|Unca Mike's Bad Advice - Answers 2001|
December 2001: Kinky Sex
Patricia Bartlett asks: I've been analysing your short fiction output, and I find that stories containing kinky sex acts outnumber others by a ratio of 17:2. My question is: do you recommend this ratio to beginning writers, or is it something one needs to work towards? (Also of interest: were the two odd stories out harder to sell?)
You think those acts are kinky? You obviously aren't a regular reader of Dan Savage's or Isadora's advice columns, which detail sexual practices so extreme (refluxophilia comes to mind) that even the experts are appalled. As for me, I simply write about what I know. I wasn't aware that the ratio was seventeen-to-two, but that sounds about right. If you're really interested in working your own way up to that sort of ratio, both Isadora and Dan Savage regularly recommend books for the novice.
Were the sexless stories hard for me? Naw. I can go without for hours at a time.
Timothy Roadkill asks: I am an aspiring Science Fiction writer. I have the wild beard going well, and I think Timothy Roadkill is a great pseudonym. My personal hygiene is still perhaps a little too good, but I'm working on that. Unfortunately, I don't know who I should rip off, er, use as inspiration for my first novel. I considered you, but I just don't think I'm smart enough to satisfactorily pull that one off. I thought of Howard Waldrop, but I decided that I'm not quite that strange and I really can't be bothered doing all the cool and slightly insane research he does. I'm really pretty ordinary. Should I start with a [name unfortunately lost to line noise] knockoff?
Why lower your standards? I'd advise you aspire to be the next Howard Waldrop. Why? Because his last novel was published eighteen years ago, and he's been living off the proceeds from his short fiction ever since. Given how much short fiction pays nowadays, that means that the difference between what he earns and outright starvation is negligible. So the beauty thing about this plan is that even if you don't make it, even if you never manage to write one-tenth as well as Howard Waldrop, even if you never get published – what difference will it make? And if it makes no difference, why not aim for the stars?
Stryker asks: Hi, I'm a fieind of an individual
that I think you know, for privacy purposes lets call him...
S.S. Now I'm writing a story that contains massive amounts of
copyright violations. S.S. thinks that this is a bad idea.
I would greatly value your input on this issue, and... whats that? oh god... Sean! put down the knife! PUT DOWN THE...
I believe your question answers itself.
October 2001: Income
Joseph asks: In today's market, what could a moderately successful science fiction writer expect to pull down per year? Will he or she be able to live, or just feed his or her goldfish?
A moderately successful writer – we're talking midlist here, and reasonably prolific (say one novel every eighteen months) – ought to be able to pull down eighty to ninety thou a year, easily. Toss in a couple of short fiction sales, and call it an even hundred thousand bucks. If you've been writing more than two or three years and haven't hit this mark yet, I'd advise you to throw in the towel.
Gregg asks: Hey, Mike, I'm having trouble coming up with an ending to a story. Perhaps you can help. The story is about an invasion of curly haired, bushy bearded aliens who attempt to take over the world by bombarding us with stories. I call the aliens "Swanies". The Swany story assault involves the rapid appearance of stories everywhere, all the time, on the sides of buildings, on car windshields, in our cereal bowls, on our lovers' foreheads, on the inside of our own eyelids-- everywhere we look, to the point of driving everyone to distraction and eventual insanity. Try as I might, though, I just can't come up with a good ending to this story. Should the Swanies win, conquering the world with their story bombardment, or should we fight back somehow and defeat them? How would you end this story?
I wouldn't. But then, I'm getting paid by the word.
Chico asks: If I keep writing, will I someday be as
ornery as you?
Actually, the truth is that I'm as sweet and kindly a human being as you're ever likely to meet. Success as a writer, however, requires a public persona – and sweet and kindly just doesn't cut it in today's image market. You've got to present yourself as somebody aggressively memorable (which is to say, ornery), if you want to make any kind of impression.
