Unca Mike's Bad Advice - Answers 2003

November 2003: In Charge

Patrick writes: Who around here is in charge of new Unca Mike's? And why the heck are they not forthcoming?

I'm glad you asked, Patrick, because otherwise I'd've had to make up your question myself. The truth is that I not only write all the Unca Mikes but I'm in charge of them as well. And lately... well, I've been busy. In August I flew to Finland, where I was guest of honor at Eurocon, and stayed a couple extra weeks exploring that beautiful country. In September I had to fly to San Francisco and to Raleigh, NC for readings. In October I spent two weeks in Oregon, where I taught at a writers' workshop and then lit out for the high desert. Then I drove up to Milford, PA, to introduce Death Watch, a 1979 film based on D. G. Compton's The Unsleeping Eye (British title: The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe) at the Black Bear Film Festival, and chair a panel featuring Compton himself (a charming guy, incidentally), Gardner Dozois, and the illustrious Tom Disch. This upcoming weekend, as I write, it's the World Fantasy Convention, where I'm doing some promotion for my new short-short collection CIGAR-BOX FAUST AND OTHER MINIATURES (Tachyon Publications). And when I wasn't traveling, I was writing tirelessly, working on new stories, a novel, collaborations with some of the best writers in existence, and even an incidental essay or two. Am I living the glitterati life or what?

Unfortunately, this means there hasn't been the time to get absolutely everything done. Something had to be given short shrift. So I cut back on the freebies.

Which doesn't mean that you should scale back your expectations! No, sir. You should continue to expect a timely product, crisply written and delivered to your virtual doorstep on time every month, like clockwork - and for not one red cent. Demand the best! See where that gets you.


Squ writes: Dear Mike,

I've been writing damning reviews of the pap which passes for Sci-Fi these days, reviews which shine the cold, hard light of deconstruction on the visionless, apologist shite dribbled upon the page by hacks like yourself.

However, now I'm ready to submit my first, groundbreaking, strikingly space-opera pastiche. I'm worried that editors won't understand it. Can I sue preemptively?

If you have to ask, you obviously haven't got the gumption. Somebody with gumption would have launched the lawsuit without asking for permission. That's the trouble with kids today - no gumption. Back in my day, we didn't have gumption either. But, man, is gumption a fun word to say! Gumption, gumption, gumption. Whoo.


Jay writes: Mike, do you know the existance of The MS Force, also known as The Swanwikians? After Hugo, they are wandering all around-Whenever they see any debut novel or something, they write a review saying "this is not worth your time", or "Buy Swanwick if you have that money", or more seriously, "Give the Novel Price to Swanwick! We Are SWANWIKIAN! HURRAY! CONQUER THE WORLD!" and post it all over the net. They also depress those who dared to be critical on your pieces. There are rumours that these people are planning to swap out all to-be-writers altogether and give this field entirely to you. (Well, this is kinda secret, but who'd believe it's true, anyway.) What do you think about it?

Well, you're halfway there. You've figured out that in order to be a successful fantasist, you've got to feed the audience what they want to hear. Unfortunately, you've chosen too small an audience. There's no incentive for an editor to buy it - the best it'll do is increase his magazine's readership by one!

What you need now is to work on expanding your readership. Start by writing something about those appraiser twins on The Antiques Road Show. Work your way up to Senate sub-committees and small mobs. Then, perhaps, a mid-sized city like Dubuque, a state nobody cares about, like Illinois, and finally a major nation, such as Canada. There's a lot to like about Canada. It has some of the cleanest cities in the world. They settle their problems with a minimum of violence. They're polite. Best of all, they're too non-confrontational to get solidly behind your idea of conquering the world. Which, face it, would inconvenience the rest of us.


Sehr writes: some good starting point ideas for short stories. How to introduce the setting and describe the atmosphere well...Thanks!

All the writing books agree that you should "Begin at the beginning." And given the purpose of this column - to so burden you with useless advice that you never do get published - those are words that can scarcely be improved upon. For introducing the setting, you simply say something like, "Setting,. I'd like you to meet the reader. Reader, setting." And as for describing atmosphere, I recommend you be straightforward. On Earth, it's nitrogen (78.90%), oxygen (20.95%), and small amounts of argon, carbon dioxide and other gases, with some dust and water vapor, depending on local conditions.


