By Carl Slaughter: Sunil Patel talks about studying under Nancy Kress, Cat Rambo, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Ted Chiang; what it’s like to work with Mighty Mur; his duties as assistant editor of Mothership Zeta, the newest member of the Escape Artists family; his criteria for reviewing for Lightspeed; and how he broke into Asimov’s and Galaxy’s Edge as a newcomer; and his experience with science fiction plays.
CARL SLAUGHTER: Every new writer wants to break into Asimov’s. Only a tiny fraction succeed. How did you do it?
SUNIL PATEL: I submitted a story and Sheila Williams accepted it. Next question!
Okay, so that’s not the whole story, since many people submit stories to Asimov’s that are not accepted. In fact, I was and continue to be one of those people. The secret lies in a two-word mantra I have borrowed and internalized from Rose Lemberg: Don’t self-reject. The submission guidelines note that Asimov’s rarely publishes flash pieces and occasionally publishes humorous pieces, so I knew a humorous flash piece would be a hard sell. But I was encouraged by having gotten a personal note from Sheila regarding my first submission, which had been a humorous flash piece. “A Partial List of Lists I Have Lost Over Time” is a list story told as a series of lists, and I had identified two markets I thought it would be perfect for, both of which rejected it. For my third submission, most markets I thought would be a better fit for the story already had something of mine, and I saw on Submission Grinder that Asimov’s was rejecting quickly, so I figured I’d get that rejection out of the way. I never expected to get a rewrite request that turned into a sale. So that’s how I did it: I let the editor decide whether my story was a good fit for her magazine.
CS: Same question for Mike Resnick’s Galaxy’s Edge.
SP: Galaxy’s Edge does not have open submissions, so it can be a daunting market to crack. I was discussing with frequent contributor Tina Gower about the types of stories Mike Resnick liked, and among the general elements she listed were things like “humor” and “emotional heart” and “totally weird and way out there,” which exactly described “The Man Who Saved Manhattan,” a flash piece I hadn’t been able to find a home for. Now, I had shared an elevator with Mike Resnick at Worldcon and was too intimidated to speak to him and ask if I could submit to Galaxy’s Edge, but Tina very helpfully put in a good word for me, and he was happy to see a couple of my stories. So I sent him “The Man Who Saved Manhattan”…and received a contract the next night! (Sometimes he is fast, and sometimes he takes the usual six weeks or so. He form-rejected the other story I sent him.) So that’s how I did it: I saw a market that said “invitation only” and wrangled myself an invitation. This is a very common story if you talk to other people who have published in Galaxy’s Edge; I truly believe that if I had talked to Mike in that elevator and asked if I could submit, he would have said yes. (I finally officially met him at Worldcon this year, and he was delighted and encouraged me to send him something else. I did. He bought it.)
CS: What kind of feedback have you gotten from editors about your stories?
SP: I can interpret this question two ways, so I’ll answer the first way, which is about personal rejections. I have a love/hate relationship with them: I love the praise that often comes with them but hate that it’s not an acceptance. I’ve gotten a wide variety of feedback, very little of which I have taken to heart; I rarely revise stories in response to personal rejections unless something does resonate with me. Normally I just believe in my story. You think this flash piece does not do enough with its concept, that it should be expanded into a longer piece? Sorry, I conceived it this way and I like it how it is, and hey, this other editor agrees. You think the story starts out too slowly and needs to be heavily restructured? Sorry, I consider the structure a feature rather than a bug, and hey, this other editor agrees. You think the ending is weak and I should make the mother more sympathetic? Sor—wait, you are totally right, thank you, C.C. Finlay. Any feedback you get is one editor’s opinion, and it’s only one editor’s opinion that rejects your story. But it’s also one editor’s opinion that accepts your story. Listen to what works, discard what doesn’t, believe in the story you are trying to tell.
CS: What exactly is involved in your work with Mothership Zeta? Responsibilities, goals, experiences, benefits.
