Interview: Sheila Williams

Sheila Williams will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. She is the two-time Hugo-Award-winning editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine. She started at Asimov’s in June  1982 and served as the executive editor of Analog from 1998 until 2004. She is also the co-founder of the Dell Magazines Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing  (formerly the Isaac Asimov Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing). In addition, she coordinates the websites for Asimov’s (

Sheila is the editor or co-editor of twenty-five anthologies. The most recent are Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine’s 30th Anniversary Anthology (Tachyon Publications, 2007), which received a starred review from Publishers Weekly and was on the 2007 Locus Recommended Reading list, and the 2010 Enter A Future: Fantastic Tales from Asimov’s Science Fiction, which is exclusively available for Amazon’s Kindle.

Sheila received her bachelor’s degree from Elmira College in Elmira, New York, and her master’s from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. During her junior year she studied at the London School of Economics. She lives in New York City with her husband, David Bruce, and her two daughters.

What is the most common mistake that writers make in their manuscript submissions to you? Most editors develop pet peeves as they encounter manuscripts that continually violate submission guidelines or make some other irritating mistake. Which one bothers you the most?The most common mistake is not researching or knowing their markets. Anyone familiar with Asimov’s would know that a story featuring a medieval village is unlikely to sell to me unless the reader finds out pretty quickly that this is a virtual reality or time travel or some other SF-nal situation. I do publish some fantasy, but it’s usually the type that creeps up on you quietly and leaves you wondering about the nature of the story just read. If writers were more careful about where they targeted their stories, they would probably sell them more quickly.

Except for single-spaced manuscripts—which I loathe—I’m not particularly bothered by format mistakes. However, I think it’s wise for every author to check out a venue’s manuscript guidelines before submitting material to that market.

Is there one type of story that you see too much of, or not enough of?

I mostly tend to see too much of one kind of story when there’s a call for a theme anthology or someone starts mentioning a trend. Sometimes a news item will lead to a run on a theme, too. If “everyone’s doing” a certain kind of story it’s probably best to avoid it. Still, yours might be the best, so you can feel free to ignore this advice, too.

Also, I see far too many stories where the main character is bored. If the character is bored, I’m usually bored too. I won’t read past the first paragraph if the character is just waking up. If you write a story about a character getting out of bed and eating breakfast, go back and cut everything that happens before the action begins.

Like nearly every editor in this field, I don’t get enough well-thought-out hard SF. I’m always looking for the stories that integrate intriguing characters and clever plotting with well-developed science.

Is there a ‘best before’ date for some story concepts? Conversely, are there story themes that never die?

The opposite of the “sell-by” story is the political story. Politics can’t be avoided, and I publish stories from both ends of the spectrum and many points in between. However, these types of stories start showing up at a fever pitch right around major national elections. These tales can become polemical, sacrificing characters and interesting plotting for the ideas. They’re also likely to date themselves fairly quickly. If a writer is moved enough by a national election to come up with a story concept, I suggest waiting to write it until after the voting is over and trying to make the theme as universal as possible.

How has the slush pile changed over the years? Do you see a real growth, a maturity, in today’s science fiction?

Line-by-line, writing styles consistently improve. Unfortunately, authors don’t tend to experiment enough with new ideas in science and technology. Authors need to apply the artistic lessons they’ve learned about writing to skillfully incorporating science into their fiction as well.

As a guest lecturer at Odyssey Writing Workshop next summer, what is the most important point you hope to impart to the students, that one key message that stands out above all else?

Although an author can learn a lot by writing fast and prolifically for workshops and creative writing classes, it’s important to take time crafting a story. I see too many stories that are just dashed off with little thought given to fleshing out believable characters, incorporating original ideas, creating satisfying resolutions, and avoiding predictable clichés and plodding plot lines. Writing for practice is a very good idea, but it’s important to take the time to buff up a story before submitting it for publication.

What advice can you give to those who might like a position as an editor with a magazine? How does one get started in the field?

The bad news is that short-story editing positions with salary and benefits like mine are so rare that I hesitate to recommend any particular course of action. The good news is that with the advent of the Internet, it’s much easier to start your own nonprofessional publication to showcase the kind of work that you love. I think it would be best to find a good day job and view short-story editing, at least initially, as a hobby. If you’re not ready to start your own, there’re plenty of existing professional and nonprofessional online publications that would be happy to take on additional slush pile readers. You can learn a lot about how to write, how not to write, and how to help people with their writing, by reading hundreds of SF and fantasy submissions.

Considering how many submissions you receive from unknown authors in a year, and how many stories you publish by unknown authors in a year, can you give us an idea of what percentage of submissions by unknown authors ends up getting published? What makes the successful stories stand out for you?

I read stories nowadays before I see the cover letters, so it turns out that practically ever story has a pretty equal chance of catching my attention. I often find material from people I’ve never heard of (though, when that happens, more often than not it will turn out that they have had sales to other markets). It’s hard to say exactly how many stories by completely unknown authors will sell to me each year, but one or two stories in each issue of the magazine tend to be by authors who are appearing in Asimov’s for the first time. Authors whose work came out of my slush pile without previous credentials include Ted Kosmatka, Felicity Shoulders, and Gregory Norman Bossert. Successful stories usually start with an intriguing situation, one that makes me question What will happen next? What is the author withholding from me? Characters are often immediately compelling as well.

Have you ever gotten so tired of reading for a living that you’ve considered another line of work? If so, why? What happened?

Not really. I’d love to have more time for leisure reading, but I’ve always loved my job. I love just about everything about science fiction. I’m sure that if I ever left my job, I’d have to find work in something related to the field.


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