Interview: John Joseph Adams

John Joseph Adams will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. He is the bestselling editor of many anthologies, such as Wastelands, The Living Dead (a World Fantasy Award finalist),The Living Dead 2, Seeds of Change, By Blood We Live, The Way of the Wizard, Federations, and The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Barnes & Noble.com named him “the reigning king of the anthology world,” and his books have been named to numerous best of the year lists. John is also the fiction editor of the science fiction magazine Lightspeed. Prior to taking on that role, he worked for nearly nine years in the editorial department at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

John is currently the co-host of The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, and has published hundreds of interviews and other pieces of nonfiction. He has written reviews for Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show and is a former print news correspondent for SCI FI Wire (now known as Blastr). His nonfiction has also appeared in Amazing Stories, The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Locus Magazine, Novel & Short Story Writers Market, Science Fiction Weekly, Shimmer, Strange Horizons, Subterranean Magazine, and Tor.com.

Tell us a little about your editing career. How did you start out and why do you continue to edit science fiction, fantasy, and horror?

My first editorial job was at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (F&SF). I started there in May 2001 as an editorial assistant, then worked my way up to assistant editor, and worked there for nearly nine years, before leaving to edit Lightspeed Magazine and (later) Fantasy Magazine. F&SF’s editor/publisher Gordon Van Gelder taught me a ton–not just about editing, but about the sf/fantasy field, and working in publishing in general–and I owe him a huge debt of gratitude for paving the way for my career to be where it is today. One of the things Gordon did for me was he always allowed me to freelance and pursue other opportunities while working at F&SF; for instance, he didn’t consider me publishing an anthology to be a conflict of interest, so he was okay with me trying to do that.

The first anthology I tried to sell was an all-original anthology of post-apocalyptic fiction. That one never sold, but even so, I thought I had something there, so I kept thinking about it from time to time. And in 2007 when Bison Books reissued the Beyond Armageddon anthology, it occurred to me that instead of an original anthology, perhaps I could sell a reprint anthology of post-apocalyptic fiction, basically picking up where Beyond Armageddon left off. And that’s how Wastelands was born, and my career as an anthologist began. Wastelands did very well, which lead me to do another for Night Shade, The Living Dead, and that one did even better, and so on the success of those two books, it’s allowed me to establish a firm foothold in the marketplace as an anthology editor.

As for why I continue to edit sf/fantasy/horror…well, ever since my first week at F&SF, I knew it was what I wanted to do as a career. And, well, it’s better than having a real job. I mean, I make a living reading science fiction and fantasy stories–how great is that?

What is the best way developing authors can break into the “pro” markets such as Lightspeed and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction?

There’s no secret, you just have to write a great story. Easier said than done, I know! But that’s all there is to it. As to how you can develop your skills enough to write one of those great stories…well, that’s a more complicated answer.

Attending one of the genre-centric writing workshops, like Odyssey, helps a lot of writers, sometimes helps them make quantum leaps in their writing skills. Reading as much as possible’s always good too, of course, especially (but not exclusively) in the genre you want to write in, and the form you want to write in; so if you want to focus on writing short fiction, read tons of short fiction–reading a bunch of novels isn’t going to help you a whole lot when it comes to writing short stories.

But also, one of the best things you can do is read slush (unsolicited submissions to a publisher). In the slush pile, you see every level of writer submitting, and being in a position where you’re committed to reading X number of stories a day can really put things in perspective for you when it comes to evaluating how to grab and keep a reader’s interest. It’s not really a conscious process, but if you spend a lot of time reading slush, I think you just can’t help but learn from all those mistakes.

What are the most common problems in the manuscript submissions you receive?

This is a really hard question to answer, because basically what it boils down to is: They’re not interesting enough and/or not well written. It’s hard to generalize with percentages, but I’d say most of the stories are at least competently written on a line-by-line level, but they’re just not well constructed, or nothing grabs the reader’s interest, or they are otherwise just not compelling enough.

There always are some, though, that are truly terrible, just so poorly written that you can’t even really evaluate the story itself because the story fails on the most basic language level.

Which subgenres do you see way too much of? Which subgenres do you not see enough of?

I don’t like to say what I’m seeing too much of very often, just because I don’t want to discourage someone from sending in the best unicorn story ever because they read an interview with me in which I said I was receiving way too many unicorn stories. (That’s not true of unicorn stories, by the way, just for the record.)

At Lightspeed, I’d love to see more hard SF, which I don’t see very much of. But also, I saw some discussion of sf as a genre and what was incorporated into it, and the consensus among this group of writers seemed to be that dystopian fiction, while speculative, does not fit in “science fiction,” and so those writers wouldn’t consider submitting dystopian fiction to Lightspeed. So I’d say I’d like to see more of that kind of fiction being submitted (I love the theme–I did just edit a dystopian anthology, after all).

