Arley Sorg is co-editor-in-chief at Fantasy Magazine, senior editor at Locus Magazine, associate editor at both Lightspeed and Nightmare Magazines, and a columnist for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He takes on multiple roles, including slush reader, movie and book reviewer, and interviewer, at multiple venues, including Clarkesworld Magazine and his own site: arleysorg.com. Arley grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado and studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland and, in non-pandemic times, usually writes in local coffee shops. He is a 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate.
You attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2014. Can you talk about your pre-Odyssey writing process? What kind of writing schedule, if any, did you keep?
I was a “push yourself” kind of writer. I had a couple of regular writing groups, both for co-working sessions and for critique.
You read some slush for both Nightmare and Lightspeed magazines. What are the most common problems in the manuscript submissions you receive?
Many “warm up” to the actual story, and often this means thinly veiled devices for explaining/describing setting or idea. A character thinking about past events, thinking about some speculative element, thinking about… you get the idea. Many mags will either continue reading or put a story down based on the opening paragraph, maybe the opening page. The story needs to do something interesting, it needs to speak to the reader in some way, right from the start.
You’ve conducted a number of interviews for Locus, Clarkesworld, and your own website, among others. What have been some of the best insights you’ve gained from authors over the years?
Persistence is key in this business. Be persistent, don’t let rejections or bad experiences stop you. Experiment, find the things that work for you, but be flexible, in case those things stop working at some point.
As Co-Editor-in-Chief of Fantasy Magazine and Senior Editor of Locus Magazine, you have the opportunity to read a lot of fiction. Where do you see short fiction going in the next ten years?
I see short fiction as the place where real experimentation happens. Not just in terms of form (which can sometimes be “gimmick” or “trend”) but also in terms of meaning, subject, content. Right now we are seeing more inclusivity. I hope that in ten years a lot of the narratives that are essentially arguments for the basic human rights of different kinds of people, or the beginnings of inclusivity of perspectives, shift baseline assumptions. This will allow a progression of stories from there.
The concerns of some stories are outside the lived experiences of some editors. They may not understand how good a story is because they don’t understand what the story is actually saying. Hopefully in ten years the things that many editors don’t get and need explained will be more broadly absorbed—and, the demographics of editors and publishers will be more diverse—again, allowing the conversations to progress.
I think there will be more experimentation in form, as well—including things I can’t predict. We see stories based on video games, messaging, Twitter. There’s interactive fiction, platforms that attempt different ways to make this work, including phone apps. Accessibility will be part of the key to proliferation, and technological shifts can open the way for new ideas. In the past, there were stories experimenting with hyperlinks. Maybe in the future there will be hybrids of text and audio, or other kinds of sensory input.
At the same time, the core elements that hit people in the feels seem to be somewhat timeless… so I think more “traditional” story structures will probably still be around.
You’ve also written numerous book reviews for Lightspeed and Locus. What makes exceptional novels stand apart from the rest? Do you find that these standout novels have anything in common? How do you think authors can critically read novels like these and apply what they learn to their own writing?
I think innovation is important, as well as nailing the heart of the story. Innovation can mean a new or fresh twist on something—take S. L. Huang’s Burning Roses, for example. There is nothing new about Red Riding Hood. But what Huang does, and the way it’s pulled off, plus the layers and subtext, all of these make the book shine. And as I said above, there are aspects to this book that some people just won’t get, because they need those things explained to them, things that are baseline understandings for other people.
Tochi Onyebuchi has a number of excellent works, but look at War Girls: there’s nothing new about Mechs. But he’s got interesting characters in interesting situations with great tension, set in a Nigerian civil war, which is a setting we just don’t see a lot in SFF genre.
Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation and sequel Deathless Divide. There’s nothing new about zombies. And yet, these are awesome books. Interesting characters in a very cool setting (basically an alt-history end of civil war era setting, leading into an “old west” story), in interesting situations.
They’ve all taken things that are familiar and given them great tweaks to make them feel fresh and new. They tell stories full of important insights: Tochi’s book isn’t just “let me write about Mechs” and yet it definitely is “I want to write about Mechs!” They nail the heart of the story while having fun with tropes and speculative elements.
Writers can use these to learn about pushing their ideas, writing stories with heart, and telling tales that are rich with their own truths. Take chances, be bold.
In addition to book reviews, you also do film reviews. What do you think writers of prose could learn from studying films?
Often I think they can learn what not to do. Film and TV can be very backwards. The movie Underwater, for example, literally opened by killing the Black guy, leaving the white characters to run around and do things. How many mainstream shows and movies have BIPOC characters as side characters? While mainstream films with BIPOC leads are few and far between.
Not to mention that so much of what we see in film is a not-that-creative re-hash. Learning from film is very tricky. What I sometimes see in slush are scenes or moments that don’t really work on the page, but would work on screen. I think writers just need to be very careful, critical, thoughtful. Film can be inspiring. That inspiration, in itself, is probably more useful than anything specific.
Beyond this, writers can generally examine what doesn’t work and what works in the overall narrative. Try to understand where you became invested and why.
What’s next for you? Are you starting any new writing or editorial projects?
My latest thing is a column with The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction: “By the Numbers.” I was brought in by the editor, Sheree Renée Thomas, and I am really enjoying working with her. I have my own interview series on my website. For Adamant Press (Lightspeed/Nightmare/Fantasy) I am starting a series of YouTube videos, hoping to post quarterly.
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