Ask Bwana #16

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #16 — July, 1997

I think John Betancourt’s article in Speculations #15 was the best single piece this magazine has ever run. It’s filled with excellent, field-tested advice, painful honesty, and verifiable results, as well as insider facts and figures that are generally unavailable to the average writer.

So would I take John’s advice if my career hit a glitch?

Not on a bet.

Which leads me to the gist of this little introductory essay: People are different. Writers are different. What works for one will not necessarily work for another. Me, I’d drive a cab before I’d write half a dozen media books . . . but that doesn’t in any way invalidate John’s advice for those people who are willing to do what he did.

And, because writers are different, they must also be marketed differently.

You can’t market a Piers Anthony, who wins no awards but lives on the New York Times bestseller list, the way you market Nancy Kress or Lucius Shepard, who don’t show up on the bestseller list but win more than their share of Hugos and Nebulas. And you can’t market Nancy and Lucius the same way, because they don’t write the same kind of stories. And neither of them can be marketed like Jack Chalker, who can’t be marketed like Michael Bishop, who can’t be marketed like Lois McMaster Bujold, who can’t be marketed like me.

So when you read those all those “how-to” books about writing methodology or agenting your own manuscript or anything else to do with the field, keep in mind that while it may very well be perfectly valid advice, it may also not apply to your particular case.

Okay, on to this issue’s questions:

QUESTION: I’ve just made a sale to an online magazine. The editor has offered no written contract for the stories. She sent me an acceptance letter, a check, and the dates my stories would be running online. What should I do to secure my electronic rights? I have a little of that feeling where I don’t want to rock the editorial boat, but I want to do the right thing for myself and my work. Do I just e-mail her and ask her to tag the submissions with an “all rights now and the future, in print or electronic, are secured by the author” clause?

Also, I’m just seriously starting to pursue a writing career and I just turned 39. I hear many writers lamenting getting old and “running out of ideas” or they “only have a few more books” in them. Do you think there are only a limited amount of stories one can tell or an age when the fire doesn’t burn as bright?

ANSWER: There are two things that disturb most beginning writers. One, that they’ll run out of ideas, and two, that they don’t have any book contracts. Established writers will all testify that they have far more ideas than they can handle (and so will you), and they all wish they were free of their book contracts, since they all believe (most of them rightly) that they’re worth more today than when they signed.

As for your “online rights,” you just cashed a check from your online publisher. Since no one seems to know what you’ve sold, why not write a letter — quick, before they’re published — thanking the publisher for the check for “First North American serial rights” or “First online rights” or first something, so she’ll know she’s only bought the rights to run each story once.

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QUESTION: How important are titles, and how do you learn to come up with good ones?

ANSWER: Like all other forms of writing, it’s an art — and the Ask Bwana column was created to answer questions about the professional side of writing, since Bwana doesn’t think you can learn art.

There seem to be two theories: one, espoused by a bunch of writers, including Harlan Ellison and Mike Resnick (author of The Best Rootin’ Tootin’ Shootin’ Gunslinger in the Whole Damned Galaxy and “How I Wrote the New Testament, Brought Forth the Renaissance, and Birdied the 17th Hole at Pebble Beach”), is that long, cute, catchy titles work best.

The other theory, espoused by an equally large group of writers including Greg Bear and Mike Resnick (author of Santiago, Sideshow, and Paradise), is that a one-word title is easier to remember and appears in much bigger type on the cover.

You pays your money and you takes your choice.

And then your editor changes it anyway.

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QUESTION: I’m going to Worldcon (presuming no more family emergencies or other disasters) and the second item on the agenda is selling the d*mn novel. This involves introducing myself to editors, publishers, and agents, and I’m somewhat intimidated by the prospect of introducing myself to someone I don’t know. Inside this apparently confident person is a very, very shy person who absolutely hates the idea of doing this and has absolutely no idea how to walk up to Mr. Famous Agent and say, “Hi, I’m so-and-so and I’d like you to consider representing me.” I don’t think this is the right way to do it, either. So what is the right way?

Also, I have a hearing loss that comes into play here. Background noise makes it difficult for me to follow a conversation and dim lighting eliminates my ability to lip read. Given that I can’t borrow Maxwell Smart’s Cone of Silence for the convention, how do I politely let someone know I can’t hear well without convincing them in the process that it’s not worth the bother of trying to communicate with someone who can’t hear well?

