Michael Swanwick on Writing Short Stories

Michael Swanwick on Writing Short Stories

“The thing about short fiction is that it doesn’t really pay,” [Michael] 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.”


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.”

Don’t Try to Make a Living Writing Short Stories

Book outlining and an icon timeline

“I’ve found that people who outline a lot spend more time up front planning. People who discover their story by writing it spend more time at the end revising. It tends to even out.”
—Brandon Sanderson

After my NaNoWriMo experience last November, I decided to plan my book. It’s been now about 3 months since I started outlining. I can’t believe it has taken me 3 months to outline a single book. I still feel I could do much more planning. But, tomorrow I am starting the draft. This is what I have to show for my outlining phase:

I wrote 37K words in early drafts, mostly pantsying. In the last three months I’ve written 90K words in notes (character bios, plot outline, setting descriptions, etc). It seems overwhelming when looking at those numbers.


Following the advice in The Novel-Writing Training Plan, I wrote a synthesis of plot, a kind of “draft zero”, with all the story fully detailed, but with none of the narrative. I’m sure by the time I write my draft one, the plot will change again. The outline is simply a map, the discover is in the writing journey itself.

Book outlining and an icon timeline

This outline represents the different arcs, characters and themes of the story. It is helpful to see how well distributed the conflicts (⚠️), the revelations (⭕️, ❌) and the character’s goal (🚀), and other ideas like robots (🤖), drugs (💊), etc. This is just the condensed version, the full outline has one section per scene and one line item per topic.


  • Ulysses for non distraction writing.
  • OmniOutliner for outlining: This is my replacement for the common cards system for planning. I like text in lines or paragraph form more than cards or even mindmapping.

Planning and outlining can be an obsessive form of procrastination. I am looking forward to writing the book. My goal: 2,000 words per scene per day.

Orson Scott Card on beginning and ending a story

Orson Scott Card on beginning and ending a story

Mr Card, tells us about the mistake that many writers fall into. That of beginning a book with one story and ending it with another.

“[T]he beginning must make the audience ask questions that are answered by the story’s ending, so that when they reach that ending, they recognize that the story is over.
The beginning of a story creates tension in the audience, makes them feel a need. The ending of that story comes when that tension is eased, when that need is satisfied. So in determining your structure, it is essential for you to make sure your beginning creates the need that your ending will satisfy; or that your ending satisfies the need that your beginning created!
—Orson Scott Card, How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy

Ralph Waldo Emerson on self-reliance

“What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it.
It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Absolute best quote from all of Westworld Season 1

Absolute best quote from all of Westworld Season 1

They say that great beasts once roamed this world.
As big as mountains.
Yet all that’s left of them is bone and amber.
Time undoes even the mightiest of creatures.
Just look at what it’s done to you.
One day you will perish.
You will lie with the rest of your kind in the dirt.
Your dreams forgotten, your horrors effaced.
Your bones will turn to sand.
And upon that sand a new god will walk.
One that will never die.
Because this world doesn’t belong to you or the people who came before.
It belongs to someone who has yet to come.

—Dolores, The Bicameral Mind, Westworld

How to find peace in a busy world

How to find peace in a busy world

How to survive in a world designed for full schedules, and multi-channel, always on communication? Well, it is hard. And it takes time. The answer is you can’t just learn to remain calm and avoid anxiety overnight. But it can be done, and this is how I work my way there:

Minimize noise

Define ‘noise’ as everything that doesn’t give you satisfaction. William Morris says to get rid of everything that is not beautiful or useful. It’s hard, yes, but be ruthless nonetheless. It’s a skill I still need to master, but I’m getting there. I don’t shop much for clothes (I hate to admit it, but I wear a uniform most days), I don’t use facebook, I don’t read the news, I am getting rid of everything I own that I can live without: clothes, mementos, knicknacks, etc.

“If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
—William Morris

Turn off notifications

Turn them all off. Specially your email and calendar, but most everything else as well. For every notification that you get, answer this question: Does this notification give you pleasure or does it add to your stress? If the answer is “stress” you know what to do. Realize that you can’t live your live being always on call, not for work, not for gossip, not for urgent news, etc.

