Ask Bwana #5

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 #5 — Sept, 1995

Before we start, I want to set the record straight about an answer I gave in last issue’s column. Someone wrote in and asked me what I thought of Algis Budrys’ 7-point plot formula as outlined by Bridget McKenna in Speculations #2. I dutifully read her article and commented that I don’t believe in formulas, that I think they stifle creativity. I still hold by that.

But since that last issue came out, I’ve had a chance to read Budrys’ booklet, and I would argue that he’s not trying to sell you on a formula, but is merely describing a process. Which makes sense: Algis is too good a writer, too good an editor, and too good a teacher to pretend there’s a magic formula that will turn you into another Algis Budrys.

Onward: Bob Silverberg has an interesting article in the October Asimov’s in which he argues that the audience for good science fiction is aging — and that they’re being replaced by kids who are only interested in television and games spinoffs. I agree with him down the line, and would only add that, based on every objective criterion we have, the kids out there are getting dumber every year. So much so that Political Correctness has raised its ugly head once again, and it seems that a score of 700 on one’s SATs, circa 1995, will magically become a score of 900 in 1997, simply so our kids don’t feel inferior.

There’s an alternative, you know: We could educate them better. Not only would they then have a reason not to feel inferior, but they might even become interested in science fiction that doesn’t feature cute robots, ill-mannered princesses, and guys with pointy ears.

Okay, on to this month’s questions.

QUESTION: Okay, I realize I might not actually need an agent at this point in my career. But if I find a good one who’s willing to take me on, what could be the harm?

ANSWER: No harm at all. But without some serious arm-twisting from a friend who’s already a member of that agent’s stable, it’s an oxymoron: with no book credits and no awards, a good one won’t be willing to take you on, and you don’t want the other kind.

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QUESTION: Lately I’m reading a bunch of arguments about the merits of so-called “interactive fiction.” Given that it would probably be harder to write — more endings, more possible plot twists, and different thematic resolutions — what’s so awful about letting the reader control where the story goes?

ANSWER: Oh, I dunno. Following that same line of thought, what’s so awful about letting the passenger get into the cockpit and fly the plane? Why shouldn’t the avid ringsider get into a pair of trunks and duke it out with Mike Tyson?

Pay close attention now: You write the stories because, in theory, you’re better at it than the readers. If you aren’t, then there are a lot of other honorable ways to make a living.

I think interactive fiction is a sellout by the writer, and strongly contributes to the dumbing down of America. For a much longer and better answer, I refer you to an article written by Charles Platt for the legendary Science Fiction Review, entitled “The Fiction They Deserve.”

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QUESTION: Do you think books will be replaced by some kind of electronic media? If so, how soon? Should I be worrying that much about electronic and “other” rights clauses in my contracts?

ANSWER: Almost certainly they will be. Almost certainly it won’t be soon. I haven’t seen anyone taking a CD-ROM book to the beach yet, and sand can play hell with your disk drives.

Still, you should be giving serious thought to the electronic rights (and similar) clauses in your contracts. The day the term “electronic rights” was codified, every publisher in the field predictably revised his contracts to make a grab at said rights. The real problem we have is that, at the moment, the rights aren’t worth much — there has yet to be a successful CD-ROM fiction publisher — yet we all agree that in the future there will be. Therefore, do you give them away to make a sale, or do you defend them with your life and your sacred honor because they may be worth a fortune in 1998 or 2013?

My own feeling is that you fight for them the same way you fight for all your other rights. As Carol, the wife of one Resnick writer and mother of another, says: all publishers are pirates, rapists and thieves. The fact that she’s absolutely right does not mean we have to encourage them.

2011 update: well, I was half right. I didn’t foresee the truly compact structure of the Nook or the Kindle [or that I could store about 5,000 books in my full-color Nook and it still weighs less than a pound], but I was right about fighting for those e-rights. Just about every writer I know, myself included, has converted his reverted titles into e-books, put them up on Amazon, Barnes, Apple’s iStore, and elsewhere, and is making 65% to 70% royalties on them — and 100% when we sell them on our own web pages. No, they’re not selling as well as new, traditionally-published books– but they don’t have to. They were just gathering dust, and suddenly every one of them is making money that was impossible to make a dozen years ago.

