Short Fiction: A Roundtable Discussion with Short Story Editors hosted by Michael Knost

writers workshopWow, do we have some great stuff for you today! Author, editor, and columnist Michael Knost shares a gem from his new book, The Writers Workshop of Science Fiction & Fantasy, a collection of essays and interviews with some of the biggest names in the field, now available in bookstores and at Amazon. 

In the following excerpt we get an inside look at short fiction publishing from the perspective of the editors. Many thanks to Michael and the illustrious editors featured here: John Joseph Adams, Ellen Datlow, James Patrick Kelly, Mike Resnick, Stanley Schmidt, and Gordon Van Gelder. Enjoy!


Michael Knost: What influence, if any, do cover page publishing credits have in regard to your decision of acceptance or rejection?

John Joseph Adams: I would say it has zero influence. Having authors submit who have previously published stories is always great, and having other professional publications might make me take a harder look at something before passing on it, but ultimately it has no effect in whether or not I accept something for publication. The story has to stand on its own merits, regardless of what other fine work the author may have produced. Though I guess if I was on the fence about whether or not to accept something, the fact that an author has lots of previous publications (and so may have a fanbase) might help me decide. I’ve certainly had well-known authors submit stories to me—authors that I’d love to have in my magazines—that I had to reject because they just didn’t work for me, or they just didn’t fit my vision for the type of fantasy or science fiction I’m going for in the magazines.

One thing that factors in is whether or not a submission is unsolicited, or if I asked the writer to send something to me. If I specifically requested a story for a theme anthology, I will work with the author—sometimes at length—in order to get the story to a point where it works for me. That doesn’t always work out—sometimes a story just won’t fit no matter what you do to it—but while I don’t think a solicitation should mean automatic acceptance, I think an editor does owe it to a writer to go the extra mile editorially when a story is written to order. This is partially a necessity with anthologies, too, as the anthologist typically sells the anthology to the publisher with the promise of certain writers contributing, so if “Big Name Writer” turns in a subpar story, it behooves you to work with him to make it suitable since the publisher will likely be unhappy if you promised a story by him and then didn’t deliver. Fortunately, most “big names” got to be big names because they’re good at what they do.

Ellen Datlow: I currently edit invitation-only anthologies, but I worked for OMNI Magazine and online for 17 years and SCIFICTION for over 5 years.
As an editor skimming incoming mail I would most definitely look at cover letters mentioning respectable credits and put them aside to read myself. Everything else would go to a reader, who would read the slush and pass on the good manuscripts to me with a note as to what she liked about the story. But as far as my acceptance or rejection of a story—credits mean nothing. It’s the story itself. I bought a few first stories by writers I’d never heard of before (at least a couple passed on to me by my slush reader). In one case it was at OMNI and although my reader knew the story was wrong for OMNI, he passed it on to me because he knew I was reading for an original anthology and that the story might work for that. It did, and I bought it.

Also at OMNI I commissioned several series of thematic short-shorts. By commissioning them I mean actually promising I’d buy these short shorts from writers I’d mostly worked with or at least trusted to hand in what I needed because I’d have to pay a kill fee if I didn’t take the story. I commissioned a story by a writer whose novels I loved and hadn’t realized till he told me that it was the first story he’d ever written.

So it’s really a question of getting on an editor’s radar one way or another.

Mike Resnick: None. I judge the story, not what the author did for some other editor in the past.

Stanley Schmidt: Prior credits have no effect on my decision to accept or reject.

Gorgon Van Gelder: Almost none. When I get a submission, the question facing me is, is this a story that readers of F&SF will like? A list of publishing credits doesn’t do much to answer that question.

* * *

Michael Knost: What are the first things you look for in a story?

John Joseph Adams: The first thing that usually grabs me is voice; if the story has a good narrative voice, that’s the easiest way to make it stand out from the rest of the pack in the slush pile.

Ellen Datlow: I don’t exactly “look” for anything. I read every submission (whether slush or something I’ve requested) with the hopes of being enveloped by the story and swept away by the storytelling.

