Haunted Editors: A Tete-a-tete with Ellen Datlow
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You were twelve and the geography teacher caught you reading The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, which a friend had traded you for a box of celebrity stickers. You were sent to the back of the class and the book was confiscated because of “objectionable material, not suitable for a teenager.”
Pity. You hadn’t gotten to the sex yet.
You were thirteen and you found a copy of a magazine filled with strange stories. Stories about hungry planets and swirling. flesh-eating stardust and cracks in the fabric of mundanity. Curious and thrilled, you bought the magazine from the Old Book Shop on Main Boulevard and brought it home, where, snuggled under deliciously rustling coverlets, you read it from cover to cover. The magazine was Omni, the year was 1993, and the Fiction Editor was someone called Ellen Datlow.
Eagerly, you sought out more issues of Omni. Unfortunately, you could not find any more, nor could you discover a way to subscribe to the magazine; this was Pakistan and snail mail was too expensive.
Disappointed, you gave up and assumed that was the last you would be hearing of that magazine or that editor.
You attend the World Horror Convention 2012. You’re nervous. It is understandable: you have never been to a real writers’ convention before.
You wade through a sea of people. You smile, you nod. You sit through panels of eager or patient publishing icons discussing craft, art, and the business. People around you murmur about impersonality or personification in art. The conversation moves to short fiction. Best writers, best storytellers, best artists, best editors…
“The Anthology Queen is here, did you know that?” someone asks. When you look puzzled, they add, “Ellen Datlow. You know who she is, don’t you?”
You do. Of course, you do.
Her name is on nearly every literary horror collection you have bought in the last five years.
Ellen Datlow has been editing science fiction, fantasy, and horror short fiction for almost three decades. Once the fiction editor of Omni Magazine and Scifiction, she has edited more than fifty anthologies, including the horror half of the long-running The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror.
Ellen and frequent coeditor Terri Windling are the winners of the most World Fantasy Awards in the organization’s history (nine). She has also won the Bram Stoker Award, the International Horror Guild Award and the Shirley Jackson Award, as well as theLocus Award and the Hugo Award multiple times. She was named recipient of the 2007Karl Edward Wagner Award, given at the British Fantasy Convention for “outstanding contribution to the genre.” As if that wasn’t enough, she was also given the Horror Writers Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award “in recognition of her overall body of work.”
She has worked with stellar authors such as Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, Jonathan Carroll, Ted Chiang, and many others in the short fiction arena. Who better to ask about the art of crafting a story than the editor who consistently seeks out and publishes the best of them?
That was what I did recently when I had a chance to Skype-chat with her.
Tell us how you ended up as an editor of speculative fiction.
When I started out in publishing, all my book-publishing jobs were in mainstream areas, although I did do freelance reading for the SF Book Club, Ace, and Dell Books while working as an editorial assistant at Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. My last book-publishing job was at Crown. Eventually, I ended up working at Omni as Associate Fiction Editor with the writer Robert Sheckley, who was appointed Fiction Editor at the same time. I basically learned on the job. Bob left a year and a half later because he wanted to focus on his own writing, and I took over as Fiction Editor, a position I maintained till Omni closed its doors in the late nineties.
As an editor at Omni and elsewhere for your anthologies, what kind of styles or themes are you looking for? Do you prefer strongly thematic stories or good stories with meaning gleaned as you read? Do you actively look for symbolism or subtext between the lines or via practice can you just pick it up by proxy?
When I start reading, I hope to be drawn into the world of the story. Voice draws me in. Characters draw me in. Those are the most memorable things, sometime moreso than the actual plot. A very specific narrative voice will draw me in and keep me reading. Sometimes I’ll finish a story, and wonder what the point of the story was. Why did the writer write it?
Many new writers start off with a situation instead of a story. They don’t understand the difference between creating a situation and plotting a story.
Of course, with a theme anthology, I’ll read a story, and even if I love it, I will make an almost subconscious judgment as to whether it fits the theme. I believe in pushing the envelope of any thematic anthology I edit, so there’s often some leeway. When editing an anthology it’s crucial to acquire stories in a variety of styles—you don’t want all the stories to sound alike or be about the same subject, take place in the same geographical place or the same time period (unless those things are the theme).
I see the plot of a story as the melody and every other element of a story as the other strands that make up a piece of music. I don’t look for symbolism. It is either there or not. It either works or does not.
The stories that you find memorable —where do they come from? What do you remember most about them?
