Abyss & Apex : Second Quarter 2007 : Editorial

“Ask The Editors”
Transcription of the Panel at Lunacon 2007

The following is a transcription of the ‘Ask The Editors’ panel at the 2007 Lunacon, recorded by John Joseph Adams, and featuring Douglas Cohen, Marvin Kaye, Hildy Silverman, and Wendy S. Delmater.

You can hear the panel recording as an MP3 here. “Ask the Editors” panel at Lunacon, 2007 – Rye Brook, NY

On the panel:

 

Douglas Cohen

[I am the associate editor at] Realms of Fantasy magazine and I also do a little slushing at a literary agency, so I’ve seen the horrors of the short and the long form.

 

 

Hildy Silverman

My name’s Hildy Silverman, I am the owner and editor in chief of Space and Time magazine as of about three months ago.

 

 

Marvin Kaye

I’m Marvin Kaye. I edit Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror, and while I get around to putting out the first issue, which was done a year ago, of Sherlock Holmes’ Mystery Magazine. I also do a series of anthologies won the fantasy award for last year for Science Fiction Book Club. And my most recent one will be, Tor books is bringing out a collection called, four originals, The Ghost Quartet, with new stories by Scott Card, Brian Lumley, Tanith Lee, and me.

 

 

Wendy S. Delmater

Okay, I’m Wendy Delmater and I’m managing editor of Abyss & Apex Magazine of Speculative Fiction. We’re an online magazine.

 

I’m supposedly the moderator. And what that always means is the least important person in the room gets to stand here and ask the important people questions.

I’ve heard really good things about what you’ve been doing with Space and Time.

We’re here to talk about what it is you need to know as writers — how many writers? – (every hand in the room goes up) jeez, preaching to the choir here, which is good.

How many of you would like to submit short fiction? Because a lot of what we’re talking about has applications to long fiction but we are short fiction editors, okay? So bear that in mind, if you want to write the next American novel and don’t know how to write shorts, not all of this is going to apply.

 

Douglas Cohen

I can tell you some stuff, I work with a literary agency as well; we’re dealing with novels there too.

 

Wendy S. Delmater

It is a very small genre, everybody knows everybody, and if we’re not publishing long fiction, you’ll meet people at cons and we know people who do, so be nice to us anyhow.

(laughter)

Please.

I have a question for everybody, what is… I am personally interested in this… what is the one thing you’ve been getting recently that you would just like not to see any more. Too many of what?

 

John Joseph Adams

Do I have to pick one thing?

(laughter)

 

Wendy S. Delmater

You can give us a laundry list but I just hope you don’t have a laundry list, there are other people.

 

John Joseph Adams

Okay, well there are a number of things. I mean, both, two of which are kind of ironic. First of all I mentioned I’m editing a post–apocalyptic reprint anthology. At F&SF we’ve actually been receiving so many post–apocalyptic stories lately that we can’t publish all the good ones that we’ve been receiving. If we published them all we’d have to change the name to Mutants and Marauders Monthly. And the other thing is that I’m guest editing this issue of Shimmer Magazine which is a special pirate issue and so obviously I’m reading a lot of piratish stories for that, and so there’s overflow because there’s another [pirate anthology], Jeff Vandermeer, edited an anthology and somebody else edited an anthology all about pirates, we’ve been getting a lot of overflow from that. By the time I’m done with this Shimmer thing I’ll be totally done with pirate stories. Then there’s like the usual suspects, which is like zombie stories, afterlife stories, basically that stuff. We always get too much of that, and epic fantasy, in the short form, like that’s the most of what we probably receive in the fantasy category. But we don’t publish a lot of it; we’re just inundated with that.

 

Douglas Cohen

Realms of Fantasy, obviously we’re just publishing fantasy stories. I can tell you some types of fantasy stories that both myself and my editor cannot stand. I don’t want to see stories about elves; you’re going to have to wow my socks off. I’ve seen everything there is to see about elves, I don’t care about elves any more; unless they’re Keebler elves and you’re gonna give me some cookies. (laughter) I don’t care about Dwarves either, go back in your mountains and stay there! I don’t like stories that are just about D&D, that’s what the role playing games are for. I don’t want to see everyone in a maze with an orc, a cleric, a wizard, and a half–elf on a quest. That’s not a real story, that is…

 

Wendy S. Delmater

Plot coupons.

 

Douglas Cohen

Plot coupons, that’s a good way to put it, it’s like a stock phrase for a stock story, they’re not bringing anything original to the table, chances are you’re just lifting something from a campaign you’ve played and you’re tweaking it slightly.

 

Wendy S. Delmater

We can tell.

 

Douglas Cohen

I don’t want to see stories in inns, that is not an original place to start a story, that is the most clichéd spot to start a story in the world. If you’re doing an urban setting I hate it when you start it in an office building, because that’s like the inn of the urban fantasy setting. That’s enough ranting and raving from me for now, stay tuned for the next 50 minutes.

