Ask Bwana #19

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #19 — January, 1998

Most editors tell you up front that they won’t consider simultaneous submissions.

Fine and good.

But every contract — even implicit ones like this — has two sides to it, and the flip side is that if you are required to give them an exclusive look at your submission, they can’t hold it for an unreasonable period of time.

A writer’s one irreplaceable commodity is time. It is unconscionable for an editor to hold a short story for seven or nine or twelve months. But a lot of them do.

So I’m about to suggest publicly what I’ve told many new writers privately:

Lie.

This is not aimed at established writers who expect to sell everything, or almost everything, they submit.

But the odds against a beginner selling are astronomical. Gardner Dozois recently told me that he buys about 3 stories a year out of his slushpile at Asimov’s, which contains about 12,000 submissions a year. The odds are equally long at the other publications. (Yes, every writer whose name you know beat those same odds, but it doesn’t make them any less intimidating.)

And with odds of thousands-to-one against your selling, I see absolutely no reason not to make multiple submissions. If it’s 4,000-to-1 that one magazine won’t buy your story, it’s probably 20,000-to-1 that two of them won’t want it the same week.

And if one buys it, then simply write to the other, explain apologetically that your wife or your husband or your agent or the head of your local writers’ group sent it off without your knowledge and you just got a contract today, and you’re terribly sorry, and now that you’re a published author, would they like to see something else of yours?

2012 update: there are only three digests left, and most of the e-zines are reasonably prompt at reading and deciding. But keep the above in mind for when they lapse…and sooner or later, they all lapse.

Okay, on to this issue’s questions.

QUESTION: In the December issue, you wrote “brilliant is nice, but commercial is vital.” Could you go into some detail on what is and isn’t required to make a novel commercial?

ANSWER: If “commercial” could be formularized, every writer would find a way to incorporate it into his stories. Those few criteria of which I’m aware seem to mitigate against memorable stories: happy endings, Politically Correct points of view, simplistic metaphors and similes — in other words, aiming your story right at the Lowest Common Denominator.

Now, obviously, this isn’t the only way to become commercial — witness the success of Haldeman, Benford, Donaldson, etc. — but it is the most obvious. And the least desirable.

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QUESTION: Any pointers on writing humor?

ANSWER: The best quality a writer of humor can have is a high tolerance for rejection. And nothing, but nothing, is more frustrating than a letter from an editor saying, “I laughed my ass off, but humor is such a subjective thing, I can’t be sure my readers will find it funny, and so, with great regret . . .”

Not a lot of SF writers have been able to sell humor on a regular basis. The tiny handful of those with more than a couple of books’ worth of humor out there include Terry Prachett, Douglas Adams, Esther Friesner, Robert Sheckley (from 1951 to 1968, he was the best there ever was) George Alec Effinger, John Sladek, Frederic Brown, Henry Kuttner, William Tenn, Harry Harrison, Bob Asprin, myself, and maybe two or three others. That’s not much to show for 2,000+ SF writers over the years.

I have only two suggestions. First, until you are very well established, limit your humor to short fiction. And second, write what you find funny, not what you think someone else will laugh at.

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QUESTION: I’ve got an absolute horror of submitting manuscripts with typos. I don’t trust spellcheckers; they miss too many lookalikes. Do you have anyone proofread your work before sending it out? Or are you one of those evil mutants that turns out perfect copy every time?

ANSWER: I proofread it, and my spellchecker proofreads it, and I still miss some mistakes. And you know what? No good story ever failed to sell because of a few typos. If you must obsess over something, try obsessing over quality instead; it’ll get you a lot farther.

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QUESTION: What rights should I offer for a story that’s never been sold? First English World Rights, First North American Serial Rights . . . or what?

ANSWER: Usually the market will list what it buys. If it’s anything other than First North American Serial Rights or First Worldwide Rights, I’d be very leery of signing. Especially if the word “First” isn’t there as a qualifier.

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QUESTION: If I was planning to do a trilogy, should I send all three synopses with the first three chapters of each book, or is it better to send the first three chapters of the first book with synopsis and outline and send an outline of the other two books included?

ANSWER: No sense writing a word of Books 2 or 3 until you’ve got a contract — or at least some serious interest. Submit the first three chapters of Book 1 with a synopsis, and then a pair of brief synopses of the next two books. If the editor’s interested, he’ll ask to see more — and may even have some suggestions. No sense doing the extra work until then.

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QUESTION: We’ve all heard the stories about long response times from magazines (pro or not) with overworked editors. But how long should I reasonably wait for a response? How long should I wait for an editor to respond to a query before I give up? And what’s the best way to withdraw a story from a non-responsive market? Should it go via registered mail? That’s supposed to make editors angry.

