Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Six Questions for Betsy Dornbusch, Editor, Electric Spec

Electric Spec is a quarterly publication of science fiction, fantasy and the macabre.  Electric Spec has been publishing for five years, and all its editors have been with it since the beginning and are published writers. We also write a blog on writing, short stories, and the industry at Learn more here.

SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a story and why?

BD: I want a compelling, strong protagonist with a problem that appears roughly on the first page. (That sounds like two things, but it's impossible to separate character and story problems in good stories.)

Solid, clear writing. Voice is less important to me than some editors. I feel it should match story and character, not overwhelm it. Take it easy on the dialect and big words. A little snark goes a long way with me. I'm not picky about POV, though, first or third is cool.

Finally, I like a vivid world drawn by concentrating on its important elements. World building is essential to speculative fiction, and the short form doesn't provide a lot of room for description. My bent is "less is more" for description, even in novels. Give me the essential elements that best illustrate your world and let my imagination fill in the rest.

SQF: When reading a story, what clues tell you the story was written by a novice author?

BD: Business-wise, a cover letter that tells me what the story is about, rather than just name, contact info, and word count. You can list previous publications if you want. Copyright notices are a sign of amateurism. Editors have no interest in stealing your story. Writers formatting their manuscripts with fancy fonts and colors make me batty. That's my job.

As far as writing goes, common newbie issues are a lack of command of grammar and spelling, word echoes, use of past progressive and overuse of the word "was", and poor/confusing sentence structure. When in doubt, use subject/verb construction.

Story-wise, stereotypical plots indicate the writer is not well-read in the genre. For instance, the old saw Vampires Are Dead applies; a story has to be super-unique to sell the vampire mythos to me. Also, we see writing  with no plot, no real characters, just someone waxing poetic on a theme or imagery without framing it within Story. It's safe to say we require the basics: a plot, a protagonist, an antagonist, and a story goal.

SQF: What other common mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a story?

BD: Ignoring our word count guidelines, which are firm and generous. Telling instead of showing, or showing action and then following it up with an explanation under the guise of internal narrative. Explaining everything down to the last detail, from character action to setting description. Launching a character description with hair and eye color rather than concentrating on the most important traits. (It's very en vogue right now to skip most physical character description in spec fiction, even in novels.) An abundance of what I call "authorial discovery," bits that should have been cut from when a writer was first drafting and learning about their story. Loose threads. A cast of thousands when just a few characters would do.

SQF: Do you provide comments when you reject a story?

BD: No. We don't have time. That said, I do run a "First Page Game." Send me your first page, and I'll critique it. We do post the first page and my comments on the blog, but it can be anonymous if you like.

SQF: What do you consider to be the primary responsibilities of an editor?

BD: My job is to choose stories for our readers. Writers complain about editor subjectivity but that very subjectivity is why readers come to Electric Spec and other magazines.

That makes it sound like we don't focus on writers, though. Part of our mission is to provide new writers a venue to showcase their work. A healthy crop of magazines and publishers only help writers, readers, and our industry, about which we're passionate. But our job is mostly about Story, and so that's our primary focus.

SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?

BD: A word on confident writing. Confidence is showing instead of telling, trusting your readers to get your point via the plot and action, and trusting yourself to show what you mean. A short story works best as imagery, not a labeled diagram. Figure out what your story is about and make all the elements serve that.

Thank you, Betsy. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.

NEXT POST: 4/15--Six Questions for Stephanie Taylor, Publisher, Astraea Press

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Jim & Betsy! Lots of good information here! :)
    I'm not sure I knew all that about Betsy and her editting opinions/guidelines! :)