Linus writes: I see the TorCon 3 Hugo is rather phallic. Will you proudly display it as a sign of your virility?

Yes, people have commented on the Freudian implications of that rocketship before. But, still, it's a bit ... small, isn't it? I mean, it's only fourteen inches long! Who on earth would be proud of a puny little thing like that?


Juaki Revuelta writes: Do you think revisions (I mean to brainly chew the ideas and style on and on and on...) really enhance the quality of a story? Wouldn't it be better to let the message as fresh as it was born?

Quite right. You don't imagine that any of the modern masters wasted their time on revisions do you? They just let it pour out of their heads. Take a look at the opening of Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants," for example:

The hills across the valley of Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. Better pick up some bread and milk today. I think we're almost out of butter. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two hours and went on to Madrid. Scott Fitzgerald is a prat.

See how spontaneous that reads? Go thou and do likewise.


Shawn writes: Will you fight my battle against the aliens who have taken over America? They are the current administration, hollywood elite and politicians who are conservatives.

Absolutely not. When 9-11 happened, virtually every newspaper in the country editorialized, "If we give up our freedoms in pursuit of safety, then the terrorists will have won." Well, we did and they have. Don't be a sore loser.


Buffy! writes: Is it ok to end every single sentance with an exclamation point?! Cause I really like them! And I want to use them lots! Can I?! Pretty please! With sugar and fluffy things on top?!

Absolutely!!!!! I commend you!!!!!! Obviously you've got gumption!!!!!!!

September 2003: Celebration

Shane writes: Congrats on the Hugo. Perhaps we will receive a celebratory Unca Mike column?

Nope. Not a chance. Sorry.


talewind writes: My name is Norm Perrin and I am a Toronto storyteller, that is, I tell stories, traditional, personal, etc. Storytelling as a career makes writing look like a smart career choice by comparison, but it did get me to Batticaloa Sri Lanka to do some storytelling workshops at the expense of the Canadian government. If you want to know more look up 'The Butterfly Peace Garden' at www.thestupidschool.ca

On using one's own life story in your writing: As a storyteller I have that I can use elements from my own life in a told story without it becoming submerged as another bit of written fiction. I use a description of a woodland clearing that I remember from my childhood in the Ottawa valley in a tradtional folktale. The clearing was bulldozed for a gravel pit years ago, but each time I tell 'The Old Woman and the Flute' that place comes alive for me again.

OK where's the question?

Nit picking pet peeve: Why do writers call themselves storytellers? They are storywriters, and should call themselves as such.

Well, as it turns out, I am a storyteller. Not only in my personal life ("No! Not one more story!" Sean Stewart shouted at ConSpec. "We have to go to dinner!"), but on the rare occasion at kindergartens and grammar schools and even science fiction children's events. Most of my stories are black humor for kids, like "The Two Buildings Do Lunch" or "Sam the Asteroid." Others are just silly, like "The King Who Was as Dumb as Mud and His Three Sons Who Were Even Stupider Than He Was (Hard Though That Might Be to Believe)." (That one is actually told by my right hand after I glue eyes to it.) And when a batch of us walked out on Newt Gingrich's speech at the 1992 Nebulas, I had a hall-full of award nominees making moose antlers with their hands and bellowing "Mooooooose!" on cue while I told "Free Moose."

And yet I never refer to myself as a storyteller. Or a storywriter, for that matter. I just call myself a writer.

So go figure.

Sex & Sax

Mick Jorgan writes: G.K. Chesterton once said that a man without sex was like a man without sax. How does that apply to writing? I'm just curious.

By "without sex" do you mean artificially ungendered or just not getting any action? In the first case, never having undergone that process, I wouldn't know. In the second case... I wouldn't know that either. I've never owned a saxophone, however, and it doesn't bother me a bit. Does that help?

Free Hope!

Don writes: Is there any chance I could read your essay on Hope Mirrlees online or via email? I just read Lud in the Mist and am crazy to see what you wrote about her.

I dealt with this question seriously in the last Squalid Truth, so here I'll only say: Who let all these Socialists in? Not that this is a bad thing. The more demand there is for my essay, the greater economic value it has. So long as I don't give it away for free.


Carl writes: Shakespeare recommended that the first step should be to kill all the lawyers. What is the second step? Mulching?

Also, will we be hearing more from Summergarden, Claimjumper & Ting in an expanded format?

