Unca Mike's Bad Advice - Answers

December 2006: Favoritism

R.T. writes: I just finished reading Triceratops Summer, and I have to say, once again, what is the big deal everyone makes over you? Clearly, more Liberal favoritism from G. Dozois, christ! Sooo, this leads me to ask you , what quality does that short story have that makes it rank among the Years Best SF?

Actually, “Triceratops Summer” wasn’t just selected for the Dozois anthology – it’s been picked up by four separate best-of-year volumes. So the rot clearly extends further than you imagined. You’ll have to ask the editors why they thought the story was good, though. My only obligation there was to cash the check.

But, listen, you’re doing conservative readers a serious disservice when you assume that a story that implicitly praises marriage, hard work, community, and simple human kindness must necessarily be “liberal.” A lot of red-staters are perfectly decent folks. Many of them, if asked, would tell you that the very best that can be said of shooting a friend in the face is that it’s extremely sloppy gunmanship. Try going to your local rod-and-gun club next time they have an open house and talking to a few. You might be pleasantly surprised.


tekkie24u wites: I'm looking for for a fantasy book I believe he wrote in the 60s. I can't recall the title, but it was something to do with the god Pan. There was another with Cernunnos. If someone would give me the titles and dates of publication I can try to find them. thanks.

It pretty much depends on who “he” is. Not me, I assure you. I was writing unpublishable experimental fiction in the Sixties. That and unpublishable generic fantasy. I wasn’t proud. So long as it wasn’t good enough to see print, I was there.

(Seriously, however, Vlatko suggests that "he" might conceivably be Arthur Machen. As a Welsh mystic, he might have written something with Cernunnos, not only Great God Pan. And the "sixties" might have been reprints. Which strikes me as a pretty damn shrewd shot in the dark.)


Nobody writes: Ok, so I'm reading that comment on cyberpunk in "truth" and it would seem there is some tension between you and the mostly hack writer Bruce 'Marxist' Sterling. Am I right in understanding what you said, that he's s literary rival/enemy because you don't agree with how he pigeon holed you disrespectfully as a writer? Hey in any case, fuck him, he's a poseur and that book about some guy obsessed with Iridium Sat's and counter cyber terrorism was quite possibly a first draft that got printed as final. What a drool dope.

Wait, wait – you think Sterling is a hack? And a Marxist? I’m not sure which characterization is further off the mark. For that matter, the closest Bruce ever came to pigeonholing me was when he didn’t include me on his list of cyberpunk writers. Which was a taxonomic dictum I not only agreed with but was grateful for. Heck, the man wrote an introduction to one of my collections.

As for his fiction, either you like Bruce Sterling’s obsessions or you don’t. Me, I like ‘em a lot. But either way, you have to give him credit or assembling his own data and cooking up his own ideas, rather than swiping them from somebody else’s plate, as too many SF writers do nowadays. And you can’t dismiss his writing just because he doesn’t deliver the narrative moves you’re expecting – Bruce has a long history of rejecting received structural tropes as being, well, too hackish. It’s cut back on his popularity a little, but he’s an artist, what can you do?

I realize that’s not very funny, though. Do I have enough space to mention Tom Clancy?


Nobody writes: In response to the population growth misconception. The worlds population will reach a spike in a few decades. At this point the growth will level off, and then we will very quickly reach a point where the number of people over 65 will be more than 3/4 of the entire planetary human population. At this point (150 or so years hence) the earth has approximately another 100 years until human extinction. Population growth and extinction are a counter intuitive process. These findings have been verified repeatedly. Humans have less than 250 years to go on Earth at the current reproductive rate. So, barring wars or other factors, we are set to join plenty of other species in extinction. So who takes over after us? Cats that write speculative fiction? Harlan Ellison clones?

Boy, whoever it was who said that Nobody asks a lot of questions these days sure knew what he was talking about!

November 2006: Novel

Palmer Edritch writes: Is the novel real or is a goddamned phantasm?

