Trevor Quachri Interview

interview by Carl Slaughter

Trevor Quachri photoTrevor Quachri recently took over from longstanding Analog editor Stanley Schmidt. Science fiction writers want to know what changes, if any, to expect. They also want to know how, exactly, to sell their stories and how to avoid getting their stories rejected.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: Will you read every submitted story or assign slush readers?

TREVOR QUACHRI: Every submitted story is pretty absolute, but the overwhelming amount of time, yeah, I’m going to be the only person reading the slush. Stanley Schmidt read all the submissions himself, and that’s something I want to continue, as much as I’m able. I know that’s the opposite of how most other magazines do it, but it’s tough for me to really feel like the magazine reflects my vision or tastes if I’m not actually looking at the majority of stories that come in. That said, I also know that right out of the gate I’m nowhere near as fast as someone with thirty-four years of experience under their belt, so if I’m not quite to where I can do it all yet, I’m also not above accepting a little help for a bit.

 

CS: How far into a story do you go before you decide not to continue reading? How far into a story do you go before you decide to read it til the end?

TQ: It depends on the story. There are three major questions I’m constantly asking myself as I work , 1) “Is this readable? 2) Where’s the science? 3) Does the science hold up?” — and how far I make it depends on the answers I’m coming up with. If it’s not readable, I don’t get far at all. If it’s readable, but I can’t find the science, I’ll make it further in. If it’s well written and the science is there, then I’ll read the whole thing. Length is also a big factor. For obvious reasons, I’m much more likely to give a 5,000 word short story the benefit of the doubt than I am to make myself stick with a 22,000 word novella that’s still not working for me at the half-way point.

 

CS: Science fiction is about the exploration of science, but it’s also about the implications of science. How much emphasis do you place on the technical aspects of a story and how much emphasis on the human element?

TQ: Good science fiction has both elements working in concert, hand-in-hand, building off one another. If your story would still work if you largely excised one aspect or the other, you’re either writing bad science fiction or good lit-fic. So a story where one is emphasized to the exclusion of the other is going to be a tough sell for me.

 

CS: How much of a chance does a new writer have with Analog and how much of an edge does an established writer have?

TQ: The primary advantage an established writer has is that I’m probably going to read them slightly sooner. Otherwise, that’s about it. Much of an established writer’s “edge” is just a matter of them behaving professionally, having a sense of what I’m looking for, and being persistent. Any newcomer can handle that.

 

CS: Do you automatically publish stories submitted by Analog regulars like Brad Torgerson and Carl Frederick? How often do you reject a story by an author familiar to Analog readers?

TQ: This is probably a better question for the authors, but the short answer to the first part is “Heck no.” They have to earn their spot, just like everyone else. Even the Analog regulars who have sold to me have racked up their share of rejections from me, too. Part of an editor’s job is to say, “This isn’t good enough; I think you can do better,” and it doesn’t do anyone any favors to spare them from that.

 

CS: How many stories per year are by unpublished writers? How many by writers new to Analog readers?

TQ: Well, I haven’t actually put out a year’s worth of issues yet, so it’s tough to say exactly. I’d guess anywhere from a quarter to a third are from unpublished (or mostly unpublished) writers. Established writers who haven’t previously appeared in Analog are the smallest group, after regulars and new writers, in that order. They probably only make up ten percent or so. That’s not a conscious decision on my part; I think most people who are already selling regularly just don’t branch out all that much.

 

CS: Will winning Writers of the Future or some other prestigious award get an author a foot in the door with Analog?

TQ: The way I do things right now, I really only look at the cover letter (where most people list their bona fides) after I’ve actually read the story. So I already have a pretty solid sense of whether or not the story works by the time I even see an awards list. If all the accolades seem inconsistent with what I thought, I may go back and give the story another quick once-over to see if I missed something, so awards can act like a little bit of a safety net, but that’s about it.

 

CS: What subgenres and premises are you especially interested in and which definitely don’t excite you?