 

Hildy Silverman

My case is a little unusual in that I’ve just taken over this magazine and I came with a backlog of already purchased stories. I’m not seeing anything yet, we’re closed to submissions until I clear through that backlog. There’s nothing I’m currently seeing that we haven’t purchased and already approved. However when the time does come, something I’d prefer not to see is the same old. Despite the name we get a lot of horror, which is fine, I love horror. I don’t want to see vampire stalks victim, vampire drinks victim, vampire goes about his business. I don’t want to see vampire and victim falling in love; everyone’s ripping that off from Charlaine Harris. If you want to do something with a vampire I’m cool with it, if you can actually come up with something different, and yes, there are different things you can do. But the same old same old same olds or your rip off of Buffy or Angel, just don’t bother please.

(laughter)

 

Marvin Kaye

I’ve never had any particular problems with the anthologies I’ve done over the years because their nature did change. The Fair Folk is down the line from The Vampire Sextet. Before that, my anthologies used to have about 50 stories, of which some were reprints, some were mid–list author reprints or originals, and occasional small number of big names, some were reprints, some were originals. I have a lot of room. But basically I invited people into that. Once The Vampire Sextet, which was Tanith Lee’s idea: do one called The Vampire Sextet and I’ll write you a novella that’s got vampirism, sex, and music. And I didn’t think it was gonna sell and I mentioned it to Ellen Asher at the Science Fiction Book Club and she said, “Oh good I can pay the rent next month.” But ever since I did that, The Vampire Sextet, Dragon Quintet, The Fair Folk, Forbidden Planet, I have no real input into getting new authors into it, it’s gotta be somebody who has a track record with the Science Fiction Book Club. I can trade and say, “How about this person rather than that person,” but it’s a little frustrating. Now Lovecraft is different, that is open for all sorts of entries. The problem is that Wildside Press took so darned long to get the first issues out, it’s supposed to be quarterly and it was more like two and a half years between issue one and issue three. So much they had to release an issue 1 1/2 just to appease the subscribers. We have a huge inventory and I’m trying to get it done because now we finally have a managing editor who’s got it on his schedule. I’m always looking for nonfiction, I don’t have a backlog for there, but fiction is going to take the better part of a year before we’re down to what’s new. All the stuff that came in, I bought a lot of stuff. It’s all very interesting. I haven’t run across all the things that annoy you three people. I didn’t want to do this book (gestures to anthology in his hand), it was Editor’s choice, that won’t sell, I was wrong, it won an award. The only thing I will say I keep getting at Lovecraft that’s a total turnoff is horror stories with too much bloodletting. All right, you gotta have bloodletting in any horror story, but when I feel it’s being thrown in to shock, to inundate you, it’s like that’s cheap, that’s pornography, gotta be really, really motivated, or I say uh–uh.

 

Douglas Cohen

Make it matter to the story, exactly.

 

Wendy S. Delmater

I found myself in a similar position to you (Hildy) because I took over as managing editor of Abyss & Apex in the middle of the fourth quarter of 2005. I wasn’t publishing my own stories until 2006. I’m going to generalize and then bring it down to something more specific. I read extensively in genre, I know what anthologies are out there, I know what’s in Analog and Asimov’s and I have associate editors that read Realms of Fantasy and your Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. And if somebody writes a great djinn story in one of those and I get 20 djinn stories, I know they’re knockoffs. Nothing annoys me more than a complete lack of originality that borders on plagiarism. I saw that with the pirate anthology, I saw it with djinn stories, and I’m seeing it with other anthologies. I’m not going into details; those are just two very good examples. Just because you saw it and got inspired doesn’t mean 50 or 60 other people also didn’t see it and get inspired. If you have a shiny idea that’s a new take on something old great. Congrats to you, wonderful, but if someone else has already done this at one of the major mags, okay, we’re only semi–pro but we try to be original. And I can look at this and say, “We don’t want that because this is up for a Nebula or this is up for a Hugo and this is something I admired three months or six months ago in X magazine.” Or this is from that anthology and it’s either a left over from a pirate anthology these last few months or it’s been a knockoff on the major magazines. And it’s nice that people are reading in the genre, but be aware that editors read in genre too. We’re just tired of it.

Audience question:

I do have a question. How much does merit of the story qualify or how much does the merit of the story matter over the content?

 

Wendy S. Delmater

They have to be equally good. It’s not an “either/or,” it’s an “and.”

 

Douglas Cohen

I’ll go into it but I’ll give it as fair a chance as I can but if I see elves already, it’s like wow, strike one, you’re already in the hole 0 and 1, so you’ve gotta have a good batting average.

 

Wendy S. Delmater

I will say, if I see something that’s very original with a quick fix that I can sit down with the person, I will get in chat with a person or online, and we will both have a copy of it up and we will do edits if it’s something that looks like it’s easy to fix, if it just needs a subplot for a longer story pulled out. This is something the major magazines don’t have the time to do. But you really have to send your best stuff. Just shiny ideas won’t get you in the door, you have to work on the craft.

