Unca Mike's Bad Advice - Answers 2002

December 2002: Humorous SF

Will asks: Do you prefer writing humorous or serious SF? I like humorous, especially since I always find myself slipping into it. Which leads to another question: How do you avoid adding banana peels to a story about nuclear holocaust?

All my writing is humorous. I fail to see how a story like "Radiant Doors" or "The Dead" can be so misunderstood as to lead anybody to think otherwise. Nor can I understand why you'd want to keep banana peels out of a story about nuclear holocaust. Think about it: millions of festering, radioactive corpses, a barren, blighted world, cities on fire... It's at times like those when you need a good laugh!


Mike asks: Gardner Dozois said that "The Dead" was written with "typical Swanwickian inventiveness." How does it feel to join Orwell, Kafka, Shakespeare, and Borges and have your name be an adjective?

Well, it's better than being an expletive, I suppose. But at the same time it's only a very short step from being presumed dead. Somewhere there's probably a drunken ad exec saying, "If Swanwick were alive today, he'd be writing TV commercials!" Let's not go there.

Required Reading

Louis asks: What would you say are required reading for an aspiring SF writer? Preferably short stories, of course, because we don't all have the massive amounts of leisure time that you have. By the way: Mad propz on writing that periodic table of element story thing. How does one land a cushy gig like that?

This is one of those rare cases when the simple truth will do my nefarious, career-blighting work for me. When I was ramping up to be a writer, I read every major work by every serious SF writer there was. All of Sturgeon, all of Dick, all of Le Guin, all of Russ... Plus, of course, all of the mainstream guys I could. (Nabokov is particularly good.) If you want to limit yourself to short fiction, then you should subscribe to at least two genre magazines, at least one of which should be Asimov's or Analog or F&SF, and read the Dozois and Hartwell and Datlow & Windling best of the year anthologies as they come out, just to keep current on what's happening. You should hunt down collections by Asimov and Aldiss and Anderson and so on, all the way up through Zelazny. And don't neglect the non-genre writers! Raymond Carver and Donald Barthelme and even Ernest Hemingway have a lot to teach you.

Really, though, you shouldn't limit yourself to short fiction - you should be reading everything you can get your hands on. A hundred books a year, both fiction and non-fiction, good and bad, novels and anthologies, at a minimum. And if the prospect of this doesn't sound like enormous fun to you, then I fail to see how you can expect to become a writer. Writing is much more work than reading is.

As for Michael Swanwick's Periodic Table of Science Fiction and my other weekly series, The Sleep of Reason, I got the gigs by demonstrating that I could be relied upon to turn them in on schedule. I began by writing Puck Aleshire's Abecedary (one story for each letter in the alphabet), published in The New York Review of Science Fiction over the course of twenty-six months. Then I did a couple more abecedaries and bestiaries and the like for program books. Ellen Datlow and Eileen Gunn, the editors of Sci Fiction and The Infinite Matrix respectively, invited me to create series for them only after they were convinced I wouldn't make them look foolish by crashing and burning midway through.

They have more confidence in me than I do, incidentally. The lanthanides almost knocked me for a loop. And I've still got ununoctium ahead of me! No idea how I'll handle that one. None at all.

Selling Soul

Patrick asks: Is it necessary to sell one's soul in order to become a writer - ? To the Devil - ? To God perhaps - ? And do you believe in muses?

Boy, wouldn't that be cool? Think of the work it would save. But the Devil doesn't give you the chance to sell out until after you've become successful (check out Tom Clancy's recent books) or dead (I'm thinking specifically of V.C. Andrews' last several decades). And don't get me started on God! The sunofagun still owes me twenty bucks from the last Knicks game.

As far as muses go, I'm still waiting for mine to show up. I think she's in a seedy bar down by the waterfront, picking up sailors and then rolling them in an alley around back.

What Next?

Mike asks: Now that I'm finally getting contracts with better than industry standard advances for my novels, what do you recommend I do next?

That's an easy one! The obvious next step is to use your power and influence to CRUSH THE COMPETITION! Most particularly including younger and more talented writers than yourself who are especially vulnerable because they haven't yet broken into print. I recommend that you start a writing advice column.


Rachel Weisserman writes: Actually, I just wanted to tell you something. Thanks in part to some of your wise advice, I'm now a columnist. I mean, a NATIONAL columnist. I write for Stuff Magazine, which is, yeah, a men's magazine. They're paying me $400 a month to write a 400-word column on a teenage girl's look at pop culture. The column starts in January.

