Interview with Award-Winning Editor Deborah Sheldon
Interview with Award-Winning Editor Deborah Sheldon
Deborah Sheldon is an award-winning and award-nominated author and editor. She produces everything from novels and novellas to short stories, poetry, and anthologies—of her own stories as well as multi-author collections. For her most recent offering, Killer Creatures Down Under: Horror Stories with Bite, Deb covered the whole process from concept through commissioning and selecting the stories, to editing them and arranging the final versions.
In the introduction to this collection, Deb says, “I’ve selected the ones that gripped me, unsettled me: stories that interpreted the theme in captivating, unexpected or shocking ways. You’re about to read an eclectic mix of disturbing tales that run the gamut from action to phantasmagorical to historical to futuristic to supernatural to psychological and more. My hope is that this anthology is the literary equivalent of a box of chocolates, assuming each chocolate is hazardous in its own delectable way.”
I met up with Deb not long ago to congratulate her on the incredible variety in her ‘box of chocolates’, and to find out what is involved in producing an anthology.
Deb, the quality and diversity of stories you selected for inclusion in this anthology is almost unbelievable! As the commissioning editor, what criteria do you use to rate each submission?
Whenever I first read a submission, I’m wielding my mental ‘red pen’. I’m sensitive to blatant grammar issues, sloppy sentences, clichés, lazy writing choices. If I make it through the first few paragraphs of the story without overusing my red pen, I’m more inclined to relax and go along for the ride.
My engagement, however, must last for the duration. If I’m reading a story and loving it, the closer I get to the end, the more nervous I become. I’m begging: Oh please, stick the landing! Don’t screw up the final act! Sometimes, a story that starts off strong loses itself along the way, and the ending fails – at least, in my eyes. (Fiction is subjective, after all.) If the problem can be fixed with a method that I believe is straightforward, I’ll email the writer with thoughts and suggestions. But if the story needs a major rewrite, I’ll regretfully pass.
Since I write across all sorts of horror subgenres, that means – as an anthology editor – I’m also open to whichever way that writers might compose their stories. In my anthology callouts, I stipulate ‘horror’ as the baseline, but I’ve never stipulated the subgenre. I love variety! Give me historical, futuristic, gothic, psychological, supernatural, paranormal, experimental, splatter, bizarro, whatever the hell you want. As long as your story addresses the central theme and ticks the ‘horror’ box, I’m open to it.
Just write it well. Don’t make me overuse my mental red pen.
What kind of editor are you? Do you ‘fix’ everything, or do you have a light hand?
I stick to the basics, like spelling, grammar, punctuation, paragraphing. The publishing house’s style guide must also be taken into account; that usually focuses on presentation issues like dashes, how to express numerals, and so on.
I do my best not to interfere with a writer’s voice. Occasionally, if I love a story but it’s got some minor problems, I’ll suggest changes or additions, and then work on them with the writer. Obviously, the writer has the final say as it’s their story.
However, if a story needs a lot of work, I’ll pass regardless of its potential, and that’s for three reasons. First, I have a strict ‘no favours’ policy, which means I always pick the story, not the writer. And second, in my capacity as anthology editor, I’ve doffed my ‘mentor’ hat. I’m not trying to help writers improve their craft, I’m choosing the best stories for my anthology. Lastly, I must represent the best interests of my publisher, who is trusting me.
Given the broad assortment of narrative types in the collection, can the order of inclusion be random or does the sequence matter in an anthology?
Ordering the Table of Contents is – I imagine? – like arranging an album of songs or hanging an artist’s paintings in a gallery. The aim is to lead the reader on a twisting, turning journey that surprises, intrigues and ultimately satisfies.
To be more concrete about how I approach the TOC, I write index cards for each story, listing their subgenre, mood, length and POV. At the first pass on figuring out the TOC, I’ll concentrate on mixing up the stories so I don’t have similar stories next to each other. For example, I won’t place two first-person narratives side by side. After that, the TOC is by careful deliberation and instinct. How do I want the reader to feel at the beginning? In the middle? At the end? You just have to trust your gut.
From concept to publication, how much work is involved for the editor in producing an anthology?
It’s loads of work! (Mainly because I prefer to work alone.) From dreaming up the theme, to pitching a publisher, to deciding upon and writing the submission guidelines, to reading the slush, to selecting the stories, to sending out acceptance and rejection emails, to copy-editing each story and collaborating with the contributors on final versions, to preparing the publishable draft of the manuscript, to proofreading the internal block, to imagining the cover concept, to organising the publicity, to writing the promotional materials…
Editing an anthology is a labour of love. It’s also a workout for your organisational skills.
While the process is stop-start, stop-start, if you mush together all the time it takes from initial concept to having a finished manuscript ready for the publisher’s perusal, we’re talking about six months from go to whoa. Of course, there are people other than the publisher and contributors who are also involved along the way – the cover artist, proof-readers, designers and so on – but the editor of an anthology carries most of the load.
If you’re like me, however, you’ll relish that responsibility.
Anthologies are popular. What do you do to ensure yours will be noticed?
How to make an anthology stand out? Well, it depends on the type of anthology. For example, if you guest-edit an existing series, your audience is largely in-built. Midnight Echo is the flagship magazine of the Australasian Horror Writers Association, which hands the reins to a different horror author each year to edit its annual issue. In 2019, the then-AHWA-president, Greg Chapman, invited me to edit Midnight Echo 14, which went on to win the Australian Shadows ‘Best Edited Work’ Award. Dedicated readers of Midnight Echo make up the bulk of the readership.
