Douglas Cohen (douglascohen) wrote,
Douglas Cohen

Editorial Musings--Issue Seven

Hey Kids,

So it's the middle of the month (or close enough), which means it's time for another edition of Editorial Musings.  This month's interview will be conducted with the infamously outrageous Nick Mamatas, editor of Clarkesworld Magazine.

Bio: Nick Mamatas is the author of Under My Roof, a novel of nuclear proliferation for children (Soft Skull Press, 2006), and the Lovecraftian Beat road novel Move Under Ground, which was nominated for both the Bram Stoker and International Horror Guild awards. His short
fiction has appeared in Mississippi Review, the men's magazine Razor, the German pop culture magazine Spex, the sex websites and Fishnet,  in genre publications including ChiZine, Polyphony, Strange Horizons, and in the anthologies Poe's Lighthouse, Corpse Blossoms, and Short & Sweet.   His reportage and essays have appeared in the Village Voice, Pages, Poets & Writers, The Writer, Razor, Silicon Alley Reporter, Artbyte, In These Times, Clamor and dozens of other magazines and anthologies.  A native New Yorker, Nick now lives near, but not in, Boston.

How did you end up working for Clarkesworld Magazine?

Well, Sean Wallace told me that Neil Clarke was going to start a magazine associated with his online bookstore, Clarkesworld Books, and that they had decided that I should edit half of it.  Then they offered me a sum of money per month, and I asked for twice that sum in response, and we settled in the middle.   Not very exciting, really.  As far as why Neil and Sean chose, me, I suspect it was a matter of a few factors: a) they liked my taste in fiction, b) they knew I'd be able to keep up with submissions as I have no day job and thus can make my own schedule, and c) I'll do most anything for money.



 Since this is a relatively new magazine could you tell us a little bit about it?

Clarkesworld Magazine, as a concept, is tied to the online bookstore, Clarkesworld Books. (   Each month, we publish two pieces of fiction, online.  One is by a "prominent author"; this slot is filled, generally, via specific solicitation of stories from authors who have some kind of fan base and books carried by the store.  The other, my department, is filled by work I select and edit from the unsolicited submissions.

The online publication is designed to attract people to use the store.  The prominent author's books are discounted for the month, and, of course, we hope and expect that people will click through the various links and discover other items they may like.  We also have ad space for sale on the site.

As Clarkesworld caters to the collector's market, we also created something for collectors to spend their money on.  Each issue will also be released as a chapbook, signed by both authors, and limited to a print run of one hundred copies. We sell the chaps individually and via a six-month subscription.

Finally, at the end of each twelve-month period, we'll release an annual anthology of the twenty-four stories as a trade paper original.  So we're hitting three different price points: free (supported by ads and purchases related to building an audience for the magazine and new customers for the store), mid-range (the trade paper anthology), and high-end for collectors (the chapbooks are $14 a pop; one buys them for the investment.).

You’ve also edited Phantom # 0, and by the time people read this interview it will have premiered at this year’s World Fantasy Convention.  Can you tell us a little bit about Phantom, and how it differs from Clarkesworld

Phantom # 0
( is one-shot magazine that was originally conceived of as an "intervention", for lack of a better word, in the horror community.  It was originally going to premiere at the World Horror Convention, but World Fantasy actually offered us a bigger platform.  It was a closed solicitation: I asked a number of writers whose work I enjoy to send me a piece of dark fiction that was too dark for a literary venue, and too literary for horror/dark fantasy markets.  Nearly everyone I asked had just such a story, and the rejection slips to prove it.

Phantom # 0
is The Nonexistent Magazine.  It publishes stuff that doesn't get published.   Maybe next year I'll do Phantom # 0.5.  Zero-and-a-half is a good number for a magazine.



 What sorts of stories would you advise writers to send to Clarkesworld Magazine?  What sorts of stories would you advise against?

I would like more science fiction, especially SF that takes place in outer space or on STL spaceships.  I get very little of that.  However, the most important thing is this: I want stories that are well-written.  A well-written story is a story that takes advantage of the fact that we use language to tell stories.  I don’t want generic "transparent" prose.  I don't want stories that really want to be movie scripts.  For the love of God I don't want stories that are poorly written.  I reject on the first sentence in those cases.

