Unca Mike's Bad Advice - Answers 2005

December 2005: Stories with theme

"Chris" writes: Does your story have to have a theme? What if you’ve got larger than life characters and a solid, logical plot--to me it’s always seemed like those were the two ingredients, but according to this very wise friend of mine, theme is the all-important string that links all of your scenes together--without it, your story’s nothing but a meaningless heap of information... Should I chuck my “morale-less”, “themeless” stories?

Well, you could just write to the best of your abilities and let other people figure out that your theme is (for example) “the United States Navy is way cool!”, the way that (say) Tom Clancy has. But consider this: His readership is made up mostly of technologically-savvy naval officers and people who admire that kind of competence. Not one New York intellectual in the batch. Is that what you want? I don’t think so.

Herman Melville, on the other hand, couldn’t write worth beans. His best- known book has lousy prose, unconvincing characterization, and a plot that forgets about its protagonist for hundreds of pages at a time in order to go wandering about the minutia of inaccurate nineteenth-century cetology. But he had a great theme! (Something about God being a whale, I think.) And now Moby-Dick is forced down the metaphoric throats of thousands of resentful students every day. There’s a lesson in that for us all.

I advise you to chuck everything you’ve written to date, and get to work on coming up with a worthy theme. Don’t write another word until you’ve got one. Spend as many years as it takes. With luck, decades.


Baldanders Stormcrow writes: What should I think about first? If I begin writing with fragments of dialogue or images, I end up with good episodes but weak plots; if I begin with tightly crafted plots, my episodes often seem facile and threadbare. How can I transcend this pernicious binary opposition?

You should definitely start by thinking about your theme.

Making money, again

Sir Launcelot writes: How much should I write to make money off of fiction? How many novels? What strategems should I adopt to sell and spread my product? The reason I ask is because I am a world-class literary genius of epic proportions. My only rivals are Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare. On a lesser level: Cervantes, Montaigne, Goethe, and Tom Clancy (or something like that). But if I can sell enough of my worshipfull prose to live off of why should I even try?

There are two basic strategies for making money off of fiction. You can write a single novel which sells billions and billions of copies, or you can write hundreds and hundreds of novels which sell a couple of thousand copies each. Philip K. Dick chose the second strategy, and God chose the first.

As for why you should even try? Tough question. Philip K. Dick is dead, and God doesn’t need the royalties. Kind of makes the whole enterprise seem pointless, doesn’t it?

My part

Allen writes: Recently the National Endowment of the Arts commissioned a study which showed that unless trends are reversed in fifty years the reading of great literature - fiction, poems, and plays will be virtually extinct. What can writers and readers in the science fiction, fantasy, and horror community help do to change the situation? For that matter, what can anybody do?

Writers can write profound and beautiful stories that open up the possibilities of the universe for their readers, shake them out of their humdrum mediocrity, and change their lives forever. Readers can run themselves deep into debt by buying lots and lots and lots of books and magazines, particularly those with my name on them. I’m doing my part. How about you?

Closer to the mark

Nathan Bo Bathan writes: The premise of your story Foresight is thus: after a mysterious cataclysm, mankind gains the ability to see into the future but loses all knowledge of the past. Right?

My friend thinks it's supposed to be some kind of fragile-mother -earth Nietzchean pedantry, but he thinks that about everything he reads. I think it's actually a story about losing a college sweetheart and the false sense of clairvoyance achieved during the hard drug/alcohol binge that follows.

Which one of us is closer to the mark?

So long as you actually bought a copy of the anthology or collection it appeared in, what do I care?


Boopsy writes: What is it I would have to do to become overrated? Would it be worth it? I see all these blogs in which writers I've never heard of are castigated as overrated, and I long to be among them. I ask you not because I think you have achieved this rarified satatus, but because you have somehow achieved an even more perfect state: neither under- nor overrated. I figure you must think there is a downside to being overrated, and I'd like to know what it is. Plus, it looks like, having struck the perfect mean, you must know something about rigging the system.

Perfect mean? I assure you, I am criminally underrated.

