How Long Does It Take To Write a Poem? Also, “Inside Her Heart,” and a class!

Verses of Sky & Stars: How to Write the Poetry and Science Fiction and FantasyI’m teaching an online class on writing science fiction and fantasy poetry on June 30 at 9:30-11:30 PDT. It’s a fun class because it draws people from many different backgrounds with many different goals. Some are dedicated poets, looking to sharpen their edge or find inspiration. Others are prose writers who’ve barely touched poetry before, trying something new, or hoping to pick up a trick or two to bring back to their novels and short stories.

As I prepare for the class, I’ve been going over some of my own poetry, thinking about how I wrote it, and what inspired it, and that kind of thing. I wrote “Inside Her Heart” while I was in graduate school, and although the poem is ostensibly about the mother’s loneliness, I think the emotion I was tapping was my own homesickness, living halfway across the country from my parents and my (then to-be) husband.

Inside Her Heart

by Rachel Swirsky

The morning
our youngest
leaves for college,
my wife sits down
in the breakfast nook.
“I’m done being a woman,”
she says. “I’m going to try
being a house.”

She draws a sweater
over her chest like
curtains, a wide hat
like a roof perched
atop her head. Weeds
spread across the linoleum
at her feet, littered
with forget-me-nots
and matchbox cars.

She moves from
the chair by the stove
to one near the window.
“Better neighborhood,”
she says.

At night, she
opens her mouth.
Lights pour out,
and scratchy music
like old records.

She beckons me
parting the curtains
so I can press my ear
to her heart and hear

tiny people’s footsteps
inside her, dancing
reckless, full
of opportunity.


I wrote a lot of poetry in graduate school. I always joked that I was writing poetry because I was in a fiction program–I knew I couldn’t turn it in for class, so it was lower pressure than writing something that I knew would be subjected to many brilliant-but-critical glares. I say it was a joke, but it was probably also true.

Poems are an appealing form because you can write them so rapidly in comparison to stories. You can start one in the morning, retype and revise it thirty times, and still send it to an editor in the afternoon if you’re feeling confident.

Well, sort of. First of all, I suspect the fact that I write poems (relatively) quickly stems from the fact that I don’t make my living on poetry. Just as they were low-pressure in grad school, they’re low-pressure now. I write something; it’s fun; I hope someone enjoys it; I earn enough money for something between a cup of coffee and a nice dinner. (At least I usually get paid — I’ve heard people refer to poetry as a “gift economy,” which is nice, but I like coffee and nice dinners and paid power bills.) Poets can treat their poems with every bit as much perfectionism as I treat my short stories. Poems can live on hard drives for decades, enduring a tweak or two every month when their file gets dredged up.

There’s also a lot of work that goes into writing a poem outside of the actual drafting, fingers-to-keyboard time. For me, sometimes that work happens before the poem is completed. It can arise as a kind of insistent, inchoate pressure that forms during my day-to-day experiences, from something as mundane as the ticking in my mind while sitting on a subway, to the whooshing blur of a dance floor–or, often, something shivery I’ve found in a book.

Sometimes, I spend the hours in revision, obsessing over where a comma goes and where it doesn’t. I do the same thing with my fiction–which I don’t necessarily recommend; there are diminishing returns on this kind of thing. Take it out, put it in. Take it out, put it in. Sometimes I can never really decide, and whether it’s there or not depends sheerly on whether I stop revising on an even pass or an odd pass.

Sometimes I hardly even notice the work I’m putting in. It seems invisible. A poem can seem to be begun and completed within hours. This poem felt like that–like something that just emerged. Of course, it didn’t–nothing does–I couldn’t have done it without years of reading and writing poetry.

The real work, though, was in my life–in the homesick experience of living alone in Iowa. Sometimes living is the work of poetry. Letting yourself feel, deeply. Truly engaging with the world and with yourself. Poetry begins with the examined life.

LitBrick Comic Strip based on “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love!”

Sometimes being an author is really cool. Such as this comic strip based on my story “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love.”