Just thought you might like to know.

Okay, Mike - you see? This is just the sort of thing we're trying to prevent! And, Rachel, you do know how bad you're making me look here, don't you?

November 2002: Air

J.B. asks: Why is there air?

As I keep reminding you guys, this is a writing advice column. Keeping that fact firmly in mind, air exists mainly to provide an encompassing medium for when characters wave cigarettes about, exhale smoke from their nostrils, and perform other bits of plot-delaying business. If hot, it also makes a fine substitute for valid scientific extrapolation in nine out of ten SF novels.


(San Diego CA) asks: Is Michael Swanwick the physically fit hiker and naturalist from which viewpoint he writes so beautifully, like the nature writings of Jack Kerouac in Dharma Bums and etc?



(San Diego CA) asks: Sorry. The question I just sent you about being a physically fit hiker and nature writer, like Jack Kerouac, I meant to send to Kim Stanly Robinson, because of his Orange County trilogy and Mars. But Vacuum Flowers is one of my ongoing favorite reads, as the rest.

Stan, you're a fine writer, but you've got to give up on the crank e-mails. Also, your middle name is spelled "Stanley."


Tyro writes: Do you laugh at the people who write to you here asking serious questions, or at the ones who don't?

Yes, of course.

September/October 2002: Motherly Ideas

Rachel Weisserman asks: My mother seriously supports my writing career. The only problem is that she keeps coming up with ideas that she wants me to write, and I like them, but I don't want to write them myself. She is going to be a teacher, and she also enlists my help with proofreading her lesson plans and her resume. (Doesn't even pay me.) When I suggest that she do her own proofreading, she lays a guilt trip on me, so I'm rather afraid to ask her to write her own stories.

Your mother is a wise woman, and you should emulate her. Cultivate a protege. Then pass your mother's story ideas along to her. If your protege can do your ironing and some of your housecleaning as well, so much the better - I assume you do your own ironing and housecleaning?


Serafina asks: how many times should you keep trying before you give up and accept that nobody likes your stuff and you're wasting your time? Do you have to be some iron gutted hero to be a writer?

In my case eleven years. At which point, coincident with my acknowledgment that the entire enterprise was hopeless, I finally finished a story, and a year later I was published. A more realistic view of my aptitudes could have saved me a lot of subsequent trouble. But by then it was too late.

Do you have to have guts of iron to write? No. In my experience, most writers are weepy, self-pitying wusses. But if you want to do the national talk-show tour thing, it's best not to look like me. Buns of steel would help.


Anemic Funk asks: I heard an awful rumor that this cozy little Q&A exists for the sole purpose of tarnishing the memory of Orson Scott Card (RIP) and his "Ask Uncle Orson" column (http://www.hatrack.com/writingclass/index.shtml) in which he (or a reasonable simacrulum thereof) dispenses actually useful advice aspiring writers based on his notable accomplishments (compare and contrast with your site, e.g., below). Can you dispel this rumor or will you admit the truth?


Okay, to be uncharacteristically honest for just a second here: No, I did not know of Scott's advice column, nor have I seen it.

But, returning to the stated purpose of this column (to keep all of you talented little bastards who have the effrontery to be not only younger but potentially more successful than myself from achieving said potential), I urge everyone here not to read Scott's column, not to listen to his advice, and not to take his advice seriously.

After all, if his advice were really worth listening to, he wouldn't be dispensing it gratis on the Web, now would he?


Pol asks: Was science fiction in the last century actually opposed to literary modernism? Or is it possible that both sf and modernism were two sides of a larger literary movement? I will point out that both sf and modernism were intellectualist, given to complex literary games (there is no more playful form of literature than sf), deeply connected to the western literary tradition (think of the Shakespeareanism of both James Joyce and Frank Herbert with his Hamletian God Emperor), given to innovation, and a host of other similarities despite their surface antagonism.

It was only a recursive self-involvement with the tragedies of their own age that ever led SF writers to think that the Twentieth would be the "last century." Now that we are safely into the year 2002 and have somehow survived, it is possible to refute this ad hoc declaration not only by challenging the patriarchal assumptions built into such consensual structures as "centuries" and "sequence" but by direct apperception: The "century" is "gone" and therefore it did not "last."

But to answer your question: Probably not. But thanks for writing.


Danielle asks: i was on the eliptical machine and somethng in my knee snap and it feels like a tenden and i am not sure what to do to make it better. p.s i still want to continue to work out but it hurts! please help

This is a writing advice column - and not a very kindly-intended one at that. The best I can advise is that you take copious notes, but wait until you've made a full recovery before trying to draw on the experience for your fiction. The rule here is: Suffer in haste, write in leisure. Also, sometimes in situations like this, a doctor can be of help.

