Author and editor Paul Witcover will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. He is the author of five novels, most recently The Watchman of Eternity. His collection of short fiction, Everland and Other Stories, was a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award. He has also been a finalist for the World Fantasy and Nebula awards. With Elizabeth Hand, he created and wrote the DC Comic Anima. He was a writer for the serial novel Tremontaine, set in Ellen Kushner’s Riverside universe, for three years. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, and can be found online at paulwitcover.com.
You were the science fiction and fantasy editor for iPublish.com; you edited novels for Del Rey Books, TokyoPop, and Night Shade Books; and you offer editorial services. What has such extensive editing taught you about your writing?
They are very different pursuits. I think my writing informs my editing more than the other way around. That is, as an editor I try to keep in mind the writer on the other end of the manuscript: what they intend, what they have invested. I try to be very sensitive to that. As an editor, I want to be invisible, helping the writer achieve their vision for the book, which is exactly what I want as a writer from my own editors. Continue reading “Interview: Guest Lecturer Paul Witcover”
Award-winning editor and publisher Neil Clarke will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. He is best known as the editor and publisher of the Hugo and World Fantasy Award-winning Clarkesworld Magazine. Launched in October 2006, the online magazine has been a finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Semiprozine four times (winning three times), the World Fantasy Award four times (winning once), and the British Fantasy Award once (winning once). Neil is also a six-time finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Editor-Short Form and two-time winner of the Chesley Award for Best Art Director.
Additionally, Neil edits Forever—a digital-only, reprint science fiction magazine he launched in 2015—and The SFWA Bulletin—a non-fiction periodical published by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. His anthologies include Upgraded, Galactic Empires, Touchable Unreality, More Human than Human, The Final Frontier, and TheBest Science Fiction of the Year series. His most recent anthology, Not One of Us, was published in November 2018 and will be followed by The Eagle has Landed in July 2019.
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 don’t think there’s anything I’d raise to that level, but I do often recommend that developing writers and editors volunteer as slush readers somewhere. The experience gives you insight into the common mistakes most writers are making and the distance you might need to start recognizing them in your own work. You’ll also see the current trends and get a good sense of your own place in the field. I’ve yet to meet a slush reader who hasn’t underestimated their skill level. The rule for writers is to quit when you stop learning. Potential editors should keep going a few more months, just to see if they can hack the experience when it becomes routine.
Scott lives in Virginia with his wife, two cats, nine guitars, a dozen overflowing bookcases, and hundreds of beer bottles from all over the world. He writes, teaches college chemistry, and is Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of the five-time Hugo Award finalist and World Fantasy Award-winning online fantasy magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies.
Scott’s literary short fiction has won a $1000 prize from the Briar Cliff Review, and his genre short fiction has appeared in Space & Time, Crossed Genres, and Ann VanderMeer’s Weird Tales.
He has lectured on short fiction, secondary-world fantasy, editing, magazine publishing, audio podcasting, heavy metal, and beer on dozens of convention panels at multiple Worldcons, World Fantasy Conventions, and regional conventions in the Northeast and Midwest. He is a five-time finalist for the World Fantasy Award, and he celebrates International Stout Day at least once a year.
A magazine editor sometimes will reply to your submitted story not with a rejection or an acceptance but with a rewrite request. (That is, asking you for revisions or changes to the story. For example, moving the point where the story starts, or rewriting the ending. This is different from edits on punctuation or word choice; those are called line edits.) This means that the editor has issues with the story as written, but if you’re interested in revising the story in the direction they feel it needs to go, they’re interested in reading a rewritten version.
Scott H. Andrews, 2005 graduate, will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop.
Scott lives in Virginia with his wife, two cats, nine guitars, a dozen overflowing bookcases, and hundreds of beer bottles from all over the world. His literary short fiction has won a $1000 prize from the Briar Cliff Review, and his genre short fiction has appeared in Ann VanderMeer’s Weird Tales, On Spec, and Space and Time. He is a World Fantasy Award finalist for his work as Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, a Hugo Award finalist fantasy magazine that Locus has called “a premier venue for fantastic fiction, not just online but for all media.”
When looking for stories for Hugo-, World Fantasy Award-, and Parsec-nominated magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies, you look for “stories that focus on the character.” What advice would you give to writers who want to create more well-rounded, fully realized, and interesting characters? Do you think there is a difference between coming up with interesting characters in short stories versus novels?
I think the core thing that every character must have is a motivation. All compelling characters want something. Even if they can’t articulate what they want or don’t know what it is, oreven if what they want is an antithetical thing, like wanting to not have a goal.
