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What I should've said to the Clarion West students

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On June 27th, 2008, the first Friday night of that year's Clarion West, Debby B and I stopped by the first weekly Clarion West party of the year for an hour or so. This is the blog entry that I wrote a couple of days later, but never got around to posting.

I'm sorry I didn't get more of a chance to chat with most of the people there. Next time I'm in Seattle during the summer, I'll try to remember earlier that CW is happening, and will try to arrange to spend more time interacting with students and locals. Not to mention the teacher for the week—I got flustered and didn't quite manage to tell Paul P that I liked his work.

Not long after we arrived at the party, Leslie took me out on the back patio and gathered the students around, and we had a question-and-answer session. It was fun, and immensely flattering to have all these writers treating me like a Real Pro Editor.

But I kept feeling like I was giving the Standard Editor Answers to a lot of the questions, and I kept thinking “Probably they all already know this stuff, from, like, reading the Internets and stuff.”

And on further thought, there are some things I wish I'd said, instead of and/or in addition to some of the things I actually said. Since I was unlikely to be in Seattle again before the end of this year's CW, I figured I'd post my thoughts here. [And then I didn't get around to posting them 'til two years later, sigh.]


First: Someone asked, iIrc, if I had any general advice for writers. I think that was the question in response to which I said that perseverance furthers, or at least is more likely to further than non-perseverance. Which, sure, is true, and important. But after the party I realized that I have a piece of perhaps more important advice for writers:

Complexify.

Don't be satisfied with easy answers. Don't settle for standard situations and characters. There's a place for the shorthand of familiarity (and for genre conventions, of course), and for light fluffy entertainment, but by and large, I tend to feel that fiction is mostly better when the characters and situations and worldviews and politics portrayed are complex and nuanced than when they aren't. Recognize the complexity and nuance of the real world, and try to reflect that in your fiction.


Next: I was so busy being flattered at all the attention that I failed to give a useful piece of meta-advice: Don't get too caught up in the idea of editors as the owners of all the power in the publishing world.

It's true that editors act as gatekeepers; it's true that if you want your fiction to be published by a major venue or publisher, the work needs to appeal to an editor. But I often see beginning writers and neo-pros feeling like they must bow to every editor's every whim.

For example, it's a very common fear among beginning writers that the slightest mistake in the submission process—a single typo, say, or a small misinterpretation of the Standard Manuscript Format rules, or querying about something—will cause the editor to immediately reject the story. Another example: writers often feel that if an editor makes an editorial suggestion, they must follow it, even if they feel that it's bad for the story.

Of course, it's easy to go too far in the opposite direction—if a writer insists that their work must remain absolutely inviolate, or queries every day, they may develop a reputation as being Difficult To Work With, which won't help their careers. And editors can be touchy and petty and capricious and arbitrary, just like anyone. I imagine there are some editors out there who get really upset if writers don't treat them like God.

But my point is that it's your story (or novel). The decisions are up to you. You may decide that it's worth being flexible in order to get published by a particular editor; you may decide that it isn't. But keep in mind that the editor really doesn't hold all the power.


Next: I did touch on this, but I think it's worth mentioning again: editors disagree. Different editors have different tastes; different editors are looking for different things in fiction; different editors have different sources of reader pleasure; different editors have different business needs. There are plenty of stories that I don't like that get huge acclaim, even win awards; there are plenty of stories that I do like that nobody else, not even my co-editors, truly appreciates. Of course, if five different editors all tell you the same thing about your story, it might be a good idea to consider whether they might be right; I'm not saying editorial opinions are worthless. (It's again easy to go too far in the other direction and say “who cares what those editors think, my story is brilliant!”) I'm just saying that they're opinions and tastes, not True Facts.


There were a couple of questions about how I got to be an editor and how SH got to its current position in the field. I answered those as best I could, but it later occurred to me that I left out one important real-world factor:

We decided from the start to pay SFWA-qualifying pro rates for fiction.

(Even though we've always acknowledged that the rate we pay isn't nearly as high as we would like it to be.)

Now, there have always been many fine, and even prestigious, semiprozines and fanzines in the sf world. Stories from semiprozines fairly regularly appear on award ballots, on year's-best lists (and ToCs), etc. So we probably could have gotten to where we are today by paying semipro rates. (Um, and I should note that I was a little surprised by this question, because I don't think of SH as particularly prestigious or well-known, much to my chagrin. But yeah, we've certainly gotten some good attention over the years.)

But paying pro rates got us attention, fairly fast. It meant a lot of new writers who wanted to qualify for SFWA took us seriously—and one of our goals has always been developing and publishing new writers. It meant that a few established pros who had a hard time taking online publication seriously (except for magazines with Ellen's name on them, of course) gave us a second look that they might not have otherwise given us.

I don't want to discount the hard work that the SH staff, including us fiction editors, have put into the magazine over the years. I don't want to discount our attempts to treat writers well. I don't want to discount the writers who send us good stories. (Before we started, I was worried that we wouldn't get enough stories that we liked to fill a publication schedule; that turned out to usually not be a problem.) I don't want to discount the donors who fund the magazine. And I don't want to discount the readers and reprint-anthology editors and bloggers and so on who've helped bring attention to us. All of that has been hugely important.

Still, I think the decision to pay pro rates for fiction may've been one of the most important decisions we made, early on, in getting the magazine to where it is today.

But I could be wrong.


So that's what I should've said to the CW students in 2008. Now I'll have to come up with some new answers and advice for next time I visit Seattle in the summer.

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