As part of the process of writing The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction, I interviewed a few key players in the SF/fantasy community. Their wisdom and generosity is liberally sprinkled throughout the book, but I couldn’t use every word—and wanted to do some follow-ups. What follows is an expanded interview with John Betancourt, best-selling author, editor, and publisher of Wildside Press.
John writes as John Gregory Betancourt, and is best known for his work with the exceptional SF/fantasy/horror/mystery . . . etc. publisher Wildside Press. His first published novel was 1987’s Starskimmer from my former employer TSR (though eight years before I first showed up there for work), and his most recent is the Wildside Press chapbook Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Amateur Mendicant Society. As an editor he’s worked on seminal genre fiction magazines including the legendary Weird Tales and Amazing Stories.
Philip Athans: Please define “fantasy” in 25 words or less.
John Betancourt: Fantasy is any work in which there is a departure from the here-and-now of our present world.
Athans: Please define “science fiction” in 25 words or less.
Betancourt: Science fiction is any fantasy work in which the departure from the here-and-now of our present world can be rationalized as an extrapolation of current or future science.
Athans: What is the most common mistake that aspiring fantasy authors make in their writing?
Betancourt: Writing without knowing the basics of how to put words together—not just the mechanics (spelling, punctuation) but the rhythm and flow and sheer poetry of beautifully constructed prose. Aspiring authors not only have to write well, but they have to write better than their competitors—in this case, authors who are currently publishing. So the bar is raised with every generation.
Athans: Is this difference between the craft and the art of writing something that’s possible to learn? If it is, where should an aspiring author start?
Betancourt: Anyone can learn to write grammatical sentences and put them together to tell a story. Whether that story exceeds the medium and becomes “art” is probably best left to critics and scholars. If it could be easily quantified, all writers would study and perfect it.
Athans: Do you read reviews of books or stories you’ve written or published? Have you found any review to be particularly helpful or destructive? Do you encourage the authors you work with to read reviews?
Betancourt: Good reviews help sales, but I’m not sure bad ones hurt sales. I always read reviews; I don’t think it’s possible for anyone in publishing to not read reviews of books they have worked on. But it helps to keep them in perspective (good or bad) and develop a thick skin for the (inevitable) bad ones. You can’t please every reviewer, no matter how well you write.
Athans: What’s the one most important thing an agent can do for an author?
Betancourt: Put the author’s works in front of people who can buy them.
Athans: Do you read unsolicited submissions for Wildside Press? What’s your best advice for an unpublished author trying to get his or her work in front of an editor or agent?
Betancourt: No; I prefer a query email, which lets me weed out the inappropriate material faster.
Athans: So then, any advice for that unpublished author?
Betancourt: Put as much effort into a query letter as you put into the first page of your story or novel. The first step to getting published is getting read. And editors look for any excuse not to read submissions. If your amateurish query letter is a turn-off, chances are your work won’t get read.
Athans: Are self-published novels, or their authors, ever taken seriously by the mainstream publishing industry?
Betancourt: Of course they are—when they succeed. It’s the ones that look amateurish, read like low-level slush, and sell three copies to immediate family members that give self-publishing a bad name. There are huge success stories in self-publishing, going back to Edgar Rice Burroughs and Mark Twain. You have to know what you’re doing first before you self-publish, or you’re inviting disaster.
Athans: Has the leap in technology in the past few decades, including e-books, made the self-publishing world better, or just more crowded?
Betancourt: Vastly more crowded. Sturgeon’s Internet Law should read “99.9997% of everything online is crap.”
Athans: What is the one book on the art and craft of writing that you would most recommend?
Athans: How important is the “one scene, one POV” rule to you? How do you advise authors on managing point of view?
Betancourt: This is one of the cardinal rules of writing for me. I can only think of one author (Frank Herbert, Dune) where multiple POVs worked in scenes.
Athans: In your opinion, how “trend-driven” is the fantasy genre?
Betancourt: All of publishing is trend-driven, never mind fantasy. It can’t be avoided.
Athans: If it’s possible that anyone reading this hasn’t yet read any of your work, where should they start?
Betancourt: I no longer write much. I try to write one story every year now, just to keep in practice—but my last story took two years. ([“Horse Pit”] won the Black Orchid Novella Award and appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, [volume 53, No. 7 & 8, July/August 2008] so I guess I still know how to do it.) Easiest thing is to check out my old works in ebook format at fictionwise.com—or Google my name; a couple of free online stories should be available.
Athans: And last but not least, please give me some general words of encouragement for the aspiring science fiction and fantasy author.
Betancourt: Keep writing. Much of it is a learned skill that improves with practice. The more you write, the better you will get.
Thank you, John!