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[GUEST INTERVIEW] Escape Pod Assistant Editor S.B. Divya on Learning From Slush Piles, her Upcoming Tor Novella & More

After paying her dues as slush reader, S.B. Divya has been promoted to assistant editor of Escape Pod. She’s been specializing in short fiction and has sold to Daily Science Fiction and Nature. She will appear in Lightspeed‘s People of Color Destroy Science Fiction. Her novella Runtime will be available from Tor in May. She is a member of the SFWA.

Here, Carl Slaughter talks with S.B. Divya about slush, flash fiction, hard science, Codex, her forthcoming Tor novella, and her sci fi favorites.

CARL SLAUGHTER: Congratulations on your promotion to assistant editor. What will be your new duties?

S.B. DIVYA: Thank you. My primary role will be to review the submissions that come through our first readers. I’ll pass my selections to Escape Pod‘s editor-in-chief, Norm Sherman, and send rejection or hold notices to the authors. I’ll be involved in the podcast side a bit, too, highlighting comments from our listeners. If I get addicted to the microphone, I might even try out as a narrator.

CS: As a submissions reader, did you have any duties other than gatekeeper? Offering feedback to authors? Lobbying the editor?

SBD: I was able to give personal feedback to authors if I chose, but it wasn’t a requirement. Similarly, lobbying the editor was entirely self-directed. As first readers, we would write up a short comment on what we did or didn’t like about a story. I reviewed a few submissions where I had to say, “YES PLEASE!” and was thrilled to see them get accepted and podcast later on.

CS: What were the best and worst experiences as a submissions editor?

SBD: The best feeling in the world is to see a story that I love make it all the way to publication. It’s a similar feeling of pride to seeing my daughter accomplish something. Ultimately, it’s the author’s achievement, but it’s great to know that you’re the reader (and/or editor) who helped bring it to the world.

The worst – well, that’s getting a story that makes me feel vaguely slimy after reading it. There are certain themes and treatments that don’t sit well in my brain. After reading a truly unpleasant entry, I’ll usually skim the submissions queue until I find something lighter.

CS: What benefits for your career accompany reading slush?

SBD: The first-tier benefit was learning the common mistakes that I can now spot and address in my own writing. The second-tier was seeing what types of stories people are producing – what the current touchstones are and how most people approach them. This has helped me identify some tropes in science fiction, both for plots and characters, so I can avoid using them in my fiction.

There’s a downside to that second one, though: I now have much less tolerance for these tropes in other venues, too. A perfect example is my frustration with last year’s critically acclaimed movie, Ex Machina. I’d seen one too many sexbot-takes-revenge stories just before watching the movie, and so I found the film exceptionally lacking in imagination.

CS: How many submissions does Escape Pod receive? How many do you accept?

SBD: On average, we receive about 100 stories per month via open submissions. We also solicit stories, especially reprints, directly from authors. About 3-4% of slush is ultimately accepted for publication.

CS: How far into a story do you typically read before you decide whether to accept or reject?

SBD: This has evolved over the past year of reading submissions. Initially, I’d read a story nearly from start to finish. Then I moved on to reading the opening pages closely but then skimming the rest if the story showed promise but wasn’t holding my attention. Now, I have certain deal-breakers that will make me stop reading within a page or two. The most egregious one is bad writing. On the other hand, I’ll read a story all the way through before deciding in favor of it.

CS: What are the most common reasons for rejection?

SBD: I’m going to guess that this is somewhat personal to each reader, so in my case, these are some problems that’ll make me reject a story before I finish reading it:

  • failing to define the central conflict early on
  • too much straight-forward exposition and backstory at the start
  • confusing writing style / lack of good grammar

There have also been times when I’ve read a story all the way through, and I’m super hooked and enjoying the ride, and then the story ends in the middle. I’m not talking about a “Lady and the Tiger” type of ambiguous ending. I mean stories where I’m literally double-checking that I got the entire file because it feels like the conflict is still developing.