TQ: Editors hate being specific about this kind of thing, because it means we’ll see a million bad stories about the subject that we said interested us, and all the good ones with premises that haven’t historically appealed to us (but conceivably still could) will go elsewhere. Broadly, I’d love to see more stories that push the boundaries of what people think of when they hear “hard science fiction.” Hard SF has a very specific image, both among people who love it and people who hate it, but I think that image can be reductive. So anything that challenges that image is the kind of thing that will get my attention. Atypical characters and settings and under-represented disciplines like neurochemistry or immunology or paleontology or metallurgy (or, or, or†) are all good ways to do that. I joked in a recent editorial that the season two episode of Breaking Bad where Walt and Jesse get stuck in the desert and they use SCIENCE! to save themselves is the best hard SF I’d seen on TV in years. I wasn’t entirely serious, but it’s also not entirely off base, either. Yes, it’s lacking the imaginative elements that are vital to our genre, but the science is both relevant to the story and accurate, and those are really the most important rules of hard SF, as I see it. Beyond that? Surprise me.

 

CS: How much weight do you give to strong writing and how much to strong science?

TQ: This is another answer that really depends on the story in question. Optimally, it has both to a sufficient degree that I don’t have to weigh them against each other. I’m definitely more capable of polishing the writing of a story with a strong scientific foundation than I am trying to completely overhaul a well-written story with an entirely different scientific rationale. Details can be corrected, but if the whole story is predicated on something that we know just won’t work, there’s only so much to be done. I’ve often compared science fiction (hard SF in particular) to other specialized genres like kung fu movies. If you get a well-acted, well-choreographed movie like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, that’s great. But even questionably translated kung fu movies are successful in what they set out to do if they deliver great fight scenes. Without those, you’re just watching a Chinese soap opera. Hard SF has a similar relationship to science. That’s more of a broad philosophy than a rule, though: we also published Dune, which isn’t exactly the epitome of hard SF. I believe there should always be room for something like that at Analog.

 

CS: What can aspiring writers do to improve their chances of getting out of the slushpile?

TQ: Probably the single most common problem I see with otherwise good stories is that they’re too often the wrong length for what they’re trying to accomplish. Either they’re too short to properly develop the elements that are supposed to have gravitas, or they’re too long, full of padding that isn’t easily snipped, bloating a story that could otherwise have been elegant. Get in, tell your story or deliver your idea, and get out. From a more practical standpoint, while I do need some long stories, I need proportionately more short stories, and your odds are better if you’re closer to that end of the spectrum. I can definitely afford to be more adventurous with a 3,500-word story than I can with 17,500 words. So start out small. Less seriously? Stop automatically giving children names like “Timmy” or “Jimmy” or “Billy,” like they just stepped out of an episode of Lassie. That signifies “The Future!” to a reader about as much as character names out of Lovecraft (“Wilbur” or “Barnabas” or “Danforth” or “Randolph”) would have to a reader in 1975.

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

His training is in journalism, and he has an essay on culture printed in the Korea Times and Beijing Review. He has two science fiction novels in the works and is deep into research for an environmental short story project.

Carl currently teaches in China where electricity is an inconsistent commodity.

Interview: Carl Frederick

interview by Carl Slaughter

CF1Nebula nominee, frequent Analog byliner, Writers of the Future first place award winner, 2 time Phobos Fiction Contest winner, 6 time Analog Readers Choice Award winner, Odyssey graduate, and longtime Critters member Carl Frederick is camera shy. As you can see from the photo, even his pet cat is shy. He likes cats and dogs and they are prominent characters in many of his stories. Frederick is known for his hard science stories. He’s had 40 plus short stories published in Analog. Lately, without letting up on the hard science stories, he has delved deep into character driven stories and even literary science fiction. Or rather, stories with strong character development well blended into the hard science element – and vice versa.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: Is “Trojan Carousel” your first novel?