Graphite Synthesis

macrobertson asks: Is it not true, scientific data produced by graphite synthesis is really nothing other than science fiction? Cousin Rob in Colorado.

Wow, Robbie, good to hear from you! Your mother and sisters were way impressed I got this e-mail. My stock has gone up in the family enormously.

So... given that all the women on my wife's side of the family - and that's a lot of women! - think the world of you, what can I do but agree? No Fool in Philadelphia.

August 2002: Aspect

A asks: What do you think is the best aspect of being a writer?

Without a doubt, it's the government subsidy provided by the Safety Net for the Arts Act of 1987, which guarantees any writer of "serious worth and intent" a minimum annual income of $80,000, and makes up whatever shortfall may occur in any given year. This generous piece of legislation is not nearly so well-known as it should be, out of a natural concern for the feelings of those hacks, poseurs, and plain bad writers who don't meet the exacting standards the Federal Bureau of the Arts uses to define who is and is not "serious." But it makes a big difference knowing that, due to an attentive and caring government, I don't have to court "popularity" for the sake of a fast buck.


Graham asks: Whoa, your story in Asimov's about Adam and Eve was one of the oldest cliches ever. How do you trick editors into publishing them?

That was the whole point of the story, to demonstrate that I had enough craft to sufficiently mislead the reader that the ending would come as a surprise. It took me thirty years hard work to get to where I could pull off a stunt like that. So it stands to reason that if a new writer can sell an Adam and Eve story or a Deal With the Devil story to a major magazine, despite their published refusal to even look at such, he or she will have skipped over all that hard work, saved decades of effort, and moved instantly to the forefront of contemporary writers. This is a tactic I think all new writers should employ.


Curtis asks: I have done everything in the world to make myself into a writer. I have read the classics and I have shamelessly dipped into every genre. I have read volumes of insightful and profound literary criticism. I have observed life carefully. But I have never written a word in my life. What should I do? One: I chain myself to my desk everyday and I do not unchain myself until I write a single word. Two: I stab myself with sharp knives every fifteen minutes until I write a single word. Three: For every day on which I fail to write a single word, the next day I have my friends crucify me, naked, to a Volvo. What should I do? Will any of my suggestions work?

Well... no. Actually all your proposed solutions are shamefully self-indulgent, and indicative of a masochism even greater than that which is the norm for writers. It's quite possible that you're not a writer at all, but a performance artist. You should consider this seriously. The nude autocrucivolvofication suggests you may have a natural flair for it.

Heir of Ages

A.J. asks: Did you ever stop to consider that you, Michael Swanwick, are the heir of the ages? Thousands of years of culture, politics, philosophy, religions, and arts, all of it in its complexity, has gone into shaping your exact literary conciousness and the exact material coming out of your mind into a story in this time.

Wow. Does that ever take me back. Specifically, it takes me back to my college days, when friends used to drop by and melt into the easy chairs and indulge themselves in the cosmic rappies for seven or eight hours. Better keep a firm grip on that thing. If you spill bong water on the rug, I'll never get the stain out.


Dean asks: Unca Mike, why is Robert A. Heinlein the third worst writer who ever lived (L. Ron Hubbard and Ayn Rand take first and second spot)? Was Heinlein merely mentally ill? Was he demon possessed? Or are his cheap, intellectually redneck fictions a deliberate practical joke played on us all merely to watch us suffer? Your comments would be invaluable Unca Mike.

You're way ahead of me on this issue. I suggest you continue your researches, put together a Web page, set up a listserv, and get a dialog going. Once you have enough people involved, you can start a foundation, write a few proposals, look for funding, and really get down to business. Ultimately, you'll need a peer-reviewed journal, a newsletter (both in print and e-formats), and a secretarial staff. It's an exciting project for a young writer to tackle, and I commend you for coming up with it! Unfortunately, it's too late in the game for me to contribute personally. I already have a career.


Jake asks: Will you write a scipt for me. I am a student at UCSC, so how bout it? You can come to production if you want. Since this is supposed to be a question I will put a couple question marks at the end???

Strangely enough, there's a big-name producer in Hollywood who's been bugging me to do the exact same thing. And he's not offering me any money either. You may well have an enormously successful career in front of you. I'd tell you to keep me in mind when you got rich, but my experience is that it wouldn't make a dime's worth of difference.

