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The Horror Pod Class

Hey class!  Come meet Mike and Tyler, two high school teachers who absolutely love to talk and write about the horror genre!  We also own and write for a website named Signal Horizon, where you can get the latest news, reviews, and analysis of works from the horror and dark science fiction genres!

Mar 23, 2018

Hey class!  Welcome to our very first Horror Pod Class Extra Credit Episode, where we take the opportunity to interview professionals from the horror genre.  Today, we are talking with the incomparable editor Ellen Datlow.  Ellen has a brand new theme anthology out right now named The Devil and the Deep: Horror Stories of the Sea.  We talk with Ellen quite a bit about the new collection and you can also read our review over at Signal Horizon.  

Here are some Amazon affiliate links to the just released and upcoming books we talk about today:

The Devil and the Deep: Horror Stories of the Sea


The Year's Best Horror Volume 10


Echos: The Saga Anthology of Ghost Stories


Signal Horizon:  For fiction readers who might not know, how important is a good editor and what techniques do you use to help authors craft a powerful story?

Ellen Datlow: Well, that's kind of complicated.  First of all I don't read unsolicited manuscripts anymore.  So what I see is usually from people who I have worked with before or I know they are professional writers already and they know the basics of writing.  When I buy a story I work with a writer to basically make sure what they want to say is on the page.  So I ask a lot of questions when I am editing.  I think it is important for writers to have an editor because we are going to help you not stumble.  I consider myself as an editor, the ideal reader.  When I am looking at material I am going to help you see what missteps you might make or have already made.  My job is to help you rewrite, or revise, to get those those mistakes out of the manuscript.  And that's not copy editing, that's different.  We aren't talking about punctuation and grammar necessarily, we are talking about consistency in tone, consistency, of course if I notice words or phrases repeated I will make note of those and say "are you sure you repeat this 5 times?"  There are certain words that writers repeat a lot and with computers you can see them really easy.  Once one jumps out at me, like that or just or but, and then you can look it up and see that there are 200 buts in your 20 page story, get rid of most of them.  If you can, and that might mean you have to rewrite the sentence or cut out something.  so basically my job is to make good stories become great stories, hopefully.  Or really good stories even better.  That's kind of what I feel my job is.  

Signal Horizon:  So I got a chance to read an advance copy of your newest anthology, The Devil and the Deep: Horror Stories of the Sea.  It was great, I was super impressed.  Its 15 new horror stories all with a nautical theme.  I'm really interested in the creative process you use when you come up with a theme for a new anthology and what was it like for this one in particular?

Ellen Datlow:  First I pitched it to my editor that I have worked with on The Best Horror of the Year, and he liked it, it was the first original anthology that Nightshade has bought.  Sometimes the in house editor, the publisher, wants to know who you are going to try to get to write.  I don't remember if I got them the names in advance, but once we agree on a contract and it is in process I will solicit the writers.  Writers whose work I like, writers whose work might be perfect for the theme.  I'll contact them and ask them if they are interested and give them a broad outline of what I am looking for or what I am not looking for.  For the sea horror, I said I want all kinds of seas, oceans, by the sea, and even inland seas.  As you might have noticed we have an inland sea story, by Brad Denton, that takes place in the desert out in the west.  It was a former sea and so there is no actual water in the story, but I encourage writers to do that.  Basically, they have about ten months to write a story, if its a new anthology.  Over time I will periodically poke them and ask them how the story is going.  For every anthology I do I ask about a third more writers than I need because usually a third drop out for whatever reason or I don't like the story.  I keep pushing and asking how is the story coming and if writers say "what story?" then I say, hey I need a story now! Or, I need it in three months!  Sometimes they say, I can't do it or I tried, I don't have any ideas or I'm too busy.  Sometimes they send me a story and I just don't think it works.  Through the whole process as the stories come in I judge, what do I have?  What do I need?  Are too many stories similar to each other?  At that point you start contacting the authors who havn't sent anything in yet and say, I don't want any more of this or that.  So thats basically how it works, some people don't buy the stories until they have all come in, I buy them as they come in.  If there is a substantive edit I will do that before I buy the story.  That means if I think that is good and I like it, but I think it need work I won't commit to buying the story until the writer fixes it.  Then I let them sit, it usually not until about two months before I have to hand in the anthology that I start doing the line edits.  I try to start with the earlier stories, the ones I bought first, so I have had time to digest them.  Then I do the line edit where I do a line by line reading to make sure that everything seems to be in its place.  Every line is comprehensible, there is no "I don't know what you are talking about here" kind of thing.  I do the final line edit, then I have to figure out the order of the stories, usually I do that when I get all the stories in.  Thats kind of when you balance and see what you've got.  You try to balance the reading order so that the reader will enjoy it, but the thing about putting a table of contents together is that there is no guarantee that anyone is going to read it front to back.  Editors have to assume you will, because there is nothing else we can do.  The first and the last stories are the most important, the first you want to be inviting to get the reader into the anthology.  You don't want to make it too complicated.  You want to show this what the book is going to be about, so the first story is really important because you don't want to turn the reader off.  The last story is usually the one that the editor thinks is the most powerful.  Either that or sometimes I do a grace note, I put the really strong story second to last, usually a longer one, and then the last story is a shorter one that has a little punch to it.  Thats the basics of putting together an original anthology for me, then I write the introduction.  That usually comes from the proposal, I usually add to the proposal and that becomes the introduction.  