CARL FREDERICK: It’s the third or forth. I’m not sure. And as for my first two novels, I’d sort of like to forget that I’d written them. They say a writer needs to write a half million or so words of crud before the good stuff can get out. I think I’m well past that number now.

 

TOSHIBA Exif JPEGCS: The main characters are boys in a science school. Does this mean YA is the target audience?

CF: Partially, yes.

But the Harry Potter books were a sea change. Up until then, books with kid protagonists were indeed read by adults, but with a sense of embarrassment. Now, post Potter, adults can read such books even in public places. So ‘Trojan Carousel’ is also aimed at adults who might like reading about kids.

Most of my short story output has gone to Analog Magazine which is not generally perceived as a YA magazine. But I believe it is. Most of the stories therein have the sense of wonder, the avoidance of bored cynicism and sophistication, the optimism, that IMO characterizes the world view of kids.

Thinking about it now, I guess I consider ‘Trojan Carousel’ a book for bright kids or for physicists (who in many ways are like bright kids).

 

CS: Why a novel about preteen boys?

CF: Richard Feynman speculated that if kids were introduced to quantum mechanics concepts at an early age, they might (unlike physicists in general) be completely comfortable with those concepts. Exploring that idea is one of the thrusts of the novel.

 

CS: The adults are minor characters. Why not have them more involved in the plot? Why not have them more involved in the lives of the boys?

CF: I wanted the book to have something of the flavor of ‘Lord of the Flies’: Kids’ lives unconstrained by adult supervision/control. I also wanted the book to reflect the ‘school story’ genre. Arguably the finest example of same might be ‘Stalky and Co.’ by Kipling–one of my favorite books when I was a kid. The three boys in ‘Trojan Carousel’ who are dorm-mates parallel the three study-mates in ‘Stalky’.

 

CF2CS: Identify the themes of the story and explain, without major spoilers, how those themes are addressed.

CF: Outwardly, the book is about kids (aged twelve or thereabouts) in two schools on one campus: one (The Amdexter School) a traditional posh faux British boarding school and the other (The Feynman Elementary School for Advanced Physics) is for super-bright science and math kids. The two school populations coexist on friendly terms at the start. But then due to a clash of cultures, things gradually turn bad, leading to a war between the boys of the schools.

The subtext is modern science and how we interpret it, and also on the nature of scientific inquiry.

I acknowledge that this is a poor answer to your question. But I think an author is the very last person to consult about the themes in his writing.

 

CS: One of the main characters dies. Why is this necessary?

CF: Oh, gosh. I tried very hard not to kill him. But I couldn’t make the book work with him remaining alive. And his death allows the protagonist to deny the death somewhat in the way of ‘SchrÃ’ dinger’s Cat’, i.e. he’s not dead (or alive) until observed as such. That interpretation, by the way, is not what SchrÃ’ dinger intended. He proposed the cat paradox to show that in some instances quantum mechanics gave unrealistic answers. He considered that a problem with the science.

 

CS: Science exercises are sprinkled throughout the book. How do these science exercises serve the story?

CF: They’re not exercises, exactly. And they’re at the back of the book. In a number of chapters, when the reader gets to the end, s/he can continue the science discussion in the chapter by going to the back of the book where the chapter continues. Or one can skip the back of the book and simply continue with the story. The ideas of quantum mechanics are interwoven throughout the novel, and I wanted the reader (if desired) to be able to appreciate those ideas–to appreciate the wonderful and beautiful weirdness of quantum physics.

 

CS: You’re known for your hard science stories. Why not a hard science novel?

CF: I think it IS hard SF, maybe very hard SF. I consider much of what is called hard science fiction to be actually science engineering. I don’t see many science concepts in SF and I wanted ‘Trojan Carousel’ to be about science. I think the novel after ‘Trojan Carousel’, ‘Wizards of Science’ is much more in the traditional mold of a hard SF novel.