Try it for yourself: Kick a few dogs. Get raging drunk at an awards ceremony. Punch out an editor. You'll be glad you did.
September 2001: Selling Ideas
KC asks: I have writted SF since JUne last year,
n only F&Sf send any replies. Analog does not n Asimovs nor
The solution to your problem is so simple, you'll kick yourself for not coming up with it on your own: Sell your ideas to Greg Bear and Ian Stewart! Or, for that matter, to just about any science fiction writer. All the top writers are always in the market for hot ideas. You should see how their eyes light up when a stranger approaches them with a great notion for a novel and an offer to "split the profits." Not me, though – I just bought fifteen years' worth of ideas from a guy in Newark. But anybody else.
Character in Book
Not Important asks: what it would take to get you to use me a character in your next book. I figure once I'm a well known literary persona, my name becomes more marketable, and I get my fiction published more easily. It has to fly, right?
Hah! Tell that one to Molly Millions, who's been trying to peddle her fantasy trilogy for over fifteen years now. Or to Michael Valentine Smith, poor bastard, whose submissions to Asimov's get returned unopened and unread. For some reason, editors just assume the worst when they get mail from fictional characters. Genly Ai was driven to drink by this very problem. If you want a shortcut, I'd advise you to become the star of a cult science fiction television series. The publishers will then provide you with not only lucrative contracts, but an anonymous ghost to write them as well. This is the smart way to get into print. God forbid what happened to Miles Vorkosigan should happen to you.
Stephen asks: Thanks for all the great stories, Unca Mike! I just wondered if you could offer any insight into your novel-writing process. Do you know an idea is destined to be a 'novel' right away, or do you figure that out over time? Do you outline, or do you work without a net?
Well, yes, I outline, but I outline on an ongoing basis, as I write the novel. I know where I am, and I know where I'm going, and I draw elaborate schemata to get myself another chapter in that direction. Obviously this is an inferior way of working. The more detailed the better. The beau ideal here is Philip K. Dick who, back in the days when editors bought from outlines, would write novel-length outlines which he would then ignore when he sat down to do the actual writing. Late in his career, he realized that the outlines themselves could be sold as novels too, thus effectively doubling his income. (Few people realize that Valis was originally the outline for The Man in the High Castle.) Dick’s career, of course, didn’t really take off until he died. But I’d advise you to get a few novels under your belt before you investigate the more advanced forms of self-promotion.
Selling Soul to Devil
Juan Matus asks: Hi, Mr. Swanwick! I just finished writing a couple of short stories, and boy, are they crappy! I noticed that the very first stories you wrote were not only published, but even won some prestigious awards! My question is this... did you sell your soul to the devil? And if so, how can an aspiring young writer such as myself do the same? I can't seem to find the guy anywhere.
You think the devil cuts deals with the likes of you and me? Not so. He’s more the type to wait until you’ve made it to dry land on your own efforts and then lob a life saver at your head. Isaac Asimov made something like four thousand dollars over the first decade of his career, during which time he wrote almost everything he’ll be remembered for. Then, after he was rich and famous, he was offered millions of dollars to write unneeded sequels and prequels to his best work, outlines for shared-world anthologies (remember Robot City?), and God only knows what else. It didn’t end when he died either. Marvel Comics hired his estate to create characters for them!
Unfortunately, you’re stuck where I was, when I was what I presume is your age. Writing crappy stories. I had the good fortune that my stories were so crappy they were virtually unpublishable. Thus, by the time I managed to sell something, all those years of failure had actually taught me something about writing. But the devil never even tried to buy my soul. I’m still bitter about this.
August 2001: Film
Anonymous asks: i want to make an amazing film about cloning that is so far fetched you wont belive it. what i would like to know is some goverment groups like the f.b.i or c.i.a that done exist but do exist like cancerman out of the x-files is part of...if you sould help me out it would be very very helpful
I already don't believe it. So perhaps you're closer to your goal than you think.
