Ask Bwana #9

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #9 — June, 1996

I just got back from the 1996 Nebula ceremonies — an excellent lesson in humility — only to learn that “Bibi” and “When the Old Gods Die” (my losing novella and novelette) had beaten pretty much the same competitors to win the HOMer Awards while I was flying home.

So what (I hear you ask) are the HOMer Awards? They’re given out by CompuServe, and have pretty much the same restrictions, in terms of length and date of publication, as the Hugos and Nebulas. As a matter of fact, CompuServe has some 30,000 members in its science fiction section, compared to perhaps 7,000 Worldcon members who can vote for the Hugos and about 1,200 active SFWA members who can vote for the Nebulas.

So am I happier winning the HOMers, which doubtless drew more voters, than the Nebula or the Hugo?

Get real.

I’m not giving them back, mind you — but perception is everything, and despite the paucity of voters, the Hugos and Nebulas are much more prestigious.

Why? Because that’s the way the world is, and it’s not a matter of Right or Wrong, but rather of True or False.

Don’t forget: the Oscars are watched by more than one billion people — and most of them draw smaller vote totals than the Hugos.

You’ve chosen to work in the Arts — and in the Arts, Reality is what the publicity departments say it is. Nothing more, and nothing less. Try to keep that in mind: it’ll help you stay sane in the years to come.

Okay, on to this month’s questions.

QUESTION: Over the past decade or so we’ve had — among many others — cyberpunk, slipstream, shared universes, alternate-everything, and vampires everywhere. Care to spot the next Big Thing? And is there any trend you’re particularly sick of?

ANSWER: Almost every “breakthrough” since the New Wave has been stylistic rather than thematic. Even cyberpunk. (You think not? Go read Dan Galouye’s Simulacron-3, which came out in 1964; and, in point of fact, people have been interfacing with computers in short fiction since 1951.) Vampires are hardly new, and shared universes are a marketing gimmick, not a literary trend.

If I could spot the next Big Thing, I’d be writing it. No one’s ever done a book-length poem, the science fictional equivalent of John Brown’s Body or Spoon River Anthology. Who knows? Maybe that’s next.

Is there a trend I’m sick of? You bet. I am sick to death of media tie-in books (and I see Del Rey just began — so help me! — a series of bubble-gum-card tie-in books.) I am sick to death of generic fantasy, usually consisting of 4-volume trilogies. I am sick to death of Quest books filled to overflowing with Lords, Ladies, archaic English, and silly magic. And I think even Bram Stoker would be appalled by the number of Dracula/vampire books out there. Shall I go on, or will that hold you for awhile?

2011 update: Okay, the next new thing — not huge, but substantial — turned out to be Steampunk. And the thing that refuses to die is the vampire romance [excuse me: the paranormal romance]. And for reasons I have difficulty comprehending, the coming trend seems to be zombie books.


QUESTION: I’m invariably confused by publishers who want, “First three chapters and synopsis.” I can synopsize the whole book in two pages, or do a detailed 20-page chapter-by-chapter breakdown. Which is appropriate for an unpublished novelist?

ANSWER: I think the answer lies somewhere in between. A two-page synopsis is more than enough for an established writer to sell a book, because the editor knows from past experience that he can deliver. This obviously does not apply to new writers.

On the other hand, a writer who rambles on for, say, 40 pages of outline may strike the editor as being just a tad on the windy side. 40 pages, after all, is novelette length.

I think, especially if you’re showing the editor three chapters, your synopsis will best serve your interests if it goes from 6 to 15 pages — enough to relate all the details without making the editor think you might hand in a thousand-pager when it’s done.

2011 update: I was asked that question so many times that about a decade ago I put together a book called I Have This Nifty Idea… consisting of 33 outlines/synopses by 19 writers, all of which sold to major houses, many of which drew major advances. [And in all modesty, I will note that the book was nominated for a Hugo, so somebody found it useful.] The writers pretty much fell into two categories: those who wrote long, novelette-or-novella-length outlines, where essentially all they had to do was turn sentences into paragraphs when they got around to writing the book; and those [like me] who made them as short as possible, so if a better idea for some part of the book occurred to them, they weren’t tied in contractually to a explicit, detailed outline. Which is better? It depends on the writer. To borrow from Mr. Kipling, there are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and each and every one of them is right.


