Ask Bwana #23

NOTE: this article first appeared in Speculations #23 — September, 1998

Just got back from Worldcon, where I won my fourth Hugo Award, tying me with Robert A. Heinlein and putting me one ahead of Arthur C. Clarke.

(Does this mean I have equal standing in the history of the field with those two giants? Nope. What it means is that it’s easier to amass Hugos when they have existed for the entirety of your career, rather than writing most of your best/most famous work before the Hugo was created. Keep that in mind the next time someone brags to you about where they stand in the all-time Hugo rankings.)

Got a letter from Algis Budrys concerning a statement — well, actually a misstatement — in last issue’s column. Take it away, Ajay:

Bwana has it somewhat wrong. Frank Robinson wrote the Playboy Advisor. I was, somewhat earlier, the editor-in-chief of Playboy Press (which is not the same as being editor-in-chief of Playboy). We sold quite a few paperback 8 1/2 x 11 books essentially made from old Playboy tearsheets, and we sold The Bedside Playboy, a hardcover anthology. I also worked on the Twelfth Anniversary Playboy Reader, a very glossy anthology, and The Twelfth Anniversary Cartoon Album, ditto. I was the second or third of four editors-in-chief who had worked on those books, which at one time had been titled The Tenth Anniversary . . . After awhile, I had a nervous collapse and was dragged away babbling; Hefner moved to California, and the bleeding slowed to a faint trickle in a year or two. Though I still, on damp, cold days . . . well, never mind.


Algis Budrys

Well, I knew Algis did something for Playboy. I thought it was the Advisor (which he certainly could have written, since he has suave and couth to spare). In no way does this negate the fact that Algis, like a lot of us, labored in the “adult” field and managed to sell science fiction under his own name, which is what I believe the question was about.

(Algis and I go way back. We used to live about 15 miles apart, and when I got my first Toastmaster gig some 20+ years ago, he was the Guest of Honor. Since it was my first Toastmaster gig, I prepared about two hours of funny Algis Budrys stories and insults. I only spoke for about 20 minutes, and, as I’m sure Algis will be happy to tell anyone, I’m still using what was left over.)

Incidentally, there has always been a field where a beginning writer, if he was fast and facile and didn’t mind using a pseudonym, could earn a living while learning his craft. In the 1930s it was the pulp magazines (and I’ll exclude such exceptions as Black Mask, and Campbell’s Astounding and Unknown, which aspired to something higher); in the 1960s it was the sex field; in the 1970s it was Gothics.

For awhile in the 1990s, it seemed that mediabooks would be the next high-pay learning ground, but then they found out that well-written books by established pros outsold not-so-well-written books by beginners, thus showing that media readers had more taste than anyone had given them credit for, and now all the major contracts go to the pros.

I’m not quite sure what the next earn-as-you-learn field will be, but I’m sure it’s on the horizon and approaching fast.

All right; on to this issue’s questions:
QUESTION: I’ve heard it said that the greatest thing that can happen to an artist is to marry someone who enjoys taking care of the details of day-to-day life, and after talking to Joe and Gay Haldeman at Worldcon, I can see how nicely it would work out. What’s the division of labor like at Casa Bwana?

ANSWER: Each couple has to work out their own methodology for getting the work done. In our case, Carol has always been my uncredited collaborator. We create many of the plots together, we create many of the characters together, we create many of the approaches together. Then I sit down and write, usually late at night, and I leave the evening’s production in a neat little pile on the breakfast table. (I’ve done as many as 40 pages in a night, and as few as 2; it usually comes in between 8 and 15.) Carol gets up before I do, and by the time I drag myself out of bed she has line-edited the manuscript (frequently using more words to correct the story than I used to write it — unless I come to the dreaded but not unknown message: “Ugh!”, which translates as “Throw it out and start over.”) I think her greatest talent is spotting ideas and making suggestions that appeal to my strengths, rather than urging me to write the story she would tell if she were sitting at the keyboard.

I never proceed to the next chapter of a novel until the current chapter has passed muster with her, and I rarely start on a new short story before she’s okayed the current one.

She has become my credited collaborator on screenplays. I say it’s because she has most of the screenwriting talent (she’s far more visual than I am) and quite literally does 75% of the writing (true), and she says it’s because they won’t let her into the story conferences if she’s not a collaborator and I’ll just misunderstand what they’re telling me (also true, and unquestionably more important.)

After a third of a century as a full-time pro, I know how to schedule my time, so I don’t need her to beat off friends, fans and salesmen . . . and since we both hate secretarial work and it’s my career, she leaves it to me.


QUESTION: I’ve been commissioned to write a story for one of a series of new shared universe anthologies, something along the lines of Thieves’ World. I really like the basic idea, and I’m thrilled by the list of pros that I’ll be appearing with. One thing: I have no agent and the contract seems very complicated, with lots of gotchas about future rights, writing about other peoples’ characters, et cetera. Do I need to have an agent look at this lousy $500 US contract? Other questions: have you ever played in somebody else’s universe? If so, is there anything you can think of that you would have done differently?