Oh, well.

Script Again

Jake asks: Oh hey, I'm the guy that wanted you to write a scirpt my e-mail is [address withheld out of common decency]. Yeah???

Probably not. Have you tried Tom Clancy?

Good Fiction

claudiusstatescu asks: How did you get to be so good at writing fiction?

Seriously? By writing bad fiction. Lots and lots of bad fiction. Fiction so intolerably bad that the most amateurishly sucky small press zine wouldn't touch it, and as a result it left not a trace behind when I got better. But I realize that's not the answer you're looking for, so... A magic amulet. About so big, carved from jade, with a secret compartment containing a scrap of parchment with the SATOR/ROTAS magic square written on it in what appears to be blood. There are more of these things floating about, so stop wasting your time writing and get out and search for one!

Short Smells

Kipod Toref writes: Dear Mr. S.

For the past few months I've been working on some new short smells. Sci?fi scents, to be exact. For example, my favourite so far is "Nova. second number one.".
I also made "Rusting android", and "Decay of civilization", and a few more.
Problem is, I didn't manage to find any literary agent dealing with smells or scents. What can I do? Who can I approach?

(Please note that my short smells are not superficial at all, but contains a lot of subtext, dealing with issues like father/son relations or the Israeli/Arab conflict in subtle, elaborate ways.)

Thanks for any help you can provide!
 Kipod Toref

Your problem is stunningly easy to solve. Obviously, what you need is not a literary agent, but an olfactory agent. Of which our modern civilization has a superfluity. The only difficulty now is choosing which among the many to go with. For literary agents, the rule is to follow one's heart. In your case, you should follow your nose.


The Understudy asks: I am reading a lot of technical articles. Can you show an example of how you take a technical idea and extrapolate it into a story idea? And no I won't use it for a story. I promise. Maybe.

Sure. For "Mother Grasshopper" I extrapolated the existence of a planet-sized grasshopper that had recently been colonized by several million human beings. How would the irregular shape affect the gravity gradient across different sections of the irregularly-shaped body? I asked Charles Sheffield, who is both an Analog writer and an engineer himself, and his advice was simple: "Make it all up. Who's going to know the difference?"

So I did.

You, however, will want to start from scratch, buy a computer with a strong math coprocessor and lots of cool math software, lay down a grasshopper-shaped wireframe grid, and establish specific gravitational force for each interstice across the surface. It would take a few more years than my version did, but it would be worth it. To me, if not to you.


Just some guy, y'know asks: Is it true that putting "SFWA Member" on a coverletter guarentees that an editor will immediately read your submissio, accpept it, and write a six figure check for your story instead of putting it in the slush pile?

What other possible explanation is there?

SFWA: The Return

Just some guy, y'know? asks: I had a friend who used to write so the voices would stop bugging him. He never sold anything, but he never got sent back to the hospital, either. Since he was earning a living on the outside, and his writing kept him on the outside, doesn't that make him a professional writer? Should he apply for SFWA membership?

Stop and think. You have a "friend" who's irrational, unhospitalized, and obsessed with SFWA membership. Meanwhile, you're ... See? Now, did you take your meds this morning? Are you sure? Go look at the bottle. That's right. Uh-huh, I thought so. Okay, now I want you to take them right now, along with a glass of water. That's good.

Be sure you tell your doctor about this next visit. And keep on schedule, okay? It's important. You wouldn't want to end up living on the street, would you? Or, worse, becoming a member of SFWA.

July 2002: Zen

() asks:

The sound of one hand clapping.

Poetry Career

Ozymandias asks: You make an allusion to Wallace Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" in "The Raggle Taggle Gypsy-O" and "The Very Pulse of the Machine" is packed with well-placed poetry quotations. Are you a poetry fan? More important, do you have any desire to become the next Joe Haldeman or Bruce Boston and revolutionize sf poetry? Even more important, can anyone make a lucrative career doing that?

Absolutely! Eight out of the ten highest-paid entertainers in the world today (the other two are Michael Jackson and J.K. Rowling) are poets. Alan Ginsberg lived like a king! I urge all new writers to set aside their fantasy novels stuffed with high adventure, treachery, and passion (you don't think George R.R. Martin's books sell, do you?), and get to where the big bucks are - in sonnets!

I myself am too modest a soul to attempt to wrest that empyrean fire from the celestial sphere - heck, my tastes are so conservative that nine out ten poets I read are dead - but the rest of you need not be. Reach for the stars! If you need me for anything, I'll be at the bar.