Of course, the story also needs to fit the theme of the anthology for which it’s submitted. And that it goes well with and doesn’t duplicate earlier stories I’ve already bought for the anthology.

James Patrick Kelly: Does it fit our theme?

Mike Resnick: Accessibility. Is it easy to continue from one line to the next. . . because it’s my job to read it, and if I find it difficult, why should the reader, who isn’t being paid to read it, bother with it?

Stanley Schmidt: I start reading a story at the slow speed I use for things I’m interested in, and then try to shift to the much higher speed I use to look for anything that interests me enough to warrant spending serious time on the story. If it draws me in and makes me keep reading slowly, it has a good chance of being accepted. If it lets me shift to speed-reading, it probably doesn’t—unless something (like a fascinating new idea) catches my eye and makes me slow back down.

Gordon Van Gelder: An assured narrative voice is probably #1 on the list, followed by some sort of STORY (as opposed to too many submissions I receive that don’t seem to have an actual tale to tell).

* * *

Michael Knost: What are the most common reasons you reject manuscripts?

John Joseph Adams: It’s not a very useful answer, but they’re just not interesting enough. Sure, there are a fair number of stories that are just so poorly written that the story can be rejected before the editor even engages on a story level, but the majority of stories submitted are at least competently written on a line-by-line level; whether or not they have something to say is another matter. An editor’s interest-level is like a slippery eel; writers too often approach short stories as if they have the luxury of a novel’s pacing, but in a short story, every line has to count. Also, the form is not a forgiving one, so any missteps the writer makes tend to be magnified.

Ellen Datlow: The stories are boring and don’t hold my attention.

The characters are behaving stupidly.

The dialog is clunky.

There’s no story, just a bunch of scenes thrown together and tied up with a horrific, usually telegraphed-from-the-first-page climax (most common in bad horror).

Mike Resnick: Exceptionally poor writing on page 1 will do it. So will a thinly disguised retelling of a major novel (or, far more often, a successful TV show or movie).

Stanley Schmidt: I’ll answer the next two questions at once: I don’t need a specific reason to reject a manuscript—that’s what necessarily happens to at least 99% of all submissions, because I only have room for 1%. So what I’m looking for is a reason to buy, which will be some combination of good writing and good ideas. I suppose another way to say that is that my commonest reason for rejecting a story is that I don’t see anything in it special enough to make it stand out from 99% of the competition.

Gordon Van Gelder: 1. Story feels like the same-ol’, same-ol’, without any spark to it.
2. Story is trying too hard to entertain.
3. Story is trying too hard to do other things and forgets that it’s meant to entertain.

* * *

Michael Knost: When reading a manuscript, are you looking for a reason to accept it—or are you looking for a reason to reject it?

John Joseph Adams: That’s not how I approach reading manuscripts, really. I mean, I want each story I read to be fantastic, and I try to go into reading each one with a completely open mind. Great stories are few and far between, so I’d hate to miss out on one because I didn’t give it the proper attention, or went into it looking for a reason to reject it. There are stories that I read that I get a good feeling about early on, and as I’m reading it, I think I’ll be accepting it, but plenty of those turn out to disappoint by the time I get to the end; so in those cases, I guess you could say I start looking for reasons to accept them, but it doesn’t always work out. Ultimately, it’s an intuitive process that’s hard to explain, but like science fiction or pornography (to paraphrase Damon Knight and Justice Potter Stewart), you know a good story when you see it.

Ellen Datlow: Depends on whether I have too many stories coming in (for a magazine or an anthology) or too few. If I have too much coming in and a lot of good work but nothing great, it’s easier to reject those that are less than excellent.

Mike Resnick: You always hope you’re about to discover the next Bradbury or Willis, so of course you hope they give you a reason to fall in love with it. You start each story with no opinion and hopefully no preconception, and it’s up to the story to please you or turn you off.