ANSWER: First, let me suggest that there’s nothing “lousy” about a $500 contract for a short story. It means that if you write 5,000 words, you’re getting a dime a word, which is a better pay rate than you can get from Asimov’s, Analog, or F&SF.

Update note: it is still better than the digests pay in 2008.

2012 update: still better, alas.

Second, yes, shared world contracts have lots of “gotchas,” because it has to be made clear, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that you don’t own the characters or the world. (And some of those “gotchas” are actually “give-ya’s,” as when George R. R. Martin offered to distribute pro rata monies to his Wild Cards writers based on subsidiary sales to movies, games companies, and so on.)

Yes, I’ve played in enough other universes to author a collection of stories entitled Solo Flights Through Shared Worlds (available, I’m sure you want to know, from Dark Regions Press).

My own approach is usually to write “against the grain.” Thus, for the Batman anthology, I wrote about the Caped Crusader’s haberdasher; for Jerry Pournelle’s War World, I wrote about a pacifist; for David Drake’s The Fleet, I wrote about a beachcomber; for the Superman anthology, I wrote about the doctor who found Clark Kent 4-F for World War II; for the Robin Hood anthology, I wrote about his Jewish mother; and so on. They let me get away with it because after all these years and all these stories I have a track record of getting away with it; I can’t speak for how anyone else would fare.


QUESTION: What’s your take on that infuriating form reject that Asimov’s uses? (No, wait, you’ve probably never seen it . . . it’s this big laundry list of possible reasons why they may have bounced your story, ranging from poor manuscript formatting to a vague feeling of ennui.) Doesn’t the editor — or at least the first reader — of the industry’s top market owe the writers a little more feedback than that?

ANSWER: No, I’ve never seen Asimov’s form reject. But I have no problem with it as described.

Look, a form reject is not a hell of a lot different than a personal reject: the operative word is not “form.” Gardner Dozois tells me that Asimov’s gets close to 1,500 submissions a month. You don’t really expect him to write 1,493 letters of condolence every month as he returns all the rejected manuscripts, do you?

As for your final question, no, the editor of the industry’s top market (and any other editor as well) does not owe the writers any more feedback than that. If you want feedback, join the Clarion or Milford writers’ conferences. This is a professional market, and all he owes you is a contract or the return of your manuscript.


QUESTION: When is a kill fee customary, please, and how much should it be?

ANSWER: It’s customary to give a kill fee when an editor has requested a story or an article from a writer who would not otherwise have written it, and the story proves to be unacceptable for reasons other than total incompetence and/or slovenliness.

This can be for reasons of timeliness (“Give me a story on Bill Clinton’s inability to tell a lie; we’ll run it in the November issue . . .”), or timing (“Look, I know I said I wanted a sci-fi book about a desert world that had these huge worm things, but Frank Herbert just turned in this 2,000-page manuscript and . . .”), or any number of other reasons (“I know I begged you to go to London to dig up some dirt on Prince Charles, but we’ve changed our format. Got any crossword puzzles we can use?”)

How much should the kill fee be? Probably a third to a half of the agreed-upon price for the story or article, plus reimbursement of any extraordinary expenses.


QUESTION: What do you think of online submission queues, where an electronic magazine (or a print magazine with a Web site) puts up its list of stories received and whether they were accepted or rejected? I know a bunch of writers who love them . . . but I can’t help thinking that they’re just a marketing ploy for the magazine: look at all this material we’re rejecting, so the stuff we buy must be really great!

ANSWER: I’m not aware of them, but if they’re as you described, then I disapprove, for the same reason that I won’t sit on one of those “It came from the slush pile” panels at conventions. Once an author gets something into print, he’s fair game for criticism and even sarcasm . . . but I don’t think the fact that he’s been rejected is anyone’s business but his own and his editor’s, and I think it’s unnecessarily cruel (not to say professionally harmful) for an editor to post a list of his rejects where everyone can see them, just as I think it’s needlessly cruel for editors on a panel to make fun of stories they’ve rejected (especially if the author, who was doubtless trying his best, is in the audience, always a possibility.)


QUESTION: Isn’t payment on acceptance a minimum standard that should be required of any market before it’s considered professional? I mean, come on — if you can’t scrape together enough money to buy six months’ worth of material at three cents a word, what makes you think you belong in business at all?

ANSWER: I have no problem with that. In fact, I would like to see the official standard raised to 5 or 6 cents a word — small enough in itself. If you sell a story a week at 3 cents a word — you make 52 such sales a year — you qualify for food stamps. How can that be considered professional?

2012 update: somewhere between when this column originally appeared and today — probably about the turn of the century — SFWA raised it’s definition of professional payment for short fiction to a nickel a word. A small step forward, but forward at least.

(It’s like the SFWA member who sells a story every two years for $400 US. Okay, by any criteria SFWA has ever employed, he’s a working, active professional . . . but in what other profession can you average less than $5.00 US a week for a decade and still claim to be a professional?)


QUESTION: A font-related question for you, sir: when I print out my manuscripts in “standard format,” I often find that I wind up with one or two odd words alone on a line in every line of dialogue. This seems like a huge waste of paper; is it okay to cheat a little bit on my margins or spacing to tighten things up?