Jelly beans

Klueless in Kamchatka writes: Why is watching a grown man snort jelly beans funny? I'm a relative outsider and I've heard from many about this wonderful feat. Since I'll never witness the marvel firsthand, can you provide a vicarious touch of this majesty?

Good question. For that matter, what’s so funny about the Three Stooges? Like that thing that they do where one of them goes “Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!” while the other two poke each other in the eyes? And all that hitting each other in the head with boards and hammers and whatnot – that looks pretty dangerous to me. Maybe we should notify OSHA.

Why pickles?

Cat writes: Why pickles? Wasn’t there anything else to set on fire?

Actually, pickles burn very badly. All that water, you know. No, I had no practical reason to electrify pickles (that they can be electrified is not my own discovery, incidentally – see this month’s Squalid Truth), but rather did so as an exercise in pure science. It was an enterprise as selfless, innocent, and impractical as was the quest to split the atom.

Tender, shy, virginal

Dark Writer writes: Ok. I’ve written my novel. Now what do I do? I want to get a good agent but I’m young, tender, shy, virginal, ignorant, and I have a face only a mother could love. What do I look for in a good agent? Presumably he’ll request sexual favors and he should be easily bribed; but what more?

You’re young, tender, shy, virginal, ignorant – and you’ve written a novel that somebody might conceivably want to read? Well, I’ll take your word for it. In my day, a writer who hadn’t learned how to perform the Venus butterfly (or at least a sleeve job) from a sailor who’d picked it up in Bangkok, didn’t have much chance of getting published. But times change. Young readers are much more innocent nowadays. If I had the time, I’d run a few quick scams on them. The Roumanian Box, maybe, or the Inverted Pyramid.

But I digress. You want to find an agent. Well, you could try going to conventions and talking to writers about their agents, checking the acknowledgments pages of books by your favorite writers to see who their agents are, then writing a beautifully-worded letter to your agent of choice asking if he or she would take a look at your novel. You could even try submitting the novel to publishers and waiting until you had an offer and then calling the agent to say you don’t whether to accept it or not. (For the agent this entails guaranteed money; for the writer, there’s no risk since the first thing an agent will do – if she/he likes the book – is call the publisher to bump up the advance at least enough money to cover the agent’s commission.)

This is a lot of work, however, and is only justified if you want one of the very small number of agents who are going to work hard and effectively on your behalf. There are hundreds of agents out there with such a bad track record (there are several who for psychological reasons never actually send out the manuscripts entrusted to them) that they’ll take anybody. Rule of thumb: If they advertise, looking for clients, they’re probably literary round-heels. So skipping the top tier of agents can be a real time-saver.


sean writes: are you gay

Why, yes, despite the glum photo on some of my book jackets, I am a happy man. Why do you ask?


pat writes: do you build from an ending, an beginning.. a charcter or just the perodic table?

loved that. Not enough to steal it.. or pay for it... but it's beautiful.

I’ll reply to your comment about The Periodic Table of Science Fiction first by saying: Yeah, yeah, you and everybody else.

And in answer to your question: Yes, all of the above. But I think that you should start from a theme.


Hope writes: My mom told me that most people spend 90% of their time doing stuff they don’t want to do in order to have 10% of their time to do stuff they want to do. Do you think she was depressed? Or is that about right?

Yes, your mother was indeed depressed – and who can blame her? It’s absolutely true that people spend ninety percent of their time doing things they don’t want to do. Unless, of course, they’re writers, who are free to do whatever they want. If I don’t feel like answering your question, for example, I can just

July 2005: The ongoing red debate

Crash Random writes: Aren't you too tough on the Left, even if it is one half of a simplistic and overused false dichotomy? Not "much in the way of accomplishments to show for the last fifty years"? Not even in the areas of civil rights, equal treatment of women, equal treatment of racial minorities, tolerance of homosexuality, tolerance of religious minorities, tolerance of unmarried couples, environmental protections, consumer protections, availability of contraception, availability of abortion?

It seems to me that in the last fifty years the "Left," so called, has all but triumphed, on almost every issue not directly involving the redistribution of money.

