Interview with the Editors of Strange Horizons

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Strange Horizons is a magazine of and about speculative fiction and related nonfiction. Currently the magazine has a trio at its fiction editorial helm, running the daunting task of selecting great stories and making them even greater. They are Brit Mandelo, Julia Rios, and An Owomoyela.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She currently has two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling. Her work — fiction, nonfiction, poetry; she wears a lot of hats — has also been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Tor.com, and Ideomancer. She is a Louisville native and lives there with her partner in an apartment that doesn’t have room for all the books.

Julia Rios is a writer, editor, podcaster, and narrator. She promotes QUILTBAG speculative fiction with The Outer Alliance (in part by hosting the Outer Alliance Podcast), is the staff interviewer for Stone Telliing: The Magazine of Boundary-crossing Poetry, and occasionally reads stories for places like PodCastle and Pseudopod. Julia is half Mexican, but her (fairly dreadful) French is better than her Spanish. She loves cats and colorful things, and expresses the latter by dyeing her hair bright colors and messing about with papercrafts.

An Owomoyela is a neutrois author with a background in web development, linguistics, and weaving chain maille out of stainless steel fencing wire and whose interests range from pulsars and Cepheid variables to gender studies and nonstandard pronouns, with a plethora of stops in-between. A graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop in 2008 and attendee of the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop in 2011, An’s fiction can be found in a variety of venues, including Lightspeed Magazine, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and several Years Best anthologies.

Q & A

Iulian: It is a little bit unusual for a magazine to have three main editors of fiction. Could you describe your process? How do you split the work between you and how are the final decisions made?

Julia: We all read stories we are considering seriously, and then we come to consensus decisions about which stories we’ll buy. Once we accept a story, we decide which one of us will be that story’s editor, and that person takes it from there. We try to split things up evenly, so all of us do roughly equal amounts of work.

Brit: The workload also tends to sort itself out without much special effort. We all read incoming submissions, and as Julia said, then we’ll pass on stories that were promising for the other editors to read as a group. And though we work on consensus, it’s not necessary for all three of us to adore a story for us to end up buying it — so long as someone feels very strongly about it, we’re likely to pick it up.

An: This also means that we cast a wider net than we might otherwise: we’ve taken several stories that strongly struck a chord with one of the three of us, which might have been passed up if any single one of us were reading. We also tend to read with an eye toward what the other editors might like, and pass things on to the decision-making round if we think it might strike one of our fancies.

Iulian: Strange Horizons is known for its high quality material to the readers, and for being a very challenging market to break into to the writers. What do you expect from a good short story? And the corollary — what is the fastest way for a short story to turn you off?

Julia: We look for stories that are engaging and interesting. We love character driven narratives with a strong emotional arc along with the action. Unfortunately there’s no magic answer that will tell writers exactly how to get published. As for things that don’t work for us, we do get pretty quickly turned off by homophobia, racism, sexism, and other discriminatory viewpoints.

Brit: I tend to look for a sense of “movement” or of something having happened or changed — whether for the character or the world or the plot. Vignettes that are more like snapshots are a hard sell, for example. So more or less, what Julia said: engaging stories with a strong arc.

An: Complexity is my big one. I like stories that don’t give pat, easy answers, and which don’t portray characters or situations as singularly one thing or another. Stories that really dig down into the ramifications of their premise and can explore those ramifications through character action make me happy.

Iulian: I am certain your magazine’s submission queue must be always full. When you find a story that is not 100% acceptable, do you take the time to work with the author to fix that last 1-2%, or at the magazine’s level that type of activity is simply not justified? Describe the way you approach your interaction with authors.

Julia: We do send revision requests in some cases for stories we find really interesting. It pretty much comes down to whether or not we can see a clear fix for the parts that don’t work for us. If we can, and the rest of the story really works for us, we may ask an author to revise. If we can’t see a clear fix, we usually let the story go, albeit with some reluctance.

