All Good Things Must End: A statement from Jeremy Szal

As of today, 20th of January 2020, I am stepping down from being the fiction editor-in-chief and producer of StarShipSofa.

I delayed doing this as long as I could. For almost two years, in fact, but it’s come to this inevitable write-up.

I joined StarShipSofa’s ranks as an assistant editor back in 2014, when I was a 19 year-old scribbler still traipsing around university with a handful of short fiction pieces that only dated a few months back. My gateway into editing was being second in command of one of the biggest short fiction podcasts in fandom.

To say I’d was thrown into the deep-end of shark-infested editorial waters is an understatement. But I got by, in no small thanks to Tony C. Smith. Over the years, I watched it grow by almost 5,000 additional downloads per week. I made an effort to double, and then triple our staff size. I instigated the decision to open for unsolicited submissions for the first time, kickstarted the idea of running translated fiction, casting our narrator nets out to the archipelagos of film, television and voice acting. All in all, my editing days ran from episode 360 through to episode 600. That’s 240 weeks of short fiction. Given at least half had multiple stories, that’s up to 360 stories: edited, produced, and uploaded by me.

I assign myself credit for doing this because none of these things would have gotten off the ground if Tony hadn’t given me creative freedom to do whatever I wanted on the show. None breathing down my neck, telling me what to play. What we couldn’t play. Authors we couldn’t run. Types of stories we couldn’t use. Nothing of the sort. Total command of the ship was mine as far as fiction went, and I could steer it in whatever star systems I so desired. That meant I acted as editor and producer for stories for half the folks in the industry. And I do mean half. Including Harlan Ellison, William Gibson, George R. R. Martin, Robin Hobb, Kim Stanley Robinson, Alastair Reynolds, Peter Watts, all the usual suspects. And then there was the one time I interviewed the Oscar-winning production designer on Mad Max: Fury Road.
None of that would have happened if Tony didn’t trust me to do my own thing and to do it right. But he did. Even when I didn’t deserve it. Even when I wanted to try something he wasn’t sure about. And I will forever and ever owe him for that. I won’t pretend there weren’t rough patches, or that we butted heads. But for the most part the engines ran smoothly throughout the years. Even when new staff came aboard in 2017-2018, things went well.

But there’s a catch.

See, I was never an editor at heart. I am and always will be a writer. I spent years and years handling other people’s writing and enjoyed it immensely. But it wasn’t what I ultimately wanted to do. And being an editor, particularly for audio format, is hard. It’s time-consuming. It’s exhausting. It’s draining. Not going to run through the process and all its shenanigans. Take my word for it that it’s nothing less than a part time job. And I did it because I loved it.

But I love writing more.

When I first came aboard the mighty ship, I told Tony I’d be with him until I got an agent. And in 2017, I did. But I stuck around, because I hadn’t sold my novel yet. I’d kicked around the idea of quitting once or twice, thanks to burnout and real-life issues, but stuck to my guns.

And then in the tail-end of 2018, STORMBLOOD sold to Gollancz. And so did the next two books.

Overnight, I had a book slated for early 2020 and a trilogy to complete.
I think we all knew what was going to happen sooner rather than later. But I didn’t want to let go. Not quite yet. Maybe I could do both. Maybe things would slow down.
I learned pretty quickly in a rather brutal fashion I was delusional.
Sure, I could do both. But I’d be doing an injustice to both parties and the audience they consumed them, with both coming out a shadow of the quality they should be.

If I attempted doing both, I’d stumble out, sideways and on fire, as a withered stump of an overworked and undernourished creator. And remember what I said earlier about my heart being a writer, not an editor?

In the five years I purchased fiction for the show, never once did I play a story when there was a better one on offering. Never once did I sacrifice quality for convenience. I don’t believe that to be ethical, to myself or the very loyal and very deserving audience that has stuck around to tune in, week after week. If I played something, it was because I believed the story had something important to say. And I wasn’t about to start doing that now. A huge chunk of my life went into this show. If the best thing it needed was for me to walk away, so be it.
So I’m doing just that.

The fiction department will be left in the very capable hands of Gary Dowell. I’ll still be around, of course. But my last piece of edited fiction on StarShipSofa was episode 600. The episodes I worked on will always be there, and I hope to revisit them over the years.

It’s been a hell of a wild ride. Knowing that people are tuning in each and every week from Sweden to South Africa made the difficult days easier. Your messages of support and gratitude, it be online, or at conventions is always welcome. To the hundreds of authors, narrators and editors I had the privilege of working with over the things: thank you for inspiring me with your wit, humour, passion and outright love of storytelling and all things science-fiction. Sharing in your talent at and working together was the highlight of my job. There’s something truly special about being a tiny cog in a vast, grand machine, bigger than you, bigger than all of us, running on a burning passion to share our wonderful and weird stories with listeners across the globe. Thank you for trusting in me with your stories. I can only hope I did right by them.

To Harlan Ellison, who yelled at me over the phone when I convinced him to sell us the rights to his story: whenever you are, please don’t kill me.

To Tony, Gary, Kelly, Michael, Lisa, Diane, Amy: thank you for making my editing stint so wonderful. The years went by in a blink. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

Best,
Jeremy Szal

ETA: I’ve had some people ask if there’s anyway to support me, or if I have a Patreon. I don’t. What I do have is a debut novel that’s coming out in just over four months and I would greatly appreciate any pre-orders, pre-purchases or just a purchase at any time. If you’re into space opera and cyberpunk noir, this might be your thing.

