Ask Bwana #62

Okay, here we are with a third set of recent questions (and answers, of course) to follow the 59 Ask Bwana columns I’ve run and updated here.

QUESTION: What’s something you think your successful writer proteges are doing right?

ANSWER: I suppose saying “listening to me” isn’t the answer you’re looking for. 🙂 So I’ll say that they’re studying the markets and writing in every spare minute they have — and it must be working. Of the 22 who Hugo winner Maureen McHugh has dubbed “Mike’s Writer Children”, 9 made the Campbell Ballot for Best New Writer — and most of them are still around and still selling. As I’ve pointed out time and again, writers write. People who are never going to make it talk about writing.

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QUESTION: What new material do you have coming out in 2013 and 2014?

ANSWER: That’s always difficult to answer, since lag times vary so much these days, and I’m a relatively fast writer. The books I know for sure will be coming out will be the 4th and final Weird Western, The Doctor and the Dinosaurs; a mystery novel, The Trojan Colt; a co-edited anthology, The Worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs; a collaboration with Eric Flint titled The Gods of Sagittarius; at least one more mystery novel, probably two; the first and possibly second of a new science fiction series from Pyr; and a pair of Stellar Guild team-ups, one with Lezli Robyn and one with Janis Ian. Jack McDevitt and I are also discussing the possibility of another collaboration or two in 2014.

I would imagine I’ll have from 16 to 22 new stories out during that time, in magazines and anthologies, and probably about that many reprints. And of course I’ll be editing 12 issues of Galaxy’s Edge and maybe 10 to 14 Stellar Guild books.

Other than that, and conventions, and workshops, my time is my own. 🙂

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QUESTION: If you had to name some markets that are particularly friendly to new writers trying to break in with short fiction, which ones would they be?

ANSWER: Might as well be totally frank here. There are two reasons why it’s so much tougher for a newcomer to break into print. One — far and away the most common, and usually the only one given — is lack of talent, or at least lack of enough talent to compete successfully against what’s already been submitted and bought.

But there’s a commercial reason as well. Why do anthologies carry more stories by unknowns than, say, the digests do? Simple. An anthology might run 20 or 25 stories, so after it buys maybe 15 or so from “Names” that can be put on the cover and energize a sales staff, the editor can always sneak a few unknowns into the mix. I bought 40 first stories as an anthology editor in the 1990s, more than the three digests combined — but like I say, there’s an economic as well as an artistic reason. If I’m editing a digest, I might run 6 stories in an issue, and every one of those names has to be able to go on the cover and pull in some extra readers. It’s the reason you almost never see a novella by a virtually unknown writer; no editor is going to turn over half his magazine to a name he can’t put on the cover.

All that said, I would recommend the anthology market ahead of the magazine market for short fiction, and the e-magazine market ahead of the paper digests, for just those reasons. It doesn’t mean you’ll never see a new (or newer) writer in F&SF, Asimov’s, or Analog — look at newcomer Brad R. Torgersen, who’s practically a fixture at Analog — but it does mean there are easier venues.

Same holds true for books, where you’re on your own. They can’t bury you between Card and Willis. Your name and your name alone is on the book . . . and nobody knows your name. Again, a truly outstanding first novel will find a home just about anywhere, but for anything less — not a poor novel, but a merely good one — you’ve got the best shot at selling to a publisher who is committed to a large number of books per annum. Check Locus’s annual summary issue, see who the biggest publishers are (in terms of titles, not hits), and at least consider starting there. (The flip side is to sell to a small publisher, who can’t afford the names you have to compete against at a mass market house.)

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QUESTION: I am a new writer who has written half a dozen books, but all I ever get are form rejections from publishers and agents. Other than just writing more books, what can I do to get better odds?

ANSWER: After a handful of form rejections on each of six books, I don’t think writing more books is the answer. You might consider attending the better workshops. You might also consider showing the first couple of chapters to some pro who’s willing to take the time to read and comment on it (no working pro has the time to do this for entire novels, and it would be inconsiderate to ask one). You might try writing some short stories and see if they receive the same response. And at the risk of sounding cold and unfeeling, you might remember that less than one of every hundred wannabe writers sells, and less than out of every thousand ever makes a living at it.

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QUESTION: Are there any things about today’s publishing landscape that you like more, than when you first started?

ANSWER: Right off the bat, I like the money better. You want to know why most category writers held full-time jobs half a century ago, when I broke in? The average paperback went for 25 cents, sometimes half a dollar, and the average paperback royalty rate was 4%. That meant you made either one or two cents per book sold . . . and that meant if you sold 95,000 copies of a 25-cent US paperback, you still hadn’t earned out your munificent $1,000 US advance.

Other things I like?