Fan art! Yay!

The comic is called LitBrick: Sequential Comedies of Literature, I think it’s is a pretty neat idea: “The comic is an exploration (and a relentless send-up) of all the literature one might find in college. Lit Brick was initially founded upon the idea of reading the entire Norton Anthology of English Literature and making fun of it, but over the course of several years, the comic has taken a few forks in the road.”

John S. Troutman says the story “is a brilliant and heartbreaking short story, so of course I made really dumb Jurassic Park jokes about it. I feel like none of you should be surprised.”

Dinosaur says what

…I’m not actually surprised by anything, I just wanted to put up a picture of a surprised dinosaur.

Obligatory Butts update: 

We’re less than $30 from the next stretch goal! If we get there, I’ll add in “If You Were a Cuttlefish, My Love” which I wrote one night because I was amused, and cuttlefish are awesome. Let them be awesome in your life, too.

And if we get to the NEXT stretch goal after that, then there will be an original comic from the buoyant Liz Argall and her Things Without Arms and Without Legs… and Without Butts.

If you’re wondering what all this means — and/or about how and why I’m raising money through my Patreon for LGBTQIAA health care — lo, I give unto you the tale.

Posteriors for Posterity: An update on my fundraiser for LGBTQ health

It’s halfway through my Making Lemons into Jokes campaign, and I wanted to give an update.

Among other things, I wanted to clarify why I’m doing this. For people in the know, the reasons are obvious–but obviously, most folks aren’t.

Let me start by repeating a modified version what I said in my original post:

In my family, humor has always been a way of putting crap into perspective. When life hands you lemons, make jokes. And then possibly lemonade, too. It is coming up on summer.


In that spirit, I’m trying a self-publishing experiment. And that experiment’s name is “If You Were a Butt, My Butt.”


If my Patreon reaches $100 by the end of the month [Note: it has!], I will write and send “If You Were a Butt, My Butt” to everyone who subscribes with at least $1.


I will be donating the first month’s Patreon funds to Lyon-Martin health services. Lyon-Martin is one of the only providers that focuses on caring for the LGBTQIAA community, especially low-income lesbian, bisexual, and trans people. They provide services regardless of the patient’s ability to pay.


You don’t have to keep on paying into my Patreon  in order to participate! It’s just fine if you want to sign up, get your silly thing, and just support Lyon-Martin. I’ll send out a note after I release “If You Were a Butt, My Butt,” and remind folks to unsubscribe if they want to.


I also release a piece of original flash fiction or poetry to all my subscribers each month, so you’ll get June’s, too, along with the Butts, whether you keep on subscribing or not.


Humor can turn anything ridiculous. That’s part of its healing power. When that’s the aim, being mean-spirited or nasty defeats the point. I can’t promise I won’t make any metafictional jokes, but I’m not going to focus on it. The rare times I do, it will be silly.

That’s the plan! But I didn’t include the why of it all.

Short version: A bigot is using the Hugo Awards to harass me and LGBTQ people, so fuck him. Let’s follow the Scalzi strategy–and raise money for something he hates.

Long version: A few years ago, I wrote a short story called “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love.” Sometimes stories take off, and this one did. I was honored by how many people it moved–people still come to me at conventions, and over social media, to tell me that the story was important to their lives.

“If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” was nominated for the Hugo Award and the World Fantasy Award, and won the Nebula Award. For some folks in the science fiction world, this was cause for such a clash of sturm und drang that they aren’t over it years later. I admit I remain baffled as to why. There have been award winners throughout my life that I disliked for aesthetic or political reasons. The correct response–if you decide to respond at all (I usually don’t)–is talking about it, and mobilizing. It isn’t harassing authors.

Unfortunately, some of the folks who are in a snit have decided to go for the harassing. The white supremacist ring-leader has targeted minority writers before, including successful African American author N. K. Jemisin. He used our writers’ union’s resources to propagate his hateful, racial harassment, calling this accomplished writer a “half-savage” and implying she should be shot. The first, unmoderated comment on his post added that she should be gang raped as well.

