Thanks to Derek Künsken for the suggestion for this blog.
A common admonition in the guidelines of magazines recommends that writers read several copies in order to understand what the editor/editors want. If nothing else, it’s a good way of selling the magazine. It’s probably reasonable advice, too, with a couple of provisos. Only read the most recent issues – at least that will tell you what they were looking for six to twelve months ago. It will also help avoid the rejection: “We liked your writing but recently published several ‘selkies in space’ stories.” Also check to make sure the editor hasn’t changed. Of course, the slush readers may have changed, too, so even if you manage to match the editor’s tastes, he or she is not necessarily going to see your story if the slush readers aren’t in tune. With those warnings in mind, I highly recommend you buy a copy of my last anthology, “Blood and Water,” to understand what I’d like to see for the upcoming “Strange Bedfellows” anthology.
Oh, if it were only so easy.
Derek recommended an alternative approach. Tell us “what elements *you* like in SF? Maybe what works inspired you before and what inspires you now? Something to give readers and submitters more of a feel of your editorial tastes.” He also suggests that I include my literary tastes outside the genre; maybe I’ll add movies and music, too.
I grew up reading the classics – Heinlein and Asimov, of course, Clarke and Bradbury to a lesser extent. Even with those, my tastes weren’t indiscriminate. I loved Asimov’s robot books especially his robot detective (Caves of Steel and so on) but found the Foundation books ponderous. I divide Heinlein into pre-Stranger in a Strange Land, which I mostly enjoyed and post- which I found to be simplistic drivel. For both Clarke, and especially Bradbury, I liked their short stories better than their novels. I recall trying to read Something Wicked This Way Comes (twice) but not finishing it. There were writers I consumed in large quantities: Andre Norton, especially the Witch World and Time Trader series; Poul Anderson’s early fantasies (Three Hearts and Three Lions and The Broken Sword) and, later, his Terran Empire and particularly the Flandry books. In a similar vein, I always enjoyed the Reteif novels of Keith Laumer. There’s a theme growing here – the idea of the spy, the lone detective, the scout, the explorer always appealed to me more than stories of emperors or generals. Despite my socialist leanings when it comes to real life; I’ve always cottoned to the fictional idea of the lone warrior changing the world against all odds. Wasp by Eric Frank Russell, and yes, I admit it, Conan, were both youthful favorites.
Dangerous Visions (1967) and Again, Dangerous Visions (1972), edited by Harlan Ellison, pretty much turned the genre on its head. The so-called New Wave wasn’t exactly new – Aldiss, Dick, and Farmer had been around and playing around with fiction for a few years; writers like Leiber, Pohl and Del Rey had been writing for decades but not quite like this; Zelazny and Lafferty were just emerging. If the first volume was thin on female writers, the second made up for it: Le Guin’s novella, “The Word for World is Forest,” Joanna Russ’s Nebula wining “When it Changed” and pieces by Kate Wilhelm and James Tiptree Jr. were all featured. It was heady stuff for a teenager (as I then was) – filled with sex and gender-bending and just plain weirdness. It introduced me to writers I’d never heard of and gave me new insights into writers who had been old favorites. All of a sudden my interests had shifted from pure adventure – space ships and strange new worlds – to sex, politics, religion and Brave New World (as I began to step outside the bounds of traditional genre to explore Huxley and Orwell, among others). Moorcock’s Behold the Man, Farmer’s Flesh and LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness all hit me like sledgehammers and generated a lifelong fictional interest in the anthropological, Freudian and feminist analyses of the underpinnings of cultural institutions. Whoa! My graduate work in Social and Political Thought is starting to take over.
Still, you get my point. I like my stories to look at the world askance rather than head on. Subtle, deep and constantly questioning rather than superficial or mainstream. As Theodore Sturgeon used to say: Ask the Next Question.
Until I hit about twenty (when I switched from chemistry to political science at university) I was a voracious reader. In fact, I suspect I read as many books before the age of twenty as I have in the nearly forty years since. I certainly didn’t confine myself to genre either, although I consumed everything Joe Haldeman, C.J. Cherryh and Connie Willis were writing. By fifteen I had read most of Dickens, all of Jane Austen and much of both of the Bronte Sisters. I’d walked the beaches with Robinson Crusoe and spent two years before, behind and on top of the mast. I’d also read the Bible for cover to cover and Lord of the Rings three times. By twenty I had decided I loved Hemingway but was indifferent to Faulkner and had begun to explore what became a lifelong love: the detective novel, Doyle, Christie, Chandler and Hammett. My recent discovery of John D. MacDonald and rediscovery of Rex Stout have been a joy of the last decade.
These days, I’m happy to read thirty books in a year – now that I’m reading so much slush, I’ll be lucky to read twenty. A lot of what I read is research: the last three years I’ve been focusing on the political, cultural and artistic revolution that was Paris between the World Wars. The fiction I do read tends to be divided between SF, mysteries and certain literary favorites. I read little fantasy and no high fantasy at all – I’ve tried but I seldom get past the first twenty pages. The science fiction tends to be more optimistic than dystopian – I like Sawyer’s WWW series for example though I’m also a big fan of the dark politics-tinged SF of Ken McLeod. I’m also keen on SF from a different point of view – George Alec Effinger’s 1980s books were a nice recent find and G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen was a lot of fun – even though it was more slipstream fantasy than anything else. At least some of my literary fiction has speculative elements – anything by Chabon, Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude was brilliant though I couldn’t get through Chronic City, and Niffennegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife was a heart-breakingly powerful examination of mortality. Beyond that, I’ve read everything by Africans Chinua Achebe and J.M. Coetzee (Foe, which spun Robinson Crusoe in a different direction was a particular favorite) and Australia’s Tim Winton.
Is there a pattern in all this that might guide potential submitters? Maybe. I like clean writing and complex stories. Probe politics, religion, gender, race anyway you want though I prefer stories that take consistent moral stands, even if I disagree with them. No mushy middle ground for me and really no bad guys pretending to be good. (I’ve been known to walk out of movies when I couldn’t see a difference between the so-called hero and the villains – Air Force One comes to mind but pretty much anything by Tarantino would fit the bill too.) I’m very open to the views of the outsider – in fact I prefer them. Strong emotions and unsentimental world-views are critical. Mix in a bit of mystery – of the scientific or detective kind. And story, story, story. I want beginnings, middles and, most of all, ends. I like it in novels, short stories, movies and even songs. Bruce Springsteen, Joan Osborne, Keb Mo, Jamie Cullen, Shawn Mullin, Barney Bentall, Melissa Etheridge – some famous, some obscure but all great story tellers. See I told you I’d get movies and music in here, too. And here’s another clue: I prefer the Year’s Best SF collections of Hartwell to those of Dozois, Strahan and Horton – though there is something to be said for all of them.
Don’t know if that helps but it was fun to reminisce.