QUESTION: In your [Ask Bwana #8] column you said that “dark fantasy” (as opposed to horror) was a publisher’s marketing term, not a writer’s. Is this also the case with fantasy and science fiction? If not, what’s the difference between sf and fantasy? And: you don’t seem to write horror. If true, why not?

ANSWER: No, there is a definite difference between fantasy and science fiction. Science fiction does not break the known laws of the universe; fantasy does. The late John Campbell, who edited the best science fiction magazine and the best fantasy magazine of their time, once told writers the difference: “I want stories for Astounding (the sf magazine) to be well-written, logical, and possible; I want stories for Unknown (the fantasy magazine) to be well-written and logical.”

Strangely enough, all science fiction and fantasy were marketed together as science fiction until the late 1960s, when two events took place. First, Lin Carter began editing the Adult Fantasy line for Ballantine; second, and of far more impact, the Lord of the Rings trilogy sold umpteen gazillion copies, and publishers realized they could tap into that market by separating the fantasy out from the less-commercial science fiction.

It’s true: I don’t write horror. I’ve written one horror story in my life, and that was commissioned by its editor. The reason is simple: I simply cannot take horror seriously. I don’t believe in the malignant supernatural, and I can’t make myself suspend my disbelief as a reader or a writer.

I’ve had members of HWA — the Horror Writers of America — urge me to join their organization. When I explain that I don’t write it, they say that indeed I do, that I’ve written a number of scenes that they find emotionally repugnant. (I try not to take umbrage, since this seems to be a compliment.) However, I come from the Old School — and by the Old School’s definition, merely scaring a reader or writing a gross-out scene doesn’t make you a horror writer. To me, horror must involve the supernatural, and I simply have no interest in doing so. I would never tell anyone else not to, and if there’s a failing, it probably lies within me and not with the many fine writers of horror fiction.

2011 update: So how does that answer jibe with writing novels titled Stalking the Vampire and the like? And the answer is that I’ve probably put vampires and zombies and such into maybe 20 stories and novels, and with only one exception, every one of them was humorous.


QUESTION: This electronic-rights mess is driving me nuts. We’re told by certain big-market magazines that we must sign over all electronic rights, even to those made possible by technology not invented yet, for no additional money. And — furthermore — they say they won’t consider stories whose electronic rights have been “used up” in any publicly-accessible online manner. But now I hear that at least one of those markets is running novella-length stories that have already seen “electronic” print in an online magazine. Is this one of those life’s-not-fair things I’m going to just have to forget about while I work harder, or what?

Answer: No reason not to be explicit. You’ve heard — rightly — that Asimov’s is reprinting some novellas that originally ran in the online version of Omni.

Yeah, this is one of those life’s-not-fair things you’re going to have to learn to live with. Omni is paying huge money for those novellas; they won’t buy them from No-Names. And if you’re a Name, you stand a much better chance of selling the reprint rights to a major print magazine.

So the trick is to write half a dozen Hugo-quality stories quick and become a Name.

2011 update: the world — and the market — has changed, but publishers’ venality hasn’t. It’s still a contract-killer if you refuse to relinquish e-rights when selling your novel to a traditional book publisher. Which is why so many writers are looking at the 70% royalties they can make from Amazon and Apple’s iStore, 65% from Barnes & Noble, 100% from their own web pages, and asking the publisher: “What are you doing for 75% of my money?”


QUESTION: If an electronic magazine came to you and said they wanted to buy First North American Serial Rights to a story you really liked but — for some unfathomable reason — couldn’t place in a major print market, would you sell? If so, how much would you want per word? Let’s say they had a professional editor, a decent track record, and could prove they were getting 10,000 “hits” per issue, to narrow the field a bit.

ANSWER: Okay, let’s be blunt. There is only one reason you can’t place your story in a major print market, and it’s hardly unfathomable: your story’s not good enough. Once it’s been rejected by all the major magazines, I’d be inclined to sell it to any electronic magazine at their standard rates and be grateful for the money.

And when it saw print and I winced at the lack of quality, I’d wish I’d dumped it instead.

