Three-time Prix Aurora Award finalist, Susan Forest is a writer of science fiction, fantasy and horror, and a freelance fiction editor. Her stories have appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Tesseracts, AE Science Fiction Review, OnSPEC Magazine, and The Urban Green Man, among others. Her collection of short fiction, Immunity to Strange Tales, was published by Five Rivers Press. Susan acted as judge for the Endeavour Award, and the Robin Herrington Memorial Short Story Contest, and she contributes to Calgary’s annual literary festival, When Words Collide. Susan is also Secretary for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She teaches creative writing at the Alexandra Centre, and has appeared at numerous local and international writing conventions.
Here, Carl Slaughter chats with Susan about her work at SFWA, as editor, writing, critiquing and being critiqued and much more.
CARL SLAUGHTER: Let’s start with your work with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. What does your role as secretary involve?
SUSAN FOREST: My core jobs are creating agendas and minutes of Board and Business meetings, and participating in discussions and votes to determine policy. In addition, I assemble and send out the member newsletter, The Forum bi-monthly, research publishers who wish to be added to the list of markets SFWA maintains for the purpose of qualifying new members, and I am driving the collection of SFWA’s Archives housed at Northern Illinois University.
CS: How has your involvement with the SFWA changed your perspective on the speculative fiction community?
SF: It has certainly broadened my understanding of many aspects of the SF community’s history, and current dynamics. The SF community, in my opinion, skews toward highly intelligent individuals, often with perspectives that are strongly held. It is a wide-ranging and stimulating environment.
CS: What significant changes and activity are going on with the SFWA?
SF: The more I learn about SFWA and its functioning, the more impressed I am by the services it offers. I think members have been well served, particularly over the last few administrations, by officers who put their nose to the grindstone doing work like assembling the Operations, Policy and Procedures Manual, responding to controversy with a reasoned voice, and supporting valuable services for members such as The Bulletin (a quarterly publication), Griefcom (a service to support members by helping to mediate contractual difficulties), Writer Beware (a website alerting writers to scams), and the Emergency Medical and Legal Funds…the list goes on and on. Some of the most important recent initiatives have been to update membership routes to include self-published authors, stepping up the coordination of volunteer opportunities, and getting the word out about how awesome SFWA really is.
CS: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a freelance editor?
SF: I am in the fortunate position of being able to turn work away, and finding work has not been an issue for me; so one advantage is that I am paid, whereas, as a writer, my work is all done on spec. I find editing to be highly satisfying work. The disadvantage is that it is time consuming and deadline-driven, which can interfere with the hours I have for my own personal writing. This is one reason I limit the number of editing projects I am willing to take on.
CS: What does a novel look like when you put it to sleep in the operating room and what does it look like when it wakes up in the recovery ward?
SF: Every project is unique, and every client is unique. As a freelancer, I need to be flexible to meet my client’s needs. I always read a sample before negotiating a contract. One novel I worked on for an author who wished to self-publish had serious structural issues that would have required a major overhaul, which was probably not worth my time at any price. However, we did agree that I would do a stylistic edit, wherein I massaged the sentences and paragraphs to make the work more readable. So in the end, although the structure was still chaotic, you could read the book and it made sense. Another one I worked on had huge promise; the author was pitching to a major publisher, and was quite willing to look at structural changes. They weren’t major, but they required a few critical bits such as having the protagonist face the antagonist in the climax, rather than having a rescuing figure face the antagonist. Once the author saw how these structural bits made the novel more satisfying, she was easily able to write those dramatic moments that tied the novel together.
CS: What tasks are involved? What kind of timeframe? How much interaction with the author?
SF: I am a firm believer in having deep and regular contact with the author. When he is paying money (and editing a novel is significant work that can be pricey) I want to be sure I am meeting his needs. When I am negotiating a contract, I want to be very sure I understand what the author is hiring me to do; what their publishing goals are, how deeply they want me to go into the work, and his time frame (anything from a month to six months or even more, depending on the scope of the project). It is important that I don’t violate the author’s voice or intention. So, if I am doing a structural edit, I provide the client with a multi-page document outlining the novel’s strengths and suggestions to shape the key elements to ensure the novel has motivated plot and character arcs, dramatic high points and pacing. Sometimes I will create a chart identifying the purpose of each of the novel’s scenes. Then the author can choose to re-write or not. For a stylistic edit, I look at the smoothness of the writing, and make word and sentence choice suggestions that the author can accept or reject.
