Ask Bwana #57

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

Along with this column, I also co-author a column, “The Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues,” for every issue of the SFWA Bulletin. Most of the subject matter is aimed at the professionals who make up the organization, but occasionally we address issues that I think would be of use to readers of “Ask Bwana” as well.

2012 Update: Still going strong. We just handed in our 60rd column.

I’ve been a writer for 40 years. I was an editor for a number of years back in the 1960s and 1970s, I’ve edited a ton of anthologies the past dozen years, and now I’m editing a line of science fiction again. And to round it off, I was a mass market publisher — not in science fiction — for a couple of years as well.

So I think I know what each side owes the other in terms of professional behavior, and since it’s a subject I haven’t addressed directly in this column, I thought I might borrow what I had to say about it from the Bulletin.

I’m going to start with the minimal professionalism a writer owes his editor and publisher:

1. He owes them the best writing of which he is capable, whether he likes the assignment or not.

2. He owes them a professional manuscript, which is to say, one that has been proofread and corrected. After all, if a writer shows contempt for his work by not going over it and correcting it before handing it in, why should an editor treat it with any greater respect?

3. He owes them an honest effort to meet his deadline.

4. In this day and age, he owes them a computer copy in a common, readable format, especially with shorter-than-booklength works. Since most business correspondence is now carried on through e-mail, he owes it to them to check his e-mailbox frequently, respond promptly, and to have a computer and system that is compatible with most other systems.

5. He owes them civil behavior.

6. He owes them a fast, competent turnaround when proofreading galleys.

7. He owes them whatever small extras are requested to promote the book or story, from having an autograph session at a convention to supplying a photo or brief bio for the dust jacket or introductory material.

And what is the minimum owed the writer by his editor and publisher?

1. An honest appraisal of his work when it is delivered. (That would seem to be an absolute given, but we’ve all seen what happens to orphaned books after inter-office wars.)

2. A prompt reading and a prompt decision.

3. Prompt pay.

4. Prompt and honest royalty statements on books.

5. An honest effort to promote the book or story to the best of the editor’s and publisher’s ability.

6. A caring handling of the material, by which I mean a good and competent copy editor (they’re hard to find and always to be cherished when found), an artist who will do justice to the work, ample amounts of time to read the copy-edited manuscript and the galleys.

7. Prompt delivery of the author’s copies.

8. A willingness to share, if not all reviews (some books get hundreds), at least all major ones.

9. Civil behavior.

This is Bwana again. I wrote the above a year ago, and see no reason to change or alter it. You cannot control anyone’s behavior but your own, but I find if you behave in a professional manner, you’ll usually receive professional treatment in return.

Okay, on to this issue’s questions:

QUESTION: I am reading about a French writer who swears he invented the cute little clownfish who went on to star in Disney/Pixar’s “Finding Nemo.” It doesn’t look to me like this particular guy’s got a prayer, but what should a writer do if he finds himself in a similar situation? To be specific: you’ve had something in print — or in a case more likely to apply to your readers, trunked it after multiple rejections — and then the movie version comes out. What now?

ANSWER: The situation you describe is about as likely to occur as the Cincinnati Bengals winning back-to-back Super Bowls, or maybe Catherine Zeta-Jones hitting on me. However, to answer your question: there are certain things you cannot copyright or protect: a title, a name, various other things. (Example: there was recently a movie, a science fiction movie at that, in which the hero was named Sebastian Cain — which happens to be the name of the protagonist of Santiago, a novel I sold in 1984 and which saw print in 1986. Not a damned thing I could do about it, even if I’d wanted to.)

If you have a wildly unique plot point you want to protect — the term for it is the “McGuffin” — the best way to go about it is to write up an outline, call it a screen treatment, and pay $20.00 US to register it with the Writers Guild West. That protects it for five years, renewable for another $20 US. It won’t stop people from using it, it won’t guarantee you’ll win a lawsuit — but it’ll be proof that your idea for your unsold story preceded the movie by X years, which will impress some judges and bore others. (And of course if you have sold your story/novel/whatever, that’s proof enough in terms of what came first. In terms of proving plagiarism, that’s a lot harder. And infinitely more expensive.)


