Unca Mike's Bad Advice - Answers 2004

September 2004: Writing

Cornell asks: Do books write themselves or do they write authors?

Excellent approach! The more Zen you get, the less likely you are to ever get around to actually writing anything. I like to listen to music when I write, and one time I tried a tape of the Gyoto Monks chanting. The Gyoto Monks are the Dalai Lama's crack spiritual troops. Each one actually chants in chords. This results in a sound unlike anything you've ever heard before, listening to which actually raises you to a higher spiritual level. It works, too! I started listening, and within minutes stopped writing entirely. Other writers who have tried the tape report the exact same phenomenon. So I highly recommend you investigate them for yourself.


A thinly-disguised Eileen Gunn writes: question: How can you write so much and have a life? I only write a tiny little bit, and I no longer have a life.
Sleepless in Seattle
PS: You =do= have a life, don't you?

It's great to hear from you, Eileen! Allow me to put in a gratuitous plug for your first collection, Stable Strategies and Others, featuring a foreword by William Gibson and an Afterword by Howard Waldrop, along with many of the best and strangest stories written in the past two decades. Published by Tachyon Publications and available in bookstores this September.

But in answer to your question, absolutely yes. I have a rich and full life. I've just returned from Russia, I'm married to a beautiful and brilliant woman, and my dazzlingly-brainy-and-difficult son is a constant source of wonder to me. How do I manage to write so much with such distractions in my life? Smoke and mirrors, basically. I write all I can, and I tend to publish in bursts. It takes a long stretch of non-publication for people to notice you haven't done anything recently.

For anybody else, I'd detail my writing strategy in detail. Because nothing will derail an individual and quirky writer faster than trying to write like somebody else. But in your case, I'll make an exception. I love your work too much to sabotage it.

Speaking of which, isn't it about time you sent me a few more pages on the Zeppelin story? The first meeting between Radio Jones and Amelia Spindizzy, say. Make it as weird as you like, and I'll write a bridge section rationalizing everything.

First story

Jack writes: Tell me this, EXACTLY how DID you get your first short story published? How in the hell did you get the editor (who was it?) to consider a raw untested writer.
I've read you, I've read me, I'm just as good as you are.
Jack :p

Well, you're absolutely right. No editor in his right mind is going to give a chance to a raw untested writer when he's got the likes of Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and J.R.R. Tolkien hammering on the door every month with exciting new cutting-edge fiction that they're eager to sell for six cents a word. So, since you can't win this one with talent, you'll have to do it with image: motorcycle, black leather, mirrorshades, drug dependency, the works!

Good luck. I see that you've already got the attitude down already.


Evan writes: I realize that multiple submissions are strongly contraindicated, but I wonder, will they hang you for having a MS making the rounds at a publisher and sending out query letters to agents at the same time? I'd like to multitask when this damn thing gets done, but I'm unsure about the niceties.

Absolutely. It's terribly bad form to have an agent when you get your first book offer, because your agent is simply going to go back to the publisher and demand more money. And then he or she is going to go through the contract looking for dicey clauses to reword. Is that any way to build a close and trusting relationship with your editor? Sell the novel first and the paltry advance you get for it will be a good incentive for prospective agents to prove their value to you. Unless, of course, it turns out you signed away the right to negotiate your subsequent novels.


Darrell, 14 year old student, Singapore, asks: do you ever perceive writing to be nothing but incredible slander?

It is if you do it right.


Kevin asks: Hi there Unca Mike. Question for you: Do you always have a short story's ending pretty much worked out when you begin a new story, or do you sometimes wing it?

It's hard to give you a misleading answer on this one because pretty much every method of writing a story works for some writers and not for others. All I can advise you is to find out what works for you, and then do the opposite.


Mellow Yellow writes: They call me Mellow Yellooooooowww ...... they call me Mellow Yellooooowww ....!

No, no, we did the drug jokes last time. We've moved on since then.


memento_man writes: To Michael,
Only you would put up a writers installment for July and end it in April. Which isn't a question...
Whats 'Dogfight' about? You mention it been optioned for a film. Are you a Mike or a Mick? and what happened to my acid?

The easiest way to find out what "Dogfight" is about is to pick up William Gibson's first (and only, alas) collection of short fiction, Burning Chrome. This will benefit us both. Me, because I get a steady trickle of royalties from my half-story therein, and you because it will introduce you to the pleasures of reading something that isn't on a phosphor screen. Try it, you'll like it.

As to your other questions, I'm definitely Irish, and allow me to politely refer you to the preceding question.