Shakespeare didn't recommend that. One of his villains did. It's a piece of advice that benefits you only after you've seized absolute power. Treating it as the first step is sort of like voting for tax cuts for the rich without first becoming rich yourself. No sane person would do that.

As for Summergarden, Claimjumper & Ting, probably not, but who can tell? I like the name a lot. Just writing it down is fun. So... stranger things have happened.


Hetty writes: Yo, let's say you were to give propz to your favorite short story writer? Who would it be?

I probably shouldn't mention his name because his stories really suck. But, oh man, what a nice guy!


Evan writes: SF magazine (Asimov's, Analog, MF&SF) subscriptions. A good or a bad thing for the aspiring writer?

Bad, bad, very bad! It pointlessly involves you with what's going on today. Which can get you involved in pointless dialogues (conducted via stories) with writers like Charles Stross, Steve Baxter, Nancy Kress, and Greg Egan, all beginning when you say to yourself, "Why, the future's not going to be like that at all! It's going to be much, much stranger." And that in turn can lead to pointless Hugo and Nebula awards, to say nothing of pointless book contracts and equally pointless public acclaim. Is that the sort of person you want to be - always haring after popularity and awards? Of course not. Study your Heinlein, young writer! Or, even better, your Erasmus.


Pat writes: I'm really interested in dinosaurs and time travel (i loved Bones of the Earth) but i can never think up a good idea for a story! Please help me!

The procedure I and every writer I know used when we were starting out was to use bad ideas and then write even worse stories, over and over again, until by slow degrees our stories sucked less and less until one day they were actually publishable.

But that's not the answer you want. So here's your plot: Boy meets dinosaur. Boy loses dinosaur. Boy finds new dinosaur. For a feminist twist, make it girl meets dinosaur. In either case, be very, very careful with those sex scenes.

Term Paper

David writes: Where do you stand on personal identity through space? Do you share the view of some of your characters that a perfect duplicate of someone, including their memories, is a new and different person? How does this relate to your views on personal identity through time? Where do you stand on personal identity through time? The Old Man in Bones of the Earth seems so different a person from his younger self that it could be argued they have nothing in common: two different phenotypes from the same genotype. Are you the same person you were 20 years ago? You comment elsewhere: "It is possible, though I'm not prepared to argue it in public, that all great fantasy is ontological in nature". I don't understand this at ALL. Can you expand?

David, you sure ask a lot of questions for a guy from New Jersey! Are you working on a term paper by any chance?


Mark writes: to perform a worthwile task. I request that you - for free of course - include on your website suplements to "Being Gardner Dozois." There are two benefits. First there is not much work you need to do - just crash GD's pad tonight and transcribe something about "The Hanging Curve" and "Fairy Tale." And secondly, you have not only your writings, but now Gardner's as well, to crush the spirit of any potential competition. It's a Covey-esque win-win.

Actually, that's not at all a bad idea. If I come up with some extra time, I may do that someday. Right at the moment, I'm kind of busy with various bill-paying projects (stories, a novel, that sort of thing), but come the day when inspiration flags, I might very well do that thing. Well thought, Mark!

Oh, wait. I'm supposed to say something snarky. Um ... Tom Clancy! (There. That oughta hold the little bastards for another week.)


Susan writes: Hey, Unca Mike. How do you feel about recreational marijuana use?

Not right now, man. I've got to drive.

August 2003: Love

Jery writes: Man, where's the love? First you turn all socialist, and now you won't give us new Unca Mike.

Socialist? Exactly the opposite! Let me educate you (as your school should have and obviously didn't) as to the basic nature of the economic system which you and I inhabit.

Under a socialist system, the ownership and means of production are vested in the community as a whole. Which means that I, as a writer, would have to give up any dreams I might have of someday being as rich as Tom Clancy, but in return would be guaranteed such basic needs as food, shelter, and whatever medical care I might happen to need. Similarly, you would give up any chance of ever becoming wealthy by, I guess, winning the lottery, but in return would be entitled to a free and regular supply of Unca Mikes.

Under capitalism, however, ownership is privately managed. If I want to eat, sleep indoors, or get somebody to set my leg should I break it, I have to earn money. Which is what I've been doing this past month. By favoring paid work over unpaid, I'm being a true and patriotic American capitalist.