But it’s a different process altogether when finding an audience for an original anthology. I’ve conceived and edited two other anthologies: the multi-award-winning and multi-award-nominated Spawn: Weird Horror Tales About Pregnancy, Birth and Babies, and the recently released Killer Creatures Down Under: Horror Stories with Bite.
Firstly, I think you need an intriguing concept. Not just for readers, mind you, but for writers. Unless you can whet the creative appetites of writers, you won’t attract creative stories that make a great reading experience.
Secondly, the concept can’t be too narrow. For example, if I wanted stories solely about a miserable mermaid who interacts with a time-travelling cat, I wouldn’t get many entries and deservedly so. Personally, I never submit to anthologies with narrow briefs. Give me some room to breathe! Also, the writers who unsuccessfully submitted to the narrowly-themed anthology now have a problem – how can they sell this story to another market when all the other rejected stories about miserable-mermaids-and-time-travelling-cats are also making the rounds? Writers must be given enough space to approach the theme in their own way.
Thirdly, you need to do all you can to promote and publicise the anthology. With some four-million new titles published worldwide every year, it’s all too easy to get buried. A reader definitely won’t buy your anthology if they’ve never heard of it. Publicity matters.
In reading the book, I noted that none of the stories you chose are similar, either in content or style. I assume this is deliberate. What is the most important consideration in compiling an engaging and successful anthology?
I’ve read many anthologies over the years, and what I crave as a reader – just the same as I do as an editor – is variety. Different styles, tones, approaches, moods, techniques…I want a smorgasbord. Give me a broad theme and let the authors have at it.
Occasionally, anthology editors can be, I believe, overly prescriptive, in that each and every story must tick an x-number of specific boxes in order to be considered for publication. But an anthology of samey-same, colour-by-number stories quickly becomes predictable. How could it not? Rigid caveats hamstring writers.
Regardless of the theme, any anthology that has a ‘cookie cutter’ vibe just isn’t for me. If too many stories read along the same lines, I get bored fast.
DEBORAH SHELDON is a multi-award-winning author, anthology editor, script editor and medical writer from Melbourne, Australia. She writes across the darker spectrum of horror, crime and noir. Latest titles include the anthology Killer Creatures Down Under: Horror Stories with Bite, the award-nominated collection Liminal Spaces: Horror Stories, and the novella Man-Beast.
Other award-nominated titles include Body Farm Z, Contrition, Devil Dragon, Thylacines, and Figments and Fragments: Dark Stories. Her collection Perfect Little Stitches and Other Stories won the Australian Shadows ‘Best Collected Work’ Award, was shortlisted for an Aurealis Award, and long-listed for a Bram Stoker.
She has won the Australian Shadows ‘Best Edited Work’ Award twice: for Midnight Echo 14 and for the anthology she conceived and edited Spawn: Weird Horror Tales About Pregnancy, Birth and Babies. Her short fiction has appeared in respected magazines, ‘best of’ anthologies and podcasts, has been translated, and garnered numerous award nominations.
Other credits include TV scripts such as NEIGHBOURS, feature articles, non-fiction books (Reed Books, Random House), play scripts, poetry, and award-winning medical writing. Visit Deb at http://deborahsheldon.wordpress.com
DEBORAH SHELDON’S AMAZON AUTHOR PAGE
BLURB: KILLER CREATURES DOWN UNDER: HORROR STORIES WITH BITE
Australia: the land where everything wants to kill you. A continent filled with some of the deadliest animals in the world.
From creepy-crawlies to crocodiles, you’ll have plenty to fear in this anthology penned by Australian authors. Killer Creatures Down Under: Horror Stories with Bite offers disturbing tales that range from the action-packed and visceral, through the historical and futuristic, to the phantasmagorical and supernatural.
Prepare to confront your animal phobias… And perhaps develop some new ones.
Featuring work by:
Geraldine Borella – Tim Borella – Renee De Visser – Anthony Ferguson – Jason Fischer – Fox Claret Hill – Robert Mammone – Ben Matthews – J.M. Merryt – Helena O’Connor – Steven Paulsen – Antoinette Rydyr – Deborah Sheldon – Charles Spiteri – H.K. Stubbs – Matt Tighe – Keith Williams – Pauline Yates
Curated by Deborah Sheldon, editor of the multi-award-winning and multi-award-nominated anthology, Spawn: Weird Horror Tales About Pregnancy, Birth and Babies.
- About the Author
- Latest Posts
Robyn O’Sullivan is a professional writer and editor, living on the beautiful Bass coast of Victoria, Australia. Her published works include a novella Topsy Turvy, and the collections Getting a Life and Everything’s All Right, which were released by the award-winning Ginninderra Press. Robyn has written 40+ non-fiction educational books for children that have been distributed around the world including Australia, the United States, Canada, New Zealand and China. Other credits include creative non-fiction pieces in magazines such as Quadrant, and short stories in anthologies such as Guilty Pleasures and Other Dark Delights, the award-winning Midnight Echo 14, and the multi-award-winning and multi-award-nominated Spawn: Weird Horror Tales About Pregnancy, Birth and Babies, as well as drabbles and flash fiction. Her short story “A Tale of the Ainu” was produced by the Night’s End podcast, and an interview with award-winning horror author Deb Sheldon has been featured on Kendall Reviews. Robyn has also been shortlisted by Madwomen Monologues and Arkfest for her 10-minute plays. Currently, she is focused on writing short fiction and memoir. See more of her work at http://robynosullivan.com