Computers and e-mail. Saves a lot of postage, and since I’m blind in one eye and make tons of typos, it’s nice to have Spell-Check. It’s also a luxury to edit right on the screen and not endlessly re-type pages.

Conventions. I like to visit with fans (I remain one to this day), and it’s essential that I meet editors. When I first discovered fandom, there was Worldcon, Philcon, Midwestcon, Westercon, and out. Today there are a couple of hundred to choose from . . . and believe me, I don’t think anyone at my first Worldcon (Discon I in 1963, attendance about 500) ever anticipated the 50,000 that regularly attend DragonCon, or ComicCon’s annual 125,000.

A living wage. Consider: in 1971, the all-time record advance for a science fiction paperback was $7,500 US.

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QUESTION: So many people are offering writing workshops right now, either on-line or in-person. Do you think a writing workshop can be of any value to me, as a new writer? If so, which ones?

ANSWER: There are two I recommend. I’ve taught at one (Clarion) and judge the other (Writers of the Future), but my association with them has nothing to do with my recommendation. I base it on which writers they’ve “created” (i.e., taught and set loose in the publishing world), and their records of bestsellers, award winners, and longtime journeyman professionals is unparalleled. Not everyone who wants to be a writer is going to be, but if you’re got the right stuff (the write stuff?) these two venues are better than anyone else at drawing it out of you.

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QUESTION: Are you still a fan of new authors breaking in with short fiction, or are new authors wasting their time with short fiction?

ANSWER: I think what I’ve said is that it’s easier to break in with short fiction. Better is another union. I’ve never suggested that writing anything at any length is a waste of time (at least when compared with not writing it.)

When I was starting out, science fiction was in its final days as a predominantly short fiction field, and the traditional route for getting established was to break in with short fiction, hone your craft, build a reputation, and then move up to novels (and collections, which formed a sizeable percentage of the books published). But these days there are 3 digests, and the field publishes 1,600 new books a year, so even when you include the 15 to 18 e-zines that are paying pro rates (and most have no meaningful, dependable circulation figures), I don’t know that it’s any easier to break in with one type of fiction than another. With this exception: it’s always easier to break in with excellent fiction than with good, and with good than with poor.

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QUESTION: Does the Writers of the Future award carry any weight with magazine or novel editors?

ANSWER: I suppose it depends on the editor – and also on the writer. That’s a cop-out answer, I know — but I find it difficult to believe that Eric Flint or Patrick Rothfuss or Diana Rowland or Dave Wolverton or Stephen Baxter would not have careers if they hadn’t won, though winning was certainly a harbinger of things to come.

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QUESTION: Will there be any more Ask Bwana articles in the future?

ANSWER: As we accumulate enough questions for a new Ask Bwana article we’ll be posting it here. Right now I have one more in press, and after that we’ll be running something else that I think and hope you’ll find every bit as useful. It’ll be announced in the next column.

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QUESTION: Is SFWA worth my 80 dollars a year, if I am an up-and-coming writer?

ANSWER: It’s not the organization it was in the 1960s when it was formed and I joined and everyone in it was a writer. (Today there are over 1,500 members, and I can’t imagine that as many as 100 make a full-time living at it. In fact, if we reinstituted Requalification — sell three short stories or a novel every three years — I imagine we’d be under 350 members by 2016.) Certainly putting “Member — SFWA” doesn’t get you out of most slush piles, including mine.

All that said, there is a reason to join, and that is the Grievance Committee. Unless you’re married to or sibling to a hot-shot contracts and intellectual property lawyer, you can go broke really fast when problems arise. But the Grievance Committee has, very quietly and unobtrusively solved and resolved hundreds of problems — possibly thousands by now — for individual members over the years.

We’ve become pretty much of a social club. We haven’t evaluated contracts or agents in the Forum, our member-only publication, in decades. We haven’t run an audit of any publisher in decades. (We once got our members more than a quarter of a million dollars with an audit of a mass market publisher back in the 1970s). Hell, we — a writers’ advocacy organization — disbanded our Piracy Committee a couple of years ago.

But as long as we have the Grievance Committee, you’ll get your money’s worth twenty times over if you ever need them.

Oh, another reason to join: you’ll get to read The Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues every three months in the SFWA Bulletin.

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QUESTION: You have collaborated with many other writers. What do you think the five biggest mistakes of collaboration are?

ANSWER: The single biggest mistake is beginning before you have decided who gets Final Say.

Other mistakes?

Not deciding on the byline before you begin.

Not discussing the story in detail — both the plot and the approach — before you begin.

Choosing a partner who can’t make the deadline.

Choosing a partner for certain strengths and knowledge before determining for certain that he possesses them.

That’s it for this column. I thought this would be the last before we begin running the ¬Dialogues, but we’ve got enough new questions for one more Ask Bwana. Look for it in another week or two.

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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