Interview: Frank Dutkiewicz

interviewed by Carl Slaughter

IMG_20120830_182040_092We asked Frank a long time ago if he would be so kind answer a few questions for us. He said he would as soon as he found a little time. Months went by with excuses like I have to wash my hair, and I need to clean my fingernails, or I got to pick up the dog poop in my yard today, on why he couldn’t give us a few minutes. So we popped in for a visit where we threw a burlap bag over his head, hogtied him, threw him in the back of a trunk, and took him to an undisclosed location to a dark room with hot lights glaring in his face.

 

Thank you for joining us today.

Pleasure to be here. Could you cut the plastic zip-ties around my wrists, please? I can’t feel my fingers.

 

When I first started reading your stories several years ago, your material was barely marketable. You’ve had 2 stories in Daily Science Fiction and you climbed to the top of the Writers of the Future contest. What happened in the interim?

Life. A new job, growing kids, and other responsibilities (car and house maintenance) that take precedence. Writing is but a hobby for me , an activity to help sharpen my dulling mind and keep me preoccupied in a job that keeps me away from home for long stretches of time.

On the writing front: not much. I’ve taken on new responsibilities that are tied to my ‘hobby’ but grant me less time to create new works of fiction. In other words , I am submitting less than I have in the past but I’m not quite out of the game.

 

You were slush editor for Unidentified Funny Objects anthology and the On the Premises humor contest. One of your Daily Science Fiction stories was humor and “Intergalactic Nuisance” was borderline riotous. Why humor?

Because I like it. There is no shortage of great works of speculative fiction but not a lot of it is humorous. It’s difficult to pull off and opinions on what is, and isn’t, funny, vary. I need not go any further than my slush reading duties at UFO to prove that. Alex Shvartsman (UFO editor) has a half-dozen slush readers for his annual project. Alex has told me that he has yet to receive a submission that received a unanimous yes from all his helpers.

 

Rom Zom Com. I’m guessing that stands for romance, zombie, and comedy. Is that like Shawn of the Dead and Warm Bodies?

Couldn’t tell you, I never saw either movie before. I just saw their guidelines. They were looking for humorous zombie tales and I just happened to have one in my files I wrote for an in-house contest for one of my writer groups. I submitted it and they bought it.

 

Why is it significant that other review zines don’t cover Daily Science Fiction? Or to put it reversely, why is it significant that Diabolical Plots covers Daily Science Fiction and is the only review zine that does?

I don’t know why other review zines ignore DSF. I was reviewing for Tangent Online when the publication first came to life. I recommended that we at least try to review it but the editor wanted nothing to do with it. As I recall, he said they had too much material to review and that their business model likely doomed them to obscurity and predicted it would close soon. I disagreed and felt the publication deserved a measure of recognition for their herculean effort. So after to being rebuffed by the Tangent Online editor, repeatedly, I asked David Steffen at Diabolical Plots if he’d be willing to host my reviews.

The reason why it is significant that Daily Science Fiction is covered (I am grateful to David for posting the reviews all these years) is that the DSF editors and their authors deserve the satisfaction to know that their work has been read. It’s a good publication, outstanding in fact. The price for subscription is affordable (free). Their distribution is innovative (daily email), and the talent is first class. They attract the best speculative writers and publish more first time authors then any professionally rated publication. The editors of DSF deserve more than just a review or two, they deserve an award for all they’ve done for speculative fiction these past few years.

 

You’ve been reviewing Daily Science Fiction for 4 years. They publish 20 stories a month, so that’s a lot of grunt work, even if 4 out of 5 stories per week are flash. Why stay on this beat for so long?

Commitment, stubbornness, loyalty , take your pick. I did it for so long because I enjoyed reviewing and reading DSF.

 

Lois Tilton cranks out that kind of volume and more, but she reviews full time. How do you accomplish that feat and hold down a full time non-literary job at the same time?

It is taxing, I confess. Without the help of my colleagues James Hanzelka and Dustin Adams, I would have thrown in the towel long ago. My first review received a positive response from many who read it and from the editors of DSF. Encouraged by the feedback, I vowed to keep at it and decided I would continue to do so as long as my reviews were within six months of current published works. Alas, that mark was crossed this summer (I had a lot going on). My reviews of the publication have ceased (I have one last month I need to finish). I enjoyed doing them very much but they had started to become a chore to maintain, so with much regrets, my next review of DSF will likely be my last.

 

You’ve been reviewing the Writers of the Future anthology for 6 years. Again, why the longstanding interest in that market?

My first one was written as an analysis of the winning stories. I started reviewing the publication about the same time I started to submit to them. At the time of my first WotF review, Diabolical Plots first came online. I asked David Steffen if he would be willing to post them. He was all over it.

The reviews of the contest are written from the perspective of a long time reader (I’ve been a fan of the anthology since it first debut decades ago), a submitter to the contest, and with the experience I’ve gained as a reviewer over the years. Studying the anthology to write the reviews has helped me to improve my standing in the contest , 2 finalist finishes, a semi-finalist honor, and over dozen Honorable Mentions.

 

What did you take away from your role with Unidentified Funny Objects?

Two things: Humor is subjective and I’m not as funny as I once believed. It is also the first true slushreading job I’ve ever done. I have sympathy for those who do it on a regular basis and no longer get offended when I receive a rejection now. I also have had this theory confirmed:
a) Not everyone will agree on what is funny and…
b) Everyone can agree on what isn’t funny

We got a lot of submissions where you could feel the writer giggling as they jotted the funny idea in their heads on their computer screens. There was a lot of eye rolling, head shaking, and groaning done as I read the slush. It became clear to me that humor isn’t for everyone.

However, we also had a few I thought were brilliant but not enough of my colleagues shared my opinion. Truthfully, some of the funniest submissions we received (IMO) didn’t make it in. Not everyone’s funny bone responds the same way, I guess.

 

Same question for the On the Premises contest.