Publishers saw this coming, of course, and since about 1997 your refusal to part with e-rights has been a deal breaker for the publisher, no matter who you are and how big you are in the field. But e-books are so potentially lucrative that I think the day’s not much more than five or six years off when a publisher’s refusal to relinquish any claim to e-rights will be a deal breaker for the author.

In the meantime, those of us who’ve been around for awhile have been self-publishing our reverted titles — check my store here; I have close to 40 of them, and I’ll have two or three more next year — and shaking our heads in delighted wonderment all the way to the bank.

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QUESTION: Have you ever played around with a grammar checker? I’m thinking of a Fog Index generator here, one that tells you how complex your writing is and what school grade level it reads at. How do you feel about the common advice that smaller sentences with shorter words are better?

ANSWER: The one time I played with a grammar checker, some years back, it turned Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address into the dullest two-sentence statement of principle I ever read. Never looked at one again.

I had no idea that, “smaller sentences with shorter words are better,” was common advice. It seems to me that as a writer you have only two things going for you: your unique worldview, and your unique means of expressing yourself. Why give one away for nothing?

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QUESTION: Help! I’ve written a bunch of short stories that editors keep telling me are really the first chapters of novels. The trouble is that they peter out as soon as I type the words, “Chapter Two.” Any suggestions?

ANSWER: Yeah, a few.
1. Get a collaborator who’s really good at Chapter Twos.
2. Start your story at the very last possible moment (in the story, that is; not in your working day.)
3. Learn to write novels, which means learn to plot novels.
4. Come up with such strong endings to your short stories that the editors can’t possibly suggest the stories should continue beyond where you stopped writing them.

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QUESTION: How important is an early hook? Your fiction always seems to grab the audience within the first few lines — do you consciously try for that effect? It always seems artificial when I do it.

ANSWER: An early hook is vital, especially if you’re not well-known. A Heinlein or Sturgeon or even a Resnick or an Effinger can be allowed a few extra pages before his story takes off, because he has an audience he’s built up over the years, and because the editor knows he’ll deliver the goods more often than not.

But a beginner is not going to be read by an editor. He’s going to be read by a first reader, or slush reader — and back when I was in the magazine business (okay, men’s magazines, but the principle is the same), we used to fire first readers who couldn’t reject 30 stories an hour, because that’s how many arrived every hour. That means you’ve got exactly two minutes — including the time it takes to open the envelope and re-stuff it if the story stinks — to grab that first reader and make an impression. If you don’t hook him by halfway down Page 1, I don’t care what gems you have on pages 2 through 50, he’ll never see them.

In answer to your other question, yes, especially on short stories, I always try to grab the audience in the first few lines. And, having grabbed them, I try never to let them go, which leads to the next Question…

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QUESTION: You’ve spoken about “accessibility” before. What writers do you consider accessible and why?

ANSWER: To me, the most important trait an author can have or develop is accessibility, by which I mean the ability to make the reader turn effortlessly from one page to the next.

I think two of the greatest exemplars of accessibility were Robert Sheckley and Alfred Bester in the 1950s and 1960s. There was a 20-year period there when I don’t think either of them wrote a story — even an occasional bomb — that any reader couldn’t finish. They were smooth as silk; you just picked them up and read page after page after page, and never realized just how much you had read until you totaled it up. Another word for it — a word that has been misused of late, and has wrongfully become a bit of a pejorative — is slick.

I have always tried, above all else, to be accessible to my readers. Every change in my approach to what I do has been aimed in that direction, including the decision, a decade ago, to never use a thesaurus on the assumption that if I have to look it up, so will my reader, and I never want him to put down the book for any reason. He might never pick it up again.