Great American Novel

J.M. asks: Alright Swanwick, let's make a deal. I will write a true-life Great American Novel about my experiences combating the New World Order, black helicopters, Neo-Nazis in big business and high office, the plot of Satan to entice our nation's youth, and where alien abductions are actually leading the human race in the next ten years. You will add final flourishes of your own and publish it under your name. You will get the credit, the money, and probably the Nobel Peace prize. I will be satisfied that the truth is finally out. What do you say?

I've never heard a less professional proposal in my life. Only a fool would offer the writer all the money - offer half instead.

Unfortunately, I'm currently under contract with the New Yorker for a multi-million-dollar sonnet sequence. But any other writer in the world would jump at the offer. I suggest Tom Clancy.

Annihilating Forefathers

Richard asks: Who do you have an agon with? What writerly predecessors do you subconsciously wish to annihilate thus making yourself central to the canon of fantasy and science fiction greats? Do you feel a survivor guilt every time you craft a finer line than one of your forefathers?

I have absolutely no wish, conscious or subconscious, to annihilate my primitive, apelike predecessors. I am in fact a great admirer of Henry James (despite that impossibly clotted style!), Marcel Proust (despite his unmanly obsession with the "mot juste"), and even Shakespeare (despite, well... everything). But let's be honest. If I wasted my time feeling survivor guilt every time I beat these punks at their own game, I'd never get anything done.


Rosalind writes: Mister Swanwick, I know that you are a fictional master of things wondrous and arcane. I am a bit in awe of you but I will bravely and cheerfully press on with my question. Do you believe in the Muses? Are they to be used? Abused? And what is the use of a muse who will not infuse but cannot be losed? Do muses blow their fuses when their inspirations we refuses? Do they guide us with ruses or must we masticate their crudities in despair? Patiently I await your reply Mister Swanwick.

In other words:

The uses of Muses must not be abused -
What use is a Muse, infused but not goosed?
Their fuses they loses when Muses refuses;
Fall not for their ruses, or nooses or blueses!

- is that what you're saying? Rosalind, you have way too much time on your hands. Have you ever considered a lucrative career in the high-paying field of poetry?


David asks: How many Frenchmen can't be wrong?

Technically speaking, this isn't a writing question at all. You need a discipline that will train you to think logically and stay on focus. I recommend poetry.

June 2002: Money Back

Randall asks: Can I get my money back (25.95 + tax)? This book was a mess. The story line was convoluted, you introduced too many characters at once without any development and that sex scene was laugh out loud.. Let's not even mention the "bird-guys". I will send you the book back in excellent condition provided I get my money back.

Hah! You took a gamble, and you lost! When Stations of the Tide won the Nebula and the price of a hardcover went up to a hundred bucks overnight, did I show up at your door looking for more dough? Same deal here.

That said, you don't seem to have put much effort into your reading. That comment about "bird-guys" suggests you missed the joke entirely. Here's a hint: Think cladistically.


V asks:: Are you related to Kilgore Trout?

Absolutely not. As you can see from the above, I get nothing but respect and thoughtful praise from my readers.


Allen asks: I have secret evidence that Gene Wolfe secretly invented Jorge Luis Borges and that all of Borges' stories were actually fictions. What should I do about it? I fear my life may be in danger.

It may well be. I'd advise you not post any more questions here. It could lead them to you.

Penis Size

John F. Flemming asks: Is penis size important? They say Robert Heinlein was hung like a Bull Moose.

They're probably after you as well. You should stop posting here too.

Love Life

Dominique asks: Hey Mike,
I have been searching the net for quite a while for a site that will answer my question and not reject it because it doesn`t seem right.
My question is...I have a crush on my teacher. I`m 18 and am willing to wait until university to pursue a relationship with him. I am very well aware of the consequences. The thing is is that this is not just a crush, I relly see something for us. Also, i`m not a flirt, but lately I have been trying to do the eye?contact thing and the smiling and giggling. Now, I have a feeling that he knows I like him, but i`m not sure. When I use the eye?contact and all that...he does it in return. I`m new to this so i`m not quite sure how to read the signs. I want to be sure if things before I go further. I want to know...How can I let him know that I like him, without being too much of a flirt...keeping in mind that their are other students in the classroom. I can get alone with him during classes because we move around a lot. Are their any hints that he may send me...I don`t know what to think, I just don`t want someone to tell me to forget about it, because, frankly, I really don`t want to. And if you want something bad enough you can get it right? Thanx for listening.

