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Blowgun by Rick Berry
Interview
Jeanne Cavelos: Abyss, Odyssey & Beyond
By Paula Guran

[Note, April 2002: This interview is dated, but I'm keeping it on the Web because Jeanne Cavelos offers still-valid advice about the publishing biz and her workshop, Odyssey. Jeanne's gone on to write several more novels and a couple of nonfiction books. Odyssey has just gotten better. There's also a 1998 interview with her on the site.]

Jeanne Cavelos is an editor, teacher and writer who established and directs Odyssey, a six-week summer writing workshop for horror/SF/F writers. In her eight years as a professional editor in New York she gained a reputation for her vision, skillful development of writers and strong marketing savvy. She is the recipient of the World Fantasy Award for her establishment and direction of the Abyss imprint for Dell. Her first novel, Babylon 5: The Shadow Within will be published in April 1997.

DE: Jeanne, you seem to do it all -- edit, write, teach, review. You may want to answer this question in several ways, as an editor, fiction writer and teacher: What makes a good story for you?

JC: Well, no matter what in what capacity I'm reading something, I bring the same likes and dislikes to it. Something I love is a good, strong prose style. I like writing that is clear, direct, and powerful. That must be the basis for any good story. Without that you might have a good idea, or an interesting character, but you don't have a good story. I also love characters who are simultaneously very strong and very screwed up. I love it when an author makes me experience vividly something I've never experienced before. I love it when an author captures something that happens all the time in real life but is never written about. I love it when an author surprises me and the surprise feels RIGHT. I love it when an author gets me so involved I can't stop reading. I love it when an author moves me. I love it when an author stretches the limits of the genre he's writing in. I love it when an author makes me see something in a new way, or gives me a new understanding of the world (I don't ask for much). I guess I could go on forever, so I better be more specific.

When I read something as an editor, a good book is one that I know will appeal to a specific audience I can market it to, one that provides everything this audience wants and does it in a fresh, powerful way, one that has a strong core of energy. One that, if it has any flaws, are flaws that can be easily fixed in a way I can explain to the author.

As a teacher, a good book is one that my students will find interesting (that is often difficult to predict)and one that they'll be able to analyze -- discovering symbolism, themes, noticing writing style, techniques, etc.

As a writer, I guess I'm reading my own work and evaluating it. In that case, I find it very difficult to judge whether it's good or not. I guess I judge it good if it doesn't make me grimace too much when I read it, if it has more moments where I think I did good than moments where I think I fell flat.

DE: It used to be said, "If it is good enough, it WILL get published eventually." I personally no longer think this is true. What are your feelings?

J. Cavelos JC: The old adage, "If it is good enough, it will get published eventually" is still true. What has changed is: "What is 'good enough?"

The early eighties was a boom time in horror, with the number of books being published quickly rising to ten times what it was a few years before (mainly due to Stephen King's influence). These boom times do not last forever, in any genre, and in the late eighties/early nineties, the volume of horror being published subsided. Obviously it was easier to sell a horror novel during the boom time than it is now. "Good enough" during the early eighties was not really very good at all. Many wonderful horror novels were published, but also many duds were published, and this mixed, low quality partially contributed, in my opinion, to the decline of horror. Too many readers got burned by too many horrible horror novels. Now, "good enough" means really excellent (in most cases, young adult horror being the exception). Publishers are publishing much less horror than they did, and often publish it under the heading of "fiction" rather than "horror" (hey, that's what they call Stephen King--nothing wrong with that, is there?).

To publish a horror novel these days, the publisher has to have a very high degree of confidence and excitement for it. Yes, it's much harder, and yes, I wish there were more opportunities for developing writers in all genres (publishing is a much tougher business today than it was 20 years ago, and authors have to turn a profit from their first book, rather than being built slowly by the publishing house, or they don't get a second chance). But since I don't control the universe and can't change this, I think the best way to look upon the market place is not as an impediment, but as a challenge. If your book is going to be published, don't you want it to be the "good enough" that means excellent, rather than the "good enough" that means the publisher is desperately churning out any stuff with man-eating monsters they can find this month?

DE: What, then, is your best advice on getting published?

JC: First, focus on your writing and trying to improve it, not on getting published. Many writers destroy their skills and their careers trying to write for specific markets. They hear about an anthology of evil cat stories and rush to knock out an evil cat story and send it in. Don't. Write about what moves you and obsesses you, what truly INSPIRES you. I was recently INVITED for the first time to contribute a story to an SF anthology, the topic was the 10 wonders of the universe. I rushed to come up with an idea and write an outline that would conform to their specs. It was not inspired. It was not good. But it was about a wonder of the universe! I submitted it, but knowing it wasn't good, forced out a second outline, on another uninspired idea. Then by accident I was flipping through TV stations and saw an image that absolutely grabbed me and gave me an idea for a story. I wrote that outline. They loved it. (The other two they dismissed with a few kind words.) What's best is to just write what you want to write.

