Ask Bwana #1

Personal note: it’s been roughly two decades since I started doing these Ask Bwana articles. It was recently suggested to me that Ask Bwana, which had previously been re-published over at the Baen’s Bar — during my tenure as editor for Jim Baen’s Universe magazine — would be an excellent feature here on my own web page. I am therefore proud to re-release these for general public consumption. I’ll be doing one a week, all the way from 1 to 59. Enjoy. If you’re an aspiring writer, I hope they teach you something about this crazy business which has been my livelihood for so many years. If you’re a fan, I hope they teach you something about this crazy business which has been my livelihood for so many years. (g) If you feel the urge to say thank you, please stop by my e-book shop and do some browsing and buying!

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NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #1 — Jan, 1995

I suppose, this being the first of a projected series of columns, I ought to explain both the intent and the title.

The latter first. Either because of my numerous trips to Africa or my various books and stories about it, I’ve picked up the nickname of “Bwana” on the computer networks. And, since all the questions, at least for the first issue or two, are coming via modem, your Speculations editors saw fit to give the column its title.

As for the column itself: I’ve been buying stories from beginners, and trying to educate them via the networks, for years, and this is simply an extension of what I do in the wee small hours when I’m hiding from my manuscript. (It never thinks to look for me at the keyboard.)

Now, I’m not in control of what questions show up here — but based on the first batch, I have to point out that two-thirds of them ask me about my work habits and tastes, which should prove absolutely useless to anyone not named Resnick. However, all I can do is answer what’s been asked, so here goes:

QUESTION: Do you write every day? How many hours?

ANSWER: Not if I can help it. You need to get away from time to time to refresh what Poirot calls, “the little grey cells.” Or, at least, I do. When I’m working on a novel, I tend to write maybe five nights a week, from maybe 10:00 PM to 5:00 AM, when no one is around to disturb me. I try to do a chapter at a sitting, a short story at a sitting, a novelette at 2 sittings, a novella in a week. I must, at this juncture, point out that I’m one of the fastest writers around, second in speed only perhaps to Barry Malzberg or the youthful Robert Silverberg, and that you should in no way feel you’re working too slowly if you can’t knock off 15 or 20 saleable pages a day.

There’s only one time I break this routine, and that’s when I reach the final stages of a novel. When I begin, I’m immortal . . . but when I’m within 75 pages of the end, I realize that I could wrap my car around a tree the next time I go out and they might farm out the rest of the book to this generation’s Lin Carter or Lionel Fanthorpe, so at that point I write almost around the clock, hardly sleeping, taking all my meals in my office, until the book is done. Then I’m immortal again, until I’m close to finishing the next one.

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QUESTION: How long does it take you to finish a book?

ANSWER: As I get older and gravity catches up with me, it seems to take longer and longer. It used to be rare for me to take more than 6 or 7 weeks to knock off a novel. These days they average 4 to 6 months apiece — though I should point out that I may write as many as 10 short stories while I’m writing the novel, and most of my recent novels are 100,000-worders, where they used to average maybe 70,000 words.

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QUESTION: How much time do you have to review and return galleys?

ANSWER: Never enough. Publishers’ claims to the contrary, you rarely get the oft-quoted 3 weeks. 3 to 7 days’ turnaround is much more the rule than the exception.

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QUESTION: When did you decide to write?

ANSWER: Long before I was 10. Both of my parents were writers (my Campbell-winning daughter, Laura, is the 3rd generation of Resnick writers). I sold my first article at 15, my first short story at 17, my first book at 19.

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QUESTION: Why do you write?

ANSWER: The pragmatic answers first: I’m good at it, and I make a handsome living from it.

Now the real answer — I write because I love to write, even more than I love having written, and I live in constant fear that my editors will someday figure out that I’d write for free if they stopped paying me.

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QUESTION: What made you choose science fiction as a field?

ANSWER: Initially, because it was what I enjoyed reading. Later, because it plays to my strengths; I tend to tell moral parables, and with all time and space to play with, there is no story or parable I can’t tell in science fiction. Most recently, because it’s the one field in which the short story is still alive and well.

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QUESTION: Who do you think had the greatest influence on the field?

ANSWER: Among the editors, obviously John Campbell. Among the writers, Olaf Stapledon, from whom 95% of all science fiction writers of the past 75 years have cribbed, knowingly or (far more often) unknowingly.

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QUESTION: What living writer do you enjoy reading the most?

ANSWER: Within the SF field, Barry Malzberg and James White. Beyond it, Edward Whittemore. (Mike’s note: all 3 were alive when I wrote this; only Malzberg is still with us.)

Might as well go whole-hog: the best SF novel of all time is Stapledon’s Star Maker, the best American novel of the 20th Century is Catch-22, the best American novel ever is Melville’s Moby Dick, and the best novel of all is Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ.

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QUESTION: What stories first interested you in science fiction?

ANSWER: Easy answer. One day, when I was quite young, my mother found me reading a gore-drenched EC horror comic and took it away from me. I wasn’t so young that I didn’t protest this censorship, and she relented to a degree: I could buy any horror book I wanted, but no more horror comic books. I’m sure she thought I’d go out and get a copy of Frankenstein, which remains to this day all-but-unreadable, but instead I took 25 cents and bought the first “horror” title I could find . . . which happened to be Groff Conklin’s Science Fiction Terror Tales. I read Bradbury’s “The Veldt” and Matheson’s “Born of Man and Woman,” and I’ve been hooked ever since. (Yeah, she hated science ficton too, but a deal was a deal.)

