Douglas Cohen (douglascohen) wrote,
Douglas Cohen

Editorial Musings--Issue Five

Hey Kids,

It's the middle of the month, which means it's time for another edition of Editorial Musings.  This month I'll be conducting an interview with my good buddy, John Joseph Adams, aka JJA, aka the Slush God.

John Joseph Adams is the assistant editor at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. He reviews audiobooks for Publishers Weekly and reviews books and DVDs for Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show. He is a reporter for SCI FI Wire, and his non-fiction has also appeared in: Amazing Stories, The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Kirkus, Locus Magazine, Locus Online, Novel & Short Story Writers Market, Science Fiction Weekly, Shimmer, Strange Horizons, and Subterranean MagazineHe also maintains a blog called The Slush God Speaketh

How did you end up working at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction?


After college, I decided I wanted to work in publishing, so I moved up to NJ because I have family here, and started looking for work.  I planned my move (and had enough savings) so that I'd be able to take some time off and look for a job that I actually wanted rather than just taking the first thing that came along.  In February of 2001, I'd emailed each of the big three magazines (F&SF, Asimov's, and Analog) my resume.  I never heard from Asimov's and Analog, but Gordon Van Gelder wrote back to me saying that he didn't have any openings at the current time, but suggested I try back later in the year.  So a few months later, in May, I was still looking, and so decided to try Gordon again.  As it happens, Gordon's previous assistant decided he no longer wanted to work in editing, so Gordon had a position open and so he invited me to come interview for it.  I did, and I guess I said some right things because I got the job.  Saying that my favorite novel is The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester was probably a strong point in my favor; on the other end of the spectrum, Gordon kindly overlooked the fact that I was a big Michael Crichton fan. 


What are your responsibilities as assistant editor?


Primarily, I read and evaluate the slush.  That takes up most of my day.  But I also do some other things.  For one, I edit all the manuscripts we buy for the magazine; I do one pass, then Gordon does one himself before sending revisions/suggestions off to the authors.  I also read and react to all of the manuscripts Gordon's thinking of buying. I read them and tell him what I think of them; sometimes my feedback helps him decide whether or not to buy something. 


Other than that, I do some administrative type stuff on occasion--I do some filing, I assist Gordon when he's doing the story acquisitions (lots of paperwork), I process subscription renewals, stuff like that.  None of that stuff's very interesting to talk about, though, so I'd guess your readers don't want to hear about that.



By the time people read this it will already have taken place, but a while back there was a big brouhaha about Gordon Van Gelder, the publisher & editor of F&SF, having a bias against stories written by women.  This led to a suggestion to inundate Gordon with stories from women writers on a specific date, a slush bomb if you will, to see what happens.  What are your feelings on this matter in general, and the slush bomb in particular?  And if you have results you can share about the slush bomb, inquiring minds would like to know . . .



I think that if the slush bomb's primary objective was to get more women to submit stories to F&SF, then it probably worked.  I haven't done a close analysis of the submissions (or the blog posts), so I'm not sure which specific authors submitted because of the slush bomb and wouldn't have otherwise, so I can't say how effective it was at getting *more* submissions from women, but it certainly got us a whole lot more at the same time. 


If, however, people wanted the bomb to prove something, I don't think it can. 


There have been no results so far, but we're probably doing acquisitions this week, so we'll see what Gordon buys. 




You’ve been with F&SF for a while now.  I’m curious if you feel your skills as an editor have evolved.  If so, in what way(s)? 


Sure, I think so.  I mean, when I started, I had only very basic editing skills, the sort of stuff you pick up from writing workshops or from revising your own writing.  I don't know if I can quantify how my skills have grown since then, but I'm sure they have. 



I know you’re scheduled to do an upcoming guest-editing spot with another speculative magazine.  Can you tell us about this?


I'll be guest-editing the Summer 2007 issue of Shimmer Magazine, which will be a special themed issue about pirates.  As the guidelines say, fantasy, science fiction, contemporary, historical, futuristic, high seas, deep space — if it’s got pirates and it’s speculative fiction, I want it.  Speaking of the guidelines, you can go read them here.


