Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Brief Essays on Genre, Part 21: On Writing Advice



On Writing Advice


No writing advice will work for everyone. This is because “writing” is not a single skill but a diverse range of strategies that result in a superficially similar end product. Some writers cannot begin a story until they know how it will end. For others, who write to surprise themselves, an ending foreseen is the death of the entire enterprise. And so on.


Aspiring writers must learn to approach all advice with a grain of salt. Try it out with an open mind. If it works, put it in your literary toolbox. If it doesn’t, discard it without regret. It simply doesn’t work for your kind of writer.


This advice applies to all, with no exceptions.


--Michael Swanwick


Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Brief Essays on Genre, Part 20: On the Present Tense



On the Present Tense


It is at least a decade ago and I am teaching a class on writing. I no longer do this. Even then it is rare. But this time I am. Earlier in the class, I state that in fiction the present tense should only be used when there is a compelling reason to do so. Otherwise, the past tense is best.


Now a student objects, “But present tense is so much more immediate!”


“The word you are searching for,” I say, “is distancing.”


--Michael Swanwick


Friday, September 9, 2022

Rich Horton's Year's Best... NOW With "The Dragon Slayer"!



 I'm in virtual print again! Rich Horton's annual selection of the year's best science fiction and fantasy, appropriately titled The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy is now available for purchase.

This is, appropriately enough, the 13th volume in the series. Which is to say, it's cursed. Largely because of the secondary effects of Covid, it came out a year late. (All the stories were published in 2020) and in ebook format only.

That's the bad news. The good news is that the volume contains 35 stories by both new and established writers. All of which bear Rich's imprimatur as being among the best fiction published that year. Which makes it a real bargain at ten bucks.

Highly recommended. Especially my story. I liked it so much I spent years writing it. New writers take note: Don't throw away your unfinished work. The day is coming when you'll be a good enough writer to wrangle it into publishable form.

You can find the table of contents here.

And you may well ask . . .

Did I really spend years writing "The Dragon Slayer"

Yes, I did. The first sentence just came to me. I wrote it down and then the next one and before I knew it, I was down to the bottom of the page. Just as Olav set foot on the road one morning, with no particular purpose, and found himself in a faraway land in that same stretch of page.

And then? I had no idea. So I had to stop writing.

Off and on for years I tried to get the story going again. I even tried collaborating on it with a friend. Nothing much happened. I did manage to add a few pages of Olav's adventures. But it wasn't until I realized that the story wasn't really about him that I was able to slowly, painfully write the rest of the tale and bring it to a safe ending.

But to find out that ending, you're simply going to have to read the book...


Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Brief Essays on Genre, Part 19: On Fables



On Fables


Stereotypes acting out a story that sums itself up in a moral… the fable may be the most pervasive form in literature. Whenever a schemer looks vulpine or a student demands to know what a story “means,” fable is to blame.


Modernism can be read as a reaction against fable. As can science fiction’s explication of scientific principles in place of the moral.


Which is why “The Cold Equations” is so regressive. It presents a moral that has become emblematic of science fiction: The universe doesn’t give a damn. Thus reducing the genre to a platitude.


--Michael Swanwick

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Brief Essays on Genre, Part 18: On the Canon



On the Canon


Only a generation ago, every ambitious science fiction writer read every important work of science fiction ever written. That’s not possible anymore. Consequently, there is no longer a commonly agreed-upon canon.


If someone today were to write the best science fiction story ever, to considerable acclaim, it might easily go unread a generation hence.


We simply have to learn to live with this.


--Michael Swanwick


Thursday, August 25, 2022

Back When College Education Was Free (Unless You Were Rich)



I'll bet you don't know that back in the Sixties and Seventies, it was not only possible but quite easy to get a free college education, paid for by the U. S. government. So long as you weren't wealthy.

Before I explain how that worked, though, I must tell you how I paid for my college education. Just so you don't think that this is special pleading on my part.

My parents saved to help put their children through school. But since they had five kids, that was far from enough. I did benefit from several scholarships I won in my senior year of high school and was grateful for them, though none were very large. So, to keep the debt manageable, I chose a state-supported school in Virginia, where I was a resident. That saved a bundle in tuition. During the summer, I worked 48 hours a week at the Johnson Carper Furniture factory and resented every hour of it. During the school year, I had a part-time job at the library, which I quite enjoyed. All of which almost covered everything. The rest I paid for with a student loan, easily arranged through the student aid office and backed by the Federal government.

When I graduated, I owed a couple of thousand dollars and could not find a job. (There was a recession.) I hit the road without leaving a forwarding address. When I found work, I wrote to the aid office and arranged to start making payments. Then, when the job evanesced underfoot, I moved on, found work elsewhere and wrote the aid office again. It only took me a couple of years to square accounts.

Mind you, this was possible because they weren't charging compound interest on the loan. The government just wanted their money back. They weren't looking to make a profit from me.

Now here's how a lot of people I knew personally got a free education:

1) They took out government-backed loans to pay for everything.

2) A week after graduation, they declared bankruptcy.

It was as simple as that. I forget the exact terms, but the government would only seize those assets above and beyond a certain minimum. You could keep your car, the furniture in your apartment, and enough cash to keep you off the dole. And since very few of my friends had any significant assets, the procedure was virtually painless. Even to the companies making the loans. The government paid off on every defaulted loan. So it was easier to bill the Feds than to pursue a recent grad who probably didn't have the money anyway.

Since then, the government has tightened up the bankruptcy laws, college tuitions have skyrocketed, and the student loan program has become a profit center. Higher education is a very different game from what it used to be. You might almost say it's become a blood sport.

So if you think the Biden administration student loan forgiveness plan is a massive giveaway... Man, you shoulda been around in the Old Days.


Above: Image from


Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Brief Essays on Genre, Part 17: On Female Action Heroes



On Female Action Heroes


Long before I published my first story, one of my ambitions was to write an adventure story with a female protagonist. Joanna Russ beat everyone to it with her Alyx stories and novel. But, she admitted afterward, it was hard, hard, hard.


Today, it seems the easiest thing in the world. Just do it. But only because Joanna was there first.


Nothing that hasn’t been done before is easy until it’s been done before.


--Michael Swanwick