I adore On The Premises. The editors are the slushreaders. They whittle down the submissions to a handful and send them to the judges to read. The prize money, although not pro-paying, is enough to make it alluring. They’ve made it a blind read contest , the authors names are not known to the editors or judges during the contest. I’ve come to regard it as a great place to practice if you like to submit to contest publications like Writers of the Future or Glimmer Train. What helps to make them unique is the editors will (for a fee) critique your story if you fail to make their top ten. I’ve learned a lot about my submissions from their critiques.

I had become such a regular to OTP (as a contestant and guest judge) that they made me a permanent fixture there as a fulltime judge, an honor I haven’t taken lightly.

 

Same question for Tangent.

It was an experience. My time there was short but I learned a lot from it, both positive and negative.

 

Why all this slushing and reviewing? Do you have your eye on a full time editing gig?

*snort* not unless I hit the Powerball jackpot, but what a dream. Can you imagine running your own professional paying publication? Got to have the money and time to burn to be able to do that.

 

Did you gain anything from participation in the Critters workshop? Why did you drop out?

Critters is an excellent place for beginners to start. You learn to critique and absorb real criticism from total strangers , both a prerequisite if you expect to stand a shot as a contributor in the speculative fiction industry. It’s also a great place to find friends who share in the passion of writing science fiction and fantasy. I recommend it to everyone to give it a try.

The reason why I don’t participate anymore is because I moved on and made room for other stuff.

 

Same question for Hatrack.

Hatrack is a good place for writers to congregate. It’s more personal than Critters and the feedback is almost immediate. Most of the stuff I’ve published came about thanks to a Hatrack writer’s challenge.

 

Same question for Codex.

Codex is that secret club your friends will tell you about that you can’t get in (you have to had made a professional sale or completed an accredited writers workshop to be eligible to be a member). They have some tough in house contests over there. Joining them is like being the big shot in middle school who learns he’s a nobody the first day of high school. It can be a little intimidating.

 

Care to share some invaluable, free wisdom with aspiring writers?

Sure. You’ll see this advice sooner or later…

…if you want to make it as a writer, you got to treat writing as if it is your job. Set goals every day , minimum word counts to target or a certain number of pages to complete, even when don’t feel like writing.

The best advice I can give you is to IGNORE that advice. Treat writing as if it’s your job? Jobs suck. The only reason why anyone goes to a job is because someone pays them to show up to do work. So unless you’re earning a living as a writer, you should never treat writing as it is your livelihood (or job).

Hobbies though, hmmm. We love our hobbies. We’ll spend money on a hobby. We’ll take classes, arrange for lessons, and read books so we can get better at them. Hell, most of us have schemed to get out of work so we can spend more time on a hobby. Hobbies are enjoyable things to do.

Writing requires passion. Sure, you can be passionate about your work but you’ll crave diving into a hobby. People love doing a hobby and you have to love writing to be any good at it. Hobbies are easy things to step away from and pick back up later (sometimes you just need a break). You can’t do that with a job. You’ll get fired. The fact is if you set it in your mind that you have to get a minimum amount done every day you’ll come to resent writing. Any job that is that demanding and is one you do for no pay, is an easy job to quit, and you really don’t want to quit anything that you pored that much passion into, do you?

So treat your writing as some do golfing, or bowling, or painting, or crafting. Do it because you want to. Do it because you want to get better at it. Do it because you hope to be good enough to have it become your job one day (it has happened before). To get that good requires patience, a long term commitment, and a ton of passion.

 

Thank you for your time.

Can I go home now?

 

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.

Interview: Richard Zwicker

interviewed by Carl Slaughter

Prolific Science Fiction-Detective-Humor writer Richard Zwicker has sold thirty stories to twenty-two markets in five and a half years. That’s a sale about every two months. How does he do it?

Zwicker has sold stories to Fantasy Scroll, Penumbra, Mad Scientist Journal, Perihelion Science Fiction, Kzine, Plasma Frequency Magazine, On the Premises, Eric’s Hysterics, Tales of Old, Stupefying Stories, LocoThology, Strange Mysteries, The Rejected Quarterly, Mindflights, Poe Little Thing, FlagShip, Labyrinth Inhabitant, Writing Shift, New Myths, Golden Visions, Speculative Mystery Iconoclast, and Ray Gun Revival.

Many writers with less than 5 years of experience would commit a felony to achieve such a record. Indeed, most writers are still unpublished after 5 years on the keyboard.

So how does he crank out the volume and juggle so much marketing at the same time? Besides submitting all his drafts to the Critters online workshop, well, let’s see, oh yes, he uses Diabolical Plots‘s Submissions Grinderâ€

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: You’ve sold to many different markets. How do you handle all the logistics involved in marketing a story? Finding and studying the markets, studying the submissions guidelines, customizing stories to particular markets.

RICHARD ZWICKER: I take advantage of just about everything The Submission Grinder provides. I often check their “recently added markets” and I also like their “My Market Response List,” which shows recent response activity from the ezines I have stories submitted to. Though I usually tinker with a story after it gets rejected, I try to have a ready list of potential markets to resubmit to. I don’t usually do a lot of customizing my stories to particular markets. Instead, I write the story, then look for a suitable market. I’ve sold stories to themed anthologies, but so far, those stories have all existed in some form before the call came out. It takes me a while to get a story into saleable shape, almost always longer than an anthology’s submission window.

 

CARL: You’ve been a prolific writer. How do you manage to do all that marketing and crank out the volume of stories at the same time?

RICHARD: Marketing doesn’t take that long, and it doesn’t take the kind of energy that writing demands. I’m an English teacher though, and that takes a lot of time and energy. So I have to prioritize. I think being middle-aged, I’m less susceptible to certain time-eating activities than younger people. To date, I don’t have a blog, a Twitter account, nor do I text. I don’t spend chunks of time chatting about trends in genre fiction. I’m sure these things help some writers, but for me it would cut directly into my short story writing time. During the school year I put in a few hours each weekend morning and try to steal the occasional hour during the week. I have much more time during the summer, and that’s when I write most of my new material. I also try not to submit to publications notorious for long response times, though there is not always a choice.