CS: How often does editing a novel turn into a wrestling match with the author? What changes do authors usually object to? Who usually prevails?
SF: As a freelance editor, I always make it clear to my client that they are the boss, and I try to get explicit communication from them about how critically they want me to edit. When delivering my work, I also give a rationale for any high or mid-level suggested changes, and let them know they are free to accept or reject. Sometimes I provide two options, if the original manuscript is unclear (for instance, if the author’s intention is to convey one idea, here are some suggested ways to make it more clear or artistic; if they really meant something else, here is a different way to achieve that effect). When I work for a publisher, however, I have a responsibility to raise the final product to the publisher’s standards. This can make the relationship with the author more delicate; however, the best results are usually achieved through reaching an understanding that the author, editor and publisher all want the same results: a high quality book that readers will want to read. Ultimately, I can’t change an author’s words or intent, and if they don’t want to make the changes, those changes are not made. By the same token, a publisher may choose not to publish a work that doesn’t meet his standard. I have been in the position of conveying to an author that s/he might feel more comfortable approaching a different publisher; and I have also received an author’s communication that s/he has decided to withdraw his/her story rather than work with suggested changes. Such situations are disappointing, but sometimes necessary. However, in my experience, they are not the norm.
CS: How much different is editing an anthology from editing a novel?
SF: There are both similarities and differences. Whether the work is short or long, it wants to achieve certain ends and meet certain structural and reader expectations for a well-paced arc, character and setting aesthetics, and engaging content. On the line level, both want to read smoothly and clearly. The novel, being more complex than a short story, may have multiple threads to weave and multiple high points to hit. The anthology, on the other hand, must work as a whole, and it brings together a wide range of voices and interpretations of the theme. Stories need to arranged so each brings out strengths in the texts against which it is juxtaposed-extending or contrasting an idea, character, or voice. In my most recent anthology project we wanted to end with a brilliant, complex political novella; but then we added a tiny, uplifting piece to finish on a hopeful tone. The effect, I think was perfect.
CS: You belong to a freelance editors’ association. What do a group of freelance editors do when they get into the same room?
SF: I have really enjoyed being a member of CAFE (Calgary Association of Freelance Editors), not only for the benefits of membership (such as having a page on their site where potential clients can check out my resume) but I have also learned lots-and been able to share lots-through workshops they have offered or to which they have connected me. Having said that, most of the members are non-fiction editors, so one of my biggest “aha”s was simply getting a sense of how my work fits into a much larger picture.
CS: You’ve studied with such sci fi veterans as Mike Resnick, Nancy Kress, and Robert Sawyer. How did you meet these people, what type of interaction did you have with them, and what influence did they have on you?
SF: Again, I have learned so much from each of these authors, and all of them have helped me produce stronger prose and negotiate the intricacies of the writing world. Rob Sawyer is a very generous mentor whom I have come to know well over the past fifteen years or more. He has not only reviewed and critiqued my work, but taught me about the business of writing, and introduced me to many fascinating people. Nancy Kress is a regular at the Rainforest Writers’ Retreat at Lake Quinault, west of Seattle, and as this retreat is capped at 35 attendees, I have had the privilege of meeting her on multiple occasions. She generally teaches a short class each year she attends, and her insights are so clearly articulated I have found her to provide some of the best writing instruction I have ever received. Mike Resnick was invited to Calgary a number of years ago to run a two-day, clarion-style workshop and we still talk about that particular session. For one thing, he looked at all of is in utter amazement and said, “You are all planning on being professional writers and you don’t go to Worldcon?” You can believe, I started going to conventions after that and his wise words have widened my horizons. When questioned on being a tough critiquer, he said, “That’s what you brought me here for, wasn’t it?” because the world of fiction does not baby the new writer. A good lesson. But-I confess-about my story he said, “Cut 500 words and sell it.” Which I did.
