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Q & A with Liz Holliday

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  • September 14, 2012 8:09 AM PDT
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Q & A with Liz Holliday

by James A. Bailey ( from The Market List archive )

 

Liz Holliday is the Editor of Odyssey, the brand new SF/F magazine coming out of the UK. An introductory issue #0 has recently appeared on newsstands and in mailboxes around the world, and the official launch with issue #1 will take place at World Fantasy Con in London at the end of October. We're pleased to have the opportunity to talk with her about this exciting project.

 

JB: Let's start at the beginning. When did you start writing?

 

Liz: I can't remember not being able to read and write. I know that by the time I was about five or six, I was insisting that my older sister type my stories up because stories in books looked liked they'd been typed. But I also had this thing... call it a block if you like, that people from my kind of working class background (can't you just tell I'm English?) didn't do things like having books published. Consequently, I wrote solidly all through my childhood and teenage years, but didn't do it seriously -- in the sense of trying to get published -- until I was ever so old: twenty-three or four, I think.

 

JB: When did SF become part of the mix?

 

Liz: Oh dear... it was "Lost In Space" that did it, I do believe, followed shortly thereafter by the first runs of Star Trek (the original ones). After that, I remember finding Heinlein's Space Family Stone in the local library (I remember the thought process too: Lost in Space --> The Robinsons --> Swiss Family Robinson --> Space Family Stone. Apparently, I'm not the only Brit who has made that connection!); and also lots of fairly awful kids sf by a British writer called Hugh Walters. Then my brother came home from Australia. He was into sf, and one day he took me to the library and said, "If you're going to read this stuff, for god's sake read something good" and threw me a copy of Fahrenheit 451. And that was it, really. Unfortunately, my brother denies all knowledge of this incident, but It's All His Fault.

 

JB: What was your first story to get published and what was that experience like for you?

 

Liz: My very, very first story was published in Focus, which is the British Science Fiction Society's magazine for writers. The magazine had more or less died, and I decided to resurrect it. It had started out really strong -- it was edited by Christopher Evans at first, I think, and possibly Rob Holdstock; but it had declined steeply, and had taken to publishing really bad fanfic. So when I picked it up I said I would only do it if it was aimed at aspiring pros. To that end, I refused to publish any amateur fiction, except for one piece which would be workshopped (almost exactly the same format as Speculations used to do). To start things off, I let one of my stories be t/o/r/n/ a/p/a/r/t/ critiqued. It was the most awful piece of junk, and I'm kind of hoping there aren't too many copies of it still knocking around.

 

Then I did that thing everyone does and sold a couple of stories to magazines that folded before they published my work. It wasn't till I came back from Clarion that I sold a real story -- it was to Temps, an anthology of British superhero stories. Most of the rest of the stories were funny, but I'd been through a really bad time on the personal level after I came back; so one night I came in and there was a message on my answering machine: "Hi, this is Alex Stewart. We've read your story and love it, but now we're going to slit our wrists..." It was shortly thereafter that Mary Gentle took to calling me "the Leonard Cohen of Science Fiction." Can't think why.

 

Which brings me on to a point I'd like to make -- I knew the editors of those anthologies (Midnight Rose -- Mary Gentle, Roz Kaveney, Alex Stewart and Neil Gaiman) -- and it used to bother me greatly that I'd only sold because I was friends with them. Sometime after, I asked Mary about it, and she said, "Look, between us we know just about every working writer in Britain; if we wanted to fill the book with stories by our friends, we could -- and lots of them would be bigger names than you; but we don't. We just want the best stories we can get."

 

And as I've found out, this is true. I reckon I know -- as a friend, an acquaintance or by reputation -- about sixty or seventy percent of the writers who have stories on my slush pile. What does it get them? Not a lot. If anything, I may go harder on my friends. If it gets anyone anything, it might be a shot at a rewrite on a story that didn't quite make it first time -- not out of friendship, but more because I know they'll listen to me and take what I say seriously. More like, a personal rejection where someone I didn't know would get a form. And that's it.

 

JB: I see you attended Clarion East in 1989. How did that affect your writing and what did you learn about yourself there?

 

Liz: I think I learned when to listen to what Spider Robinson called "The shitbird on your shoulder" -- that's the bird that sits there as you write and goes, "this is shit, this is shit, this is shit" until you scrap what you're doing or rewrite it -- and when not to. Or possibly when to go by instinct and when to bend instinct to logic.