Dave writes: Two local writers have lately been prosecuting a feud in the letters column of a mag I write for. It's good clean fun for the paying public - supercilious adjectives, verbal hair-pulling, dragging up of ancient history involving What Your Faculty Advisor Said About My Daughter's Second Novel, the whole nine yards. And I'm wondering how many known feuds there are in American science fiction, how many you personally are involved in, and how it effects your writing. (Have you, for instance, ever been tempted to name a minor character Orson Scott and have him die painfully?)

Is it Scott's turn this week? The last time I looked it was Gregory Feeley everybody was slandering in their fiction. No, I've never been tempted to weaken my own fiction by shoehorning in gratuitous attacks on other writers. But that's because I'm a wuss. All the cool writers are doing it, and so should you.


Kez writes: I started to write a story only to find that it a loose rewriting of 'Jack Faust'. Now what do I do?

If it's loose enough, go out and sell it. It will only make my novel look better by contrast.


John H. Myers Jr. writes: Hello Unca Mike, just read this on your site:

Dear Gardner:
An rtf file of "The Word That Sings the Scythe" is attached, as
requested. I note that you've had my story for over an hour and you
haven't bought it yet. GET OFF THE POT, DOZOIS!
Cordially, Michael

That evening he wrote back:

Dear Michael,
I like "The Word That Sings the Scythe," and I'll take it.
Sorry for the delay, but I had to have dinner first.

My God, I thought. How struggling new writers must hate me.

Yeah, we do. When I eventually meet you at a Con, or some such thing, I plan to snub you as revenge for all the folks who will never get to work with the great Gardner D, while you flaunt your relationship with him.

John H.Myers Jr.

In general, that's a good plan. The only flaw in it is that with such a superficial relationship, the snub won't really sting much. I suggest you buy me a few drinks, write a major piece of criticism or two in praise of my work, very visibly promote my novels and stories for major awards for a few years and then snub me. That will hurt ever so much more.


Ralph Reese writes: thanks for sharing your clever and amusing stories. maybe I'll actually buy one of your books if i can find it...

Yeah, yeah, that's what they all say.


Bowen: Jeff Mangum sent you a letter asking if people would judge his science-fiction novel by his talent or good-will. In Jeff's case I think any novel he write would be judged by the fact that he created the arguably finest album of last century, Neutral Milk Hotel's "In The Aeroplane Over the Sea". Give it a listen and see if that's hyperbole.

Okay, technically, this isn't a question about writing but about promotion. But I'll answer it anyway. When I worked for the National Solar Heating and Cooling Information Center (unofficial motto: "What's a NSHCIC like you doing in a place like this?") one of my fellow intellectual sweat-laborers moonlighted as a record reviewer. About once a month a local promoter would call up to lambaste him for not reviewing any of his clients. "But," my friend explained, "he never sends me any records. He expects me to buy them myself."

So you're asking for me to buy an album by a band I've never heard of in the hopes that I'll give it a plug? Well done! You've definitely got the instincts of a professional promoter. At least one of them, anyway.


Mizzythemaniac writes: Hello, my name is Mizanur
I am 17 years old
Currently studying A level art at Sir John Cass
Anyways for my current project I have decided to look at the sci fi and
fantasy artwork genre, well whilst researching on this subject I came
across some of your work and I was wondering were you get your ideas
from, your influences and last but not least how high would you grade
yourself out of 10 in terms of how good an artist you think you are.
Your reply would be greatly appreciated, thanks for taking the time to
read this and I hope to hear from you.
P.S. I could do better, if I do, I'll be sure to give you a
signed copy of my work, and one day it will fetch millions.
Just joking, Bye.

Your form letter is well-crafted, Mizanur, but your research is abominable. When I write that I'm an "artist," I don't mean that I'm a painter. I'm a trapeze artist. So far as I can tell, I'm the only trapeze artist working in the genres of fantasy and science fiction, so my influences are nonexistent. As to how good I am, just watch this triple-back-flip performed a hundred feet above the ground, without a net:

I'd give that a 10, wouldn't you?

Something New

Bowen Mendenhall asks: What's more important in writing, the plot or the setting/characterization? I hear a lot that there are only really three/five/seven actual plots, but isn't SF classically plot-based (as opposed to the rest of fiction which is supposed to be about character)? Does this mean that all science fiction stories are just the same three/five/seven stories over and over again with no difference but the hair color of the old scientist's beautiful daugher, and if I wanted to write something new I'd have to mess around with researching details or observing the way people are, and wouldn't that be miscegenating genres unwholesomely? Please help me.

