What does it take to get out of the slush pile and into the table of contents? To find out, I interviewed the editors of three of the top markets in short science fiction–Gordon Van Gelder, editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction; Sheila Williams, editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction, and Susan Marie Groppi, editor of Strange Horizons.
Gordon Van Gelder is the editor and publisher of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. He took over as editor of the magazine in January 1997, then took on the role of publisher as well in October 2000. As a teenager, Van Gelder published a number of short stories in anthologies such as 100 Great Fantasy Short-Short Stories and Bruce Coville’s Book Of Spine Tinglers, but put his writing career on hold to pursue his editing career, which started with a summer internship with Bluejay Books. Later, he worked for twelve years as an editor at St. Martin’s Press, and went on to edit several anthologies, including In Lands That Never Were and Fourth Planet From the Sun.
Sheila Williams is the editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction. She’s been with the magazine since the summer of 1982, starting as an editorial assistant and taking over as editor in April 2004. She received her Master’s degree in philosophy from Washington University, and moved to New York in 1981 to pursue a career in publishing. In addition to her experience at Asimov’s, she is also the editor of more than two dozen anthologies, such as A Woman’s Liberation and Intergalactic Mercenaries. She doesn’t write fiction, and has no plans to do so in the future, but her editorial experience allows her keen insight into what works and what doesn’t.
Susan Marie Groppi is the editor-in-chief of Strange Horizons. Groppi joined the staff as a fiction editor shortly after the magazine’s launch in September 2000, and took over as editor-in-chief in 2003. In addition to her editorial work, she has a Ph.D. in History and is a lecturer at UC Berkeley. She doesn’t write much fiction–she calls her one fiction publication in the magazine Flytrap an "aberration"–but she does often write critical non-fiction. Prior to joining Strange Horizons, Groppi worked as an editorial assistant at Circlet Press. She is the co-editor of the anthology 20 Epics (with David Moles), and is currently one of the resident editors for the Online Writing Workshop (sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com).
What plots are you sick to death of seeing, and/or what would you like to see more of?
Van Gelder: Currently, the plot I’m seeing most often is: A previously unheard-of virus comes along, alters all of humanity in a way that has never before occurred, and one lucky person is immune. We’ve run a couple of stories with this plot already and it’s quickly growing tiresome. I’ve also been getting lots of alternate history stories about different outcomes to the Civil War or to World War II.
What would I like to see more of? Well, if Santa got my list, this year I’ll be getting more science fiction stories like "Finisterra" and "The Merchant at the Alchemist’s Gate" that are really good and don’t seem to follow the same paths as most of the other science fiction stories I’m reading these days.
Williams: I never know which plots I want to see more of until I see them, because they’re the plots that do something I’m not expecting to see. I would definitely like to put a short-term moratorium on stories that lead off with exploding spaceships. Exploding spaceships that happen further into the story are currently okay, however.
Groppi: We’ve been seeing an awful lot of retold or reworked fairy tales. Of course, we’ve also bought a fair number of them, so I can see why people keep sending them, but at this point we’re a little burnt out. Retellings are difficult, because on the one hand they can leverage a lot of emotional and narrative power by tapping into these familiar images and plots, but authors really need to be thinking about whether they’re bringing anything really new or meaningful to the retelling.
We also see a lot of what I’ve started calling the "foofy slipstreamy stories," pieces that are very lyrical, very image-driven, and sometimes very beautiful, but also kind of insubstantial, with no clear sense of what the dream-like magical images mean, or whether they’re even real. Again, this is a type of story that we’ve developed a reputation for favoring, which is undoubtedly why we get so many of them, but I’m tired of them at this point.
Speaking just for myself, and not necessarily for my co-editors, I would love to see more science fiction. Something with robots, or quantum physics, or alien contact. I’m really a science fiction reader at heart, and not a fantasy reader.
What’s the most common reason that a manuscript gets rejected?
Van Gelder: Reason #1 is because the story wasn’t entertaining enough.
Williams: Exploding space ships and other predictable plot lines. Lazy plotting, i.e., the sense that the author isn’t really sure of where he or she is going. Boring jobs and boring employees. Grim, detestable worlds and grim, detestable characters. Please note, though, that I have been known to buy stories that contain one or all of these plot devices (exception does not apply to lazy plotting, though).
Groppi: It just doesn’t do anything special. The single most common reaction we have to submitted stories is "eh, it’s fine, but it’s nothing special." The special-ness can come from a number of different things–some really good use of language, a really great idea, or something in the pacing. It has to light up a circuit somewhere in my head, or it isn’t going to stand out from the pack.
A new writer only has a few paragraphs to grab the editor’s interest. What’s the secret to writing strong beginnings?