Editing -- that's another thing, though I have to admit I'm not much for rewriting.

The one single obvious thing is that before I went, I couldn't plot to save my life -- background, yes; characters, yes; involving the reader, yes. But plot. Gimme a break. Now plotting is probably one of my strengths.

The other thing I found out was that I'm a writer or I'm nothing.

 

JB: And now you're involved with organizing the Milford workshop in the UK. How is it run and how does it compare to the Clarions?

 

Liz: Milford UK is in its 26th year, I think. It grew directly out of the Milford Workshops started in the US by Damon Knight, Judith Merril and James Blish, which also spawned the original Clarion Workshops.

 

A trivial difference is that we workshop in the afternoon, whereas Clarion East workshops in the morning. The non-trivial differences are that it's less of an immersive experience, because it only lasts a week; and everyone there has sold fiction for money -- there are no tutors. At Clarion, each week seemed -- in our year anyway -- to have a distinct feel to it, probably because of the personalities of the tutors.

 

JB: What are some of the credits you've accumulated since then?

 

Liz: I've sold ten TV novelisations, for various British TV shows -- probably the best known being Cracker. The others are Bugs, Soldier Soldier, Bramwell, Thief Takers, Reckless and Staying Alive. I did most of these under the pseudonym Sarah Jackson.

My own short fiction has appeared in various anthologies including Temps, Eurotemps, The Weerde vols one and two, The Ultimate Alien and London Noir. My most recent stories are in Knights of the Round Table (ed. Mike Ashley) and Decalog 5 (ed. Andy Lane and Justin Richards). I've had several "year's best" honourable mentions from Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling; my story in Eurotemps was nominated for the Eastercon Award (a now defunct fan award) in 1994; out of the genre, my story in London Noir was shortlisted for the British Crime Writers' Association Short Story Dagger, and reprinted in The Year's 25 Finest Mystery Stories.

Then there's non-fiction -- I actually sold non-fiction before I sold any fiction. I started out doing author interviews for Fear magazine, but pretty soon branched out into doing all sorts of stuff -- interviews, reviews, critical articles -- for many different magazines. I don't do so much now, but my non-fiction has appeared in Interzone, Science Fiction Chronicle, SFX, The Guardian (newspaper), Time Out and so on and so on.

 

JB: Anything upcoming that we can look forward to from the Liz Holliday, the writer?

 

Liz: Yup. I've signed to do a fantasy book for Wizards of the Coast. It'll be called Mercadian Masques, and all being well it'll be out this time next year. I've also been invited into one of their anthologies. I may be doing a novelisation for a new British science fiction TV show, too; out of genre, I have been asked to do stories for a couple of crime anthologies. These last few things aren't definite. On the editing front, I may be co-editing an anthology for a major British publisher -- more news on that if it firms up!

Further down the road, I'm working on a fantasy trilogy. It's a bit out of left field, really -- eighteenth century women smuggler/pirates meet hermetic magic and thirties weird science. I'm not much on your standard Quest Fantasy. I'm also working, very sporadically, on a contemporary crime novel set in London; and even further on, I have an idea for an sf crime novel.

 

JB: When did you become involved with the gaming magazine Valkyrie and become its Fiction Editor?

 

Liz: I did a book review column for another British gaming magazine, The Last Provice. That magazine folded, but I got talking to Dave Ryan about it at a games convention in (I think) 1993. He was about to launch Valkyrie with Dave Renton as editor. So I looked him straight in the eye and asked him if he would prefer to do a fiction magazine instead. At this point Andy Lane and I had been looking for a publisher for a fiction magazine for two or three years without success, so I had a complete proposal ready to go. Dave said no, but he might consider it later; so I suggested that we might do some fiction in Valkyrie as a test-bed for the new magazine. He said yes, and we went from there.

Every so often, I'd ask him if he really meant it about doing a fiction magazine, and he always said yes. Then earlier this year I was having dinner with my friend the media journalist Jane Killick. As ever, I was talking about the possibility of getting Dave to greenlight the fiction magazine, and she more or less told me to put up or shut up. So I updated the proposal (Andy had, by this time, gone on to other projects), submitted it to Dave and -- to my utter surprise -- he decided to go with it.