Signal Horizon:  So I heard that when you solicited some of your past anthologies you will also come out with, "I don't want this".  In Children of Lovecraft I think it was no pastiche, no tentacles.  In the Doll Collection it was no Chuckie style murderous dolls.  Was there anything with the with the the Devil and the Deep that you didn't want?

Ellen Datlow:  Well I didn't want to concentrate on sea monsters.  I'm trying to remember I don't really think I did.  I was pretty vague on that, for that one there didn't seem to be any obvious things to avoid.  I said I wanted horror rather than dark fantasy but other than that no.  I think that's an usual one because I don't think that the sea has been over done. The problem is with a lot of theme anthologies is that you've seen the theme and the specific types of stories on the theme over and over again. That's when you have to make sure and clarify this is what I don't want, but I don't think there has been that many sea horror anthologies so I didn't have that problem.
Signal Horizon:  One of the stories that just really stood out to me was Michael Marshall Smith's short story, "Shit Happens." I think it was legitimately one of the funniest short stories I've I've ever read and I'm dying to ask: did you know that you were going to get something that funny when you when you ask them to contribute?
Ellen Datlow:  I had no idea.   This is one of my faves too because it is funny and I usually hate funny horror.  But it works beautifully and also I love the secretary or the assistant,  she is that the fixer. I want her to have her story she's great. I forget her name but it's like oh my god I know that you've got to do more with her in the future.  Michael doesn't usually write funny but this was very funny.
Signal Horizon:  So I I know better than to ask what your favorite story from the collection is, but are there any you want to highlight that really stand out from this collection?
Ellen Datlow: It's difficult to do.  That one, but also "Haunt" which is the last one in the anthology and I it the one by Siobhan Carroll.  I put that last because I thought it was really powerful I don't want to give too much away, but it's about a boat stranded in calm water.  I forget what century it is in, maybe the nineteenth century.  I don't remember, but it's not our contemporary time.  I think it's horrifying from it's based on.  Some of the incidents in the story are real, I mean they are historically accurate.  It is just horrendous but you know it's hard to describe without giving away spoilers but that's one that I thought was a really strong story.  And of course Michael's.  I found Stephen Graham Jones' story very peculiar, I mean it's also very humorous in it's weird way.  It's about a young guy, I don't remember if he's a teenager a little older than that, but he's stranded on a desert island and things start washing up that he believes he wished for.  Be careful what you wish for because you might get it is the kind of moral of that.  It's got its mute amusing bits too, but Stephen is a really powerful writer and this is actually one of his quote unquote "lighter pieces" I think. He's very good crime writer and he's very good at dark and horrific material.  I don't you know it's like picking a favorite child.
Signal Horizon: I know it is it is difficult to talk about "Haunt."  Once I read it I wanted to tell everybody about it but it's it's difficult to talk about it without giving too much about it away.
Ellen Datlow:  The information will diminish its power. 
Signal Horizon: Exactly, yeah I think one of the most powerful pieces of of short fiction I've read in in in a long time. So, you previously said that the story order, well we already talked about that.  
