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How to Make Big Money Writing Science Fiction, and Other Dangerous Delusions
For a number of years, I found Locus magazine—subtitled The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field—to be the most consistently interesting magazine I received. Its undigested raw data—lists, tables, and charts—made for strangely involving reading material. When I preferred prose, there were news reports, announcements, interviews, letters, obituaries, and reviews. Though Charles Brown once told me that each part of Locus was aimed at a particular group of readers, so that nobody would read everything in the magazine, I increasingly found myself doing exactly that, absorbing a comprehensive picture of a vast and multifaceted community.

After becoming a regular reader, however, I gradually became troubled by one aspect of the magazine: at times, it read like a sort of Lifestyles of the Science Fiction Rich and Famous, with photographs of millionaire authors smiling at conventions, brief reports of authors receiving six-figure advances or huge sums for movie rights, news items about noteworthy authors receiving high honors or making lucrative deals. And the recent changes in the magazine's format—more and more glossy pages, more and more color photographs, a higher price—further suggested an impulse to provide science fiction with more and more of an upscale image. Locus sometimes seemed to be relentlessly celebrating enormous wealth and lofty status as the natural attributes of the science fiction writer; and although careful perusal of the entire magazine revealed other, less philistine priorities, its desire to emphasize science fiction success stories was hard to deny, and eventually, I realized that I no longer enjoyed reading the magazine as much as I used to.

Long ago, another American magazine persistently emphasized success stories—Ebony —and it was criticized for focusing on the happy existence of certain selected African-Americans in an era when African-Americans generally endured shameful and deplorable treatment in all aspects of life. In parallel fashion, Locus might be criticized for misrepresenting the life of the average writer working in the field of science fiction, whose nearest approach to the big money will be reading about it in that magazine.

To provide a different and more accurate perspective on the typical writer's situation, I once envisioned publication of a special "Loser's Issue" of Locus. Charts and diagrams would present information like the ratio of submitted manuscripts to accepted manuscripts (surely, at least 100 to 1) or the average annual income of persons describing themselves as science fiction writers (surely, well under $10,000 a year). Instead of paeans to recent masterpieces, reviewers would excoriate all the derivative drivel being churned out by writers desperately in need of income. And "People & Publishing" would feature these sorts of news items: Writer A just received her one hundredth rejection letter from Asimov's; Writer B is now writing hard-core pornography under a pseudonym; Writer C, having gone without a sale for two years, has sold his mobile home and moved back in with his parents. Enough such material to fill one issue, or several issues, of Locus would not be hard to find.

But why, one might ask, burden readers with all this doom and gloom? After all, shouldn't we be trying to encourage talented newcomers to try their hand at science fiction?

Actually, no, we shouldn't.

And this is precisely where any analogy between Ebony and Locus breaks down. African-Americans, then and now, have no choice but to be who they are, and at a time when their lives were often miserable, it was arguably appropriate to emphasize heartwarming, upbeat stories about African-Americans even if they were not exactly representative. But being part of the oppressed community of science fiction writers is entirely a matter of personal choice, something that its members can easily avoid or escape; hence, there is no reason to accentuate the positive or to encourage anyone seeking to join, or remain in, that group.

Certainly, there is no demonstrable need to encourage people to become science fiction writers. Today, one finds no shortage of writers producing intelligent, literate, first-rate science fiction, no shortage of writers producing execrable garbage, and no shortage of writers producing every form of science fiction that falls between these extremes. If someone declared a moratorium on new faces in science fiction for five years, or ten years, the genre could easily maintain its current output, or expand it, without any difficulty.

Beyond the question of necessity, there is the issue of ethics. As I once said in an essay submitted to a writer's magazine that was for some reason rejected, encouraging people to become writers, like encouraging people to play the lottery, should be a felony. The likely outcomes in both cases are roughly the same: an extraordinarily minuscule chance of tremendous success, a rather small chance of modest success, and an enormous chance of complete and utter failure.

Am I claiming that Locus is part of an evil conspiracy to lure hapless neophytes into fruitless expenditures of their energy and resources, inspired by unrealistic visions of future riches? Not at all, since that is manifestly not the magazine's intent. Indeed, Locus should be praised because, unlike other magazines with an audience composed in part of aspiring writers, it is obviously determined to exclude the seductive advertisements of predators eager to squeeze money out of unwary amateurs while promising prosperous careers that they cannot deliver. (Let's face it: when famous authors are asked about the secret of their success, they never answer, "I owe it all to my paid reader's comments" or "I owe it all to that book How to Write Science Fiction.") Still, even as Locus visibly and sincerely seeks to disassociate itself from such vultures, its tendency to examine science fiction news through rose-colored glasses makes the magazine their unwitting accomplice.

This doesn't mean that new science fiction writers should be brutally discouraged; eventually, if not now, we will need them, and there are many current writers who urgently need to be replaced. However, based on the biographies of most of the science fiction authors I admire, there is one first step that should always be recommended to the prospective professional writer: get a job.

No, not the sort of menial, dead-end job mandated by literary mythology that supposedly allows the talented young writer to gather anecdotes from colorful illiterates and pay the bills while waiting for The New Yorker to anoint him as the next John Updike. I mean a real job. One that offers a young woman a decent salary, health benefits, and a pension plan. A job that requires her to use her brain, and keeps her in contact with other capable and intelligent people who are using their brains. And a job that will, if she is ingenious and determined enough, still allow plenty of time and lots of opportunities for writing.

More often than not, this is what successful science fiction writers have done. Enough of them have been working scientists of various sorts to fill several anthologies, but there have also been soldiers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists, bureaucrats—almost every profession you can name—and writers from such backgrounds, in my experience at least, tend to be more involving than those who launched full-time careers immediately after earning a B.A. in Creative Writing or attending a Clarion Workshop. Indeed, since science fiction is a genre in which accessing and providing information is so crucially important, it may be especially beneficial for future science fiction writers to spend some time immersed in professions that demand a considerable amount of knowledge, professions that require and train young people to become lifelong learners. Other types of literature may be different, but you can't build a career as a science fiction writer by using all the tricks you learned in Creative Writing classes to retell the funny stories you heard from your fellow lumberjacks.

Along with the beneficial experiences gained from mentally demanding employment, it might also improve a writer's motives. People who enjoy the financial and psychological support of a solid professional career may be more inclined to write science fiction primarily to communicate something important to readers, while those who lack such support may be more inclined to write primarily to meet marketplace demands or to please a small coterie of influential figures. If we celebrate too conspicuously the potential financial rewards of writing science fiction, then we may be attracting exactly the type of writer that the genre today manifestly does not need.

Therefore, it might be appropriate for a magazine like Locus to pay a little less attention to the unrepresentative successes of the few, and a little more attention to the representative failures of the many. There is no reason for the science fiction community to entice young would-be writers fresh out of college, eager to achieve instant wealth; instead, by highlighting its financial pitfalls and stressing only its aesthetic rewards, science fiction might more profitably recruit middle-aged professionals who are looking for a new challenge in life or a possible career change. If history is any guide, these are the people most likely to produce science fiction that is worth reading, even if they fail to make the best-seller lists or garner mind-boggling advances.

And isn't that, after all, the real issue—the quality of the product, not the amount of money it earns? Yet sometimes, when looking at Locus, I am unhappily not sure that its editors and writers would agree.

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