Gordon Van Gelder: I try not to read submissions unless I’m in a state of mind where I’m looking to be entertained. I also try not to read submissions when I’m hurried.

* * *

Michael Knost: Hypothetically speaking, if you have room for just one remaining story in your magazine/anthology, and you have two excellent tales to choose from, how do you make your decision?

John Joseph Adams: If they’re both truly excellent, I would circumvent your question by appealing to the publisher to allow for some word count expansion so that both could be included. For most anthologies, that shouldn’t be a problem, and for magazines, since they’re ongoing, it shouldn’t be a problem either. If I was somehow locked into making such a decision, however, I suppose I would probably weigh each author’s potential fan bases, to see which one being in the anthology might benefit the book more (assuming the stories are equally awesome, as your question seems to suggest).

Ellen Datlow: If it’s a magazine I would ask the writer to let me hang on to the story for a few months. During that time, if I can’t get it out of my head, I’ll buy it anyway.

For an anthology, if one story is more unusual and seems to fit a “hole” in the anthology, I might take that one. If they’re both equally fantastic I’ll ask my in-house editor if we can squeeze it in.

James Patrick Kelly: Is the table of contents balanced? How well does the story fit the theme of the anthology?

Mike Resnick: The easy way, of course, is to choose the length that fits. I assume that’s not a consideration for this question. I’d say you choose for balance. If you’re top-heavy on downbeat stories or fantasy or military, select the opposite. (Good thing you said it was anthology. Otherwise you buy them both and run one in the following issue.)

Stanley Schmidt: If I have two excellent stories to choose from, the deciding factor may be which is most different from others that I already have in the works. Or, if one still needs lots of editing and the other doesn’t, I’ll go with the one that doesn’t—which should give writers an incentive to make sure every submission is in as polished a form as they can make it.

Gordon Van Gelder: I’m sorry to put it this way, but your hypothetical case doesn’t have much bearing on reality. For one thing, excellent stories don’t come along every day. Or every week. There are plenty of good stories around, but truly excellent ones are rare. For another thing, if I’m assembling a magazine and I’ve only got room for one story, I’m doing something wrong, because that means I have no inventory. Anthologies are different, more finite (in the sense that there’s usually a word-count limit), and if I were in the position of having to choose between two stories for an anthology, I’d base my decision on which story fits the book best—which one complements the other stories better, which one addresses the theme of the book better.

But again, when an editor is faced with a choice like the one you posit, it’s rarely a matter of choosing between two excellent works. I mean, if I’d been editing Welcome to the Greenhouse and I’d suddenly been stuck with two excellent stories at the last minute, I would have tried to buy them both and then, if need be, squeeze out a lesser story.

* * *

Michael Knost: What influence, if any, does author name recognition have with regards to acquiring or rejecting stories?

John Joseph Adams: Name recognition might cause me to invite an author to submit a story, but it would still have to be just as good as anything else for me to accept it. If I’m on the fence as to whether or not to accept something, name recognition might serve as a tie-breaker.

And as for rejecting stories, I would never reject something due to name recognition; in that case, I assume we’re talking about a writer who has submitted a ton of stuff, none of which has worked for me. Even in those cases, I always try to approach each story with an open mind. I can think of at least one instance in which I bought a story by a writer after I had rejected several dozen stories, and there have been other times where I may not have bought the story but at least was impressed by it despite the writer’s repeated previous attempts that didn’t hit the mark.

Ellen Datlow: If a really big name writes me an original story, I’ll hope very hard that it’s wonderful and that I’ll love it. Because you need names to sell an anthology (now more than ever).

But if I’m sent a brilliant story by an unknown, I’ll of course buy it. You need to balance every anthology you edit. Putting together an anthology of all unknown writers will doom the anthology to oblivion, and it’ll be very difficult to get a book contract again.

Anthology editing and magazine editing is always a balancing act of creating the best issue or anthology you can that will sell.

Publishing is a business. Publishers that make no money will not stay in business. Editors whose magazines or anthologies sell no copies will not be in the business for long.