For characters who are more well-rounded or fully realized, I like a concept I’ve seen attributed to the great SF and literary writer Samuel R. Delany. Characterization often isn’t in the details of the character so much as the contradictions between those details. Imagine a character who’s a stockbroker and drives a luxury sedan. Then imagine a character who’s a stockbroker but drives a beat-up old pickup. That contradiction between those two details immediately adds another dimension to this character. It instantly feels unusual, and thus interesting. It immediately brings questions to mind: why does this stockbroker drive such a car, whereas most stockbrokers don’t and most people who drive such a car are not stockbrokers. I think contradictions are an extremely powerful characterization technique for making characters feel well-rounded and interesting.
To go beyond characters that are merely well-rounded or interesting to ones who resonate with me profoundly, I love the concepts that Faulkner mentioned in his Nobel Prize speech, which George R.R. Martin–who is routinely praised for his characters–often quotes. Faulkner said the only thing worth writing about is “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself;” the universal truths of “love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” Things like that for me really cut to the core of what it means to be human. I often find that characters who truly move me, who make me sit there in stunned silence for a moment after I’ve finished a story, are ones who touch on universal facets of human nature like those. So Faulkner’s articulation of them, while for me not by any means a method or checklist, is a good yardstick for elements that can make a character resonate profoundly with me.
I don’t think there’s any innate difference between coming up with characters for short stories versus novels. They all still need a motivation, and for me they still need to be resonant in some way. Both stories and novels have plenty of room for characters to undergo a character change, in a convincing way. I think however there is a big difference in the amount of space that those different lengths allow for the writer to develop that characterization. In a short story, the characterization needs to be clear and concise from the start; there isn’t time for it to slowly accrete through multiple incidents and interactions the way that characterization can build in a novel.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies is a magazine for literary adventure fantasy. What suggestions do you have for genre writers looking to use more literary techniques in their writing? Are there any resources in particular that you recommend?
I think a great resource for genre writers looking to use more literary techniques in their writing is the vast wealth of literary-leaning genre stories published in online magazines. We are in a golden age of literary techniques being used in genre writing, especially in short fiction, and much of that short fiction was published in online ‘zines and is available for free. To find literary-leaning stories, I might recommend starting with pieces that were finalists for major awards; stories that receive notice for awards are often more avant or literary. Another strategy would be to survey magazines that tend to publish literary-leaning stories, like BCS or Clarkesworld, and look for authors who’ve been published there multiple times.
I would also recommend that writers looking to use more literary techniques be adventurous in experimenting with literary techniques or approaches in their stories. Experimentation works great in the smaller form-factor of short fiction, where you can try something unusual or off-the-wall but with a much smaller investment of time and work than a novel.
I also think that readings from bygone high school or college English class are resources worth considering. Much of that material if you’re looking for pleasure reading is pretty dry for most people, me included, but all of that fiction is considered quite moving or profound by a consensus of some experienced readers. If there’s a classic literary author whose work is still in your head years later or who you hear mentioned by genre writers, maybe look up an old piece of theirs that you might have been forced to read back in school and see if it offers you any inspiration or insight now. It might contain something interesting and different that you weren’t experienced enough as a reader or writer back then to notice, or that you haven’t seen in genre works that you’ve read. It might spark you toward something literary-leaning or open your mind to a different direction. Some of those English-class writers of course have solid connections to our genre–Bradbury, Orwell, Huxley–and some genre writers are becoming common in lit courses–Tolkien, Le Guin.
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?
As with all fiction writing, I think that breaking down what an author is doing on the page can be invaluable as a way to gain insight into writing.
One way I like to critically break down a story is to look at it overall. View it as chunks or elements summing to a whole. How was it structured, how did it flow and escalate, how did it reveal information about the world or character. What expectations did it raise, and how or whether it delivered on them. How did it build to a peak, and how did that peak resolve (or choose not to resolve). Did it overall work for you, as a reader, or did it not, and why. Is it similar to what you, as a writer, are trying to do.