Shimmer art director Mary Robinette Kowal first approached me prior to issue #1's publication, asking if Shimmer could reprint a review I'd published on my blog.  I agreed, and then had another review (one that had been killed by Kirkus) appear in the second issue.  At some point, Mary contacted me asking how "guest-editing" worked--what was involved, etc.  (I'm guessing the idea was inspired by John Scalzi's recent guest-editing of Subterranean Magazine.)  In any case, I passed along what information I had, and curiously inquired as to who they were thinking of getting.  Of the people on their list, I was informed that I was one of them.  So, after checking with Gordon if it would be all right with him if I pursued this, I told Mary I'd be interested.  And here we are. 



Personally, I love to blab on and on about my slush discoveries.  What about you?  Any authors or stories you’ve discovered that you’d like to mention?


Sure, I like to brag about my "discoveries."


Here's a list of my slush survivors so far, along with any follow up sales to F&SF (if applicable):


·  "The Copywriter" by Alison Bowman (April 2002)

·  "Halfway House" by Jeremy Minton (January 2003)

  • "The Darkness Between" (forthcoming)

·  "Shutdown/Retrovival" by Aaron A. Reed (March 2003)

·  "Welcome to Justice 2.0" by George Tucker (January 2004)

·  "The Millstone" by Kate Mason (April 2004)

·  "Kissing Frogs" by Jaye Lawrence (May 2004)

  • "Fallen Idols" (Oct/Nov 2005)

·  "Gasoline" by J. Annie MacLeod (September 2004)

·  "Old as Books" from Mike Shultz (July 2005)

  • "Refried Cliches: a Five-Course Meal" (August 2005)
  • "The Capacity to Appear Mindless" (March 2006)

·  "Journey to Gantica" by Matthew Corradi (January 2006)

  • "The Song of Kido" (Sept. 2006)

·  "Czesko" by Ef Deal (March 2006)

·  "iKlawa" by Donald Mead (April 2006)

  • "A Thing Forbidden" by Donald Mead (forthcoming)

·  "Memory of a Thing That Never Was" by Jerry Seeger (July 2006)

·  "Just Do It" by Heather Lindsley (July 2006)

·  "Pleased to Meet'cha" by Kenneth Altabef (August 2006)

·  "Red Card" by S.L. Gilbow (forthcoming)


I also like to lament those slush discoveries that I was almost able to claim credit for -- you know, authors who submitted early work to F&SF that I passed up to Gordon, that have now gone on to publish novels and win awards and be talked about excitedly.  I'm not going to lament them publicly in an interview though, sorry! 


Who are some of your favorite authors, both in and outside of the genre?


To tackle the last part of the question first: I don't have a whole lot of favorite authors outside the genre.  There are lots of authors I've read, of course, but it's been so long since I've read actively outside the genre, it's hard to say if any of those authors would still be favorites.  Back in the day, I really liked Robin Cook and Patricia Cornwell, Lawrence Block, people like that.  I used to do a lot more sporadic reading: picking up a novel here and there, whatever I thought sounded interesting, rather than reading an author's whole oeuvre.  That's probably because I worked in bookstores when I was younger, and I'd see all these cool-looking books while shelving, and I'd end up shopping as I shelved. 


Although I don't love everything he's written, Alfred Bester is a god in my book for The Stars My Destination.  I could say the same about Richard K. Morgan--I thought the last two Kovacs books were good, but not stellar, but Altered Carbon was really pretty great, but it's for Market Forces that I'll always worship him.  That book is fucking brilliant.  Sorry to swear, but it's the kind of book that you just have to swear to convey how good it is.  Also, because it's totally brutal and gritty, so swearing is even more appropriate. 


Let's see, who else?  Well, I'm a big fan of Jack McDevitt and Robert J. Sawyer, and have been for a long time.  I think I've got all of their books, maybe have all of them in hardcover (of those available that way).  I haven't read everything Scott Westerfeld's written, but damn, I loved everything that I have.    


One of my favorite authors working today is Matthew Hughes--I can't get enough of his Archonate stories, whether they're about Guth Bandar or Henghis Hapthorn or Luff Imbry.  I'm really looking forward to his new novel, Majestrum, from Night Shade.  At F&SF, we recently bought a long novella by him that we're going to be serializing over two issues (which will feature a two-part cover by Cory & Catska Ench) that covers much of the same ground as his novel Black Brillion, but from Guth Bandar's point of view--and man, it's brilliant.  