I also don't want stories that riff on familiar themes.  I receive several a day that are essentially self-conscious reduxes of this or that set of tropes.  They're not quite parodies, but they offer nothing new and make no attempt to renovate, either in their prose or plots, the stories they're telling.  Princesses, dragons, aliens who kidnap hillbillies, etc. 

I also don't want stories that depend on some vestigial anxiety or guilt or fascination with Western Christianity to be effective, stories about nagging wives, stories about people who weigh 600+ pounds because they snack too much, stories where a serial killer is confronted with his supernatural opposite number, and stories that are fabulist without being fantastical.  

Finally, I don't want filler.  There are plenty of stories out there that are certainly publishable, but only because a certain number of pages need to be filled each month. Light entertainments, little stories that people read, enjoy, and instantly forget because the ad next to it is in color. Well, as I only do one story each month, every story needs to be an EVENT: a parade, Wrestlemania, the Super Bowl, a woman giving birth to a two-headed goat…however you want to conceive of the word "event."   Events, to me, are stories that generate a significant emotional response in the reader.  Incidentally, I don't find complacency to be a significant emotion.   Complacency is the currency of filler.


The sad thing is that there are people who make their whole careers on writing filler, to the point that they have no idea that they are published simply because magazines need to reach a certain page count in order to sell at a certain price while remaining profitable.  They're actually out there, extruding product and selling it, and then deciding that they're good writers.


There used to be a term: "potboiler."  A potboiler was the junk you wrote to keep your pots boiling while you worked on your magnum opus in your spare time. Now, some authors think that their potboilers are their masterpieces. I get a lot of stuff from these people.  I hate it all.


Personally, I love to blab on and on about my slush discoveries.  I knew the magazine still pretty new, but what about you?  Any forthcoming stories you’ve discovered that you’d like to tell us about?


I was very excited to buy "Automatic" by Erica Satifka.  It's not quite her first sale, in that her writer's group self-published some anthology (attention writer's groups: do NOT self-publish your own anthologies) but it's close enough.  Oddly, in some ways it is that kind of redux I don't want: there was a plague, people live in ruined cities, and aliens showed up to take care of the remnants of our species.  But it's written with such a singular voice, and embraces the everyday life of post-apocalyptic existence so confidently that I bought it immediately.  Well-written trumps all other considerations at Clarkesworld.



Another story that was almost a first sale is "Something In The Mermaid Way" by Carrie Laben.  It's creepy.  In fact, I wondered if it might be a little too creepy, so I showed it to about five people before buying it.  They all said it was too creepy for Clarkesworld, so I decided that it was indeed just creepy enough.  I think she might have had some poem in some goth magazines or an article about a cat in a pagan journal, but this may be Laben's first short story sale.  Something like that anyway.



If I have my information correct, Clarkesworld Books will also be releasing limited edition chapbooks featuring stories from the Clarkesworld Magazine.  Can you tell us a little bit more about these chapbooks?

What more do you want from me!  **BURSTS into tears!**


What is your favorite part about working with the magazine?

I like getting paid.  It's also fun when Hannah Wolf Bowen, who is an assistant editor at ChiZine says "Hey, I'm reading this story from the slush," and I get to say "Oh, I read that last week."




What are your pet peeves as an editor?

My main pet peeve is people reading my submission guidelines and searching for loopholes.  I've had to make several changes to the guidelines already due to a persistent tendency by a number of writers to read the guidelines in the most self-serving way possible.  If I said "We pay ten cents a word for stories up to 4000 words", that's pretty clearly the declaration of a word limit.  Not to these characters — they take it to mean "Send in novelettes; you just pay $400 for them too."  If I say "Submit only one story per week", people decide to submit one story on Saturday and then one the next day, which also happens to be the next week.  As such activities serve only to antagonize me, they don't even have anything to gain.  I'm not bound like the devil to a contract; if I don't want to see your long shit or your too frequently submitted shit, I'll just reject it without reading it.

