Interview with Scott H. Andrews (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

After many adventures, I have finally reached the citadel of the Autarch himself, Scott H. Andrews, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Beneath Ceaseless Skies (BCS) is an online magazine of “literary adventure fantasy”: fantasy set in secondary-world or historical settings, with a literary focus on the characters.

SCy-Fy: Scott, the magazine has had a lot of success already.

SHA: Thank you! BCS in nearly seven years has published 350 stories and 150 audio fiction podcasts. We’ve been a finalist for three Hugo Awards, one British Science Fiction Association Award, two Parsec podcasting awards, two Aurealis Awards, and four World Fantasy Awards, and stories from BCS have won the Aurealis Award and the World Fantasy Award. Lois Tilton of Locus online has called BCS “a premier venue for fantastic fiction, not just online but for all media.”

SCy-Fy: Tell me about the behind-the-scenes work that has got you this far.

SHA: We publish a new issue every fortnight. That two-week publication cycle begins with promoting the new issue on the BCS website and Twitter and Facebook. Then the preparation for the next issue starts immediately. I make the ebooks for that upcoming issue and send the files to our ebook distributors, including Amazon Kindle Store and The ebooks go out a week early because our ebook customers and subscribers get each issue a week before it goes live on the website.

I do all the production of the BCS Audio Fiction Podcast, so I coordinate the audio reading for each episode, whether it’s a guest narrator or I do the narration myself, and I spend two to three hours a day editing the audio narration. I’m an amateur musician, so I have a sharp ear for audio quality and the rhythm of the pacing and delivery.

SCy-Fy: And submissions?

SHA: I spend about four hours a day reading submissions. That includes new submissions, whether passed up by my Editorial Assistant Nicole Lavigne, who reads the slush, or automatic pass-ups from writers who have sold to BCS before. It also includes line-editing accepted manuscripts and rewrites, which for me require several readings and writing the editorial emails to the author laying out my issue and some ways it might be fixed.

Other tasks include compiling and releasing our anthologies, like our annual Best of BCS series that’s now in its sixth year or our new Weird West anthology Ceaseless West; promoting the magazine at cons and sitting on panels; submitting material for reviews or awards; etc.

SCy-Fy: What are your future initiatives?

SHA:   This April we’re releasing our second BCS theme anthology, Ceaseless West, an ebook collection of the best Weird Western stories from BCS over the years. That will coincide with a special Weird Western issue of the magazine, on April 30. We’re also planning a special large-cast audio reading in May to celebrate the 150th episode of the BCS Audio Fiction Podcast.

In addition to that, our future is to keep publishing great literary adventure fantasy, online and as ebooks, audio podcasts, and our Best of BCS ebook anthologies; to keep doing what has made people call BCS a premiere venue for fantastic fiction.

SCy-Fy: What do you think will be the major future challenges for SFF magazines?

SHA: There’s always the challenge of making F/SF short fiction zines financially viable. Ebook sales and crowd-funding have offered great new tools to help with that, but it’s not as easy as the high-profile success stories make it seem.

There’s also the challenge of getting the stories to readers. The F/SF short fiction audience is much smaller than for novels, but I’m always hoping that we as a field can expand that audience and draw in novel readers; show them that short fiction does exist in the styles they love to read novels in, like epic fantasy, and interest them in reading it.

SCy-Fy: Pitfalls in SFF zining?

SHA: The two huge pitfalls in F/SF zining are well-known: the huge time commitment it requires, and the need to have a realistic business model that fits your approach.

The time commitment to run a zine in a professional manner, like keeping response times to submissions quick enough that it’s not an insult to writers, is massive, almost suffocating. If you aren’t cognizant of that, you’ll get behind and it can hobble your zine.

There are multiple working business models in practice now–for example, BCS is a 501c3 non-profit, funded by donations; Clarkesworld is funded by ebook sales; others have used crowd-funding. But new zines can’t just copy a model and expect it to work for them as well as it works for the zine(s) currently using it. They need to choose or modify whatever model best fits their own strengths and needs.

