Interview with Ellen Datlow, award-winning editor of science fiction, fantasy, and horror

<reposted from; original post 5/10/2012: please bookmark this page to follow my future blog posts>

I am excited to interview Ellen Datlow — a legend in science fiction, fantasy, and horror, a multi-award-winning editor of anthologies and story collections. Thank you, Ellen, for agreeing to do this interview.

Q: What you would like the blog readers to know about you. Which anthologies to you regularly edit?

I’m an endangered species: a short story editor of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, although I’ve been concentrating more on fantasy and horror the past few years. The only anthology I regularly edit is The Best Horror of the Year for Night Shade Books. I co-edited The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror for sixteen years with Terri Windling and then five years with Gavin Grant and Kelly Link. I always read for the horror side. They always read for the fantasy side.

Q: Apart from the regular ones (such as “the year’s best”), how do you decide which new anthology to work on, and how does the theme get selected for these anthologies?

Usually I’ll think up a theme that interests me, then contact some writers to ask if they’re interested in writing for it (bigger name ones first), write up a proposal and give it to my agent. Then she sends it out and we hope that a publisher is interested and makes an offer I can afford to accept. (this includes paying the contributors at least 6 cents a word plus how much I need in order to acquire and edit the project). Sometimes a publisher approaches me with an idea I like (for example the Poe anthology in honor of the Edgar Allan Poe Bicentennial a few years ago. Also, my editor at Dark Horse suggested Supernatural Noir as a follow up to Lovecraft Unbound, which I edited for them a couple of years previously. As I love the supernatural and love noir it was a natural. I very much enjoyed editing that one. The third way I decide is that someone with whom I co-edit or who would like to co-edit with me comes up with a theme that I like. That’s how Terri Windling and I began co-editing our original anthologies. Nick Mamatas approached me about co-editing Haunted Legends (initially for the Horror Writers Association but that didn’t work out) because he thought my being involved would help sell the antho –which it did.

Q:  If possible, describe the overall process of editing an anthology.

There are several different types of anthologies. There are all-reprint anthologies for which the editor chooses stories that already exist and there are original anthologies for which all the stories are solicited. Then there are theme anthologies vs. non-theme anthologies. An all reprint anthology can be based on a theme and/or an historical overview.

For a reprint theme anthology I put out open calls for stories, asking that readers recommend their favorites (eg. my cat anthology Tales of Wonder and Imagination and Hauntings, my forthcoming ghost story/hauntings anthology.)

For an original anthology I make a list of the writers I want in the anthology (leaving room for serendipity, i.e. the unexpected submission received through word of mouth). In fact, asking bigger name writers for stories is a part of the process of selling any anthology to a publisher. The bigger names the better. I cast a wide net among the many writers who I’ve worked with in the past and who I would like to work with in the future. My aim is always to acquire a variety of stories, always pushing against the theme. The closer an anthology comes to being done, the tighter the parameters. So if I realize I’m receiving too many stories about a specific sub-theme, or with similar types of characters, or too similar in point of view, I start urging those writers who haven’t yet handed in their stories to do something else. Several times during the process of acquiring and editing the stories (which can take up to year) I periodically encourage the writers who need encouragement and ask how their stories are coming. Most of the stories come in way before deadline, which is good. I pay as much as I can from the advance on signature of the contract, so the early birds don’t have to wait until I hand in the book to get paid. The rest get paid from the “delivery and acceptance” money. Also, there’s more flexibility in the type of story I’ll buy in the beginning. As the anthology begins shaping up I’m much more careful of repetition in point of view and sub-themes—as I said above.

A couple of months before the deadline I’ve set with the contributors I start nagging, and I also may alert the writers who haven’t yet submitted their stories that I don’t want any more of a particular type of story.

Also, as I buy stories I ask for an Afterword (if that’s the type of anthology I’m editing) and a biography for each contributor.