Granting your argument, every single one of the areas you mention is currently under attack in the United States. So, if you belong to a generation prior to mine, the ones responsible for all that progress, or if you're an engaged citizen of a nation where those areas are not under attack, I most humbly recognize your moral superiority. If you're an American, enjoy your Social Security. You've earned it.

If, however, you're my age (I'm fifty-four) or younger, allow me to point out that rather than doing something to defend those things you value, you're writing emails to a mock-writing-advice column. And one, moreover, where the columnist always has the final say.

To quote a really terrific story, "Lila, the Werewolf," by a wonderfully humane (which these days pretty much means leftist) writer, Peter S. Beagle, "Listen to yourself! No wonder nobody respects liberals."

Mean and evil

D. Stone writes: Your book jacket photos always make you look sort of mean and evil. Is this intentional? Is this your idea? How is looking evil working out for you?

Ah, yes, the picture my editors call "the 'Go to your room, young man!' photo." This is what happens when you go to a professional photographer and he tells you not to smile because "when you smile your eyes disappear." I've since bought new pub photos from the illustrious Beth Gwinn and retired that shot.

To be perfectly honest, I don't see that the whole looking evil thing has done me much good. But, then, I'm happily married. If you're single, it could be exactly the wicked-babe-magnet you're looking for.


Dan Donahue writes: I have trouble coming up with believeable "filler" for my stories. I prefer the short story form but when I think I've finished and revised and revised and revised, I feel as though I need more to add dimension to my characters without making the background info seem pointless and superficial. Have there been times in the past where you have experienced this sort of block, and if so, how did you overcome it? I try not to sound like a bullshitter but in the end I got nothing but horns and tail. Thanks.

Well, the stock answer here is that if you thoroughly research your subject, not only the science but the locales (by actually visiting them or someplace analogous and taking notes of everything there), and if you know the sorts of people you'll encounter there, you'll find that the problem is not coming up with good background details but pruning them down to something manageable.

But that's too much like work! Try keeping a single-volume desk encyclopedia next to your computer. Then, when you need to puff out a sentence like, He walked past the potted plants and entered the red sandstone building," a few quick flips of the page and you've got "He walked past the potted geraniums, a widely grown house and bedding plants of genus Pelargonium native to South Africa, and into a building constructed of red sandstone which, as everybody knows, consists of sand grains cemented by iron oxide, calcium carbonate, and quartz."

See how easy it is? Two minutes' research and already you've made the reader feel ignorant and inferior. And that's what "filler" is all about, isn't it?


Carlotta writes: Oh hiya Unca Mike *pauses to admire your title*... oh HIYA UNCA MIKE!! Do you, like, ever not give a serious reply to a serious post (take this one for example)?


This is a serious post? I'm glad you told me. Not everybody's so conscientious.


Amelia writes: Mr. Swanwick, the question most dear to our hearts is - why? Why should we publish our work? Maybe we just enjoy crafting short stories and grinding out good lines for our very own pleasure! And who is to say we are wrong?

Actually, we're not the only ones to ask that question. All too often the reader does too. But, since all you and I ask is that our work be publishable, the reader (who wants to be enlightened, astounded, and wildly entertained) does not necessarily ask it with pleasure.

And who is to say we are wrong? The reader, alas.

Again, why?

C Farmer writes: Why the hell is it that my stories, which I KNOW are far more interesting and well-written than the crap Weird Tales, F & SF, Asimovs, and [insert other well-known circulated word-rag], are not good enough for said publications and they continue to send me little squares of paper that say, in a very restrained and educated manner, "Fuck off, we've got this 10 paragraph blurb by this fossil in the field and your manuscript is weighing Hoboken down, asshole?"

I KNOW I'm better than most people, so what the hell's the matter?

Let's see. In ninety-two words, you've used five obscenities, impieties, or scatologies, capitalized words that should be italicized, neglected to italicize magazine titles, left the apostrophe out of Asimov's, failed to include a syntactically necessary verb or a preposition, rendered a number in alphanumerics when the convention is that it should be spelled out, omitted a hyphen, created a run-on sentence, and generally led with your chin. So it's not your craft or your attitude.

I'm guessing it's your name. Have you considered changing that first initial to Philip Jose? There's always a strong demand for Philip Jose Farmer stories.