 

Marvin Kaye

It’s tougher now when it comes by computer. It was easier to evaluate how long it took it with hard copy but I rarely get that any more unless I print it out. I won’t form a prejudice about the idea of the story. Yeah, if it’s a vampire doing something, yeah, vampire, give it a chance. If I’m still reading after the couple of pages, I think if the person at least has a good style, tell me, is the story good, is it derivative? If I see a story that’s got a compound past tense in the first paragraph I probably almost immediately turn off it. Because [in] our language, simple past tense, it’s already in the past but we regard it as the present. If it’s compound your plot isn’t happening yet, this happened before, tell me what’s happening now. I’ve almost never read anything in compound past tense that can’t be simplified to make it more immediate. I’m now reading this brilliant Rama trilogy by Arthur C. Clarke, but there are so many hads and you don’t need them! Hads are bad!

 

Hildy Silverman

I know just from… We get a tremendous amount of submissions even though we pay nothing; we pay something but comparatively nothing. But the number of submissions I see just from what I’ve inherited from Gordon is a tremendous amount. So the truth of the matter is while I certainly intend and have in the past for other magazines I’ll read every word. I’m gonna give it a quick skim first before I get to every word. And if skim and all I see are misspellings and horrific grammar and what have you, I’m probably gonna set that aside because I’m not gonna have the time to fix all that with you. If you couldn’t be bothered to send me something well–crafted in the most basic sense in the first place, I don’t have the time to waste to read you. I’ve got lots of people who are going to spend the time that I can read instead.

 

Wendy S. Delmater

Question – how many do you get on average a reading period or a month?

 

Hildy Silverman

I haven’t experienced it myself yet but Gordon was getting hundreds at a time.

 

Wendy S. Delmater

We get anywhere from 300–400 per reading period, we cut it down to quarterly one–month reading periods. We were open all year.

 

Hildy Silverman

I believe I’m gonna have to follow a similar path.

 

Marvin Kaye

Where I sold my first stories a long time ago was to Ted White, [at] Fantastic, and I got together with Ted and at some point we’re talking, and [Ted White said] “The problem is we got such a huge submission of bad stuff that the merely mediocre starts to look good.”

(laughter)

 

Marvin Kaye

I had one unusual thing in the earlier anthologies when I could put a lot of stuff in. I used to teach genre fiction at NYU, and I read a lot of student stuff, and I would often find that there would be students almost on the verge of being a decent writer, who had some problem, some stylistic difficulty. The biggest problem was usually they didn’t think they had, quote unquote, talent. Probably because their mother or boyfriend or somebody told them that. To me it’s not talent, it’s psychological need. If you need to write you will somehow make yourself better and become professional, it takes longer. One woman, died a number of years ago, Jean Schriver, she had a World Horror best first novel nominee, she died at 45 of cancer. Her stuff was like, oh, this woman will never write, terrible style— yet the desire to be a writer was so strong, I finally one week said, “Here’s Strunk and White, my gift, read it before you give me anything else.” The next week she brought in a submission that was 900% better than anything I’d received. “How did you do that?” “First thing is I reread your goddamn book three times.”

(laughter)

 

Marvin Kaye

(as an aside) She didn’t say goddamned. And the second thing she said was, “I can’t take credit, I had to rewrite it eight times.” Do it! Eight times, nine times! On a good day, seven times.

 

Wendy S. Delmater

This is called “Ask the Editors” and I had a couple questions for you guys. But I think you all have questions for us or you wouldn’t have come to a panel called “ask.” So I will take some questions and make them nice and loud because I’m a reader not a listener. I have partial hearing loss.

Audience question:

I have a question for Douglas Cohen.

 

Douglas Cohen

Sure, what’s up?

Audience question:

If you’re gonna submit a novel to an agent in the query letter should a sample of your writing be submitted? Is it better to submit a query first with an outline?

 

Douglas Cohen

Honestly it really depends on the agency ’cause different agencies they want different things. One of the biggest mistakes that people make, and it’s such a simple thing. Think about the SATs, I know they’ve changed it now, but you got 200 points for writing down your name. Well think of it as if you follow the instructions that are being laid out for you on the website or the literary marketplace guide, whatever, if you just follow the instructions for how to send the query letter the way the agent likes it, how to send your submission to Realms of Fantasy the way we like it, F&SF, Space and Time, anywhere, that’s 200 points because you’re not aggravating people.

(Laughter)

 

Wendy S. Delmater

Don’t laugh, it’s not funny.

 

Douglas Cohen

I think too many people just think, “Oh I know better, they’ll definitely prefer it this way.” NO! We prefer it the way it’s stated. It’s really that simple. I’m not gonna give you a general thing because inevitably you’re gonna tick someone off that doesn’t want it that way. Honestly, do your research, whatever they say, that’s what you do. If you have a question, but you probably shouldn’t because by this point they’ve made their guidelines very clear, if you have a question you can give them a very polite query if there’s an email query. That’s really the best answer I can give you, because if I give you a stock answer you’re gonna screw yourself on any number of submissions.

 

Marvin Kaye

You’re battling an inertia factor. It’s so much easier to say, oh well, after looking at the thing and pushing it away. If you submit it in a format that looks professional you may get a page or two read and then if you’re any good you’re past the first danger.