The usual procedure is to have the ruinous affair, watch your and your teacher's lives disintegrate, and then write a thinly-disguised roman clef about the whole wretched mess. I advise against this. Cut right to the chase - skip the affair and write the novel now. This saves you an immense amount of time and trouble, and I guarantee you that the sex and romance will be vastly superior to what you'd get in real life.


Rachel Weisserman asks: about this book a friend of mine, Tammy, and I are working on. We've been revising this book for ages, and she keeps wanting to drag a certain element into it that I don't want because it would make the story too unwieldy. The problem is that I am inclined to give in to her because she has cerebral palsy, is in a wheelchair, and is also REALLY stubborn. Should I let her drag "The Wolf Pack" into the book and forget about it, or should I insist on a more streamlined storyline?

This is the problem with two-person collaborations, when neither writer has been given the final say beforehand. I advise you to bring in a third collaborator. That way, two of you can outvote the third. In fact, I advise you to bring in as many collaborators as possible. You can swap ideas, gossip about your characters, write in-joke stories, get together for popcorn, and have immense amounts of fun together. Kind of like George R.R. Martin's Wild Cards series, only without the publication.

SF Dying

Amy asks: Mister Swanwick, as we live in apocalyptic times, there is a growing concern in a large minority of the science fiction community that science fiction is dying. In a recent interview in a respected science fiction magazine one esteemed writer said it is now time to call the troops home, that science fiction has served its purpose. Is science fiction dying? Will perhaps an entirely new literary endeavor take its place?

Is science fiction dying? No. It died long ago, back in the late sixties or early seventies, during the New Wave era. Some critics claim it was dealt the coup de grace by J.G. Ballard's "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan." Others blame James Sallis. In any case, it's dead and it's not coming back.

Nor will it be replaced by an entirely new literary endeavor. The ecological niche that SF left empty when it died was immediately filled by an entirely old literary endeavor, one that looked exactly like science fiction but, of course, wasn't. Because science fiction was already dead, you see.

I hope that clears matters up.

April 2002: Sequel to Divine Comedy

Kathleen asks: Of all the fantasy and science fiction writers in the world who would you nominate to write the sequel to the Divine Comedy?

Didn't James Morrow already do this? Well, if he hasn't, I'd have to go with Milton.

Pornography and Art

Robert Menace asks: What is the fundamental difference between pornography and art and should we care?

I used to subscribe to W.H. Auden's dictum that pornography was that which gave him an erection. Then I saw some of the pornography on the Web and changed my mind. Now I make do by defining it as that which pisses off the Republican party. Should we care about the difference? Yes, absolutely! Do we? No, not really.

Writing Fiction

michael asks: how do you start to write a fiction story about anything

The first step is astonishingly difficult, and one that separates the writer from the thousands who want to write but never will. You have to stop talking about writing. The second step is almost as hard. You have to sit down and write. Personally I advise against it. Talking about writing is much more satisfying than writing can ever be.

Young Writers

Borna asks: What do you think of sites like the Young Writers Speculative Fiction Forum at Inkspot?

I've never seen the Young Writers Speculative Fiction Forum at Inkspot, so my opinion is fundamentally worthless. However, that's never stopped me before! So...

Almost all gonnabe writers seek out validating activities, like workshops, collectives, manuscript-swapping, and so on. Most of them get so involved in the process that they never go on to write anything real. This is useful in that it rids the world of a lot of writers who don't have the focus and determination to write something of lasting merit. Some few learn what they can, ignore the rest, and go on to become serious and sometimes important writers. Their numbers are small enough, however, that this do no real harm.

Seriousness and Comprehensibility

? asks: Have you ever answered a question with any degree of seriosness? Have you ever written a comprehensible short story?

I am the most serious of men! Ask anybody! Even here, where up is down and swans are black as snow, it takes only a careful reading of the premise and a little mental agility to get useful advice out of my replies. As for my fiction, all my stories are not only comprehensible but lucid. If you're having trouble understanding them, something is wrong with you. Take two aspirins. Consult a dictionary. Lie down in a dark room with a damp cloth over your eyes until the swelling goes away. You may need professional help.

Insulting Editors

Chuck Lukacs asks: When insulting my editors, do I tell them that they are uncreative, or cheap?

Absolutely not! This accomplishes nothing. You want to insult them in a way that will make them buy your work. Employ reverse psychology. Say, "You're probably too dumb to appreciate this," or "This is too good for a tacky rag like yours." Make the editor want to prove you wrong!