CS: What’s new at Escape Pod?

SBD: We just finished our month-long highlight of science fiction by women and non-binary authors, “Artemis Rising 2”, which featured some great stories. We’re also in the middle of our flash fiction contest, which is voted on by the members of our fan forum. The three winning stories will be narrated in a single podcast later this year. Voting continues through mid-April, and membership is free, so we’d love to have more people join and participate.

CS: Tell us about your upcoming Tor novella: Runtime.

SBD: It’s a near-future, hard science fiction novella. The main character is a young woman from difficult circumstances who enters an adventure race. Her competition includes elite, professional athletes with state-of-the-art cybernetic enhancements and equipment, but she’s smart – a street hacker – and she’s determined to win. It’s a fast-paced plot that touches on some of my favorite themes: what makes us human, how do we bridge the technology divide, and where will gender norms be in the future? It also relies on personal experience, both in setting (Los Angeles, High Sierra Nevada), and technology. I work with embedded systems, and I’ve studied computational neuroscience so it was fun to think about how we could get chips and technology integrated with human bodies.

CS: What experience did you have submitting to and getting accepted at Tor? Did they offer any feedback about the appeal of the story?

SBD: I submitted my manuscript via Publishing’s open call last May. The story was quite short, coming in at 100 pages, so it’s on the lighter end of the novella range. I was quite honestly floored to get an offer from them! I’ve had a great experience since then with my editor, Carl Engle-Laird. We’ve followed a traditional book editing path rather than a short story one, i.e., structural as well as line edits, and then copy edits with a different editor. He’s been very supportive in all respects, which I appreciate as a relatively inexperienced author.

CS: Did you submit the story anywhere else?

SBD: Nope! I had a novella sitting around that I’d written for fun, and Tor’s open call provided the motivation to revise it and submit it. I was fully expecting to get a politely worded rejection after which I’d planned to revise it again before sending it to some magazines. The market for novellas is pretty small. Most people find success at selling them as part of a long-running, self-published series via Amazon.

CS: Did you decide to target Daily Science Fiction or did you already have a couple of flash pieces?

SBD: I’ve never tried to target a specific publication. I ended up with a few flash pieces as my first stories that felt “ready” to be sent out, and I’d been reading Daily Science Fiction for a while so it seemed like a good place to start.

Now that I’ve had more of peek behind the editorial curtain, I’d say with greater certainty that it’s pointless to shape a story to a market. As long as your piece meets basic guidelines, send it in! Let the editors decide what’s right for them.

CS: How many stories do you have out there and how many places have you submitted them?

SBD: I have about 10 short stories out on submission right now. The number is likely to dwindle as I shift my focus and time to longer forms, but these have been out anywhere from 4-12 times. I didn’t start submitting stories seriously until late in 2014 so most of them started on their journeys last year. They’re pretty young!

Of my 6 sales, two sold on their first time out. The others took 3-10 rounds before they sold. Clearly I have no pattern whatsoever, but those first rounders are crazy-making. One was my first sale ever – “Strange Attractors” to Daily Science Fiction – and the other was “Runtime,” the novella I sent to Publishing. That kind of sale can really mess with your head for future submissions (and rejections)!

CS: Did you use any workshops or first readers for any of your published stories?

SBD: Yes! This is an invaluable step in my revision process. I have a group of first readers who give me feedback. I’m also a member of the Codex Writer’s Group – a great place to get critiques, sympathy, industry news and motivation. Three of my accepted stories were written for Codex contests, which are really fun (you don’t win any kind of prize) and a great way to get lots of quick feedback.

CS: Who are your favorite science fiction authors and why?

SBD: My all time favorites are Frank Herbert, CJ Cherryh, and Joan D. Vinge. I love Isaac Asimov’s stories, too, but his style is less sophisticated than I like these days. Of more recent authors, I’ve been enjoying novels by Linda Nagata, Kate Elliott, and Charles Stross. The last couple of years I’ve been focused on short fiction, and there are tons of great authors coming up in that world. I look at the list of Campbell eligible writers, and I’m humbled to be in their company.