Step two is to revise it and revise it and agonize over it until it's the best you can make it. You need feedback from other writers here, since it's very hard to judge your own work. And these writers need to be people you will listen to, and people who will be honest with you. Hopefully they are writers at or above your skill level, so they can teach you something. Probably about 1/3 of the submissions I received at Dell would say something like this on the cover letter: "I know the plot needs work in the second half, but I thought I'd send it to you to see what you think." Never send something out if this is the way you feel about it. If you know what is wrong, then FIX it. Don't send it out until it is, in your eyes, nearly flawless. Because believe me, other eyes will always find flaws.

It was a very odd experience for me to have people critique the manuscript for my first novel, BABYLON 5: THE SHADOW WITHIN coming out in April. It had been several years since I'd had my work critiqued by anyone, especially a large group of people. I'd been too busy editing other people's work and running workshops to write that much (the main reason I left publishing). It felt like I'd switched places with myself, and was now on the receiving end of all the criticism I'd dished out over the years. But the comments I received were immensely helpful, and I followed almost every suggestion I received. The book is much better for it.

Step three is to learn about markets. If you receive the newsletter, DarkEcho, I assume you know a fair amount about the markets for your stories or novels. It is an excellent resource. There are others you should also be aware of, magazines like Locus and Science Fiction Chronicle, newsletters from the Horror Writers Association and the Science Fiction Writers Association, The Scavenger's Newsletter, Gila Queen's Guide to Markets and many others. If you're serious about getting published, you should keep a notebook with all the various markets in it, the names of the editors, submission guidelines, types of stories they want, books they've worked on, etc. This part of writing is the business part, and while it should be kept separate from the writing part of your brain, it must be developed. You should look on this as a job and be methodical and thorough about it. Too many writers fail because they aren't serious about looking for markets and studying them. You should also make sure to study all information available about a market.

If you're going to submit to a magazine, then read several issues of that magazine, cover to cover, and analyze what types of stories are included in it (usually the magazine will have the same mix of stories in every issue, to please their subscribers). Look at the subject matter, the style, the amount of sex and violence, the length, the experience of the writers included (are any of them beginners?).

If you're going to submit a novel to an editor, then find books edited by that editor before. Go to the recent releases section of your bookstore, look at the acknowledgments pages of these books. Often the author (if she's smart) will thank her editor in the acknowledgments. If you recognize these names, you'll know who edited what. Then you can get a sense of which editor you should submit your work to.

Also research the publishing house. All publishers do not publish the same things. Find some books similar to yours (similar in that they appeal to the same audience). Find the publishers. Find the editors. Submit to them. Whether your interested in magazines or books, use only recent materials for reference. The publishing world changes so quickly, a book published two years ago will not be representative of the books being published by that house today.

Step four is to submit your work. So you didn't write an evil cat story. Okay. But you wrote an evil mother story that was truly inspired. You find a magazine doing an issue of dysfunctional family stories (this exact thing happened to me; the magazine was The Urbanite; he bought the story). You know this from your research. So send the story! Of course, send a professional package: SHORT cover letter, double-spaced manuscript, return SASE. If you know of several markets that might be appropriate for your story, then make a list of them and be ready to submit your story to the next one on the list the second it comes back from the first place. Don't waste time sitting around being depressed about it. Consider your rejections badges of honor, reflecting your growing writing experience, and send the thing out again immediately. It won't sell while it's sitting at home.

Step five is to keep at it. Don't give up. Being published isn't the purpose of a writer's existence, and not being published doesn't mean you're not progressing and improving. For all my experience as an editor and a teacher, my first novel is coming out when I'm 36 years old. I've been writing since I could write. I'm really glad I didn't give up, and I'm really glad I've written all I that stuff in my closet, because I feel it's made me a pretty good writer. It's all been practice leading up to this point, and making my novel better than it would have been without it.

Step six is to network with other writers and to always comport yourself in a professional manner. Some of the behavior I see at conventions is perfectly appropriate for fans out for a wild time, but perfectly inappropriate for professional writers. If you want to be considered a professional, then act like one. Horror writers are a small community, and those connections you make can help you or hurt you in your writing career.

DE: I think a lot of writers (and most readers) have very little idea of what an editor does. I'm sure that a complete reply would fill volumes, but could you give us an overview of just what is involved in editing a book?