 

CS: Lately, you’ve been writing more character oriented stories. What’s the explanation for this and will the trend continue? Have you had any success marketing these types of stories? Any success marketing “Trojan Carousel?

CF: In addition to doing physics, I’m also an engineer in the fast moving electronics industry. And compared to high-tech industry, book publishing is very slow. I’d say even compared to the movement of glaciers, book publishing is slow. I don’t have the patience for it. So I’d decided to self-publish e-book versions for Kindles and Nooks. The problem there is getting noticed. I found I didn’t have the stomach for self-promotion that self-publishing seems to require. My e-book sales therefore, are not exactly stellar. Occasionally nice things happen though. Last year, after one story of mine in a series came out in Analog, someone in Germany found the other stories in the series in the Kindle version. S/he bought them and a few hours later, bought one of my novels. By the next morning, s/he’d bought everything I’d written. And a few days later came another sale (presumably to another person) from Germany. But there it stopped. No chain reaction, unfortunately. But it was neat finding I had a fan.

In general though, I think most of my sales come from people stumbling on my titles. My best selling title is a short story collection, ‘SF++ Science Fiction Stories for Linux Geeks’. I rather imagine the buyers had been looking for technical books about Linux.

I’m considered a successful sf short story writer. But ‘successful short story writer’ is rather an oxymoron. Very few can make a living doing it. I guess I write because I want to be read, not to make money from it–although some money would be nice.

To answer your question about marketing ‘Trojan Carousel’: very little success, mainly, I think, because I don’t do any marketing.

 

CS: Most of your stories are in Analog. The longtime editor of Analog recently retired. Will that affect your relationship with the magazine? Will you branch out into other markets?

CF: I know and like (and have long worked with) the new editor. So I hope my relationship won’t change. But the previous editor, Stan Schmidt, is a physicist, as am I. And I believe we physicists think differently and have different reading tastes than ‘civilians’. So the new editor’s reading preferences might be less similar than previously to my writing preferences. I hope I’m wrong.

As to new markets, I admit that yes, I am looking for them.

 

CS: Any more novels in the works?

CF: Several. I’m working on one now, ‘Duplex Alpha’. It posits that world and science problems have become too complex to be addressed by the human brain. But evolution has come to the rescue by bringing forth a new type of identical twins who (by their ‘twin language’) can to a large degree think as one (an extreme example of ‘two heads are better than one’). They are feared and oppressed by the establishment.

I also have the sequel to ‘Eridion’ (a space opera) in the works.

 

CS: Do you run all your manuscripts through the Critters Workshop? How does the feedback affect your revisions and how do the revisions affect the marketability of your stories?

CF: I rely heavily on Critters and run all my short stories through the workshop. I rewrite heavily based on the critiques and believe that, in all cases, the rewrites have resulted in greatly improved stories. I do weigh the critiques based on the critiquers. Some of the critiquers hate everything and seem to just like to tear down writers and writing. Some seem to have just started learning English. Some write absolutely incomprehensible critiques. But most are terrific. And many find ideas in my stories that I didn’t even know about. I don’t know what I’d do without Critters. I write individualized thank yous to every critiquer of my stories.

And speaking of thanks, thank you, Carl, for giving me the chance to discuss ‘The Trojan Carousel’. Because of the (optional) back of the book chapter continuations, I regard the novel as something of an experiment. I’m very fond of the book and still, when I think of the aforementioned death, my eyes tend to mist over.

While yes, it would be great if people bought the e-book (or any of my books) for Kindle from Amazon, I’m more concerned with readership than with income. Accordingly, if readers of this interview want copies, I’d be happy to provide them by e-mail. Readers can go to my website, click on e-books and further click the book title and then click on the ‘e-mail for free copy’ button.

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

His training is in journalism, and he has an essay on culture printed in the Korea Times and Beijing Review. He has two science fiction novels in the works and is deep into research for an environmental short story project.

Carl currently teaches in China where electricity is an inconsistent commodity.