Have you tried listening to the Gyoto Monks?


dweep24 writes: All writers are murderers. When you read a book of any importance it destroys the person you used to be and a new one comes into being. As writers, what sort of murderers should we be? Happy ones? Guilty ones? Insane ones?

Gyoto Monks. Definitely, Gyoto Monks.

July 2004: First

Appalled writes: Dear Mr. Swanwick, After three years of writing really crappy stories, I have just had my first story accepted. I have been an avid reader of your advice column, greatly pleased to see someone dedicated to driving away possible competitors. I now realize, to my horror, that your advice has paradoxically helped me to be published! And if your advice has helped me, it will help many others like me and... and... (please do not publish this letter).

Now you understand the importance of my work! Not to worry, though. What are the chances that two readers out there are bright enough to crack the code?

St. Clancy?

In Need Of Help! writes: I had a dream. Or maybe it was a nightmare. I saw Tom Clancy and he came to me bathed in an holy light and clothed in white samite. Angels attended him and bright spirits too. And he said to me," My daughter if you would learn to write you must follow my words as if they were sage advice. Never take notes. Write from the heart and not the head. No heart and all head makes the prose all dead. Write without music so that your thoughts may be free. But if you must listen to a tune or two John Phillips Sousa will do. And if you need wisdom turn away from all. Be true to thine own self said the Bard - and he's a best seller. But if you would seek advice remember "Janes". She is quite an addiction." With those words uttered to me he bent forward most graciously and kissed my brow. And he disappeared in a puff of perfume. Unca Mike, was this an Evil Spirit that I saw or a Good Angel? Or should I cut down my intake of psychotropic substances, alcoholic beverages, and other attractive products used by great writers down the centuries? Help! Help!

Okay, this is nothing to worry about. It's just a batch of bad acid. Now, we've got a nice place in the tent here for you to relax in. Just lie down on the lawn chair and watch the colors. If you want to talk, we've got people who will listen. You're going to be okay. In six hours or so it'll wear off and we'll give you some B-complex vitamins to smooth out the aftereffects. Meantime, just take it easy and have a sip of water now and again. We want to keep you hydrated.


Bohdan writes: Actually I'm not sure if Master Michael will be really interested answering these questions but still... I wonder if Michael's birthplace ever influenced any of his writings, if yes then in which way? And the other question is if his college years ever helped to make the decision to become a writer? Thank You ever!

My birthplace definitely influenced my writings and in a negative way. Some time ago I discovered that John Sayles, whom you probably know for his movies (Return of the Secaucus Seven, and Brother from Another Planet, to name two of my favorites) but who was, prior to turning to screenwriting, a brilliant short-fiction writer (check out his collection, At the Anarchist's Convention, if you can find a copy), was born in Schenectady, New York, in 1950. Was it asking too much for me to be the most famous writer born in Schenectady, New York, in 1950? It's not like I was asking for the entire decade! I'm still bitter about that.

College, though, you bet! I was an English major. When I graduated, I had no career skills whatsoever. So I had no choice but to become a writer. I wasn't qualified for any other work.

Good heart

Jeff Mangum writes: Does science fiction have anything like peace? Is science fiction ever pro-human? If I ever wrote a science fiction novel would I be judged accorded to talent or good will? When do we judge a work of fiction according to its technical capacities or its " good heart". Thank you for answering my question.

Don't worry, Jeff, that's why we're here. Sit down, have a sip of water. There's a lot of this going around. Did you by any chance drop any acid recently? Mmm-hmm. The brown stuff? Well, that's what's going on. It's a batch of bad acid. The effects are only temporary, but that's why you're so worked up. Just relax, lie back, and watch the colors. That's good.


Heather writes: What is your favorite color? why? (you would think, as a (sf) writer there would be, dare I say, something more poetic and meaningful about that question?)

Green. Because it's the color of money. And what could be more poetic and meaningful than that?


An anonymous Clarion Souther writes: Clarion South won't let me back in 2005. They say I'm a Clarion junkie. I tried to tell them they're wrong. I'm a Swanwick junkie, really, but it's hard to argue with court orders so I've had to resort to this. David gave me some tips on how to Swanwickize my prose and I was just hoping you had a simpler method. One that didn't involve an overweight Hungarian trapeze artist or a truckload of lychees.