But that's because I'm copyright-based Old Writing Economy. All up and coming writers are encouraged to participate in the socialist-capitalist hybrid New Writing Economy by posting their work free on the Web and receiving nothing in return. In the long run, it'll pay off. Somehow.


Yum writes: Argh, I demand more Squalid truth and Unca Mike.

Okay, okay, I'm wracked with guilt over this thing. Tell you what. Everybody who sends me a self-addressed stamped envelope will be refunded three times the money they've paid for Unca Mike this past month. You can't ask for fairer than that, can you? Be sure to include ten dollars for handling.


Chris writes: Is it true that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world? If not than why the hell would anybody want to be a poet?

Absolutely. With the emphasis on unacknowledged. Poets have, over the years, enacted legislation banning waste in government, torture in the Third World, and any fantasy quest novel in which a poor-but-deserving young person teams up with a wizard, two dwarfs, a fabulous beast and one or more elves in order to retrieve the Magic Whatzit and so on and so on. Also a series of astonishingly wise bills guaranteed to usher in an era of universal peace, justice, and prosperity. Unfortunately, since they have not been given the power of enforcement, their legislation has been completely and universally ignored.

Which explains why most poets are in the biz strictly for the money.


Demos writes: Now, don't you think, would be the appropriate time to make a loud pronouncement against the Republican party. You could remind your readers how harmful the GOP is for reading and writing.

Too late! Five decades of neglect (by both parties, let's be fair) of our public school system has produced a generation that thinks "socialism" means being opposed to borrowing billions of dollars in order to invade a Third World nation so that a former doper and deserter can be a war hero, and that "capitalism" means the unrestricted right to free stuff on the Web. What could I possibly write that you guys would understand?


Hugh writes: "...Rooster hissed urgently"; I see you take your own advice.

The rule of thumb is that you shouldn't employ a pronoun without identifying the antecedent in the same paragraph unless that paragraph is especially short. Just to keep from confusing the reader as to who "he" is or why he might want to shove "it" in his mouth.

Similarly, when busting the chops of an unpaid writing advice columnist who's only doing this out of the goodness of his heart, it helps to spell out exactly which advice you're playing "gotcha" with. Just to keep from puzzling the reader.

I hope that clears things up for you.


Jay writes: A pox on you for not updating Unca Mike! Yes.... Hey, I enjoyed nissassA, though. That was cool. Ph3t l3wt, if you will

0k4y 0k4y, im wr4ck3d w1+h gu1l+ 0v3r +h1$ +h1ng. +3ll U wh@. 3v3ry80dy wh0 5Endz m3 4 $3lph-4ddr3$$ed $+4mp3d 3nv3l0p3 w1ll B r3fund3d +hr33 +1mz +h3 m0n3y +h3yv3 p@1d 4 unc4 m1k3 +hI$ p4$+ m0n+h. j00 c4n+ 4$k 4 ph41r3r +h4n +h@, c4n U? B $ur3 2 1ncl00d +3n d0ll4rz 4 h4ndl1ngxor.

June 2003: Kinky Sex Again

Jake writes: I got the 2001 Year's Best SF anthology today at a used bookstore, and read The Dog Said Bow-Wow. And man, that person who commented on the kinky sex was right! Let's recount it:
1. The Dead-people having sex with corpses
2. Scherzo with Tyrannosaurus- People having (or almost having) sex with their own mothers
3. Dog Said Bow-Wow sex with dogs, man! What's up with that?
In conclusion, I request that for yours, mine, and everyone's sanity you write a good Puritan space opera next.

You're absolutely right. People don't want to read the kind of sick, twisted stuff I put into my stories. They come to fiction for moral uplift. In fact, it's a miracle they read fiction at all, with the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita and the Koran so close at hand. Alas, I'm inherently sinful and so it's probably best I leave the vile smut in, to warn decent folks away from me.

But your idea for a Puritan space opera is a good one. Given that adultery meant an eternity burning in Hell, once Puritans fell from grace, they might as well go all the way: bestiality, devil worship, orgies, the lot! And if, perhaps through a Satanic pact, a batch of them found their way to a new planet, they'd build a society that... hmmm.


Anthony writes: Does the sex trick described in Stations Of The Tide to prolong male orgasm really work?

Well, duh! Why do you think they call it "hard" science fiction?

A Single Tom Clancy Novel

Curtis writes: Have you actually ever read - all the way through - a single Tom Clancy novel?