James Patrick Kelly: Large, but not decisive.

Mike Resnick: You want Names on the cover of the magazine or anthology; it would be ridiculous to claim otherwise. But you want stories that are worthy of those names, and if the authors don’t supply them, as painful as it is to both sides, you reject them or at least return them with specific suggestions for rewrites.

Stanley Schmidt: Author name, like prior credits, has no effect on my decision. An advantage of editing a magazine is that I can afford to take a chance on something unusual, but my magazine’s success depends on its readers trusting it to provide material they really like most of the time. Nobody is at his or her best all the time, and while publishing a big name on a substandard story may give newsstand sales a little boost for one issue, ultimately it undermines the trust we depend on to keep readers coming back. So I’d rather publish a knockout story by a complete unknown than a so-so story by the biggest name in the business.

Gordon Van Gelder: I’ve never worked in a bookstore, but I doubt many customers come in and ask, “Give me the new book by someone I’ve never heard of before.” Consumers look for certain writers’ names, and consequently, so do I. If I see “S. King” or “C. Willis” or “K. Wilhelm” on the return address of an envelope, I’m going to grab that story before I grab the one by “John Q. Public.” But I’m also going to read that story with a different set of expectations than I would read a story from a stranger—after all, if I’m reading a new story by, say, Ted Sturgeon, I can’t make myself forget that this is the writer who gave the world “Baby Is Three.” So the short answer to your question is, name recognition has a lot of influence, but it varies from name to name.

* * *

Michael Knost: How much editorial give-and-take do you see on the average purchased story?

John Joseph Adams: Editing short stories is kind of a buyer’s market, so editors can generally reject stories that are good but don’t quite work; as a result, I’ll generally just accept stories that I’m happy to run as-is, and will just make suggestions to the author that they are free to take or discard as they see fit. If there are any changes that absolutely must be made in order for me to publish a story, before accepting it, I will make suggestions to the author and ask them to revise and resubmit. But to answer your question: on average, not much give-and-take; I do a close line edit on every story I buy, but only very occasionally do I do a heavy edit on story that requires extensive revision.

Ellen Datlow: I can count the number of times that I’ve published a story with no editing on one hand—and that’s in 30 years of short story editing. So there’s almost always give and take before a story I buy and edit sees print.

Mike Resnick: Almost none. My anthologies, with two exceptions, have been by invitation only, and I okay the idea before the author sits down to write it. And on a magazine, there are so many hundreds of submissions per issue, that I can always find what I need without arguing a writer into going back to the drawing board and giving me what I want (though very occasionally I’ll do so; I do it much more on anthologies, since those are pre-sold stories, and rejection is an absolute last resort).

Stanley Schmidt: Again I’ll answer two questions at once. There’s a fair but highly variable amount of give-and-take on the stories we publish. I don’t rewrite stories I’ve bought; my philosophy is to buy stories I like and then print them. If I don’t like a story quite enough to do that, I’ll tell the writer why and challenge him or her to come up with changes that make us both like it better.

Gordon Van Gelder: On the average story, I send the author about a dozen or two dozen suggestions, mostly of the line-editing sort. But I don’t usually send a contract to an author unless I’m willing to publish the story as is. Two or three times a month, I’ll reject a story with suggestions and I’ll invite the writer to send me a revised version of the story. Those stories sometimes take two or three passes before I either accept them or pass on them.

* * *

Michael Knost: As a follow up, how often do you accept a story that needs no improvements/adjustments?

John Joseph Adams: Rarely does a story need no editing at all; even those that are basically perfect as submitted, generally can use a line edit here or there.

Ellen Datlow: Most stories I accept (or plan to accept) need improvements, from the very minor to major rewrites.
If I love a story and there are only some minor edits, I’ll accept and pay for the story and then work on it with the writer.
But any heavy rewriting required goes on before a story is ever accepted by me. I will tell the writer in advance that I think the story needs work, here are my notes. I’ll further say that if he’s willing to work with me I can’t guarantee that I’ll buy the story, but I’d very much like to see a rewrite and if he can pull it off I’ll probably buy the story.