 

CARL: Once you’ve sold a story to an editor, is it easier to get to the top of that editor’s slushpile? Is it easier to sell to that editor again?

RICHARD: It might be easier to get a second reading, but I don’t think it makes that much of a difference in sales, unless you’re a household name, which I’m not. Not being an editor of a publication, I can only speculate about the process. I think a lot of it is the right story at the right time to the right publication. If those things aren’t aligned, with all the submissions editors get, I doubt my having previously sold them a story will put me over the edge.

 

CARL: One of your specialties is humor. What kind of market is there for humor science fiction?

RICHARD: A funny thing happens when you add “humorous” as a story style requirement to a science fiction market search on The Submission Grinder. Your list of potential markets drops to about a tenth of what it was. That said, there are soft SF, space opera-type publications that are open to light, humorous short stories. I do write some serious science fiction, and I believe it is easier to sell, but humor is my comfort zone. A big change in the genre from the 1950’s and 60’s is rigor in scientific details. It’s difficult to write something funny if you load up the story with hard science, however. I enjoy reading hard SF, but as I say in my Critters bio, “I like to write character-driven stories. If the science is driving, I usually hit a tree.” Ultimately, if I can, I’d prefer to add to the world’s supply of laughs rather than increase its angst.

 

CARL: What explanations do editors give you when they accept humor stories?

RICHARD: It varies. Some praise the humor, some don’t even mention it. It’s not uncommon for me to receive something as bland as, “Thank you for submitting such and such. We’d like to accept it.” Fortunately, my joy at being accepted overcomes blandness every time.

 

CARL: What explanations do editors give you when they reject humor stories?

RICHARD: I like to have fun with the classics. Being a teacher trying to get students to read anything written over twenty years ago, it’s essential to have fun. One editor who has bought two of my serious stories rejected out of hand a humorous take I wrote on a Greek myth. I understand it’s a balancing act. On the one hand you need a certain amount of period realism; on the other you have to accept that a certain amount of modern sensibility is going to creep in. One editor could say, “This is funny!” while another will think, “This is stupid!” As I’m often told in Critters critiques, humor is personal. So I try not to take my rejections personally.

 

CARL: Another of your specialties is detective. What kind of market is there for detective science fiction?

RICHARD: I believe cross-genre is in right now. I’ve never sold a story to a straight mystery magazine, but putting a murder mystery into a SF story makes them interested. Being an English teacher, I grew up reading a lot of The New Yorker-type literary fiction where a character remains lost until the end of the story, at which time he or she has some kind of understated realization. I still read that kind of stuff on occasion, but I now prefer a more active story. Mystery and science fiction stories provide more opportunities for that, and together, even more.

 

CARL: How much competition is there in the detective science fiction subgenre?

RICHARD: I don’t know. No detective science fiction writers have challenged me to a duel lately. My competition, and it’s stiff, is with the good science fiction and short story fantasy writers.

 

CARL: A lot of your detective stories are also humor stories. Surely someone who can blend 3 subgenres has few rivals.

RICHARD: Few readers either, but maybe this will help.

 

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.

 

Interview: Ken Liu

interview by Carl Slaughter
introduction by David Steffen

ken_liu_small

If you’ve kept up with science fiction publications in the last few years, you’ve probably at least heard the name Ken Liu. Dozens of his stories have been published just in the last couple of years in the biggest and best SF publications out there today, including F&SF, Analog, Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction… The list goes on and on. He won the Hugo for “Mono No Aware” this year. He won the Hugo and the Nebula for “The Paper Menagerie” last year, one of my personal favorite stories I’ve read in years. I just read a fun story by him on the Drabblecast titled “The Call of the Pancake Factory”, about a representative of a certain supercorporation amusement park happening to cross paths with a cult of Cthulhu–great story. He’s on a roll, and showing no signs of stopping. He’s a great writer and you should check out his work if you ever get a chance to read it.

 

You’ve been getting an awful lot of stories published the last few years. Did you build up an archive or have you just been a really busy guy lately?

For the longest time, I wrote very slowly, and so there never really was much “inventory.” But I’ve been writing at a somewhat steady, faster pace for the last four years. The more I write, the more ideas I seem to have. So that has worked out well.

 

How do you maintain quality and quantity? Natural talent, hard work, long hours, disciplined lifestyle, or some combination?

I think over time, I’ve learned to do a better job of picking out which story ideas seem cool but won’t work, which ones are good for flash pieces, and which ones are good for longer development. That has helped to reduce the number of stories I have to trunk.

I’ve also learned to work better under deadline. Knowing how long it takes me to finish a story and polish it to the point where I’m satisfied with it builds confidence, and that makes it easier to take up new projects and plan them into my schedule.

 

What’s your day job? How do you find time for family, the office, and the keyboard?

I used to be a programmer, became a corporate attorney, and now I work as a litigation consultant for high-tech patent cases, which sort of combines my areas of expertise. It’s very interesting, stimulating work, and probably helps with giving me story ideas.

I have two young children at home, ages 3 and 1. As anyone with young children knows, they severely constrain your writing time. I’ve learned to be better about time management and use the little writing time I do have more efficiently. For example, I try to do some drafting on my commuter rail ride every day.

I can’t say I’ve got it figured out. My novel revisions are going much more slowly than I’d like, partly due to the lack of uninterrupted writing time. But plenty of writers have figured out such a balance before, I just need to keep on working on my process and improve it.

 

Some author’s sell to the same two or three markets or half a dozen markets. You’ve been selling to every market under the sun. What’s the explanation? Diverse material? Looks better on your resume? Just like to shop around?

I enjoy working with different editors. Every editor has taught me something new. And I do write a wide variety of stories, so some stories might be a better fit with F&SF while others might work better at Analog. Not every editor likes everything I write.

I also like being exposed to new readers through new markets, so being published in multiple markets has worked out well for me.