Yeah, there's absolutely no doubt that imitating somebody else's style will keep you from ever becoming a threat to me almost as well as spending your life making the rounds of the professional workshops. (Why hasn't anybody written a zombie story set in the Iowa Writer's Workshop yet? It's a natural.) If I recall Orson Scott Card's critique of my style correctly - too many adjectives and subordinate clauses, too much description, pretentious plots - you could simply study good writing and do the opposite. That's a lot of work. But much easier than finding your own voice, writing as best you could, and making me look insignificant by comparison would be.

Oh, and it sounds like you got a borderline dose of that brown acid. If anybody offers you any more, just say no, okay?


nednos asks: what if UnUnpentium really does exist?

Well, that's one of the occupational hazards of writing science fiction. New discoveries invalidate old stories. That's why Ray Bradbury took The Martian Chronicles out of print, and the reason you can't find any copies of Asimov's Foundation trilogy anymore. The one was invalidated by NASA's Mars probes and the other by chaos theory. Sooner or later all SF becomes invalid. But I console myself that with the current state of science education in this country, I ought to be able to keep the Periodic Table of Science Fiction for decades after the fact before anybody notices.


Leon writes: For me the main theme of Vacuum Flowers is integrity. Do you think real integrity is possible or does it always have to be artificial? I mean can it be natural or is it a matter of choice within a culture? What if you've been struggling for integrity all your life and suddenly it appears that you were not so integer at all?

Wow, man. That's deep. Here, have a drag on this while I look after these dudes with the bad acid.


Cornell writes: When does one get an agent? One person insists that I first get a publisher to take the book and then the publisher recommends the agent. Yet another whispers the sweet poison into my ears that I should get an agent early and let him or her take care of the nasty work. By the way, how does one go about finding an agent. I thank you for your consideration.

You need to get an agent as soon as you're in danger of actually getting somewhere with your fiction. An agent can arrange deals that a mere writer could never imagine on his or her own. Somtow Sucharitkul's first agent, for instance, urged him to sign a contract committing him to nine books for a total of twenty-seven thousand dollars. Astonishing.

Whatever you do, however, don't look for an agent by asking people whose work you respect what they think of their current and former agents, what their strengths and weaknesses are, who else you might ask about them and so on. That's on a par with researching your fiction - time-consuming and unnecessary. Try consulting the I Ching instead.


Krys Rotten writes: Sexuality is at the base of human civilization in all of its forms. Without the sublime erotic drive all of commerce, government, art, economics and even spirituality ( not to mention the human constructions of God) would be dissolved into sub-atomic particles. Please take this chance to boldly affirm your undying commitment to the erotic. The species - homo homo sapiens is dying due to lack of vision. Please take this chance to affirm the basic relationship between science fiction and the vital, cthonic, terrifying, grotesque, and wonder-seeking portions of humanity. I, too. am an anti-Christ - to paraphrase Johnny Rotten.


Christ, some people will put anything in their mouths!


dweep writes: i hope you feelishness crow how

Okay, you're just drunk. Go to bed and sleep it off.

April 2004: Judgement

Cornell writes: I wrote one novel. In my judgement it is not good enough to publish. I am a third of the way through a second which I feel is much stronger. How does one know when one's work is strong enough to publish?

Well, you're certainly doing my work for me here. (You do know that the purpose of this column is not to help you but to keep you unpublished and thus out of the running for any awards, big contracts, or ego-boo that I might want for myself, right? Good.) Here's a hard truth about being an author: A writer's first published novel will inevitably be a permanent embarrassment to him or her. No exceptions. I recently attended a reading by my old compeer, William Gibson, and discovered that, as I'd long suspected, he finds his own first novel unreadable. This despite the fact that it won three major SF awards and was one of the New York Public Library's 100 Novels of the Century. Its title? Neuromancer.


() asks: Since you're trying to stop aspiring young writers before they can write anything at all, are there authors dead or alive where you would like to read more of them.

You mean other than me?


Lou asks: What's your drug of choice?

That's a tough one. For my purposes, all drugs are good. Charles Platt once made a convincing case that the decline in literacy since the 1960s could be directly attributed to the decline in LSD usage among young people and the subsequent waning of their imaginations, but I've never seen anybody trip and write at the same time. And nothing can beat marijuana for diverting writers into the ending plotting and embellishment that precludes actual writing. The single best example of hippie SF has got to be The Butterfly Kid by Chester Anderson. Quick! Name three other examples of hippie SF. Give up? Trick question. There were only two: The Unicorn Girl by Michael Kurland and The Probability Pad by T.A. Waters. Behold the power of grass!

But for good, old-fashioned ridding-the-world-of-talent, there's nothing quite like alcohol. It took care of Scott Fitzgerald, and it can take care of you too.

March 2004: Question!