Mike Resnick: By the time I buy it, it usually needs only a light line-edit, if that. There are too many good stories out there to buy one that I personally have to spend hours fixing.

Stanley Schmidt: A few stories require no changes at all; many require a few minor corrections or clarifications; some go through two or three significant revisions after I first see them.

Gordon Van Gelder: A story that “needs” no changes? I accept them all the time. How often do I accept a story that “couldn’t benefit” from a change or three? Rarely. But F&SF is lucky enough to have contributors like Albert Cowdrey, Ursula Le Guin, Robert Silverberg, Kate Wilhelm, and Gene Wolfe who excel at the writing craft and we get plenty of stories that could easily run as-is.

* * *

Michael Knost: What elements of the craft do you see most beginners and up-and-comers struggling with?

John Joseph Adams: Style, structure, and voice are the hardest things to master. It just takes some time and practice reading critically, so that the writer can learn to deconstruct the stories to discover what makes them work (or not).

Ellen Datlow: Establishing their own voice.

Mike Resnick: Narrative hooks, characterization, and accessibility of their prose.

Stanley Schmidt: Surprisingly many writers (even experienced ones!) have trouble with basic principles of English, like accurate word use and punctuation. Others don’t realize that good writing isn’t enough—to satisfy readers in this field, you also have to have something new and interesting to say.

Gordon Van Gelder: It’s hard to give you a general answer to that question because it varies so much from one writer to another—one might have trouble with characterizations, another with infodumping, and a third with pacing. You can take any good basic writing guide like Damon Knight’s or Barry Longyear’s and go through it chapter by chapter; for every chapter subject (like plot, setting, or dialogue) and you’ll find some writers are struggling with it while other writers have an innate grasp of how it works. It will ever be thus, I expect.

* * *

Michael Knost: What advice would you offer a serious beginner/up-and-comer? What would you suggest they do to improve their craft?

John Joseph Adams: I always say that the best thing a writer can do is probably read slush. It’s really illuminating to put yourself in that position, where you have to evaluate a stack of manuscripts in a short period of time—it really allows you to see how cut-throat an editor has to be when deciding what to buy. The lessons you’ll learn won’t be immediately obvious—and may even be hard to put into words—but I think you just can’t help but learn a lot from the process, even if it’s just stuff you sort of absorb without realizing it. In the past, it might have been difficult to get such a gig, but these days, if you’re willing to volunteer your time, opportunities for reading slush are plentiful, as magazines like Lightspeed and Fantasy use teams of volunteers to help manage the workload. Other magazines do that as well, and there are a huge number of markets out there right now that one could potentially read slush for.

Ellen Datlow: Write as much as they can and experiment in style, voice, tone, point of view, and genre. That’s why short stories are the best type of fiction to begin with. Write one story. Go back and rewrite it. Once you submit it start that next immediately.

Read everything. Use everything around you for fodder. Never throw out failed stories; you might be able to cannibalize them for another story or novel in the future.

Try to figure out what it is about specific writers whose work you admire that gets to you. For example, Elmore Leonard writes great dialog.

There are writers who somehow manage to pull off amazing feats—they make hideous characters memorable in a good way (Hannibal Lector). How does Harris do it?

What are the different ways good writers draw the reader into a story?

James Patrick Kelly: Write until your fingers bleed. Show your work to other people in a rigorous workshop like Clarion or Viable Paradise.

Mike Resnick: Just write as much as you can and read as much as you can. If you plan to attend workshops, be very selective of your instructors. Not to denigrate any others, but the two that seem to produce the most successful writers year in and year out are Clarion and Writers of the Future.