So more generally, I would encourage writers to not pre-reject their stories before submitting them—it’s the editor’s job to reject stories; don’t do it for him/her. And if you have something that you’re not sure if it’s sf or fantasy, just let the editor decide. Read a year’s best sf anthology sometime and evaluate each story on whether or not you think it’s actually sf—you might be surprised how far that definition is stretched, even when considering what the best of the year is.

At Fantasy, I can’t really think of anything I’d like to see more of, per se. We’re currently getting a good mix of all kinds of fantasy. Although I guess I’d kind of like to see more stories dealing with fantastical creatures, like unicorns and minotaurs, manticores, and selkies and that kind of thing—stories that deal with them in interesting and unique ways.

How do you go about selecting stories for anthologies? What are the different criteria you consider? Is writing stories specifically for open anthologies a good target for developing writers or are fiction magazines and ezines a better approach?

When assembling anthologies, I try to shoot for as much variation on the theme as possible, to showcase the range of what the trope encompasses. With anthologies there are also certain commercial considerations, and publishers usually require a certain number of established authors to be included, so that’s a factor, as well.

Other than that, it’s really hard to describe what it is one looks for in a story; if it were easy to spell out, writer’s guidelines for every publication in the world would have a nice detailed description of what it is they’re looking for.

As to which is better, anthologies or magazines–it all depends on the anthology and the magazines you’re talking about; there’s no real way to generalize. Getting yourself into an anthology edited by Ellen Datlow or the Vandermeers, that would be as good and possibly better for one’s career than appearing in, say, F&SF or Asimov’s, though good and better, of course, are subjective. In most cases, even with the decline of the “Big Three” being a common topic of discussion, being published in any of them will still likely net the author more readers than appearing in an anthology would; though the Big Three’s numbers are dropping, their monthly circulation is still more than most anthologies sell. Anthologies, however, do have the potential to be more lucrative for the author, as they typically pay at least as much as the pro magazines, but also have the benefit of a possible royalty share for the author down the road, if the anthology does well. And then, of course, there’s the question of online markets, which offer faster publication schedules/shorter lead time, and have the benefit of (typically) being free to the reader, allowing the chance for something to go viral and generate a lot of buzz more easily than something appearing in a print magazine or anthology. Also, online magazines stay available forever, basically, so your story can continue to generate traffic and gain you new readers long after the initial publication; whereas a print magazine is on the shelf and available for a month, and then pretty much is no longer available except by special order.

Where do you see short story and book publishing going in the next five years? How will changes in technology affect short stories, anthologies, and novels?

I think online markets will continue to gain prominence in the marketplace, getting closer, year by year, to leveling the playing field between print and online. Ebooks are exploding in popularity right now, and that’s only going to continue as ereaders and multipurpose devices like the iPad or other tablets find their way into every home.

Is self-publishing online becoming a more viable alternative for developing writers, or do you need to have an established “backlist” to make that a viable option? Do you have any advice on how to make self-publishing work?

It’s becoming more viable, I suppose, but I wouldn’t call it viable yet–in order for that to have much chance of success, I think you certainly have to have an established backlist and a large web presence. But self-publishing is not something I’d recommend to any developing writer, and would probably advise against it in 99% of all cases, even those including established writers.

The viability of such enterprises may change in the future; it’s hard to say. But I think the role of the editorial gatekeeper is a valuable one, and I think anyone who has read slush would agree. Without gatekeepers, the signal-to-noise ratio would just be way too poor, and I think in the end that would turn off more people from reading. (Even with gatekeepers the signal-to-noise ratio isn’t as good as it could be!)

As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?

I think that might be something better to ask the students afterward! Honestly, I don’t know what the most important thing would be; it all depends on where the students are professionally, both in terms of their craft and interacting with the community. (Though your previous question makes me think that my most important advice might be “Don’t self-publish,” if so many new writers think that’s a good idea that you thought to get my take on it!)

But one thing I always advise writers, especially beginning writers who may not know any better: when you’re submitting stories, start at the top. Now, the top is going to differ from writer to writer. But figure out the markets where you’d most like your stories to appear–either because they pay well, or because you really like the editor’s taste, or you think it’ll give you the best exposure, or some combination of factors like that–and submit there first. Don’t start with the smaller, low-paying/no-paying market and work your way up; start at the top and work your way down–and don’t be afraid to trunk a story; sometimes stories are just not good enough, and you’d be better off not publishing them rather than having subpar stories out there with your name on them. When you’re starting out as a writer, you’re almost certainly going to fail more than you’re going to succeed, so there’s no shame in retiring a story while you develop your craft; you can always go back to it in the future and see if there’s anything there worth saving.


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

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