No, but I once picked up a copy of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho in the library and read a page at random and, boy howdy, was that a mistake! The truth is that, even though I haven't read his stuff, I have a sneaking fondness for ol' Tom, because I've had several conversations with retired Navy officers who were in genuine awe of his earlier novels. So I figure, with his money and readers like those, the guy can take a joke.

But, this being a writing advice column, what you really mean to ask is: Should you read books you know you won't enjoy just in order to be fair to them? And the answer is: Yes, yes, yes! It may mean that you'll never get around to reading Gene Wolfe or Marcel Proust or Ursula K. Le Guin. But isn't that a small price to pay in order to be able to say, honestly, that unlike his plays Samuel Beckett's novels take the concept of tedium into an entirely new dimension in which a passage which was merely excruciatingly boring (though, like Godot, it never does arrive) would be like having the circus come to town? Of course it is.

You, being fair-minded in a way that I am not, may want to start by reading American Psycho.


Ben writes: So, does writing science fiction impress the ladies? Eh?

Okay, we've got a theme going here. Boy, you can really tell when it's spring, can't you? When the sap starts flowing, the... well, the sap starts flowing.

There's no question that writing science fiction impresses the ladies. Unfortunately, it's not always a positive impression.

Under 30

Nait writes: It seems as though all the best science fiction authors are either crotchety 50- and 60-somethings or well on their way to becoming nasty, old farts. All of the most reputable publishers are hell-bent on pandering to you over-the-hill whackos to such an extent that practically anything you eke out onto a keyboard through your withering, gnarled fingers is treated as gold. What could a writer under 30 possibly have to offer any paying market these days?

Nothing! Go away! Editors aren't at all interested in energetic young writers who can be counted on to produce a flood of new, freshly-thought-out fiction that will continue for decades after I'm dead. Absolutely not! Forget about it entirely!

And don't you dare ask the editors themselves this question. They'd only lie to you.


Elmo writes: How do I get over my own perfectionism? I usually make it about three-quarters of the way through a story or novel, then I get discouraged about how much work still needs to be done, and abandon it. I've been writing for almost 12 years and have hardly finished anything, never mind anything publishable.

Your problem isn't that you're a perfectionist. It's that you don't know where your story is going, so you make it up as you go along and then, eventually, it collapses from the cumulative weight of its own self-contradictions. Well done! A weaker individual might hit the writing advice books, looking for insights into structure and plotting, trying out various ideas and discarding those that don't work while retaining those that do. But I advise that you hit the bars, dressed in Byronic black, and start trolling for ladies who are impressed by writers. It's much easier than writing. Everything is.

Political Activism

PC (really!) writes: Does political activism help or hinder a writer's career? Does it make a difference on which side of the fence the sign waving occurs? When will we see a nude photo of you with slogans stenciled on your body (a la the Dixie Chicks)? Will the photo be posted here?

Yes, no, never, and I fail to see how.


Mensa Mule writes: If you only get something after you don't want it anymore, if you only sell what you don't feel is your best work and movies are made of your stuff that is so far from the original that you petition the movie company to remove your name - would it be possible to create a best seller by writing what you felt was a good story, then running it through the antonym section of your computer's Thesaurus?

Ah, Mensa! Years ago, the local chapter of Mensa was after me to give them a speech for no money at all at one of their meetings. I told them that the sort of thing they wanted took me a full week to write and, having no personal or professional relationship with them, I simply couldn't afford to do it. For some reason, they were unable to understand what I was saying.

But in answer to your question: There's only one way to find out! I salute your initiative.

Dirty Writing

Luke writes: Unca Mike, I loved The Dead and that story with the time traveling, so I hope you can help me solve my two conundrums
        First of all, I'm a decent writer and honing my skills. But honing doesn't pay the bills. So when skimming my public library's copy of Writer's Market, I found descriptions for some dirty magazines. The pay's not great, but just a little less than what I'd get at a semi-pro mag. So my question is: is it acceptable to write trash under a pseudonym to pay the bills?
        Also, is it possible to make it as a Republican SF writer? It seems that many of my favorite writers (yourself, Asimov, and Vonnegut) are liberals. What's up with that, yo?