ANSWER: If you feel shy, or even if you don’t, try setting up appointments a couple of months ahead of time. By Worldcon, most editors and agents have meetings out the wazoo anyway; much better to let them know what you want to talk to them about in advance, and to set a time and a place.

As for your hearing loss, you’re being too sensitive. Just say, “I have a hearing problem and I’d like you to speak more distinctly, especially since the dim light compromises my ability to lip-read.” I guarantee no one will decide that it’s not worth the bother to communicate with you.

I seem to remember that the intro to one of the Ask Bwana columns was about getting your editor alone at a Worldcon. This is the same thing; if an agent or editor doesn’t want to speak to you once you’ve contacted him and told him what you want to talk about, he’ll find a polite way to beg off, and you won’t have wasted any time. And start early; there’s a finite number of editors, agents and meals. (I already have 4 dinners, 3 lunches and a breakfast committed, and it’s not yet July as I write these words.)

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QUESTION: A writer with a track record of short story sales finishes his first novel. An agent expresses interest in the novel and asks to see it. After several months, the agent says he likes the novel, but feels it’s not ready for the market and recommends a slew of changes. The writer makes the changes and sends the book back. After several months, the agent says the book is much better, but still needs a little bit more. The writer makes a third stab at it, sends it in. He feels that finally this is his best work. Several months pass by, and he hears nothing from the agent. He calls the agent, who says he hasn’t gotten to it yet, but the book is on his high priority stack. Another month passes by . . . and no word from the agent. The writer is now getting impatient, because the book spends more time at his agent’s than it does on his own desk — and the agent hasn’t even begun to send the book around to editors.

How much patience should this writer have with this particular agent?

ANSWER: Less than he’s shown. If the agent is that slovenly before he’s working for you, what do you think he’ll be like once you’ve signed with him? Dump this turkey and get one who wants your business. If you can’t find one with the proper enthusiasm now, sell a few more stories and then try again.

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QUESTION: With all the gloom and doom about the shape of the industry (i.e., don’t bother if you’ve written a mid-list book . . . but for newcomers there appears to be really no other way to break in but as a mid-list; tight magazine markets and shrinking markets for anthologies), is a writer better off shelving the SF/F/H novels for a while, taking time off from this genre and trying to build a rep in other genres until the industry shakes out? Otherwise it would seem like one is peddling something no one is going to buy because there is no Name to sell it, and at the same time putting oneself in the position of being unable to resubmit it to the same editors if the market changes . . . or am I failing to see some magical opportunity in the midst of all this gloom?

ANSWER: You’re not failing to see a “magical opportunity,” but you are failing to look realistically at the field. First, very few writers break in as mid-list authors; that’s the next level to which newly-published writers are supposed to aspire.

Second, the fact that it’s hard to break in these days doesn’t mean it’s impossible. For proof, you need look no further than the Campbell ballot, which displays the names of five or six successful newcomers each year, or the Locus recommendations and poll results for Best First Novel, which is usually 25 to 30 entries deep — first novels that people felt were good enough to merit their votes.

Not everyone is talented enough, and not everyone is disciplined enough — but until events prove to you that you’re lacking in one or the other (or both), there’s no reason to turn your back on the field. Hell, breaking into any category is no bed of roses. Ask any mystery or Western writer.

2011 update: it’s still difficult to break into any fiction field, but according to Locus we published more than 1,600 original books in 2010. When I sold my first science fiction novel back in 1967, the field was publishing well under 200 books a year.

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QUESTION: What do you say to the editor/legal rep/whomever who calls you up when you’ve asked for a contract change and says, “No one else has had a problem with that before, and it wouldn’t be fair to the other writers if we changed it for you?”

ANSWER: That’s a loaded question. First, because usually they call your agent, who has been negotiating your contract, and your agent knows exactly what to answer. And second, because if you’re negotiating a contract yourself, the odds are that you’re too new to have an agent (rather than too established and knowledgeable), and hence don’t know what to demand and what to settle for.

But I’ll assume, since you asked, that it’s actually happened to you. The first thing to do is figure out, by whatever means are at your disposal — and this should include speaking to other writers who have signed with this company — if 1) the editor is telling the truth, and 2) it’s a contract-buster. In other words, if you refuse to sign it as it is, are you out in the street? Then you sit down and decide what to do.

I could give you a lot of cute, glib, witty, or caustic answers to the line you quoted, but none of them really cut any ice. Either it’s a contract-buster or it’s not, and either you’re willing to sign it or you’re not, and that’s for you alone to decide.