SP: I am Assistant Editor of Fiction, which means I handle pretty much everything related to the fiction that appears in Mothership Zeta (Karen Bovenmyer handles the nonfiction, but she also helps manage the slush). Obviously one of my most important responsibilities is choosing the stories during open submissions, and I read a huge amount of slush personally in addition to the vetted stories selected by my amazing slush readers. I try to give personal rejections when I can, and then I send the cream of the crop up to Mur for her to make the final decisions (which are very tough). I also solicit authors to send us stories outside of open submissions; as much outreach as we try to do, our slush does not have as many stories by marginalized authors as we’d like to be able to choose from. Once we have our stories, Mur and I figure out which ones go in which issue, and then we edit! Some stories take more editing than others, but I’ve found the back-and-forth very rewarding and so have the writers. We end up with an even better version of the story they submitted. Then it’s time to write some story introductions and editorials and put together the issue. As I said, we publish both fiction and nonfiction, and Karen and I like to pair stories with nonfiction pieces when possible, so our table of contents is meant to represent a cohesive reading experience, cover to cover. I review the issue to make sure formatting didn’t get lost in the ebook conversion or typo goblins haven’t wreaked unforeseen havoc. And I’ve left out so many little tasks; you never know what goes into publishing a magazine until you’re behind the scenes yourself. The October issue is ready to come out, which means it’s time to start editing stories for the January issue. It’s a lot of work, but I am so proud of all the stories we publish. I hope we inspire more fun SFF fiction, whatever your definition of “fun” (ours, as anyone who reads us knows, is not what you might think at first).
CS: What’s it like working for Mighty Mur?
SP: Mur is a wonderful boss because she respects me and appreciates the work I do (both privately and publicly). We don’t always see eye-to-eye on stories, but she listens to my reasons for championing a story, and sometimes she will accept a story she doesn’t feel as passionately about because she recognizes that if I love it so much, a certain subset of readers will too. In the end, she makes the decision that is best for the magazine. I frequently look to her for guidance since she has far more experience in the industry, but just as often she comes to me and Karen for our advice. I don’t know what it’s like at other magazines, but I feel that Mothership Zeta is a real team effort rather than one head honcho calling the shots on everything. Mur trusts both of us to handle our respective duties, leaving her to focus on the Big Decisions of running a magazine. Plus we’re all friends, so we’re constantly chatting in our little Google Hangout about our triumphs and woes in between talking magazine stuff. It’s a fun virtual office for our fun magazine.
CS: What are your standards and strategies as a reviewer for Lightspeed?
SP: I do not review books by white men. For the last several years, Strange Horizons has been publishing their “SF count” of representation in SF reviewing, and it was eye-opening for me to see how disproportionately books by women and people of color are reviewed, so when I took the position, I decided to do my small part in shifting the balance. To his credit, John Joseph Adams (a white man!) completely supported my decision, and I must admit I felt a small sense of pride in being a positive part of the 2015 SF Count. I have been trying to review more books by women of color, as too often diversity can manifest as “white women + men of color.” In each one of my quarterly columns, I review at least one young adult book because I believe there are great books being published for young adults that adult readers of Lightspeed should know about. When the announcement of the Locus Awards finalists revealed that people seemed unaware of the many women publishing books actually written for and marketed to young adults, I scrapped half my November column and decided to review three young adult books by women of color. Because I could. I have no idea whether anyone reads my column or whether I have any influence on the reading habits of the general Lightspeed readership, but I want to use my power for good. I only publish reviews of books I can recommend, even if I had some criticisms or I felt that it simply wasn’t for me but recognized that other readers would appreciate it more. My goal is always to increase your TBR pile by diversifying your reading.
CS: What did you learn from Nancy Kress?
SP: Nancy Kress had many insightful things to say during our two weeks together at Taos Toolbox; I want to go back and read all my notes now! She made me think about worldbuilding in new ways, providing so many important questions regarding law and economy and technology. She identified my tendency to sometimes undercut the power of a sentence by not ending it on the strongest word (though sometimes it’s deliberate). But the one thing I took away from her that I always remember when writing is her Swimming Pool Theory, where she uses a swimmer kicking off from the end of a pool as a metaphor for how much exposition and inaction you can get away with. Just as a stronger kick will allow a swimmer to coast further without having to exert themselves again, a strong narrative hook (KABOOM!!) buys you a few more hundred words of dithering or flashbacks before you must move the action forward again. And of course the converse is true: if you begin with a light hook, then you will lose the reader quicker if you don’t keep swimming.
CS: Same question for Ted Chiang.