All stories come out of character. Characters anchor readers. The 3D character with quirks. Then of course, prose, the voice of the story, and the voices of the characters. When I look at novels, I pick up a book and look at the prose. Bad ones many times will also have interchangeable character voices. You hear someone talk about the voice of the character. How the actions of the protagonist and the other characters differ is sometimes part of that. Well-sketched characters with different voices. If you remove dialogue tags, readers will know who is talking just by the way they speak. Dialogue is such a crucial part of story. Elmore Leonard is great at that. Joe Lansdale’s dialogue goes snap! snap! snap!
Tell us what makes you put down a story. What makes you stop reading?
The first paragraph of a story must draw the reader in enough so that she wants to keep reading. The reader must want to know “What happened next?” Poor use of language, imprecise or boring choice of words, and I’ll start skimming until something interesting happens, or just stop reading.
What is the difference between dark fantasy and horror?
There’s a fine line between dark fantasy and horror. For me it’s a question of degree—how dark, how creepy is the story? Peter Watts’ story The Things is based on the classic story/movies but is written from the point of view of the creature, which is why I would classify it as dark fantasy rather than horror—the monster doesn’t think it’s a monster—the fear and terror the reader feels when reading the original is transmuted into something else in this “revision”.
Tell us about rejections.
Most newbies begin by receiving form letters from magazines. At the point a writer gets personal rejection letters with encouragement—that means you’re doing something right and should keep submitting. Never stop writing, revising, then submitting your story. Do not wait for a response from the magazine. Write another story, revise, and submit to a different magazine. Never stop writing. Never stop submitting.
How open do you think a Western audience would be to stories about geopolitical issues as subtext? Does cross-cultural mythology hold sway, and is awareness of lesser-known mythologies a bonus in fiction?
You can use anything in fiction, but you must tell your own story. I have seen themed anthologies that sometimes do not go far enough from the original source material of the mythologies or folk tales. There’s definitely a growing audience for non-Western stories of speculative and horror fiction. Whatever your background, use it to help tell whatever stories you choose. But they must be your stories, those you feel most passionate about. Don’t limit yourself to any one type of story; for that matter, don’t worry about genre when you have an idea. Just write the story. Go where it takes you.
How do you decide on the stories for The Best Horror of the Year?
I send out a call for submissions annually, asking publishers to send me review copies and magazines. So throughout the year I receive many horror and dark fantasy books and magazines. I specifically ask for anthologies and collections, plus novels, nonfiction, and some art books that I’ll cover in my summary of the year in horror. I try to read as many short stories as I can find. It’s a year-round process. The stories that catch my eye, I put aside for a second reading. Later, when I come back to them, if they impress me as much during my re-read as they did the first time, I’ll keep them on my shortlist. It becomes a process of elimination. This way, after three or four passes, the list narrows down to the wordage I can fit into my book.
So if I ask you for 60-second short story tips for new writers, what would you say?
Every word must mean something and be necessary. Start working on that. Description and sense of place is important. Tor.com just published a novella I acquired set in the Eastern Europe of the early twentieth century. It has some Yiddish in it but you can understand that from the context. It is a fine, dark story with magic and demons specific to Eastern Europe. The setting is crucial. Overall, when the disparate elements of a story come together and the voice is perfect, the jigsaw pieces click and you’ve got a thing of beauty.
It’s important to remember that editors have different tastes. I personally like fully fleshed out stories, not vignettes. Although experimenting with structure is difficult, it’s good to push yourself and do so; also with voice and point of view.
However, experimental fiction works best if it’s so good that the reader isn’t even aware of it.
Second-tense future tense sometimes works; Michael Bishop’s Life Regarded as a Jigsaw Puzzle of Highly Lustrous Cats (originally published in Omni and reprinted in Tails of Wonder and Imagination) is a good example.
Readers should not expect the same thing from your stories each time. You can get away with this more in short fiction than in novels, so do it. Use the form to experiment.
Tell me some of the magazines aspiring writers should read.
God, there are so many. Black Static from the UK has good stories. Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction sometimes runs horror stories. Subterranean Magazine has good horror. Clarkesworld, Lightspeed has a bunch of good stuff. Nightmare is good. Aurealisfrom Australia does well. Tor.com has some horror, and hopefully will publish more as I buy some. Check out the ‘Best of the Year’ anthologies of science fiction, fantasy, and horror to get a feel for the state of speculative fiction.
Before we wrap up, any last words on stories?
I really like stories that hit me in the gut or the heart. I tend to reprint my favorite stories over and over. You can write whatever you like and then worry about genre or market. If you are always writing something that doesn’t fit, only then should you worry a little. First write really well, and people will notice.