Beneath Ceaseless Skies (BCS) is an online magazine of “literary adventure fantasy”: fantasy set in secondary-world or historical settings, with a literary focus on the characters. BCS launched in October 2008, was named a SFWA-qualifying venue fifteen months later, and in six years has published over 315 stories and 135 audio fiction podcasts. BCS has been a finalist for two Hugo Awards, one British Science Fiction Association Award, two Parsec podasting awards, two Aurealis Awards, and four World Fantasy Awards, and stories from BCS have won the Aurealis Award and the World Fantasy Award. Lois Tilton of Locus online has called BCS “a premier venue for fantastic fiction, not just online but for all media.”
Today we are talking with Scott H. Andrews, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Beneath Ceaseless Skies.
Iulian: Before we dig into the meat of the magazine, tell us some things about yourself: where did you grow up, what were the biggest influences in your life, and how did you get involved in writing and editing?
Scott: I grew up in a university town in central Virginia. I think the two biggest influences on my life were science and art, the latter both literature and music. I’ve always been good at scientific sort of problem-solving and teaching; I have a PhD in biophysical chemistry and I teach college chemistry. I read a lot as a kid, all sorts of stuff including science fiction and fantasy, and I had a great high school English program that had us reading college-level literature like Joyce, Faulkner, Dostoevsky. In high school I got into music and started playing guitar, and I listen to all sorts of music from rock to prog, metal, classical, jazz, fusion.
I started writing little stories as far back as the fourth grade. I placed a couple short stories in my high school lit mag, and the advisor asked me to join the magazine staff—I think they figured writers and artists would also be interested in working on the magazine. When I got to college, we had two lit mags, one that originally published student work but had expanded to publishing work from the neo-pro literary community. I auditioned for that one and was selected for the fiction staff, and the next year they asked me to be co-Fiction Editor, which I did for two years. The lit mag was a great experience; reading interesting fiction and talking about it with really insightful people. (Patton Oswalt, the comedian, was on my lit-mag fiction staff!)
After grad school, I got back into writing and attended several F/SF writing workshops. I was writing short fiction set in secondary worlds but focused not on action or plot but on the characters; inside them, with a Realist sort of portrayal, trying to explore what it meant to be who they were. I loved to read that sort of fantasy too, but there was very little of it around. There were occasional stories in F&SF or Realms of Fantasy and rarely any anywhere else. I had wanted to get back into editing and to do it in the F/SF field, and I noticed this absence of a dedicated home for character-centered secondary-world fantasy, which I call “literary adventure fantasy.” So I started BCS.
Iulian: BCS is a SFWA-qualified market, and readers know the magazine for its high-quality. In the end, it all boils down to the stories you select. What do you expect from a good short story? And the reverse: what is a bad short story? What are you sick and tired of seeing over and over again?
Scott: The main thing I expect from a good story is “the human heart in conflict with itself,” a quote from Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. I want to see a character who is dealing with some sort of conflict, whether an external struggle like plot obstacles or an internal one like trying to overcome flaws or to grow in relationships, or ideally both external and internal. I also want a story to take me into a vivid and interesting world that is somehow different from our contemporary, mundane world, whether an invented secondary world or alt-history or a paranormal historical setting.
A story that would not appeal to me is one that doesn’t make me feel something about a character who is in conflict. I often get stories that have a character in an interesting situation, but the writer isn’t executing the story such that I can feel what it means to be who that character is. For me it’s not enough just to see the character; the story has to make me feel for them. I also often get stories that are more about the action or the world, not a character. Those don’t appeal to me because I have to connect with a real person at the center of all that action or world in order for me to have a reason to care about it.
We do see a lot of common fantasy tropes in submissions to BCS. I think authors turn to the tropes they love without realizing that people who read a lot of fantasy, not just editors but also readers, have seen many of those things so often that without some new twist, they don’t engage us. One of the most common is stories that open in a fantasy tavern, a stock pseudo-medieval tavern or inn like the Prancing Pony. Most all those stories would feel more interesting to me if the writer instead put their own unique twist on the age-old fantasy tavern.