Van Gelder: I can make two suggestions: (1) Introduce us to a character who’s in an interesting situation and make us empathize with him/her/it. Kate Wilhelm is a master at this—I often tell students they should get one of Kate’s collections or a handful of her novels and just read the opening pages of each one. (2) Cut the warm-ups. A lot of stories come in that feel like the author needed a few pages to warm up before the story starts rolling. That’s fine from a writing point of view, but the warm-ups should be cut in revisions.
Williams: Figure out what your story is about and put the whole thing in the first sentence, but don’t do it in such away that I can figure out what’s coming from the information. Just be sure that the beginning is intriguing.
Groppi: A strong beginning doesn’t have to be action-packed, and it doesn’t have to front-load whatever cool idea or concept is in the story, but I do think that the opening paragraphs of a story have to have something in them that makes me care. A hint that something cool is about to happen, or a sign that the character is interesting, or a feel for good language or good style. One of the things that’s death for a manuscript is when I start reading it and there’s nothing in the first paragraphs that I care about.
What kind of reading should aspiring writers be doing? Do you have any specific books on writing, or sterling examples of fiction to recommend?
Van Gelder: The usual advice is that an aspiring writer should read anything and everything. And that’s true. But it often pays to read in a more focused way. For instance, if you’re aspiring to write science fiction, try reading an anthology like The Science Fiction Hall of Fame and study each of the stories to see what techniques they use. I’ve heard several crime writers say they learned a lot by retyping an entire Elmore Leonard novel, start to finish.
On writing itself, I always recommend Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction for studying the craft of the short story and Robin Wilson’s Those Who Can anthology for aspiring science fiction writers. And Strunk and White’s Elements Of Style for everyone.
Williams: Read the magazines. Analyze the first paragraphs of stories that work. Read lots of stories in magazines and anthologies and analyze why they work.
Groppi: It all depends on what kind of writing you want to be doing. I’m going to echo the commonly-given advice, though, that writers should be readers, and should read as widely as possible. When you read something that makes you think "oh, I want to do that," then you should read it again, and maybe try to see if you can figure out what makes it tick.
What is it about a story that makes it right for your publication?
Van Gelder: I generally like to leave it to other people to try to answer this question because if I can ever answer it 100% correctly, that’s when I should pack it in as an editor. One of the joys of editing F&SF is being able to surprise myself with stories we publish.
Williams: We run an eclectic assortment of stories at Asimov’s. Love to see good science in an SF story. Not much horror–although there are exceptions. Most of these are situational rather than occult. Almost no high fantasy, but lots of strange tales where the explanation is just weird or fantastic.
Groppi: It’s hard to say what makes something right for us, but it’s a little easier to pin down what makes it likely to work for us. All three of us in the fiction department place a high priority on quality of prose, and a couple of us also have well-known weak spots for stories that deal with family dynamics or relationships. We’re very interested in changing things up, though, and stories that feel different in some way from our norm are likely to get a little boost in the editorial process.
In what ways has the genre fiction marketplace changed over the past several years that new writers should be aware of?
Van Gelder: The biggest change in the last decade is the advent of electronic publications, but I don’t know that there’s much to say—in general, they’re the same as print magazines in that you should check them out before submitting to them, follow their guidelines, etc. But one thing that has changed is that the internet has made it easier to get information (and misinformation) quickly. There are more markets and more market guides than ever before and most of them are good, but it pays to do one’s homework before submitting anything.
Williams: Exploding spaceship stories were probably easier to publish before editors
started telling everyone that we had to be blown away by the opening paragraph. We still need to be blown away by the opening paragraph, but that doesn’t mean the spaceships have to be blown up.
Groppi: The obvious first thing that comes to mind is that online publications have finally more-or-less bridged the respectability gap. Publishing in Intergalactic Medicine Show or Jim Baen’s Universe or (if I can say this) Strange Horizons is, I think, unambiguously a "real" publishing credit now, as opposed to six or seven years ago, when online publications would be looked at a little bit askance. (Unless they were edited by Ellen Datlow.) Magazines like Clarkesworld or the new online version of Fantasy have been able to hit the ground running, without needing the long slow ramp-up period of convincing the community that they’re legit.
I also get the sense that the newer generation of writers, the ones who have entered into the short fiction market in the last five or ten years, are much more likely than the veterans to be resigned to the fact that you can’t make a living writing short fiction today. If you’re good, and prolific, and dedicated, short fiction can provide a nice additional income stream, but it’s not sustainable as a primary income stream, especially not if you’re talking about genre fiction. This is mostly an effect of the marketplace, not an effect on the marketplace, but it’s not without market effect. There’s a rich and vibrant culture of small-press zines and anthologies, a culture that’s based around the idea that you’re never going to get paid a lot for this particular type of work, but you can be a part of something cool and creative. I don’t want to overplay the benefits of this–I do think it’s a shame that short fiction writers don’t get paid more, and I see a lot of writers who have lowered their expectations and standards to a point that may be hurting their professional development. But it’s fascinating to watch it happen, and I think we haven’t seen the full implications of it yet.
This article originally appeared in 2009 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market.