2011 update: That was a valid answer when I wrote it 15 years ago, which just goes to show how much the world has changed. Back then e-zines paid almost nothing, came and went every month or two, and were clearly bottom-of-the-barrel markets. But by five years ago, Jim Baen’s Universe¬ was paying a quarter a word. These days so is And any number of e-zines, such as Clarkesworld, Subterranean, and more, are paying a dime a word or more. And the digests? 6 to 8 cents a word, and frequently less for novelettes and novellas. As for lack of prestige in e-publications, that’s out the window, Ellen Datlow has won Best Editor Hugos for editing a pair of online zines, Kij Johnson won the 2010 Nebula for an online story, I’ve had a couple of Hugo nominations for e-stores, and so on. Like I keep pointing out, the field is evolving at breakneck speed.


QUESTION: I keep hearing alarming reports about the “graying” of the science fiction audience and the way TV, movie, and gaming tie-ins are driving out decent entry-level young adult SF. What would you do to get more young people to read “real” science fiction?

ANSWER: The most alarming thing about those reports is that they’re all absolutely true.

The best thing to do, of course, is improve our educational system, which is turning out degree-holding subliterate morons at a truly phenomenal rate. You get the feeling that most high schoolers can’t read anything much more complicated than Dick and Jane.

But the question wasn’t what should be done, but what would I do? Not a damned thing. My job is writing, not solving the problems of the field or the world.

But if I had the power — which I don’t — one of the things I’d do would be to add an outstanding (and not too technical) short story at the end of every Trekbook and Wookiebook, and a brief paragraph pointing out where the reader could find more of the same.

I would take our most charismatic speakers — the field’s successors to Isaac Asimov and Robert Bloch — and send them as emissaries to the media conventions, maybe have them do readings, speak about the field, do whatever they could to interest kids in expanding their literary horizons.

I would stop showing dreck on the [SyFy] Channel, and try to show some of the more interesting interviews with authors that we’ve all seen at conventions, and maybe run some of the better sf shows from PBS.

But as long the average SAT scores are 700 — that’s two-thirds of what they were a mere quarter-century ago — none of it’s going to help.

2011 update: Well, I had nothing to do with it, but a number of conventions that are basically aimed at media and gaming fans have begun importing some of the better-known science fiction writers. DragonCon features Kevin J. Anderson, Eric Flint, Harry Turtledove, Laurel K. Hamilton, Sherilyn Kenyon, Charlaine Harris, John Ringo, myself, a number of others, on a regular basis. So does ComicCon. Even the anime cons are beginning to do so. And of course it is a Good Thing. Every last one of them dwarfs Worldcon; clearly we need them more than they need us, and we should be pleased and grateful that we’re finally being showcased there.


QUESTION: I just sold a fantasy trilogy and acquired an agent, all in the space of a month. One piece of advice is really bothering me, though: should I really publish everything under my maiden name? I’m happily married and want to include my husband in my success however I can; he supported me while I wrote, after all. But my agent says my publisher won’t want to hear about changing my pen name if we ever wind up divorced, especially if my books sell well beyond the first three. This is all happening too fast for my comfort, considering how long it took to write the books. Help!

ANSWER: That’s a question only you can answer. As I said above, I’m a member of the Old School: I believe in getting married and staying married. I’ve been married to Carol for 35 years as I write these words, and my only regret is that I wasted a whole year being engaged to her before we tied the knot. (2011 note: just celebrated our 50th and still going strong.)

If you feel that way — and have been married long enough to have some justification for it — then by all means use your married name.

If you feel there’s some likelihood that you may be changing names soon, then use your maiden name — or whatever name makes you comfortable.

The one thing to remember is that whatever name you go by when you start making your literary reputation, that’s the name you’re going to be stuck with for the rest of your career.

For example, Hugo-winner Joan Vinge divorced Hugo-winner Vernor Vinge and married editor Jim Frenkel — but she’s still Joan Vinge.

Barbara Delaplace divorced her husband, kept his name, started selling, and then married writer Jack Haldeman — but she’s still using a last name that is neither her maiden name nor her current husband’s.
It can even affect men. Michael Kube-McDowell got divorced and is now plain old Michael McDowell — except when he signs his name to a book, at which time he’s Michael Kube-McDowell again.

Confusing enough for you?

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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