So I started reading Apex with issue 1 in paper. I picked it up at this little used bookstore that my friend Matt Haughton ran. It was really out of place, perched on the top shelf amongst the local poetry chapbooks and straight fiction treatises. There were five or six copies of it on the shelf (the same five or six copies that some weird guy named Jason had brought in in the first place). I was there to finally pay off a hardback first press copy of Tolkien’s Silmarillion and Collected Letters. I passed on the Silmarillion and walked out with Apex #1 tucked inside J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters. My life was never the same. I purchased every one, sometimes with change and Jason told me a few years later that I was the only person that ever bought one at that store. It certainly didn’t fit in that place, but it was the single most important moment in my science fiction writing career.
After reading a story in issue 4 about a guy to crashes on an desert planet and begins eating, well, everyone, I realized that I was ready to start seriously shopping my work around again. I had given up on publishing a few years earlier and just wrote for my own amusement. Apex changed this. I realized seeing that awesome, self made magazine that we own science fiction; the readers, writers, and fans are all that matters and if we wait for major corporate entities to give us our stories then we will be eating spoonfuls of crap. I started writing and submitting. I haven’t always been as productive as I am these days, but I have never stopped.
With all this being said it is my particular honor to present my interview with Maggie Jamison
, submissions editor for Apex Digest
. So many young and new writers begin to understand the business of publishing their work through a fog that only parts with the slow illumination of multiple failures and rarer successes. Maggie goes a long way toward piercing the fog. I’ve been beating my head against the market for years and I learned a ton. Enjoy! Visit her blog! (She likes robots… or understands inevitability.)
Andrew) How is working at Apex Books?
M.J) It’s a lot of fun. My co-editors are all brilliant and evil in the best ways, and I’ve learned a ton about the “biz” from them. It can also be very time-consuming, so time management is something I’ve had to learn, too, just to get everything done! But I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Andrew) What made you want to work in such a glamorous field?By ‘glamorous’ I mean a field where you bosses are always putting glamours, spells and hexes on you.
M.J.) I believe it was a brain slug secretly slipped into one of my winter caps by editor-in-chief Jason Sizemore, but—according the brain slug—I had always wanted to get involved in the publishing industry.
The longer story is this: I was an English major in college, and had recently turned my sights on taking my writing more seriously as a possible—though not lucrative—career. I’d picked up a copy of Apex’s print magazines at my local bookstore, and got hooked. So when Jason put out a call for submissions editors, I jumped at the opportunity. It helped that I’d done some intern work for the State University of New York Press, mostly in their marketing department, and marketing experience was what Jason was looking for at the time.
Andrew) How many submissions do you deal with on a day to day basis?
M.J.) Depends on the day, really! Most days, I tackle my submissions and other Apex work (often more marketing related) during my lunch break at my day job. Taking length-of-story, success-of-story, and the amount of time I actually have available, I usually move through between two and six per day, every day. (Two, if the stories are long and good; six, if they’re short and not well done.) I usually received about twenty submissions a week via our excellent slush-wrangler Chris, though lately we’ve lost a few of our submissions editors in the great battle for world domination, so I’m probably getting a few more now to help catch up on what was left in their inboxes.
Andrew) Is there a typical point at which you know you are dealing with a worthwhile story?
M.J.) If I look at the page-number and see that I’ve flown past page five without even realizing I’ve been reading that long, usually I know I’m dealing with a good one. Then it just depends on the ending. If I’m having to fight to get to page five, that’s a story I usually pass on.
Sometimes, though, it can be faster. I’ve had a few stories that grabbed me right off the bat, and by style, by voice, and by idea, I just knew they were going to work.
Andrew) Have you ever passed on a story based on a first line? Do you remember what it might have been?
M.J.) Yes, I have. I don’t recall what the sentence was specifically, but I recall that there were three grammatical errors in it, and the entire document had no paragraphs. If someone’s not going to take the time to edit their work—especially the first sentence!—there’s no reason for me to waste my time reading it.