QUESTION: I write under multiple pen names in different markets, some of which I’d prefer my family and employer not discover that I work in. Is there any way I can “register” one or more of those pseudonyms so only I can use them?

ANSWER: You should probably ask a lawyer rather than Bwana. My guess is that you can’t protect it unless it’s a trademarked “name” like, say, Ann Landers (which of course wasn’t her real name). It can get confusing. I just saw a work-for-hire book from TOR by James White, which was surprising because I know my friend James White, author of the Sector General books and a TOR author toward the end of his life, died a few years ago from complications of diabetes. The copyright was well after Jim’s death, and it was clear that this is a different James White. I’ve no doubt that that’s his name. If you can’t protect the original James White’s real name, I don’t really see how you can protect your false names. But as I say, that’s just a common-sense answer, and the law doesn’t always have much to do with common sense, so it would be best to ask a lawyer.

I do have a question, though. You write pornography for two years as Lamont Cranston. You quit. A month later I’m writing porn as Lamont Cranston. We live 2,300 miles apart and have never met. If your employer and family didn’t know you were writing as Cranston, how can my writing as Cranston negatively affect your situation?


QUESTION: When someone e-mails you with a copyright question that you’ve answered a hundred times before, is there an online resource you point out? If so, where is it?

ANSWER: I’m sure there is, but I don’t know where it’s located. If I don’t know an answer, I contact an editor or writer more knowledgeable on a given subject than myself and ask, and then relay the answer through the column.


QUESTION: What’s the current wisdom on simultaneous submissions? Just a flat No? Or is it different for different situations . . . does it make more sense, for instance, for a newbie to simultaneously submit his novel while waiting for responses on short stories? How about simultaneous queries to agents?

ANSWER: I’ve addressed this a few times. My answer is never popular with editors, and is frequently misinterpreted by writers, but I’m willing to give it another shot.

Editors request that you don’t make simultaneous submissions. As far as I’m concerned, this constitutes a verbal contract. What you bring is a promise not to submit simultaneously; what they bring is a promise to read your story and make a decision on it in a timely manner in exchange for your keeping it off the market. If they fulfill their end of the bargain, you have an obligation to fulfill your end — but when they break their end, when they hold a story for 6 or 8 or 10 months, or a novel for a year or more, you are no longer under any moral or legal obligation to keep your end of the bargain unilaterally.

Now, in practical rather than ethical terms, the likelihood of two major markets buying the same story from a beginner are so remote that there’s probably no harm in simultaneously submitting. Just know that if God drops everything else and you do get two offers, you’re going to have one very pissed-off editor on your hands, which is not a good situation for any writer and especially for a beginner. Dope out the odds, check your ethical compass, and make your decision.


QUESTION: Please list the top X number — you, as usual, supply the X — of mistakes a first-time novelist can make.

ANSWER: The biggest mistake is writing an inferior novel, one that isn’t competitive in the market place. The second biggest mistake is sending it in. The third biggest mistake — maybe even the biggest — is placing it with a minor-league house where it practically screams “Unable to sell to mass market!” to all knowledgeable observers.

But okay, let’s assume the novel is saleable. Now the biggest mistake is submitting it in amateurish form — pages unnumbered, red ink on yellow paper, single-spaced, written on both sides of each sheet, not proofread, the whole nine yards of clueless beginner mistakes. The next biggest blunder, and one that’s made all too often, is sending it to the wrong market; a first-time novelist probably doesn’t have an agent, which means that book is going to languish in a slush pile for close to a year, and if it’s the wrong slush pile . . . well, as I’ve stated here quite often, Time is a writer’s one irreplaceable commodity. The third biggest mistake these days would be trying to sell a 60,000-worder.


