Editor's Desk: Trying on an Old Shoe
One of the things I’ve enjoyed about being self-employed is the flexibility to say “yes” to opportunities that would have previously been made complicated by the presence of the day job. As I write this, I’ve just returned from a day trip to Chicago where I had the chance to speak at an event hosted by Myth-Ink, the SFFH Writers of Columbia College. A major part of what I enjoyed about my career in academia was working with students, so it was very nice to be able to step into those shoes again.
Entering this field as a writer or an editor can be a fairly intimidating process. It’s incredibly easy to look at things from a numbers-only perspective and lose hope. As I’m fond of pointing out though, success in this field is not a matter of beating the quantitative odds. All stories are not equal. For example, I will always reject a zombie story. That means the odds of selling one to me are 0%. It doesn’t stop people from submitting them, but the ever-increasing pile of those stories does nothing to change the odds that I’ll buy one.
Quality, the factor by which stories are selected for publication, is entirely subjective. By and large, it’s hard to say where someone will land in that qualitative pool, but I have observed a common thread among people I see taking classes, joining writing groups, or otherwise actively trying to improve their work—they are always much better than they think. Imposter syndrome, low self-esteem, a lack of confidence in your work, fear of rejection, placing their peers on pedestals, etc. get in the way of improvement and success. We are our own worst enemies.
My advice to people looking to be writers or editors almost always starts with “read slush.” (Slush is a term used to describe the pile of submitted stories.) It’s by no means a glamorous task, but it gives you a sense of perspective of the field: what are the trends, common mistakes, and where you fall in that qualitative spectrum. I also tell writers to leave those positions once they reach a point of diminishing returns. Let someone else pick up the ball and you go and take advantage of what you’ve learned. Future editors should probably stick with it a bit longer, just to see if they can endure the process past the point of it being a learning experience.
Obviously there aren’t enough of these opportunities for every new author and editor to take advantage of, but you’d also be surprised by how few people actually pursue these positions. Our application pool often numbers below thirty and there are thousands of new writers in the field.
All that said, being a slush reader or taking classes isn’t luxury everyone can take advantage of and it’s certainly not a requirement. This month, I became a finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Editor Short Form for the fifth time. My degree is in computer science and I have only one college level English course (required) to my name. I entered this field at age forty with no professional experience whatsoever. What I had to my advantage was decades of voraciously reading short fiction, a love for the genre, and a willingness to ask questions. I reached out to editors and a number of small press publishers for advice and began the long process of learning.
Why did I start? I thought it might be fun. I never anticipated just how much I’d enjoy it or that other people would think I was good to nominate for a Hugo. As time progressed, I took on more work and at some point it clicked that maybe this could be a viable career path. Five years ago, a near-fatal heart attack served as the latest wake-up call, shifting priorities and redefining what was most important in my life. I started pushing myself past my comfort zone and taking advantage of these situations to learn whatever I could in pursuit of my new goals. This past February, I was able to take the latest step forward and it was the result of both hard work and the support of those around me.
I’m now working full-time as an editor, but that next goal of earning a full-time paycheck still eludes me. Leaving academia provided me with the extra hours in the week I need to make this work. I also realize that I can take some of the best aspects of my old career with me by continuing to make time for students (self-taught or traditional). There’s no reason to leave behind something I enjoyed and given that so many people were willing to share knowledge or help me out when I started, I see this as a way to give back to the community and show my gratitude to those that helped me. That right there is why I was willing to take just over a day out of my schedule and travel halfway across the country to talk with a room full of students.
It’s easy to feel unwelcome or disrespected at the start of your career or even well into it. It’s not an easy path and it’s riddled with people rejecting your stories, saying no to your ideas, or even just doubting your ability to earn enough to provide food, clothing, and shelter for you or your family. Like many others in this field, I believe those of us further along the path have an obligation to reach back and help, even if only for a few hours. From my years in academia, I can tell you that it’s those little gestures that often have the biggest impact on individuals and the community at large. If you ever get the chance, I heartily recommend it.
Neil Clarke is the editor of Clarkesworld Magazine, Forever Magazine, and several anthologies, including the Best Science Fiction of the Year series. He is a ten-time finalist and current winner of the Hugo Award for Best Editor (Short Form), has won the Chesley Award for Best Art Director three times, and received the Kate Wilhelm Solstice Award from SFWA in 2019. His latest anthology, New Voices in Chinese Science Fiction (co-edited with Xia Jia and Regina Kanyu Wang), is now available from Clarkesworld Books. He currently lives in NJ with his wife and two sons.