ANSWER: If your manuscript is unagented, you’re not a Name, and you haven’t hit this market before, I’d wait four or five months before giving them a gentle reminder.

I’d never withdraw a story from a non-responsive market. In this day of electronic submissions, I’d just send another copy elsewhere. If the non-responsive market decides a year later to buy it and it’s still unsold, you’ve made a sale you wouldn’t have made if you pulled it. And if you sell it elsewhere, you can simply write the unresponsive market at that time and tell them you’re pulling it. (And you might even tell them why: “You’ve been holding it for 15 months with no response, so I just sold it to Playboy.” It might make them pay a little more attention the next time you send them a story.)

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QUESTION: Do any decent magazines accept reprints? Or do I need to hold out for an anthology?

ANSWER: The major prozines do not accept reprints. (One tiny exception: once in a long while, Asimov’s will pick up a novella from Omni Online.)

2012 update: That practice stopped when Omni stopped.

The best bet, of course, is a reprint anthology. I just hate to tell you how rare they’re becoming.

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QUESTION: If somebody managed to offer you enough money — thirty million dollars a year, right? — to edit a science fiction magazine, what sort of stories would you publish? A shotgun blast like Asimov’s, or would you go for a narrower market, like Realms of Fantasy? Are there any holes in the short fiction market that you’d plug with a magazine?

ANSWER: At this late date, some 35 years into my career, I don’t need the aggravation and I don’t even need the money, so if I were to edit a magazine I would do so only if I were offered one that had no restrictions whatsoever. I’d want to be free to publish hard SF, soft SF, fantasy, even a little offbeat mainstream. The two magazines with the closest formats would probably be F&SF and the late, lamented Amazing.

2008 note: So here I am, co-editing Jim Baen’s Universe, and I am choosing exactly the kind of stories I like, regardless of category. Of course, friend Eric Flint has to agree with me, but we’ve only disagreed once — on a first story — in all the time I’ve been here.
2012 update: Well, JBU lasted 4 years, and it was fun. Now I’m editing the Stellar Guild line of books for Arc Manor, and again, with no restrictions for style or subject. I’ll still edit an occasional anthology built around a single theme, but when I edit a line of books, or a magazine, I won’t accept the job if it comes with more than minimal restrictions. My next birthday cake will have 70 candles, and if I can’t be picky by this point in my life and career, when can I be?

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QUESTION: I keep reading doom-and-gloom pronouncements on the Internet, foreseeing the imminent collapse of the print SF industry. (And they usually go on to say I should be giving my stories away to their Webzines, but that’s a topic for another rant.) My question: there are one heck of a lot of paying markets out there. Is there really an SF slump?

ANSWER: Yeah, SF’s in a slump. But it’s not in its death throes. The book industry has been gobbling too many returns, the mediabooks have virtually wiped out the midlist, and the raised-on-TV generation finds endless comfort in endless sequels starring the same unchanging characters. And a field that once supported over 30 magazines is down to single digits.

That said, I must point out that more people are making more money writing science fiction and fantasy than ever before. Who is making it has changed, but it’s being made.

2012 update: a lot can happen in 14 years. We’re down to the “big 3” digests — Asimov’s, Analog, and F&SF. Realms of Fantasy keeps coming and going; I truly don’t know if it’s in business as I write these words or not.

But I’ll tell you what *is* in business: Clarkesworld. And Subterranean. And Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. And Lightspeed. And Daily Science Fiction. And Shock Totem. And Abyss & Apex. And Weird Tales. And Beneath Ceaseless Skies. And Redstone. And Strange Horizons. And a handful of other e-zines, that have two things in common: they’re in business, and they’re paying what SFWA considers to be pro rates.

Welcome to the future.

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QUESTION: I just read a set of guidelines that say they don’t take “shared world” stories. I hope this isn’t too basic a question, but what’s a shared world story?

ANSWER: An author — usually a Name — creates a world, a future, a set of characters, or (usually) a combination of the three, and then this background is farmed out to various other writers. The most basic examples are the “tribute” volumes, like Foundation’s Friends and The Williamson Effect. I could be wrong, but I think the first successful original shared-world anthology series was Bob Asprin’s and Lynn Abbey’s Thieves’ World.

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QUESTION: Everything I write grows to fill all available disk space; when I force an ending, all my friends say “Okay, where’s the other 75,000 words of this?” Do I really need to sell a bunch of short stories before attempting a novel?

ANSWER: Based on your very brief description, I’d say that what you really need to do is develop some literary discipline, and crafting short stories is certainly a good way of going about it, especially if you’ve got diarrhea of the keyboard.

