I’ve often called Mike Resnick a friend and mentor. And recently as he was honored at ChiCon as Guest Of Honor, I’ve gone back and revisited some of the works of his which have most inspired me. I was not a longstanding Resnick fan. In fact, I barely knew who he was when I read a review in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction comparing various speculative fiction stories which made use of other cultures. Discovering Mike’s passion for Africa and success with stories inspired by it, I looked him up and emailed him about my passion for Africa. The next thing I knew he’d sent me files of all of the stories and I began to read. Then we opened a dialogue that launched me into my Resnick discovery. What I admire so much about Mike’s use of African characters and culture is that unlike so many Westerners he seems to find value in their dedication to traditions and their passion for their traditional ways, while still recognizing some of the weaknesses and failings which have resulted. He’s done a remarkable job of writing characters who feel authentic without making them look silly or backward but leaving it up to us to decide who deserves admiration and who doesn’t. In his trilogy of Chronicles Of A Distant World—Paradise, Inferno and Purgatory–he used African history and political events as the inspiration for planetary colonization, getting inside the minds of alien races as well as human colonists and, in the process, wound up predicting some events which happened in real African history in the cultures he used for inspiration. I think, like me, Resnick has seen the value of observing a culture without making snap judgements based on our own presuppositions and he has sought to present those cultures in a respectful light despite any obvious failings.
Resnick is not the only author to dabble in African storytelling, of course, Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor has used her culture in her writings extensively and Alan Dean Fosters’s Into The Out Of makes great use of African cultures as well. Writers like Paolo Bacigalupi and Jason Sanford have used their own crosscultural experiences with Asian nations in their writing, and Lucius Shepard is well known for his stories of Latin American culture. I myself just had a short story published that employed US-Mexico border culture. And I think these kinds of explorations are rich fodder and rife with the opportunity to break away from traditional storylines and tropes. One of the great advantages for writers of world travels is the opportunity to get inside the heads of those who see the world very differently from how we see it ourselves, study their traditions, customs, ideas, etc. and find inspiration for writing more complex and interesting and nuanced tales. You don’t have to agree with a point of view to get inside the heads of those who hold it. You do have to respect their right to have their own beliefs though, I think. And perhaps that’s where the challenge lies today, particularly here in the United States where ideological political differences more often divide and destroy respect rather than encourage it. It’s hard to accept those with whom we strongly degree, it seems. And media and pundits work hard to keep it that way.
But for me, an upper middle class doctor’s kid, spending time in African cities and tribal villages and Brazilian cities and slums, etc. has made me see the world as a much bigger place than I ever could have imagined before those experiences. It’s widened my box and my lens and allowed me to ask questions I wasn’t accustomed to asking and even consider options which might not have occurred to me before 2000 when I started my world travels. I find some of the customs and attitudes I encounter in these places to be frustrating and misinformed, yes, but I also find some of them inspiring and worthwhile. There are many things of value we could learn from each other if we just took the time. For example, the unity of African community is something that would benefit us greatly in the West. I blog about it here and how much I think we could learn from their sense of oneness and unity. Their focus on conversation and hanging out represents another lost opportunity. Africans love to spend their evenings not in front of the TV, but gathering with neighbors and friends to discuss news, weather, life, work, the universe and everything in between. Even when they do watch television or movies, they invite people to join them. I rarely saw them sitting around alone doing such activity. Life is a communal experience. Africans seem to find joy in the little things and lack of things which we take for granted as well. It was a stunning reminder to me that those who have often lose appreciation for their condition and that those who are accutely aware of their lack often have a freedom we lack.
This is why what Apex and Lavie Tidhar have done with their Book of World SF anthologies is so important. There are other ways to see the world through the specfic lens, and by taking the time to see them, we can learn a lot about ourselves which we’d never expected and might not see any other way. We can also discover possibilities for viewing the world which never occurred to us. People operating with different experiences, assumptions and histories tend to view the same situations through different eyes. And there are few things better for teaching us how to write diverse and real characters with truly different points of view than seeing the world through the eyes of real people with such varied points of view. Admittedly, what we see isn’t always going to be pleasant. But then the nihilistic trends of the media and much fiction have left behind the happy ending fairy tales of our youth anyway. Those open to the possibilities of positives will find them, while those focused primarily on negatives will not. It’s not even that one should want to or have to write characters of different cultures as much as getting inside the heads of people who push us outside our stereotypes and go-to ideas so that we can write something different than we might have before. Resnick, Okorafor, Foster, and others have done this quite well, which is why, looking back at their work now, I am reminded how much difference it can make for writers to take the time to experience such things for themselves.
When I spent time volunteering in prisons, I came away telling people that everyone should go and experience that for themselves because “the inmates are a lot more like us than you’d imagine.” For me, it was a scary and yet sobering reminder that human beings no matter their backgrounds, etc. have more in common than different. The same held true of my experiences in other cultures. I tell everyone to visit a developing world country at least once. See for yourselves what you’ve only imagined from the pages of National Geographic or TV specials about starvation, etc. Go there and experience it and be forever changed. If you’re not changed, you’re doing something wrong. I don’t see how you couldn’t be. Don’t fear this kind of change. It’s the good kind–the kind that makes you smarter, wiser, more aware and more appreciative. It’s the kind that makes you a better person and inspires you to write better stories and live better lives. That kind of change can’t be a bad thing, can it?
