Interview with Award Winning Editor Lynne Thomas

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Lynne M. Thomas is a librarian and award-winning editor based in DeKalb, Illinois whose latest project, Uncanny Magazine, was recently funded on Kickstarter. She was the Editor-in-Chief of the Hugo Award-nominated Apex Magazine, taking over as editor with issue 30 in 2011 and concluding her term with issue 55 in 2013. Lynne has also co-edited with Tara O’Shea the Hugo Award-winning book Chicks Dig Time Lords and follow-ups Whedonistas (with Deborah Stanish) and Hugo Award-nominated book Chicks Dig Comics (with Sigrid Ellis). She won a second and third Hugo Award for her participation in the SF Squeecast podcast, and was on the Hugo Award for Best Fancast ballot for a third time with Verity!, an all-female hosted Doctor Who podcast. She serves as the Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections at Northern Illinois University, where she has been building a collection of papers of science fiction and fantasy authors since 2004. In her free time, Lynne spins fire ( http://bit.ly/ltfire). That video was too cool to be left out, despite Lynne’s comment: “I don’t spin fire! That was the VERY FIRST TIME I did it. The experienced fire-spinner at Uncanny is our Managing Editor, Michi Trota.”

 

Q & A

Iulian: Lovers of science fiction and fantasy enjoyed your work at Apex Magazine and the books you’ve co-edited. But before we get into that, can you give us a glimpse into your life before all that? How and where did you grow up, and what was the driving force that steered you toward your career?

Lynne: *laughs* You’re assuming that there was a driving force to steer me toward my career, and this job in particular. I grew up in Worcester, MA, in a working class household, where I attended public schools and was a cheerleader in addition to working in fast food, then retail, then as a switchboard operator. I was a theater kid, attending a specific day camp for that during most of my summer vacations. I also took dance lessons on and off. I also spent a goodly amount of time hanging out in both my school and local public libraries under the benevolent eyes of several excellent librarians.

My formal training as an editor came through my undergraduate and graduate degrees. I majored in Comparative Literature & French Literature (BA) at Smith, Library and Information Science (MS) at the University of Illinois, and English and American Literature (MA) at Northern Illinois University, where I work as Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections.

The academic side of my undergraduate training was focused on reading, writing, and thinking about what makes literature work in two languages. At the same time, I was a student worker in the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith, which taught me to think about books not just as holders of stories, but as artifacts. I have distinct memories of reading Five Hundred Years of Printing and An Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students as a sophomore at Smith College, for fun, on my lunch breaks while working there.

When I graduated from Smith, my degrees and experience had set me up for two very specific types of jobs—rare books librarian or editor. I’m both pleased and a little shocked that I have now achieved both.

After college I worked as a library assistant at the Library Company of Philadelphia. My first professional library gig was as a cataloger at Yale University. The position at NIU opened up just as I was becoming more personally geeky, and it matched up really well.

I came quite late to the SF/F genre. While I’ve been an avid reader all my life, I pretty much only read canonical literature, YA, romance, and mysteries. I didn’t read SF/F regularly until I landed the job at NIU in 2004 and found myself in charge of a massive SF/F collection. My SF/F To-Be-Read pile will be epic for the rest of my life, but on the flip side, I’ll never run out of things to read!

I married into geekdom, too. I had never been to a convention or consumed much SF/F media until I met Michael (he’s the lifer geek in the family) back in 1998-1999. He converted me.

Michael is a huge Doctor Who fan. He introduced me to the series, and the rest as they say, is history…

In your years at Apex, I am certain you’ve seen every type of story possible. What do you expect from a good short story and what is the recipe for a bad short story? Can you name one or a few of your favorite short stories (or authors), if any?

I expect good stories to be well written, with all of the parts of the story contributing to the overall effect. So, for instance, the descriptions should feed into the themes/ideas of the story, the themes/ideas and the plot should go together. The characters should be fascinating (although not necessarily likeable), and make choices that work within the thematic, plot, and descriptive frame you’ve constructed. To me, short stories fall apart when the different elements work against each other, or when I ask the question, “So, what?” and don’t have a satisfactory answer. The stories that work the best for me are the ones that make me care about the people in them.

It’s hard to choose my favorite writers, because there are so many! But the ones that are probably most indicative of my “editorial style” in terms of works that make me likely to say, “Yes, this!” include Maureen McHugh, Ken Liu, Kelly Link, E. Lily Yu, Rachel Swirsky, Christopher Barzak, Sam J. Miller, Sarah Monette, Elizabeth Bear, Mary Robinette Kowal, Catherynne M. Valente, Maria Dahvana Headley, Kat Howard, Charlie Jane Anders, Genevieve Valentine, Sofia Samatar, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Aliette de Bodard, Henry Lien, and so many others. This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but it’s a start.

