Interview: Scott H. Andrews, Part One
Scott H. Andrews lives in Virginia with his wife, two cats, nine guitars, a dozen overflowing bookcases, and hundreds of beer bottles from all over the world. He is a graduate of Odyssey 2005. His literary short fiction has won a $1000 prize from the Briar Cliff Review, and his genre short fiction has appeared in Ann VanderMeer’s Weird Tales, On Spec, and Space and Time. He is a World Fantasy Award finalist for his work as Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, a Hugo Award finalist fantasy magazine that Locus has called “a premier venue for fantastic fiction, not just online but for all media.”
Visit him online at http://www.scotthandrews.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter @Scott_H_Andrews.
Congratulations to you and the staff of Beneath Ceaseless Skies on your Hugo nomination for Best Semiprozine!
You may or may not recall that we interviewed you exactly four years ago this month. In that time BCS has gone from a fledgling startup magazine to garnering a Hugo nod, and you’ve recently been nominated in the Special Award category for World Fantasy. In addition, authors and stories published in BCS have also been nominated for, or won, Hugo, World Fantasy and Parsec awards. As a former science teacher turned Editor-in-Chief, who just wanted to create a niche for short fantasy fiction, did you expect this kind of success?
I didn’t know if the critical acclaim would come. As a completely indie endeavor, with my only prior editing experience in college lit-mags and my own fiction being low-profile, I knew that no one would know who I was or what the magazine was, and it would have to build its own vibe and reputation.I did expect that Beneath Ceaseless Skies‘ vision for “literary adventure fantasy”–fantasy set in secondary-world settings but written with a focus on the characters–would resonate among the field. I knew there were readers and writers who loved modern literary-fantasy short fiction but also had grown up reading Tolkien or Fritz Leiber and playing D&D. I knew they had “literary adventure fantasy” stories to tell, and that if there were a home for those stories, readers would enjoy reading them.
The Hugo nomination is great recognition that the field sees BCS in the top tier of F/SF magazines. We placed six stories on the Locus Recommended Reading List last year, second among all online magazines only to Clarkesworld. The Parsec nominations are a great acknowledgement by the podcast community that our podcast is equal in fiction quality and audio production to the top podcasts in their field. The World Fantasy Special Award nomination for me is a great honor, but I’m more proud at the magazine having two stories nominated for the World Fantasy Award for Short Story. Those are the first BCS pieces to win a major award nomination, but now that the magazine is getting more recognition, I think they will soon have company.
Most writers have little sense of the day-to-day life of an editor. Could you describe the magazine-related tasks you do each day, perhaps running through the two-week cycle of the magazine?
On our two-week publication cycle, every week is either a ‘new issue’ week or a ‘between issues’ week. My day-to-day tasks for the magazine include things that are related to that two-week cycle and things that are continuous regardless of it.
The two-week cycle begins with announcing the just-released issue on the BCS website and Twitter and Facebook. Then the preparation for the next issue starts immediately. I set the publication schedule a month or two in advance; each issue has two stories, and I try to pair ones that might have a similar feel in theme or a facet of character but that approach it via a different setting or type of narrative or character. I make the ebooks for that upcoming issue and send the files to our ebook distributors, including Amazon Kindle Store and WeightlessBooks.com. The ebooks go out that early because our ebook customers and subscribers get each issue a week before it goes live on the website. I do all the production of the BCS Audio Fiction Podcast, so I coordinate the audio reading for each episode, whether it’s a guest narrator or whether I do the narration myself.
Over the week between issues, I spend two-to-three hours a day editing the audio narration. I’m an amateur musician, so I have a sharp ear for audio quality and for the rhythm of the pacing and delivery. I’m not a great reader, so the narrations I do myself take more editing time than the guest-narrated ones.
Also in that middle week, I spend time promoting the current issue online, such as Facebook and Twitter. I post about the “From the Archives” story that we paired with that issue, and I post when I see BCS authors’ work appearing in other magazines.
In the days right before a new issue comes out, I do the final mastering of the podcast audio file. I also write the rules for any giveaways we might be doing with that new issue or, if it’s a special issue like an anniversary double-issue, any press releases for F/SF news websites and fanzines. Then that issue comes out, and the cycle starts again.
The continuous tasks, that aren’t related to the publication cycle, are probably the more time-consuming ones. That includes all the reading of submissions and the editing.
On an average day, I spend about four hours reading submissions. Out of that, probably one hour is new submissions, whether passed up by my Assistant Editor Kate Marshall (Odyssey 2005), who reads the slush, or automatic pass-ups from writers who have sold to BCS before. Probably another hour is line-editing accepted manuscripts. I’m thorough about prose and grammar being as clear as possible and communicating the author’s intent with the smallest chance of being misunderstood, and that often takes multiple readings and several iterations back and forth with the author.
The rest of the time, probably about half of my overall reading time, is taken up with rewrites. I tend to offer a lot of rewrite requests, on stories that are close but that have a significant issue or two that doesn’t work for me. Often it’s a logic gap in a plot thread or a motivation or it’s the ending, whether in what’s actually happening at the end or in the prose execution of it.
Rewrites for me require several readings and time thinking about multiple ways the issue might could be fixed for me, and writing the editorial emails to the author laying out my issue and some ways it might be fixed. After the author sends back their revised version, that requires more close readings and thought. Often the revisions do work overall for me but require honing, the same way a first draft requires honing, so there’s another back-and-forth with the author to make sure that everything is working for both me and them.