Ronald writes: quien es Michael

Warum fragen Sie?


Daniel Curtis Vaughn writes: Have you ever considered writing a novel about vampires? An opportunity to put your own spin on the mythology and legends. Perhaps something of a scientific spin with transmittable mutating disease.

In the Drift mentions a condition which forces a person to drink blood. Some sort of iron or zinc deficiency if I remember correctly. It's been a while.

I realize it has been attempted before. Often poorly. But it has not yet been tackled "Swanwick style." It's something I'd be interested in, anyway.

Then again, I already read your work and I'm only one man.

Well, yes, that would certainly be the easy thing to do - writing popular novels for a large, pre-existing audience. But that's not the way I work.

If I were to tackle such a novel, my immediate impulse would be to take the whole vampire thing and confound the readers' expectations. They're looking for figures of perverse sexual romance? I'd give 'em disgusting wrinkled creatures who drink blood not only to keep alive but as an act of vengeance upon the young for having the one thing they themselves lack - youth. You can imagine how unpopular such a book would be.

And I'll bet you thought that Unca Mike didn't take his own advice! Nope. I sell the product I use myself. Alas.

Clancy Rides Again

Chuck writes: Ok. But can you prove that Tom Clancy actually exists? Did you ever stop to think that maybe Borges invented him? Aha!

Wait. Are you saying that if Tom Clancy didn't exist, we'd have to invent him? Stop. Please. You'll make him blush.

January 2004: List

Frank Bublitz writes: I just want to thank you for printing that list of authors against the war in Iraq.
You have your right to free speech. I have mine. I can use this list to help me remember not to buy anything written by these misguided people.
Frank Bublitz
(normally against war but not this one).

That's an excellent start, but why stop there? What about Samuel Johnson, who was vehemently opposed to democracy and the American Republic? What about P. G. Wodehouse, who (out of airheadness, admittedly, rather than treachery) made humorous broadcasts for his Nazi captors while in a prison camp in WWII? What about Marcel Proust, who was, when all is said and done, French? With a little research, you can whittle your reading to almost nothing, freeing up huge blocks of time for television.

Be staunch in your resolution! I urge you not to follow the wishy-washy example of Tom Clancy who, rumor has it, has a very clear idea of what people he disagrees with politically say and think.

Magnum Opus

Allen writes: Mister Swanwick, I am wondering if you think you have written your magnum opus yet. Do you even want to write a magnum opus?

You mean like Robert Heinlein's To Sail Beyond the Sunset, or those dreadful Foundation novels that Asimov wrote when he was so old he couldn't figure out what anybody saw in his original trilogy? Works that bring in tons of money by destroying readers' memories of what made their authors famous in the first place? You betcha! Unfortunately, I'm not well-known enough for that yet, so I'll just have to continue writing the best I can.


Toby Litt writes: why my novel Corpsing has sold so well?

Ruthless self-promotion?

SF vs. F

Peter Wallace writes: What defines a Science Fiction story vs. a fantasy.

Tough question, Peter. It used to be that science fiction had spaceships and fantasy did not. Which was a handy thing to know at a time when nobody wanted to publish fantasy. (True fact, incidentally - you could look it up.) Thus, Leigh Brackett's beautiful and decadent Mars novels always began with her hero riding away from a spaceport and then having his mount stumble so he would lose his blaster and have to fight the trolls, ogres, and assorted fabulous aliens with sword and sinew. That first page was like a fig leaf - without it, the story would have been unpublishable.

But times have changed, and fantasy is now its own category with a proud (if brief) history of accomplishment. Nowadays, science fiction can best be defined as an unlikely story that has a good chance of coming to an end within three volumes. Fantasy proper, of course, comes in series that not only will never come to a conclusion during the author's lifetime but, if successful enough, can be extended for generations after.


(Anon) writes: Who Tom Clancy?

Tom Clancy was a guy stuck in a nowhere job who happened to think that high-tech military ordinance was the coolest stuff ever and the United States Navy the single most admirable institution in existence. So he did a ton of research into the technology and wrote a series of thrillers about heroic Naval officers which, when the dust cleared, made him one of the wealthiest writers on the planet.

But do all those readers, all those movies, all those millions make him happy? Of course not. The literary establishment sneers at him. Gore Vidal has written scabrously hilarious essays on how meretricious his work is. So it only stands to reason that the poor man must be suffering miserably.

Don't make his mistake! Write literary fiction, even if what you love is military thrillers. But if you must write military thrillers, for God's sake, check out Clancy's political positions thoroughly before reading his work.

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