 

You’ve been winning and being nominated for a lot of awards. Mike Resnick said about awards, “When you walk out of the convention, nobody on the street knows who you are.” This in contrast to, for example, the Oscar. How has winning famous awards affected you personally? How has it affected your career? More sales? More fan mail? Invitations to speak at conventions? Requests for interviews?

I can’t say it has affected my personal life significantly — I did get a lot of congratulations from my friends and co-workers, which made me very happy. I think the stories that were nominated got more readers, and of course I’m happy about that.

Career wise, since I don’t have a novel, I can’t point to any concrete sales boost from the awards. I do think some of the translation deals I’ve gotten were due to the awards — if nothing else, they help with name recognition, especially overseas.

Unless people ask about the awards though, I just don’t think about them much. I’m very grateful to have been nominated and to have won some of them, but what keeps me writing isn’t the desire for awards, but to write stories that I want to read myself.

 

You’ve been concentrating on short stories. What does the novel horizon look like?

I’m working on a novel, an epic fantasy of sorts, set in a secondary world created by my wife and me together. The setting is an archipelago, and there are magical creatures, gods, and lots of fanciful machines based on ancient Chinese mechanical engineering. The plot is loosely adapted from the historical legends about the founding of the Han Dynasty, and some of the cultural aspects are derived from classical East Asian elements.

The first draft is done, but there’s a lot of rewriting left still.

 

What about the screen market? Any queries to or from Hollywood to buy or write scripts?

I do like scripts, and want to get better at writing them. But there’s not much of a market for them unless you’re in Hollywood, so, for now, I’m focusing just on narrative fiction.

 

What’s the market like for science fiction in China? Aren’t they more into traditional fantasy? You know, beings with magical powers. Personification of animals, like the famous Chinese novel, “Journey to the West.” (Or is it more accurately translated, “The Journey West”?) Is there a market in China for traditional science fiction? Biotechnology, space travel, etc.

I’m not an expert on the Chinese science fiction market, but from what I’ve seen, science fiction does very well there. Of course, China is a very big country, so even if only a small percentage of readers are interested in science fiction, the absolute numbers are going to be big. Liu Cixin’s Three-Body trilogy, for example, sold some 400,000 copies, and that’s a hard science fiction first contact story. (I’ve been engaged to translate the first book of the trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, into English, and Tor Books will be publishing the book in the US in 2014.)

A lot of my writer friends in China — in science fiction, fantasy, and slip-stream — seem to have many more readers (even if they don’t all have novels out yet). And even my own stories, translated into Chinese, seem to have generated more feedback than they received in English. So I’d say the market is very healthy, overall.

 

Besides China, how are overseas sales going?

I have a Japanese collection coming out from Hayakawa Publishing in 2015, and I’ve sold a few reprints to markets in France, Spain, Italy, and other countries. Sometimes I get a chance to work directly with the translators, and that’s always such a pleasure.

 

You have all your stories critiqued on the Critters Online Workshop. How has that affected your writing and your sales?

I haven’t used Critters for most of my fiction for a while now. Over time, I’ve developed a circle of beta readers (several of whom I met through critters) whose opinions I trust, and it’s just more efficient to get their take than to go through critters, especially when I’m under tight deadlines.

I think Critters taught me, above all, how to figure out which critiques are helpful and which ones are not. When you’re relatively inexperienced as a writer, there’s a lot of benefit to getting a wide range of opinions because they help you figure out who your target audience is. Learning to ignore opinions from people who aren’t in your target audience is a difficult lesson because our natural tendency as writers is to try to please everyone. But that’s impossible, and it’s better that you learn this lesson earlier rather than later.

 

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Listen when other writers share their process and try their techniques out, but don’t be surprised when most of them don’t work for you — but also be prepared for the possibility that a few will. You won’t know which is which until you try them though.

 

Carl_eagle

Carl 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: Karl Bunker

interview by Carl Slaughter

Karl Bunker sold “Gray Wings” to Asimov’s a few months ago and followed it almost immediately with “The Women From the Ocean.” One the heels of his first two stories to Asimov’s, he sold “This Quiet Dust” to Analog. Three stories to the two leading science fiction magazines in rapid succession. Has he arrived? Diabolical Plots inquires about this and more.

 

YOU’VE JUST SOLD 2 STORIES ALMOST BACK TO BACK TO ASIMOV’S, FOLLOWED BY YOUR FIRST SALE TO ANALOG. DO YOU FEEL YOU’VE ARRIVED?

Well, the amount of success I’ve had so far certainly seemed like a fantasy back when I started writing. But I haven’t received any awards yet — no Hugo, no Nebula, no Pulitzer, no Nobel — so I feel like I’ve still got a lot of “arriving” to strive toward and fantasize about.

 

YOUR TWO ASIMOV’S STORIES ARE CHARACTER ORIENTED. YOUR ANALOG STORY IS SCIENCE PREMISE ORIENTED. YOUR INTERZONE STORY IS HALF ALIEN AND HALF FABLE. YOUR FAVORITE OF YOUR STORIES IS THEME ORIENTED. WHICH SUBGENRE IS YOUR BEST? WHICH DO YOU PREFER? WHICH DO YOU PLAN TO EMPHASIZE?

I guess most writers would say this, but I like stories about people — about human feelings (though it may not be “humans” who are doing the feeling). But I’m also drawn to old-fashioned gosh-wow, sense-of-wonder science-fictional ideas. SF lets us writers come up with strange and wonderful situations, and then look at how people (human or otherwise) might react to those situations. It’s that latter part that makes a story worthwhile, in my opinion. My upcoming Analog story is unusually idea-oriented for me, but even with that one I see the core of the story as being about feelings — about hope and curiosity and love overcoming fear. In terms of sub-genre, I’m drawn to post-singularity as a theme, but of course post-singularity stories are hard to write, since (by definition) they’re about a future that can’t be straightforwardly extrapolated.