Other ad hoc tasks include compiling and releasing our anthologies, like our annual Best of BCS series that’s now in its fourth year; handling the contracts and paperwork; promoting the magazine at cons and sitting on panels; submitting material for reviews or awards; working with publishers or writers on book giveaways, etc.
Overall, it dominates my daily life; no doubt about it. But reading the stories, especially finding something great, from some writer I’ve never heard of, is a labor of love, and helping a writer fix a logic issue or tweak prose so that their specific intent comes through even better is a rewarding serendipity.
Could you describe some of the qualities that make a story appropriate for publication in BCS? The magazine is described as publishing “literary adventure fantasy”–can you take each word of that description and expand on what that means to you? How do some of the magazine’s recent stories satisfy these criteria?
For “fantasy,” I’m looking for paranormal secondary-world settings, which to me is any world that’s different than what I can see outside my modern window. I prefer fantasy to science fiction, so I like technology levels no more advanced than 1920 or so, but that’s just an arbitrary personal preference. (We threw that preference out the window last year and ran a special Science-Fantasy Month that featured fantasy stories with futuristic tech.) For me, invented worlds are just as interesting as paranormal historical Earth or alternate history Earth, and I’ve done a few that were so far future that an apocalypse had wiped out all advanced technology and the tech level had reverted to something that felt pre-modern.
The main reason I love fantastical settings is the awe. There’s something breathtaking about visiting a world that’s strange and cool, something perhaps in that human drive to explore and discover, that for me makes reading stories set in secondary worlds entrancing.
“Adventure” to me captures the immediate feel that plots and situations in traditional fantasy fiction had. The literary-fantasy wave of the last decade featured some great short fiction in magic-realist or literary-influenced styles like slipstream, but that sort of gossamer or intangible plot or situation isn’t acute or ‘real’ enough for me. I need to feel tactilely grounded in the surroundings and the character’s situation; enough that I can close my eyes and put myself right into it.
“Literary” for me captures the character-centered focus. Most traditional fantasy was written with a plot-centered or world-centered approach, where fast-paced events or a strange world were the main attraction and the characters were less important than the action or the weird setting, and those characters rarely ever underwent any personal change.
That sort of fiction to me is fun but offers little more than entertainment. When I read, I want fun, but I also want profoundness. I want to feel some comment on what it means to be human; what it means to be a person slogging through a situation that resonates with them. Because that’s what we’re all doing every day, right? I love the Realist literary fiction of the 20th century and how it captures characters in acute situations and makes a profound comment in how the character faces that situation.
To me, “literary adventure fantasy” is the combination of those three. Another way to say it might be “Realism in worlds that aren’t real.” I want fantastical worlds that feel as real as our real one, populated with characters facing struggles that feel as real to them as ours feel to us.
A few recent examples include “The Coffinmaker’s Love” by Alberto Yáñez. It has a lush literary-fantasy voice and a mysterious paranormal situation, but the narrative is focused not on the prose or the supernatural but on the character herself; what it means for her to be growing through these crucial linked episodes in her life.
“Walls of Skin, Soft as Paper” by Adam Callaway takes place in a vivid and original world where paper and ink are used in strange ways, like to build the houses or write underneath people’s skin, and within that strange setting, the character faces an acute and moving situation.
“The Adventure of the Pyramid of Bacconyus” by Caleb Wilson is a great example of adventure fantasy written with a literary flair. It has elements of classic fantasy (rogues trying to steal a temple’s treasure), but the characters are tree-like beings, which is creative and intriguing, and as they fall under the thrall of the temple’s deity and/or too much wine, the narrative captures that escalating surreality to vivid and humorous effect.
What types of stories are you seeing too many of?
One type of story that I see often is stories that “follow all the rules.” By which I mean it almost feels that the author had a checklist of things to accomplish in the first few pages, and they went down the list and squeezed them all in as early and deliberately as they could. Eyeball-kick opening image, then a teaser of plot suspense, a big splash of detail of the world, cut out all iterations of “to be,” and so on.
I know that approach because I did it in my own stories. We writers are so conscious of how important openings are and how vital it is that we set the stage and hook an editor’s interest right away. But when reading submissions, I often find that the openings that ‘follow all the rules’ like that don’t engage me at a deeper level. Perhaps the voice feels neutral, without the sort of individualistic style or character-influenced flavor that seems interesting to me. Perhaps the withholding of information to create suspense ends up leaving the context too vague for me. Perhaps the details, however vivid, don’t yet have importance to me through the character’s attitude and motivation.
The openings that do hook me seem to have a spark of individuality to them. As though the author let more of his or her own personality or instinct come through. Perhaps it’s a more vivid or unique voice, for the narrative or the character. Perhaps it’s letting that writerly voice flow naturally rather than editing the prose down. Perhaps it’s setting aside poetic metaphors and giving direct, honest, heartfelt expressions of characters’ emotions. It’s tough to describe, and it’s even tougher to write–I don’t know how to write like that, or my stories would have sold better. But I would love to see more stories that have that sort of individualistic spark.
Thanks for reading Part One! Watch for Part Two next Sunday (10.20.2013).