MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing Cecilia Tan today. Cecilia has been writing and editing professionally for the better part of two decades, both independently and for the small press she founded in 1992, Circlet Press, who specialize in material that mixes the erotic with the fantastic. She has written numerous erotic romances for Ravenous Romance, has edited anthologies for Alyson Books, Thunder’s Mouth Press, Carroll & Graf, Masquerade Books, Blue Moon Books, and others, and collections of her short stories have been published by HarperCollins and Running Press. On top of all that, she also writes and edits publications on baseball.
Cecilia, What brought about the founding of Circlet Press?
CECILIA TAN: I had written a story called “Telepaths Don’t Need Safewords” and just knew at the time I finished it that it was the best story I had written to date. It mixed explicitly kinky erotic action with a science fiction plot. Then I looked around for somewhere to submit it. There was nowhere. Science fiction magazines had explicit rules against sexual content. Porn magazines had explicit rules against both science fiction and any plot beyond “two people meet, then have sex.” The BDSM magazines of the time were either exclusively lesbian or exclusively gay, and my characters were neither. I had been working in book publishing for a few years at that point so I knew the business and I thought “this is nuts. Someone has to do this!” And of course that someone ended up being me.
VENTRELLA: Has it met your expectations?
TAN: Circlet Press has met all my hopes and dreams except for the financial one. We grew by leaps and bounds, garnered fabulous critical acclaim, excellent notice, a great reputation, helped to blow the doors off the old restrictions and show how good mixing the genres could be, jumpstarted the careers of a whole generation of writers … but once the Returns Crisis hit the book publishing industry in the late 1990s, it’s been a financial uphill battle ever since. I’m too stubborn to quit, though, and the ebook has suddenly allowed us to start reaching the readership that mainstream bookstores abandoned. So all of a sudden, there’s some cash flow! Who knows? Maybe someday we’ll turn a profit. What’s most important to me is that we’re still able to connect authors to readers, and then put money back in the pocket of the authors. That part of the business is the same as always … in fact, it’s better.
VENTRELLA: There are many examples of small press these days; do you think this is good for the publishing industry or does it tend to water down the field?
TAN: Oh no. It’s the mainstream presses, not the small presses, who are the most watered down. That’s where you’ll find the most mediocre, recycled pap being packaged and put on the shelf. Granted, it’s not 100% the fault of the big publishers — it’s also the fault of the buyers at Borders and Barnes & Noble, who just want the same thing over and over again, in the hopes that what sold before will sell again. They are all chasing the book equivalent of the Top 40 radio hit and making a lot of boring noise in the process. The small presses are more directly connected with the readership and what they actually want. The small presses occupy the specialty niches.
Another way to look at it is with a comparison to restaurants. The big presses are the chain restaurants. They’re Applebee’s and the Olive Garden and Budweiser. The small presses are that great little gourmet Italian restaurant in your neighborhood, and handcrafted microbrews.
Small presses are also the minor leagues, but for the most part the authors being published in the small press aren’t any less talented than the ones in the mainstream press. They are sometimes less experienced, or less marketable, or just less lucky.
VENTRELLA: As a small press author, I thank you for that!
Has the rise of self-publishing been good for the business?
VENTRELLA: When acting as an editor, what is it you look for? What will immediately get a story chucked in the trash?
TAN: The first thing I tell my assistant editors when its time to read the slush pile is DO NOT read the cover letter until after you read the story. Far too many authors think that the job of a short story cover letter is to build you up into a froth of excitement about how great the story is going to be, thus ensuring that a) you’ll be let down, and b) any suspense or joy of discovery in the story has been killed for the reader. I think many amateur writers are confused about the difference between submitting a short story and pitching a novel proposal to an agent or editor, and some just can’t imagine that all they should introduce in the letter is THEMSELVES and let the short story speak for itself.
We get a lot less utter garbage than we used to, though, honestly, and I think the reason why is that thanks to the Internet, writers are actually better informed about how to go about submitting, and they are much more likely to have practiced their grammar and spelling skills on a daily basis. It’s that or the Internet has somehow
swallowed up the attention of most of the crackpots who used to send us wacky submissions in red crayon and the like.
VENTRELLA: What sorts of things do you want in a query letter?
TAN: Since most of what we read is short stories, we don’t read queries. We just want a professional introduction of the author, with whatever credentials they have, but if none, just a firm, no-nonsense hello. It’s professional courtesy to include a cover letter. Sticking a post-it note shaped like a heart on the story is not professional.
Actually, these days, we only accept manuscripts by email, so whenever anything arrives in the mail, I know it’s likely to be from the land of psychoceramics.