UK Amazon
US and international buyers

On Editing: or playing word jenga.

We’re six months out from STORMBLOOD’s wide release (181 days, to be exact, and is up for pre-order!) and I’m up to my neck in edits. I wanted to give a quick update about how the process of editing is going, what its like to be edited by a Big Five publisher, and how I’m going about tackling it.

I believe it’s very underestimated how extensive the editing process is when it comes to traditional publishing. We’re not talking about cleaning up typos, chopping away gratuitous sentences and chapters , or even tweaking character arcs. No, we’re talking about digging down into the root canals of the narrative, the bones of what gives a book its identity. Fleshing out the ambiance, the structure, the voice, the style, and using this understanding in context to influence how you approach edits.

It sounds like a mouthful, but it’s necessary to see your work from a different light. And it’s necessary to take that mental stance when editing. It’s so easy to get caught up in the minute, in one chapter, that you don’t take the necessary steps back and look at the book as a whole. That scene has great dialogue, but is it disrupting the pacing? That’s an interesting turn of events, but could it be entirely rewritten to be better? The tricky thing is, it’s not about what’s objectively better. It’s about whether it’s better for your book, your style, your voice. If I wanted to have my book have breakneck pacing from cover to cover, we’d be taking a completely different approach.

So that’s what we did for the first round of edits. In taking a step back and looking at the naked scaffolding of the book’s structure, we realised there needed to be some changes early in the book, in terms of character motivation, relationships and backstory. Which changes the way the entire book, and the main character, comes across. Not in a major way, but significantly enough. And that’s where playing word jenga comes in: because the wrong sentence in the wrong place can get your entire book to come crashing down around your head.

After we agreed to make the change, my editor worked on the first half of the book to reflect this. This meant tweaking characters, shuffling certain flashback scenes. At this point, I don’t touch anything on a sentence-level, any of the prose. This is all big-picture stuff.

I applied the changes, and sent it back to my editor. My editor then re-edited the first-half of the book again, because she’s a pro, and edited the second half in as a consequence of the changes we made in the first half. Because, if she didn’t, we’d be seeing two very different stories.

This is what I meant at the start, about looking at the bare bones of your book.
So I edited the second half again. Tightening characters, adding and removing world-building, checking for continuity, and in some cases, completely re-writing scenes, or the internal mechanics of a scene. This means I change what the characters go about doing in order to complete their goals, whether they accomplish them, what the consequences are. Big-picture stuff that ripples out. As an example, one battle sequence near the end was very run and gun. We retooled it to be a lot more about tactics and team co-operation. Other scene had a character try to get information from someone, blowing his cover pretty soon and searching the guy’s place. Instead, I had him remain undercover almost the entire time, slowly up the dread and tension the two characters play verbal cat and mouse, until one breaks.

It’s a lot of work, and it’s not easy to take scenes that have written a certain way, been in place, for years, and strip them out and completely retool them, but it’s necessary. And it almost always means a better book.

Then comes my next pass. I make most use of my editor’s comments in this round. Plugging logic gaps, tightening sentences, adding or deleting sentences, making sure all the dialogue is consistent with the characters, chopping away the ugly word clay, fixing up the location of the scene (and moving it, if need be) making adjustments that impact the scene, but nothing else. This is where the book is more or less falling into place. It’s probably the part I enjoy the most, putting the meat on the bone so the plot, story, characters and descriptions read smoothly and consistently.

The next round is where I am now. Fixing up sentence-level structure, word-choice, prose, and descriptions. My editor’s mighty red pen has left it’s mark on every single page, so there’s no getting away from it. It’s tempting to call it purely cosmetics, but my work is first-person, very voice-driven, and the state of the main character absolutely impacts the prose. I don’t care too much about flowery word-choice or elegant descriptions, but I absolutely care about each word sounding like it could come from the protagonist’s mouth. So I make sure my sentences are running smoothly, so a heedlessly complicated word or turn of phrase doesn’t turn into a speed-bump. I ensure the sentences and paragraphs have a nice rhythm and balance to them. I deliberately purge any “flowery” prose, any words that detract from the tone I’m trying to strike, any poorly-timed metaphors. So words like “illuminate” and “sparkle” or any of their relations are chopped out. I’m trying to write sharp, razor-edged prose with a good dose of sarcasm and cynicism when needed. So specific word-choice, and how the words are conveyed, matter. I’m still going through it, and will probably be doing so for the first half of December, if not a little more.

And then, of course, when all’s said and done, there’s copy edits.

So there’s a lot of hours and a lot of work poured into editing a book, both by the editor and author. But here’s the thing about print: it lasts forever. So if a sentence, paragraph, chapter, or even character, is lacking, it’ll be lacking forever. And it’s my debut, and you know what they say about getting one chance to make a first impression. . .

Stormblood

For your listening pleasure. . .

A few awesome space-themed tunes to brighten your Sunday evening. I usually spin these up while reading, cleaning, or setting down to relax at the end of the day.

They’re great mood pieces that help make those bad days a little easier. I’ve been listening to them more and more, especially as something happened in my life (quite recently, actually) that made me so upset and so outraged that I went blind. I couldn’t see clearly for over five hours, and could barely stand up. Listening to these on repeat helped. A lot.

 

And, of course, one of the greatest pieces of music to accompany one of the greatest films ever made.