 

Wendy S. Delmater

I’m not predisposed to buy someone’s story if I’ve asked for it in standard manuscript format within a certain guideline time period and they send it outside of the submission period and it’s not in standard manuscript format. I’m funny that way.

 

Douglas Cohen

If you can take all the time to write a story, rewrite it, craft it, take the two minutes necessary to read how to submit it.

 

Marvin Kaye

There are those exceptions like A Confederacy of Dunces, which apparently was such an awful–looking manuscript that everybody rejected it, but someone bought it to read. The poor author was dead by then. His mother submitted it to some university or something.

Audience question:

Assuming that everything that comes in to you is the right format, what significance does the first sentence, paragraph, have to how long you’re gonna read it?

 

John Joseph Adams

It’s probably the most… the first paragraph, the first sentence is all going to be the most important thing you write in the whole story. I mean not to put any pressure on you or anything. (laughter) Basically as an editor you get so many submissions and you start reading it and you’re looking for an excuse to stop reading it, kind of, until you get lost into the story. I try to give each story at least five pages, I don’t necessarily read every word, I’ll at least skim through five pages, then if it’s not grabbing my interest—that’s one of my phrases I use to reject things—if something doesn’t grab my interest in the first couple pages, it’s not gonna grab the reader’s interest. I’m not going to finish reading it because the reader’s not going to finish reading it either. So those first paragraphs in the story, and the first couple pages, are really vitally important to hook the reader, because you have to do the same thing to the reader who picks up the magazine that you did to the editor.

 

Douglas Cohen

I’d like to insert something really quick.

About a month and a half ago… I keep a blog, slushmaster.livejournal.com. I started a poll on the blog for editors, asking, How far do you generally read on average before you stop reading? The choices were 10 plus pages, somewhere between seven and 10, five and seven, two to five, one, less than one. About 50% of the editors chose either one page or less than one page. Because with short fiction if you’re not getting the beginning right chances are it’s only going to get worse. So John is a very nice individual for giving you people five pages. I give like a page if I’m feeling generous.

 

Hildy Silverman

I would say I’m at the page limit myself now in my case. I’m sure it’s the same with your magazine and books. There’s first reader, I have people who will thin the herd and right away I go back to it, and if they pick up a story for me with horrific spelling, grammar, punctuation, whatever, I will never see it. Assuming you’ve gotten past that, if my readers are doing their job, you’re worth at least a page or two of my time reading or they wouldn’t bother to pass it along. If I’m not hooked real fast, I’m moving on, and I mean hooked. Get me into that world right away, excite me, make me want to read more ’cause that’s what my readers want to see, something that got them pulled in.

 

Marvin Kaye

Once in a while in my earlier years I would give authors more pages than I do now for the reason that I love to network at cons, and when I meet people I think they’re talking a good game, yeah, send me something I’ll actually look at it. And I’ve found that sometimes I’ll read somebody whose first pages were wasted and boring and then suddenly hey what’s this. They began in the wrong place, they haven’t learned cut to the chase. Oh all right, that’s maybe a small percentage of the time. With encouragement some of them work. The first job I had out of college was as a reporter at Grit newspaper. Do you remember Grit newspaper? It was the small town paper across America, Almost 100 years old mostly went to towns of 15,000 or less. It was a national newspaper with about 5 million circulation, so it was major but big city people did not hear of it; I never heard of it before they hired me. They gave us a style book and said, “When you’re a reporter for Grit, no story that you ever wrote or no article can ever begin with the name of a person, unless it’s the President or someone famous like that, never begin with and, the, in, whatever, no preposition, must have a really interesting word to start with, or if not able the editor will change it for you.” And then they also didn’t want sentences with more than 15 words in them. It was like trying to do a logic problem or crossword puzzle. It was really tough. But I got to the point where anytime I picked up a book that began with a meandering sentence it was really annoying…. Which means rewrite if you have to, you can always rewrite the same thing three or four or 14 ways, get some friends to look at it or just say which one is not fully me. I’ve written things in my earlier time that I came back to the next day. If it’s putting me to sleep, it’s really bad, rewrite.

 

Douglas Cohen

Just to play some devil’s advocate, Robert Silverberg, in his first Majipoor novel, the first sentence starts with “And then.” I loved that as an opening, because I forget the rest of the sentence, but it sucked me right in from the first sentence the way he phrased it. So if you write well enough you can get away with anything. But boring words lead to boring stories.

 

Wendy S. Delmater

“And then” is a hooky opening because it asks a question. What do you mean AND? Nothing happened before that. Then? Something’s gonna happen: what? Your beginning paragraphs, your beginning sentences, you really have to ask a question that the reader will read further to answer, that’s your hook. It’s a question in the mind of the reader that says, “Oh, what do they mean by that?” I forget what story it was, in the Magazine of F&SF. Three titanium crosses against the sky, arid desert, might be American southwest, titanium crosses, why titanium? It was a very hooky first sentence, you read it and you go, okay, something a little strange here, and you want to know why. And when you get to a reader, either the slush reader for the magazine or a reader of the magazine or an editor to ask why? And then you answer that a little bit further, but before you answer it you put another question, that’s what pulls them along so they can’t put it down.