In short fiction, there's just so many authors to name.  I mean, there's Kelly Link, M. Rickert, Jeffrey Ford, Peter Beagle, Charles Coleman Finlay, Paolo Bacigalupi... I could go on and on.  There are so many great writers writing short fiction out there right now, it's really a fine time for the quality of fiction in the magazines, even if the circulation stuff is a continuing problem. 


And then there are some new authors, or authors new to me, that I'm really excited about right now.  I really truly love those Naomi Novik Temeraire books (which were just optioned for film by Peter freaking Jackson!  Awesome!).  It's hard to label her a favorite while her career is still in this fledgling status, but man, I'll buy anything she writes sight unseen.  As for authors new to me, I'm really looking forward to checking out more Elizabeth Moon--I thought her Engaging the Enemy was really superb.  And on the opposite side of the literary spectrum, I'm eager to read more Jonathan Carroll.  Aside from short fiction, the only thing I've read of his is Glass Soup, which I thought was easily one of the best books of last year.  Oh, and then there's Geoff Ryman, and...okay, I'm going to stop.



What is your favorite part about working at F&SF?


On the most basic level, I guess my favorite part is getting paid to read all day, and to have my opinions of the stuff I read matter.  It's a pretty cool gig.


Less generally, I guess my favorite part is discovering a something exciting in the slush pile, whether Gordon ends up buying it or not (of course, it's *better* if he buys it).  Finding a great story in the slush is kind of like finding an oasis in the middle of the desert--at first you're skeptical it might be a mirage, but once you realize it's for real, you're in heaven.  It's like you can't believe it, and then you're like, "Wow, this is *good.*" 


What are your pet peeves as an editor?


One thing that really bothers me is when I take the time to add something personal to a rejection letter--for instance, if the writer is consistently doing something wrong in his/her writing--and they ignore my advice and continue doing it wrong.  More often, this is applicable to procedural errors, such as manuscript formatting or SASE stuff.  Oh, and folders.  I hate those freaking folders some people feel compelled to put their manuscripts in.  You're submitting a story for publication; it's not an assignment for your high school English class. 


Editorially, I'm not sure if you'd call this a "pet peeve," but as a short story editor I've come to really be bothered by finding so many stories in the slush that are structured like novels instead of short stories.  I don't know if it's just a matter of blindness to the problem, or if it's just that the writers in question haven't read a whole lot of short fiction, but there are narrative tricks you can use in a novel that you can't get away with in a short story.  A short story is a much less forgiving form; in a novel, you have room for digressions and subplots and the like, but a short story needs to be more focused. 



On average, how many submissions a month does your magazine receive?


We receive between 500-700 per month.  That's everything--pro authors, etc.--not just slush.  When we pick up the mail, Gordon sifts through it, and cherry picks the submissions he wants to read, and leaves me with the rest.  So every story is slush until Gordon grants it a reprieve. 


What percentage is science fiction vs. fantasy?

Can you give us an idea of what percentage of science fiction vs. fantasy is being accepted for publication?


I'm not sure what percentages you'll find in the submissions, but we end up publishing about 60% fantasy, 40% SF, I think.  We'd like to keep it closer to 50/50--both genres are given equal weight in the title, after all--but I think we probably get far fewer SF submissions (or at least far fewer *good* SF submissions). 



Given the tastes of yourself and Gordon, what sorts of stories would you advise writers to send along to F&SF?  What kinds of stories would you advise against?


I just noted this on my blog, but as much as I like post-apocalyptic SF, we're being inundated by it right now, so now would not be the best time to send us that stuff.  I mean, it's really to the point where we've got so much in inventory that we've got to seriously consider passing on good stories because we've just got so much like it already. 


Other than that, zombie stories and other kinds of undead stories, or stories about the afterlife, or the dead coming back to life (as in resurrection, not undeath)--variations on those themes are always extremely popular in the slush (and from the pros too), so it's really tough to sell those kinds of stories. 


Oh, and high/epic/heroic fantasy.  We always get more of that then we can possibly use.  Here's a tip when it comes to that, though: if you want to sell a high/epic/heroic fantasy story to F&SF, try to make it more of a swords-and-sorcery type tale--that is, more in the vein of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd & Gray Mouser stories, or Howard's Conan stories; Gordon is, I think, much more likely to go for a secondary world fantasy in that mode.


Recommendations: F&SF is always, always, always on the lookout for high grade SF.  Gordon's unlikely to go for space opera, but pretty much everything else is in high demand. 