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QUESTION: Of all the outlining forms, which do you prefer to write? Receive?

ANSWER: As a writer, I prefer a simple, straightforward synopsis. I would never dream of boring an editor with a formal outline containing roman numerals and the like.

As an editor, all I’ve ever bought is short fiction, and short fiction has never required an outline, nor would I be interested in reading one.

2012 update: Now I’m buying books for the Stellar Guild line, but they’re still not novels, but rather team-ups with a novella by an established star and a novelette by his or her protégé, so I still don’t need novel outlines.

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QUESTION: I’ve been entering the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest every quarter for the last couple of years. Just in time for Christmas I received an honorable-mention letter, the closest I’ve come to publication anywhere, and showed it to a friend who’s a published author. She recoiled in horror and said “Oh, no! You don’t want to be published there; that contest is owned by the Church of Scientology and winning it is the kiss of death. You’ll never sell another story anywhere.” True or false?

ANSWER: False.

2012 update: Now that I’ve judged the contest the last two years and am about to do it again, I can address that a little more thoroughly.

First of all, I’ve been in Hollywood for the ceremonies twice now, an aggregate of 8 days participating in workshops and the like, and I have yet to even hear the word “Scientology” mentioned. These workshops and contests are for science fiction, and they are single-mindedly dedicated to it.

Second, regarding the statement that winning is the kiss of death and “You’ll never sell another story anywhere.” Some of the winners have been Patrick Rothfuss, Tobias S. Buckell, Eric Flint, Dave Wolverton, R. Garcia Y. Robertson, Nick DiChario, Diana Rowland, and Jay Lake, among others. How many of them have been locked out of the market?

Third, the statement makes it sound like no one will ever want to be caught dead judging the contest, for fear that the association with Hubbard’s name might besmirch them and their careers. So who has judged it? Jack Williamson, Frederik Pohl, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Algis Budrys, Kevin J,. Anderson, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Tim Powers, Greg Benford, Ben Bova, Orson Scott Card, Hal Clement, Frank Herbert, Eric Flint, Anne McCaffrey, Andre Norton, Robert Silverberg, Robert J. Sawyer, Theodore Sturgeon, Roger Zelazny, Gene Wolfe, and me. See any careers nose-diving because of it?

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QUESTION: As I get to know more people in the SF field, I’m finding some things puzzling. If SF is a literature of the future, why are so many in the field living in the past, or at least, nostalgic for the past? For a literature that deals with all of space and time, why are so many people provincial and parochial? For a literature of ideas, why are so many, although bright, rather poorly informed? For a literature of adventure, why are so many unadventurous?

Don’t get me wrong — I think it’s a good group and I’m fond of many of the people I’ve met. But there does seem to be a discontinuity here.

ANSWER: You didn’t name any names, which was certainly diplomatic of you, so I’m going to have to offer very generalized answers:

1. There is no problem so complex and complicated today that it won’t be more complex and complicated tomorrow. Some writers prefer simple, elegant solutions to problems, solutions that are no longer valid or practical.

2. A lot of writers grew up in the (John) Campbell Age (of rigorous extrapolation) or the (Horace) Gold Age (of social satire) and, since this was what got them interested in SF, this is what they want to write.

3. As readers of this column know, I believe that the readership — and the general public — has been seriously dumbed down over the past quarter century. Not too many of us are getting rich writing challenging fiction, so what you’re observing may be a genuflection to the marketplace rather than an intrinsic shortcoming among the writers.

4. Some writers feel that those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them, and so they write about a thinly-disguised past.

5. Some writers look ahead and are overwhelmed and/or terrified — so they write about the past, too, though for different reasons.

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QUESTION: Have long response times for submissions at magazines and publishers always been the norm? Or is this something that developed over the last 10 or 15 years? What’s the reason for it? Overwork? Sloth? Disorganization?

ANSWER: There’s a dichotomy that has always existed. Names get read fast; non-names don’t. And as the number of non-names trying to sell a magazine increases — surely John Campbell’s slush pile in 1943 was considerably smaller than Stan Schmidt’s in 1998 — the response time necessarily becomes greater.

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QUESTION: What I find surprising is how accepting people are of the low standards set by many professional markets. Let me give you an example: I had 7 or 8 rubber “sales” to “professional” markets. In some cases there were phone acceptances, in others, letters promising payment “on publication.” Later on, funding dries up, the publisher falls through, etc. and it’s “sorry about that.” Why not simply state up front the publishing contract isn’t firm, the funding isn’t stable? Let the writers decide if they want to tie up their manuscripts.