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QUESTION: What writers would you recommend that new writers read to get a feel for the field?

ANSWER: Tricky question, since this field probably requires more knowledge on the part of its practitioners than any other. If you’re totally ignorant of what science fiction is all about, by all means read Heinlein’s and Asimov’s and Bradbury’s early stuff—but then, if you’re totally ignorant of the field, why do you want to write sf in the first place?

So let’s assume you have a working knowledge of SF — I mean, hell, how would you have found this column without it? — and we’ll proceed from there. The thing to do is to determine which writers are at the full flush of their literary powers, and, additionally, are not flashes in the pan but are here to stay. I wouldn’t urge you to imitate any of them, just to read a fair cross-section and make sure that what you want to do doesn’t fall outside the envelope that each of them is pushing in his/her own way.

Okay, some names: Connie Willis. Kim Stanley Robinson. Lois McMaster Bujold. Nancy Kress. George Alec Effinger. William Gibson. Pat Cadigan. Lisa Goldstein. Ursula K. Le Guin. Maureen McHugh. Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Geoffrey A. Landis. Orson Scott Card. Bruce Sterling. Terry Bisson. Maybe even me. And no, the list does not purport to be complete.

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QUESTION: Where do your ideas come from?

ANSWER: They come from everywhere I’ve been, everything I’ve seen, everything I’ve read and felt and experienced. As they do with all writers.

I can give you some specifics, but they won’t help you.

Paradise was a science fictional allegory of Kenya’s history, past, present, and a bit of its future, based on my observations during four trips there and my reading tons of literature about it. This led to Purgatory (Zimbabwe) and Inferno (Uganda).

Stalking The Unicorn came about when I heard someone, I think it might have been Bob Silverberg, use the term “elf-and-unicorn book” as a pejorative, and I decided to see if I could write a book with an elf and a unicorn that people I respected wouldn’t sneer at.

Sideshow was written after I’d seen both the theatrical and movie versions of The Elephant Man. This got me interested in reading about Joseph “John” Merrick — the Elephant Man — and I finally came across his biography, and found something so unusual, so aberrant, that they left it out of both the movie and the play because there was no way an audience would buy it. It seems that the carnival owner, the man who knew full well that Merrick was a sensitive and artistic soul but treated him like an animal for more than a decade, came by the hospital where Merrick had found sanctuary. He was dead broke, and asked Merrick to come on tour with him until he put together a grubstake. Sir Frederick Treves and all the other hospital staff assured Merrick he didn’t have to go — and yet Merrick did go back on exhibition, touring the freak shows of Europe all summer before returning to the hospital to die. And I couldn’t stop wondering: what hidden virtues were in that man to make Merrick willingly humiliate and endanger himself when he could have refused? It occurred to me that both the movie and the play had addressed the wrong story, so I sat down and wrote Sideshow, about the bond that develops between some harmless alien tourists and the carny owner who kidnaps them and puts them on display while keeping them as prisoners.

My two Hugo winners were even easier. When I sat down to write “Kirinyaga,” I knew I needed a Kikuyu practice that citizens of the West would find totally offensive, so that Koriba, the fanatical witch doctor who narrates the stories, could defend it . . . and the most onerous practice I could find was the one that says a baby born feet first is a demon and must be put to death. For “The Manamouki,” it was even easier: I heard the word, asked what it meant, was told, and promptly wrote the story. (If you haven’t read it, “Manamouki” is the closest you can come to saying “woman” in Swahili; what it actually means is “female property,” and it applies equally to women, mares, bitches, sows, and ewes.)

The Branch came about because I had a broken chair when I lived in Libertyville, Illinois. I took it in to get it repaired, and was confronted by a shawl-wearing Orthodox Jew who got furious at me for some reason — maybe I was gnawing on a ham sandwich at the time; I honestly can’t remember. At any rate, he started pointing out how all the non-pious Jews, of which I was a prime example, would suffer when the true Messiah finally arrived. I was trying my best to be pleasant, since he was the only antique furniture repairman I could find in the phone book, so I suggested that things were looking up for him, since he was in excellent health and there was doubtless a very good chance that he’d live to see the Messiah and would he please give me a receipt for the chair? His eyes widened, his pupils dilated, and he explained to me that while he planned to live a long and happy life, he much preferred to be dead before the Messiah came, for — and he quoted chapter and verse to me — the Messiah of the Old Testament was not a prince of peace, but would come with sword and the fire to destroy civilization before building his new kingdom in Jerusalem. And suddenly, instead of mollifying him, I began questioning him in earnest, and that night I began writing The Branch, the story of the true Jewish Messiah, who shows up about a century from now.

Okay, I can’t imagine you can learn anything specific from my experiences and insights, but I suppose there is one general thing to be learned, which is that stories are everywhere once you train yourself to look for them.

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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2 Responses to Ask Bwana #1

  1. Thanks for posting the series again. I missed it before and am glad to be getting in on this go-round. I’m a late bloomer :)

    • Mike says:

      The series ran for 12 years, but was pretty much done by the time e-books and e-publishing were meaningful, so when Baen’s Bar re-ran it a couple of years ago I updated a number of my answers. There is, for example, a HUGE difference between self-publishing when you shell out thousands to the printer, and when you list it at Amazon and elsewhere for no cost and 70% royalties. :-)

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