That depends on whether you mean my next novel or the novel in general. In the first case, The Dragons of Babel is not only very real but finished as well. Yes! After years of labor, it’s finally done and out in the world. And you can be very sure that I’ll let everybody know when the details of its publication (most particularly when) as soon as I know them myself.

Most remarkable of all, it has a happy ending. “This isn’t going to end well, is it?” Marianne said when she finished reading the penultimate chapter.

“No, no, it has has a happy ending,” I said.

“Oh, sure. One of your happy endings.”

“No! Really! A happy ending where everything ends happily.”

And so it does. Even Marianne agrees.

But if you’re talking about the novel as a literary form, well . . . that question has been hotly debated since its inception, and nobody’s settled it yet.


Florizel writes: As I’m sure (or at least I hope) weve all noticed the human population of the planet upon which we reside continues to increase, despite all the obvious warning signs that this is a really really friggin bad thing for all involved. What bout the numbers of speculative fiction readers?

They’re going up, but not in proportion to the overall population. The numerical growth of speculative fiction writers, however, appear to be outpacing the overall population growth. Nobody’s got an explanation for this one either.


Adsin writes: I have recently found a secret stash of my pet monkey. He had two bananas, blanket, national geographic about mating of chimps (lets not go there) and over a dosen briliantly written stories. Far better then mine.
Since he is not all that clear on all that “copyright” law, should I have him review my work? Or should i give up writing and just sell his work?

Since the purpose of this column is to eliminate the competition, I wholeheartedly endorse your giving up writing. While you’re at it, you may want to give up the drugs as well.


Curtis writes: Are role-playing games good for writers are bad for writers? I was Ironglint the Dwarf in a past life and it did me wrong but - who knows? - maybe Glinda the Elf will turn out to be THE author of the Twenty First century.

RPGs are good for some writers and bad for others. Specifically, they’re good for published writers like myself because they bleed off the time and energy a new writer with potential needs to break through into publication, and thus reduce the competition. And of course they’re bad for the new writers with potential who never do get around to actually writing a story.

While it’s possible, I suppose, that Glinda the Elf might turn into a published writer, the odds that I’ll ever read anything by someone with a moniker like that are vanishingly slight. Ellen Klages – now there’s a good name for a writer. Good writer too. Look up her story, “The House of the Seven Librarians.” Or buy her collection (coming from Tachyon in April), Portable Childhoods. I think she’s going to be big as big.

August 2006: Socialist prose

Survivalist writes: I just wanted to let you know that your socialist left leaning prose makes an excellent block/support for leveling my work bench.

And in the forest on a recent camping trip, I found that I could use the pages to effectively start a fire, read a page or two (hey, there are no book stores in the woods, you have to make do.) And it was a life saver when the toilet paper ran out. Thanks for the useful book.

Cripes! Why do I get all the political illiterates? To begin with, a socialist is not “left leaning” but emphatically on and of the left. Furthermore, I’m a hard-working, tax-paying, self-employed businessman. Which, in my experience, is far more than most loudmouthed cartoons-of-and-slanders-upon-actual-conservatives – you, for example – can say for themselves.

But, most importantly, you’ve clearly misidentified your own political leanings. Your reference to my “book” makes it obvious that you didn’t actually buy any of my novels or collections (none of which, incidentally, displays a specific political bias one way or the other). So you’re one of those people who only read what they can find for free online and feel entitled to it because I write well and they want something to read – in other words, “from each according to his abilities and to each according to his needs.” So you’re actually a communist. But not just any communist. Your blustery insistence that nobody have any political opinions other than your own identifies you as a self-hating Stalinist.

But do feel free to buy one of my books for toilet paper. I can use the money, and the thought of your expression when you employ 60-pound book paper for that purpose will brighten my day.

Book critic

garfieldgirlce1 writes: I ‘m 24 and finaly figured out what I want to do for the rest of my life. The thing is I haven’t the slightest idea how you become one. Do you know how someone becomes a book critic? That’s what I want to be. So any advice would be greatly apreciated. Thanx.