But in answer to your question: When I worked in the Proposals department of the Franklin Institute Research Laboratories in Philadelphia (we wrote up responses to RFPs – Requests for Proposals – from the Federal Government; these were essentially bids for contract research work), I had the intriguing experience of having an engineer suddenly burst into my office, wild-eyed, saying he needed to take back one of the day's RFP info sheets.
I glanced over at the stack, easily six inches thick, and said, "You mean the one from the CIA?"
"That's it!" he shouted, and snatched it away. Fifteen minutes later, he returned a retyped sheet to my desk. This time the issuing agency was listed as being the USDA.
So we know the Department of Agriculture is at least occasionally used as a front for CIA "black budget" expenditures. A sinister agronomist might be just what you're looking for. Incidentally, FIRL no longer exists – the Franklin Institute sold off the labs – so you might want to consider making your hero a two-fisted Proposals writer. It would have my interest, anyway.
Editors and Agents
Richard asks: What's the best way, in your opinion, to get an agent or book publisher to consider a writer's novel?
The absolute best way would with a stunningly-written book of potentially enormous popular appeal. But that's too much work. You want something more straightforward.
Editors and agents will tell you that they aren't influenced by extraliterary factors. Not so. A couple of years ago, a first novelist thanked his new editor for buying his book by sending her a dozen roses. It was the talk of that publishing house for weeks.
He, of course, had already sold his novel. Your task is more difficult. Invest a little of that time you've saved by doing a shoddy job on the novel, and get to know your intended editor. Meet cute. Take her out to dinner. Fly her to Paris. Propose marriage.
For some aspirant writers, this plan may involve a change of sexual orientation. Do it anyway. It's worth it. Anything is more fun than actual writing.
July 2001: Dialogue
Steve Taylor asks: How do you avoid incredibly duff dialogue? The stuff I write down is so awful that it pains me to read it. My ear can tell good dialogue from bad. Why can't my writing hand?
Avoid duff dialog? Why on earth would you want to? Do you for an instant believe that someone like, say, Lucius Shepard, who on a good day writes like God's own Stasi agent, outsells a talentless purveyor of multivolume fantasy pap like [name accidentally lost to line noise]? Absolutely not. Here's an exercise: Go to any book store and pick up volume 8 of any fantasy trilogy. Don't drop it on your foot! Now ask yourself, could any reader possibly wallow through 1,200 pages of this bilge, if he had to read ever word? No chance. "Thou foul caitiff!" the spunky heroine cries. "Hast never thou ..."
Okay, thinks the reader. Princess Whatserface doesn't like the Dark Lord.
His finger moves halfway down the page.
Personally, I like to work out my dialogue out loud, when there's nobody else in the house. That's how I snapped a tendon. One character said something that needed correction. The other had a snappy comeback. I delivered it with a hand-waving flourish ... and there was a wall in the way. Ouch.
Back in the Sixties, we used to say, "A clean mind, a clean body - take your pick." Today, it's seven-figure tripe or nine-finger art. The choice is up to you.
Gifts to Editors
Engelbert asks: Is it true that giving gifts to editors will make sure your book will be published?
No, absolutely not. Only good writing can do that. But giving gifts to editors will make sure your book will be noticed. And that's what you want, isn't it - to be noticed?
Picture this: The Big Guy is drowsily thumbing his way through Thursday's slushpile of eighty-to-ninety manuscripts. You want something that will wake him up! Gardner Dozois is fond of telling of the time he pulled a manuscript out of its envelope, only to discover that the author had rigged up an enormous cardboard hand, so that it swung out of the envelope and gave him the finger! Now that was a submission that got the editor's attention.
Unfortunately, the story wasn't good enough for Gardner to buy. But had it been....
So far as I know, nobody has yet had the gumption to employ light explosives and other serious noisemakers in submitting their stories. It's a field waiting for pioneers.