I’m grateful that writers I admire have taken the time to make use of those lessons and changes from their own lives. I only hope that I and others can do a better job of it in the future, for there are great stories that deserve to be told, waiting to be told, waiting to be discovered. And there’s a far richer tapestry than we often remember with which we can tell those stories. In a genre where it’s often said “there are no new ideas, only new ways of telling them,” it’s hard to pass up any chance to broaden one’s storytelling horizons and toolbox, isn’t it? I know it has been for Mike Resnick, Alan Dean Foster, Nnedi Okorafor and for me.
For what it’s worth…
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince(2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exodus will appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Books For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Lost In A Land Of Legends (forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on World Encounters and Space & Shadows: SpecNoir with coeditor John Helfers, both forthcoming. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.
This started out to be a top 10 list. You know the saying: “Advice is like buttholes, everybody’s got one.” And when it comes to writing, advice is like sand on a beach: everywhere. But sifting the sand to separate the pure from the soiled can be tricky. Authors seeking publication approach pros all the time seeking help, opportunity, pitching their novels and stories. And often the difference between positive and negative response lies in the professionalism of the author who’s asking. The more informed you are about the business, the better position you’re in to approach people and sell yourself. But all too many still get it wrong.
Then I asked professional authors, editors and publishers I know what advice they wish new authors knew about publishing but don’t and got such diverse and great responses, I didn’t need to write a post, so here they are broken down by category and source. I hope you find them helpful. Although the people I asked are from the Science Fiction and Fantasy end of publishing because those are my circles, most of this advice applies to writers regardless of genre.
1) Asking me to sign a pledge or promise or contract stating I won’t steal their idea. You might be surprised to know this happens once in awhile.
2) Responding to edits in an unprofessional manner. I’m one of the easiest editors in the business to get along with, so I get doubly annoyed when an author gets snotty about suggested edits. Just tell me what you disagree with and let’s have a professional conversation about them. There is a good chance I will side with the author.
3) Being impatient. Publishing is the proto-typical “hurry up and wait” profession. If that is an aspect of the business you can’t deal with, then you’re probably in the wrong business.
Everyone’s heard all the rags-to-riches stories behind franchise authors like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, but those stories are actually extremely rare. Most published authors continue to hold down a “day job” in order to afford luxury items like food, electricity, and health care. Publication is not a guarantee of riches, especially in the current Depression, which has hit the publishing business particularly hard. If you’re depending on selling your book in the next couple weeks to make your next mortgage payment you’re in serious trouble. It could take a year or more for your book to be accepted by a publisher, and another couple years after that before it actually hits the bookstore shelves. And by then, any trend you might be trying to surf has long-since passed, so don’t try to write a Hunger Games knock-off. By the time you’re done writing it, the Hunger Games thing will be over. Write because you love to tell stories and have a story of your own you’re dying to tell. That’s how you might become “the next J.K. Rowling.” In fact, that’s precisely how J.K. Rowling did it. Be patient, be prepared to work hard, and do not quit your day job!
According to Authors:
Grandmaster James Gunn is the author of numerous short stories and novels, including The Listeners and The Immortals. He’s also a Professor at University of Kansas where he leads the Center For The Study Of Science Fiction, Ad Astra magazine, and the John W. Campbell Conference and Awards, amongst other things. He says:
I like Fred Pohl’s advice: Everything in a contract is negotiable except the name of the publisher, and even that can be negotiated if the book is wanted enough.
CJ Cherryh is a John W. Campbell, Nebula and Hugo winning author of books like Downbelow Station and Cyteen:
a) nowadays publishing houses want e-rights. They will hold their breath until they get them. If it is a big house able to do them well, this is ok.
b) never sell anybody rights that their company is not large enough or diverse enough to use. Sequester those rights from the contract. IE, you can have ‘first’ ‘North American’ ‘serial rights’ (for a story) or you can have’role-playing’ ‘gaming rights’ or you can have ‘board’ ‘gaming rights’ or you may have the ‘audio reproduction’ rights but not the ‘audio drama’ rights and not ‘audiovisual’ rights or ‘stage production rights’ or ‘motion picture’ rights. It should also say ‘all rights not assigned in this contract belong to the author’.
c) always include something like the following: ‘publication of the Work as an e-book shall not be considered publication as defined in’ [the paragraph where it specifies the kind of print publication and says what the Work is and defines the term ‘in print’.] if it is only for e-publication, be sure to include this: “When in any calendar year the proceeds from e-book sales do not exceed 300.00, all rights shall revert to the author.’ At least it’ll make them cough up enough to buy you a shopping trip.
d) be real damned careful about your shalls and wills when you are writing a contract term. Use of the wrong one can void the clause. Get a lawyer friend to glance over it.
e) terms in book contracts don’t mean the same that they do in any other kind of contract. I have had lawyers who have book contracts come to me, who am not a lawyer, to look over for stingers and problems. ‘Royalty’ is in an application unique to the publishing world, and does not mean royalties in any sense understood by the IRS. Remember this.
f) be real damned sure that in case you or your publisher should be hit by a bus, there is a provision for successors in the contract. A book is property. It can be passed to your heirs. A publishing house is a corporation: it can die, or be sold, and if it is sold, its contracts can be part of the sale. That’s why there’s an ‘heirs and successors’ clause in contracts. This prevents you having to hunt down the dogs to get performance and means they have to deal with your heirs.
g) there should be a performance clause, ie, they have x number of months to get this Work on the stands or published.
h) copyright should always be in the author’s name. Insist.