Iulian: How involved are you in the slushing process and what is your approach when dealing with authors? Do you take the extra time to fix a story that needs some level of fixing, do you ask for rewrites?
Scott: I sort through all of the slush myself and pass about three-quarters of it to my current first reader, Nicole Lavigne, and I read the other quarter myself.
My approach with authors is I think very instructional. I have twenty-five years of experience in teaching and a decade of experience in writing workshops. All our rejection letters include personalized comments, for every submission. No other top-level magazine to my knowledge offers that. We get thank-you notes from authors every week; authors have told us that they revised their stories using our comments and later sold them to magazines such as F&SF, Realms of Fantasy, and Interzone.
I do take the extra time to fix a story that to my mind has a great core or a great character but in my opinion needs structural changes or logic fixes or a different ending. I do often ask for rewrites; I would say that over half of the stories that appear in BCS have had some level of rewrite. My approach to authors is to explain what I think needs to be changed, to offer suggestions, but then leave it up to them how to go about fixing it. They often agree with my issues but come up with their own ways to fix them, which is the perfect resolution.
Iulian: Tell us a little bit about your editorial team. I know how important it is to work with good people and have a strong process in place. What is the general structure of your magazine and how do the responsibilities get split?
Scott: The responsibilities at BCS are almost all handled by me. I have a first reader, Nicole Lavigne, who’s been with BCS a year now, and before that a first reader, Kate Marshall, for four years. They do a great job handling the majority of the slush, but other than that, it’s all me. I read all the passed-up submissions, I do all the rewrites and line-edits, I edit and produce all the audio podcasts, I make the ebooks, I handle all the business stuff and PR, and I manage the website. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a labor of love.
Iulian: Besides being an editor you are also a writer. How was your writing affected by your editing of BCS? Are there times when you wish you had more time for your own writing?
Scott: Yes, I am always wishing that I had more time for my own writing. I think editing has definitely improved my analytical skills on fiction and fiction writing in general. I see so many different examples of things, both great and not so great, and I think about fiction and fiction craft constantly. Among my workshopping buddies, I think I’ve always been known for giving good critiques, and I think I’ve gotten even more insightful at that.
But I don’t think that that insight has yet spilled over into my own writing. One thing that we writers often have is trouble seeing our own fiction from a neutral, outside perspective; seeing it the way another person sees it, a reader; seeing it the neutral way we see everyone else’s fiction. I can’t yet see my own fiction in that way. I’m trying to work toward it, because I think I’m a pretty good editor, and if I could apply that to my own writing, I think it would improve my writing a lot. But I’m not there yet.
Iulian: BCS focuses on fantasy exclusively. To be more precise, you publish literary adventure fantasy. Could you explain what that means exactly, and why did you decide to keep the fields so narrow?
Scott: To me, it’s a combination of literary focus on the characters and a world that’s different from our contemporary world. An English-class way to put it might be “Realism in worlds that aren’t real.” I wanted BCS to stick to that niche partly because there was no dedicated home for that, but mostly because it’s what I love to read: the human heart in conflict with itself, in some awe-inspiring other world.
The restriction of those other worlds to fantasy, to ones that don’t have advanced tech is, I admit, an arbitrary one. Fantasy readers seem most comfortable with worlds that are pre-modern in their technology. But I also love “science fantasy”—that currently passé blend of futuristic technology with elements that are so fantastical that they are beyond the reality level of science fiction; like Dune. BCS has done two special theme months of science fantasy, where we featured stories that had fantastical worlds with futuristic technology. Some readers and reviewers really liked those stories—I really liked them—but other readers preferred it when we went back to our regular settings of pre-tech worlds. That to me is part of the duty of a niche magazine—to experiment and diversify but still stick to your central ethos that the readers know and like.
Iulian: Who are your editor heroes? Was there anyone in particular that you could name as a having a major influence on your style and approach to editing?
Scott: I don’t know that I have any editor heroes per se. Perhaps Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld, who in my opinion has pioneered the current era of online magazines. A big part of my editing approach comes from my teaching experience, and my high school American Lit and British Lit teachers were some of the best teachers I ever had, at any level.