Andrew) How important are titles for you?
M.J.) Surprisingly, I’ve found proper titling makes a significant difference for me as a submissions reader. There are some titles that give away so much of the main idea that I actually know what the ending will be long before I get there. And there are others which grab my attention and stoke up my interest before I even start to read. Even so, a bad title won’t get a story rejected, but a good one sets the stage and whets the appetite for everything that follows.
Andrew) Most editors and writers I know believe that patient editing and work-shopping can make a marginal story into a great story, but you are not teaching creative writing or running a workshop. Do you ever run across stories you know are diamonds in the rough, but just too rough to consider? How do you communicate this to the writer?
M.J.) Usually, I try to let him or her know that the idea is really, really good, but that the way it’s currently told doesn’t work for it. I see a lot of these actually, usually in the form of “twist” or “surprise” endings, in which the main chunk of the story is a slow, plodding, and awkward set-up for the amazing moment at the end. But then, I’ve usually only seen that “moment” because I skimmed past everything else. For most of these kinds of stories, the idea at the end can be very good, but the story should have started with that idea, instead of holding it at arm’s length and hiding it away at the finish.
Andrew) Grammar problems that make you curse?
M.J.) I’m not too much of a grammar-hound, but one that does drive me nuts is improper punctuation at the end of dialogue.
“So sue me,” he said.
“So sue me.” He said.
(And it’s = it is, where as its = belonging to it.)
Andrew)Science fiction in the last thirty years has really broken down the expository forms of its earlier eras, but how experimental is too experimental?
M.J.)This is a little tricky to define. I think what it really comes down to for me is this: it’s too experimental if it can’t be enjoyed as a story. I like experimental stuff, but I’ve got to be able to enjoy it, even if I’m pretty sure I don’t “get” it.
Andrew) “I was just an average private eye trying to get by in this big city when she walked through my door…” How does that make you feel?
M.J.) Like grimacing, but only because we get a lot of sci-detectives, and almost all of them going for the “noir” feel start like that. Not that I’ve ever seen one with a female detective saying the same for a handsome, rich, young man walking into her office…
And it’d give me the good kind of chills if it were the beginning of a Sam Spade novel or a Humphrey Bogart movie, because I love actual noir detective stories!
Andrew) The most interesting up and comer is? Why?
M.J.) Hmm… That’s a good question! Most of what I read these days is slush (though that’s changing!) which doesn’t leave me nearly as much time to read new stuff just coming out. But if I had to go with someone, I’d say Peter M. Ball because his stories always linger in my mind after I’ve read them, and they make my soul smile. We’ve got two of his stories in APEX MAGAZINE, “To Dream of Stars: An Astronomer’s Lament” and “Clockwork, Patchwork, and Ravens” (which actually came through my submission pile!). I expect big things from him in years to come.
“Clockwork, Patchwork…” http://www.apexbookcompany.com/apex-online/2009/05/short-fiction-clockwork-patchwork-and-ravens-by-peter-m-ball/
“To Dream of Stars…” http://www.apexbookcompany.com/apex-online/2009/10/short-fiction-to-dream-of-stars-an-astronomer’s-lament-by-peter-m-ball/
Andrew) “Astronomer’s Lament” is one of the most original tales I have encountered in awhile and it represents a really fresh take on the “alternate history” story. What balance of science to fiction do you try to strike in your selections?
M.J.) For APEX, the science needs to be believable and central. There are always a few stories in which the fiction angle is very strong, but the science just isn’t there, and it’s been hard to turn those stories away. But our readers are intelligent folks, and they’ll know if the science is off. For “Astronomer’s Lament”, I remember all of us editors having a lengthy conversation about whether or not it was sci-fi enough. In the end, we determined that it was, and pushed it out to our readers. But I’ve read others that were downright brilliant horror stories, but had no sci-fi element. I’ll admit, I died a little on the inside having to turn a few of those away. But I’m reading for APEX, and APEX wants sci-fi, pure and simple. In fact, as I recall, there were a few Peter M. Ball stories that were more fantasy than sci-fi that we did have to turn down earlier. Boy, was that hard!