Brit: Since 99% of our submissions come out of the slush, we do a lot of back and forth communication with writers. We have in the past gone several rounds of revision requests with an author whose story was promising but not quite there yet — and we did end up buying it in the end. Because we often work with new writers or writers at the beginning of their careers, we tend to have strong lines of communication with them. We like finding stories that are promising and seeing them grow into stories people end up loving.

An: I think the work we’re willing to do with an author is proportional to how in love we are with the potential of the story in question. We have taken on stories which need a lot of work — stories we’d otherwise send a revision request for — because they’ve struck a chord, and we want to keep them in an iron grip and not let another magazine grab them or risk never seeing them published at all. At the same time, we’ve let technically proficient works go because, for whatever reason, we didn’t fall in love with them. And then there are the occasional works we buy that we have almost no editing work to do on: they come in like perfectly-polished gems. Because individual taste is a fickle thing (and because we are all busy people), it helps a story’s chances when it’s extremely strong, but editing work is a tool we’re always open to using.

Iulian: You have a large amount of volunteers helping you with the magazine. Tell us how important is it for an editor to have a strong editorial team? What is the general structure of your magazine and how do the responsibilities get split?

Julia: We are an all-volunteer magazine. This means that no one gets paid for their work — we’re all doing it because we love the work and the mission of the magazine. We have a team of first readers who help us read incoming submissions, and all three editors also read roughly the same amount of incoming submissions as our first readers do. We try to split the work evenly so that no one is overburdened and all stories get a thorough and careful consideration. We put our first readers through a rigorous test process so that we’re sure our tastes and theirs match. We appreciate all their hard work, and we trust them to pass interesting stories up to us.

Brit: Obviously, having a team you trust to work well with you is the most important thing at a magazine. We put a lot of effort into finding readers whose tastes fit the magazine and who love working with slush — and each other. We tend to have good lines of communication and a comfortable atmosphere behind the scenes.

An: One interesting aspect of our slush process is that every night, an email goes out to the editors and the first readers containing a rundown of all the slush our first readers have gone through: a summary of the story, the rating they’ve given it, and the reason for that rating. If something is slated to be rejected, the rejection is delayed for a week in case another reader wants to check out the story and add their own notes, or rescue it from the rejection pile. This encourages cross-talk, and helps us keep an eye on how we’re thinking about stories, as well as trends in the stories we see.

Iulian: All three of you are also writers. How do you find the time to edit the magazine and write at the same time? Does your position as editor influence your writing or the way you approach your own submissions?

Brit: I’d say I have less time to write, though I suppose that’s obvious. Anything that takes time and thought is going to cut into productive writing-time. But, I don’t mind so much, because I enjoy the work and the project we’re continuing with this magazine — it’s got a long history that we’re part of now, and that makes it pretty worthwhile. As for how editing has changed my approach, I don’t know that it has very much.

An: My writing time has always found its way into odd corners of my life, so it’s largely unaffected so far as a time crunch goes. I have noticed that it’s sometimes more difficult to push through first drafts: there’s always the specter of “Would I care about this, if it came through our slush?” to contend with. On the whole, though, being an editor means that I can help bring more stories into the world — stories that I could never have written — and that’s phenomenal. I almost feel more engaged with getting good stories out there than I would if I took all the time I spent on Strange Horizons and directed it toward my own writing.

Iulian: There’s only so much that you can publish in one year, and I am sure sometimes you must make tough choices. What are the hardest choices an editor has to make?

Julia: There are times when we receive stories we really like that are too similar to other stories we’ve bought and have on the schedule. Letting go of those stories is always hard, but we know we need to maintain a balance in what we publish.

Brit: Oh, yeah, those are the most painful — especially when they’re otherwise great stories. Another thing that’s hard is getting back a revision that’s still not quite where it needs to be, for a story that otherwise has a lot of good stuff going for it.