Acceptable? No. Done? All the time. Fans used to keep long, annotated lists of those pseudonyms, much to the embarrassment of their originals at autographing time. But I'm going to be uncharacteristically honest here, because there is a genuine risk to what you propose. If you have a strong enough ego, fine. Mike Resnick (who has written entertainingly on this topic so I'm not betraying any confidences here) spent his apprenticeship writing porn and only moved on to science fiction when he felt confident he was good enough for it - and by the evidence of his sales and those shelves thronged with Hugos and other honors, it was a shrewd move. Less confident individuals, however, have been destroyed by writing trash (it doesn't have to be porn), and then convincing themselves that they can't write anything better. Or, more insidiously, that they can't afford to write anything better. You'll know better than anybody which camp you fall into. Keep in mind that even bad writing is hard work, and that John Grisham wrote his first novels while working full-time as a lawyer.

With your second question, however, we can have our usual scurrilous fun. You have only to look at science fiction as a whole to see that there is a direct correlation between political orientation and intelligence. A good example is Robert Heinlein. It was when he was young and a liberal that he wrote all his best SF. With age, he fossilized into a hard rightist and wrote such turkeys as The Cat Who Walked Through Walls and To Sail Beyond the Sunset. Meanwhile, the absolutely brilliant "Bears Discover Fire" was written by a guy who went to jail rather than rat-out his friends in the radical left.

I'm not saying that voting Republican necessarily lowers your intelligence. But what other explanation could there be for our current president?

Best Place

Dirk writes : Hey, Unca Mike. I was just wondering where the best place to write SF is. I plan to graduate from college, and go somewhere. But where? I hear New England is a nice place, because it's wet and moody. That, or England. But I do like Italy. So, where is a good place to write?

Let's not pretend. I'm not here to help you write. I'm here to help you not write. And the best place in the world not to write is Ireland. The beer is fantastic, the pubs are comfortable, and the people are warm and friendly and, though I've never seen a one of them actually reading a book, esteem writers highly. If you have the gift of blarney, you can hang an elbow on the bar and hold forth forever. If you don't, you're in a land full of people who do. You can listen to them forever, while taking notes you tell yourself you're going to turn into literature any day now. Dublin in particular is Heaven for writers who don't write. Which may explain why there are so many of them there.

Rejection Slips

Bashful writes: I have written (SF) stories which I and various other people, some of them with relatively good taste, like. I have used these stories to amass a massive collection of (SP) rejection slips. I feel tired. What (maybe) should I do? Should I give up and accomplish something more "practical?"

No. Writing is inherently impractical, so something practical just can't fulfill that urge. I recommend having lots and lots of hot sex. It's every bit as impractical as writing and you don't mind that it makes you tired!

April 2003 II: Possible jobs

Nail-chan writes: Konichi wa Unca Mike- san! I myself am a writer..( I would say new being that am no where near as your standing..and infact I have none.) but I have been writing for awhile so am not exactly "new", no? I Have written a few short stories, some longer ones in the process, been working my poetry mostly as of late.(but like thats really gonna get me anywhere...heh..heh..)Okay well I think I have may enough of a build up, so here is my question. I have been thinking about the future and how I wont to go about it, and I know its illogical to think that one could survive on a writing career alone. Here are some possible jobs that could help/carry me on my quest to be become a great writer:
A. Porn Star
B. Morgue Worker
C. Teacher (eh?..HAHAHA)
D. Career Criminal (Whatcha say Unca mike, Want to join me?)
So please tell me which possible job you think would be the smartest move, am sure you can handle it.
Thank You!

It's good to hear from you again, Crazy Girl! I hope you're doing well at UMBC. But I honestly think you should take "morgue worker" off your list of potential careers. With forensics such a hot area in mysteries these days, putting a writer in proximity to that kind of detailed technical lore is just asking for trouble. You could end up as the next Patricia Cornwell. Oh, sure, a life involving multimillion-dollar book deals, fame, the adulation of the public, and hot lesbian affairs with FBI agents who then have shootouts with their husbands sounds good. But there's a downside. I don't know what it is. But I'm sure it's horrible. Don't take any chances!

The other careers are marvelously apt to destroy your spirit, though, so they'd do fine.


Sagar writes: How do you write stories without morals? My stories always end up being like "And so, he learned to love the common man" or some such thing.

Why would you want to write stories without morals? Readers love morals. Consider the endings of Moby Dick ("Moral: Don't fuck with whales") or Crime and Punishment ("And so he learned to love the common man") or Finnegans Wake ("He who frasts snasp, snasts frasp") to name but three works you obviously haven't read.