QUESTION: Which would be harder for a neo-pro to sell, a novel or a screenplay?

ANSWER: A screenplay is harder for a neo-pro, a pro, or a superstar to sell. By a magnitude of better than 100-to-1. Just look at how many novels get sold in a year compared to how many screenplays.


QUESTION: I’m looking at the list of awards you’ve won and been nominated for, and all I can say is . . . wow! At this stage in your career, do you have any major professional goals left to achieve? Any serious regrets? If so, can you please share them?

ANSWER: You always have professional goals left to achieve, and if you’re at all passionate about your writing, your foremost goal should be to improve on whatever you’ve done before. The only answer a truly dedicated writer has to: “What are your best books (or stories)?” is “My second best is the one I’m writing now, and my best is the one I’ll be writing next.”

And that, of course, is my goal. I know what I think are the ten best novels and stories I’ve written. I would love to end my career with every last one of them replaced on my Top Ten list.

Regrets? Sure. We all have regrets. My biggest one is that I hacked out three very mediocre science fiction novels in the late 1960s and was unfortunate enough to sell them all. I stayed away from the field for more than a decade to give everyone time to forget them, but they still come back to haunt me at almost every autograph session.

My other major regret is that I didn’t start writing short stories sooner. (I had written and sold 7 prior to 1984. I’ve sold maybe 175 since then, and found that I actually prefer them to novels. They don’t begin to pay the bills — my creditors have expensive tastes — but they keep my name in front of the public between books, and they are personally very satisfying to write.)

2009 Update: Up to well over 200 short stories now.

2012 Update: 250 and counting.


QUESTION: I’ve been trying to put an explicit sex scene into a science fiction story I’m working on. I feel very uncomfortable doing it, and it reads like the author was horribly embarrassed, which isn’t too far from the truth. How do I overcome my inhibitions?

ANSWER: Any writer can tell you how to write a sex scene. I think only a psychologist can tell you how to overcome your inhibitions. As long as you have them, I’d advise against writing any sex scene when a detailed description isn’t essential to the plot. Why put yourself through the discomfort, especially since the final product is obviously not going to be to your liking?


QUESTION: Follow-up to above. I think one of the things that makes me uncomfortable is that every time I describe the scene, I think that every reader will say, “So that’s what she does in bed with her husband!” Have you ever felt that way?

ANSWER: You know, when I was just starting out, that notion crossed my mind more than once. My first thought was: I’ll do such a kinky scene they’ll know I’m not describing my wife and myself. My second thought was: they’ll believe it, and I don’t feel like being stared at everywhere I go.

I overcame the inhibitions in a unique way. I made my living writing in the sex field for 11 years. Under pseudonyms. You get inured awfully fast. I was sick of writing sex scenes three days into my career, I got it all out of my system, and in the past three decades I have written only those sex scenes that were absolutely essential either to the plot or the character development.

And no, I don’t expect my answer to help you. Sorry about that.


QUESTION: How much should I be making for fact-based articles and introductions, printed in professional genre markets? They never seem to list their pay rates for nonfiction . . . and it usually turns out to be less.

ANSWER: There’s no set price for introductions. If a friend asks you to write an introduction to his collection, you will take a stipend from the publisher if offered one — but if not, you’ll probably do for free it out of friendship, or as a professional courtesy. If an editor makes the request because he thinks your name on the cover will enhance the book’s sales, then you’ll negotiate a price before you agree to write it. To a great extent the price will depend on the market; you wouldn’t expect Golden Gryphon Press or Arkham House to offer as much as Bantam or Tor, so it’s a matter of what you are willing to accept for your work.

As for articles, you don’t write them — or at least you don’t submit them — if a market doesn’t exist. And if a market does exist, then you know on the front end what they pay, and you are either willing to write for those rates or you don’t submit to that market.


QUESTION: Please define the term “New Wave,” as it applies to speculative fiction, and tell us whether it was really as big of a deal as the historians make it out to be.