I was one of the people on the union’s board at that time. So were other authors he has subsequently harassed, including John Scalzi and Ann Leckie. I am proud to have stood up for Nora against his harassment. But it put me on an enemy’s list–and here we are.

Although he and his followers are happy to use any excuse to harass me–anti-Semitism, sexism, fatphobia–mostly he’s gone after me and my readers for being queer. The bigoted rhetoric is especially nasty to trans people. And come on. Like they need more crap.

That’s where the Hugos come in. Since trolls gotta troll in order to justify their petty lives, they decided to troll the Hugo Awards. Want to know why? The same reason the neighborhood bully knocks over your Lego tower. They can’t figure out how to make one of their own. Using underhanded tactics, they nominated a “satire” of my work to the ballot, which the white supremacist posted on his own blog. As the publisher, he included a comment saying I should be killed. Sure, it’s phrased as a “joke.” But the dogs can hear the whistle.

Luckily, there’s a hilarious silver lining. Because he and his followers are the kind of juvenile people who assume “gay = porn” (apparently, the word “gay” causes them to compulsively think of gay sex, which must be alarming for a homophobe), they also nominated a piece of porn about a dude who has sex with dinosaurs. It’s called “Space Raptor Butt Invasion” and it’s hilarious because the story’s author, Chuck Tingle, is some sort of subversive, queer, meta-fictional performance artist. Remember when Stephen Colbert hosted the white house correspondence dinner because no one bothered to do their leg work? It’s like that.

It’s been a pleasure watching the trolls get trolled, but let’s be clear–there’s still harassment going on.

Fuck that.

I deserve better, and so does the LGBTQ community. Let’s be fun. Let’s be silly. And let’s raise some fucking money for poor queer people who deserve the same medical care as everyone else.

Would I also like people to support my Patreon? Sure. Real talk: I’m an author, and no matter what you’ve seen on Castle, most of us don’t make much dosh. My household is looking at a 50-66% reduction in income over the next year, so I need a hustle or two. I’ve built my career writing art house short stories. Perfectionism takes time! And when you’re doing freelance piecework, more time means less pay.

But you don’t have to support me at all. You can still have fun, participate in something silly, and send all your support to Lyon-Martin. They deserve your help!

So far, I’ve collected enough money to write “If You Were a Butt, My Butt” and make an audio version, too. I’m very close to reaching $300. Help me get there!

  • At $300, I’ll add another hundred dollars of my own to go to Lyon-Martin.
  •  At $400, I’ll also release a silly version of “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” about cuttlefish. Because cuttlefish are bizarre and awesome. You know it to be true.
  • At $500, cartoonist Liz Argall — creator of the Things Without Arms and Without Legs — will do an original comic on the topic of butts. Check out her work here:
  • At $600, I and several other authors will write a short story together about dinosaurs. Authors to be named later — believe me, they’re awesome.
  • At $700, puppeteer, audio book narrator, and all around awesome person Mary Robinette Kowal will record the audio version of “If You Were a Butt, My Butt” in her professional studio–and she will be amazing. Here she is reading some tweets by John Scalzi. Erotically.
  • I don’t have a goal yet for $800. Make me come up with one!

I hope you’ll consider donating. Because hate in the world is the worst, but we can counter it by doing good in the world. And by remembering to laugh.

And with butts.

pablo (1)

Nebula Awards 2016

Got back from the Nebula Awards last night. Had a lovely time — quite tired now. Jeremiah Tolbert said he hadn’t seen people so tired after a Nebulas in a long time. I think it may be because the programming was amazing, courtesy of Mary Robinette Kowal. From the user end, it’s the best experience I’ve ever had as a speaker.

Quick summaries of the programming I spoke on/attended:

Thanks to the new mentorship program, I was able to meet several new writers, and try to help them out. Hopefully I did, but even if I didn’t, I’m glad they have access to me as a resource in the future.