Bestselling urban fantasy author Kat Richardson (Greywalker) offered this advice:
For me the things that are most irritating are the electronic book clauses and the many forms they can take; in one of my contracts it’s under Electronic Rights and in another from the same publisher, it’s under Display Rights.
Also, be very careful of the agency clauses in the contracts as they define the writer’s relationship with the agency, even though that’s actually none of the publisher’s business, but they can effect the writer to the same or greater degree as the actual agency contract or agreement.
Faith Hunter is a bestselling author of the Jane Yellowrock and Rogue Mage novels, amongst others, and member of the blog team Magical Words and said:
Finish and polish the book *before* you try to find an agent or editor.
Dave Gross writes for computer games by day and fantasy novels by night. His next Pathfinder Tales novel, Queen of Thorns, arrives in mid-October. He offers this advice:
The only universally useful writing advice is: Write. Write often, and write in different ways. Don’t be afraid of imitation. Copy the writers you admire, then rewrite those pieces in a different style. Do that a lot, and then set it aside. Come back to it later and write it in your own voice. Write different genres of story. Write poems. Write plays. Try writing at different times. Write in the morning. Take a nap and when you get up start writing. Write after everyone else has gone to bed. Write in different places and with different tools. Write on the bus or in the park. Write in the middle of a food court. If you use a computer, write in a notebook. Try using a pencil instead of a pen. Write the minute after you get out of a movie while your head is still filled with strange images. Write down your dreams. Imagine the dream someone is having in the house down the street, and write that. Write plenty, and rewrite even more. Maybe you won’t see the difference in a matter of weeks or months, but eventually you will see it. When you do, write about it.
International bestselling author Daniel Abraham has over a dozen books in print and has been short-listed for Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Awards. He offers this advice:
Career implosions are normal. Almost everyone who’s been in the business for more than a few years has had their career founder under them at least once. The people who got discouraged are the ones that aren’t around anymore. The folks who stayed are the ones that shrugged off the failures and started trying to break in again. And again. And again
Maurice Broaddus, urban fantasy author (The Knights Of Breton Court) and anthology editor (Dark Faith, Dark Faith 2) suggests:
Guard as many of your rights as possible (the publisher doesn’t need all of them).
Make sure there are reversion clauses (they don’t need ten+ years of your digital/future formats rights).
Bestselling author Jean Johnson who rights paranormal romance and military science fiction (An Officer’s Duty, A Soldier’s Duty, The Sword, The Cat, The Mage) says:
Spelling, punctuation, grammar, and formatting actually do still count.
Slush pile readers, agents, and editors will discard stories filled with errors, inconsistancies, and a blatant lack of care for the craft of the written word. Even if your name is Stephen King, they will be looking at the manuscript for how good it is as a story, and how well crafted it is as a piece of writing. It may seem unfair, but if they see a lot of technical errors in the way words are spelled, how sentences are structured and punctuated, so on and so forth, they’re not going to want to give you a publishing contract because they will not believe you are professional enough to handle the demands of a contract.
In fact, most literary agencies and publishing houses have a standard “X number of errors in Y number of pages = toss it in the rejection pile” policy. Whether it’s a written, official policy or not, they have too many other manuscripts to wade through to waste time on something that makes their eyes cross and their brains hurt.. Yes, you may have written a story, and you can be proud of that. Yes, you may believe that it’s a good story, good enough to be published, and there’s nothing wrong with believing in yourself and your work. However, that does not entitle you to carelessness, arrogance, or anything else which would suggest an unprofessional attitude. This includes an unprofessional presentation of your written works.
There are points where you can stand up for the formatting you want, or the spelling of a specific word, particularly in genre fiction, but understand that most editors and publishers will want your novel to look its best in the eyes of your future readers. Cooperate beforehand by getting your manuscript beta-edited by someone with good literary skills. Cooperate during the review and editing process by carefully considering the changes suggested. Strive diligently to look for and eliminate errors during the copy-editing and draft-editing stages.
Cultivate and cherish a reputation for producing clean manuscripts as well as the good stories we know you have inside of you. Editors, agents, and especially your future readers will love you for it.
I doubt I could do much better than that. Others of you out there feel free to add advice in comments. For what it’s worth…
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince(2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exodus will appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Books For Kids(ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Lost In A Land Of Legends (forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on World Encounters and Space & Shadows: SpecNoir with coeditor John Helfers, both forthcoming. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.