JC: Freelance editing books (which I do now) is somewhat different from being an in-house editor for a book (what I used to do at Dell). I'll start by descibingthe job of an in-house editor: First a book project has to be acquired. That means the editor reads tons of submissions and picks this one out as appropriate for the publishing house to publish. This means it fits into an established publishing program or is in some area that the publisher has had success with in the past. The editor presents the project at the weekly editorial meeting, where all the editors and the editor-in-chief can give their opinions on the project. The editor must clearly state why this book will be successful, giving any relevant information (author's sales history, sales of similar books, proof that this is a hot topic, amount of money that author will want). If the editor-in-chief gives the go-ahead, the editor can then begin to negotiate with the author or agent. The editor-in-chief will establish how much money can be offered and other elements of the deal. The editor will then negotiate the deal. If an agreement is reached, the editor will have a contract drawn up reflecting the terms.

Let's assume this is a first novel, and the editor has read the complete manuscript. The editor will then write an editorial letter to the author outlining the changes she thinks need to be made in the manuscript. The manuscript itself will also most likely be covered with comments and revisions for the author to respond to (this is the actual EDITING that most people think is the only job editors do. In the case of freelance editors, this is true. Working with the author on the manuscript is the only part of this job that I am responsible for as a freelancer).

The author, after some months, sends a revised manuscript. The editor will read it closely again and now do a line edit, making any minor changes that are necessary and revising sentences where awkward. (If it's still not in shape, the editor may send it back to the author again.)

Now it's time to get everyone in-house excited about this book. (As one of my assistants said, "I never realized that being an editor was so much like being a cheerleader.") The editor writes up a "fact sheet" with a synopsis of the plot, an author bio, selling points, etc. trying to make the book sound as appealing as possible. The editor may send copies of the revised manuscript to people in the marketing and publicity departments that she thinks might enjoy it (not that they'll read it, but she can try...). The editor may send copies to certain sales reps who enjoy horror. The editor may send copies to famous writers to obtain quotes for the author. Talking up the book in the hallways is usually effective.

A cover concept meeting is held, at which the editor suggests what the cover of the book should look like. I sometimes brought in covers of other books, sometimes photos from magazines, sometimes photos of Mel Gibson from my vast collection (he's always an inspiration), sometimes weird art from various sources. The editor-in-chief and the art director would also be there, as well as other people from the art department, and the editor's idea could be accepted or rejected by the editor-in-chief. The chief might suggest an alternate idea, or simply tell the editor to go away and come back with a better idea. Or the art director might make a suggestion. Cover copy (the writing that goes on the front and back covers and first page of a book) is either written or rewritten by the editor. She will slant this to try to appeal to the audience she feels will like the book.

The manuscript is now going through the production process and the editor routes this at various stages back to the author (after copy editing, after typesetting). The editor also checks it at all these stages to make sure no horrible errors have been made and to make sure that the author isn't changing his novel too much during the production phase (a no-no). The editor then presents the book to the sales reps at the sales conference (these are held three times a year, usually). She tries to make it sound commercial and to say the key phrases that the reps will repeat to the bookstore owners when they go in to sell the book.

If the editor makes a strong, convincing presentation, and the marketing and publicity plans and book cover support her (whoops--forgot this step, the editor suggests ideas to marketing and publicity earlier, while they are formulating their plans, though the ideas better be cheap and the editor better provide all the necessary information), then the sales reps should be able to convince bookstore owners to order the number of copies desired. After that, the editor's job is mostly done. She has to make sure marketing and publicity follow through with their plans (amazing how many times they don't), to pass on any exciting developments to the company (nice comments from bookstore owners who read galleys of the book, quotes that come in from famous authors, good reviews, award nominations), and to make sure the company knows what publicity the author is doing.

In my current business as a freelance editor, I mainly do the actual editing of the manuscript part of the job. Sometimes publishers hire me to do this when they're overworked or have a difficult or rush job, sometimes agents hire me when they have a promising manuscript that's just not quite there, and sometimes authors hire me directly to work with them on a manuscript.

DE: You founded and ran the Abyss line at Dell. Although they still publish two books a year under the imprint, the line as a whole is gone. You are no longer with Dell. What did you learn from the experience with Abyss?

JC: From founding and running Abyss, I guess I learned what works when starting a new imprint and what doesn't. Many of the things we did with that line I think were good and right, and overall I'm proud of what I did. Some things we could have done better and smarter--that's the learning process. I think the main thing I did right was to stick to my vision, to have integrity, and to fight for what I believed in. The main thing I did wrong, I think, was not to insist that I be included in all reports and all meetings the included discussions of Abyss. Of course, I was low on the totem pole when I started the line and probably would have been fired if I'd insisted on being part of meetings where no other editors are present...but as my position in the company improved over the years, I might have made a case to start attending those high-level meetings, where critical decisions are made outside the presence of editors.

Another mistake--insisting on expensive foil and embossing and die-cut covers when I think our readers didn't really care that much about those things.

