(Photo based on art by J. K. Potter)
We have a special treat for all the readers of this blog. For those of you that may not know, Ellen Datlow is an award-winning editor of multiple anthologies, including The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror (with Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant. The anthology is going into its 20th year) and Salon Fantastique (with Terri Windling). She has the distinction of winning seven World Fantasy Awards and several Bram Stoker awards, among many others. Ellen Datlow is probably best known for helping to develop the talents of science fiction and horror writers and has worked with and published some of those genres’ brightest stars, such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Stephen King.
As a writer, editing is an important but often difficult task, and it’s nice to know that there are editors out there like Ellen. Seriously, folks, I’ve had nightmares about editing my work. Giant semicolons and commas chasing me like something out of Alice in Wonderland…
Without further ado:
Interview with Ellen Datlow –
NG: What is the first story you remember editing and do you know what that author does now?
Ellen: I don’t remember the first author I edited at OMNI (my first job in genre publishing) but I edited “Johnny Mnemonic” by William Gibson and “Eyes I Dare not Meet in Dreams” by Dan Simmons and edited several others by each of them thereafter.
Both are bestselling authors. Bill has a new novel called Spook Country coming out this spring and Dan’s novel The Terror has just been published to excellent reviews.
NG: As an editor, what are your pet peeves about some of the stories you come across?
Ellen: They’re not properly formatted (those that are single spaced just go into the trash). Stories that are completely inappropriate for what I’m editing at the time despite the fact that the author should have seen the guidelines. Stories without self-addressed-stamped envelopes, stories that are emailed to me….
NG: You’ve said before that “most of your job as an editor is to prevent authors from falling.” Can you elaborate on this?
Ellen: Once I make the decision to buy a story, my job is to help the author produce the best story she can. If there are problems with a plot point or the ending, or inconsistencies in character or a section that needs clarification, I’ll try to guide the author by making suggestions and asking questions. For example, if I don’t understand what’s going on, I’ll ask the author to explain to me what she thinks is going on. Further, I’ll say that while not everything must be on paper, if she, the author, doesn’t understand what’s going on then neither will the reader–and I think communication with the reader is crucial. This doesn’t mean that everything needs to be spelled out. There can be ambiguity in a story, as long as it’s intentional.
NG: What do you do when a writer resists your suggestions?
Ellen: There are a few different situations wherein this might happen: If I know I want to buy the story because I love it and the fixes I’ve suggested are minor, I’ll let it go. And if the author can persuade me that he is right, I’ll let it go [meaning I’ll buy the story anyway].
If I like a story and think that the story would be stronger with certain problems addressed, I may make suggestions and ask the writer for a rewrite—with no guarantees until I read the rewrite.
Or if it’s a story I think is interesting and might work with a rewrite I may ask to see the story again if it’s completely rewritten. No guarantees. If the writer resists, I won’t buy the story. But as I’ve said, even with a rewrite there’s no guarantee that I’ll buy the rewritten story.
NG: There are a number of new writers emerging in the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres. Is there anything that stands out to you between those that succeed in those genres and those that do not?
Ellen: It depends on what you mean by “succeed” –there are some terrible writers who are successful, in that their books or stories always sell and that they make a living off their fiction writing. I’ll assume you mean “succeed” in my terms—in other words, the writers whose work I regularly publish or would like to publish.
The voice of an author is very important and those who are coming at a story from an unusual direction. I personally prefer visual writing in which I can “see” what is happening.
There are plenty of mediocre writers who succeed in the short run—they have little to say but they say it in a readable style. They are writing for success, not out of passion. I don’t think their work will last. Instead of trying to become the “next big thing” new writers should concentrate on discovering what they need to write, what they’re passionate about. They need to find their voice. I’ve seen some newer writers who wrote a few good stories and then suddenly blossom—one writer I’m thinking of has been writing a series of stories in an odd futuristic world, moving from pretty good fantasy stories to unusually, thought-provoking sf stories.
NG: Young writers often ask others where they get their ideas from. What would you suggest for inspiration to someone that is just discovering a passion for writing?
Ellen: If you can’t get ideas from reading a newspaper or from the world around you, you shouldn’t be writing. Inspiration is everywhere.
NG: You edit a number of anthologies, including The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. For your part, what do you look for in the stories submitted?
Ellen: Even though It depends on whether I’m editing a reprint antho. (like YBFH series) or original anthologies. The most important thing are stories that “get” me—make a strong impression on me. Good writing is a given—if a story isn’t well-written then I won’t continue reading it. For any anthology, the story has to hold up on more than one reading. So I want it to work on multiple levels. On the surface, as an entertaining story with a plot (usually) and then on other levels.