SCy-Fy: Tips for writers?

SHA:   Yes – don’t follow ‘all the rules’.

I often see stories that feel like they ‘follow all the rules.’ By which I mean it almost feels like the author had a checklist of things they felt like they were supposed to accomplish in the first few pages, and they went down the list and squeezed them all in as early and deliberately as they could. Eyeball-kick image in the opening line, then a teaser of plot suspense, a big splash of detail of the world, aggressively active verbs, cut out all iterations of “to be,” and so on.

But when reading submissions, I often find that the openings that ‘follow all the rules’ like that don’t engage me at a deeper level. Perhaps the voice feels neutral, without the sort of character-influenced flavor that feels interesting to me as a reader. Perhaps the withholding of information to artificially create suspense ends up leaving the context too vague for me. Perhaps the details, however vivid, don’t yet have importance to me through the character. Or perhaps the opening overall is so carefully crafted that it doesn’t have any unique spark of the author’s individuality left in it.

SCy-Fy: So what works better for you?

SHA: The openings that do hook me seem to have a spark of individuality to them. As though the author allowed their own personality or instinct to come through. Perhaps it’s a more vivid or unique voice, for the narrative or the character. Perhaps it’s letting their own writerly voice flow naturally rather than editing the prose down. Perhaps it’s setting aside poetic metaphors and giving direct, honest, heartfelt expressions of characters’ emotions.

It’s tough to describe, and it’s even tougher to write. But I encourage all writers to try to let their unique vision come through as much as possible, rather than crafting things to follow all the rules.

SCy-Fy: Things that have kept you going in hard times?

SHA: What keeps me going is the transcendent joy and delight in finding a great story, a story that awes me with its world and moves me with its characters and their struggle to be who they are, and the fact that such a story could be in the very next submission email that I click on.

SCy-Fy: Your personal favourites among what you have published so far?

SHA: That’s an impossible question, because I love them all! Recent favorites would include “The Breath of War” by Aliette de Bodard, from our science-fantasy theme month in 2014. It’s a great science-fantasy story, with a deeply personal side to it; a theme of motherhood. It’s a finalist for the Nebula Awards this year.

Another would be “Heaven Thunders the Truth” by K.J. Parker, from our Sixth Anniversary Double-Issue last fall. It’s a movingly human plot of politics and relationships, all told in Parker’s signature intense and emotional first-person style.

I also really enjoyed revisiting many of our past Weird Western stories as I assembled our new Ceaseless West theme anthology, including “Hangman” by Erin Cashier, “Mister Hadj’s Sunset Ride” by Saladin Ahmed, and “Haxan” by Kenneth Mark Hoover, which inspired a series of novels.

SCy-Fy: Which upcoming releases are you most looking forward to reading or watching?

SHA: I’m looking forward to Seth Dickinson’s debut novel, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, which is a prequel trilogy to his story in BCS in 2011. Seth is an amazingly profound writer, and his epic fantasy is richly lush yet uniquely his own. I’m also looking forward to the debut fantasy novel this fall by BCS author Fran Wilde, and the next book by Chris Willrich, author of the sword & sorcery series about poet Persimmon Gaunt and thief Imago Bone.

For watching, I’m a fan of Elmore Leonard’s short fiction, so I’m curious how the TV show Justified will end. I’m not looking forward to the new season of Game of Thrones, because I want to continue reading the books instead.

SCy-Fy: A message to readers to finish?

SHA: We’re in a golden age for F/SF short fiction, especially online fiction, most of which is available for free and as audio podcasts. I encourage readers to explore what’s out there, and read or listen to whatever they enjoy.

I also encourage readers and listeners to consider supporting the short fiction zines you love to read. It doesn’t have to be by donating money; it could also be by buying an ebook subscription, or just by sharing their Facebook posts about new issues or leaving a comment on their website. Donations and ebook sales help them buy new stories, but every share or comment helps find new readers, which is just as important.

SCy-Fy: Thank you, Scott. Now, how do I get out of here – oh, he’s vanished.

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