Stanley Schmidt: Do your research—on at least two levels. First, research your story, making sure that it’s built on a solid foundation, with any checkable facts checked and correct and the background, characters, and action thoroughly and consistently developed. Second, research your potential markets. This is especially important now that more markets are accepting electronic submissions. Since we started accepting them, I’ve seen a big increase in submissions from writers who apparently have no idea what we do and haven’t bothered to try to find out. My impression is that they figure since it no longer costs money to submit a story, they might as well submit everything everywhere. I often tell writers that if they think there’s the slightest chance their story might be right for my magazine, they should let me decide. That presupposes they’ve learned enough about the magazine to have some idea what might be right for it. Some things are completely inappropriate for any particular market, and no editor appreciates having his or her time wasted with those. So I’d advise writers to familiarize themselves with any market they plan to submit to, not with the idea of imitating it (nobody wants to publish next year what they were publishing last year), but to get a feel for what might or might work there.

Gordon Van Gelder: My first piece of advice might simply be a reaction to your use of the word “serious,” but it’s this: write to entertain! I’ve seen a few writers who were so preoccupied with their ambitions and their drive to impress that they didn’t find their voice until someone told them, “Relax. Just tell us an interesting story.”

Piece of advice #2: when Light came out, M. John Harrison made a great comment about his own writing that “If you steal a milk truck, you can’t complain that the vehicle doesn’t handle like a Ferrari.” I think it’s great for writers if they try driving both milk trucks and Ferraris and learn what both do well. That is, it’s good to try different sorts of stories and different approaches. Charles Coleman Finlay told me that in every story he sent me, he was testing out some new aspect of his craft. Sometimes his tests worked, sometimes they didn’t, but he learned from every one of them Taking an approach like that is one of the best suggestions I can make.

 


Michael Knost is an author, editor, and columnist of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and supernatural thrillers. He has written many books in various genres, helmed several anthologies, as well as nonfiction projects such as his Bram Stoker Award-winning book Writers Workshop of Horror. He has also served as ghostwriter for several projects, including associations with the Discovery Channel and Lionsgate Media. To find out more, visit www.MichaelKnost.com.

John Joseph Adams is the editor of several speculative fiction anthologies. He worked as assistant editor at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction before leaving in 2010 to edit Lightspeed Magazine, an online science fiction magazine, and then in March 2011 he took charge of its sister publication, Fantasy Magazine.

Ellen Datlow is a multiple award-winning editor who has been editing science fiction, fantasy, and horror short fiction for almost thirty years. She was fiction editor of OMNI Magazine and SCIFICTION and has edited more than fifty anthologies, including the horror half of the long-running The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, and is now editing The Best Horror of the Year published by Night Shade Books.

James Patrick Kelly’s fiction has been translated into sixteen languages. In 2007 he won the Nebula Award, given by the Science Fiction Writers of America, for his novella “Burn” and the World Science Fiction Society’s Hugo Award twice: in 1996, for his novelette “Think Like a Dinosaur” and in 2000, for his novelette, “Ten to the Sixteenth to One.” He writes a column on the internet for Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and has two podcasts: Free Reads and James Patrick Kelly’s StoryPod.

Mike Resnick co-edits Jim Baen’s Universe. He has 5 Hugo Awards and other awards in the USA, France, Japan, Spain, Croatia, and Poland. As of 2007, he is first on the Locus list of all-time award winners, living or dead, for short fiction, and fourth on the Locus list of science fiction’s all-time top award winners in all fiction categories.

Stanley Schmidt has contributed numerous stories and articles to original anthologies and magazines, including Analog, Asimov’s, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Rigel, The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, American Journal of Physics, Camping Journal, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. He has edited or coedited about a dozen anthologies, and recently retired as the fiction editor at Analog Science Fiction and Fact.

Gordon Van Gelder is a Hugo Award-winning American science fiction editor. He is both editor and publisher of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, for which he has twice won the Hugo Award for Best Editor Short Form. He was also a managing editor of The New York Review of Science Fiction from 1988 to 1993.

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  • Michael Gugerty

    I have been writing short stories for awhile now to
    build up my skills to eventually write a full novel. This piece is a
    great source for me as a writer. Thank you!