“Mobile notifications put people in a state of perpetual emergency interruption – similar to what 911 operators and air traffic controllers experienced back in the ’70s and ’80s.”
—Douglas Rushkoff

Accept perfection is unachievable

I’m sure it’s not very scientific, but there is a rule of thumb that say that you get 80% of your results from 20% of your energy (loose interpretation all mine). It then follows that it takes that 80% left of energy to finish the rest 20% of work. The way I see it, is: invest 20% of your energy, get 80% of the ideal results and jump on to the next thing (or simply disconnect and relax). You will never get to 100% results. Accept it and be happy.

“Do the hard jobs first. The easy jobs will take care of themselves.”
—Dale Carnegie

Nd that’s it. No more, no less. Take on meditation if you’d like. I think it’s a great idea. The points above are my practical takeaways from my meditation practice. I’ll talk about the spiritual take-aways another time.

Accept that you and everyone you love will die one day. Truly accept it. Then you will be able to take control of your anxiety.

How robots could easily manipulate us

How robots could easily manipulate us

Apparently humans can be manipulated basically by anything that moves and that we don’t control. So, yeah, as soon as robots are a daily thing we are screwed, unless we build some really strong moral system into them.

“Our brains tend to be hardwired to project intent on any movement that happens in our physical space and that seems autonomous to us,” Darling said. People are aware the machine is not alive. Yet they respond to the cues these lifelike machines give them, as if they were alive.

One can imagine, for example, a home assistant interactive robot that can get people to reveal personal details they might not willingly enter into a database, Darling said.

She also cited the possible use of robots in behavior modification therapies.
The flip side is that robots could also be used to desensitize people to violence. “If people are taught to become violent toward lifelike robots, do they become desensitized to violence in other contexts?”

Living With Robots Will Change Humans in Unexpected Ways

Is consciousness a requirement for super-intelligence?

Is consciousness a requirement for super-intelligence?

In this article originally titled Extraterrestrials May Be Robots Without Consciousness, Susan Schneider questions the necessity for a super-intelligent being to have consciousness the way we understand it today (emphasis mine).

Further, it may be more efficient for a self-improving superintelligence to eliminate consciousness. Think about how consciousness works in the human case. Only a small percentage of human mental processing is accessible to the conscious mind. Consciousness is correlated with novel learning tasks that require attention and focus. A superintelligence would possess expert-level knowledge in every domain, with rapid-fire computations ranging over vast databases that could include the entire Internet and ultimately encompass an entire galaxy. What would be novel to it? What would require slow, deliberative focus? Wouldn’t it have mastered everything already? Like an experienced driver on a familiar road, it could rely on nonconscious processing. The simple consideration of efficiency suggests, depressingly, that the most intelligent systems will not be conscious. On cosmological scales, consciousness may be a blip, a momentary flowering of experience before the universe reverts to mindlessness.
—Susan Schneider, It May Not Feel Like Anything To Be an Alien

If you want to hear more from Schneider, check out her TED talk titled Can A Robot Feel? (I see a theme starting to appear here).

Doris Lessing on writing self-fiction

“Once, all our storytelling was imaginative, was myth and legend and parable and fable, for that is how we told stories to and about each other. But that capacity has atrophied under the pressure from the realistic novel, at least to the extent that all the imaginative or fanciful aspects of storytelling have been shuffled off into their definite categories. There are magical realism, space fiction, science fiction, fantasy, folklore, fairy stories, horror stories, for we have compartmentalized literature as we do everything. On one side realism—the truth. On another, in another box, imagination—fantasy…. When in the realistic novel that other dimension forces its way in, because it has to come in somewhere, then often it is admitted in the shape of madness.”
—Doris Lessing, Walking in the Shade

Doris Lessing on writing self-fiction

Lessing continues talking about writing faction (a word bending of “fact” & “fiction”):

Nothing is personal, in the sense that it is uniquely one’s own. Writing about oneself, one is writing about others, since your problems, pains, pleasures, emotions -and your extraordinary and remarkable ideas- can’t be yours alone. The way to deal with the problem of “subjectivity”, that shocking business of being preoccupied with the tiny individual is to see him as a microcosm and in this way to break through the personal, the subjective, making the personal general, transforming a private experience into something much larger.
—Doris Lessing, Walking in the Shade

These quotes were extracted from http://www.atlantisjournal.org/old/Papers/v22%20n1/v22%20n1-6.pdf