Ellen Datlow:  But I didn't talk about things other than beginning and the ending.  You judge by various things, by the tone, the point of view, where story takes place, and how long it is.  I mean the length of the story to try to very them.  You don't want like three really long stories in a row.  Sometimes if one story is complicated and really difficult or hard to take you might put that in the middle or two thirds the way through because you want to have your readers get used to the rhythm of the book  You want them not to be slapped in the face too much until they're ready for it.  So you put a difficult, complex, or offensive, or maybe a provocative one you put that later on.  You don't put that first thing.
Signal Horizon:  I was also struck by the by the diversity of of all the of all the stories and it seems like it's a it's a real balancing act you to make sure they have a wide enough appeal and to keep the reader interested but the same time ensuring that there is a common element there that runs through the anthology.  How much of that is credited to work do you do?  Either who you solicit or how you polish them once they come in and how much of it is just kind of kind of good fortune I guess?
Ellen Datlow: It's both it depends on the anthology.  Like when I did my Poe anthology, I didn't want all of them to be House of Usher stories.  There were three stories that were kind of House of Usher stories in a way but they were different from each other. What I would do is before people wrote this story is I would say what are you writing about? I wanted them to write about one of Poe's pieces of poetry or prose. Even essays too, Glen Hirshberg wrote the Pikesville Buffalo based on short news item I think that Poe had written or read.  So it depends on the anthology.  This new one is good because it's not based on anything specific.  So I didn't have that problem. In that I was was lucky, but at a certain point you have to see how much is left, see what's coming in and if you see that everything's about a certain thing you have to steer people away from certain things.  In my Black Feathers anthology, several people have pointed out that there are quite few stories about crows and ravens. It's like well yeah because those are really popular birds!  So once you realize you've got three stories about ravens you say okay no more crows and ravens. Other birds now.  It depends on the anthology, what I did for my Alice in Wonderland anthology Mad Hatters and March Hares, is I asked each writer what you can about right about before they wrote.
What creature going do, what aspect are you going to write about? To get the best variety it could. They're not meant to be retellings of events in Alice in Wonderland.  So the editor has to direct so you don't get all the same stories.

Signal Horizon:  Writers are are pretty pretty open to that kind of that kind of direction?

Ellen Datlow: Well, if you tell them straight out, yes.  If you tell them from the very beginning what you want to write about. I don't want to know the plot I don't want to know every detail, I just want to know what you are going to write about.  In Devil and the Deep I know Brad Denton came to me and asked me if it is okay to write the story that has no water in it. I said I asked for an inland sea story, sure go ahead. So that is the one that is the most far out there, thematically.  There is no sea in that story but it takes place in a former sea and there is a boat.  If you want to guide your anthology, then yes you have to have some input.  Some editors will give them strict assignments and say I want this or that.  I'm not that way I'm not a writer.  Those are usually editors who are also writers.  I'm not a writer, I do not have ideas. I do not want to give my ideas to the authors I want them to create their own stories and I will work with them to make the story better.  So I give guidance but I would never give them the plot line

Signal Horizon:  So I saw I saw a couple weeks ago that the cover art and table of contents for The Year's Best Horror Volume ten is out.  The cover art as always is is amazing and the lineup for this year looks pretty strong. It's it's due out this summer so what are your overall impressions of that this year's line up?