I guess in most people's minds my biggest mistake must be leaving Dell and assuming the line could continue without me. The Abyss books were modestly successful; most of them made money, though certainly not on the level of John Grisham. I was naive enough to think that someone could take my place and carry on. But no one at Dell at that time had the passion for horror I did, and rather than hire someone new, they split up the books among several junior editors. This left the line without an advocate to fight for it, which is what I had to do constantly, from the day I created the line to the day I left. Without that, it wasn't worth the attention to Dell to continue to promote and push it.

DE: Was it a mistake to leave Dell?

JC: No, I have to say that I don't agree that my leaving was a mistake, because I'm much happier now. I put in 8 years of hard time in New York publishing, and while I'm very proud of what I did and very glad that I did it, I hated living in New York, I had no time for my own writing (which is why I got into publishing in the first place; to learn how to get published), and editing was having some insidious negative influence on my personality (I was becoming very aggressive, competitive, defensive, not sleeping at night, etc.--you just have to live it to understand. The publishing business is insane). Now I edit what I choose to edit (and I only do the part of the job I like best, working with the manuscripts), I have students who really like my classes, and I have my first novel coming out (which, by the way, is horror/sf in the tradition of Lovecraft, in case you think I'd abandoned horror). And I live in a house in the woods, in a town where people keep there doors unlocked (not me, of course, I just imagine breaking into all THEIR houses).

DE: Would you say there is no "mass market" for new horror anymore?>

JC: I think I partially answered that earlier, but I will say a little more. The term mass market doesn't mean much these days. In the old days of paperback publishing, all books used to be marketed to the same "mass market" of book buyers. Today, as with every other field, the mass market has fractured into many niche markets. The only truly "mass market" books are the bestsellers. Publishers' lists reflect this. Through the mid-'80s, publishers lists (the list of books they publish each month) would start at the top with a "super-release" (the book they expect to be a best-seller: Grisham, Steel, Krantz, Clancy) and then below it they'd have a group of books called the "mid-list" (not best-sellers).

By the late '80s, most publishers had changed their list to much more targeted categories. Below the super-release they'd have the category books: the romance titles of the month, the mystery titles, the science fiction titles, etc. Everything had to be in a specific category. Horror, oddly enough, has always been more of a "mass market" phenomenon. There are many, many horror bestsellers. But as a category, horror has always struggled. Thrillers are the same way. We have many best-selling thrillers, but not much success with category thrillers. I've never seen a bookstore with a section labeled "thrillers."

The readers that did read category horror have now been fractured into smaller categories. The young adult category has taken a lot of the horror audience. Those books are huge successes. An incredible volume of books is being bought and read. I think many of us knew that a good segment of the category horror readers were pre-teens and teens.

There are still adult readers of category horror, but their numbers are not huge (not as big as romance or sf, for example), and I think many people still are wary because of the poor quality of some horror in the past. However people do still love to be scared, and the success of a horror novel like JURASSIC PARK proves that (and don't tell me that's sf. It's Godzilla and Them! and Frankenstein all over again). Abyss also proved there are adult category horror readers out there, and another published will figure it out again.

Odyssey logo

DE: Now you have founded, direct and teach for Odyssey, an annual six-week writing workshop for writers of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. What can Odyssey offer a writer?

JE: I think the most valuable thing Odyssey offers a writer is feedback on his work from serious writers who know the field. As I discussed above, I feel this is a critical part of the writing process, one overlooked or half-heartedly done by a lot of developing writers. As an MFA student, I participated in numerous writing workshops, and I was very frustrated because I was writing an sf novel, and none of the other MFA students read sf, liked sf, or knew what made an sf novel work. The feedback I got was pretty much bewildered shrugs and puzzled comments, which didn't help me. Receiving feedback from fellow writers who have faced the problems you face and who love passionately the type of literature you're trying to write is an entirely different experience. Last year's students commented constantly about how useful this was. I think my philosophy and method for running critiquing sessions also help these to be as valuable as they are. Students receive honest reactions and helpful suggestions and leave clearly knowing what their stories need and how they might go about providing that. They also form relationships and a support network that continues long after the workshop is over.

My students also said that working with me for six weeks was very helpful, in that I saw a range of their work and was able to give overall comments on their strengths and weaknesses, tell them when they had improved in some area and guide them to the next area they should focus on. As an editor, my focus has always been on making a work the best it can be, and I think this really helps. I believe Odyssey is the only workshop to provide this type of experience, where an instructor gains in-depth knowledge about each student's writing.

Students very much liked getting the additional input of the guest lecturers each week, both hearing their lectures and receiving their feedback on stories. This added some different ideas and perspectives to the mix.

Finally, Odyssey MAKES YOU WRITE. I know so many people who say they want to write but don't have the time (I'm one of them). Getting away for six weeks forces you to write (from guilt over the tuition you've paid, if nothing else). Only by writing will you get better.


Information about Odyssey can be found at http://www.sff.net/odyssey/index.htp or you can e-mail Jeanne at jcavelos@mindspring.com.


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