Heaven or Hell?

Ernest writes: I've been working on writing more words, thinking that this is the key to prolific publishing, and that prolific publishing is the path to Heaven. I am now writing 250 words a day, and they are not any worse than my previous ten words a day. I know that this is not enough to qualify as prolific. But is it enough to keep me out of Hell?

Wait. You're trying to keep out of Hell by being a writer? Pardon me while I laugh demonically. (Which is not to admit that my old publicity photo is any way accurate.)

April 2005: Reds again!

Marxist (and proud of it) writes: Rah rah rah! sock it to him!

Don't get too cocky. The Left hasn't much in the way of accomplishments to show for the last fifty years.

It's all quantum

slothot2 writes: would it b wrong to un-make. is the concept of anti-creation inherently evil? do u follow quantum theory?

No, no. We quit doing drug jokes six months ago.


Austin Ross writes: Let's say you write a scene one night, and when you're done, you lean back and say, "that's a good scene." Then you read it again the next morning, and it's not good at all. In fact, let's say it's the opposite of good. Does this happen to you at all? Also: what are your thoughts on revision? Is it over-rated, or what?

Wait. I write something and then I'm happy about it? Oh, I get it - this is a scenario for a science fiction story! Sorry, it's too far-fetched for today's market.

As for revision, the rule is "All or Nothing." That is, you should either slap the first draft of whatever you write in an envelope and send it off to the publishers, and if you forgot to include your name and address, well, that's their loss... or else you keep reworking the bastard until the day you die, confident in the knowledge that somebody will find your work and arrange for its publication, thereby ensuring posthumous immortality. Both schemes work equally well. As Robert Frost put it:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.


slothot2 writes: i often feel my spatial displacement shifting. do u think concious morphik fields or "force of will" can accellerate this "dimensional drift"? could one slowly nudge oneself out. do u think there is a practicle way of detecting this? most inportant, how would one know if one were successfullllllllllllllll

Six months ago. We quit doing drug jokes six months ago.

Grokking memes

Leo writes: English is not my first language, but it's my best loved language. Still, in writing, much too often I lack the morphemes to express my memes, which is why I tend to precipitate to invented future speak, archaic Shakespearian brogue, or little-known turns of phrase. The doctors say I'm terminal. Will anyone ever grok me? Will I live?

Memes are so last month. It's all about viral marketing now. I suggest you cache-dump the English BS, bluetooth a new business plan, and overclock your scriptz0rz n l33t. Ev 1 rspects l33t & it will show j00 all how good j00r scripz0ring iz

Art or politics?

scrg24 writes: If politics is the art of the possible what is art the politics of?

Well, if you join the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, it can be the politics of spending months in furious, passionate argument over something that nobody will remember five minutes later. The Nebula rules, usually.


Cat writes:: Should I apply for Clarion West?

It differs from person to person. I've had students tell me it made them never want to write another word of fiction again - and that's good. On the other hand, Andy Duncan was one of my CW students, and Ellen Klages was attending Clarion South this year when she learned her novelette, "Basement Magic," was on the Nebula ballot. Both of which facts are, from the viewpoint of this particular Dog in the Manger anyway, extremely bad. So, like Robert Frost wrote:

Tough call.


Green Paranoia writes: Why on earth are so many science fiction writers capitalist toadys? Even Heinlein. Even Asimov. Even Clarke. The pages of any given science fiction novel are just oozing with the pure ugly decrepitude of capitalist inspired propaganda. Don't you think it's time we fought back?

I keep telling you guys. We quit doing drug jokes six months ago. If you'd come down occasionally, you'd know this.

January 2005: Reds!

Red Paranoia writes: What the hell is the deal with so much Marxism in SF today? Just heard Ms. Gunn asking for a Marxist break down of her work. Ken McCloud is outright leftist and loved for it, Shirely has a thing on Locus that should be retitled "It's all Americas Fault"

Bruce Sterling and Doctorow both seem to be upset the Berlin wall fell and Communism lost to the west.

What the hell is going on here. Are these guys aware that Marxism and Communism kill their own in massive numbers?