The usual method is to fail as a novelist.


[name withheld] writes: I would like to know if you received my letter proposing a time travel novel based on [idea withheld].

I’ve refrained from publishing your idea because you clearly believe it has value. Alas, in a quarter-century as a professional writer, I’ve only encountered two ideas that would have been worth my stealing. One Bill Gibson offered to give to me outright and was the core image that became our collaborative story, “Dogfight.” The other was Greg Frost’s shadowbridge, which was the basis of his “How Smeersh the Bedeviler Lost His Toes,” and of an upcoming novel which I believe will be titled simply Shadowbridge. (Terrific stuff! Keep an eye out for it!)

The sad truth is that ideas are only the beginning. I have many times more ideas than I could possibly use and I get more every day. Making them convincing and entertaining is where the work comes in. And the sadder truth is that ideas aren’t even necessary. There are plenty of writers who’ve had perfectly successful careers without ever coming up with a single original idea of their own.

I’d name names, but suddenly I’m cut off by line noise.


Lou writes: that, if it were possible for a working dork such as myself to delve into Creative Writing (specifically in the genre of Science Fiction) and to do so in a manner that would skip the dreck that is foisted upon the majority of would-be writers, how should I proceed? I own every Dozois anthology he’s published and I’d love to write the kinds of stories he prefers.

Any advice, however ascerbic, will be appreciated.

First of all, never call yourself a dork. That’s what other people are for. But, God help you, you sound serious, so I’ll stop being smarmy for a minute and give you the most useful and discouraging advice I know: Write constantly. Continue to do so until what you write is publishable. This can take a while. In my case, it took twelve years. And while you’re writing, read constantly. If by “the kinds of stories [Garder Dozois] prefers” you actually mean the kinds of stories you prefer, then you’re on the right track. Unfortunately, the only way to avoid the discouragement that most new writers receive is to be publishable right off the bat – and that’s something neither one of us has any control over.

Back to being smarmy: You misspelled acerbic.


Bah writes: Do you have any idea as to what “Jesus is not a vehicle” could possibly mean? I started it as an opening quote to a memoire entry. Once I actually finished the entry, I was struck with the question of what does the jibberish-quote mean. I liked its ring and as a result I will steadfastly refuse to actually change the quote.

Can you extract some sort of meaning from such a phrase? If and when I am confronted, I am none too certain if I can merely say “it is quite literal, you can not use him as transportation, canyou?”...that idea causes my imagination to recoil in terror.

Please help me find meaning in it!

It means that, should you ever write a story beginning with that sentence, it will never sell. But if somehow it does sell, I will never read it.


Master Prudent writes: Do you think a steady diet of China Melville, Jeff Vandermeer, Steven Erikson and all those other people who write good fantasy would improve ones writing skills? And is it a crime that an obsessive, compulsive fan of SF & F has not read Gaiman, Verne, Gibson or Sterling? If so what is the punishment?

Have you noticed that there are no women on your list? No Ursula K. Le Guin or Joanna Russ or Ellen Kushner or Octavia Butler or Vonda McIntyre or . . . well, it’s a crime you’re not reading them. And the punishment? You miss out on some wonderful work.

But will reading good writers make you a better writer? No. Only writing can do that.


Rick writes: .does every description of run-of-the-mill detritus have to include a used condom?


Light bulbs

La Fanatique writes: ...how many R. A. Laffertys does it take to change a light-bulb...?

Well, once upon a time, it took only one: To know more about light bulbs than any human being could possibly know, make observations about changing light bulbs that nobody had ever thought of before, and then write a story so flat-out weird that afterwards you’d never be sure if he really had changed the light bulb or if the things had always been like that and you just hadn’t noticed.

Now, alas, our light bulbs must remain unchanged. There was only ever one R.A. Lafferty, and there’s not going to be another.

Epic poetry

curtis writes:What’s the real difference between poetry and prose? I don’t think there need be any. More writers ought to write epic poetry.