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QUESTION: Okay, it’s the beginning of July and I just bought the September Asimov’s. Just whack me if this is a dumb question, but why do most magazines seem to run so far ahead? If they’re that far ahead of schedule, why can’t they ever seem to get my submission back to me in less than three months?

ANSWER: I suspect it originally went back to seasonal advertising. Probably the magazine had to give refunds to all the Christmas advertisers if it wasn’t on the stands by a certain date. Or to all the summer clothing manufacturers. Or ski manufacturers. Or whatever. Then it probably metamorphosed into a fight for shelf life: “If I send out the June issue on April 23, maybe they won’t take it off the stands until mid-June, and by then I’ll have the July issue out, and maybe it will stay on display until . . .” and etc.

And of course, when one publisher started doing it, they all had to follow suit — especially if they had topical material. Couldn’t have your May issue up against your competitor’s June issue. The purchaser would surely choose the one with the later cover date. I suspect it started with the news magazines — Life, Look, Time, Newsweek, and their ilk — and slopped over into fiction, where it really doesn’t make any difference.

(Except that these days it does, at least if you’re a writer. The earlier the November or December issue with your story in it gets out, the more time the Hugo or Nebula voter has to read it before the nominations close.)

As to why they can’t get your submission back to you in less than three months, that has nothing to do with the cover date. Asimov’s, Analog, and F&SF each receive well over 1,000 contributions a month. It takes Gardner, Stan, Kris and their staffs an average of more than three months just to wade through the junk that’s piled up ahead of yours. Why can’t they read faster? Simple. As hard as it is to read hundreds of good stories, it’s even harder to read hundreds of absolutely terrible stories — and slushpiles are composed almost entirely of terrible stories.

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QUESTION: Does winning a Hugo enhance your income?

ANSWER: My own experience is that Hugos do not enhance your income inside the field — magazine rates, after all, are not negotiable, and the book publishers are more interested in your sales record than in your awards — but it does have a beneficial effect outside the field.

Every time I’ve won a Hugo, whichever Hollywood producer has been drawing out negotiations on optioning one of my books has immediately given in on all the disputed points the instant my name appeared in the New York Times (which reports the Hugo winners the next day, bless ‘em). Foreign magazines contact you out of the blue and offer huge sums of money for short articles on a Hugo winner’s typical workday. (Actually, a Hugo winner’s typical workday is incredibly boring: he sits at his keyboard and writes, period. It’s his non-workdays that are occasionally worth writing about.) And the prestige slops over to other categories: I doubt that winning this year’s Nebula will get me an extra cent in the science fiction field, but it boosted my royalty rate on a mystery novel that will come out this fall. See you next issue.

2011 update: I left out one other benefit of awards, especially Hugos, and that is that they make you much more desirable to foreign editors. Unless you get a huge bestseller-type advance, your book will make more money in the rest of world than it will here, not in one chunk, but when you add up all the advances from all the countries that buy it. And a Hugo win adds enough prestige for foreign editors who may need some encouragement to introduce you to their readers that you’ll usually sell to two or three more countries than you’ve been averaging.

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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3 Responses to Ask Bwana #5

  1. Jao says:

    Just to add a bit about winning Hugos and Nebula. while you say it doesn’t enhance your income, I’d like to say otherwise. Let’s take me, a typical reader as an example. Any book with Hugo or Nebula mentions or award is an instant sale for me. I don’t care if I’ve never heard of the author or even have a chance to read any of his work. The award is seal of approval enough to assure me I’m buying a very. very good book.

    Ofc, that’s saying I am a “typical reader” which is not the case. Majority of the masses don’t know the Hugo nor the Nebula. But those who do certainly know its worth in the SF world.

  2. Mike says:

    Okay, let me qualify that: the royalies from additional sales of a Hugo or Nebula winner do not increase your income in a substantial way — especially since three of the four awards in each category are not for novels, and short fiction tends not to earn royalties. The way you increase your income as a writer, barring a surprise bestseller that was not anticipated in the contract negotiations, is by increasing the publisher’s advance — and once you have a track record, your advances are predicated on that, and not on your awards.

    — Mike

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