Are people so desperate to get their work published they’ll happily take any abuse?

ANSWER: I’m not aware of any legitimate professional SF magazine closing its doors without ample warning — even Amazing and the brief revival of Worlds of If. As for semi-pro markets, it’s always been caveat emptor.

Are people so desperate to get their work published they’ll happily take any abuse? Absolutely. Always have been, always will be. If there are any doubts, just read the State of New York’s case against Edit Ink.

2012 update: Now the internet has given those desperate writers a chance to get their work (self-)published. And more and more are doing it. Properly done by “branded” writers it can become quite lucrative — every title in my backlist is making money, whereas three years ago they were sitting around gathering dust between re-sale… but the flip side is that probably 95% of the self-published books, maybe even more, aren’t good enough to be sold to any legitimate publisher, and for the e-book buyer, it’s definitely caveat emptor.

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QUESTION: For an unpublished author, is one outline form better than others? Do editors prefer short/simple/sweet, or are they looking for careful descriptions of plot and characterization?

ANSWER: It’s a tricky balancing act. As a new writer, you want to convince the editor that you’ve plotted out your book and visualized your characters as thoroughly as possible . . . but you don’t want to hand him such a long and detailed outline that he’ll think you can’t hold the book to 400 or 600 (or however many) pages. I think somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 words is about right; whatever length within those confines where you can find a comfort level.

Do it right a couple of times, and then you can sell your novels based on conversations over the dinner table. That ought to encourage you.

2008 mote: If I can put in a plug here, I edited a Hugo-nominated book on this very subject six years ago titled I Have This Nifty Idea…, published by Wildside Press. It contains more than 30 outlines and synopses, by 19 different authors including Bobert Silverberg, Kevin J. Anderson, Joe Haldeman, myself, Katherine Kerr, etc., all of which resulted in major sales. I believe it’s still available — actually, this isn’t really a plug, since we all contributed our outlines/synopses gratis as a way of paying forward — and if you can get your hands on it, I think it’ll help you see the various approaches that are available to you…not theoretical approaches, but approaches that produced sales.

2012 update: Last I heard, Wildside still has a few copies left.

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QUESTION: I’ve read a great deal about how a cover letter for a book/story proposal needs to be the best letter I’ve ever written — is this true in your opinion or do they really read these things?

ANSWER: I think the best cover letter is businesslike and brief. For a book proposal, it should say, in essence, “I’m so-and-so, my credentials are such-and-such, and here is my proposal for the book I’d like to sell you.” If you have some special expertise — you’re a paleontologist and you’re writing Raptor Red, a novel about a Utahraptor — by all means say so. And if the editor has asked to see this submission, perhaps when you spoke to him at a convention, mention that. Otherwise, keep it brief, businesslike, and to the point.

And if the editor is a personal friend, of course throw out the above paragraph and write him a friendly personal letter.

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QUESTION: How do you feel about agents: a vital necessary aspect of authoring, or sleaze living off the sweat of the publishing world?

ANSWER: The good ones — and there are maybe half a dozen in our field at any given time — are a vital, necessary aspect of authoring. The bad ones — and they far outnumber the good ones — are sleaze living off the sweat of the publishing world.

2012 update: And these days a lot of the bad ones are entering serious conflicts of interest by becoming e-publishers for their writers. Can’t imagine there’s much of a negotiation when your agent is pitching an e-book to himself.

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QUESTION: An increasing number of small press publishers and one major genre publisher are requiring authors to sign contracts in which they assume all financial liability in the event of a lawsuit. This is a worrisome trend. Would you sign such a contract — and what advice would you offer another writer considering such a thing?

ANSWER: I would never sign it, and I would urge every other writer not to sign it.

When you sign a book or a movie contract, you make certain warranties: the manuscript is original, the manuscript is not libelous, etc. You may indemnify the publisher or producer against those explicit charges. But you never agree to assume all financial liability in case of a lawsuit.

Why not?

Here’s a simple example. A little old lady in Oregon reads the chaste love scene in your book, and sues because you’re defaming her daughter. After all, your heroine is blonde and female and named Lucy, and her daughter is blonde and female and named Lucille.

Ludicrous, right?

But if you’ve signed the contract in question, your publisher can decide not to contest it, the court can award damages of $500,000 US — and you are on the hook for it.

(In fact, there is absolutely no reason why he should ever contest any lawsuit concerning your story. A kindergarten dropout who can barely spell his name in the dirt with a stick claims you plagiarized it? Fine. Spend $100,000 US defending the charge, or pay the damages. Why should your publisher give a damn which you do? He’s off the hook either way.)

See you next month.

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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