As to why, it’s a combination of style and content. Good writing matters a lot to me so I gravitate to authors who can craft a really good sentence. I also prefer science fiction to fantasy. This is strictly a matter of taste. I’m more interested in reading about the future than magic. That said, I read Game of Thrones in 1999 and loved the way it broke traditional fantasy tropes. I also really liked Kate Elliott’s Crossroads trilogy for taking a non-European approach to epic fantasy.


CS: What are your favorite science fiction stories and why?

SBD: I’ll start with the novels:

  • Psion by Joan D. Vinge: the first book that made me cry (at age 11) actual real tears. The sequel, Catspaw, is one of those paperbacks that I re-read until it started falling apart.
  • Dune by Frank Herbert: I devoured all of the series when I was a teenager and eventually wrote a high school term paper on Herbert. I love his themes of ecology, survival, and power politics.
  • Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh: a stunning work of science fiction. The kind of book I aspire to write someday. I’m so happy that she’s getting the SFWA Grand Master award this year. I haven’t yet met a Cherryh book that I haven’t liked.

For short fiction:

  • “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury: this is the kind of short story I adore. It’s horribly sad, yes, but the language is gorgeous, and it delivers an undeniable truth about human nature.
  • “The Screwfly Solution” by James Tiptree Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon): well, for all the same reasons as above, I love this story, too. Sad, gorgeous, brutally true: check!

CS: What are your favorite science fiction movies and why?

SBD: Star Wars: because it’s Star Wars and I was born in 1975. I am much more critical these days (ask me about The Force Awakens and I’ll write you a treatise), but that first trilogy is steeped in unshakeable nostalgic love.

Gattaca: it’s everything a cerebral science-fiction movie should be – no cheap shots, no shortcuts, and plenty of believable technology.

More recently, I really liked Looper and District 9. It’s too soon to tell if they’ll list on my favorites a decade from now, but I thought both of those movies were well done and didn’t cheat or give their heroes an easy way out.

CS: What are your favorite science fiction television shows and why?

SBD: Babylon 5 for the incredible plot and worldbuilding. Firefly for the characters and dialog. I’ve liked a lot of other science fiction shows, but I can’t say I’d consider any of them as favorites. Really, my favorite television show of all time is Twin Peaks, and it’s sort of surreal fantasy-horror at best, or perhaps not speculative fiction at all!

CS: Why do you like hard science fiction?

SBD: This is an easy one – because I love science! I’m a lapsed physics major who went to Caltech intending to become an astrophysicist. I landed in a very different field – pattern recognition and signal processing – for a variety of complicated reasons, but I still love learning about how the universe works. In terms of fiction, I think hard science fiction provides great framework to illustrate and explore our possible futures in very relatable terms. It’s like tracing a bevy of “if-then” flowcharts where no step in the chain stretches the suspension of disbelief too thin.

Other types of speculative fiction are great at exploring human nature and telling enriching stories, but they are inherently allegorical. I think far-future science fiction ends up there, too, because anything that’s centuries or millennia out from now can break the current rules of physics with enough creativity – and how can we say it’s wrong? Two hundred years ago, physicists would have laughed at the idea of quantum physics or dark matter. I like exploring far future quite a bit – it’s a fertile playground – but I don’t think it can have the same kind of impact that near future (and therefore more likely to be “hard”) science fiction does.

CS: What’s on your horizon?

SBD: A novel…or two or three. I’m not naive enough to think that I’ll strike gold on the first one, but I need to write them before I’m even in the mines. Perhaps a sequel to Runtime, if it’s well received and if I can come up with a worthy story. Escape Pod‘s submissions queue will continue to keep me busy. I’m hoping to keep up with my short fiction writing, too, but there are only so many hours in the day. My cup is brimming with science fictional goodness!

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.

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