ANSWER: Don’t bother. Editors are used to it, and the only person you’re trying to please (at this stage) is the editor.

2012 update: that’s become an almost meaningless question, especially regarding the waste of paper, as almost all the printzines and e-zines accept — and usually insist upon — electronic submissions.


QUESTION: Lately I’ve noticed what seems to be an unusually high incidence of job loss, disabling illness, and financial ruin among small-press editors. Does the stress of the job cause these problems, or do people who take up editing just tend to be susceptible?

ANSWER: I can’t answer for disabling illness. Job loss is probably a natural outcome of spending more time on your hobby than on your work. Financial ruin is the easiest to explain. Most mass market publishers wouldn’t dream of starting a line without a few million dollars in reserve. Most small-press editors (who are invariably their own publishers) start on a shoestring. You pay for all the stories, you pay for the art, you pay for the color separations, you pay for the printing, you pay for the shipping — and then you wait, and wait, and wait, to be paid by the distributors and bookstores. A lot of specialty bookstores operate on the same shoestring as the publisher, and are invariably late in making payments. And, if the publisher’s got a regular schedule, he might be paying for his fourth issue before he sees a penny on his first. And if he aspires to become Pope (which is to say, if he wants to compete for Name authors with the major magazines), he’s got to pay competitive prices, which are easier to amortize on a print run of 90,000 than a print run of 900.

Come to think of it, I wonder why more of them don’t go belly-up.

2012 update: thanks to the emergence of e-books, the small press is fast becoming an endangered species…and the specialty bookstore is, alas, an almost extinct one.


QUESTION: Where do you get your titles? I’m constantly stuck.

ANSWER: As I mentioned in a prior column, there are a lot of theories of titles, ranging from the incredibly short to the incredibly long, from the catchy to the incomprehensible.

I’ll let you in on a secret: if the story is good enough, it’ll sell regardless of the title. It’s nice to come up with something like “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” or “Nightwings” or “Bazaar of the Bizarre” or “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones,” but it’s not essential.

You disagree? Let’s just take a quick look at an equal number of Hugo-winning titles that make very little sense until you read the stories:


“The Darfstellar”

“The Manamouki”



QUESTION: I’m having a terrible time enjoying anything in the genre these days; it either stinks, in which case I throw it across the room, or it’s light-years ahead of anything I can do, in which case I start analyzing it and forget to enjoy. As you started writing more, did you find yourself reading (and enjoying) less?

ANSWER: The one — indeed the only — regret I have about becoming a professional writer is that I can no longer read for pleasure. If a story works, I have to find out why; if it doesn’t, I have to find out why not. Enjoyment is an occasional by-product, but it’s no longer the reason I read fiction.


QUESTION: I know my short stories are good, really good. I’ve been told this by a few Big Names who had nothing to gain by telling me so. I’ve sold a few stories, but mostly, none of the editors are buying. I’m beginning to get very discouraged, so much so that I’m thinking about giving up my dream of being a professional writer. How long should a person slog away without selling before throwing in the towel?

ANSWER: I truly believe that any writer who can be discouraged should be discouraged. Ray Bradbury is said to have collected more than 200 rejection slips before making his first sale.

You know, you hear about Heinlein selling his first story, and Silverberg selling a novel as a teenager, and Asimov and Delany selling when they were barely old enough to shave, and you tend to think everyone breaks in that easily. But we know of their early triumphs because they’re the exceptions, not the rule. Most of the writers whose names you know could paper the walls of their offices, if not their houses, with the rejection slips they received before selling regularly.

(And not all authors are helped by early sales. I was just good enough to sell three mediocre sf novels in the 1960s. They were so mediocre that I stayed away from the field for 12 years to give the readers time to forget them.)


QUESTION: Everywhere I look there are Resnick books on the stands and Resnick stories and columns in the magazines. How you can be so wildly prolific?

ANSWER: I don’t consider myself wildly prolific at all. Maybe in my youth, but these days gravity has caught up with me.

Still, to answer your question, let’s try a little thought experiment. Do you think that, if you had to, you could write a single-spaced, one-page business letter?

Okay. Now, can you imagine yourself writing 3 one-page single-spaced business letters in an 8-hour day, if that constitutes the only work you are required to do?

So far so good?

Now, can you imagine yourself doing that 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year, and taking a two-week vacation at the end of that time?

Well, if you can, you should know that you’ve just produced the equivalent of four 100,000-word novels, one 10,000-word novelette, and three 5,000-word short stories.

Of course, the real trick is not producing them, but making them worth reading.

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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3 Responses to Ask Bwana #23

  1. Oh no! I thought surely sooner or later I’d be able to read for sheer pleasure again. It’s exactly as you say, constantly dissecting to see what makes it tick…or not, although I don’t usually keep reading those. Not sure when the change took place, but once I realized it had happened I was a little disturbed about it. But it didn’t just affect books. I can hardly find a movie to watch that doesn’t send me into the same critical mode. It’s hard to stay quiet…bothers my fiance’ when I pick it apart while we’re watching, lol.

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