Do you have additional editorial aspirations?


Yeah, sure.  I mean, I love working at F&SF, but I think every editor or assistant, me included, wants to be the one making the final decisions about what goes into a magazine or anthology.  I'd love to edit an anthology of my own someday.  Actually, I've got a couple anthology projects in the proposal stage, so I'm working on making that dream a reality. 


What I'd most love to do is edit an SF magazine.  However, that seems very unlikely to happen, so I'll have to find other ways of satisfying my editorial urges. 



Besides your position as assistant editor, you’re also rather active on the reviewer front.  Can you tell us you how you got into this end of things, and how your experiences at F&SF helped prepare you for reviewing the work of others?


It all kind of started with a conversation I had with Gordon about audiobooks.  I've been a fan of them for quite a long time, and after getting the job at F&SF, I had plenty of opportunity to listen to them, as my commute is about an hour both ways.  But I was complaining about how audiobooks don't seem to get reviewed anywhere, or at least, SF/fantasy audiobooks don't.  And since a bad narrator can completely ruin an otherwise excellent book (and if you're browsing in a bookstore, you generally can't preview the audiobook), it was my opinion that audiobook reviews might be even more important to buyers than book reviews.  So Gordon suggested that I do something about it, and try to land an audiobook reviewing gig somewhere.  At that point, I hadn't really considered reviewing, as I'd kind of tried it in a half-assed way to see if I could do it before, and I never really took to it.  But I went ahead and decided to try.  Gordon suggested I pitch the idea to Locus.  I wasn't sure they'd go for it; I mean, they don't review any non-book media--no movies or television--so I wasn't sure they'd be interested in reviewing the "less pure" audiobook experience.  Also, I didn't have any writing experience at that point, except for a couple articles in the then just-recently launched Internet Review of Science Fiction.  But I pitched it, and they gave me a shot.  In the end, the column didn't last, but it got me my start.  And my experience reviewing for Locus landed me the gig of reviewing audiobooks for Publishers Weekly, so it really opened the door for me.  And PW led to Kirkus, and so on.


I'm not sure my experience at F&SF really helped me with reviewing; I mean, sure, working there has refined my taste, but other than that, nothing I do there really prepared me for the kind of reading-reacting-writing that goes into reviewing.  But my experience at F&SF is certainly what got Locus to give me a chance writing for them.  So it helped in that way.


I know that before you started working at F&SF you used to write speculative fiction.  Any plans to come back to this one day?


I'm sure I will, some day.  I still get lots of story ideas, but for a long time after college I couldn't really make any progress with my writing, and working at F&SF has kind of completely paralyzed my inner fiction writer.  It's not an uncommon phenomenon, or so I've heard.  On the one hand, reading slush can be bad if you can't turn off your inner editor while writing (or else, as your first draft spews out, you'll be like "Oh god, I'm writing slush!"); on the other hand, I don't think there's anything better a person can do to improve their writing than do some serious slush reading.  I'm not even sure why or how that works--it's not even a conscious process, it's more like you learn it through osmosis. 


I suppose though reading and critiquing manuscripts in a workshop is probably a similar experience, and probably can be even more beneficial since you have to stop and actually analyze *why* something's not working and suggest solutions.  I guess the key to simulating the slush experience would be to do the critiquing thing, but do like 100 of them per week. 


But anyway, I kind of got off topic there.  Yeah, I plan to write again someday.  At the moment, I don't have a whole lot of time for fiction writing, since I'm doing so much reviewing and interviewing, etc.  I hesitate to call that stuff "non-fiction writing"; I mean, sure it is, but to me that phrase insinuates like journalism or something, and what I do doesn't feel like journalism. 


One other thing that can be frustrating about reading slush while trying to write is that as you're reading, you can kind of get into a creative mode, and if the story you're reading doesn't have your attention, it's very easy for your mind to wander into creative writing mode, and before you know it you're crafting scenes in your mind.  I mean, that's not all bad, because inspiration is inspiration, but unless you've got a notepad handy, or you've got a much better memory than mine, it's all too easy to lose. 



Thanks so much for your time.

So, big thanks to JJA for a great interview.  Tune into his blog, because it's freaking awesome, and check out his/Gordon's magazine, because it's a more-than-quality product.  And tune in next month to Editorial Musings--Issue Six, when I interview . . .???




Tags: editorial musings (column)
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