Another important way to break down a story for me is to look very closely at the opening. A story’s opening must hook readers and editors, but there are a thousand different ways to achieve that. It must give readers everything they need in order to slip into the story, but it can’t give them so much that it drives them away. One way to break down an opening is to read it extremely slowly, one phrase at a time or even one word at a time, holding a piece of paper over the rest of the words to hide them from your eyes. Then stop after each phrase or word and think about what’s going on. For each word or phrase you read, does it make you want to read on, or not? And why. Is it interesting to you, or not? Are you engaged, and if so, by what? What sort of lures is the author using to make you want to keep reading–such as curiosity, mystery, disquietude, tension, humor? Because that sort of word-by-word analysis is exactly what’s happening in my head when I read the opening of any story. Each word and phrase in that opening is either engaging or luring me somehow or it’s not, and that’s what makes me keep reading. After the first paragraph or so, you can speed up the analysis to one sentence at a time. Are those next couple paragraphs continuing to keep you reading? Are they building things, such as character and world, at an engaging level of increase? How are they doing as far as raising questions and expectations for you as a reader, and escalating or answering questions and expectations that the first paragraph raised?
A more challenging but incisive way to break down a story is to analyze its voice. Voice, for me, is the key factor that sets a story apart and makes it feel unique. How is an author you admire, or a story whose voice affects you, pulling off that voice on the page? What word choices and tone and style are they using to do it? How could you execute that sort of voice, in a way that might work for your characters or story? Voice is ephemeral and more difficult to analyze, but doing that can offer great insight into how great writers achieve it on the page.
Can you talk a little about a story Beneath Ceaseless Skies has recently published, explaining what initially drew you to it and why you bought it for the magazine, and providing a link to the story? That will allow our readers to compare your reaction to their reactions and perhaps gain some insights.
Last October in our Seventh Anniversary Double-Issue, we published “The Sons of Vincente” by I.L. Heisler, who coincidentally is an Odyssey graduate. It’s concise yet vivid; a great story to experience as a reader, then analyze more closely. It’s available at this link, as text and ebook and audio podcast:
Several things in the opening drew me. From the very first paragraph, the voice has a great feel to it for me; imposing and intense, slightly poetic but not overly so. The opening lines have vivid and tactile images, shown very concisely and with a tone of emotion to the details. That’s important to me, that details are not just details but also are conveying a sense of mood or emotion.
The opening also gets immediately to a situation of character conflict, in the second and third sentences: the narrator is fleeing, and his mother is assuring him he will be safe. But we don’t know why or what from, and that makes me curious. We also don’t know, from his childlike perspective, if his mother is lying or not, and that makes me feel uncertainty. I want to keep reading to find out. We also get concise hints of the paranormal world: the narrator has snakes on his scalp; he must be some sort of Gorgon-like creature.
As the opening continues, the narrator’s situation gets completely upended. It’s a moment that shapes his motivation for the rest of the story, and it’s portrayed so emotively that it makes me not only understand his motivation but also feel it along with him. That’s always important to me–I need to not only know or understand a character’s motivation, but I need the story to make me feel it too. I am moved by what happened to him, so I feel why he is driven to do what he does.
The story overall is intensely character-centered, about this young man working toward what he’s driven to do. The story never spells out what exactly he wants ultimately to do, but it shows you his intense attitude about what he’s doing, and that attitude makes me feel his motivation for myself even though the story isn’t yet revealing exactly what he wants.
The story is told over a long span of time, which sometimes makes a story feel less acute or immediate to me, but this one zooms in from its time-lapse narrative to include vivid and emotive episodes of character interaction, and those live-action episodes keep things feeling acute for me. It has details showing this particular society, and details of a craft or trade, in this case stonecarving. I always want to feel the world that a story is set in, and I always like getting details and jargon of interesting trades.
As the conflict builds, there are threads of escalation that are clear and others that are subtle. There are strong emotions from the characters, like love, grief, and cruelty. There is emotional pathos. All the incidents and threads fit together and resonate with each other as the story builds to a climax that ties in the subtle threads and casts a new light over everything that came before.
And all over a rather short length; the story is only 2800 words long. In addition to all the great things it includes, I think it’s also a fine example of a fantasy story with very concise world-building. Some settings require more story room to show them than others, but this story demonstrates that it’s definitely possible to write secondary-world fantasy short fiction at short lengths.
As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing 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 the most important advice I can give to developing writers is about being a neo-pro writer or workshop grad, about experiences that many neo-pros or workshop grads will face. I think I’m uniquely qualified to lecture about that because I’ve seen it from both an external perspective and an internal one. I’m a workshop grad neo-pro myself, and I’ve been through many of the experiences that neo-pros and workshop grads encounter. I can speak directly to those thing from an internal, personal perspective. I also am friends with over a hundred such writers from Odyssey and other workshops, and I’ve interacted with probably another thousand neo-pro writers who’ve submitted to BCS. I’ve seen that same neo-pro stage of being a writer also from the outside, a more objective viewpoint, so I can speak to that side of it too. I’ve lived the challenges of being a neo-pro, and I’ve watched a thousand other neo-pros live through them too.