But if you're absolutely determined to do without this crowd-pleasing device, here's how in four simple words: Write What You Know. Go out into the world and live a determinedly immoral life. Lie, cheat, steal, vote Republican. Don't get caught! After a few years of such behavior, you'd never dream of loving the common man, let alone writing a story in which somebody learns to do so. And if your misdeeds are profitable enough, you might even be able to forego writing altogether!


Pat asks: Is it possible these days to make a living writing short fiction?

That depends on your definition of "a living." Enough to stay alive on? With the aid of soup kitchens, you bet! Enough to live in a squalid apartment in a really bad neighborhood? Not really.


unca face asks: unca uncaun caun ca

Okay, don't panic. How many fingers am I holding up? Do you know your name? Good. Do you know where you are? Mmm-hmm. Do you know who the current president is? Well, I don't think you need to worry. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with you, you just got hold of some tainted drugs. Now I want you to go lie down in a dark room for a while. Put on some classical music if you've got it - no rap, no rock, no pop of any kind. You'll be fine in a few days. Meanwhile, stay away from the computer and don't post any more messages.


Nathan writes: What in Hell?!

Okay, Nathan, don't you panic either. Just read my response to the question immediately above this one.

Three things

Chris W. (from Albany) writes: What three things do editors look for from first time submitted manuscript; what three things besides spelling, punctuation and grammar.

What makes you think they want them? The only joy most editors have is in imposing the "house style" on a manuscript, and they get resentful when you don't give them anything to do.

But in answer to your question, editors look for money, drugs, and offers of sexual favors. They don't get them, of course. But that doesn't stop them from looking!


Harold writes: I like to write limericks. Dirty ones, clean ones, it's all good. I read one of Asimov's biographies and it got me started. Do you write limericks?

You ask the man who rhymed "orange"
Once, in a ditty, with "porringe,"
If limericks he ever
Wrote, stupid or clever -
No, but it was a close thing for a second there.


jason browne writes: Have you ever written any scripts? Thought about it or sold any of your boks to hollywood?

Essentially what happens is that people occasionally approach my agent and then option stories, paying some pleasant little yearly stipend for the privilege of not making them into movies. However, to get to the point where this would simply happen, I had to become something of a name in SF. You can cut to the chase by moving to L.A., finding an agent, and then settling down to writing script after script after script which, whether they get bought or not, will odds-on never be made. There are worse career decisions you could make. John Varley, for example, spent something like a decade in Hollywood and the scripts he most regrets writing are the one or two that were turned into movies he never, ever watches.

One lie

T. Bill writes: I wish to salute your ambition to destroy the future careers of wannabe writers. I praise your desire to cut the competition down at the knees. There are too many youthful critters trying to get into print and somebody has got to stop them. If you could tell one great lie - one super lie that would destroy the careers of all these bright young somethings who want to get into print - what would that lie be? Think big!

I'd tell them to read this column and take its advice to heart.

April 2003: Where are you?

Blayze writes: Where is the new episode of my beloved Unca Mike's Advice? It rules

Unca Mike's Advice has been delayed because, as you may have noticed, I got involved in political activism. Which is possibly one of the most important things a writer can do because it (a) is unpaid, (b) takes up time that could be spent writing things that people actually enjoy reading, and (c) impresses the world with your smug moral superiority. I encourage all aspirant writers to get politically involved. There are more important things in the world than your career, after all.


Kathy writes: What was your childhood interests and family life?

I had many of the former and one of the latter, but I won't go into them here because every time a writer manages to put some personal detail from his life into print, it disappears from his memories of what's he's lived and becomes a memory of what he's written. I put a lot of my winter survival lore from when I was a Boy Scout in Vermont into "Snow Angels," for example, and the single most harrowing hour of my life into an unfinished work titled "Empire of the Air," and now those experiences are no more real to me than something I made up. By some readings, a writer is engaged in converting his life into words, and when this has finally been accomplished, there is nothing left but to die. It's a sick, suicidal profession, and mothers who love their children will keep them from entering it.


Patrick writes: This not a question. I am simply being kind enough to inform you that I will soon be more famous and more successful than you. Now that I have discovered your writing advice column, I expect this process to be accelerated.