CS: What writing courses do you teach, how extensive are they, what’s the curriculum, what are the teaching methods, and what is the learning process?
SF: I teach two, ten week-courses and several weekend or one-day courses through a local non-profit, to adults with an interest in learning how to improve their own writing. The novel course I taught used to run a full year (20 lessons) with the idea being that the students would finish their novel over the length of the course. But such expectations were a bit high, even though the students were required to complete several chapters and an outline before starting the course. Now the novel course is only 10 weeks and it is an “intro” to writing the novel. The other ten-week course I teach is specifically on speculative fiction. The main difference between the two is that the novel course covers the content more generally (plotting, characters, world-building, backstory, mood/language choice, theme, editing, publishing-topics along those lines), whereas the spec fic course looks at characters specific to science fiction, fantasy and horror; worldbuilding issues around alien planets and magic systems, etc. For the ten week courses, though, regardless of what I am teaching, I try to modify the content to meet students’ needs. We do lots of critiquing, but I always try to point out what the student does well, and indicate only a few areas for improvement; my philosophy is that students will improve more if they keep on writing, but a student who is discouraged may give up and stop writing altogether. For the weekend courses, I encourage students to be prepared with a project to work on, which they can use to apply the concepts taught. Topics I teach include Backstory Secrets, Scene Construction, Show vs Tell, and Crafting Magical Worlds.
CS: Did you pick up anything from the above mentioned veterans that transferred to teaching writing courses?
SF: Tons. One of the reasons I decided to teach was because it gave me an impetus to read many books on writing that had been recommended to me, but which I had never got around to reading. A number of the greats, such as Robert McKee, Donald Maass, Orson Scott Card, Nancy Kress, and others, have a beautifully clear and succinct way of expressing key concepts about writing. But yes, I certainly draw extensively on the things I have learned from workshops I’ve attended or discussions I have had with other writers. And, of course, my own epiphanies as I analyze my own processes.
CS: What awards/contests do you judge, what’s involved in judging, how did judging improve your perspective on fiction, and what are some of the memorable experiences?
SF: I have judged a local annual short story competition (the Robyn Herrington Memorial Short Story Contest–RHMSSC) twice, and the Endeavor Awards, once. The big difference between these two contests is the format (unpublished short stories vs published novels). Also, the RHMSSC involved sitting down face to face with the other judges to hammer out who we would select as the finalists, and it is really surprising how each judge can have a completely different take on the same story. We worked really hard at understanding each other’s reasons for wanting to select a certain story vs a different one. Also, we only met just before the contest winners were announced, so we didn’t have long to come to a consensus. For the Endeavor Award, which the judges discussed via email, we were closer to being on the same page initially, and we had good lead time on reaching a conclusion. One of the biggest advantages to judging a contest, in my experience (and I have heard this is true for people who get an opportunity to read slush), is how weighing the qualities of very different stories that have been pre-selected and already represent the best of what is available, forces you to closely examine what constitutes quality writing. As critiquers, we often focus on what is wrong with a story. Focusing on what makes a story effective is difficult, but you learn a lot by doing it. Is a story that aims higher but doesn’t achieve its aims more or less successful than a story that doesn’t reach as high, but meets its objectives? Not a simple answer. And, of course, the experience of judging a contest reinforces how much personal taste has to do with the final selection, which underpins the importance of taking one’s own rejections philosophically and being persistent until a given story reaches its best market fit.
CS: What panels have you been on? Which topics? What expertise did you offer? What type of questions/feedback did you get?
SF: I tend to try to select panels that focus on craft or teaching, as those are my comfort zones, but as long as the topic isn’t too far out, I’m happy to do the research and stretch myself. At the last Worldcon, I was asked to sit on several teen horror panels, and though I have written horror myself, I supplemented my personal knowledge by talking to a friend with several horror books to his name, and to a bookstore manager who knows the YA market. I take notes with me to the panel, and while I’m on a panel I take notes on what the other panelists discuss, so I can respond or bring up points.
CS: With all the editing, judging, and paneling, how much time do you have for writing? How many novels? How many short stories?