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You’ve recently started Uncanny Magazine, a new publication of science fiction and fantasy. I am very glad to see this project fully funded on Kickstarter; I think the more high-quality short-fiction markets out there, the better for both readers and writers. Tell us a bit about this project: how did it come to be, what are the short term and long term goals, and, as a related question, why SF/fantasy?

Well, after Michael and I stepped down from Apex (he was the Managing Editor) due to our daughter’s major surgery, we found we missed editing. (We edited Glitter & Mayhem together last year, along with John Klima, as a Kickstarted anthology.) Once our daughter recovered, we looked a way to get back into the SF/F field, which we both enjoy so much. Thus Uncanny was born.

We want to publish SF/F stories that make us feel. The aesthetic we’re going for is that of a pulp magazine that changed and evolved with the times into a 21st century online magazine. Our long term and short term goals are pretty much the same: find and publish the kinds of stories that make us punch the air when we read them, and haunt us afterwards. Our number one goal is to make the magazine sustainable after the first year so that we can keep working!

Both at Apex and now at Uncanny, you’ve worked with a talented group of people. How important is your editorial team in general? I assume that you find it easy working in teams, given the various projects you’ve co-edited. As a person who works best alone, I am wondering: how do you do it?

I’m a huge fan of working collaboratively. Part of this is my professional training: EVERYTHING in libraries is done by committee, so that’s something I do every day. The give-and-take that is a collaborative, creative process actually improves my work, adding perspectives I might not have thought of, or filling in details or areas of knowledge I would never have gotten to alone. Every project I’ve worked on collaboratively has turned out better as a result. The key is to make sure that your team is full of people who are just as passionate about the project as you are, and that we check in routinely to make sure we’re all still going in the same direction.

For example, our Uncanny podcasting team, Steven Schapansky and Erika Ensign, are both expert podcasters. While I can make a basic podcast recording that sounds okay, they have a skill set (editing, recording, production) that I do not, which they are very happy to leverage for our content. Our podcasts sound awesome because they care deeply about that. This makes our content shine, which Michael and I care deeply about. Everyone wins.

The other major advantage to a collaboration like this is that a team allows us to occasionally delegate or step back when we need to, which is particularly important for us given that our daughter is medically fragile. We depend greatly on the work of our phenomenal Managing Editor Michi Trota. So long as we’ve all communicated well, and stay in contact, the project can keep moving forward without us being there at the times when we need to prioritize our daughter. A bad day or two does not mean the project grinding to a halt.

The key to any and all teamwork is communication, communication, and more communication. We send a LOT of emails.

You are also involved in several Podcast projects (SF Squeecast & Verity!). Tells us a few words about these projects and how do they correlate to your other work?

My major lesson in life these days is: be careful about what you say on Twitter. Both the SF Squeecast and Verity! came out of Twitter conversations that began with, “Wouldn’t it be great if this kind of podcast existed,” and ended with, “Okay, so when can we get together to record?” The SF Squeecast is an attempt to put more positivity out in the SF/F landscape. We went with a model of, “This is awesome. Here’s why I think it’s awesome. You should check it out.” Then we spent a lot of time trying to make each other laugh.

Verity! Is a podcast that is basically made up of the conversations that my friends in Doctor Who fandom and I have been having in the convention bar for years, moved to podcast format. Fans love to debate, and we’re no different. We rarely agree about individual episodes or stories, but we always love each other and Doctor Who. The rest is just trying to make each other laugh, really.

So, the major podcasting lesson for me is: there is nothing better than hanging out with friends and trying to make them laugh.

Your list of Hugo nominations and awards is getting longer, and I can only hope it continues to grow. What do these awards mean to you? Was winning ever a goal for you, and if so, what is your next goal?

The Hugo Awards have been hugely validating for my work, and I’m deeply grateful to be recognized by this community. It’s humbling. My goal is to just keep doing the best work that I can in the hopes that people will continue to enjoy it.

As an editor of short-fiction you must face tough choices all the time. I am thinking about things such as rejecting a story that is 98% good, just because spending that extra 2% fixing the story might not be something you could afford. Or, perhaps your style is just the opposite? What was this process like at Apex and how are you setting it up at Uncanny?

We absolutely face tough choices. Part of this is a function of sheer numbers. We have roughly 800 submissions per month. Out of that, we’re only going to buy 3 or so, maximum. So, really, we have the option to hold out for stories that are nearly “fully cooked.” Given that every market has its own aesthetic, what makes a story “fully cooked” and “the kind of story that gets bought” varies from editor to editor and market to market. There isn’t really a magic formula to creating an Apex story or an Uncanny story or a Lightspeed story or a Clarkesworld story.