I’ll look at the first three paragraphs to see if they’re badly misspelled, if the person is doing things like mixing there with their, and they don’t have their quotes on the right side of the periods. I won’t go any further. If they seem coherent, a little hooky, or even if it’s not, I’ll give it a page or two, if it looks really good I will do something very evil, I will skip right to the end. The one thing I like to see as an author and as an editor, I like to see the beginning and the end, a circularity, come full circle, where you feel there’s a feeling of completion to the story. That the central question that was somehow asked, maybe without you realizing it, at the beginning was somehow answered.

Audience question:

As a corollary how much importance do you put on dialog versus non–dialog?

 

Douglas Cohen

Depends on the story.

 

Wendy S. Delmater

One exercise you can do and I really highly recommend it, if you don’t have subscriptions to these fine magazines, you can usually get them at a good library or good bookstore. Write down the first sentence of each of the stories in a major magazine, and ask yourself why they got published, and what was so hooky about them that made them get published. I’m going to give you another little tip. This is an essay writing thing. Ever hear of a Keyhole essay? This is not short fiction but it has applications. A Keyhole essay starts with a broad statement, narrows it down to a premise, then you expand on why the premise is true, then it has another concluding statement with broad applicability. When you do that with an opening paragraph, you can very often have your strongest hook not in the first sentence but in the last sentence of the first paragraph. And you’re setting it up for small questions and big questions and anyway. Okay, I love when I see someone thinking outside of the box instead of concentrating on the first sentence.

 

John Joseph Adams

I just want to add to that I know a lot of writers especially when they’re beginning they think that you have to hook the reader with plot. Plot is important but you can also hook the reader with an interesting character and/or style.

 

Wendy S. Delmater

Or even beautiful language.

 

John Joseph Adams

Yeah, style. I always point to a good example like Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Other Celia,” which you can read online at SciFiction.com. It’s one of the most perfect openings I’ve ever seen. I swear I went to go read that story, I’d never read it before I clicked on the page and I just looked at it, I was just lost from the moment I read it, I didn’t intend to read the whole story, but I [did] as soon as I read the first paragraph. That’s a story that begins completely with character and style and that’s what hooks you.

 

Douglas Cohen

Kurt Vonnegut – and you could do worse than to follow the advice of Kurt Vonnegut – said at the beginning of your story if at all possible to give your character a goal on page one. I don’t think I ever read why he said to do that but to me it’s pretty obvious. Because if you’re writing well the reader’s going to want to keep reading to see if the character going to achieve his goal. And then you introduce the conflict, the obstacle to achieving the goal which creates conflict which engages the reader. So give your character a goal, early on if you can, it’s often very helpful.

 

Hildy Silverman

I agree, when they say you need to be hooked it doesn’t necessarily mean the first sentence you have to have a fistfight. Or an explosion! It can be that your character is intriguing.

 

Wendy S. Delmater

And that’s the conflict, something very important to the character. And character is king.

 

Marvin Kaye

Take your time. Do everything that they’re saying. If your reader is really interested in an interesting character in a situation, don’t be in a hurry to tell what it is. You feed in the exposition as you go along. But keep it immediate, keep them caring about it. The next step, the next step you can take a long time.

Not the best book in the world for many reasons but still very good for exposition, Mary Higgins Clark’s Where Are The Children? She does not tell you what happens to the protagonist until about page 320. She keeps it back from you and it’s driving you crazy. She has plotting problems; she knows how to make you keep turning the pages. You finish the chapter— (gasps) “No, I have to find out what happens next.” Always keeps it interesting and keeps you guessing. This is not well known unfortunately, James Gould Cozzens who, if anybody remembers, did a bestseller book called By Love Possessed, which was made into a movie. He did a crypto fantasy novel called Castaway. I picked that very short book up and couldn’t stop reading it, the opening situation was so harrowing. And the character was so important, ultimately you read the whole book and you never really find out what happened, a second reading will show you the subterranean clues. It’s about a man in a department store at night in total fear as the story begins and he just knows somebody’s after him and it takes the whole book to force that out. Holding back on exposition, tormenting, very short book about 120 pages.

 

Douglas Cohen

Other questions?

Audience question:

We started off with what’s not making it, things you didn’t really care to see, elves, vampires. You can flip that around, what’s hot? You might hesitate to give a specific thing, you could say, “Oh, warrior monks,” and get 20 Jedi and Shaolin stories from the people in this room alone. If there’s anything specific, maybe hard sf, magical realism, whatever. You’ve already done a pretty good job of telling us good strong storytelling. Anything happening out there you’re looking for?

