Interview: Scott H. Andrews

Scott H. Andrews lives in Virginia with his wife, two cats, nine guitars, a dozen overflowing bookcases, fifty board-feet of lumber, and hundreds of beer bottles from all over the world. He is a graduate of Odyssey 2005. His short fiction has appeared in Weird Tales and Space and Time, and he has been a Finalist in the Writers of the Future competition. He is also Editor-in-Chief of the pro-rate fantasy magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies. His website is http://www.scotthandrews.com/.

Can you talk about your pre-Odyssey writing process? What kind of writing schedule, if any, did you keep?

I would write all day during weekdays (I had been taking semesters off from teaching), but I was just churning out raw text–I really didn’t know what I was doing. I had a general outline of what was supposed to happen in my bloated fantasy novel, and I wrote several full drafts of that and even a sequel. I did write every day, actually far more often than I write nowadays when I allegedly know what I’m doing. For me, writing well takes a lot more planning and care than just churning out raw amateur text did.

What made you decide to attend the Odyssey Writing Workshop?

I knew I needed to improve. I was sending queries to agents and getting only form rejections, and the few local critique groups I was in at that time were not challenging me, so I knew I needed to go to a workshop that would give me thorough instruction and useful feedback.

How do you feel your writing and writing process changed as a result of having attended Odyssey? What insights did you gain into your own work? What surprised you most about Odyssey?

My writing changed drastically. Odyssey is the equivalent of a semester-long college writing course, so I learned a lot.

I think the most important thing I learned at Odyssey was the need to try to see my work from the viewpoint of a reader. I already had theoretical knowledge of lots of the mechanics of writing–for example, I knew what point-of-view was and how to execute it. But I had never thought much about putting myself in the reader’s head to see what it was like for them to read the words I had on the page.

The reader of course doesn’t know all the backstory of the characters or the world; they probably don’t know all the terms and don’t get all the prose; and they often don’t have an instinctive feel for the spatial or interpersonal situations. So an author has to work within those natural limitations, giving the reader enough that they can understand the author’s vision yet still find their own way through it–synthesizing their own unique mental image of the characters and world and how the story is moving forward. In order to achieve that balance of giving the reader the right things in the right amounts, the author has to try to see their own words on the page as a reader would, so they can understand exactly what effect their prose will have. Odyssey was my first experience at trying to see my work from that kind of external perspective, so I could shape it into the most useful form for communicating my vision to a reader.

When and how did you make your first sale?

My first sale of any type was a literary short story, “A Brief Swell of Twilight,” which I wrote at Odyssey. It won a $1000 prize in a contest from a college literary magazine, the Briar Cliff Review.

My first SF/F sale, a short story called “Excision,” was to Ann VanderMeer of Weird Tales in June 2007. My background as a scientist colors most all of what I write, and that story was a fantasy take on medical science. It also featured a guilt-wracked character in an emotionally wrenching situation, which I do often, and a good bit of vivid gore. Ms. VanderMeer liked the combination of the literary storytelling and the dark, character-centered feel, and “Excision” appeared in her very first issue of Weird Tales, #347.

You’ve created an online, literary-adventure fantasy magazine called Beneath Ceaseless Skies. What inspired you to create this magazine? What kind of advice would you give someone who wanted to start his own online mag?

I created Beneath Ceaseless Skies because there was no magazine for “literary adventure fantasy” short fiction–fantasy written with the literary flair of current award-winning fantasy short fiction but also featuring traditional fantasy elements, like secondary-world settings and classic character roles such as thieves. Most of the top fantasy short fiction markets these days are skewed toward slipstream or other literary fantasy, and the few remaining swords & sorcery markets sometimes feel inconsistent to me in their literary quality. I love to read (and write) fantasy short fiction that blends aspects of both of those styles, but there was no dedicated home for it. So I started one.

My advice for anyone who wants to start their own magazine is to think very, very seriously about the time commitment. It takes tons of time to run a magazine. Lots of online zines pop up, then shut down after only a few issues because their editors didn’t realize how much time it takes. I have to read 250 submissions a month, in addition to editing accepted manuscripts, managing the website, and recording and producing our audio fiction podcasts. If you think you want to start an ezine, make sure you’re ready for total commitment–if you flake out after only a few issues, you will disappoint your writers and your readers.

What are the most common weaknesses you’re noticing in the submissions you receive?

The most common thing that makes a submission not right for me is the lack of some sense of urgency right from the very first paragraph.

There are lots of different ways to achieve what I mean by a sense of urgency. My favorite is to get a visceral feel on the first page for the protagonist’s core burning goal as a character. I believe every character needs a core burning goal, but I see lots of submissions where the protagonist doesn’t seem to have any goal, even after the first page, and therefore has no drive as a character.

Other ways to get a sense of urgency early-on can include some sort of strong attitude from the narrator that makes them seem interesting or makes the narrative voice distinctive. An unusual and vivid setting in the opening sometimes hooks me briefly, but a strong goal or attitude from the protagonist hooks me deeper because it’s something from the character. Suspense or action in an opening, on the other hand, usually doesn’t feel urgent for me because at that point I don’t yet care about the character who’s in danger.

Short fiction writers need to remember that readers (and therefore editors) have to be intrigued from the very first line. Unlike novels, there isn’t enough room in a short story for things to start off slow or for the opening to be anything less than vividly engaging.

Many people think that critiquing the work of others is the price they have to pay to get their own work critiqued. They don’t realize that critiquing can help the critiquer to improve is own writing. As an editor, you’re doing quite a bit of critiquing and editing these days. Do you think this has improved your own writing, and if so, how? Has any of this constant critiquing and editing hindered your own work, made it difficult for you to slip out of the critical state of mind and into the creative one?

I think all the reading I do of manuscripts, both critiquing and magazine submissions, has made me rather good at seeing flaws in a story and suggesting ways to fix them. I’ve had numerous pro writers compliment me on my rewrite and editing suggestions for their stories. I don’t think that skill has yet benefited my own writing because I’m still too close to my own writing to be able to view it completely objectively. But I know it will benefit my writing eventually.

The constant editing and critiquing has never hindered the creative drive for my own work, perhaps because I’m always critical about my own work. I often spend four to six weeks outlining a story before I even start writing, working out all the holes of plot logic and character motivation, so my creative state has always been rather critical.

Now that you’re editing your own magazine, do you find your own writing suffers? How do you manage your time when it comes to the magazine’s needs and producing your own fiction?

Yes–my time for writing definitely suffers. The magazine last winter was a seven-days-a-week effort, reading submissions and producing our audio fiction podcasts. It’s tough to manage my time because the magazine has deadlines, which must be met, and my writing time is always undefined, so the magazine becomes the priority. That’s a balance I’m still working toward.


For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.

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