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NUTS & BOLTS: Interview With Ellen Datlow, Editor and Shaper of Multiple Genres




By Tom Joyce

Over her long and influential career, editor and anthologist Ellen Datlow has played a major role in shaping not just the genre of horror, but fantasy and science fiction as well. During her pioneering stint as fiction editor at Omni magazine in the 1980s, she acquired and edited stories from writers including William Gibson, Octavia Butler, William Burroughs, and George R.R. Martin. Her Best Horror of the Year, on which she’s currently wrapping up the sixteenth volume, remains essential reading for anyone with a personal or professional interest in the genre.

In this month’s edition of Nuts & Bolts, Ellen shares advice about the craft and business of short-story writing, geared especially toward beginning writers.

Q: What qualities make for a good short story, regardless of genre?

A: For me (in any genre) it’s the combination of an interesting voice, a fresh approach to the subject, characters I enjoy reading about (nasty or nice), and a plot or idea that engages me.

But as an editor, I’m looking for great short stories, and there are far fewer of those. A great story has all of the above qualities but in addition, the story stays with me and won’t let go.

Q: What qualities must a story have to qualify as good horror in particular?

A: The things that any good story has plus the building of a sense of unease in the reader, the feeling that something is seriously wrong — dark and creepy and horrific. Horrible things are going to happen or are happening. I don’t expect stories to scare me, but I surely appreciate them making me feel extremely uncomfortable.

Q: What are some of your most common reasons for rejecting stories?

A: Bad writing, boring, tired plots. The words lying there like a dead fish.

Q: Is there anything you think horror writers can learn from the genre of fantasy? Science fiction?

A: I think reading good and great stories in any genre can help a horror writer better their craft. Figuring out what makes a story work can be quite useful, whatever the genre.

Q: What advice would you give short-story writers starting out in today’s market?

A: If you love writing stories keep doing it. If you hate writing them, don’t. I love reading short fiction because writers have the room to experiment with ideas/themes/voice/tone/structure without committing the time they’d need to write a novel.

Be creative in finding markets. Of course submit to the top-paying markets first, but there are many new markets for short horror fiction — try to not give your work away. Many markets don’t advertise specifically for horror but do publish it.

In the summaries of my annual Best Horror of the Year, and in my Honorable Mentions, one can see where I read and all the venues in which I find horror stories. There are markets like The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Bourbon Penn, Uncanny, and others that sometimes publish horror. If you write sf/horror you can submit to some of the science fiction markets. If your story is crime/mystery/horror you might consider trying the mystery markets. Don’t automatically dismiss them — but of course do follow guidelines.

Q: Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like HWA members to know about? 

A: I’m finishing up The Best Horror of the Year Volume Sixteen, which will be out by the end of 2024 or very early ’25.

My all-reprint anthology Fears: Tales of Psychological Horror will be out from Tachyon in September.

Ellen Datlow has been editing sf/f/h short fiction for four decades. She was fiction editor of OMNI magazine and SCIFICTION and currently acquires short stories and novellas for Tor.com and Nightfire. She has edited numerous anthologies for adults, young adults, and children, including The Best Horror of the Year annual series, Screams From the Dark: 29 Tales of Monsters and the Monstrous, Body Shocks, and Christmas and Other Horrors. She’s won multiple Locus, Hugo, Stoker, International Horror Guild, Shirley Jackson, and World Fantasy Awards plus the 2012 Il Posto Nero Black Spot Award for Excellence as Best Foreign Editor. Ellen was named recipient of the 2007 Karl Edward Wagner Award, given at the British Fantasy Convention for “outstanding contribution to the genre” and was honored with the Life Achievement Award given by the Horror Writers Association, in acknowledgment of superior achievement over an entire career and honored with the World Fantasy Life Achievement Award at the 2014 World Fantasy Convention. She runs the Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series in the east village, NYC, with Matthew Kressel. She can be found on the website Datlow.com, and on Twitter/X and Facebook (Google her).

Tom Joyce writes a monthly series called Nuts & Bolts for the Horror Writers Association’s blog, featuring interviews about the craft and business of writing. Please contact Tom at TomJHWA@gmail.com if you have suggestions for future interviews. For more about what he’s looking for, see here.

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