Another big part of my editing approach comes from my writing workshop experience, and my hero there is Jeanne Cavelos, the director and teacher of the Odyssey F/SF Writing Workshop. Odyssey is a six-week residential workshop like Clarion or Clarion West, but with an important difference—instead of being taught each week by a different writer, five weeks of Odyssey are taught by Jeanne, who is not just a writer and award-winning former editor but also a college teacher, so the instruction is much better than you get from most writers.
As for my editing style, I just pick the stories that resonate with me; the ones whose world seems awe-inspiring and whose characters move me. I think at the root level, that’s what all editors do—pick what they find cool and trust that the readers will enjoy it.
Iulian: Your magazine pays professional rates and offers stories for free online, a model that has worked well for other magazines, such as Clarkesworld and Lightspeed. Is that the secret of having a profitable e-magazine that also attracts well-known writers?
Scott: BCS is a bit different from Clarkesworld and Lightspeed in that we are a non-profit, a 501(c)3 charitable organization, like Strange Horizons, who pioneered that model in our field. We are primarily funded by donations, and because we’re a non-profit, donations to us are tax-deductible. We are indeed like Clarkesworld and Lightspeed in that we also sell BCS as ebooks and an ebook subscription through WeightlessBooks.com.
I think the secret to having a profitable e-zine is to balance the free online fiction with other things that generate revenues, like the ebook subscriptions or our Best of BCS ebook anthologies. Subscribers get our ebooks a week before the stories go live on the website, and they can have them delivered direct to their e-reader device, so they get some perks in exchange for buying the subscription. Many readers also buy our Best of BCS ebook anthologies, even though they have already read all those stories on the website, in order to get those stories in a convenient package. Many subscribers and anthology customers buy the ebooks just as a way to support us.
I think that attracting well-known writers to a new or indie magazine involves soliciting and then letting the magazine build to a level where it will attract great writers on its own. When I started BCS, I solicited neo-pro short fiction writers like Yoon Ha Lee, Aliette de Bodard, Margaret Ronald, and Saladin Ahmed. I had a bit of an advantage; I had met them at writing workshops. Word soon spread about BCS, and I had stories by great short fiction writers like Holly Phillips and the late K.D. Wentworth come through the slush. Fast-forward a few years, and the next rank of great neo-pro writers also came though the slush, like Seth Dickinson and Benjanun Sriduangkaew. Benjanun has said that she submitted to BCS, I think the first pro-rate zine she ever subbed to, because she saw Yoon’s stories in the magazine. And hopefully the next rank of neo-pro writers out there right now is seeing Benjanun’s stories in BCS and will be inspired to send us their work.
Iulian: I have to ask this: your bio says you own nine guitars. I own three, a drum set, and a piano, and I play neither one of them. Do you play and if so, what?
Scott: I do play, yes! Electric guitar. I gigged originals in several small bands for years, but that dried up a while ago. I now appear to have come full circle; my neighbor is a drummer and we bang out the same classic rock covers as graybeards that I used to play in high school. I’ve built many of my guitars myself, so that’s one excuse for why I have so many—I keep building new ones.
Iulian: What’s next for BCS and for yourself? What is your vision for the future?
Scott: BCS will continue to march relentlessly forward in publishing great literary adventure fantasy. Our new ebook anthology The Best of BCS Year Five just came out. We did a steampunk theme reprint anthology, Ceaseless Steam, a few years ago, and I’m planning another one next spring of Weird Western stories from the magazine. We recently launched a second audio fiction podcast called The BCS Audio Vault, which features past BCS Audio Fiction Podcast episodes with a new introduction by a guest author or editor. October 2014 will be our sixth anniversary; our Sixth Anniversary Double-Issue will include stories by Richard Parks, K.J. Parker, and Aliette de Bodard, and later in October we will have a new story by Gregory Norman Bossert, whose previous BCS story “The Telling” won the World Fantasy Award in 2013. My vision for the future is to keep publishing great literary adventure fantasy by neo-pro writers and veterans alike, online, as ebooks, and as podcasts; to keep doing what has made people call BCS a premiere venue for fantastic fiction.
Dear Scott, thank you very much your detailed answers. I wish you good luck with BCS and any other projects that will surely come along.
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