ANSWER: The New Wave was a literary movement that was, and is, difficult to define because it was so diffuse. In general (but there are dozens of fine examples to the contrary) it gave up outer space for inner space, intricacy of plot for depth of character, and bare-bones prose for felicity of expression. Science was no longer of prime importance, unhappy endings were quite common, and the Competent Man was no longer revered, which must have had Hugo Gernsback spinning in his grave and John Campbell cursing in his sleep. It tended to view traditional science fiction with contempt, sought to replace it with the “new thing,” and wanted to merge with the mainstream.

Now, it’s true that Ray Bradbury and Fritz Leiber were creating literary Art two decades or more ahead of the New Wave, and Alfred Bester was writing New Wave books and stories before there was a New Wave, but it really began as a literary movement in the pages of the British magazine, New Worlds. Just as John Campbell was the editor who dragged science fiction, kicking and screaming, into the mid-20th Century and Robert A. Heinlein was his primary tool, Mike Moorcock was the editor who gave the New Wave a home, and J. G. Ballard was its exemplar. Judith Merril discovered it a little later and began importing it and pushing it here in her Best of the Year anthologies, and then Harlan Ellison became its primary spokesman and put his effort where his arguments were with the Dangerous Visions anthologies.

Most of the New Wave, like most cyberpunk and most other experimentation and innovation, didn’t sell all that well. It certainly never threatened Heinlein’s, Asimov’s, Clarke’s, or Bradbury’s positions atop the field. At various times a number of writers were labeled New Wave writers — Silverberg, Spinrad, Dick, Delany, Malzberg, Ellison, Disch, Zelazny, many others — and most of them denied it. Eventually most of the New Wave went the way of the dodo, and its best innovations stuck around and became part and parcel of what you read today, which is as it should be.

What separates the New Wave from other movements was the vitriol and bitterness that existed between practitioners of the New Wave and the Old Wave. Clifford D. Simak, surely the sweetest man ever to grace the field, spent the bulk of his 1971 Worldcon Guest of Honor speech fruitlessly trying to make peace between the two sides. Cyberpunk, slipstream, all the other innovations have had their passionate supporters and detractors, but nothing in the history of the field ever caused the widescale animosity that the New Wave did.


QUESTION: What is a “reserve against returns”?

ANSWER: It’s an accounting procedure, frequently abused these days, that is used by publishers.

Theoretically every book that hasn’t been pulped or returned is sold, or at least potentially sold. But since everyone knows some of those books are going to be returned unsold, the publisher is understandably reluctant to pay royalties of every book that hasn’t yet come back to him.

Therefore, he holds back a “reserve against returns”; in other words, he keeps back some money against the likelihood that not every book currently in distribution is going to sell.

Perfectly reasonable. The industry standard for reserve against returns used to be 23% on the first royalty statement, less on the second, and nothing thereafter. These days some publishers, who are clearly not going to pass through the eye of a needle or anywhere else, have the audacity to hold back 70% and even more, not just for one royalty period but for two years.

Just one more example — not that we needed it — of a good program gone bad.


QUESTION: I’m an obsessive manuscript-polisher and I need to stop. How do you know when a piece of work—story or novel—is done?

ANSWER: There are two answers, both equally valid. One is that it’s done when it’s saleable. The other is that it’s never done.

Concerning the former: there is a law of diminishing returns if you are writing for a living. For example, if a market pays a dime a word and you totally rewrite the story, suddenly you’re getting a nickel a word for the number of words you’ve written and the time you’ve invested. Rewrite it twice and you’re getting less than three and a half cents a word. And so on.

Concerning the latter: writing isn’t like sports. You don’t reach your peak at 19 or 27 or 31 and go downhill from that point on. You, theoretically at least, get better every day of your life. So any time you look at a story you’ve done, even an award winner, you can always find small, subtle, but meaningful ways to improve it. If you can’t, it’s time to hang it up and take up fly fishing.

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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