Ask Bwana #12


NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #12 — November, 1996

As this issue goes to press, the big news in the field is that Kris Rusch has resigned the editorship of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in order to free up more time for her writing career, and that the new editor is Gordon Van Gelder, the current (and continuing) science fiction editor of St. Martin’s Press.

The most interesting thing to me is the endless, and useless, speculation about what he likes, what he’ll buy, who he has grudges against, what kind of stories he hates, what his favorite lengths are, and so forth.

This is idiotic. First, just watch the magazine and you’ll see pretty much what he likes. (I say “pretty much” because he can’t buy what’s not there. He can only purchase the best submissions to F&SF, not the best stories written anywhere on the planet.)

Second, the people have never had much trouble spotting a phony politician, and readers, who are a little brighter than the average man on the street, have never had any trouble spotting phony writers. The writers who try to change their style, or their worldview, or the subject matter they find meaningful, just because of some late-night discussions about editors’ tastes on GEnie and CompuServe, are precisely those writers that a good editor will see right through.

Ray Bradbury never wrote high-tech nuts-and-bolts SF just to please an editor. Isaac Asimov never wrote a sensitive evocation of Midwestern boyhood just to please an editor. They wrote what they wrote best, and because their stories, though wildly different, were not dishonest, they sold.

You might consider that next time someone (who is probably wrong, anyway) tells you that Gordon (or any new editor) likes stories about left-handed clones who pitch for the Toledo Dodgers.

Okay, on to this month’s questions:

QUESTION: This is a manuscript format question which I don’t see addressed in the usual “how to” articles: now that computers have replaced typewriters (for the most part) and can do proportional print, it supposedly is now the rule to not have two spaces after the end of a sentence. (It creates “rivers” running down the page which can be distracting to the eye.) Can you tell me what the SF/F editors prefer you to do? Do I need to change back in order to please the editors?

ANSWER: I have not double-spaced after the end of a sentence in 35 years. It has not stopped me from selling books and stories of all lengths to literally more than a hundred publishers. The only person who ever asked me to double-space after a period was a Hollywood producer. I said “No,” that it was too much bother and I was sure I’d forget half the time, and he shrugged and said okay and bought the screenplay anyway.

I cannot believe that if I double-spaced after each sentence that my sales and rejects would be one whit different.

This is really silly. If you want to sell, work on your sentences, not the spaces between them.


QUESTION: I have noticed several on-line discussions saying that it is easier to sell novels than to sell shorts to the top markets. If the traditional route is to sell shorts to establish yourself, why knock yourself out if it’s easier to sell a novel?

ANSWER: When you speak of top markets, it may very well be easier to sell a book than to sell a first story to Asimov’s, F&SF, Omni, Analog, or S.F. Age.

But what you have to remember is that it is not easier to write a saleable book than a saleable story. The former may take you a year or two, possibly longer; I know of award-winning stories that have been written in a single sitting.

The real trick is to write what you want to write. Believe it or not, if you’re a beginner, you’re not skilled enough to aim at specific markets or editors, so do what pleases you most and then hope it’s good enough to sell, whatever the length.

2011 update: the old advice — sell a bunch of short stories, establish a reputation, then sell the novel becomes more obsolete every day. As I write these words there are 4 print magazines: the three digests and the resurrected Realms of Fantasy… but according to Locus, there were 1,600 books published in the field in 2010, and just about as many in 2009. The 4 magazines — 2 are no longer monthly — probably buy an average of 18 stories a month. The better e-zines may buy even more. But the book publishers are buying more than 130 books a month. Do the math.)


QUESTION: Many “how to” books talk about seven story elements or struggle or character flaw. How essential is it to have these to make a saleable story?

ANSWER: Despite the fact that you’re hoping to get paid for what you do, you are attempting Art. And if you’re attempting Art, just about the worst thing you can do is start making lists. Eventually lists have to lead to derivative mediocrity.


QUESTION: Is there a formula for writing a Hugo or Nebula award-winning story?

ANSWER: If there is, why do you suppose 95% of the pros never even get nominated?


QUESTION: There is an adage that a short story is about something happening to one character, whereas a novel may be something or a group of things happening to many characters. How true is this as a general rule?

ANSWER: Generally, it’s true minimally more often than not. But when you get down to specifics, you can find hundreds of excellent examples of books and stories that do the opposite. How about Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea? Or, closer to home, Barry Malzberg’s brilliant Herovit’s World? And on the other side of the coin, how about Tom Godwin’s classic, “The Cold Equations,” in which one character’s actions beget a second character’s decision which in turn causes the first character’s death. You can’t tell that story with only one person, and you wind up empathizing and suffering with both of them. Same for James White’s, “Tableau,” one of my very favorite short stories, and another one that depends on two beings interacting with each other.


QUESTION: If the ability to sell subsequent novels is based on the sales of a first, does it mean that everyone’s first novel has to be a bestseller?

ANSWER: False premise. The ability to sell subsequent novels is based on the sales of the first few. They do not have to be bestsellers, but they must sell at least as well, and preferably better, than the average first/second/third novel, or the writer will find himself looking for work.

The toughest novel to sell is not the first, but the fourth, because by then you have a track record, and they’re no longer buying hope and promise, but performance.


QUESTION: Even if you’re a great writer, does it mean nothing if you can’t market yourself?

ANSWER: You’re confusing quality with sales. Publishers do it all the time, but hopeful writers should know better.


