Originally, I had plans to release a series of interviews for The Bolthole Writers’ Fair, which has since come to an end. But want not, waste not, here we are! Today’s guest is Kevin G. Bufton, editor and owner of Cruentus Libri Press.
He2etic: Let’s start with a qualifier. Can you tell us how many years experience you’ve had, what you’ve published and what publishing companies/freelance work you’ve done? (If you have an Amazon listing, now’s the time for some shameless self promotion.)
Kevin: I’ve been editing for a little over 18 months, ever since October 2011, when I started taking on submissions for an anthology called 100 Horrors: Tales of Horror in the Blink of an Eye, which I was editing for Cruentus Libri Press.
Since then I’ve edited twelve more anthologies for CLP, seven of which are currently available on Amazon with another five in various stages of production. All of the anthologies dealt with speculative fiction (mostly horror), and all but three of them have been themed.
He2etic: When it comes to reading through slush piles, do you ever feel that “golden moment” where you know that a story is a must have, even if it needs some work? About how far along into a story do you have to be until you feel it for sure?
“The bulk of anthologies that I have edited involved a specific theme, so clichés are almost an inevitability.”
Kevin: It happens all the time. On average, I would read through between 35 and 100 submissions for any given anthology and, from there, have to pick a mere 15-20 or so. The golden moment, as you put it (and I may have to swipe that phrase for myself) makes the job a Hell of a lot easier.
As for how far along that moment occurs… that is the great variable. At times it can happen in the first couple of paragraphs, at others something will happen halfway through that makes you realise that you must include this story; and, of course, there are occasions where the last sentence or so to provide a twist that makes you re-evaluate the whole thing (although these seem to be harder to pull off convincingly).
One of my favourites was a story called ‘Shark’s Tooth’ by Ken Goldman, who is a fine writer. It starts off very nicely, with the tight prose that Ken utilises for everything. It’s an old guy, preparing to dive for sunken treasure, chatting with his daughter. Then there comes a flashback moment, from when he was a young man and… without spoiling the story… it just makes this character a totally different person from the affable chap we have seen so far and, just like that, I had to have it. The flip-side of course, is that I spent the remaining pages hoping against hope that it had a satisfactory ending, to justify the story’s inclusion, but it was the flashback halfway through that sold me on it.
Incidentally – ‘Shark’s Tooth’ is available in the Cruentus Libri Press anthology, The Dead Sea – available now in paperback and Kindle editions! Ahem.
“… we received about a dozen of them, in fact. Most of them were just bland – not actively bad, but just so middle-of-the-road that I was bored by the halfway point.”
He2etic: What’s your opinion on the value of literary clichés versus something that’s too original (ie, kind of out there)? Any advice on striking a balance?
Kevin: As I said above, the bulk of anthologies that I have edited involved a specific theme, so clichés are almost an inevitability. By themselves, this is not a bad thing, so long as they are handled well by the writer concerned. Likewise, just being different for the sake of difference can be a risky path to tread. Ultimately, tropes and conventions are just tools for the writer. It’s how you put them to work that’s important.
I edited an anthology called A Fistful of Horrors, which called for stories set in the Old West. I knew, even before the guidelines were posted, that I would receive a slew of entries that involved a dark stranger coming to town and that this stranger was either the Devil himself, or had come to rid the town of evil. I knew it would happen, and I was right – we received about a dozen of them, in fact. Most of them were just bland – not actively bad, but just so middle-of-the-road that I was bored by the halfway point. On the other hand, a couple of them were real beauties. ‘The Angel of Solitude’ by A.R. Aston and ‘Last Chance Saloon’ by Cameron Johnston were two stories that actually made the grade, and though both of them can be reduced to that synopsis, each takes the premise in wholly different directions.
When it comes to being a bit out there – it depends. I have picked stories that are not strictly horror, nor strictly my usual cup of tea, simply because they are so good. ‘Winter on Aubarch 6’ by David A. Riley (from our medical-themed anthology Under the Knife) is nominally a science-fiction story, but it is also an horrific tale of survival and mutilation. ‘Nine Tenths’ by Brandon Cracraft, from the same anthology, is a tale of necromancy and possession that bears only the most tenuous resemblance to the original brief but, after a few dozen tales of mad surgeons performing unnecessary experiments, it was a breath of fresh air.
In general, don’t be afraid to try something new but, by the same token, don’t be surprised if a prospective editor just doesn’t ‘get it’. My sincere advice on this matter is to be as eclectic as you desire, but maybe anchor your crazy narrative with some established tropes, for the sake of providing familiarity.
He2etic: What’s the single biggest mistake most budding authors make in your opinion?
Kevin: Easy – they don’t revise their work properly, if at all, and it stands out a mile.