 

John Joseph Adams

Uh, with F&SF— fantasy and science fiction are both in the title but we always receive more fantasy than science fiction, so we’re always looking for more good science fiction. Aside from that I can’t really point out the specific types of sf we’re looking for. When we do publish science fiction we don’t tend to publish hard sf. That’s mainly because hard sf is so focused on the science and the plot it doesn’t take the time to spend on the characters, and F&SF is very character–driven. Basically, science fiction, don’t retread—I’m doing don’ts again—let’s say original science fiction that makes us sit up and take notice, and say, “Hey, now this is something.”

 

Douglas Cohen

I work really well with Shawna. We have some different tastes but we agree on a lot of stories and the biggest reason why is because we’re both looking for the same thing. We’re not looking for an individual type of story, all sorts of fantasy stories, you’re welcome to send them, yes we do have our dislikes but we just want to like the story. I think John hit on what’s going to make us like the story, is it well–written and you’re hitting all the keys, Elves are gonna make us crush the eyes.

 

Hildy Silverman

He really hates those elves.

 

Douglas Cohen

I really do, you don’t understand.

 

John Joseph Adams

He’s elf intolerant

 

Douglas Cohen

Some people might be wondering how you get an original idea, there’s no simple answer, but if you’re just reading science fiction and fantasy that’s probably why you’re not getting your original idea. You should be reading non fiction and all sorts of other fiction too.

 

Wendy S. Delmater

Nonfiction too!

 

Douglas Cohen

Yes, that will expose you to types of writing you’re not used to which will get your brain working in another way, which might lead you to coming up with that idea you’ve been looking for.

 

Hildy Silverman

I’m gonna have to go to a similar place. It’s not specifically that I need more pirates or I need more vampires or I need more whatever. In fact, one of the disconnects between the title of the magazine and the content as I’ve received it is that it’s rather horror heavy. When you hear “Space and Time” you’re not thinking horror right off the bat, are you? But that’s been the primary content. Now I love horror, let me make that clear, but one of the things I’m going to be looking for when I reopen to submission is a lot more science fiction and fantasy. In my case, I like to see things across genres. Give me some scary thing in space, or give me some fantasy setting in an alternate dimension. Go ahead, cross things, make it up, do something different, if you think there’s nothing different to do, I would challenge you to read anything by Neil Gaiman, anything by China Mieville. There is plenty of new out there you can come up with.

 

Marvin Kaye

I agree very much, before I get into the area of what I would like to see more of. Your point about reading other authors, people who really know how to handle language, though they might not write sf, they may be even difficult. I went to a MWA convention, mystery writers, where the authors trashed people like [James] Joyce and Faulkner. Now the special guest of honor was James M. King. And he said, “With all due respect, I think Mr. Faulkner and Mr. Joyce had something on the ball.”

(laughter)

 

Marvin Kaye

One of the haunted house novels that I wrote I could not have done if I hadn’t read the trilogy, because the way he plays with time and viewpoint taught me you don’t have to be linear. You can go back in time and see through another set of eyes. Catch up and get a whole new picture of what you just read about. I particularly like some of the things I’ve been getting lately. This one story in the next issu,e I think it’s our cover story, Esther Friesner wrote a story called “The Really Big Sleep.” A Chandler private eye with Lovecraft overtones. Of course Esther can bring that. I’m thinking the stories I like. There is a sense of humor, not just the lumping; they’re often very witty, sardonic energy to them. (Marvin holds up a recent edition of Lovecraft Magazine) This one’s got an Edinborough writer, a man called Edgar J. Wilson did a story called “The Class of 666.” All these students going to a school for magic somewhere in Scotland and they have their magical sports. They couldn’t get into Hogwarts, they’re juvenile delinquents. This is the place JDs are sent to and they’re treated really bad. I love stories of that sort when they can be brought off.

 

Wendy S. Delmater

Shiny idea is wonderful. I’ll read further. I picked up a story this year that had sentient weather. It’s called “In The Season of Blue Storms” if you want to Google on it and it’s a very shiny idea. I’ll buy cross–genre, I have a tailored human doing a murder mystery, but was it supernatural or was it technology? I love shiny ideas, [but] the shiny idea is not a plot. Repeat after me, something must change, whether it’s inside your protag or external or preferably both, something has to change. If there’s no conflict then there’s no resolution, and if it’s slice of life—that’s not fiction, lovely description maybe but it’s not a plot!

 

Marvin Kaye

One other thought, this is supposed to be a magazine of horror, I don’t like the word horror, I much prefer terror. (laughter) As defined in “Tales of Terror,” some things are horrific, but they don’t have to be bloody and gory and such. I’ll give you an example; did anyone see Gens De Floret? A film with Gerard Depardieu? A man who comes to Provence with his family and kills himself trying to make his farm work and the rich people in the village are making it impossible for him to do it, they are the villains. But they did a sequel called The Gnome of the Spring. Do you remember what you finally find out? You find out a bit of information which reflects back to the first movie, where he was killed by people who should have protected him, and it destroys them, literally they’re dead, they don’t want to live any more themselves. That to me is much more horrific than if he was killed with a knife.

Audience member:

I remember that, the second one turns out to be better than the first because of the plot twists.

