Ellen Datlow’s Writing Tips

Are you writing for yourself or an audience? If you’re lucky and
good, you can do both at the same time. How accessible must you be? How
accessible do you want to be? There are fine writers in and outside the
sf/fantasy, and horrors field who are respected and read by editors and
other writers but who don’t sell very well.

This matters more in novel form than in short fiction. A writer
can afford to be more experimental in short fiction because each story
in a magazine or anthology does not sell the entire magazine or book.
Each novel published needs to make money for the publishing house.

You can and indeed must be literate in everything you write, but this
does not mean you must be "literary."

When submitting fiction to an editor, send it in as finished and
polished as you can. A story can only be read a first time once. In
other words, impact counts. Editors are more likely to buy a story that
hits them strongly on the first read. Whether a story is meant to be
read more than once or not, the first read is the most important.

If you’re having trouble with dialogue, I highly recommend
reading the work of Elmore Leonard. You can pick up almost any of his
books, turn a page at random, and find terrific, effective dialogue.
People speak in idiom. Most people do not speak with perfect grammar or
sentence structure. If you are using formal dialogue
intentionally—for example, to show that a character speaks English
as a second language—it’s allowable. Leonard’s dialogue runs fast
and furious. It’s not appropriate for every kind of story, but you can
still learn from him.

The first line and paragraph of a story count. To see examples of
effective first lines, check out William Gibson’s stories in his
collection BURNING CHROME. You don’t have to start off with a bang, but
something has to hold the reader—an image, a character, a hint of
an event to come. This is known as the "hook."

Practical advice on submitting a story:

  • Always double space.
  • Paper clip your submissions.
  • Do not put tape on every corner of your submission envelope as it makes it exceedingly annoying and difficult for whomever is opening the envelopes to do so.
  • Underline to show italics—do not italicize in a manuscript as it makes it difficult for the editor and copy editor to read.
  • Use a standard, easy-to-read 12 pt font.