A month or so before I hand in the finished manuscripts I do the final line edit of each story—although for most of the stories I’ve already worked with the author on any substantive editing before I’ve committed to buying the story. But every story gets a final and thorough line edit towards the end of the process.

Q: What is your selection process of stories for the anthologies?

For The Best Horror of the Year, I send out an annual “call for submissions” which explains what kinds of stories I’m considering and my deadlines for that year. I make it clear that this is reprint only and that I’d prefer publishers to send me their anthologies, single-author collections, and magazines. Also, in the letter I explain that in my summary of the year I cover novels, novella chapbooks, non-fiction, art books, and what I call “odds and ends” —interesting things that don’t fit into other categories. I note stories that make an impact on me as I read during the year and toward the end of the year I go back to those stories to reread them multiple times until they drop out of the final table of contents or I take them. On occasion I read a story for the first time and decide on taking it for the Best of the Year immediately.

For original anthologies, after I approach the writers I want for each anthology, I follow up with them periodically (as I mention above) to see how the story is coming along. Inevitably, writers drop out because they don’t have the time to meet my deadline or they don’t have a workable idea. The advantage of asking writers I’ve worked with before or who I’ve at least read and whose work I’ve admired previously, is that usually they will write a story that works for the anthology and that I like or hopefully love. I usually make my decisions on the submissions immediately. If I love a story but think it needs work, I’ll discuss that with the writer. If the revisions it needs are minor and it’s someone I’ve worked with before I will likely commit to the story and send out a contract. But if it’s a newer writer and the story needs more work. I’ll not commit to buying the story until after we work on the story and are both happy with it. Sometimes even after an edit a story won’t be “right” for me.  I find that if I’m sitting on the fence about taking a story, it usually means I don’t love it enough to buy, in the end.

The only original open submission anthology I edited was Haunted Legends, which I co-edited with Nick Mamatas.  He insisted on having a two week window for open submissions, which we did. But we did this with the understanding that he, not I would be reading those submissions, and only passing on to me the best. So I ended up reading about twenty-five and we chose about five. But none of those stories were from complete unknowns. At least one was by a writer Nick had published. Another was from a writer I had published. And the three others were by writers one or both of us had heard of.

The selection process is always ultimately the same for any anthology. Which stories do I love and must include in the book, what stories complement the other stories and the theme (as broadly as I wish to interpret that theme), and which lend a feeling of variety to the overall selection.

Q: Does it ever happen that an invited story is not accepted, and what happens to the story in such case?

If a story doesn’t work for me or for the anthology I turn it down, saying that. It’s difficult to turn down stories from writers who have become friends (or from really big names) but one must do it. It’s my reputation on the line. Often the writer will just sell it elsewhere. But see,  that’s one reason why I hesitate to open my original anthologies. The danger is that there will suddenly be a flood of rejected stories on a specific theme floating around in the marketplace, and very probably being published before my own anthology is published. (because magazines come out more often than most anthologies).

Q: Does it ever happen that you get too many, or not enough stories that fit the theme and the style of a particular anthology, and what do you do in this case?

If I’m aware that too many great ones are coming in, I’ll alert the writers who have committed to the anthology and ask if they’ve started their story yet. If not, I’ll tell them not to. I’ve rarely turned down a brilliant story that came in at the last minute—I’ll ask my in-house editor if we can fit it in (this doesn’t mean I can slip in a novella at the last minute, but usually a short story).  If I’m worried about getting enough stories I’ll contact a few other writers in my “stable” and ask if they have time/interest in writing something quickly for me. I may also ask for a short extension on my delivery date if necessary, but I generally give myself plenty of time for drop –outs.

Q: How do you decide on the order of the stories in the finished book?