 

JB: This must be an incredibly exciting project to work on. The start-up of a fully professional SF/F magazine with publisher backing right out of the gate is a rare and special event in the genre's history.

 

Liz: Well, I'm not so sure about that -- in the US, you've had SF Age and Realms of Fantasy, for instance, plus the various Pulphouse projects.

But in Britain... one of the things that I'm fighting against is that there have been in recent times a whole slew of magazines that started strong and then just stopped: The Gate, REM, Far Point, Beyond...

However, we've got certain advantages they don't have. First off, we do have a publisher backing us. Partizan is by no means a large publisher, but in addition to Valkyrie they publish half a dozen special interest magazines, mostly for wargamers, re-enactment and military history buffs. So they have expertise in distribution and so on. They also have the resources to allow our distribution and advertiser base to grow -- at least for a while. Second, none of the editors of the magazines I've just mentioned had editorial -- or, as far as I'm aware, professional writing -- track records. Third, none of those people were known in the sf community when they started (the exception would be The Gate -- the editorship of which was taken over by Maureen Speller Kincaid and Paul Kincaid, who are very well known in British fandom, and well known as fan writers and editors; but that was too little too late). I score pretty high in all three areas, which is why Dave Ryan went for the pitch I made (it helped that Jason Tanner's story in Valkyrie got a year's best honourable mention from Datlow and Windling, mind you -- at least it proved I could pick a good story).

 

JB: On the other hand, there's a fair amount of pressure you're under here. Do you still have fingernails and hair to call your own?

 

Liz: Not a lot. We had major production problems with issue 0 -- two production editors dropped out, and despite favourable comments on the layout, none of us are happy with it. That's why our new -- and permanent! -- art/production editor has completely redone the design for issue 1. We think it'll blow people away.

 

JB: One of benefits of working under a larger organization is that you don't have to do it all by yourself. In fact, you've accumulated an impressive list of assistants and regular contributors. Care to sing their praises, or would you rather maintain the illusion of Editor as ghod?

 

Liz: Hmmmm. I think half the art is in knowing how to pick the right people to have around you. My assistant editor, Janet Barron, for instance, is supremely calm and organised -- but she's also the most enthusiastic person I've ever met. More than that -- she's great at helping me take a step back when the pressure gets to be too much. And I've already told you that our new art/production editor Priti Chavda is a genius.

As for the contributors.... well, there's something to be said for having a rep for knowing everyone. I think most of the sf community in Britain sees a need for another successful magazine to complement Interzone. That means that as soon as word got out -- and especially once it got round that I had a publisher backing me -- there was a lot of goodwill and support coming my way. My list of contributors is a testament to that (oh all right: that and the fact that I am -- I'm told -- extremely persuasive when I want to be). Now I just have to make sure I do right by them.

 

JB: Not only that, but you are also building an impressive inventory of fiction for the pages of Odyssey.

 

Liz: Well, I'm trying. Issue 0 featured "Verstehen" by Brian Stableford, "Orc's Drift" by Mary Gentle & Dean Wayland, "Whatever Happened to the Czars?" by George Alec Effinger, "The Dance That Everyone Must Do" by Stephen Dedman, "Not From Round Here" by Chris Amies, "Pennies From Heaven" by Alex Stewart, "Deep in the Mojo" by Jason Tanner, "Drakeela Must Die" by David Nickle, "Over the Rainbow" by Andrew P Miller, "The Extra-Corporeal Crapshooters from the Ghost Planet Kring" by Gus Smith, interviews with Greg Benford, Walter Jon Williams and Janny Wurts, and our regular features.

Then the upcoming issue 1 will have "Glass Earth, Inc." by Steve Baxter, "The Sea Monster's Song" by Vonda N. MacIntyre, "The Beast" by John Grant, "Buzzard's Last Day In The Big Q" by Jason Tanner, "Rift" by Kurt Roth, "User Error" by John Serna, "Going All The Way" by Leo Stableford, "Furious" by Neile Graham, "The Crystal Highway" by Jeff Hecht, "Puppetta" by Mary Soon Lee, and the rest of the regular features.

But of course I could always do with more...

 

JB: And the result of all this hard work is that you can finally hold the physical product of issue #0 in your hands -- touch it's reality. How's it feel?

 

Liz: That I wish the layout did justice to the content.

No, that's not quite true. I am ecstatic that it's out. Every so often, I have to stop and take a deep breath and go, "by god, I have a magazine!"