 

Marvin Kaye

Most people like the first one better, I think it’s really in two parts. You have to see them together to realize what a towering compuel it is.

Audience question:

I’m curious: random samples of a hundred stories, what you guys might accept.

 

John Joseph Adams

You mean like a percentage?

Audience question:

Yeah, like out of a hundred.

 

John Joseph Adams

It’s really tough. At F&SF we get between 500 and 700 a month and that includes unheard of writers and also professional writers. And we buy between five and 10 a month; 10 is on the very high side, we’re much more likely to buy five or six or seven stories a month.

 

Douglas Cohen

We buy five to 10 stories every other week, 10 being on the high side. Go to my blog.

May 10, 2006, if you go to the archives, it marked my one year anniversary with ROF, I posted all sorts of statistics for what our submissions were for the entire year, our acceptances, etc. That will give you an idea of all sorts of stuff for what the statistics are. But if your story’s good enough, that’s all that really matters in the end. It’s going to find a home. You’re really not in competition with other people, you’re in competition with yourself, so write a good enough story.

 

Wendy S. Delmater

Absolutely. In our case we have four quarterly reading periods, say 400 stories, and per period we buy usually two sf, two fantasy, and two pieces of flash per quarter. Sometimes we buy 1500 words or less, and every word has to count. That’s probably the hardest type of fiction to write. It’s like haiku, every single word matters.

 

Marvin Kaye

We got an influx of an amazingly good number of really short shorts as a result we have too many of them now. We bought a lot more; because we pay three cents a word they didn’t cost that much. Although we may have bought 30ish of them, that was maybe 15 writers, several by the same writer.

Audience question:

Getting back to merit, receiving submissions, new talent versus previously published talent, how much do the names resonate, matter versus merit of story.

 

Douglas Cohen

Merit of story every time. For ROF if you’ve published in the magazine before, if you have certain credit, you’re going to bypass me and go to my editor, but she does it how I would do it, best story wins.

 

Wendy S. Delmater

That’s the same for me. I just rejected Ruth Nestvold last month, and I love her but the story was too dark, it wasn’t an A&A story. On the other hand, if I see, oh look, it’s (insert Big Name Author) but if it’s not right for the magazine I’m not gonna publish it, it’s a matter of not only being a good story but being right for the market.

 

Douglas Cohen

From what I hear even big name authors rarely drive the sales for magazines, so if that’s the case, the thing editors and publishers are most concerned about is putting out a quality product and keeping your fan base happy. So best story wins.

 

Marvin Kaye

If it’s an author I really like, like if Tim Newman wants me to look at a new story, well Tim, it’s probably going to be good. And so far I haven’t been disappointed. But it could be but they have that extra spin when they send something new in.

 

Hildy Silverman

We don’t go, oh God it’s Carol Emshwiller again. I’d say in our case if it’s someone I know, or a known name, it bypasses the slush pile and comes straight to me, but I will still read it and evaluate it and if it’s good enough to go in, or not even just good enough, forget the good enough, it might not be what I need at the time. If I have 15 great stories on sentient weather I’m not gonna buy number 16 it even if it’s great. Not necessarily because it’s bad but because I need a variety.

 

Marvin Kaye

I will say that if I got a new story submitted to me by Jim Sears—

 

Hildy Silverman

Stephen King was to submit to me, I’m open.

 

Douglas Cohen

Yeah, he’ll drive sales.

 

Hildy Silverman

If Jim Sears and Stephen King ever collaborated, they can have the whole magazine. (pause) “The Slightly Shadowed Tower” or something.

(laughter)

Audience question:

I know you should create a character and create conflict and stuff, what if the main character loses, do you guys like that at all?

 

Douglas Cohen

If you execute it properly it’s really what it boils down to, that’s really not a simple yes or no answer in my opinion, if that’s inevitable certainly.

 

Marvin Kaye

It was a cliché for a while for horror novels always having to end negatively. (Stephen King sure did that!) I thought this was a belated echo of the Theatre of the Absurd 20 years ago. In Europe they have a reason for that. I like to see them win if it’s reasonable. If they don’t win, oh well. Have you read the Bartomeus trilogy, they’re wonderful, Jonathon Stroud, a major character doesn’t make it to the end. It really shocked me but it was perfect, it had to happen that way.

Audience question:

At the opposite end of speculative science fiction, what can one do with novellas? Does anybody want them? I happen to write novellas and nobody seems to want to see 30,000 words.

 

John Joseph Adams

30,000 words is an awkward length. It’s really tough to sell. At F&SF the longest we usually publish is 25,000 words and it’s really tough for a beginner or a newcomer to sell us that length. Because the longer the story is the better it has to be. If you’re gonna take up that much of the magazine it better be awesome. And if you’re somebody that nobody has ever heard of, you have to justify to the readers that the reason we put this long story in here is because it’s awesome, even if you haven’t heard of this person well you’re going to hear from them again in the future because they’re a great writer. 30,000 words, I don’t know, try to trim it, there’s not anywhere to sell something of that length.