At the Ask an Expert village, no one came to my session on short stories (it was announced late, and was scheduled early, so I wasn’t surprised; it was fine). That gave me time to bug the experts who were there. I talked to representatives from indepedent publishing concerns, ACX, and Patreon, all of whom were able to give me great advice and information on how to move forward.

I spoke at three panels. The first one, on the reprint life of short stories, was relatively straight-forward, although Sarah Pinsker had good advice on how to sell foreign reprint rights. Think smart about where to spend your online reprint dollar; you may only get one chance per story. Doubly so if you are a very slow writer as I am.

The second–medicine at the end of the world–traversed many types of disability, from the obvious and severe, to the invisible and insidious. Most, though not all, of us on the panel had invisible disabilities. Someone in the audience pointed out we were all white, which did keep us from poking at some of the more complicated intersections. Something else I found interesting is that several years ago when I was attending a panel on apocalypses, someone said that writers and readers imagine themselves as the survivors. I don’t. My life is, as I said on the panel, a delicate balance of the technology we currently have available. Remove it, and I die. This gives me a slightly different perspective on the question of medicine in a post-apocalyptic scenario than some of the other folks seemed to have.

After that, I spoke on a panel about redefining aliens, moving from alien-as-metaphor-for-race to something that is — hopefully — more nuanced. I recommended a zillion writers, including Gwendolyn Clare, Will MicIntosh, Derek Kunsken… and of course the brilliant Octavia Butler. One of the other panelists pointed to James Tiptree as well. I think my ultiamte conclusion is that while weirder aliens have existed in SF texts a long time, and while alien-as-race still exists, the trend has been positive to favor the former rather than the latter. Also, I was surprised by how many people gasped and seemed shocked that I said the Ferengi were a stand-in for Jews. Do people really not notice that? I hope to put some of my notes from the panel online because it was really interesting.

I attended panels on dramaturgy, acting, and medieval warfare. I’d summarize those, too, but I’m getting to the limit of the time I allotted for this, so I may have to do that another time.

At the mass autographing, I was honored to meet lots of folks. It was very well organized, and it was a delight to sit next to an author I’d never met before. I came away with a copy of his book and hope to read it soon. (I’m still only partway through Jane Eyre at the moment.) I didn’t get any signatures, although in retrospect, I’m a bit sad I didn’t go over to talk to John Hodgeman. Sometimes when the world seems to be crushing, humor like his is the only balm.

The banquet itself was lovely, giving me a chance to catch up with Joe Monti and Ken Liu, as well as meet some folks and hang out with some other friends who I’d had a change to meet with over the cource of the weekend. I usually roam the room saying hi to people, but stayed still this time except for a quick jaunt to say hello to Scalzi.

There were several dazzling fashion displays, including Alyssa Wong’s glittery and spectacular black dress which used netting and negative space to create really interesting (and sparkly) effects. If she had not won the Nebula, I would have to give her one for knocking it out of the park. Tamara (forgive me for not looking up your last name; I am starting to migraine) wore a long silver gown with sparkly laces crossing over the back. Mary Robinette Kowal and Lynne Thomas wore dazzling necklaces — Mary’s in tones of amber, Lynne’s in dazzling cobalt that picked up the highlights of labradorite beads. Nnedi Okorafor slammed best hair, matched by her daughter. C. S. E. Cooney wore a long pink gown with fabric flowers which was delicate and feminine and made my inner rose-lover happy. I am doubtlessly forgetting people, but the point is, gorgeous.

My friend Henry Lien led a dance and singing routine which was odd and interesting and fun. Hodgeman hosted with aplomb and acute funniness.

Also, I spent lots of time with other folks. It was a long but excellent weekend.

And we flew Virgin America instead of United so the travel was even okay!

Star-Studded Chicago — Come Visit Me & Other Authors at the Nebula Awards, May 12-15

I will be at the Nebula Awards this weekend in Chicago, from May 12-15.

