Interview with Mike Resnick
Joshua Sky Interviews Legendary Author Mike Resnick
At 74 years old, Mike Resnick is only hitting his stride. Just last week he handed in the eighth book he wrote this year, and he has clocked in 13 short stories and just sold a fantasy trilogy to DAW Publishing. He has mentored countless authors, including Nebula award nominee Martin Shoemaker and is the recipient of five Hugos (from a record 37 nominations) and is first on the Locus list of all-time award winners, living or dead, for short fiction, and is fourth on the list of Science Fiction's all-time top award winners in all fiction categories. Resnick is also the editor of Galaxy's Edge, one of the field's leading magazines.
I had the opportunity to speak with Mike about his perspective on the field, past and present, and received invaluable insider tips on how to sell fiction.
JS: Walk me through your origin story.
MR: I always wanted to write science fiction and have always been able to sell my writing. When I was in high school I sold a couple stories. In college I basically wrote my way through. But I couldn't sell any SF then. And after I got married, I found that I really needed a job. I got married when I was 19, we just celebrated our 55th anniversary. I looked around Chicago at the time, and the only job open was at a place called National Features Syndicate. I went in, and within two weeks I was editing something called The National Insider, which was the National Enquirer only much worse. Our best-selling single issue had the headline: "Raped by Seven Dwarfs!" I will not testify to the veracity of some of our stories.
Anyway, once I got there I started finding out about the "adult" field. Since my publisher did not publish books, it was not considered disloyal to sell to other publishers who were buying. Most of them paid $600-$1,000. No royalties, but you learned how to write awfully fast.
Robert Silverberg and Barry Malzberg can testify to this, too. It wasn't an enormous, or even an unusual feat to write a fifty-thousand-word book in four to five days. You'd turn them in, and $600 to a $1,000 a book isn't much, but if you sold twenty or thirty in a year and you realized that the average American at that time was making about $8,000 a year, you were getting paid very well while learning how to write. I did it for just under a decade. My wife and I also bred and exhibited Collies. We had 23 champions and named all them after science fiction stories.
One day, I walked up to her and said, "If I write one more four-day book, or six-hour screenplay…" I wrote screenplays for Herschell Gordon Lewis, who was voted the second worst director of all time in the Golden Turkey Awards, just behind Ed Wood; I'd like to think my screenplays had something to do with it. Anyway, I knew if I wrote one more of these books or screenplays I was going to go crazy. What else did we know how to do? Care for our Collies. So we searched around for a year, and found the country’s second-biggest luxury boarding and grooming kennel in Cincinnati. Bought it, moved here, took about three or four years for a staff of 20 to put the business safely into profit, and that was about 1980. Well, I figured the kind of stuff I wanted to write was different enough that hardly anyone would want to buy it. So we kept the kennel and I wrote exactly what I wanted to write, which was my particular kind of science fiction. When the science fiction astounded us by out-earning the kennel five years in a row, we sold the kennel in 1993 and I've been doing nothing but writing SF (and the occasional mystery novel) ever since.
JS: Talk about your process. I know you're a night owl, do you outline, dictate?
MR: No, I just sit and write. Nothing goes out without Carol (my wife) seeing it, editing it, and making suggestions. No one changes anything thereafter. Back in the typewriter days, I use to edit after I finished a manuscript, then I'd turn it over to a typist. But since the advent of the computer – I got mine in 1982 – I never used a typist again. People ask how many drafts I do, but these days I just edit on the screen, so I don't really know.
JS: I know you've sold a lot of material in the course of your career. What's your advice about landing sales? How do you consistently sell?
MR: First and foremost, you consistently write the very best you can, and by finding markets that are interested in buying what you're writing, or in you. How can I put it? I can only use myself as an example: Years and years ago, I was editing a book for Tor called Alternate Kennedys. All of my anthologies are by invitation only. If they weren't, I'd have 700 submissions to have to go through, and no anthology pays for that much of an editor’s time. Nancy Kress had been invited into the anthology. She was teaching a workshop where a student had a story she thought would be a good fit. She had him send it to me, and I was furious because I didn't have time to read unrequested submissions. But I was in as grouchy mood, so I figured I’d take a look at a few pages to see just how bad it was – and by Page 3 I knew there was nothing that could keep it off the Hugo ballot. So I bought it. It was by a guy named Nick DiChario, and it made the Hugo ballot, and the World Fantasy ballot, and he himself made the Campbell ballot. I later found out that every magazine in the field had rejected it, which means the slush readers were idiots, because no editor would turn it down. Afterwards I didn't hear from him for about a year. Then he sends me a novella, asking, "Can you tell me what's wrong with this? Everyone in the field has rejected it."