An: There are some stories, too, where they come in and they’ve got a lot going for them, and we know they could be fantastic… but they’re not there yet, and none of us have any idea how to fix them. Those are stories we’ll sit on for a week or two, and talk about in meeting after meeting, trying to work out if we can pin down specific revision suggestions. It’s always difficult to see what something could be and have no idea how to help the author get it there.

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?

Brit: When it comes to style and approach, those are fairly personal and tend to develop over time — as folks might have noticed, there’s far less material out there for “aspiring editors” compared to “aspiring authors.” Also, since the editors’ hand is invisible for the most part in the end product — as a reader, we don’t see where the story started — it’s hard to put a finger on whose actual process of editing would have been an influence.

An: When I was beginning to submit short stories to specific markets, the previous editorial team at Strange Horizons made an impression on me: they were always prompt and polite with their responses, and they gave me some very considerate personal rejections. I never managed to sell them a story, but I still remember that my interaction with Strange Horizons was always a good one, and hope to continue that.

Iulian: Your magazine pays professional rates and its funding is done mainly through donations and fund raisers. Is that the secret of having a profitable e-magazine that also attracts well-known writers?

Julia: We really don’t have anything to do with the money side of the magazine. As mentioned above, no one who works for Strange Horizons gets paid, and we’re a non-profit, so everything we raise goes into creating the magazine and paying contributors. We don’t know who our donors are, and we prefer it that way for ethical reasons when considering stories. The fundraiser model has worked for Strange Horizons for many years, though, so presumably it’s a good model.

Brit: I would also say that attracting well-known writers is done by offering competitive pay, a big audience, and a history of publishing good work. Not so much by where the money comes from, fundraising or subscription models. (I also wouldn’t say we’re “profitable,” since no one makes a profit but the contributors.)

Iulian: What are the most valuable non-monetary rewards you get from running the fiction editorial department of Strange Horizons? The award nominations, the increase in subscriptions, a friendly email from a reader? What makes it all worth it in the end?

Julia: Hands down the best things are finding stories we love, sharing them with the world, and occasionally hearing back from others who loved them as much as we did. That’s what motivates us.

Brit: Well, we don’t have any monetary rewards — the editorial staff of the entirety of Strange Horizons are volunteers, as we’ve said. So, this is more or less all a “for the love” venture on our end.

For me, what makes it worth the work is the sense that I am helping to contribute to a world that has more stories in it than yesterday, and that those stories are giving voice to more and more diverse perspectives. I’m trying to make a positive dent, more or less, while also offering people something good to read.

An: We’re a very loving magazine. Really, though, it is a matter of finding work you love, work that speaks to you, work that illuminates aspects of your experience and the experience of people you care deeply about and which isn’t well-represented, work that you wished had been out there for you to read, and getting it out there. If there’s a chance that one of the stories we’ve published would not have been published without us, we’ve done our job.

Seeing writers at the beginnings of their publishing careers is also fantastic. We’ve had stories that represent the first professional publication for writers, and stories that represent the first publication for writers, full stop. And it’s so exciting to get in at the ground floor, as it were, because a lot of these writers are immensely talented and working in very cool areas, and I look forward to (hopefully) long, prolific careers from all of them.

Iulian: What’s next for Strange Horizons? Do you have any new visions or ideas for the magazine’s direction? Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Brit: What’s next: keep publishing good stories. Keep finding fresh voices in the slush and also publishing familiar ones. More or less, just maintaining the editorial vision that has made the magazine successful: trying to encourage diversity in our slush pile and our front page, and supporting a solid community of writers and readers.

An: Here’s a vision for our slush pile: keep surprising us, guys. Keep doing things we would never have thought of. My vision for our direction is to continue expanding what it means to be Strange Horizons.

Dear Brit, Julia, and An, thank you so much for taking the time for this interview!

Strange Horizons Website: http://www.strangehorizons.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.