But the layout (I'm including the proofreading in that) is the weak point, and that will be corrected.

 

JB: Of course, now you have to do it all again, and again...

 

Liz: Last week, I saw page proofs for issue 1, including the redesigned cover. And for the first time I knew that -- if the ghods are with us, and if the people (advertisers, readers) with the money to spend, spend it with us -- then we can do this: not for an issue or two, but well into the next millennium. More: I knew we'd deserve it.

 

JB: I guess the next big task is gearing up for the official launch at World Fantasy Con in London (Oct. 30 -- Nov. 2) with issue #1. Any special plans to get Odyssey the attention it deserves?

 

Liz: We're having a launch party at the convention (a tea party: 4.30 on Saturday, to be exact); a week later, I'm having a get together at a pub in London for all the people who couldn't afford the convention ;)

But our big news is our short story competition. The details are yet to be firmed up, but the theme will be Alternate History; the judges will be Mary Gentle and Harry Turtledove; and the first prize will be a multimedia computer; if all goes well, there should be some pretty impressive runner-up prizes, and of course all stories will be considered for publication. But please don't write for details yet! I'll let everyone know when the rules have been confirmed (and anyway, you'll need an entry form cut from Odyssey or Valkyrie to enter...) 

 

JB: After that, what can we expect in the future from Odyssey?

 

Liz: More and better.

 

JB: Great answer! And now the question I'm sure is most on our readers' minds: what kind of stories are you looking for?

 

Liz: Good ones.

Sorry to be facetious, but I really don't have much of an agenda for kinds of stories. I guess in the USA, there are lots of magazines, so each one tends to have a distinct personality. Here in Britain, though, there is only Interzone. Consequently, I feel there's less of a need for me to limit the sorts of stories I'm going to take. If you look at Odyssey Issue 0, you'll see stories that range from straight sf, through genre fantasy, to contemporary fantasy, to off the wall. That pattern is repeated in Issue 1. Maybe if I get feedback that tells me my readers want more limits on what they read, I'll do something about that. But for now, I'm happy to consider just about anything.

A couple of things do come to mind, though: I'm not keen on horror, and psychological horror seems to be an easy thing for most beginners to have a bash at. Consequently, I see too much of it -- and since it's not my thing to begin with, it's not going to be easy to sell me (hint: abused children seem to have been the flavour of the month for the last several years; but I used to teach in inner city schools, and I've worked a lot with abused children of all kinds; hence, if you want to sell this kind of story to me, you'd better really have something fresh to say and know about what children -- abused and otherwise -- are like). Also, I'm very keen on good research. Send me a story that depends on a historical, anthropological or scientific fact, and I will check before I buy (though if the story's good enough and you're wrong, you might convince me to let it slip by). And my least favourite thing of all time: stories set in Britain by writers who have quite obviously never been here.

 

JB: While your UK writers won't have this problem with Odyssey, this is probably a good time to run down the basics of submitting to a foreign market for the rest of us.

 

Liz: Pretty much the same as for anyone else -- typed/printed in black, not grey ink, on A4 or 8.5x11. I like cover letters, especially if you come across as friendly -- but let your story tell itself (my reaction to things like "this story is strong on characterisation" is -- unless you're brilliant -- probably going to be "but not good enough"; whereas if you hadn't drawn my attention to it, I might have thought it was quite adequate -- a question of raised expectations, I suppose).

Return postage: that's where the trouble starts. First off, under normal circumstances, you need to include International Reply Coupons [IRC's: available at most post offices around the world]. Unfortunately, one of these only buys you the very lowest available weight of airmail reply -- ten grammes [less than half-an-ounce]. This isn't enough. So you must enclose two of the things. However, they're expensive -- so, I'm happy to respond by e-mail, thus saving you money. But I can't take e-mail submissions (though you can supply final drafts of accepted stories by e-mail).

 

JB: What's your procedure for reading submissions?

 

Liz: I read everything myself. This does mean response times are slower; but I feel that magazines that use slush readers as filters between the editor and the submissions can be a bit bland: there's at least one story in Issue 1 that I'd never have seen if Janet had been my first reader, for instance, because she really doesn't like it. On the other hand, if I feel something is borderline I do sometimes ask her for a second opinion.