On the general subject of “No one else has had a problem with that before,” every publisher and editor in the business, even those known to be incredibly writer-friendly, will sooner or later give you the same line of bullshit: that the contract is between you and them, and is no one else’s business, and you should never discuss the details with anyone, even your closest friends in the field . . . which, if writers were stupid enough to believe it, would force us to negotiate in a vacuum, with no knowledge of what other writers got and were unable to get from the same publisher. Fortunately, science fiction writers have, for years, been incredibly open and forthcoming about their contracts. The publishers hate this free flow of information, and rightly so, but there’s nothing they can do about it, and it does make life a little easier and a little more lucrative for us.

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QUESTION: Why do you prefer doing business at Worldcon rather than World Fantasy Con, and why do you constantly recommend it for newcomers?

ANSWER: Worldcon is, officially, a 5-day convention; most people, including editors, arrive a day or two early, and a lot stay a day late. This allows you full a week to connect with the editor of your choice, whereas you have barely half that time at World Fantasy Con.

Also, Worldcon has perhaps 50 parties a night. WFC, since it caters almost exclusively to pros, has perhaps 2 parties, usually hosted by publishers. You can’t talk business when 300 writers are surrounding two or three editors at one of those WFC parties. Worldcon is much more spread out, physically as well as on the calendar, and since most beginners haven’t the foresight or, to be honest, the name value to make a dinner or lunch engagement with an editor before the con, the chances of being able to grab some of that editor’s time are much better at Worldcon.

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QUESTION: I think there’s something fundamentally wrong with your dismissal of semiprozines as legitimate markets, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe it’s your insistence that “real” professionals wouldn’t do it. How many of those rare creatures are there, anyway? Certainly if your sole publishing credits are in the smaller markets it won’t mean as much to an editor, but the story is all that counts to most editors, or so they say. A first publication in any magazine is an accomplishment. And that’s not just my opinion; I’ve got an expert backing me up. On page 4 of the March 1995 issue of Speculations, some guy named Resnick says the following: “The moment somebody pays you coin of the realm for something you’ve written, you’re a professional writer.” Has that changed?

ANSWER: According to the SFWA Directory, there are close to a thousand of those rare creatures. (I disagree with the membership criteria, and would put it closer to 400.)

2011 update: SFWA now claims close to 1,800 active members. I would guess maybe 150, tops, make a living from it.

I’m not about to argue the point — I spent half of last column stating my position as explicitly as I can, and if you’re trying to support yourself on a penny a word you can’t afford the time to argue with me, either — but I will address that guy named Resnick who said, in the March, 1995 Speculations, “The moment somebody pays you coin of the realm for something you’ve written, you’re a professional writer.” It’s a reasonable statement, but it needs to be interpreted with a little common sense and some slight knowledge of the real world.

For example: You write a 500-page book, and someone pays you 50 cents US for the manuscript. Okay, that’s coin of the realm, but that doesn’t really make you a professional writer, does it?

You sell a 5,000-word short story for a dollar. That doesn’t make you a pro either.

So . . . there must be a dividing point between being a professional who gets paid coin of the realm, and being an amateur or a semi-pro who gets paid a handling fee to cover his expenses for paper and postage and the like. SFWA has defined what word rate makes a professional sale, and if you like, I will amend my prior statement here and now: “The moment someone pays you an acknowledged professional rate, in coin of the realm, for something you’ve written, you’re a professional writer.”

(See? Even Bwana has to revise now and then.)

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QUESTION: How restricted (legally, ethically) are writers in using contexts and ideas that are established in the genre or in general use? How much does a writer own something like little green men from Mars, or sentient robots, or for that matter, robot psychologists? Do I, say, have to pay part of my royalties if I mention Asimov’s Laws? How about just using robots? Androids? Cyborgs? Shape-shifters of various sorts? Similarly, there have been various words coined in SF whose usage has gone outside the genre. How free is one to use them? Can a character “blesh” or “grok” something, or must they ken it?

ANSWER: You can’t copyright an idea. You can copyright a term (i.e., a proper noun). Once that term gets into the language, even if it is or was once trademarked, like “Kleenex” or “aspirin,” you can use it. But when you come to words like “grok,” no, that’s Heinlein’s creation and you can’t use it without his permission (which is a little difficult to come by these days). On the other hand, you’re a creative writer, so why would you want to use someone else’s word anyway?

