Friday, July 31, 2015

Ask Unca Mike


Science fiction and fantasy writers are a group are extraordinarily generous with advice to new writers. A moment's thought, however, reveals that this is just encouraging talented young people to occupy the publishing niches and win the awards that would otherwise go to to us Old Hands. Ask Unca Mike is an attempt to rectify this deplorable situation.

The following are Classic Unca Mike questions. Just to give you some idea of what I'm up to This column will begin running new questions in a few weeks.

2002: Opposition

Pol asks: Was science fiction in the last century actually opposed to literary modernism? Or is it possible that both sf and modernism were two sides of a larger literary movement? I will point out that both sf and modernism were intellectualist, given to complex literary games (there is no more playful form of literature than sf), deeply connected to the western literary tradition (think of the Shakespeareanism of both James Joyce and Frank Herbert with his Hamletian God Emperor), given to innovation, and a host of other similarities despite their surface antagonism.

It was only a recursive self-involvement with the tragedies of their own age that ever led SF writers to think that the Twentieth would be the "last century." Now that we are safely into the year 2002 and have somehow survived, it is possible to refute this ad hoc declaration not only by challenging the patriarchal assumptions built into such consensual structures as "centuries" and "sequence" but by direct apperception: The "century" is "gone" and therefore it did not "last."

But to answer your question: Probably not. But thanks for writing.

2003: Filler

Dan Donahue writes: I have trouble coming up with believable "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? 

2004: 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.

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.

 If you have a question for Unca Mike, you can post it below. Or write to AskUncaMike ("at" sign)  I'll respond to those I have the best answers for.


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