 

Marvin Kaye

Awfully long story in our first issue by somebody I’d never heard of, Holly Phillips. But if I was sent 30,000 words and I thought it was really good I’d say, is there a break point, can we run in two parts?

 

John Joseph Adams

At F&SF we actually did that recently. Matt Hughes has a novella out. Matt Hughes had published several stories with us so we’re kind of committed to publishing his stories whenever reasonable, he has a recurring character, we’re not committed but he has a history with the magazine. He had a story over 30,000 words so we did split it in two. I don’t know about a newcomer doing that. If it’s really great we’re going to find a way to publish it.

 

Douglas Cohen

Turn it into a novel.

 

Wendy S. Delmater

They occasionally string several of them together with a theme into one book. If you really look at the Hyperion novels each one is the story of a different character. And they’re each short stories and they’re almost novella–like woven together into one book. Take a look again at the Hyperion novels, and you’ll see that if you look. Structurally, that’s what it is. We had four of them [novellas]. We published them, flat $75 fee, we’re not gonna pay you by the word at that length. If you really want to get it out there, this is not something you’re gonna see at Ralan.com, please don’t tell him, I don’t want to have that many of them, [you find out] if you come to cons. We don’t do it that often, we did one called “Memory of Touch” in the last issue, 17,000 words. I’m a firm believer that a story is the length it has to be. If it wants to be a novella, you can turn it into a paraplegic by trying to make it 10,000 words. That’s how I felt about “Memory of Touch” and that’s why I spent the money on it.

 

Douglas Cohen

Anyone else?

Audience question:

Where do you find out… if you’re not a mid–list or high–list author. Where do you find out about anthologies? I mean, is there somewhere to find out if there’s a call for submissions for some anthology or do you have to have a name?

 

Marvin Kaye

Science Fiction Chronicle and Locus both have fairly recent market reports.

 

Douglas Cohen

Ralan.com.

 

Wendy S. Delmater

Except the invitation only ones, those are by reputation. Submit to the big mags first, if they don’t go to the second tier of semi–pro… Abyss and Apex is good. If [an editor sees] that they’re published in us that it’s not the same thing as if they’re published in some free thing, maybe [writers] know what they’re doing [if they are published in] A&A if you see it in a cover letter, so that’s something you can do to work your way up the ladder. When you come to the cons and go to the readings and go to the panels and start to make relationships, and start to get these. It’s just a process, you cannot jump start this, you have to get your name out there, write quality stories, and keep submitting. And you will eventually start being asked to submit.

 

Marvin Kaye

There is more opportunity for good networking in this field than in any other genre.

 

John Joseph Adams

And generally if something is invitation only you can’t send something unsolicited but that doesn’t mean you can’t ask if you can send something. If you find out that someone sold to an anthology and they’re reading for it you can politely query and say, well, you know, can I submit something, if you’ve written something in that theme and you’re interested in selling it. It’s not likely, most of these are invitation only, but plenty of editors are willing to look at something if you ask.

 

Wendy S. Delmater

And if you’re polite about it. Please be polite about it!

 

Hildy Silverman

I do a whole panel at conventions on networking, it’s amazing how far you can get by just being nice to everyone, you just don’t know who’s here, there are plenty of people out wearing tags saying, I am an agent, I am an editor. You make friends and they invite you to a party that maybe not everybody is invited to and people talk and they hand out cards.

 

Marvin Kaye

If you have something to sell and you’re polite to people there is a psychology I think that you want to be somebody who found this next impressive. Even if you’re submitting stuff to the magazines on a regular basis, always send it to an editor who is still on the masthead, keep a record when you send it. If you get a scribbled thing in the margin—I have students who stop around that time—that’s when you should redouble it, because they’re starting to invest themselves. I didn’t buy that thing, maybe a couple times from now I will and I’ll be the discoverer.

 

Wendy S. Delmater

Editors absolutely love it when you’re nice to them. I want to quote Joshua Bilmes, an agent. He says, “I want the authors I work with to be people I enjoy working with, I’m going to be working with them a long time, we need to be able to be friends.” That implies the subtitle is how not to annoy your editor. These are people who want content. You have something they want. So many people come up to editors heart in hand, saying please read this thing, really we want it, we do want it, but you’ve gotta bring it up to a certain level and that takes work and we respect that work and when we see it we go, wow, that’s so cool. When I see somebody submit and I look at it and say eh, and they submit again and again and again and finally they’ll do something and it strikes my fancy, and it might be the tenth story; don’t think that the editor hates you, they’re rooting for you, they want to see you improving, they want you to succeed at something.

 

Marvin Kaye

Ask yourself something: How many rejections would it take before you gave up? One, ten, fifty, couple hundred? I used to do this at NYU and I’d say, what if you got 900 rejections, and some smartass said, “On the same story?”

(laughter)

Well, it took about 900 submissions before Ray Bradbury made his first sale.


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Editorial © 2007 John Joseph Adams, Douglas Cohen, Wendy S. Delmater, Marvin Kaye, and Hildy Silverman.
All other content copyright © 2007 ByrenLee Press
 





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