Sheila Williams will be a guest lecturer via Skype at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop. Sheila is the multiple Hugo Award-winning editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine. She is also the winner of the 2017 Kate Wilhelm Solstice Award for distinguished contributions to the science fiction and fantasy community.
Sheila started at Asimov’s in June 1982 as the editorial assistant. Over the years, she was promoted to a number of different editorial positions at the magazine, and she also served as the executive editor of Analog from 1998 until 2004. With Rick Wilber, she is the co-founder of The Dell Magazines Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy. This annual award has been bestowed on the best short story by an undergraduate student at the International Conference on the Fantastic since 1994. She has served as an instructor at Clarion, Clarion West, Odyssey, and other writing workshops. In addition, she coordinates the Asimov’s website (www.asimovs.com).
In addition, Sheila is the editor or co-editor of twenty-six anthologies. Her newest anthology, Entanglements: Tomorrow’s Lovers, Families, and Friends, is the 2020 volume of MIT’s Twelve Tomorrow’s anthology series.
Sheila received her bachelor’s degree from Elmira College in Elmira, New York, and her MA in philosophy from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. During her junior year she studied at the London School of Economics. Sheila is the mother of two daughters. She lives in New York City with her husband, David Bruce.
You talked about appealing story openings during your lecture in 2013 at Odyssey. What makes for a satisfying ending to a story?
It’s a huge relief when an unfamiliar author lands the ending. In a great ending, the multiple layers of a story come together in a satisfying way. A well-thought-out ending shows me that I’m in the hands of a professional or budding professional. Generally, a good ending is not one that the author tacked on to their story. Sometimes I realize that the ending was foretold in the opening paragraphs, but that doesn’t mean that it was predictable, just that the groundwork was laid. Although an ending can develop organically from the tale being told, many authors begin their story with an understanding of exactly where and how the story will conclude. Sometimes they even write it first.
You’ve read quite a number of short stories over the years as an editor. For writers looking to improve their understanding of how short stories work, how would you suggest critically reading stories with an eye to improvement and understanding? Are there particular elements critical readers should look for?
This is a great question. Years ago I heard of an author who retyped a famous story to figure out what the author was doing. I don’t think the writer has to go that far, but critical reading is essential. Pick a favorite story that wowed you and read it a few times. Take notes. Look for the foreshadowing. Look for the metaphors and the similes. Pay attention to the arc. Pay attention to every clue. A professional author rarely wastes a word in a work of short fiction. It takes practice to pick up on most of the details the first time through a tale, but it’s a lot easier to see these details once you know what’s coming.
What sort of stories still surprise you?
All good fiction contains an element of surprise. In addition to intriguing misdirection, surprise can come from a turn of phrase, an apt description, exquisite world building, fascinating characters, an unusual interplay between characters, meticulous plotting, and many unexpected corners. It can come from an old plot set on its head, and from new perspectives on many other seemingly ordinary concepts, places, and characters.
How often do you send rewrite requests? What advice would you give authors should they receive one?
I only ask for a rewrite request when I’m seriously interested in purchasing a story. When I first became editor of Asimov’s, Gordon Van Gelder advised me that if I was going to ask for a rewrite, I should never offer to purchase a story before I saw the new version. That’s excellent advice and I follow it because it’s possible that the author will take the rewrite suggestions in the wrong direction. Even if that happens, though, such problems can usually be resolved with a second rewrite. I ask for minor and major rewrites all the time. Almost everyone is happy to work with me. The story doesn’t belong to me, so I completely understand those extremely rare occasions when an author decides to take the tale elsewhere instead of rewriting it. By the way, a rewrite request generally comes from my professional address, not from the general firstname.lastname@example.org address associated with our submission system.
Can you talk a little about a story Asimov’s has recently published, explaining what initially drew you to it and why you bought it for the magazine?
“The Refraction of White Lies” appeared in our January/February 2020 issue. It is a first sale for the author, Meredith Lozaga. (The podcast can be found here.) I was mildly intrigued by the title. It was an interesting play on words, and I was curious to see how it would play out. The opening paragraphs make it clear that a married couple is living in an unusual situation. The title may have mentioned “white lies,” but this relationship is based on a huge lie. Soon we realize that the actual lie is not the one we thought it was—a lovely bit of subterfuge. It’s just as big, and perhaps more brutal, than the initial “lie.” The final sentence of the story, which ends on a small lie, a “white lie,” is perfect. I love discovering new authors and publishing first stories, but I didn’t know this was a first sale until the author sent me her bio information for the story’s introductory notes.
As someone who frequently attends science fiction conventions, what advice would you give those writers who are just starting to go to cons? How do you think they could make the most of their time at one?
I was a very shy convention goer eons ago. I forced myself to engage with people, saying “hi” to them first and asking them questions about themselves. Now, I am surrounded by people that I enjoy. Long ago, I realized that I could have a very enjoyable time just talking to my friends. Of course seeing my friends wasn’t the only reason I attended cons. I made a deal with myself that I would spend quality time with at least one new person at every convention. Not just a short talk at a SFWA party, Con Suite, or bar, but an immersive discussion about meaningful topics. I’ve had to train myself to listen and ask questions as much as possible because I learn a lot more that way. I upped the game when I became editor of Asimov’s. Now I try to have meaningful conversations with at least two new people at every convention. While I may not have time for a long conversation with everyone, don’t hesitate to approach me. So my advice is, introduce yourself to people, sign up for Kaffeeklatsches, walk around the dealers’ room, attend the panel discussions, get your books signed. Engage with other people as much as possible. Don’t monopolize an editor or an agent, but feel free to introduce yourself. Or, get a friend to introduce you. A lot of people have talked to me at the end of a panel.
In 1992, you and Rick Wilber cofounded The Dell Magazines Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing, in order to continue Isaac Asimov’s vision of encouraging younger writers. What advice would you give people in their teens and early twenties who are just starting to write and submit their work?
Young authors should write as much as possible. They should take classes and workshops. They should form writing groups amongst their peers and read books about writing. They should not fear rejection—it happens to everyone! They must submit their stories. Stories that stay on your hard drive and never make it into circulation don’t get published. Don’t be afraid to use your own name. No one is judging you. I’ve purchased stories from people after turning down multiple previous submissions. This happened because their work continued to improve.
Stretch yourself when you write. Don’t just people stories with teen-age or early-twenties characters. Try to get into the heads of children and middle aged and older characters. And aliens. Take the story out of the schoolroom and the college campus. Experiment with interesting places—your last vacation, your favorite historical era, the grocery store.