So I looked at what he sent, and the only thing wrong with it was that it was written by a Nick, instead of a Robert, Ray or Isaac. I got Piers Anthony to buy that one for an anthology. And I thought, if we keep treating this kid like this, he's going to go write mysteries, or espionage, and we'll lose a remarkable talent. Now I get about eight or ten invites to write for anthologies every year. And they're basically assignments, nobody is going to turn me down. And I was afraid if he didn't see his name in print soon he was going to go somewhere else, so I started inviting him to collaborate, and I invited him into some anthologies I edited, and ultimately we sold a book of our collaborations. He made the Hugo ballot again, and sold some novels, and he's doing just fine now.
But it occurred to me that he's not the only guy running up against those odds. In the mid-1990s I asked Gardner Dozois, who was editing Asimov’s, what the odds were of coming out of his slush pile. Turns out they were about 3,000-to-1 against. I asked Kristine Rusch, who at the time was editing Fantasy and Science Fiction, the same question. Answer: about 750-to-1. And I thought with odds like that we're gonna be discouraging too damned many talented people. So from that day to this, when I come across a talented newcomer I collaborate with him or her, and I buy from them to help get them into print. At conventions I take them around and introduce them to editors and to agents. Maureen McHugh calls them Mike's Writer Children. They follow me around like little ducklings following their mother as I introduce them to editor after editor and agent after agent. But the fact remains that a lot of them are making a full-time living now, far more than would be doing it without the hand up I’ve given them, and others are at least selling from time to time. So of course I'm very proud of my Writer Children. And I must add that I'm not the only guy who goes out of his way to help beginners.
One of the places that I'm finding truly talented beginners now is Writers of the Future. I've been judging it for seven or eight years, so I see every good writer who comes up that way. And I've adopted four or five of them. I just co-authored a book with Tina Gower, after having bought about six stories from her.
JS: That's the thing about this field, it seems more open to discovering, publishing and encouraging new writers. More so than any other genre of writing.
MR: It's been the case since I got in. My first year or two as a science fiction writer, I asked for advice and help from other writers. Bob Bloch, Gordie Dickson, and Bob Tucker were always there with advice, and artist Kelly Freas, who won something like ten Hugos, introduced me to a couple of publishers who wound up buying from me, and would never have known I existed had Kelly not intervened. It's the way of the field, and has been going on for a long, long time. The previous generation helps you, and since they don’t need your help, you pay them back by helping the next generation.
JS: Why do you think the culture is that way?
MR: The history of science fiction, starting from the 30's, is a history of fans turning professional. Asimov, Wollheim, Frederik Pohl, Ray Bradbury, they all published fanzines before they became pros. They went to conventions before they became pros. And they helped each other get into print and it became an exemplar of what you do. Every generation since then has done pretty much the same thing. If you look at the history of science fiction from about 1935 to about 1945, Heinlein seems to be the only one who entered the field and came up without entering it through fandom and without getting help from fandom.
JS: What do you think of the modern politics going on with the Hugos?
MR: The Hugos are far more important award than the Nebulas or anything else. One of the reasons I’ve sold to 27 countries is because of all the Hugos I've won. If I never win another one, it may break my heart but it won’t harm my career one iota. I'm in the record books. But I'd hate to think of some really fine writers who are getting shut out because the politically correct people don't like what they're saying. Right now, I suppose, for example, that you can write something in favor of Donald Trump's point of view and you might sell it, but you won't get anyone to ever say a nice word about it. Certainly not from within SFWA.
JS: But that's the thing, science fiction is supposed to show people new points of view. And it would seem that there's a strain in the field's leadership where if whatever you are saying or writing isn't in vogue with their politics, then your work is OUT, and you are ostracized.
MR: Yeah, it's gotten a little worse recently, but over the years there have been all kinds of problems. They simply hadn't reached the Hugos until two years ago.
JS: Science Fiction should be about showing people new perspectives, I never cared whether or not the writer was Black, or White, or Gay or Trans -- could they blow me away on the page? Could they truly show me something I've never seen before? That what's should count most, the material in of itself. And these politics make people lose sight of that.