NG: What advice can you give to those seeking to independently produce anthologies or become editors?
Ellen: It’s difficult to sell anthologies if you have no credits as an editor. If you do have credits a publisher might be interested, if you have a good idea and some informal commitments from some better-known writers to write for the anthology you propose. But you can never “promise” that so and so will write a new story. Life sometimes gets in the way, a writer is blocked, has too many other commitments, etc. You might be able to get around this if you use a few relatively obscure reprints from better known writers.
Some people think that if they solicit twenty stories and throw them together, a good anthology will pop out. It’s not that simple. Editing is hard work. Once you solicit stories you have to decide whether you love them enough to publish and if they fit the anthology you’re editing. At the same time you might be editing the stories and asking for rewrites. Saying no is a regular part of being a good editor. If you can’t reject you’ll be stuck with stories you don’t love and end up with a lousy anthology. You have to be able to choose stories from those submitted. And you may towards the end have to solicit more stories if you don’t get enough of what you want initially.
As far as becoming an editor, it’s helpful to start as an editorial assistant or intern and read slush piles. Nothing provides perspective quicker than reading a short story or novel slush pile for three months. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to teach editing. It’s a skill learned on the job. Even though I’ve been editing short stories for over 25 years, I’m still learning.
NG: Recently, you were interviewed at a meeting of the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society. How do you prepare for such events?
Ellen: For an interview, I don’t prepare at all because I don’t want my responses to seem “canned.” With someone I know (like Greg Frost, who interviewed me at PSFS), I knew he would ask good questions and he did. We talked (and took questions from the audience) for 1 ½ hours—I had no idea how long we went on for—until we were told to stop. We were supposed to talk an hour.
NG: How do events in general make you feel afterwards – does it take time to recoup or do you just move on to the next and keep on going with few breaks in between?
Ellen: Ah…well, any kind of professional appearance is tiring, as you’re “on” all the time. I try to pace myself going to conventions because of that. For a one day or evening event, it’s tiring but I bounce back quickly, as long as I get some time alone afterwards.
NG: You seem so open to inquires from writers. How do you deal with those that abuse this open-door policy?
Ellen: Easy. I stop responding.
NG: You started in this business as a sales secretary. How did you come by that job?
Ellen: I didn’t have a clue how to get into publishing at the time so I sent out resumes to publishers I found in the NYC phone book. Seventeen Magazine responded, but they wanted someone with some experience (and I had none). Little, Brown (NY office—the bulk of their operations were, and still are, in Boston) responded. They needed a sales secretary as the woman who had been in that position was “promoted” to slush reader. There is no longer a full time job such as “slush reader”—so don’t get your hopes up, any of you prospective editors out there! So I interviewed with the NY salesman, an old-timer who had been there for many years and whose sons were also in publishing. And I got the job.
NG: Can you tell us a little about your experiences as a sales secretary and how it differs from what you do now?
Ellen: It was a secretarial position. I answered the phone and filed, I guess. I really don’t recall. It had absolutely nothing to do with editing. But because there was so much slush, I helped Carol, the slush reader out and read some of that. It got my foot into the publishing door, the head publicist recommended me to a friend of hers as editorial assistant at a different publisher, and I left Little, Brown after about nine months.
NG: What can you say to those that are in jobs that seem completely different from what they want to do with their life?
Ellen: Get out as soon as you can and move on into the area you’re interested in. While unemployed once I applied for a job in marketing and during the interview was so bored I knew there was no way I could take the job, even if it was offered. However, if you have the interest and stamina, it’s not a bad idea to try different areas of publishing. You can make connections, learn about different aspects of publishing. (in one job I was editing, doing publicity, and other odds and ends).
NG: Any thing else you’d like to add for the aspiring editors or writers out there?
Ellen: Editing eats up a lot of your life, and pays relatively little, even at the highest positions. So you’ve got to really want to do it.
If you want to write, I’d advise you NOT to get into editorial work as you won’t have enough energy left to write. Luckily, I’m not a writer and have never wanted to be a writer.
That concludes this interview. Hope you found something helpful!
Make sure to leave your comments about the interview in the comments section (Click comments and scroll down). Ellen will be checking in periodically as her schedule permits & is kind enough to respond to questions & comments, so if you’d like to know something, or just want to comment, feel free (but be respectful – thanks:)!
Ellen Datlow: http://www.datlow.com
Nancy O. Greene: http://www.portraits.bravehost.com