Same with Isaac’s three laws. A lot of stories take them as a given (which is ridiculous in my opinion, considering that we already have robots — the smart bombs we used in Iraq — that were designed to break First Law and did so with enormous success), but no one except Isaac can state them explicitly. (Always excepting the field of parody, where Ray Lafferty and John Sladek have both had some fun with the three laws.)

But again, why would you want to use Isaac’s laws when you can invent your own? For example, Bob Sheckley’s “Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?”, a classic of science fictional humor, had an intelligent vacuum cleaner make passionate love to its owner. I think we’re all grateful that he didn’t feel constrained by someone else’s laws.

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QUESTION: Once upon a time when I was young and stupid — two years ago last August, as I recall — I wrote a Star Trek story. It was the first piece of prose I ever completed, and I did it entirely without the benefit of solid professional advice. Since then I’ve learned about the impossibility of selling to Trek, worked exclusively in my own universes, and actually gone on to sell a couple of stories to real markets. Something interesting just came up, however: Paramount and Pocket’s Strange New Worlds short story contest, for which I still qualify (barely) to enter. I’d like your opinion on one of the rules before I do, however. It says here that Pocket Books and Paramount Pictures own all contest entries whether or not they’re winners. Is this standard practice? If so, why? Would you submit a story if you were in my (young, stupid) shoes?

ANSWER: No way would I submit a story in which I am not guaranteed any money but I am guaranteed that the story will not belong to me after I submit it. Paramount isn’t a publisher; it’s a movie and TV company. If it likes your story and decides to turn it into a movie, do you know how much you won’t get for it, how much you’re losing even at beginner’s rates, if you give away the copyright?

I don’t know their motivation, but it sounds like they’re fishing for story ideas, and they’re trying to get all the suckers out there to give them those ideas for free.

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QUESTION: Okay, I’ve made my first few short story sales and I’ve finished the novel and I’m sending stuff out, but it’s been a year since I’ve sold a blankety-blank thing. I keep writing, and I keep reading, and I keep sending stuff out, but nothing happens. Any words of advice for a writer stuck in a “sophomore slump?”

ANSWER: It’s not the business of this column to tell anyone how to write better — Bwana’s not sure it can be done — but since you’ve sold a few stories already, there’s obviously no question that you can write saleable prose. If you’re in a slump, one of the things you might do is ask one of the editors who has bought from you to do you a personal favor and tell you what your current stories are lacking; most editors would refuse most such requests, but as I say, if he’s bought from you before he’ll know you’re not some kook out in the hinterlands begging him to tell you how to push a noun up against a verb.

Also, while I’m opposed to workshops in general, you might workshop your last three or four stories—provided the workshop is composed of professionals whose advice can be considered competent and meaningful.

2011 updates: This was written before I participated in two workshops that have had an enormous level of success, and I can now vouch for their efficacy — Clarion, and L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Fuure.

Beyond that, just keep working. And if you find that the stories that have bounced lately have all been of one type — hard science, quest fantasies, or whatever — might try a different type, just to change your approach.

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QUESTION: The other day my wife said that she sometimes feels my writing is like the “other woman” — that is, the attention she feels she deserves goes to it. Now, I love my wife as much as the next man, but I gotta write. Lord knows I’ve tried to explain this to her, but how can I state it so that she truly understands?

ANSWER: You simply explain to her that if she likes eating food and living under a roof, she has to leave you alone long enough for you to earn enough money to pay for same.

You might also point out that she doesn’t want to be bothered or interrupted when she’s cooking or gardening or working at her job, and the fact that your office happens to be at home doesn’t mean you can put in shorter hours or less concentration. (And that also means you don’t read your stuff to her when she’s working at her job, or passionately pounce on her when she’s washing your socks. You show her the same consideration that you demand.)

If you’re a full-timer, it’s obvious to anyone that you have to be left alone long enough to earn a living. If you’re a part-timer, then the best thing to do is make office hours, so to speak: you explain that you must work, with the requisite privacy, every night from, say, 8:00 to 11:00 . . . but except for those hours you will be an attentive husband and father. And then keep your word, or you may find that most of your extra writing time is going to pay the divorce attorney.

I think we also have to pre-suppose that your wife is not bored with her own company, and can read or watch TV or find some other way to occupy herself for three hours out of every 24. If not, then saying that you love her as much as the next man may be true, but saying you love her as often as the next man may not be.

Interesting questions. 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 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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