MR: Well, they have a little problem with me because I've written one of the most awarded books in science fiction history, Kirinyaga. The narrator is a Black man, 98% of the cast is Black, half a dozen mainstream reviewers around the country have called me Black, assuming since I was writing in the first person that's what I was.
JS: Are we censoring new ideas because of these politics?
MR: You're censoring them to the extent that you're stopping most of the major publishers from risking publishing these things. But there's a number of smaller presses with chutzpah, and a couple of major houses as well, and sooner or later just about anything worth printing gets printed. The question, of course, is how many people are going to see it?
JS: What are you working on now?
MR: Well, I just signed a three-book contract with DAW for a fantasy trilogy. The only other fantasies I've written were about a detective in New York. The title of the new series is The Dreamscape Trilogy, and the three books are the The Master of Dreams, The Mistress of Illusions and The Lord of Nightmares.
JS: You're one of the field's most decorated writers, and if I read correctly, the most award nominated writer currently working.
MR: According to Locus, I'm the all-time leading award winner for short fiction. But that's worldwide. Connie Willis has more Hugos than I do, but I have more awards throughout the entire world than anyone else for short fiction. If you add novels, I think I come in fourth or fifth overall. 78 novels and 285 short stories. Ten books of non-fiction, which are mostly about science fiction. Three paid-for-but-unproduced screenplays, two of them science fiction.
JS: You're the editor of Galaxy's Edge and many other anthologies. What do you look for in a short story? What's a difference maker to you?
MR: When I got into science fiction there was a huge argument going, and while it's not as loud today, bits and pieces remain: What's more important, the idea or the characters? And thanks to Campbell and (especially) his predecessors, when I got in most people thought the idea was more important, which is why the writing was often pretty atrocious. I think character for 8,000 years of literature has been more important than ideas. If you don't respond emotionally, if you don’t feel or laugh or cry or fear or empathize, then to some greater or lesser extent it's a failed story. If there's a good idea embedded in it, that makes it an even better story, if it first fulfills a story’s primary function, which as I said it to elicit an emotional response from the reader. And one of the things as an editor that I look for is good characterization, of course – a story that makes me care about what happens.
Another thing is the opening. I would suggest that a new writer spend half his time on the first page. Remember: every major magazine has a slush pile. And they'll get a thousand or more stories a month, and their slush readers aren't going to read your story unless you’ve grabbed them by the bottom of Page One, or the middle of Page Two. 90% of the time, maybe even a bit more often, it gets rejected without the slush reader going any further. So it's really essential that you work on those openings. Actually, when I say I don't have a slush pile that's not exactly true. I just don't call it that. I get about thirty submissions a month; of those I may buy four.
JS: What other elements are important in a new writer? Is it attitude, is it talent? What's your take on that?
MR: First, you've got to be a smooth enough writer so that it's not an effort for the editor, or the reader to get to the bottom of each page. That's essential. You’ve got to know how to push a noun up against a verb with some grace. And of course you should have a knowledge of the field, because while there's still a million ideas we haven't touched, there's probably half a million ideas that have already seen print. And unless you have a totally new take on it you’re not going to sell it. There used to be a rejection slip from Amazing Stories, back when Ted White was editing it, where there'd be a number of boxes he could check to explain why he’d rejected it. The box he checked most was, "Heinlein did it better – and earlier."
I would love to have a rejection slip like that, but all Galaxy’s Edge’s rejections are personal. But yeah, you've got to know the field if you want to write in it. Which makes sense. I mean, shouldn't you care enough about the field in which you want to make all or part of your living so that you've been reading it and know about it, and know what has been done to death and what hasn't?
JS: I think you've got to be an SF addict to write it.
MR: “SF addict” brings up one other thing I don’t want to see: don’t give me disguised Star Wars and Star Trek novelizations and teleplays turned into stories. About half of the rejects are because I look at it and can say, with no fear of contradiction, "There's Kirk, there's Spock, there's Leia, there’s Luke."
JS: What's your advice to authors transition into full-time writing?
MR: The first thing is you have to learn is how to budget. Because every publisher, with precious few exceptions, pays you as late as the law allows. (Hollywood, on the other hand, pays you within 48-hours and wires it into your account. I like that.)
JS: Tell me about your experience with Hollywood.
