Interview: Guest Lecturer Neil Clarke

Published by Wendy Dye on

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 The Best 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.

Bonus advice: If you are still seeking your first sale, every editor I know wears their “discoveries” as a badge of honor. Saying “I am previously unpublished” in a cover letter is not a bad thing. When you do sell your first story, make sure the purchasing editor knows.

You’ve edited Clarkesworld Magazine since its first issue on October 1, 2006and have maintained a regular monthly schedule since, which is an amazing feat. What are some of the challenges in maintaining a regular publication schedule?

cw_146_700Once you have your routine established, it’s pretty straightforward and just milestones on a calendar. The problem I have is that I know just how close to the edge I can go. We rarely have more than two months’ worth of inventory in stock, so that certainly adds to the challenge. I have an amazing team working with me at Clarkesworld (special nods to Sean and Kate), and we’ve always managed to come through even in a crunch. If I had to identify our biggest risk, it would probably be me. I handle the entire back end of the operation, so when something happens to me, no one gets paid, issues don’t get published, etc. I had a near-fatal heart attack in July 2012. We somehow—working from my hospital bed—managed to get the new issue out on schedule, but it opened my eyes to some production issues I’m still trying to eliminate.

What are the most common problems in the manuscript submissions you receive?

Aside from not following the guidelines, the big problems are not knowing where to begin or end the story—the story starts on page 3 or ends a few paragraphs before the end—and being predictable. You’d be surprised how many submissions come in for which you can describe the entire plot and ending after reading a page or two. If you can see how it will end, the journey better be worth it.

As an editor, you’ve asked some authors to make revisions to their stories before acceptance. What is one instance in which you suggested revisions and the result worked well? What did the author do to improve the story, leading you to buy it?

I think I tend to ask more questions than suggest specific solutions. I recall reading one story with great characters and an interesting premise, but many pages in, the character acted in a way that was incompatible with the image in my head. Questioning that scene led the author to realize that they had not adequately set up the scene in the preceding pages. The small portion of the world they had shared with me wasn’t enough and it turned out to be one of the rare successful occasions where a story grew longer in revisions. With the gap filled in, everything made perfect sense.

In August 2018, you posted the data on the genres you’ve published in Clarkesworld since 2012 with approximately 77% categorized as science fiction. What draws you to that genre in particular? Is there any other genre you wish you’d see more of?

bsfoty3The percentages are more of a reflection of the stories we receive, but I probably do have more of a natural bias towards science fiction. I’ve always been intrigued by the future and technological progress. It influenced my reading, viewing, my college major (Computer Science in the mid-’80s), a 25-plus-year career in technology that required me to often think like a futurist, and even launching Clarkesworld.

I don’t know that there’s something specific I’d like to see more of. I much rather people send what they enjoy writing. I like to be surprised by a story, and when you single something out as “send more,” that’s all you get.

You’ve published a number of translations in Clarkesworld, which has introduced some great stories to a wider audience. What can U.S.-based authors learn about their craft from reading translations? What draws you to translations?

Craftwise, I wouldn’t single out translations. Anything you read, across any genre, from any part of the world, is a learning opportunity. Reading broadly is a great way to expose yourself to new or different approaches, points of view, and techniques. The trick is leaving your comfort zone, so if you are only reading domestic works, translations may indeed fit that bill.

The second question is actually connected to what draws me to any story and is something that I have difficulty answering. I have had many theories about this and did a survey to investigate one of them. In the end, I wrote an editorial about the experience and some of my observations. It’s a lot of information, so it’s best to just send you to instead of trying to summarize it. I think it’s safe to say that if that theory holds, then my interest in international and translated fiction is definitely connected in some way. They are bringing something different to the table. That might be their own influences, culture, beliefs, perspectives, or any number of other things. It is a contributing factor in what draws me to them.

You edited The Best Science Fiction of the Year, volumes 1 through 3. What did you look for in stories to include?

For the first eleven months of the year, it’s just me reading everything that comes across my desk and adding my favorites to a list I select from during the final phase of the project. I’m not looking for a specific type of story, just ones that appeal to me. Culling that list down to 250,000 words of my absolute favorites is the challenge. Some are unique enough that they are easy picks. They are all well written, so after the obvious candidates, it could just be an interesting idea, a character that leapt from the page, or some emotional impact that pushes it over the edge.

Wendy Dye