(Chuck is a freelance science fiction and fantasy illustrator who, in his unedited letter, admits he's only kidding. In the interest of maintaining this column's purity, however, I urge everyone to ignore the latter fact.)

Does Writing Fanfic Hurt your Brain?

Rachel Weisserman asks: I've been writing for ages, and I recently discovered fanfiction. I write Star Trek fanfic, Animorphs fanfic, comic fanfic, you name it. The thing is that I am not sure if I can write original stories any longer. Does writing fanfic really hurt your creative brain?

Nobody knows. So far, there haven't been any major writers who've come out of fanfic, so the data set is simply not there. Joanna Russ wrote a piece of Kirk/Spock Slash and even got it published in Asimov's (after scraping off the copyrighted identifiers), but she'd been famous for decades before that, so it doesn't really count. We'll have to wait at least a decade to find out whether fanfic discourages originality, and even then we'll be reliant on the emergent writers (if there are any) having the courage of their convictions to 'fess up!

That said, my son Sean wrote a couple of pieces of fanfic with his friend Ben Davis, posted them on the Web, and in a typical month receives more fan mail than I get in a decade! So it all depends on what you want. Money, awards, free travel, paid speaking gigs, and being able to look prospective in-laws straight in the eye aren't everything.

March 2002: Three Questions

Austin Ross asks: I have three questions for you:

1) What does it take to sell a story?

2) Where do you get your ideas? (Bet you're sick of that one.)

And, most importantly,

3) What is the maximum speed that an unladen swallow can achieve?

1) First and foremost, it takes a completed story. Most would-be writers skip this step, to their ultimate regret. But they shouldn't feel bad! Consider the poor readers. It's a kindness to spare them the works of a writer who can't even finish a story. It frees up ever so much time for tennis, auto maintenance, watching television ...

2) I make 'em up. (And, nope, I think you're maybe the second person ever to ask me that.)

3) It can't. Maximum speed can only be obtained with a strap-on ramjet booster.


William Clarke asks: How much research do you generally put into a project?

About one-tenth of it.

Cover Letter

Will asks:    How do I write a good cover letter, and how much information should I include?

All of it! Your cover letter should include not only every word of the story itself, along with detailed explication of what it means, doesn't mean, and would have meant if you only had the skills, but also the text of everything you've written to that point, in order to give the current story context - and don't forget those grammar school essays!

But it doesn't stop there, either. You must also include everything you ever speculated about, mused upon, pondered over, or failed to consider. Your cover letter should be an all-encompassing universe of discourse. It should give the mail-carrier a hernia. Tough? Of course it is! But don't let that stop you. In order to sell A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Proust had to write a cover letter fifteen times as long as the collected works themselves. Let his example be an inspiration to you.


John asks: How can I develop more depth of plot in my stories. I usually have a good idea to start out with but my stories have a tendency to fizzle after several pages into some incoherent pile of, well, you get the idea. Thanks.

Your problem isn't "depth of plot" - it's lack of plot. Plot isn't just stuff happening. It's somebody getting or losing or learning something that's terribly important to them. A million dollars. Her life. His dignity. If you've got a good idea and still can't make it work, consider this: Most stories need at least three characters, a protagonist and two others so he can be pulled two ways.

That said, plot isn't everything. There are millions of writers who never came up with a plot in their lives. Only six or seven of them were ever subsequently published, mind you. But being published isn't everything either. Think about it.


bluejack asks: I hear you have something against Vanadium ...

I'm sorry. Your question had to be cut for length.

Another Guy from New Jersey

Will asks: How do you write so many stories? Who sends you your ideas? And where can I subscribe?

Will, you sure ask a lot of questions for a guy from New Jersey! The answers are (a) I can type 120 words a minute. (b) I make 'em up myself. (c) Whoops ... look at the time. Gotta go.

February 2002: Dick

dick asks:    if I should write a novel (PKD STYLE RIP OFF) about computer electromagnetic brain personal manuipileation. It would have lots of delta 88's going through fences into train yards and fat butt buraracacies white guys at the post office.

Jeeze, I keep telling and telling and telling you guys: Don't rip off authors with identifiable styles. There's no money in it. Yeah, Hollywood regularly makes cartoonish movies "based on" his morbid short stories. Yeah, the French make art movies out of his mainstream work. Yeah, Todd Machover premiered a postmodern opera based on Valis at the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris. You'll notice they waited until he was dead first.

In order to pull down the big bucks while still alive, you have to rip off somebody with no style whatsoever. I recommend Tom Clancy.

