In part 3 of our 4-part interview with Rachel Swirsky, she discussed Secrets of Dialogue, Character, and Plot. But genre fiction — science fiction and fantasy, in particular — have their own rules for both writing and marketing your work. With more than 10 years experience as a widely-published science fiction and fantasy writer, Hugo and Nebula Award-nominee Rachel Swirsky shares her best genre-specific tips.
Dawn: Your latest novelette, “Eros, Philia, Agape,” plays with conventions established by Isaac Asimov’s Robot series. I don’t want to ask you that tired old question of “where do you get your ideas” but I am curious: Where did you get the idea for that specific story?
Rachel: The story has been compared to Asimov’s work a number of times, but I didn’t have his work in mind when I was writing. The major inspirations were two-fold.
I had recently participated in a flash fiction contest with open judging wherein there were a number of robot stories, which my friend Ann Leckie and I started calling coin-operated boy stories.
One in particular involved a woman who had ordered a robot as a sex toy, but she didn’t enjoy sex with it. She would have sex with it–which is, essentially, masturbation–but it read to me as this totally passive event, like she was having sex with the robot for the robot’s pleasure. I thought it was a bizarre construction of female sexuality. There’s this idea that women only have sex because men enjoy it–and that’s odd enough. But why would you masturbate with a robot if you didn’t get some pleasure out of it? Since the robot in the story wasn’t sentient, that’s like having sex for the dildo’s enjoyment. So that was the most shallow inspiration–my character was going to want her robot as a lover, not passively accept it for the robot’s benefit.
After I committed to writing a coin-operated boy story, I started thinking about something Octavia Butler said about how the American consciousness is shaped by slavery. She said it has distorted our ability to love. I chewed on that for a long time. In “Eros, Philia, Agape“, Lucian is, essentially, Adriana’s slave. He’s a coddled slave, and I think Adriana has made a sincere effort to give them freedom and make them equals. But she can’t really–Lucian’s origins are still in slavery.
I believe that people who love each other often wreak terrible things on each other through best intentions–and this is a story that involves that, too. They all love each other, but love is not a panacea.
I imagine the story as an essential moral ambiguity. There are no right choices for anyone to make; no ways for everyone to be healed; everything that happens involves pain. At least, that’s my interpretation. Others have read the story differently.
Dawn: It sounds like you follow the adage that a writer reads, constantly!
Rachel: This is good advice for other kinds of writers, too, but there are some reasons it’s a good idea for science fiction and fantasy writers that are specific to the genre. The kinds of technology and world-building that appear in science fiction and fantasy stories tend to build on each other in ways that you have to know if you’re going to write relevant material.
Technology that’s introduced in one set of stories–for instance, in stories by William Gibson–becomes foundational for subgenres, as Gibson’s did for cyberpunk. You don’t want to reinvent the science fictional wheel. Also, idea is primary to many science fiction and fantasy stories in a way that it’s primary to very few literary short stories. There’s a push toward innovation, to describing a kind of new technology idea that no one has ever seen before, or rendering an entirely new treatment of an old concept. You can’t innovate if you don’t know what the old material looks like.
Dawn: Yes, exposition is another challenge more prevalent in science fiction and fantasy, right?
Rachel: You have to build a world as part of your exposition. It’s a knotty problem. That’s why workshops aimed at mainstream writers sometimes fail for science fiction and fantasy writers. Most mainstream writers have never thought about how to solve exposition issues. They may also get distracted by things like not understanding what, say, a generation ship is, or that salamanders are associated with fire–things your audience would already know.
That doesn’t mean mainstream-oriented workshops can’t be useful to science fiction and fantasy authors — they have been massively useful for me — but it’s good to be aware of their limitations. Reading people who handle their exposition well (Orson Scott Card names Octavia Butler as a master at it, and I agree) seems to be the most useful tool.
Dawn: How can science fiction and fantasy writers market their work?
Rachel: There are a couple of websites– ralan.com and duotrope.com come to mind–that keep track of salient details of short story markets. Of course, they’re not going to do all the work for you. You have to figure out where to send.
It may be tempting to start with small markets where you feel like you have a higher chance, but don’t do it — a top-down marketing strategy is best. Aim high. Then, if the best market doesn’t take your stuff, try the second-best market.
You might start with Clarkesworld, Fantasy Magazine, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Realms of Fantasy, Asimov’s Science Fiction and Fact, Analog, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Weird Tales, Interzone, Chiarascuro, and some of the other big hitters, and then make your way into the semi-pros, the well-respected token paying markets, and so on.
It’s relatively easy to figure out who the pro markets are because the Science Fiction Writers of America keeps a list of magazines that meet their qualifying criteria. Read widely, and then submit to the magazines that publish stories you like.
I do not recommend submitting to magazines whose stories you don’t like because you figure you can do better than that and they must be desperate for quality. Either they will reject you because they don’t like the kind of thing you do and you’ll feel bad, or you’ll be embarrassed by the credit later because it will associate you with fiction you think is inferior.
You can read stories and poetry by Rachel Swirsky at:
Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Find out more at RachelSwirsky.com
Dawn: What about networking in the science fiction and fantasy community?
Rachel: Find places where science fiction and fantasy writers hang out, on Absolute Write, or Livejournal, or the Codex Writers Group if you qualify to join it–or wherever else–and keep your ear to the ground. Short story writers talk about magazines constantly, so you’ll learn the buzz. Those are the best methods, but if you’re still looking for stuff, I also recently wrote a brief article at Ecstatic Days about some of the ways I decide where to submit my work that lists a number of smaller magazines I like.