A single and important piece of such advice for developing writers would be this: regardless of whatever studying or instruction or workshops or courses or critique groups you are using to improve your writing, I think it’s important to always make sure to still be yourself. Make sure that your writing still is uniquely yours; make sure you still keep in it whatever unique essence or slant or personality that is you. Writers often ask the question “why do you write.” Another variation on that is “what are you trying to say with your writing.” What do you want your writing to do. I think it’s important, especially when studying or workshopping or critiquing, to not lose sight of the unique personality that your writing has, and what you want it to accomplish. That is the element that sets your writing apart from everyone else’s in the galaxy. That is the thing that will let your writing offer a unique contribution.
What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?
I am trying to write a novel! It’s the third or fourth novel I’ve tried to write in the last five years. I’ve had to tear down and rebuild my process multiple times, but I think I have found one that will work, so I am at the same time trying to write a novel and trying to learn how to write a novel. Hopefully I’m on my way out of Rivendell, not merely still stuck in The Shire. 🙂
Every month or two, the Odyssey Writing Workshop releases new podcasts created from excerpts from lectures given by guest writers, editors, and agents at the Odyssey Writing Workshop. Each one is ten to fifteen minutes long.
Our two newest podcasts feature authors and guest lecturers Alexander Jablokov (Brain Thief), from the 2014 summer workshop, and Holly Black (The Spiderwick Chronicles), from the 2013 summer workshop. Alexander discusses how a character functions within a plot, and the many conventions authors use to present believable characters, while Holly explains how to create a magic system.
Other available podcasts include:
Carrie Vaughn: Goal-setting for writers (#38)
Lori Perkins: Agents, what they do, and what to look for in an agent (#37)
Sheila Williams: Qualities of short story openings (#74)
Nancy Holder: Short fiction and novel contracts; advances and royalties (#72 & #73)
Lane Robins: Outlining techniques (#64)
Craig Shaw Gardner: Writing humor in science fiction and fantasy (#18)
These podcasts and many more are available for free on the Odyssey Podcast page at http://www.sff.net/odyssey/podcasts.html. Here you may browse and download podcasts, or subscribe to podcasts so you automatically receive them upon release.
Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine editor Gordon Van Gelder will be a guest lecturer at Odyssey’s 2014 Writing Workshop. Van Gelder published his first story in 100 Great Fantasy Short-Short Stories in 1984, but the majority of his career has been spent as an editor. After a brief internship at Bluejay Books in 1986, he began working at St. Martin’s Press in July 1988. He worked there until October 2000, during which time he edited a wide variety of books, both fiction and nonfiction. Among the authors he edited are Jack Cady, Bradley Denton, K. W. Jeter, Marc Laidlaw, Brent Monahan, Judith Moffett, Rachel Pollack, William Browning Spencer, and Kate Wilhelm.
In 1997, he succeeded Kristine Kathryn Rusch as editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. In 2000, he bought the magazine from Edward L. Ferman and Audrey Ferman and became the magazine’s publisher while remaining its editor. In 2009, he changed the magazine to a bimonthly schedule.
As an anthologist, he coedited with Ferman The Best from Fantasy & Science Fiction: The 50th Anniversary Anthology and edited several other anthologies reprinting stories from F&SF: One Lamp (2003), In Lands That Never Were (2004), Fourth Planet from the Sun (2005), and The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: 60th Anniversary Anthology (2009). In 2011, he edited an anthology of all-original stories, Welcome to the Greenhouse: New Science Fiction on Climate Change, and in 2013, he edited an ebook anthology entitled Lonely Souls.
He won the World Fantasy Award (Special Award–Professional) in 2000 and in 2003. In 2007 and again in 2008 he won the Hugo Award for Best Editor–Short Form. He has taught at various writing workshops. He lives in New Jersey.
Scott H. Andrews lives in Virginia with his wife, two cats, nine guitars, a dozen overflowing bookcases, and hundreds of beer bottles from all over the world. He is a graduate of Odyssey 2005. His literary short fiction has won a $1000 prize from the Briar Cliff Review, and his genre short fiction has appeared in Ann VanderMeer’s Weird Tales, On Spec, and Space and Time. He is a World Fantasy Award finalist for his work as Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, a Hugo Award finalist fantasy magazine that Locus has called “a premier venue for fantastic fiction, not just online but for all media.”