SP: I’d be lying if I said the opportunity to study with Ted Chiang didn’t influence my decision to attend Clarion. We got Ted right after Kelly Link, and as we discovered, every instructor had a different vibe and focus. One of the most important things I got from Ted was the vocabulary of expressionistic vs. naturalistic modes, the idea that a story will generally fall more into one or the other and being conscious of what mode you’re working in tells you how much you can get away with and what the reader will expect. If you’re writing hard science fiction full of equations and data (naturalistic), it will be difficult for the reader to swallow the sudden appearance of sentient melting lollipops that emerge from cavities (expressionistic). I also learned about time travel using wormholes and relativity, which was a trip, let me tell you.
CS: Same question for Mary Robinette Kowal.
SP: Look, I could write a whole essay about what I’ve learned from Mary Robinette Kowal, both as a writer and a human being. She’s one of my role models in the industry, and I believe that if you are not reading her fiction and following her on social media, you are doing yourself a disservice. That woman can teach you more about writing in ten minutes with a boot than most writers could teach you in a day. I’ve had the privilege of studying with her a couple times, in her Short Story Intensive online workshop as well as at the Writing Excuses Retreat. The Short Story Intensive is hands-down the best workshop I’ve ever taken, and my main takeaway was the ability to outline. Whenever writers talked about outlining, I had envisioned very complicated outlines like the ones we did in high school to write papers, but it turns out that you can just write a list of things like “Pirates!” or “Sandeep reveals a terrible secret” or whatever. With this newfound power (and the various structural tools Mary gave us surrounding the MICE Quotient [now renamed MACE]), I was able to go from a basic thumbnail of a story Saturday night to a first draft Sunday afternoon! (Funny story: I actually forwarded Mary a rejection for that story because the editor specifically praised how well structured it was, and she deserved some of the credit. She was appropriately pleased.) I now had the confidence and experience to be able to draft a story from an outline, which came in very handy at Clarion, not to mention when writing my novel.
CS: Same question for Cat Rambo.
SP: I took a six-week online workshop with Cat, which was a good reintroduction to the basics after being out of the fiction game for a while. I also took a couple two-hour workshops on specific topics, and I particularly appreciated the one on description since I consider description one of my weak points as a writer. Both in that workshop and the six-week workshop, she had so many great tips, like the use of specific verbs to paint a picture of a character and choosing key sensory details to evoke a larger picture in the reader’s mind. She emphasized moving beyond visuals and using touch and smell to draw the reader in.
CS: How does your work in speculative theater overlap with your work in print?
SP: I don’t think there’s a direct overlap, but my work in theater was the creative outlet I needed for a few years before I decided to focus on publishing fiction. I’ve spoken about applying playwriting techniques in fiction before, but to be honest, it’s not something I consciously do when writing, though because one of my strengths is dialogue, sometimes my scenes do tend to be very dialogue-driven, relying on witty banter, and I naturally try to avoid having too many “sets” because I don’t want to describe new locations. One of the clearest ways it’s overlapped, however, is that my experience producing The Pub from Another World, a night of short science fiction/fantasy/horror plays chosen from open submissions, was my first taste of what it’s like to be an editor, which I discovered I enjoy quite a bit.
CS: What’s on the horizon for Sunil Patel?
SP: As I said, I’ve really enjoyed editing, both for Mothership Zeta and for Lightspeed’s People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction! Personal Essays, and I hope to do more of it in the future. Pending a successful Kickstarter, I will be editing a special POC Take Over Fantastic Stories of the Imagination issue, but in addition to that, I’ve assembled an anthology of reprint flash fiction by writers of color that I’m very excited to share with people via the Kickstarter. Meanwhile, I have all these Clarion stories to revise, and I continue to work on my young adult superhero novel with a goal of submitting it to agents next year. Plus I have at least eight stories coming out in magazines and anthologies between now and April, including my first appearance in Lightspeed! But I may be most excited about my second appearance in Book Smugglers for a story called “You May Perhaps Be Interested in My Thoughts on Space Questers Seasons 1-5” that will be in the Quarterly Almanac in December. It might be the story I was put on this planet to write because no one else would write it but me. It’s fun and creepy and there’s a telepathic dog thing. What more could you ask for?