The chief difference between the two forms is that there’s still a market for prose. So you’re absolutely right that more writers should shift their efforts to epic poetry. I’d name names, but suddenly I’m cut off by line noise.


Jack from Lancaster, PA, writes: Is it true most Philly types are pretty snobby?

Do you mentor any up and coming SF writers? It seems this tradition has greatly help the Literary world over the years. So why no SF too?

You need to do your part for the SF world. Ergo, you should mentor me starting at once.

You think the group collectively known as the Loud Philadelphians is snobbish? You have impossibly high standards of amiability.

As for mentoring new science fiction writers so that they can become richer and more famous than me and successfully compete with me for market share and awards ... You misapprehend this purpose of this advice column.

Wrong person

Debbie Hughes writes: Didn’t I meet you at a Boskon convention years ago, like 1989 or something.

Just curious, I might have the wrong person.

No, that was Greer Gilman. I can’t imagine how you possibly managed to confuse me with her.

Sci fi

Jack writes: Hello Mike, I also live in PA, does this in any way mean I might actually be able to get published as a sci fi writer?

Well, your chances are better here than they would be on the West Coat. If you lived in California, Harlan Ellison would come to your house and strangle you for referring to the genre as “sci fi.”


"Flann O’Brien" writes: How can I insult my editor when I get a new one every six months? I don’t get to build up a good enough relationship for them to know who I AM when I insult them. AND whenever I dare to complain that they are changing staff more often than I change my undies, I get met with the standard, “Oh, you’re an author,” eye-roll reply. How do they earn the right to do that when they’ve only been in the job a matter of months? Do they take them aside at editor school and teach them that?

It takes you more than six months to get around to changing your undies? I really didn’t need to know that.

Used books

Dave S. writes: As a professional writer, how do you feel about people buying your books second hand? Do you see this as depriving you of income? If I as a reader want to support you, should I make an effort to purchase your books new from a retailer at full price?

(I think I own four books by you, and two of them are new... so have I paid my dues?)

Hey! A reader who occasionally buys my books new! I like you much better than the self-hating Stalinists I usually hear from.

May 2006: Theme thing

Boopsy writes: About this theme thing. It seems to have legs. But does one come up with the theme first and then figure out the plot, or do you come up with the plot and then ask the characters what the theme is? As a professional writer, can’t you just order a nice theme by mail from Eastern Europe? I sometimes get spam from Belarus, offering hundreds of themes for just a couple of bucks, but I’m afraid the give them my Paypal login. Is it a scam?

The rule of thumb is here is: Theme first, writing second, and research third. This can be an immense time-saver. You’d be amazed how many professionals never do get around to part three. And you can multiply the amount of time saved by stopping at part one.

As to those quality spam-related offers of themes for money, are you suggesting than I’m . . . er, that they’re anything less than honest? Shame on you!


Jamie writes: Tom Clancy has several PC and console games out with his name attached to them (Rainbow Six, Splinter Cell, etc.), all of which obviously extol his virtue as an amazing writer. When are we going to see a good Swanwick videogame franchise?

Well, obviously, I don’t have the programming skills that Tom Clancy has. He’s a hands-on, hard tech kind of guy, and I was a liberal arts major. So I’m going to have to gear up for this one. I’ll get my son the programmer to explain how it all works just as soon as I have a free afternoon.


Austin Ross writes: I can normally write the rough draft of a decent-sized story in a day or two, but revision normally takes me as long as an oyster takes to produce a pearl. Only, I don’t cover flecks of grit with nacre, and the end product isn’t as shiny.

What’s your secret to being productive?

Why settle for my level or productivity? I put your question to Anthony Trollope, the well-regarded Victorian author of some fifty novels, and he replied: "All those I think who have lived as literary men, - working daily as literary labourers - will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write. But then, he should so have trained himself that he shall be able to work continuously during those three hours, - so have tutored his mind that it shall not be necessary for him to sit nibbling his pen, and gazing at the wall before him, till he shall have found the works with which he wants to express his ideas. It had at this time become my custom, ... to write with my watch before me, and to require from myself 250 words every quarter of an hour."