NebulasPostcardFront20161-360x257If you don’t know what the Nebula awards are:

“The Nebula Awards ® are voted on, and presented by, active members of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc… Our conference will also feature the prestigious 50th Annual Nebula Awards hosted by comedian John Hodgman and banquet along with exciting tours of the City Winery and Northern Illinois University. Receptions honoring SFWA’s newest Grand Master, C.J. Cherryh and the Nebula Award nominees will take place throughout the weekend along with a mass autographing session.”

The Nebulas are introducing a new feature this year (which sounds fun!) — Ask an Expert. Here’s the description from the site: “In the Ask an Expert Village, you can sit down for a one-on-one with an expert. Bring your questions. Sign up for these 10 minute sessions at the registration desk.” I really like this idea; I hope it catches on elsewhere, too.

Thursday, 4pm-5pm: Come visit me to discuss short stories: “Brainstorm a problem area, or ask questions about writing short fiction.”

I’m also on three panels:

Friday, 1pm: The Second Life of Stories: handling backlist and reprints. Panelists: Sarah Pinsker, Rachel Swirsky, Colleen Barr, Marco Palmieri, John Joseph Adams, Don Slater

Friday, 4pm: Medicine after the End of the World: managing chronic conditions and serious illness after the apocalypse. Panelists: Annallee Flower Home, Nick Kanas, Daniel Potter, Rachel Swirsky, Michael Damien Thomas, Fran Wilde

Saturday, 4pm: Redefining the Aliens of the Future. Panelists: Juliette Wade, Charles Ganon, Nick Kanas, Fonda Lee, PJ Schnyder, Rachel Swirsky.

I’m also participating in the mass autographing, Friday, 8-9pm. 

autographing session

Also, this site is a cool addition to the Nebula proceedings. You can sign in to peruse speakers, events, and participants, so you can look at events in a traditional program style (by day and time), or else look at what panels an author you’re interested in is doing. Mary Robinette Kowal and the other members of the programming team are doing a really stylish job this year.

Hope to see you there!

In which my migraine reveals itself as duplicitous

My intention to catch up on work this weekend was scuttled by a migraine.

ME: I’m going to catch up on work.

MIGRAINE: Okay, that sounds fine. I’ve been on break for a few days anyway; I’ll just go grab drinks at the pool bar.

ME: Cool.

ME: Okay, it’s Saturday, so I’m going to start working on–


hyperbole and a half pain chart

hypberole and a hal pain chart two

(On the Hyperbole and a Half pain chart, it was really only a 6 or 7, which pain meds got down to a 3 or 4. I appreciate the pain help, but it’s still hard to work through.)

So, yeah. Quick update:

If You Were a Butt, My Butt” is at $259! That means a prose version and an audio version. (If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, try the link.)

At $300, I will add $100 of my own to go to Lyon-Martin’s LGBTQ health services. If people don’t know why Lyon-Martin was my choice, it’s because this year’s Hugo ballot is being used to harass both me (along with other individuals) and the LGBTQ community at large, with a subtle lemon twist of transphobia. Supporting L-M seems like a fitting response to hate.

I hope people will help put it over the edge and force me to pony up!


Making Lemons into Jokes: “If You Were a Butt, My Butt”

If you’ve been following events in online science fictiondom, you probably know the last few weeks have been tumultuous. If you are *not* following events in the online science fictiondom, then honestly, I’m kind of jealous.

In my family, humor has always been a way of putting crap into perspective. When life hands you lemons, make jokes. And then possibly lemonade, too. It is coming up on summer.

pablo (1)In that spirit, I’m trying a self-publishing experiment. And that experiment’s name is “If You Were a Butt, My Butt.”

If my Patreon reaches $100 by the end of the month, I will write and send “If You Were a Butt, My Butt” to everyone who subscribes. If things go well, I’ve got some stretch goals, too, like an audio version.

I will be donating the first month’s Patreon funds to Lyon-Martin health services. Lyon-Martin is one of the only providers that focuses on caring for the Quiltbag community, especially low-income lesbian, bisexual, and trans people. They provide services regardless of the patient’s ability to pay.