Andrew) The most interesting recent market in the sci-fi/fantasy/horror arena?
M.J.) Recent market… hmm… I’ve heard good things about Morpheus Tales, but I haven’t had a chance to read their magazine in-full yet. The samples I’ve read of their print stuff has been very good so far!
Andrew) How much does having no publication history hurt a new writer?
M.J.) To me, not at all. Truth be told, I don’t even read the cover letters until I’ve read the story. So whether it’s No Name Sue or Mr. Five-Times Nebula-Nominated, it always comes down to the individual story. One thing I’ve learned: just because you have publishing credits doesn’t mean that every story you write is good. In fact, I suspect that the moment you start thinking like that, the writing quality goes down the drain.
Andrew) Do you ever rely on the ‘form’ rejection or do try and give notes? Is there a quality threshold that triggers a personal reply (negative or positive qualities to be sure).
M.J.) Most times, these days, I do use the form rejection letter APEX has, though it is modified so that we can check-off the specific category a story fell into that made it be a “no” rather than a “go”. (Most used explanations being: “no sufficient sci-fi element”, and “didn’t hold interest”, though lately I’ve been using the “poorly-edited manuscript” choice much too often.) I do have a section on my form letters that I’ll leave in if I want to make a comment. I tend to take at least brief notes while reading a story, jotting down what page I start losing interest, what irks me, what works for me, and if there’s something constructive I can say, I usually try to say it. I always make comments if a story is really close to what we’re looking for, but just doesn’t quite measure up, particularly if it’s a mechanical issue (there’s too much standing-and-talking to explain the back story; or, I love the idea, but I didn’t feel anything for the main character).
I think the only time I’d comment for a negative—usually I just check a box and send it on its way—is if someone does something stupid in a cover letter, and there’s really only one thing people can do to annoy me enough to comment on it: don’t tell me how many times your story has been rejected. I’ve always been surprised that folks would actually volunteer that information, but some do! I’m not sure what they’re hoping to accomplish by doing so; usually it just makes me think, “So you think we publish stuff no one else wants?” You don’t want that in my head before I start reading your story. Needless to say, none of the stories that have announced their rejection count have ever been particularly good, much less pushed up—at least not by me!—or bought by APEX.
Andrew) If I change my name to “Arthur McAwesomeington,” will my chances of a sale improve? If I change my name to “Neil Gaiman?”
M.J.) Not at all. Though it might irritate me right off the bat, and annoying the submissions reader is the one thing every submitter should strive to avoid.
Andrew) Insert your own best advice to new and aspiring writers here:
M.J.) Never forget to world-build. Whether your story takes place in modern present-day, the distant past, or the far future: take the time to think through as much of the backdrop as you can. What kind of foods are popular? What do people wear? What keeps people socially connected (or not)? What kind of jobs do people have? What matters to these people—honor, a good TV show, a beautifully displayed corpse? All the stories that ultimately get “pushed up” to our editor-in-chief tend to have one thing in common: they take place in rich, real-feeling worlds.
I tend to mention this when critiquing fiction, too: a story should feel like a window. The world your characters live and die in has existed long before the reader ever picks up the story, and it will continue to exist long after the reader puts it down. The story itself is just a glimpse into a parallel universe.
Andrew) Is Jason Sizemore a member of a radical Michigan based group bent on overthrowing the government?
M.J.) I’m sorry. My brain slug is telling me there’s no such person as “Jason Sizemore”, and no such place as “Michigan”. But my brain slug does get updates from Wikipedia, so it may just have been poorly edited.
Maggie with favorite editing tool.