This whole through rose colored glasses hurrah for Marx thing is prevalent in Brit SF and Sci Fi now, and moving the States in short order. (Can't our folks think for themselves?)

Must I too become a communist pig dog if I hope to get published by Datlow or Gunn., or any other outlet? If I don't have a collectivist idea in my SF is Dozois gonna publish me?

I know Sci Fi split pretty devisively in the mid 80's along left and right, is this the outcome...Jim Baen the only guy printing conservative minded Sci Fi now. So much for fairness.

Is selling out really the only way to make it? Is the communist manifesto a boring book, heading over to Amazon as I type...!

PS, they all honestly remind me of clueless college kids jumping on the latest ideological bandwagon, but it's still disturbing. Kids read SF and it does influence.

What next, Howard Zinn writes Sci Fi? Well, I use that term loosely, since he already does.

Heinlein is flipping around in his grave, no doubt.

You have no idea what Marxist analysis is. Further, you appear to believe that Marxism, communism, socialism, collectivism, the Soviet system, the political left wing, American liberalism, and an open mind are all the same thing And your eagerness to brand working writers and editors Marxists because you don't understand what they're saying suggests that you've embraced ignorance as an intellectual strategy. You may have been raised by wolves.

This is particularly ironic because it appears that you yourself are a closet socialist. In a capitalist economy, publishers are under no obligation to practice "fairness" at the expense of making money. If you suggested any such thing to Donald Trump, he'd probably have his goons pistol-whip you. I recommend that you read a few non-partisan books on economics. Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers is an excellent place to start and eminently readable to boot.

Oh, and Gardner Dozois a collectivist? The idea is so ridiculous as to make grown men snort jelly beans out their noses.

Garbage fiction

Vince writes: how does one break into print with good stories (better than most I read in print)... in short, how does one overcome the politics of editors who print garbage by established writers ... (present company excluded - I love your stuff!)

You're looking at this the wrong way. Garbage fiction by established writers is good for you! In fact, it's almost as good as garbage fiction by total unknowns. Because when you're trying to break into print, all you have to be is better than this month's worst published story. So you should be happy to see all that crap out there.

Of course, it's kind of sucky for the readers. But so what? You're a writer - what do you care about readers?


dremz writes: Is writing pleasurable or only fun? Should we aim high or have reduced expectations?

Writing pleasurable? Fun? Let me guess: You're unpublished, right?


Regis V writes: Entire systems fear the Regis
You can not stop the Regis

You don't have a last name, you preface your first with an article, you have delusions of grandeur, and you don't employ punctuation. Let me guess: You're a script bunny, right?


clyde writes: what is the worst sf magazine to which a new sf writer can submit?

Pretty much any of the science fiction magazines. Because, let's face it, they're looking for science fiction, so a sale to one of them is not going to be very much of an accomplishment. Alfred Hitchcock's or Ellery Queen's is only marginally better, because they've been known to print science fiction or fantasy if the mystery element is strong enough. But imagine how impressed everybody is going to be if you can convince the Paris Review to print your tale of intergalactic hugger-mugger. Or, even better, a publication that rarely or never publishes fiction at all, such as Newsweek or the Journal of Hydroscience and Hydraulic Engineering.


Yenna writes: does she love me?

If you'd rather ask me this question than her, it's probably best for her if she doesn't.


Jim writes: I got a couple of letters published in ANALOG about ten years ago, but now I notice ASIMOV'S doesn't even have a letter column. Yet you are not the only science fiction writer on the net answering correspondence very one-on-one indeed. What gives with Asimov's? Keeping close with the fans is one of the best things about science fiction.

You haven't had letters published, you've had letter printed. It doesn't count as a publication until you've been paid for it. As for keeping close to fans... Some of them, yes. Others you wouldn't want in your house, much less close to you.


H. writes: Is it a sin to write for Posterity? Even when you know she belongs to another man?

Yes, absolutely. But that just makes it better, doesn't it?


Jim writes: The really good spy story writers are spies, Maugham, le Carre, Gordon Liddy.
Are really good science fiction writers science? or fiction?

You think that G. Gordon Liddy is a really good spy story writer? Allow me to commend Tom Clancy to your attention.

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