I try to come to the submissions with one thing in mind: every time I pick up an envelope, I hold someone's dream in my hands. That's true whether the person is an established pro or a complete beginner. I've had nervous sounding enquiries ("are you sure it's okay, Liz?") from people with reps so large the question has surprised me.

Having said that, some of the things that people -- I have to be blunt, mostly but not always, beginners -- do are extremely irritating. There's the woman who always sends a fed-up sounding letter telling me to hurry up or she'll withdraw her story: she always sends it after a month; I never get to stories that fast. There are the ones without SASEs or IRCs -- worse, there are the ones with US stamps (they always are US -- I don't know why, but Canadians and Australians etc never do this). There are the people who send e-mail addresses for a response and then change them three times before I reply, and want me to keep track. There are the people who request e-mail guidelines, then explain that they want to ask picky, picky questions (and do). There are the people who e-mail me to explain in detail why I'm stupid to have rejected their story. There are the people who send in manuscripts in faded grey type; or single spaced, or in some weird font. There are the ones who bind their manuscripts and then enclose them in impenetrable cardboard folders and heaven knows what... There are the ones who tell me how wonderful their submissions are (the stories rarely live up to the publicity), or how they've been published in two hundred small press magazines.

But let me tell you something: in the end, none of this matters. If you do all the above (with the possible exception of sending in a story so badly presented that my wonky eyesight can't cope), but enclose a brilliant story, I'll buy it anyway. You just start off at a disadvantage, since I'm no longer delighted to be reading your story.

 

JB: Thank you very much for your time, Liz, and best of luck with Odyssey!

 

--------------------

Odyssey Home Page: http://www.jeapes.ndirect.co.uk/odyssey/

Milford UK Pro SF Writers' Workshop: http://www.jeapes.ndirect.co.uk/milford/

 

Submission Address:

Liz Holliday Editor Odyssey Magazine 31 Shottsford, Wessex Gardens London W2 5LG UK.

Subscription Information:

Single issues: £3.75 (UK), £4.25 (Europe), £4.50 (rest of world airmail)

Five issues: £15 pounds (UK), £20 pounds (Europe), £22.50/$35 (rest of world airmail).

Twelve issues: for £35 (UK), £47.50 (Europe), £52.50/$75 (rest of world) and get 10% off all your book and game purchases from Caliver Books. All prices include post and packing (airmail where appropriate).

UK retail distribution and mail order:

Caliver Books 816-818 London Road Leigh-on-Sea Essex SS9 3NH UK Tel: (01702) 73986

US retail distribution and mail order:

On Military Matters 55 Taylor Terrace Hopewell, NJ 08525 USA Tel: +1 (609) 466 5412

--------------------

Odyssey Rejection Ticklist:

Thanks for letting us see your story for Odyssey magazine. Unfortunately, I can't use your story, and the high volume of submissions means I can't reply to everyone individually. Below, I've listed some things I look for in a story. If I've highlighted something, it means I think your story might benefit from some attention in that area -- but please remember that this is only my opinion, and another editor might feel differently. Please do consider sending me something else.

Style:

A writing style which demonstrates a feel for the English language and which suits the mood of the story.

Background information which is integrated into the flow of the story.

Dialogue which reads smoothly and which is consistent with the speaker.

Consistent use of viewpoint characters within individual scenes.

 

Background:

Original settings - ones which make me feel I haven't been here before.

Plausible and consistent science, mythology, magic and religion.

For stories set in the future, plausible extrapolation from now till then.

A sense of atmosphere -- I want to feel as if I'm in the world you're describing.

 

Plot:

Original plot ideas.

Well developed plot structures -- I don't want to be able to pick holes.

Endings I can't predict, but which do seem logical and inevitable once I've read them.

Plots which don't depend on the characters behaving stupidly.

 

Characters:

Believable characters who have some depth to them.

Characters I can empathise with, or love, or at least love to hate.

Characters who really seem to belong in their world, and who behave like real people.

Evil characters who at least have a bit of justification for their actions.

 

Manuscript Presentation:

Manuscripts I can read easily (that is, double spaced and using black, not grey, type or print).

I only want to see one story at a time from each writer.

I will not read any story which has been sent simultaneously to another market.

You must enclose an SAE for my reply, or an email address, or at least two International Reply Coupons plus an envelope with your address.

 

Copyright © 1997 by James A. Bailey. All Rights Reserved.

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