I give feedback on virtually every submission I receive.  There are no form letters at Clarkesworld.  Most people are pleased to get some sort of feedback.  Some very few people decide to argue with me about my opinions, despite the fact that the submissions guidelines say "Please do not argue with rejection slips." If you respond to my rejection with an argument, I will ban you from submitting to Clarkesworld for life.  I do make some allowances for what I perceive as naïveté in the response, but generally, I ban.


On average, how many submissions a month does Clarkesworld receive?

Anywhere from between 150 and 400, I suppose.  As I read slush pretty quickly, I am generally focused more on the daily numbers, not the monthly.  Not many people submit on the weekends, thankfully.  I might get four submissions on a Saturday, then nineteen on a Monday.



What percentage would you say is fantasy vs. science fiction vs. horror?

I am inundated with fantasy.  I get far too much of it, really. I'd say that about 75% of the material I receive is fantasy, about 20% is horror (including supernatural horror, which I count separately from the fantasy for the sake of this question; half of this 20% is psychological horror), only 3% SF, and 2% stuff I can't use at all: fabulation without fantasy, realist stories of people who act oddly, prose poems, visual art, "inspirational" material.

What percentage of fantasy vs. science fiction vs. horror would you say has been accepted so far?

I guess about 70% fantasy, 20% horror, and 10% SF.  It generally matches what I receive. 

How much time do you put in each week on the magazine?

You know, I don't know that either.  The days just all blur together for me, sometimes. There'll be this sudden noise, and then I'll find myself on the street in a strange town, with unusual currency in my pockets, and then I'll be in front of a computer monitor doing something or other, then I wake up again, naked and clammy on a tiled floor that seems to stretch to the horizon in all directions.  Sometimes I dream that I can breathe in and swim through miles of magma until I reach the solid core of our planet.  Does this ever happen to you?



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


I like Joseph Heller, Shirley Jackson, Delany, Ellison, Bukowski, West, Fante, Lovecraft, Will Self, Kathy Acker…



 Do you have additional editorial aspirations?

I'd like to be paid more.


You’ve also accomplished quite a bit as a writer.  Has your editorial work helped your writing at all?

Slightly, toward the beginning, when I was reading slush for an independent press in New York. The horror of the negative example is a good teacher for a neophyte.  Now editing is just a tedious obstacle to writing, though it takes less mental energy to edit than it does to write.

Does the writer in you have any non-editorial advice for the hordes of scribes out there?


Be real.  It is likely that at some point, perhaps as a child, a piece of writing had a life-changing effect on you, which is why you now want to be a writer.  Write the sort of thing that might change the lives of readers who are now as you once were. That may mean not writing at all until you have something to say, which I strongly fucking recommend.  Shut up till you're ready.


Not-so-incidentally, "Watch out, someone might get you!" or "I like heroes" aren't things worth saying in 2006.  Sex and death and love and war can be great themes, but they can also be trite and stupid if you have nothing to say about them other than "Sex is enjoyable, death is frightening, love is wonderful, and war is bad unless my people won it a generation ago."


I’d also recommend going to thrift stores and checking out the book bins there.  You'll find a lot of books, mostly mass-market paperbacks, emblazoned with legends like "BLOCKBUSTER BESTSELLER!" or "SOON TO BE A CBS-TV MOVIE STARRING BETTE MIDLER!" You'll have never heard of these books.  This is a lesson for you.  Avoid sleazy ambitions, as in the end, even if you succeed, your ambitions, and you, still mean nothing. 


I know a number of writers who have sold millions of copies of their books in the 1980s, and then sold zero in the 1990s. Old-age homes are filled with writers who wasted their lives and have nothing to show for it; they've outlived the pulp their stuff was printed on. Life is long, art is brief. Hackery is even briefer.  It doesn't last, it never lasts, but you should try to be slightly less ephemeral than the literary soma readers are offered up to make their commutes or airplane rides a bit easier to get through. Nobody ever died regretting not ghostwriting a stripper's tell-all memoir.

Thanks so much for your time. 

Big thanks to Nick for an entertaining and thought-provoking interview.  Be certain to check out both his writing and Clarkesworld Magazine.  And tune in next month when I interview . . .???

Tags: editorial musings (column)

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