January 2002: Talent

Sista Mary asks: Do you think the talent to write great books is hereditary? Or does it have something to do with birth order?

Quite possibly.


h asks: h



H.J. Sukthankar asks: As an aspiring SF writer (aspiring as in I hope to someday haul myself out of bed and actually write something) I naturally do my best to keep up with SF author standards. Succumbing to pressure from family and friends (who were planning to turn me in claiming it was a Crime against Humanity), I got my first haircut in 4 months, disappointed that I couldn't keep the streak going.

What average period of leaving your hair untouched do you recommend?

China Mieville got around this one by shaving his head and getting some really cool-looking rings in one ear. He also ran for Parliament recently, and is working on his Ph.D., however, so emulating him may be a little more ambitious than what you're looking for. The important thing to keep in mind is that sitting around fixating on how you're not getting your hair cut does not make you a writer. What makes you a writer is sitting around fixating on how you're not getting any writing done.


Stryker asks: Thanks for the response to my previous query. I have since... corrected the errors in my work. "Sean, pass the bandaids please... Thanks..." Now, however, I face a new problem. Would a publisher be intimidated by recieving a blood soaked copy? (My printer is out, and I would never be so trite as to "E-MAIL" anything as beautiful as the mastery in literature that I hold in my hand) I need to be able to predict the reaction of the publisher in order to decide whether or not to jack the price up on the publishing rights. Would a blood soaked paper be seen as "Amateurish" or "cutting edge, and bold"? Help!

Amateurish? Yes. Intimidating? No. I was visiting a major New York publishing house recently when a manuscript arrived wrapped in the blood-soaked body of its author. (The editor had carelessly switched "from" and "to" labels on the package when he returned the rejected manuscript to the next-of-kin. What a laugh we had over that one!) So I doubt anybody's going to be impressed by your weak attempts at intimidation.

I encourage you to consider the virtues of faxing your manuscript instead. Not only does it tie up your publisher's fax machine for several hours, but it costs him a fortune in paper. This is bound to get his attention. And if he doesn't publish you, how is he going to get his costs back?

Six Questions

Johannes Doe asks: How many years of dedicated skull-drudgery are necessary to build a successful career as a "short-story-ist"?
What is the success rate of novels that stem from or include previously published short stories (a la In the Drift)?
Why does Playboy seem to pay so much more for short fiction than so many other publications?
What is the best 4-year degree for an author to hold?
What is the merit of writing meaningful SF at the risk of lower pay, and lessened chances of publication; as opposed to writing 1,000-page-plus hack-fantasy novels that are gauranteed to sell more copies?
...and finally: Exactly what does it take to become a Michael Swanwick?

Johannes, you sure ask a lot of questions for a guy from New Jersey! Nevertheless ...

(1) One year is enough to get you noticed by the cogniscenti, three years by those readers who are paying close attention, and five years by the general readership. If you're good at it. To be "successful" - by which I presume you mean able to make a living wage - takes at least eighty years, if you're prolific. Edgar Allan Poe would be making out like a bandit if he were alive today, and if his work hadn't fallen into the public domain.

(2) Nobody knows the success rate of "fix-up" novels. But just as soon as one succeeds, we'll have a data point, and then we can make a rough estimate. Be patient.

(3) Because they do pay more.

(4) Nursing would be good. Or auto mechanics. Or you could consider putting in a little more time and getting an MBA. I have a nephew with an MBA and he's doing quite well. Just remember: Those people who want to become writers and make a lot of money are getting the two things out of order.

(5) To be blunt, you have no choice. Every writer who's successful, whether critically or financially, is writing what he or she thinks is the best, most honest fiction imaginable. If you try to write tripe, you'll find your work unpublishable. Some lucky few, however, write tripe thinking it's literature. I do not mention Lord Archer by name.

(6) Two things: You must be born to parents named Swanwick, and they must name you Michael.

Going Dry

Tucker asks: A big part of the reason I like your work so much is that it is conceptually really cool. However I got my hands on a advance copy of Bones of the Earth, and it really isn't as intrueging as any of the concepts in anything else you've written. Are you going dry, or are aspiring SF authors with good ideas going to other people now?

This is one of those questions people have been debating for decades. When did I start to lose it? A lot of people thought it was with Jack Faust in 1997. Others that it was when I abandoned science fiction to write The Iron Dragon's Daughter in 1993. Most people agree, though, that I peaked with "Dogfight," co-written with William Gibson, in 1985 and that I haven't risen to the same heights since. We'll probably never get a definitive answer.

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