 

WAS IT EASIER FOR YOU TO GET OUT OF THE SLUSHPILE AFTER WINNING WRITERS OF THE FUTURE? WAS IT EASIER FOR YOU TO GET ON THE RADAR AT ASIMOV’S AFTER SELLING TO INTERZONE, EASIER TO GET ON THE RADAR AT ANALOG AFTER SELLING TO ASIMOV’S, ETC?

The answer to both questions is “I don’t know.” Ideally of course, I’d like to think that I made more sales as I went along because I was learning to write better, and that’s the end of it. I know that when I’m looking for a story to critique on Critters, I try to find something that looks like it’s going to be interesting and well-written, and as I scan through the first few paragraphs of a batch of stories it’s easy for me to make that judgement without being distracted by whether or not I recognize the author’s name. So I assume professional editors can do the same. But there’s no way to know what goes on in the minds — and perhaps the subconscious minds at that — of editors, so my opinion is that it’s best not to worry about that.

 

HAS IT BEEN EASIER FOR YOU TO GET A COMPLETE READ WITH FUTURE STORIES AFTER SELLING TO AN EDITOR? HAS IT BEEN EASIER TO SELL TO THE SAME EDITOR ONCE THEY’VE PUBLISHED YOU? HOW MUCH FEEBACK DO THEY GIVE YOU FOR REJECTED STORIES?

After selling a couple of stories to F&SF, it appears that I can count on a personal reply from Gordon Van Gelder. With Sheila Williams at Asimov’s, I got a lot of wonderfully encouraging personal responses from her before she ever bought anything from me. Now that I’ve sold them a couple of stories, she doesn’t have as much praise and encouragement for me, either in acceptance or rejection notices. So that’s kind of funny; I guess she figures that I’ve “arrived,” as you put it, and so she doesn’t have to coddle me any more. With Analog, I never got anything other than form rejections up until I sold a story to them. I haven’t had anything to submit to them since that first sale, but I’ll be curious to see if I still get that (rather insulting, IMO) “how to write SF for dummies” form rejection of theirs.

 

SO FAR, YOUR CAREER HAS EMPHASIZED QUALITY BUT NOT QUANTITY. DO YOU GET WRITER’S BLOCK, DOES IT TAKE LONGER TO FINISH A STORY, DO YOU REVISE MORE, OR DO YOU JUST HAVE LESS TIME TO DEVOTE TO WRITING THAN YOU’D LIKE?

I do suffer from a sort of low-grade chronic writer’s block. In all of 2012 I think I finished only two stories and sold one. I’ve been a lot more productive so far this year, but I don’t think I’m “cured” of writer’s block yet. It may be that writing will always be slow and painful for me. At a rough estimate, I’ve probably finished fewer than 30 short stories in my life.

 

ALL YOUR STORIES ARE SHORT FICTION. ANY NOVELS IN THE WORKS?

I don’t have any novels in the works, and i’m not sure I ever will. It’s perhaps a misfortune of mine that I have a tremendous love and respect for the short story as an art form — more so than the novel. I much prefer reading short stories to novels, and the prospect of writing a novel feels to me like a horrible grind of a chore that stretches off to infinity. And that’s too bad, because it’s awfully rare for an author to make a name for him/herself solely from short stories.

 

RELATIVE NEWCOMERS LIKE KEN LIU AND LEAH CYPESS, AS WELL AS VETERANS LIKE IAN CREASEY AND CARL FREDERICK, RUN ALL THEIR STORIES THROUGH THE CRITTERS WORKSHOP, EVEN AFTER WINNING A HUGO/NEBULA. SOME OF THEM MAKE MAJOR REVISIONS BASED ON THE FEEDBACK THEY GET FROM CRITIQUERS. WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH WORKSHOPPING?

I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever reach a point where I feel that critique groups are superfluous for me. I know I still learn a lot every time I put a story out for critique, and critiques have often saved me from embarrassing blunders. They’ve also sometimes convinced me to completely rework a story, or to give up on one, and even on one occasion to believe in a story that I was ready to call a failure and give up on. And I still feel that I have a lot to learn from writing critiques, and a lot to learn _about_ writing critiques. All parts of the process — reading something with writing a critique in mind, writing a critique, reading and making good use of critiques about one’s own work — all of these things are complex and difficult skills in themselves, and there’s a lot to learn and know about all of them. Of course I often get “bad” critiques, where I feel that the critiquer is just totally clueless about how to read, or how to read for a critique, or how to think about writing, or how to write a critique, or all of the above. But for the time being anyway, it’s hard for me to imagine giving up on critique groups.

 

IF YOU COULD TRAVEL BACK IN TIME AND TALK TO YOUR YOUNGER SELF, WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE YOURSELF ABOUT WRITING?

I can’t really think of any advice to give my younger self. Writing was something I had to learn — and still am learning — and I think I’m doing okay with that learning process. On the other hand, I’m quite shockingly old to be a “new” writer, so perhaps it would have been good for me to start working seriously at writing several decades earlier in my life. At least then my fans (if I ever have any) will have a longer body of work to look forward to. But on the other other hand, it’s good to be working on something new in one’s life, regardless of one’s age.

 

IF YOU DON’T HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR YOUR YOUNGER SELF, WHAT ABOUT OTHER BEGINNING SF WRITERS? ANY THOUGHTS FOR THEM?

Perhaps one thing: For god’s sake, don’t just read within your preferred genre. For SF writers in particular, I would wish that they would read literary fiction, and learn to appreciate and love it. It’s my feeling that that’s how real quality and richness will be brought into the genre, and into each writer’s writing

 

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.

 

Interview: Leah Cypess

interview by Carl Slaughter

Leah Cypess is a fantasy author with 2 novels under her belt (“Mistwood” and “Nightspell”, 2 recent stories in Asimov’s (“Twelvers” and “Nanny’s Day”), another novel due in early 2014 (“Deathsworn”), and a fist full of rave reviews. A free anthology of her short stories is entitled “Changelings and Other Stories” and is available from B&N, Amazon, and Smashwords. Her website is www.LeahCypess.com.