My Patreon is a subscription monthly service, so if you choose to join and then unsubscribe after a month, then all the money you pay in will go to Lyon-Martin. My subscribers also get one free piece of flash fiction or poetry each month, so you’ll receive that, too. (And anything else you sign up for.)

Humor can turn anything ridiculous. That’s its healing power. When that’s the aim, being mean-spirited or nasty defeats the point. I can’t promise I won’t make any metafictional jokes, but I’m not going to focus on it. The rare times I do, it will be silly.

Given the circumstances, a bit of erotica is unavoidable. It also won’t be the focus, will be in good humor, and will be marked so you can skip.

Really, I’m just farting around.

So if you want to get behind butting into the conversation with something cheeky, then scoot your derriere to my Patreon. We can do it.

(If you want to skip all that jazz, I also have a newsletter. It doesn’t come with free fiction, but it does come with updates about my writing and teaching.

Obligatory footnote: I reserve the right to limit harassment.)

Attending AWP 2016 in Los Angeles, Mar 30-Apr 2

AWP2016LAI’ll be at AWP for the rest of this week and over the weekend. If you don’t know what AWP is, it’s basically the convention for academic literary writers. More emphasis on panels, and a huge dealer’s room where magazines, presses, and MFA programs (among others) have set up their tables.

Or in their words:

AWP provides support, advocacy, resources, and community to nearly 50,000 writers, 550 college and university creative writing programs, and 150 writers’ conferences and centers. Our mission is to foster literary achievement, advance the art of writing as essential to a good education, and serve the makers, teachers, students, and readers of contemporary writing.

I’m giving a reading on Saturday at 1:30 p.m., along with several other fantastic women writers of SF/F: Cat Rambo, Camielle Griep, and Helena Bell.

Over the past 10 years, the number of women nominated for science fiction and fantasy awards has surged, a phenomenon that occurred only a handful of times in the 50 years prior. Many believe women are only now discovering genre fiction, although Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is widely regarded as the first science fiction novel. Listen to four award-winning and nominated women who write science fiction and fantasy read from their work and answer questions.

That’s my only programming item, but I’ll be around. Come say hi!

Kind Words for My Stories

Thank you to the reviewers.

Quicksip reviews writes about “Love Is Never Still:”

It’s mythic in its scope and in its characters but there’s also something deeply human about it (something that can be said about a lot of Greek mythology, I suppose), something that shows how love can lift up and love can shatter. The characters are compelling even as they are presented in breathes, brief touches that become a tapestry of longing and violence and design. The two storylines balance each other quite nicely, showing love as pursued, and women especially as objects that aren’t really considered people, are there to be fought over or prayed for.

John Wiswell writes about “Between Dragons and Their Wrath:”

No short story has haunted me more in the last month than this. The dragons are a metaphysical terror, casting a shadow of mutations across the landscape of two absolutely lovely characters. With scenes whipping by, each has a punch, even in the last line.

Reviewing The Nebula Showcase 2015, Craig Owen Jones writes that “The Nebulas are not about elitism, but about giving a platform to good sci-fi stories.”

As usual, there’s much here of worth. The winner of the Best Short Story category, Rachel Swirsky’s ‘If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love’, is a moving and elegiac tale of lost love. Elegantly expressed and formally perfect, it builds delightfully to its poignant climax.[.]



Attending ICFA March 16-20

We’re heading out to Orlando tonight for the International Conference of the Fantastic Arts. We get there laaaate, but we’ll be there through Sunday.

I’m starting out the weekend with a work-related bang, as I do a Thusday reading at 8:30am (5:30 pacific…) and then host one at 10:30. After that, I’ll have to suffer some terrible, terrible relaxing in the awful, no-good pool, and perhaps the forlorn hot tub.

awful, no-good pool

I don’t have any events besides those two planned at the convention, but I’ll be around for chatting.