Don’t Try to Make a Living Writing Short Stories
Michael Swanwick is one of the most acclaimed fantasy and science fiction short story writers around. The author, who recently released the short story collection Not So Much, Said the Cat, has won the World Fantasy Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Award, and is the only person to win five Hugo Awards in six years. But even with all those accolades, writing short fiction has definitely not made him rich.
“The thing about short fiction is that it doesn’t really pay,” Swanwick says in Episode 222 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “For the amount of time that I’ve put in on these stories, I probably have not earned back—even with the collection—minimum wage.”
That lack of pay has caused many of Swanwick’s peers to give up on short fiction altogether, a fact he finds terribly upsetting. A few years ago he spoke with a friend who was reminiscing about the days when he would spend months carefully crafting a single short story, and lamenting that he could no longer afford to do so.
“My friend doesn’t write short fiction any more because it’s just not profitable, it’s not worth his time,” Swanwick says. “And his novels are doing very well. But I really, really miss his short fiction, because he was one of the best.”
Swanwick believes that short fiction serves as a proving ground for new ideas, and that more of it means more innovation and experimentation. He cites William Gibson‘s short story “Burning Chrome,” which served as a test case for Gibson’s classic cyberpunk novel Neuromancer.
“It’s really a bad idea to write something new at novel length, because you don’t know whether you can do it or not,” Swanwick says. “But you can risk a short story, and if it works in a short story, you know that you can take it to novel length.”
He fantasizes that someday a MacArthur-style grant may make it possible for more writers to focus on short fiction. But until that time, authors will have to do whatever they can to scrape by. Swanwick’s books all include a grateful tribute to the “M.C. Porter Endowment for the Arts,” a humorous reference to his wife Marianne. It’s a tradition that goes back to his first novel, In the Drift.
“At that time she was certainly earning more money than I was, so there was a degree to which she was actually supporting me,” he says. “So I would put it in as a gentle little joke.”
Listen to our complete interview with Michael Swanwick in Episode 222 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
“Jack would come into town, and we would get together, and we’d talk science fiction, and they would plot out stories, they would plot out anthologies they were going to do, and novels and such. It was really a wonderful education for an unpublished writer to be able to listen to this. And they went over my story, and they broke it apart and told me what needed to happen for it to finish, to end. They showed that to me, and I could see it, I could see how it worked. It was as if God had reached down out of the sky and flicked a switch in my brain. And from that moment on I’ve always been able to finish a story. It’s been an enormous amount of work, sometimes, but it’s never been impossible again.”
Michael Swanwick on his writing process:
“I have one story which I began in 1973 and I still haven’t finished it. … I wrote a story with William Gibson back in the early ’80s, called ‘Dogfight.’ We did the ‘hot typewriter method,’ which is where you hold onto the story for a month, and during that month you can make any changes whatsoever&madash;you can change the main character’s gender, you can change the plot, you can change anything. And then at the end of the month you send it to the other person. … So there were things that I put into the story that Bill Gibson just took out. He’d send it back to me, and I’d put that thing back in and send it to him, and he would take it out again. … And when the story was done, I had a number of things that he had taken out, and I came up with a different idea for a story and I started writing it. … And I have not found the central plot of it yet. It’s a story called ‘Robot.’ So that’s about 33 years old, that story.”
Michael Swanwick on alien economics:
“[The humans] are stuck in this situation, and they understand it. The aliens have exactly the same economy, except theirs is based on trust. They believe that theirs is a natural system, that of course you organize your society by who you trust and how. But since trust has basically been monetized, it can be manipulated, and you can have ‘trust recessions,’ you can have a ‘trust crash,’ in the same way that can happen with any economic system. And so one of these crashes happens to the aliens, and in the course of escaping from it, a human and an alien get to know each other, and the alien gets to learn the basics of the economic system that it is involved in and doesn’t understand.”
Michael Swanwick on literary themes:
“Something that Jack [Dann] in particular was very big on was that a story had to be life-affirming. And I looked at this story and said, ‘This is not life-affirming. This is death-affirming.’ And when I saw that—that it was all about embracing death—then I saw the ending and I could write it through to the end. … That was a period, when I was writing that, where I suddenly realized that I was working on three stories simultaneously, and in all of them the protagonist was dead before the story began—and in different ways—and I said, ‘Wow, my hindbrain is sending me a message, and I have no idea what it is.’ You’re constantly writing and finding out afterwards what you’re up to.”