Particularly at the beginning of my tenure at Apex, when I was new to fiction editing, I tended to prefer fully cooked stories. It took me a while to develop the language of developmental editing: to give feedback to writers to explain what I thought needed improvement or changing. Over time, that changed. Michael and I began working with writers when we found a story that we fell in love with, and fit what we’re looking for quite well, but it didn’t quite work for one reason or another. In those cases, we made suggestions for what would make the story work for US. The author has the option to rewrite for us in the hopes that we say “YES THIS” and buy it, or they can send it on to a different market.

That’s rare, though. We have great submissions editors who do a first pass on our unsolicited submissions, but Michael and I are still reading 50-100 submissions per month, between solicited work and unsolicited work that comes up to us. Editing is a second job for both of us. I have my librarian day job, and Michael caregives our medically fragile daughter, so our time that we can work on this is restricted.

Do you have any editor heroes? Can you name anyone in particular that that had a major influence on your style and approach to editing? And while we’re at it: what do you love most about editing?

I’ve often joked that I’d like to be Ann VanderMeer when I grow up. Ann’s run on Weird Tales is probably closest to my personal taste. As with many other editors, I learned on the job. My first non-academic editing was for Lars Pearson at Mad Norwegian Press. I learned a ton from those books. Cat Valente and Jason Sizemore gave me my start at Apex, and I’m grateful for what I’ve learned from that opportunity. Michael and I learned even more working with John Klima on Glitter & Mayhem. For the nuts-and-bolts parts of running the business end of owning and managing a magazine, we are particularly indebted to John Joseph Adams and Neil Clarke, who have been absolutely invaluable and hugely supportive in helping us get Uncanny set up properly.

What I love most about editing is the opportunity to read something, decide it’s awesome, and then be able to share that awesomeness with the world.

You run the Rare Books and Special Collections at Northern Illinois University. What does this entail and what does it accomplish exactly?

My day job is never the same thing twice! Like many librarians, I spend a fair amount of time in meetings and dealing with administrative work. Beyond that, I interpret our collections for classes and individual readers, as well as through exhibitions. I build our collections, too, working with donors making gifts, and with a modest budget to acquire other materials. Our collections are fundamentally quite geeky: popular cultural materials, including children’s literature, dime novels, comics, pulp magazines, science fiction books, and the literary papers of about 70 science fiction and fantasy authors, as well as the organizational archive of SFWA itself, which is currently being assembled. It’s wonderful stuff!

Those are the basics of the job, but I also have an administrative role (I supervise several other units at this point), and I’m involved in statewide and national projects to help solve one of the major issues in our field, that of digital preservation. Taking care of paper is relatively easy: if we control its environment, we can leave it on a shelf for decades and it won’t degrade all that quickly. Electronic documents, though, (which, if you think about it, are the original artifacts for most of us these days), degrade or become obsolete quite quickly if we aren’t taking care of them directly. When your collecting timeline is “posterity” or “at least 100 years,” that’s a big problem. About 10 years ago, when I said to an SF/F author “I’d like NIU to be the home of your literary papers” and got handed a flash drive, it became my problem.

I always like to get a few words of advice from editors for the writers. So, what is your advice for young writes seeking to have their stories accepted in magazines such as Apex or Uncanny?

Read more widely, both inside and outside of genre, and write more. Tell the stories that you want to read, that you think need to be told, to the best of your ability. Find critique groups who will tell you the truth about your work, learn from it, and keep telling new, better, different stories. That takes lots of practice, and figuring out what the best versions of the stories you want to tell look like. We often talk about the “million words of crap” metric, and while it varies from writer to writer, writing is both an art and a craft. The more you work on the craft part, the more you can internalize the structures, the syntaxes, the choices that need to be made to tell the version of the story that is yours. The art comes from internalizing the craft, and using those skills to produce something that is unique to you, that may tell us more about us.

There is no secret handshake.

The path to getting published is to write a story that makes that particular editor punch the air when they’ve finished reading it. Which stories will make the editor punch the air will vary quite a bit from editor to editor, and market to market. SF/F is not monolithic: the universe is a vast and diverse place, and the stories that we tell each other should reflect that.

Dear Lynne, thank you very much for answering these questions and for taking the time to share your thoughts. We wish you good luck with your new magazine and all other projects. At FSM we believe that a normal progression after fire spinning is walking on hot coals. I’m just saying…

To learn more about Lynne and her work, follow her blog: http://lynnemthomas.com/

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Iulian Ionescu

About Iulian Ionescu

Iulian is the Editor-in-Chief and publisher of Fantasy Scroll Mag. He is a science fiction and fantasy writer who enjoys blogging and technology. He runs the fiction writing blog Fantasy Scroll and if you want to know more about his works, check out his author page.