MR: The first book I optioned, they contacted me. It was for Santiago back in 1990 (and is still, by the way, under option. If they made it when they planned to, I wouldn't have had made as much from the film as I’ve made from thirty years of option payments). The film hasn't been made, but they paid me in full two different times for screenplays for Santiago. And they hired a young director and his team, which included a special effects guy and a publicist, and their first film was going to be for Miramax, and Santiago was going to be their second film.
So, one day when they're at Miramax, one of the execs asked them, "What are you guys doing next?" And they showed them the script I wrote. A couple weeks later Miramax calls me and says, "We saw the script you did, and we want to see what you've got for us." So they flew me out and I talked to them. "We want to buy one of your books, and want you to write the screenplay," they say, which is always a nice thing to hear at breakfast. So I flew home and I sent them eight or nine books that weren't under option. They wrote back and said, "We're sorry, but we don't want any of them. " And I figured what the hell, at least I got a couple of nice meals out of it. And that week a book of mine called The Widowmaker, which was a lead title for Bantam, came out. And Bantam took a full-page ad in Locus, where about three-quarters of the page was for The Widowmaker. And the bottom quarter of the page was a book by Chris Claremont based on a two-page outline by George Lucas. Because it was by George Lucas and they wanted that name on the cover, they made him the co-author. So just as a joke, I made a Xerox of that ad, sent it to Miramax, and said, "Well, you may not want me, but in my field I'm three times as important as George Lucas!"
Two days later they called and said they wanted to buy The Widowmaker. I said, "It's not out yet, don't you want to read it first?" They said, "No, no, you're three times more important than George Lucas, we're buying it." Those are my dealings with Hollywood!
JS: Did they buy it?
MR: Yeah, they optioned it. And I did a screenplay for them and that one never got made either.
JS: Hollywood has the mind of a twelve-year old child.
MR: Absolutely! You sit down at a conference with these guys and they're all ivy leaguers and all young and smoking pipes, and sooner or later, one of them says, "Why can't one of the twins be Black?" Or, during the umpteenth re-make of Pride and Prejudice, some hot-shot exec complains to the press that for some reason they won’t let him arrange an author tour. But they play with monopoly money, so we put up with it.
JS: One thing I've noticed about much of SF prose work is that so much of it blows anything away that's been put up on the screen. SF films and TV still has yet to scratch the surface of the literary material that's out there.
MR: I have problems with a lot of the more successful SF films. I often sit there grumbling, "No editor paying two cents a word would let me get away with this stuff!"
JS: Have you tried to do TV also?
MR: If anyone from TV wants to buy from me, I'm happy to sell them. But I don't even watch it anymore. I haven't seen an episode of a TV show since 1982. I figured I could have my mind corrupted by that drivel an hour and half, two hours a day, or I could write an extra book every year. And I figure I've probably written an extra forty books since I made that decision.
JS: What are some lessons in the field and craft that you wished you learned earlier?
MR: That's a difficult one. The first thing you need to learn is how does this field work? That goes from learning how to budget from learning what a rejection letter is trying to tell you. I don't mean a form rejection, but when an editor says in his own words, why he or she is turning you down. You have to learn what's been done. The one thing good editors don't want are retellings of the story that might've appeared 20-30 years ago. If it made any kind of impact they don't need you to do it again. Another thing is if you're going to use science, you probably ought to use the right science. That extends to people. If you have people, they ought to behave the way people do. If you're going to have an alien with an alien physiology, it better be consistent. Which all comes back to the same thing – consistency, and a search to increase your knowledge of the literature, the field, and everything that goes into it.
JS: In terms of keeping up, there's a lot to keep up with. There's material that spans back to the 1930's.
MR: Well, one of the problems for newer writers which was much less of a problem for me, in that Heinlein and Asimov and Van Vogt and Weinbaum are still very influential. Which means you need a sixty-year background in what's been going on in this field. When I started you needed only a 20-year background. Think of how many major writers have been dead for at least fifteen years.
JS: Why are so many great writers' works not in the bookstore?
MR: One of the problems you have right now, to a great extent, the book publishing field is imploding because of E-books. I myself have a Nook, so does my wife. Between us we have 6,000 books on our Nooks. They weigh 14 ounces apiece and we bring them everywhere with us. You can't do that with a library.
JS: Do you do a lot of reading of modern SF to keep up with what's going on outside of Galaxy's Edge?