QUESTION: Assuming one wants to write literary SF instead of 8-volume trilogies, how does one approach the market? Which magazines, agents and book publishers are receptive to literary SF? Should one submit to a mainstream literary house instead of a SF genre publisher? Should one pay more attention to the European markets?

ANSWER: Right at the moment, my perception — and it could be wrong — is that the American SF magazines most receptive to literary science fiction are Asimov’s, F&SF, and Science Fiction Age.

2011 update: rather than naming any particular magazines, I merely wish to point out that there are some fine e-zines that didn’t exist even a decade ago, and that the fans and readers are finding them, as evidenced by the Hugo and Nebula winners and nominees that are coming out of them these days.)

Since you expressly want to write literary SF rather than literary mainstream, why in the world would you ignore your natural markets and try to sell to literary houses that, to date, have evinced very little interest in, or comprehension of, science fiction that is not written by Ursula Le Guin, Chip Delany, or Philip K. Dick?

As for which publishers are receptive to literary SF, my answer is that any and all of them might be, that you must never do the decision-making for them by refusing to submit. For example: of all the long-time book editors in the science fiction field, it is generally considered that the late Don Wollheim, publisher of John Norman, Lin Carter, the Cap Kennedy and Dray Prescott and Dumarest of Terra series, was just about the least literary and most conservative of all. Yet Wollheim was the first editor to publish books by Philip K. Dick, Barry Malzberg, John Brunner, Roger Zelazny, and Samuel R. Delany. See what I mean?

No, one shouldn’t pay more attention to the European markets, with the possible exception of the excellent British magazine Interzone. Most European markets buy reprints of American books and stories, and when offered a new one often assume that it wasn’t good enough to sell here first.

2011 update: Let me add Postscripts, which came into being back around 2003, as another fine and receptive British magazine market.

Agents’ tastes are as idiosyncratic as editors. I couldn’t begin to tell you which ones prefer literary stories. My guess is it depends on the quality of the writing.


QUESTION: At a Worldcon panel on intellectual property, I asked if short fiction writers can count on the (primarily magazine) publishers to properly register the copyright in the writer’s name. The response I got was no, that a writer should register his stories as unpublished stories and then let the publishers register them again as published stories.

ANSWER: The answer was flawed. The moment your story appears in print, it is copyrighted for the remainder of your life plus 75 years. Some magazines, like Asimov’s and Analog, no longer copyright the stories in their names; others, like F&SF, will return the copyrights to you after publication if you so request it.

One of the things that really damages a beginner’s chances at a sale is when he writes, “Copyright 1996,” on the title page of an unpublished story . . . and then 1998 and 1999 roll around, and he hasn’t changed the date, and the editor instantly knows that this story has been making the rounds and getting bounced for two or three years.


QUESTION: I was pretty blown away to read that your award quality stories sell five to ten times over in this country and even more overseas. That sounds like a lot of paperwork. Who handles it — you or your agent? Do you sell all those rights individually or in batches?

ANSWER: I handle my own short fiction, here and abroad. Some writers do; some — though less and less — prefer that their agents do it for them.

I would love to sell all the reprint and foreign rights in huge batches, but it tends to happen one sale at a time. It’s not much paperwork at all; I mean, how long does it take you to sign your name to a contract, or tell an editor that you are rejecting his offer and making a counter-offer? The beautiful thing about reprint sales, as I keep explaining, is that you get all that money for no heavy lifting. (Which is to say, for not writing a word . . . except your name on a contract.)

2011 update: the late Gordon R. Dickson told me, when I was first starting out, that if I was good and prolific, 25 years into my career I could expect a pleasant surprise — by which he meant a foreign or reprint sales — at least once a week. Turns out he was right. In fact, for five of the past seven years, my “no heavy lifting,” income has exceeded my income for new work…and I sell a lot of new work.


QUESTION: If I’ve sent a short story to a magazine and it was returned with a note to the effect that the prose was good but the ending is weak, would it be all right to redo the ending and submit the story again?

Answer: Absolutely. That’s why editors make suggestions to writers.


QUESTION: A friend of mine wrote a story in which he used the term, “lightsabre,” to describe an energy sword. Could he run into legal trouble even though nothing else about the story resembles the Star Wars universe? Or would it be smarter to come up with a different name for the gadget?

ANSWER: Yes, he could run into legal trouble. More likely, though, is the critical trouble he’ll run into. Please tell me that the story doesn’t have a youthful idealist and a spunky girl reporter — sorry, make that a spunky princess — and a villain with a name that’s a meaningless concoction of syllables.

So, in answer to your question, it would be smarter to come up with not only a different name, but a different gadget as well.


QUESTION: I’m a beginning SF writer with limited funds. I know that I should go to some conventions to make contacts, but I can only hit a small number of them. Which are the best?

ANSWER: The best conventions are the ones where you have the most fun. The best conventions for making contacts are the ones where the most editors congregate. In order, they are Worldcon, World Fantasy Con, the Nebula Banquet (but you should be a SFWA member if you’re going to this one), and probably Boskone. The first three change their venues from year to year; the fourth is always held in or near Boston in February.

Now, if there are two or three specific editors you want to meet, write or call and ask them what conventions they’ll be attending, and then plan your schedule accordingly.

2011 update: the world is changing, and our science fiction world is changing even faster. These days, you’re likely to find as many — or more — editors at DragonCon and ComicCon as at the Nebulas…and while Worldcons have been shrinking and World Fantasy Cons and the Nebulas have never been large to begin with, these two huge cons (50,000 for DragonCon, 100,000+ for ComicCon), have been drawing more and more publishers and editors each year.

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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