I feel the first and last stories are the most important in setting up the order. I try to begin with something accessible that’s not too dense or too strange (I’ve made exceptions, at the suggestion of my in-house editor). Last and next to last I try to put in what I consider the strongest stories—or have a really strong story with a grace note of a story afterward. I may put the oddball of difficult stories toward the middle because I feel the reader will accept the strange ones if they’re already engaged by the earlier stories. I vary length—not putting two really long stories next to each other. If I have two stories that bear some similarity to each other I’ll either put them at different ends of the book, or maybe just put them next to each other to compare and contrast their differences and samenesses intentionally. The problem with creating any anthology order is that there’s no guarantee how the reader will read the book. She may read her favorite authors first, skip around to shorter or longer stories, or she may read straight through. I have no control over that.

Q: How is the title selected for an anthology?

Usually the title comes first, as that could be a big selling point. The title for Lovecraft Unbound just came to me-I was influenced by Brian Aldiss’s use of the title Frankenstein Unbound for one of his novels. It seemed to perfectly reflect my intent for my Lovecraftian anthology—not to create yet another anthology of pastiches but to encourage writers to use elements of Lovecraftian literature to inspire new stories. Some titles were agonizing to come up with. The title of A Whisper of Blood, my second vampirism anthology was dreamed up during a five hour ride to and from Boston with my editor David G. Hartwell. The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy was suggested in desperation when neither I nor my editor could find a title we agreed on.

Q: How do you approach the editing? Is there ever a case where you like the idea of the story but there is too much editing and as a result you have to pass on it?

If I receive an interesting submission that I like but don’t think works without total overhaul, I won’t bother with it. At a magazine, it’s different. I had more leeway, as I wasn’t looking for a specific theme nor did I have deadlines regarding specific stories. I could spend the time working with a writer on her story and schedule a different one needing only a final line edit already in my inventory. An anthology has a deadline and my time to work on any one story is finite.

Q: What do you like to read?

I enjoy dark crime novels, dark, twisty novels with complex characters and the unexpected.

Q: What are your upcoming new projects?

I’ve started reading for The Best Horror of the Year Volume Five. Terri Windling and I have a young adult dystopian anthology coming out from Hyperion this October called AFTER. We’ve got adult writers in it, such as Richard Bowes, Jeffrey Ford, and Carol Emshwiller, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Carolyn Dunn , Genevieve Valentine, Katherine Langrish, Matthew Kressel, N.K. Jemisin, and Nalo Hopkinson plus popular YA writers such as Carrie Ryan, Beth Revis, Jane Yolen, Sarah Rees Brennan, Garth Nix, Gregory Maguire, Susan Beth Pfeffer, Steven Gould, and Cecil Castellucci.

I’ve turned in an all reprint anthology of ghosts and hauntings to Tachyon called Hauntings. It will be out next spring.

Terri and I have recently turned in a Victorian fantasy anthology to Tor called Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells.

I have several anthology proposals out right now but the market is tighter than it has been.

Q: Is there any advice you can give to aspiring authors on writing and publishing?

Keep writing. Send out a story and don’t wait for the acceptance or rejection. Start your next story  (or novel). Research markets. Start with the highest paying markets and move downwards from there. Publishing a story on your website means it’s “published” whether 5 people read it or 50, 000 people read it. But the likelihood of 50,000 people coming to your website to see your story is pretty low. Take a chance and get your story out there. Get used to rejection. You can learn from them. Never throw out a story. Keep it around and cannibalize it in the future for other stories.

About Anna Kashina

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3 Responses to Interview with Ellen Datlow, award-winning editor of science fiction, fantasy, and horror

  1. Hi Anna,
    Thanks a lot for sharing.Keep blogging.

  2. Thanks for posting this interview. I’m sure a lot of writers will be interested in seeing it. So, I’m sharing it on the Pixel Hall Press page on Facebook, as well as my personal page. Hope to see you at PhilCon again.

  3. First of all I want to say fantastic blog! I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if you don’t mind. I was curious to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind prior to writing. I have had a tough time clearing my thoughts in getting my ideas out. I do take pleasure in writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are wasted simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any ideas or hints? Kudos!|

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