MR: Of course. I have to. Not only as an editor of Galaxy's Edge and Stellar Guild Books, but I have to compete with these guys. I have to know what the editors like. I have to know who's doing what. I do not make my living, believe me, from editing the magazine. That's another of my charity projects. I make my money from writing novels. I get my pleasure from writing short stories mostly, but novels pay the bills.
JS: How many pages do you shoot for every work session?
MR: I average about three to four pages an hour. Ten to twenty pages a night. It's not all final copy. The next day I may go through and spend two hours revising or editing it.
JS: What are your strategies for finding new markets and buyers on the international market?
MR: The international markets, by and large, come to me. One of the things with short stories that really makes a difference, is that when I get a Hugo nomination, or win, everyone around the world in this field becomes instantly aware of it. It's news. And usually ten to fifteen magazines, sometimes even more, will want to buy foreign reprint rights. And once in a while I'll have a story that sells thirty times. Book publishers see that I'm a Hugo nominee and wonder what kind of books I have, and then because my stories make me known in that country, the book publishers come to my agent and we sell an awful lot of books. For instance, Santiago, my bestselling book has sold to 34 different countries. None of them have paid me anywhere as much as I got for Santiago here. But it adds up and continues to. I wrote it in 1986, and it's still selling to new countries that haven't seen it. Like many of my books, it’s made more in the rest of the world, combined, than it’s made in America.
JS: What's great about SF lit is that you can't get aged out.
MR: You can be any age, any gender, any anything. A good writer is a good writer. Right now, there are a number of sci-fi writers who are my age or older, or close to my age. Malzberg is still a producing, so is Silverberg, though he says he doesn't. There are a lot of us, Jane Yolen, she's the new grandmaster for next year. Nancy Kress isn't as old as us, but just won her sixth Nebula last month. There’s Norman Spinrad, and Greg Benford, and Greg Bear, and David Gerrold, and there’s a good dozen more, maybe two dozen. On the flipside, you've got a lot of young people who are coming up who are pretty good.
JS: Do you think the market can get oversaturated, or that there's enough interest so it's never oversaturated?
MR: Well, there are two definitions of over saturated: one has to do with using up all the quality, and buying stuff that shouldn't be bought. The other is quickly running out of markets like book stores as opposed to E-books or whatever. Book publishing is 30-40 percent in terms of books, but E-books are up 35 percent. It's currently still harder to sell E-Books simply because there's nothing for the average customer to thumb through or pick up and hold in their hand, the way they would in a bookstore. But once they get used to the technology, there shouldn't be a difference.
JS: How do you feel about self-publishing?
MR: I wish everyone who self publishes all the luck in the world. The way my business and my finances are setup, I don't want to wait two years for something I published to earn out. I get paid before I start to write. And it would be a real jerk in the system for me to change right now in my mid-seventies and say, now I'll write for free and wait for the money to come in. For fifty years it's been that I get paid, and then I write. I like that better.
JS: There's an interesting threshold for neophyte writers, when you're new you're going to screw up. Guaranteed. Everyone does. Yet you have to take a risk until you evolve as a writer. And you'll look back at some of your work that sold and cringe.
MR: Yeah, and the wild part is that if you sold 30 books, you may look back and the one that made you wince was number 26. It wasn't necessarily number one or two. You put everything you had into those and you had an endless willingness to rewrite anything that had to be rewritten. But by the time you sold 25 or 26 books, you have a bit of a reputation, and you’re not going to let anybody fuck with your copy.
JS: Where do you search for markets? Conventions? Are there other sources writers don't think of?
MR: First it depends whether or not you have an agent. If you have one, let him work on it. You can go to conventions and probably the best convention is Worldcon. The reason is not because it's the biggest event, but because it's the longest. You've got five or six days to make your contacts with editors rather than one or two. The other thing is it's big enough so that at night there'll be fifty or sixty parties and your editors will be all spread out where it's easier to find them.
Or, try to contact an editor you want to speak to in advance. Set up an appointment for fifteen or twenty minutes. Don't try to arrange a meal with the editor, because the publishers comp all the meals. They're not going to do that if the editor is taking out people he's not going to buy.
JS: I'm always amazed when someone can live off of their writing. To me, that's the dream.
MR: Well, that's the only thing I've ever made a living from, so it seems less strange to me. And it's very satisfying. It really is.
JS: You've won all these awards, what more do you want to contribute to the field?
MR: I just want write something better than I've written. Isn't that what every writer wants?
Learn more about Mike's work.
And be sure to read his award winning magazine, Galaxy's Edge.