It pains me to relate, but I would say that 25% of any first draft can be excised and dispensed with, without any negative impact on the story. Quite the contrary – trimming that excess fat can make the tale gallop along, where it had previously been happy to canter. Unfortunately, this is something that only comes with practice. As you mature as a writer, you realise that the fun part – indeed, the really creative bit – comes once you’ve knocked off the first draft and picked up your red pen, be it metaphorical or literal.
There is, however, an easy exercise to get into the habit of it – write some flash fiction. Either start afresh, or take an existing story of 2000-3000 words, and trim it down to under a thousand. It may seem a near impossible task, but it will eventually become second nature – as much part of your writing routine as double-spacing, underlining for italics and spending an hour looking at funny pictures on the internet, and calling it research.
“Acting like a prima donna will always put a black mark against your name, regardless of the quality of the work.”
He2etic: Some of our readers are actually working on their first novel. Do you have any advice to offer them?
Kevin: Enjoy yourself, and try not to worry that someone might actually read it. At the end of the day, you’re not answerable to an editor, a publisher, an agent, or even your readers – you are only answerable to yourself. There are times when it will be a breeze, and times when it will be hard-going. In all likelihood, it will not be a ticket to instant fame and riches (these things take time, if they happen at all); you will end up working into the early hours of the morning, you will miss out on your favourite television shows, you will pass up nights out down the pub in favour of a night in with a flashing cursor and a mug of coffee; you sit in front of your computer for four hours, trying to wrangle your characters out of a tricky situation, only for the solution to come to you as you lie, exhausted, in bed, seeking sleep.
However… persevere. All of that is true – all of that is inevitable – but, when the words start coming (and they will) and you build up a bit of pace, it is the most enjoyable thing you can do with your trousers on.
On a more practical note – make sure that something of note happens in your first chapter, as many editors won’t make it much further than that, if you don’t. It doesn’t even have to be integral to the plot, but having three or four chapters of description and build is considered old-hat these days.
He2etic: Last, any general tips or suggestions for getting ahead?
Kevin: First of all, be polite in your correspondence – I’m not just talking editors here, but advertising people, potential reviewers, beta readers; anybody, in fact, that might be able to impact on your work. That doesn’t mean you have to be crushingly formal, but a polite, well-written e-mail or cover letter, will automatically put you in a person’s good graces. Similarly, acting like a prima donna will always put a black mark against your name, regardless of the quality of the work. You’ve got years ahead of you in this game, so wait until you’ve got a few releases under your belt, and have developed a bit of a following before you start acting like a dick.
Finally – research your market and read the bloody guidelines. You would not believe how many good writers end up stumbling en route to the finish line, not because they’ve written a bad story, but because they’ve sent it to the wrong publisher. If the guidelines call for a certain way of formatting the manuscript, then make sure you do it. If they stipulate an upper limit of 5000 words, don’t send them a 7500-worder and expect them to make an exception for you. Also, buy a copy of the magazine to which you’re submitting, and check out the tone of the work they normally accept.
Same goes for publishers that produce a number of anthologies, particularly if they are edited by the same person that you’re hoping to impress. Please note, I’m not suggesting that you change your style to match that which has been previously taken on by the market, but only that you should play the odds. Some authors recommend the blunderbuss approach of sending a story to two or three dozen publishers and hoping that one of them accepts it. That may sound all well and good, but if you’ve got a suspenseful, gothic tale of dark fantasy, Gore magazine is probably not the best home for it.
All it takes is doing a little more research than typing ‘horror fiction markets’ into Google. Subscribe to Duotrope, utilise Ralan’s Speculative Fiction, and so on, and see that your story fits the market or, if you prefer, that the market fits your story.
He2etic: A parting question. Of the pieces released by Cruentus Libri, which are your favourites?
Kevin: Ha! Well, The Best of Cruentus Libri Press is coming out at the end of the month, so that’s pretty much the answer – some real goodies in there.
Outside of that, the stories I enjoyed the most tended to fall into two camps. The first are your standard horror fare, but really well written – examples include ‘The Angel of Solitude‘ by A.R. Aston, ‘The Curse of the Cristobel‘ by Brent Nichols and ‘The Hunt‘ by Jody Neil Ruth.
The second type are those that make me re-evaluate what horror means to me, both as a reader and a writer. ‘Winter on Aubarch 6‘ by David A. Riley, that I’ve mentioned already, is a prime example, as is ‘The Island of Dr. Moldovan‘ by Joanna Parypinski. Neither of them are ‘straight’ horror (if that’s a term?) – one is science fiction, the other alternative history – but they have that darkness to them that you just know when you read it, that gets right into your gut and doesn’t let go.
Thanks for your time, Kevin! And be sure to check out Kevin’s new novella, Cake.