So there you are! At three thousand words a day, you should easily be able to produce a novel in seven weeks - and that’s with weekends off. Allotting three weeks of vacation time, that works out to seven novels a year or over a hundred short stories. Haul out that watch and get to work.


B. writes: I was hoping you would save us time and tell us all what writers we should avoid reading. We already know who you love Tolkien, Le Guin, Nabokov, and Tom Clancy. But who do you hate? I figure we should learn from the mistakes of others as we struggle to learn to read and write.

Good thinking! You should definitely avoid reading all those talentless hacks who somehow manage to get published anyway, because they’ll just make you think that you’ve got a shot at doing it yourself. Alas, there are too many such writers for me to list here. The best thing to do is to simply shun anything written within the past fifty years. Better yet, confine your reading to such sources as the Harvard Classics and Library of America. That’ll keep you out of trouble.


Gene writes: I love to write satire/parodies but finding markets is very difficult. I belong to a writer’s market service that has an enormous database, but markets for satire (including contests) are nearly non-existent. Aside from very few markets, the fact the humor can date very fast adds more frustration. Do you have any thoughts on the subject?

This is one of those rare instances where I can achieve my purpose (discouraging fresh new talent, remember?) with the simple truth. You’ve got three options here. 1) Expand your horizons beyond simple parody into genuine satire. Robert Sheckley’s daughter, the author Alisa Kwitney told me recently that she’d had a hard time finding a market for the sort of stuff she wanted to write until she realized that the nascent genre rather derogatorily labeled "Chick Lit" is actually social satire. Now she’s doing quite well. 2) Create your own humor/parody/satire magazine and then either a) publish your own work in it pseudonymously, or, more likely, b) sacrifice your life and any chance you’ll ever have of being rich to make other satirists/parodists happy. And finally, least attractive of all but still there, 3) write purely for the pleasure of it.


P3 writes: Is it true that agents and editors won’t read unsolicited manuscripts? Actually, what is a SOLICITED manuscript? How does one go about soliciting? (Besides walking the streets with etc. etc.)

Alas, I don’t know the answer to your first question because it’s been so long since any genre editor wasn’t downright eager to read my manuscripts. I’ve heard that this is so, and yet somehow new writers keep slipping into the field anyhow. But I do know the answer to your second question and, mirabile dictu, for the second time this month, the truth is sufficient to discourage you. A solicited manuscript is one where the editor calls you up and asks you to write a story specifically for his or her anthology. I get hit up for stories so often that while I’m working on a novel (right now, for example), I keep a 3 X 5 card taped to my monitor with NO printed on it, to remind myself not to get drawn in.

So you don’t solicit - the editor does. If it makes you feel any better, solicited anthologies generally break down into two types: Those where the editor feels honor-bound to accept any kind of crap since he solicited it, and those where the editor has high standards for what he or she will buy. In the first case, the anthology is going to be terrible and your story isn’t going to get read by very many people, and in the second case you could’ve sold your story to Asimov’s or Analog or FSF (all of which are still reading unsolicited manuscripts, alas) anyway.

Oh, and there’s a third type: The anthology with a theme so specific that if they reject your story there’s no other conceivable market for it in the universe. I am thinking, of course, Carmen Miranda’s Ghost is Haunting Space Station Three, in which every story was about . . . well, you get the idea.

Getting laid

Kenny N. writes: I have another question, do authors get laid alot at conventions? I think it’s an important question, because more than oodles of money or fame, it is the women I want as payment, before I undertake my masterpiece.

Absolutely, yes. Or, rather, the handsome and personable ones do. Followed closely by those who are willing to go up to women and strike up conversations. The guys who mumble and never make eye contact and think of women not as vibrant, interesting people to whom they happen to be sexually attracted but rather as "payment" for something totally unrelated that they’ve done tend not to make out so well. But I’m sure you’re not one of those.

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