“I wrote my first story in first grade. The narrator was an ice-cream cone in the process of being eaten. In fourth grade, I wrote my first book, about a girl who gets shipwrecked on a desert island with her faithful and heroic dog (a rip-off of both The Black Stallion and all the Lassie movies, very impressive). After selling my first story (Temple of Stone) while in high school, I gave in to my mother’s importuning to be practical and majored in biology at Brooklyn College. I then went to Columbia Law School and practiced law for almost two years at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, a large law firm in New York City. I kept writing and submitting in my spare time, and finally, a mere 15 years after my first short story acceptance, I sold my first novel to Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins). I live in Brookline, Massachusetts (right outside of Boston) with my husband Aaron, a researcher and doctor at the Joslin Diabetes Center, and our three children.”

Carl Slaughter: You have 2 stories in Asimov’s, science fiction’s leading magazine. How does an author who specializes in fantasy accomplish such a feat?

Leah Cypess:Â By writing science fiction stories! For years, I submitted borderline fantasy stories to Asimov’s and got form rejections. But as soon as I started submitting science fiction stories, I got positive responses and then, rather quickly, my first acceptance. Even though I write mostly fantasy, I read both fantasy and science fiction, so writing science fiction stories is not difficult for me (although since it often requires research, it does take longer).

CS: You gave up a promising career in law to become a full time fiction writer. How has that worked out for you so far? Ever tempted to second guess yourself?

LC:Â It has worked out great so far. And I’ve never second guessed myself, because even though law pays very well, it is a very all-consuming lifestyle. For people who enjoy what they’re doing, that’s great. I didn’t enjoy the practice of law enough to do it all the time, and because of that, the lifestyle made me very unhappy.

CS: You’ve had 3 children while forging career as a highly successful author. Raising a child, especially a young child, is the ultimate challenge, and you’re doing triple duty. So how have you accomplished THAT task?

LC:Â That one I’m still figuring out! A part of the answer is that my kids are naturally, and are encouraged to be, rather independent. Another part of the answer is that I definitely do not get enough sleep.

CS: Your newest novel, “Deathsworn,” was originally scheduled for fall 2013, then pushed back to winter 2014. This is summer 2012. I assume you wrote “Deathsworn” in spring 2012. Why does it take so long to get a book into print?

LC:Â The book wasn’t actually pushed back; fall 2013 was my agent’s estimate of when it would be published, but when the publisher put it into the schedule, it went in winter 2014. It takes at least a year to get a book into print because of all the work that has to go into the manuscript first — multiple rounds of revision, copyediting, proofreading, etc. And once that’s done, the publisher needs time to get the advance copies into the hands of librarians, bookstore owners, reviewers, etc. Plus, of course, publishers are working on many books simultaneously, so no single book can get rushed through all those steps at maximum possible speeds.

CS: Is the plot to “Nightspell” related to “Mistwood”? Is “Deathsworn” related to “Nightspell” or “Mistwood”?

LC:Â All 3 of those books are stand-alones. Nightspell takes place a few years after Mistwood, but in a different part of the world and with a different main character. There is one crossover character, but aside from that there is no connection between the books. Deathsworn is set in the same world but hundreds of years in the future, when things have changed a lot; I’m not even sure if my publisher will call it a companion novel or a completely new duology.

CS:Â Will “Deathsworn” be one story or will one of the novels be a prequel/sequel?

LC:Â Deathsworn is the first in a duology. It has a complete story arc of its own, with a beginning, end, etc.; no cliffhangers, I promise! But the sequel will pick up where the first book left off.

CS: For several years, you’ve been a member of the Critters Writers Workshop. What kind of feedback do you get from other members and to what extent does that help you? Do you submit all your stories to Critters? Do you make major revisions based on workshop critiques? Do you have other first readers besides on Critters? Have you tried other workshops?

LC:Â I get all sorts of feedback from Critters, and I find it all very helpful. One of the things I like about Critters is that you get multiple feedback from different people who are not bouncing off each other, so it’s very helpful in spotting trends. (i.e. If one person is confused by a sequence in my story, but everyone else seems to get it, I’ll react very differently than if 7 out of the 10 critiquers are confused by it.) I submit all my stories to either Critters or my other critique group, Codex, before sending them out. If the critiques seem to call for it, I do make major revisions, often multiple rounds of revisions.

CS:Â Why do so many of your stories feature ghosts?

LC: I hadn’t realized they did, and had to stop and think about it myself! Ghosts are one of those enduring tropes that you can play with in so many ways, and of course they tie into the ultimate mystery, which is what happens to someone after they die. Fantasy is all about the unknown, and the idea that there’s more to life than what you can plainly see, so I guess my love of fantasy segues naturally into a love of ghost stories.

CS:Â Why a medieval type setting so often?

LC:Â Short answer: Tolkien.

Longer answer: I love fantasy books that take on new, non-medieval non-European settings, but at the same time, I think there is a reason why that setting is so popular. The limitations on technology in medieval times lends itself naturally to being a fantasy setting. In addition, the fact that it IS the default fantasy setting means that readers have an understanding of it and know what to expect, which means you get to spend less time on the worldbuilding and more time on telling your story.

CS:Â Why YA?

LC:Â When I was writing Mistwood and Nightspell, I actually didn’t realize that I was writing YA. All the high fantasy I’d read until then was published as adult (even though so many of them featured teenage characters, coming of age stories, etc.), and I just assumed high fantasy had to be adult. Problem was, I told the story in 70,000 words, which I was told repeatedly was too short. I didn’t want to pad the story with another 30K words, so I didn’t know what to do. Luckily, at about that time I read Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, which made me realize just how much the YA genre had expanded since I’d grown up reading L.J. Smith. When I began submitting Mistwood to YA publishers, I got immediate positive responses, which made me realize that at heart it really was a YA story after all.