Ellen Datlow: Well I realize I have more women writers than ever before. Its almost even, which is unusual.  There is a substantial increase in female voices in the last twenty years and certainly the last five years.  That's been increasing and I'm finding that fabulous.  I'm gratified to see that there are women writers getting they're due coming out and writing really great stories.  I'm currently working on the best of best, which the best of the first ten years of the book.  So I am going through early volumes and I'm writing notes.  I'm not taking any stories that were in Nightmares, which was the Tachyon anthology that had the idea of the best of anew decade a modern horror.  It was like stories that I thought were really terrific from 2005-2015.  It was a sequel to my Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror. I'm not using any of the stories from Nightmares, which restricts me a tiny bit.  Obviously I love the stories in that anthology but I didn't want to use them again.  Its also a juggling act to pick three or so stories from each of the ten volumes.  I'm trying to get take stories that aren't over reprinted.  Things that have been reprinted only one or two times, but that is hard because over the years people have put out single author anthologies and reprint anthologies.  That's what I'm busy doing right now, but I thought last year was very strong. I always find at least twice as many stories as I can actually use. Last year's volume is a hundred thousand words which is I think the biggest I've done and I'm happy with all the stories.  I think they are great.
Signal Horizon: So when you do the Year's Best what does your workflow look like I mean?  Are you like constantly reading throughout the entire year?
Ellen Datlow:  Yeah, although I haven't really officially started for this year yet because of the Best and Best.  I will probably by the end of this month be deep into reading for this Year's Best. It's like a never ending thing. I do more work to the best of the year, not even a complaint but I do more work for the Year's Best compare to any other anthology and I get paid the least, because they are all reprints.
I have people who are reading electronic magazines for me.  Something like light speed which doesn't have that much horror.  There's more and more material to read every year. Every year it they're more anthologies coming out and I always find out after the fact when it's too late. Sometimes I miss out on anthologies because the publisher doesn't send to me. I went to a con recently and it was in the dealers room and there was a publisher that had like 3 anthologies out that were published in 2017. I said you never said this to me and they said who are you?  What kind of publisher hasn't heard of the Year's Bests?  Not just mine but others.  They should be doing this to help the writers get recognition. 
Signal Horizon: You know way better than me that the publishing industry has changed significantly in in the span of your career.  Right now there's a lot of really good horror coming out of very small presses.
Ellen Datlow:  Yes, right.  Well very few large presses will publish collect single other collections. A few do, but it is usually to promote or go along with a novel they are publishing.  I've been mostly with medium size and large publishers who publish my anthologies. It started with desktop publishing, and now because it's even easier with computers and everything. Writers can self publish, but it doesn't mean they should. Writers think that they should just go their work out there and someone will see it, but the problem is unless you have a following to begin with it's very hard to get anyone's attention. So in a sense things have changed, but they haven't changed that much. You still need to get your work out there and have people see or you are not going to make any money. 
Signal Horizon: From my own point of view what I think one of the one of the values of the year's best horror is not only do you get all these great stories but that you also get exposed all these authors that you might not have they have read before. Sometimes you can you can pick up an author you never heard of and then you find that they have a novel and they have all these other short stories and you can really get engaged that way. Another part that I really like is that is your introductions are super detailed about what the state of the industry is is that year. 
Ellen Datlow:  Well thanks, gratifying. I mean, don't love doing the summary but I take notes. I do it as I as I read I take the notes, so it's an ongoing process through the whole year. 
Signal Horizon:  So I I know that you're always super tight lipped about your next themed anthologies but what other kind of things are you working on right now? 
Ellen Datlow:  I'm not working on anything right.  For 2 years I worked on a huge ghost story anthology that this coming out October from Saga Books called Echoes.  It is over 200000 words so I have been working on that.  I haven't had time to sell anything else right now. In a way I feel free, I don't feel under as much pressure as usual which is kinda nice.
Signal Horizon: I really appreciate you coming on and sharing some of your knowledge with us.
Ellen Datlow:  Yeah, its been a pleasure and it's been a lot of fun.
Signal Horizon: So okay class where the big takeaways? Well if you are a  publisher make sure Ellen gets your stuff! That's the only way that you and your authors are going to get into the year's best. If you are a reader made sure you check out new anthology The Devil and the Deep, its fantastic and as always The Year's Best Horror Volume 10 is going to be is gonna be great.  So make sure you go out and pre order some Ellen's books and maybe even go to a real life brick and mortar store and buy a couple of them. Until next time, class dismissed.