VENTRELLA: As a writer of erotic and romantic fiction, what would you advise to someone wanting to enter this field?
TAN: Both romance and erotica have a lot of cliches. The whole trick to writing something that will thrill the pants (sometimes literally) off your readers is to satisfy their expectations while at the same time exceeding them. Be aware of the boundaries of any genre that you write in, and then find out how you can play with and cross those boundaries.
That is, unless thinking about that sort of thing paralyzes you and saps your will to write. In that case, forget everything I said and JUST WRITE. That’s probably the best advice. Step one, start writing. Step two, finish what you started. You’ll get better every time.
VENTRELLA: What trends do you see in the publishing industry that excite you? Which ones worry you?
TAN: I’m very excited at how social networking is allowing authors and readers to connect directly. But the problem is how do you find out about new authors you might like if you’re a reader, when now there isn’t just a publisher-wholesaler-retail chain delivering you a limited selection to choose from? A lot of things are changing now because of that.
It worries me a little that the newer system rewards authors more based on their marketing savvy than on their writing ability … but then I look at a lot of the junk that was published that still hit the New York Times best-seller list over the past 20 years and I realize that’s ALWAYS been true. There have always been populist and popular writers who weren’t particularly great artists.
VENTRELLA: Writing a short story is much different from writing a novel. What are the difficulties you have found? Why do you think some authors specialize in one or the other?
TAN: I’ve written a fair number of both and I really think they are different arts, just like painting and sculpture are different arts. A short story writer has to have guts and brio; a novelist has to have stamina and vision. For me short stories have always come pretty easily. I grab an idea and just pound it until it’s done. A novel takes a bit more planning. The one time I just grabbed hold of a novel with minimal planning, it took six years to finish and came out three times too long to be a commercial novel. (That’s DARON’S GUITAR CHRONCILES, which I’m serializing now on the web.) The next time I plotted out 12 chapters of 5,000 words each and bam, I hit my target right on the nose.
The secret to writing outlines for me is realizing that in the second half I’m going to deviate quite significantly from the outline I wrote, but that some kind of internal logic is at work in my subconscious, so if I forge on, it will all work out. I still have to write the outline, which to me is like sketching out the map of the mountain I’m going to climb. But when I get to the top, exactly halfway through the journey, and am at the turning point, I look down the other side of the mountain… and discover it always looks totally different from the top than it did from where you started at the bottom. Some of the landmarks are the same, but how you get to them changes.
VENTRELLA: Are you sick of vampire stories yet? Is there any plot you have seen too often?
TAN: I love vampires! But even sixteen years ago when I edited my very first anthology of vampire stories, called BLOOD KISS, there were some cliches I didn’t ever need to see. Like setting your vampire story in a goth nightclub … cliche cliche cliche! It really isn’t very imaginative to think “what if those spooky kids who look like vampires actually WERE?” Not exactly an original idea. I actually had to turn down a lot of stories where the “surprise” ending was that one of the two people who met in the bar turns out at the end to be… A VAMPIRE!
I had to write rejections that said things like “It’s a vampire anthology. Every readers KNOWS at least one of them is a vampire.” Then there were the millions who tried the surprise twist: they’re BOTH vampires! Argh. Or surprise twist two: the other one is a vampire hunter! I saw literally hundreds of stories with these plots even after I explicitly banned them in my submission guidelines.
Then there are some ideas that go through fads. I kid you not. One year I received no fewer than four stories all with this exact same plot: an artist falls in love with a model in a painting (usually a Renaissance painting) and gets artistically blocked, can’t paint, is wasting away… until the day the model shows up at the door to have
fantastic sex, looking just like the painting, because s/he is a vampire. Somewhere, once upon a time, that was an original plot. Now, it’s a cliche.
VENTRELLA: How do you think your education has helped your writing?
TAN: Well aside from the actual writing courses I took, it was important to me as someone who writes science fiction to learn some high level science. In college I went right for what was cutting edge at the time, cognitive science (artificial intelligence, neurology, etc) and genetics. Anything you learn that stimulates your brain is going to help your writing. I took a fair amount of psychology in that mix, as well as literature, music, etc. … Long live the liberal arts.
VENTRELLA: Besides “keep writing” what specific advice would you give an aspiring author that you wish someone had given you when you began?
TAN: I think I must have started out with some pretty good advice, because I can’t think of anything. I suppose the advice I would give is this.
You need your reader to trust you to lead them on a rollercoaster ride. For them to trust you, you have to trust yourself. To trust yourself, you have to know your craft and be constantly improving it, constantly learning about yourself and the way your writing affects your readers. So don’t write in a vacuum because you’re afraid people won’t like it. Find the ones who do like it, and write more for them!