CS: Your science fiction stories don’t follow a distinct pattern. But almost all your fantasy stories involve the main character trying to solve a mystery about themselves and the people around them. The plot resembles a detective story, with pieces of the puzzle uncovered scene by scene and chapter by chapter, with the final revelation reserved for the very end. What’s the explanation for this pattern?

LC: Probably that I love detective stories, and that’s the pattern I naturally fall into for most stories. My science fiction stories tend to follow a different track from my fantasy stories — rather than starting out with a character and a situation, as I do with fantasy, I usually start with an idea. My main job is figuring out how to build a story around that idea, and often it’s enough work weaving the idea into the story without adding other secrets and mysteries as well. (Often! Not always.)

CS: So many fantasy writers rely on traditional magical beings. Dragons, unicorns, mermaids, vampires, werewolves, zombies, angels/devil. In your case, witches, ghosts, and shapeshifters. Why not original characters?

LC:Â I agree — why not original characters? — and I don’t hesitate to write readers who do use original characters. Myself, I find it much more fun to play with tropes. I also think that the tropes cover a lot of ground, and some writers seem to bend themselves over backward making up names and descriptions for some sort of original creature when, actually, it’s just a dragon (or whatever) with some changes. When writing the fantastical, I think any tropes or standards you can assume the reader shares with you are things to be taken advantage of rather than scorned.

Carl 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.

The Skill of Critiquing Part One: Guidelines for Etiquette

written by David Steffen

I’ve said before and I’ll say it again, the number one way to improve your own writing is to read and critically evaluate other people’s writing. You don’t have an emotional attachment to their work as you do to your own. By learning to examine their work with a cold eye, you can learn what you like and don’t like in a story. Critiquing is a skill which is just as much based on social interaction as it is with prose examination. I’ve read critiquing advice elsewhere, which includes such statements as “don’t critique the critiquer” and “don’t rewrite the story for the author”, but here I have categorized and prioritized critiquing advice into larger categories, and split it between “how to critique” and “how to be critiqued”, as well as a couple of general statements.

I list them as rules here, but of course no one will be enforcing them but yourself. You can think of them as guidelines, if you like, but I do think that your critiquing will be more happy and productive, both for giving and receiving critiques, if you follow these guidelines.

How to critique

6 simple “rules”. Of course, there’s no one enforcing these, so there’s not really rules, but more guidelines of etiquette. I think your critiquing relationships will be much happier and more productive if you keep these in mind.

1. A Critique Should Help the Author

Bottom line, and without exception, the primary purpose of writing a critique should be to help the author. Anything that interferes with this should be avoided. I know, I suggested above that you should critique to improve your own skills, and that’s good too, but you can do that part while reading only, not writing critiques. When you write the critiques themselves, that is where these guidelines come into play. All of the other rules tie into this, the most important of all.

2. Don’t be a Dick

Resist the urge to compose nasty, antagonistic responses to a story, no matter how clever you think you are. If you feel a snark coming on, write a quick blog post to get it out of your system. No matter how little you liked the story, a real person wrote it. If you get your jollies off of trying to crush newbie writers’ fledgling hopes, you are in the wrong place. Writers have enough negativity to deal with, bearing the weight of all the rejections piled on them by editors (I’m not complaining about editors, they reject most submissions because they can’t buy everything, it’s just the way the system has to work), and they need anything but another source of negativity.

This ties into Rule #1, because a nasty, abusive response to a story does not help the author. By all means, tell the author, in detail, what you didn’t like about their story, but take a moment to consider how you want to say it. Keep your comments about the story itself, not about the author.

3. This is Not Your Story

Your objective as a critiquer is not to rewrite the story based on your own vision. Remember that this is not your story. Do NOT tell them to write a different story. Do NOT try to rewrite the story for them–I’ve actually received some critiques which literally rewrote a story from beginning to end for me, which is the farthest thing from helpful. Do NOT try to make their style fit your style. Your job is not to make it the best story you can write, but to make it the best story THAT story can be.

This ties into Rule #1, because if you try to rewrite the story yourself, then it is no longer the author’s story. Trying to do the author’s job for them is not helping the author.

4. Don’t be Afraid to Say What You Think

For a worthwhile critiquing relationship, it is your responsibility as a critiquer to express how you actually feel about the story. If you don’t feel comfortable with this, then you’re not ready for critiquing. The way I figure it, if I want to be certain of positive comments, I’ll share a story with my mom. If I want to get feedback that will help me improve the story, I’ll ask someone for a critique. Now, that doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to express positive comments, only that all of your positive comments should be sincere. And always keep in mind Rule #2.

This ties into Rule #1, because a critiquer who is afraid to point out what they see as flaws in a story is not of much use. If the author asks for a critique, then they are asking for honest feedback, even if it is not positive.

5. Explain

Positive or negative, whatever you do, be specific, explain what you mean. “This story was great” or “This story was terrible”, neither one is particularly helpful, unless you go into more detail. You could say you liked the strong characters, or that you disliked the ending because it felt too improbable. You could say you thought the opening line was hilarious, or that the 2nd person narration was distracting. Just get specific (always keeping Rule #2 in mind). The worst of all vague comments is along the lines of “the writing could use some work.” If you think that’s the case, explain why. For instance, the sentence structure could not vary enough, the protagonist’s name is used too often, or pronouns are often used in a way which makes the antecedent unclear.

This ties into Rule #1, because vague comments are difficult to translate into actual story changes. Take the effort to convert vagueries into specifics, and your critique will have more effect.

6. Find the Good and the Bad

When you’re reading a story for critique, there may very well be tons of negative things you want to say, and as Rule #3 says, you ought to say them. But critiques don’t have to be all bad news. If there are aspects of the story that you liked, you should say those too. Don’t make up things that you like, just seek them out. Starting the critique off with positives and shifting to negatives seems to work pretty well; it establishes a set of story aspects that you don’t think need to change, giving a foundation for any future suggested changes to be built upon.