Some would say that you're rushing the process and shouldn't go by a single name until, like Madonna or Harlan or Isaac, you're famous enough that people will recognize you by it. Not I! I applaud your ambition and encourage you to go even further by publishing under no name at all. That way, whenever people are talking about somebody and can't recall the name, they'll actually be talking about you. Imagine the buzz you'll build! You'll be so famous you won't even have to write a thing!

How old?

andy asks: how old are you

Do you mean in people years or writer years? In writer years I'm too old to be a wunderkind or an overnight success or even a hot new talent anymore, but not so old that I'm trying to take credit for being an important influence on whoever is this decade's William Gibson. In people years, well, I was born in 1950. You do the math. It's kind of depressing to be this old, but consider the alternative.

Giving Up

Bashful (like you don't get a lot of those) writes: I have written (SF) stories which I and various other people, some of them with relatively good taste, like. I have used these stories to amass a massive collection of (SP) rejection slips. I feel tired. What (maybe) should I do? Should I give up and accomplish something more "practical?"

Absolutely! The only danger I can see to your plan is that, after having mastered some money-making skill, it might occur to you that you could still write in your spare time, for fun. Isaac Asimov wrote all the science fiction for which he's best remembered while working full-time as a biochemist, you'll think. John Grisham became rich and famous for a novel he wrote while still a lawyer. And then, you'll also think, there's Tom Clancy. Hmmm.... Resist such thoughts! They are sheer folly, for good and convincing reasons which unfortunately I don't have the time to go into right now.

January 2003: Best Writer

Albino asks: Who is/was/will be the best writer of all time?

PS: I believe you're gonna reply: Tom Clancy!

Absolutely not! You've forgotten the basic premise of this column, which is to so discourage promising young writers that they don't even bother getting out of bed, much less writing work that will make the discriminating reader forget that I exist. Extolling Tom Clancy as a writer would make my target demographic think, "Damn! With hard work, persistence, and a truckload of research, I could be that good too."

It's very hard to narrow down the field to one best writer, though, because when a work of art is good enough it comes so close to perfect that on its own terms it simply cannot be bettered. Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past is astonishing. Almost anything by Vladimir Nabokov is a delight. When Virginia Woolf wrote "A Room of One's Own," she was incandescent. Closer to home, Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun may well be the best thing ever produced in the genre. And I could go on and on...

Any one of these works sets a standard that should keep you away from the keyboard forever. But if you insist on writing anyway, I urge you to slavishly imitate one of the above to the exclusion of all that is original in yourself. Ernest Hemingway set an example that destroyed an entire generation of writers.


Doktor Hans Von Schmidt asks: Glory unto Herr Svanvick und der greatest und der best off der sci-fi aucotores! Herr Svanvick sprachen und vee vhirl around his vords. Herr Svanvick maken der utterances und ve praisen mit great glorien hiss sprachen! Ve beg Herr Svanwick to sprachen to uss vorden of greaten visdom regarding vriting. How should ve vrite? Mit passion ? Or mit intellect? Ve bow low to Herr Svanvick und ve vait hiss utterances mit great passion!

Neither. As you've obviously already figured out, you should write in dialect. In fact, everyone should write in dialect! Not me, unfortunately, because I already have a career. But everybody else. The market for stories in dialect is bound to come back into existence someday.


stupid moron asks: If you know any who would call me
names like idiot moron.
I al so like to know if you
know any one who would talk to
to me about flies

You're getting close. Now try it with funny spelling.

Ukraine Dialect

african writes: Guy, sorry dat me getcha off drinkin PALM WINE, but here in Ukraine very few people knows Tutuola and me tink dat situation is sucks. Help me. Gimme some links on dat stuff or make it by yo own. Beg yo help!

Okay, this guy has got it nailed by writing in dialect and trying to imitate a great writer at the same time. The fact that Amos Tutuola, author of The Palm-Wine Drinkard, The Beautiful African Huntress, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, and other genuinely wonderful works of literature didn't write in dialect himself only makes the accomplishment greater.

Is everyone here paying attention? Go thou and do likewise.


Janie Roberts asks: This is not a question so much as it is a public service announcement. Aspiring writers take note: Plural nouns require no apostrophes whatsoever! I've read so many story's where the writers insist on doing these kinds of thing's.

Don't be too quick to rush to judgment. Maybe they're just writing in dialect.

home | author | truth | unca mike | news | fiction | non-fiction | bibliography
reviews & analysis | gallery | links | who & how | contact