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Writer and poet. Hugo and Nebula nominee. Author of “The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary.” Post-Mormon. Banned from Canada.


When you’re the only Mormon at a prestigious summer writing workshop, it can be tough to convince people that you already know how to swear.

Bob Howe, 26 (left), and Bill Shunn, 17, at a Clarion ’85 scholarship event, East Lansing, Michigan. From the author’s collection.

In 1985, when I was seventeen, I was accepted into Clarion, a prestigious summer workshop in science fiction writing at Michigan State University. I wasn’t the youngest person ever to attend Clarion, but I was close. I realized, that first Sunday night as I looked around the circle of desks in the basement of our ancient dormitory, that most of the other students were in fact in their mid to late twenties, and a handful were much older than that.

Our instructor for the first week was Algis Budrys, a figure of legend from the Golden Age of science fiction…

When it comes to indentation, keeps things as simple and uniform as possible. Don’t take your cues from the way published books look.

Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash

A reader writes to ask:

Why indent the first paragraph [of a manuscript]? I was under the impression that the first paragraph of a short story, novel chapter, or paragraph following a section break should not be indented.

Since we generally don’t put blank lines between paragraphs in print, indentation is the visual cue we use to indicate the start of a new paragraph. This applies even to the first paragraph of your manuscript, and to all the other cases you mention.

This is a standard convention in all types of writing that do not employ block paragraphs. I believe…

In days of yore, the accepted rule for estimating word count was 250 words per manuscript page. Is that still the case today? If not, how should it be done instead?

Photo by Sean Thomas on Unsplash

A reader writes to ask:

Can you enlighten me on how to determine word count in a standard-format manuscript? Back as a young journalist, I learned the “10 ‘words’ to the line” method of determining a manuscript’s length, with every four pages being roughly 1,000 “words” in length. However, my current novel editor — a beginner just starting his own indie publishing house — says the work is far too long and has had me cut it down to 275 pages in standard manuscript format. …

Is it mandatory to include personal pronouns on my manuscript submissions? What if I want to obscure my gender instead?

Still life of a desktop with an ornate volto-style masquerade mask, a human skull, a pile of old books, and a quill pen in a square ink pot.
Photo by gar1984 on Bigstock

A reader writes to ask:

Recently, I noticed that your ms format models now feature a gender identifier on the line with the writer’s name. (He/him in my case.) Is this something new? I was once advised to use my initials only when submitting to certain pubs (such as feminist-oriented pubs) to avoid gender bias. If this identifier is required, that strategy seems to go out the window.

Yes, adding preferred pronouns to your contact information is a relatively recent development, but it’s not a mandatory one. As I say in my guidelines, include your pronouns if you like. It…

On May 14, 2021, I left my day job at a major health insurance company. This is the email I sent to the CEO.

An obscenely large McMansion, faced with what appears to be rough fake stone, illuminated with all lights inside blazing yellow in the purple dusk. A wide swath of lawn extends from the circular drive to a sidewalk close to the camera.
Photo by Daniel Barnes on Unsplash

Names in the email below have been changed.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Dear Mr. Poupon—

Today is my last day at HealthCorner, which presents me the opportunity to say a few things that I did not feel free or empowered to say while still counting on a paycheck.

Let me first say that I have enjoyed my time at HealthCorner. The people I’ve worked alongside have, by and large, been great folks who care passionately about what they do. People work here because they want to help other people. It’s inspiring to see.

This is why I many months ago…

First impressions matter, and that goes for manuscripts too. Making yours look professional can be half the battle with editors.

Photo by Daniel Thomas on Unsplash

No one knows how many good stories are passed over because the manuscripts containing them are poorly formatted. We can be certain, however, that editors will more eagerly read a cleanly formatted manuscript than a cluttered and clumsy one. Here are a few suggestions for giving your manuscript that critical leg up on the competition.

Manuscript basics

Start with a fresh white page, no color, no decorations. Set one-inch margins all around — left, right, top, and bottom. This is the default for most word processors, but you might want to recheck your settings just to be safe.

Use black type only…

Photo by Max Muselmann on Unsplash

Sometimes life (or a diabolical puzzle editor) throws you a curve you know is coming, and it still beans you in the brainpan. Bee alert!

The New York Times Spelling Bee is a daily online puzzle that presents a set of seven letters and challenges players to construct as many words as possible using them. There’s always at least one word — the “pangram” — that uses all seven letters. One letter is designated as the “center,” and that letter must appear in all the solutions.

I starting playing the Spelling Bee in the fall of 2018, and I quickly became fascinated with it. Before long I’d started building a little web tool to help me find solutions to the puzzle when I got stuck…

Reporters take notes at a press conference
Photo by The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash

With the president attempting to withhold funding from the World Health Organization, questions naturally arise as to where responsibility for the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus lies.

[White House press briefing, 14 April 2020]

“All right, I’ll take one more question. Yes?”

“Mr. President, who was responsible for the slow response to the coronavirus threat?”




“That’s what I’m asking.”

“That’s what I’m telling you. WHO was responsible.”

“Do you have an answer to the question, sir?”


“Yes, that’s what we’d all like to hear. Who was responsible?”

“Thank you, that’s what I’ve been saying all along.”

“Sir, who said on January 22nd that the situation was totally under control?”

“That sounds about right.”

“But who said it?”

“Yes, and they made a lot…

Photo by Joanna Boj on Unsplash


Mormons say that in the next life, we’ll sort ourselves into the kingdoms where we feel the most comfortable. That happens in this life too.

There used to be a diner called Orloff’s on Columbus Avenue between 65th and 66th. It occupied a storefront in a grand white six-story building across from Lincoln Center. But Orloff’s isn’t there anymore, having been displaced by its landlord, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On August 7, 2002, the Church announced plans to turn two floors of the building, which already contains two Mormon chapels and a genealogical library, into a temple.

I don’t begrudge the Mormons their temple, but I will miss Orloff’s sorely. …

Advice for Young Writers

Reach big, read widely, and, most of all, never give up even when that’s what the adults around you think you should do.

There’s a time-honored tradition in writing, whether it be a science fiction story, a newspaper article, or a brief speech, that you open with an attention-grabbing sentence that will keep the audience reading or listening.

I’m going to break with that tradition this evening. My opening line will be this:

“Run while you still can! Stop listening! Get out! Go!”

Well. I don’t see anyone leaving. All right, I guess that means you’re going to have hear…

William Shunn

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