SF: I am extremely fortunate that since 2010, I have had an income that allows writing and writing-related activities to fill my day. Having said that, maintaining a healthy body is extremely important to me, and so I exercise daily-well, almost! Between my volunteer work for SFWA and my workout, most of my morning is gone. I try to keep afternoons for writing, but when I get an editing project, it can eat up a lot of my most productive writing time as well. In an ideal world, evenings are for teaching, writers’ groups, meetings, and family time-though skiing on the weekends is part of the mix, too. Then, of course, life happens. I have one published novel, but like many people, I am working on others, two of which are currently in submission. I have about 20 published short stories (as well as my collection, Immunity To Strange Tales by Five Rivers Press), another that has just been accepted, and two more in circulation. I was able to create more writing time while I was away last spring on a three-month motorcycle tour through Europe by dictating the last half of my novel sitting on the back of my husband’s motorcycle. It worked amazingly well.
CS: With all the editing, judging, paneling, and writing, how much time do you have for reading? What’s been on your desk recently and what’s on your desk now?
SF: I have recently discovered Audible, which is a fantastic way to read more! It is important to read the best in the field, as well as out of it, and I love to support my writerly friends by purchasing their books. And then, there are critiques and stories I read for the classes I teach, so being able to listen to a book as I drive or clean the house is a huge bonus. I just finished Three Day Road, by Joseph Boyden, a devastating war story. Having been in Europe last spring and seen the places where the main character fought in World War I made it all the more real. I am currently catching up on classics, having just finished Neuromancer, and I recently read The Martian, Spin, When Everything Feels Like the Movies, and 1Q84-all of which I recommend, by the way. My next book will be out of genre: The Fault in our Stars.
CS: How do you qualify for a Prix Aurora Award? By residing in Canada or by publishing there?
SF: The Prix Aurora Award is Canada’s national fan-based SF award, similar to the American Hugos. To be nominated, the author needs to be Canadian, but stories I wrote that were published in American magazines qualified.
CS: What exactly is a grants liaison?
SF: The convention I volunteer for, When Words Collide, is a highly successful conference focusing on all types of fiction-SF, romance, mystery, literary, poetry, etc.-having grown from 200 attendees in its first year to capped at 700 this year (its sixth). To keep membership prices low, we apply for government grants each year, which is a huge process, though we are getting pretty efficient at it. Our committee of five applies for four grants every year, and for the past three years we have received two grants regularly, and we have hopes that this year we have a strong proposal that will get us a third one. It makes a huge difference to the bottom line.
CS: What exactly is a speculative fiction painting?
SF: I enjoy painting landscapes, but have done a bit of figure painting as well. Science fictional landscapes such as night skies with two moons would qualify as speculative, but I have painted scenes with ghosts, mermaids and fairies frolicking in a waterfall, and trees whose trunks are human-shaped. It’s fun, and I have had some success with sales, as well.
CS: Any advice to aspiring speculative fiction writers?
SF: The big thing you hear is: “Read! Read, read, read, read, read! And write! Write, write, write, write, write!” This is super-important. When I began reading more in the markets I wanted to sell to, I began publishing there. But the other advice you hear less often, is: get involved in your writing community. Network. It is amazing how much you can learn from fellow writers, and the opportunities that arise because you are connected. Becoming a part of your writing community is a stepping stone to learning your craft, progressing in your career, and making lifelong friendships.
Carl Slaughter wrote many reviews for Tangent before moving to Diabolical Plots as a reviewer and later an interviewer. He conducted 50 plus interviews for Diabolical Plots. For the past 14 years, he has traveled the globe teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) in 6 counties on 3 continents. Carl has traveled to 18 countries and counting. (He’s tired.) In college, Carl studied journalism, broadcasting, advertising, English, speech, and history. For several years, he was a stringer for the Associated Press. His essay on Chinese culture was published in Beijing Review. His essay on Korean culture was published in The Korea Times, as was his expose on the Korean ESL industry. His travel/education reports about Thailand occasionally appear on the Ajarn website. Carl subscribes to the Mike Resnick philosophy of fiction: It’s all about the characters. Check out Carl’s Diabolical Plots interviews, his Facebook photos with his students of all ages from around the world, and a short Youtube video of Carl with some VERY excited Thai kindergarteners.