This ties into Rule #1, because it’s just as important for the writer to know what people liked as what they disliked. This way they can make more informed decisions about what to change and what to leave unchanged. Also, if a particular person always gives unrelentingly negative critiques, the writer may feel bad and may just stop sharing stories with them. By mixing in positive comments, you help maintain a balance with the writer, and maintain a happy critiquing relationship.

How to be critiqued

Some of these rules will be familiar, but seen from the other perspective

1. A Critique Should Help the Author

Yup, the same Rule #1, except in this case, the author is you. You can’t control what kind of critiques you will receive, but you can control how you react to them.

2. Don’t be a Dick

Not every critiquer who reads your work is going to follow any kind of etiquette. I like to use critique forums, but one drawback of them is that there is no entrance exam. Most people are generally trying to be helpful, but the occasional person is just a troll, plain and simple, trying to piss off as many people as they can manage. They may resort to personal insults, or may gleefully try to rip your story apart in the snarkiest way possible. Hopefully this won’t happen too often, but it will happen, and you need to keep your temper when you react. If something really gets you riled up, sometimes it’s better not to react at all: Don’t feed the trolls. Trolls generally act trollish because they want attention, and by responding with rants and raves, you are encouraging their behavior. If you do react, be polite, even though they don’t deserve it. If you can manage, you might just want to say something extremely short like “Thanks for reading and commenting.” If you think the person stepped way over the line, you might consider saying something very simple like “please direct your comments about the story, not about me,” but in general, it’s probably best to just keep quiet.

This ties into Rule #1 for a couple of reasons. First, it may affect other people’s opinions on the forum. If you fly off the handle and act like a troll in response to a nasty critique, then this may affect how likely people will be to read your stuff. Second, it’s just a waste of your energy and attentions. Trying to launch a writing career is generally a very demoralizing business, trying to stay afloat above the constant stream of form rejections. If you post in response to a troll, then you’ve already spent more energy than the communication is worth. It’s best to just move on.

3. This is Your Story

As you read critiques, remember that this is your story, not theirs. Of course you should fix outright grammar/spelling/continuity errors. But you shouldn’t follow any other advice without carefully considering it first. If a critiquer doesn’t like the ending, that doesn’t mean you have to change it. You’ve still gained something by learning how the ending might not to appeal to some people. This is still valuable information.

This ties into Rule #1 because you are the author, and the story is based on your vision. If they offered comments with good intentions, then they have provided a valuable service, but that does not mean you are obligated to follow their every whim. If you follow every suggestion blindly, it will become a story by committee, with all the appeal diluted to the equilibrium of the common vote. It’s good to get opinions from people with a variety of tastes, but if you feel the need to follow all of them, the result will be a bland mishmash, not the gleaming story you hope for.

4. You Don’t Always Need to Say What You Think

It’s the critiquer’s responsibility to say what they think, but that’s not true of the writer. What do you do if someone says a comment which you think is totally incorrect, maybe pointing out an aspect of the story that they see as a flaw, but you see as a strength? You don’t need to tell them you disagree, or that you’ll be disregarding their suggestion. This ties in closely with #3. You won’t be following every person’s advice, but you don’t need to point this out to them, and you don’t need to tell them where their critique is wrong.

This ties into Rule #1, because if you are constantly telling critiquers that you are not going to take their advice, they may come to the conclusion that their critiques are not being taken seriously, that you do not consider them valuable. And trying to convince a critiquer that their critique is wrong is a futile effort–critiques are opinions, not facts, and so they can’t really be wrong. They can just be wrong for your story.

5. Don’t Explain (Unless…)

Imagine that you’ve written a very complicated story, with a complicated plot, and a complicated setting. A critiquer responds and says that they just plain didn’t understand what was happening at any given time. They may ask you to explain. In general, it makes more sense not to explain.

This ties into Rule #1 because, when a story gets published, the reader generally does not have a direct line to the author to explain the parts they didn’t understand. The text must speak for itself, and if it doesn’t do so sufficiently, then the text itself may need to change. If the text can’t make sense without author’s explanation, then more work may need to be done to improve the story’s clarity.

That being said, there are times when explanation may be worthwhile. Using the example above about the critiquer not understanding what’s happening. If you want to make the plot possible to understand, but you’re not sure how, then it might be worthwhile to explain, to see if the critiquer has any ideas for how to bring your intended ideas out in a way that’s more clear to the reader.

General

And, just a couple things that you can keep in mind that don’t tie in very well with the previous categories.

1. Writing Skill is not Critiquing Skill

Although writing and critiquing are very closely related, skill in one does not imply skill in another. A great writer may not have sufficient practice in critiquing to pick apart how someone else’s story could be improved. And someone who has developed great skill in picking apart aspects of a story for critique may not have figured out how to fix these flaws, only how to spot them. When someone critiques your work, your instinct may be to weight their advice based on their publication history, but this is a bad instinct. Likewise, when critiquing someone else, you may be tempted to ignore flaws in their story if they are famous but, again, this defeats the purpose of critiquing at all. Each critique and each story should be taken on its own merits, regardless of the writing skill or publishing history of the person in question.

2. Turnabout

One way to help yourself follow these rules is to encourage critique exchanges, rather than one-sided critiques. In this way, you can both better learn where the strengths and weaknesses of the other person’s stories tend to lie, and you’ll be much less tempted to be a jerk if you know that the other person will have the opportunity to give you the same treatment.

3. Where to Critique?

Okay, so this isn’t so much a guideline, as a question that you might have asked yourself, that I will answer briefly.
Find a local in-person writer’s group. Most metropolitan areas will probably have one or more. My local speculative fiction writers group, for instance, is MinnSpec.
The easiest way to find people to critique you is to go to a critique forum like Baen’s Bar or Critters.
A bit more involved, and with more unpredictable returns is to arrange your own group, or just exchange critiques with individuals, perhaps via email. Stop by the forum of a writing forum or magazine forum, like the Writers of the Future forum, or Hatrack River.