’t talk to your agent, if he won’t answer you or give you a valid reason for not doing what you request, then it’s not a viable business relationship and it’s time to end it.)

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QUESTION: Is genre fiction still a white male domain? If not, why does the population of professional SF writers seem to be so very white and male?

ANSWER: No, of course it isn’t. Romance is literally 50% of the fiction market, and it’s dominated by women. Mysteries? From Dame Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers right down to Sue Grafton and half a dozen other bestsellers, women are doing just fine in mysteries.

As for science fiction, here’s my answer: Willis. Kress. Bujold. Lackey. McCaffrey. Kerr. Tarr. Norton. Bradley. Cadigan. Cherryh. Lee. Rawn. Roberson. Goonan. Matthews. Kenyon. Atwood. Hopkinson, Ian, Fowler. Czerneda. Sagara. Emshwiller. Hambly. Rusch. Asaro. McGarry. Moon. Arnason. Butler. Baker. Klages. Friesner. Sherman. Shwartz. McHugh. My daughter. Okay, that’s what I came up with in 90 seconds by the wall clock over my desk. You want to reconsider the question?

As for race, there you have me. We have a handful of black writers — Chip Delany, Steve Barnes, Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, a few others (and I guess we can add Walter Mosley to the mix now) — but we fall far short of the demographics of the nation at large, and I’ll be damned if I know why. There seems to be the same disproportion of whites to blacks among fans . . . or at least at conventions.

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QUESTION: Do fix-up novels — three or four linked novelettes, previously published in magazines — typically do well?

ANSWER: Some of the greatest category novels were fix-up novels, because there was no novel market when they were written. Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy comes to mind — and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, one of our modern classics, was a fix-up. My own Kirinyaga was a fix-up. Hell, if you’re looking for successful fix-ups, you can go back more than 80 years to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot, which is still in print. How well they do depends on the quality of the books. They have an advantage in that they’ve built an audience before they reach book form, and they have a disadvantage in that a certain percentage of readers will not buy the book because they’ve already read the constituent parts.

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QUESTION: How do you feel about Amazon.com’s Search Inside The Book feature? Are you aware that your book The Return of Santiago has been scanned, uploaded, and is freely available to be read in its entirety on Amazon.com? (To see this, find the book on Amazon, click “Search Inside This Book,” and enjoy. Search Inside This Book is only supposed to return five pages, but guess what: if you search The Return of Santiago for the word “resnick,” 205 hits pop up, one for each even-numbered page.)

ANSWER: I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I like the fact that Amazon is a huge market for my books that didn’t exist a decade ago (or however long it’s been in business), and I like the fact that the potential reader can get a snippet of the book online. On the other hand, of course I don’t want the reader to be able to read the whole thing for free, which would certainly seem to be counter-productive from Amazon’s point of view. I’d prefer they used Fictionwise’s approach — make most of the first chapter available free online for novels, or the first 2 or 3 pages for short stories — but obviously that’s not what they’re doing.

The operative question really is: would you rather they didn’t sell your books at all than allow “Search Inside This Book” in its current form, and the answer is that I simply don’t have enough information to give you an intelligent response. I know SFWA and a number of national writers groups are looking into it (and some are screaming like stuck pigs, which is not helping to establish a dialog), and I’m content to wait for their findings and conclusions.

Interesting 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 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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