Interview with Melissa Ann Singer

By Theresa Rizzo

Date:October 2007

 

Bio:

 

Melissa Ann Singer has been working in publishing for nearly thirty years, beginning in the science fiction department of the Berkley Publishing Group in the late 1970s.She has been with Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, publishers of Tor, Forge, Orb, Starscape, and Tor Teen, for more than twenty years.She has edited nearly every genre of fiction and many types of nonfiction and considers herself an editor of all work.She became a comics fan at 6, a science fiction/fantasy fan at 8, and almost immediately thereafter began to read her way through anything she could get her hands on.In her young adulthood, Melissa could periodically be seen chasing people through Central Park with a sword in her hand.Nowadays, her hobbies are only barely more sedate as they generally involve one or more adolescents (one being her daughter).She is a native New Yorker who tends to spend her rare moments of free time in various of the cityís museums.

 

  1. Which categories do you acquire?Which category is your favorite?

    Answer:I acquire in just about all the genres we publishógeneral fiction of all types with an emphasis on womenís fiction (both contemporary and historical), horror and urban dark fantasy, mystery/suspense/thriller, even science fiction and fantasy on occasion (though I am not primarily a science fiction and fantasy editor and donít consider unagented authors in those areas).I have no favoriteóone of the reasons I love working at Forge/Tor is that I can work in a wide variety of genres and follow my interests in so many directions.As a reader, I have very broad taste, and itís a pleasure to be able to indulge that in my work as well.

 

  1. In terms of submissions, what are you sick to death of and what would you like to see more of?

Answer:The very worst thing I see in submissions are projects where the first three chapters have been workshopped or polished to a high degree but the rest of the book is basically first draft.Right now Iím seeing a lot of books that are trying too hard to be funny.Humor is a delicate thing and canít be forced.Another thing I see an awful lot of is really bad first person narrative.I have literally seen books where the pov character has woken out of a sound sleep to take a drive so that the protagonist can overhear or observe a vital exchange between two other characters.I also wish people would research more, even for simple things.Giving the wrong name for a currently-published magazine, for instance, or, in historicals, not checking to see when a certain holiday actually began being celebrated.As for what Iíd like to see more of, see answer #1.Thatís what I want, pretty much in priority order.

 

  1. Do you accept unagented and/or email queries? E-mail queries?

 

Answer:Forge/Tor is open to submissions at all times, from writers both agented and unagented.However, we do not accept queries at all, as experience has taught us that this is not a good way to judge a work.Writers should feel free to send a proposal packet according to the guidelines given on our website (http://www.tor-forge.com/Faq.aspx?#ctl00_cphContent_ctl30_lblQuestion).All proposals are looked at by a member of the editorial staff, but not necessarily by the person they are addressed to.We do not accept any electronic submissionsóno queries, no proposals, no full or partial mss.They are deleted unread.

 

  1. What length synopsis do you prefer to see with a partial?

 

Answer:It depends on the book, doesnít it?I know a lot of people say ďone page synopsis,Ē but it can be hard to squeeze a 100,000 word novel into a single page without losing something in the process.The most successful synopses Iíve seen seem to work out to roughly two sentences per chapter.Always, always put the end of the book into the synopsis.Many beginning writers still seem to use the cliffhanger ending, ďif you want to know what happens, youíll have to ask for the whole manuscript.ĒIn nearly 30 years or working in publishing, I donít recall a single time when Iíve gotten to that line and actually asked for the whole manuscript.

 

  1. Many editors now need to get far more involved in the business side of writing and have less time to spend on the actual editing end of your job.Fact or Fiction?Do you think this is more genre specificóor industry wide?What do you spend the majority of your days doing?

    Answer: ††The business side of publishing is tremendously important, especially given the shrinking number of outlets for books and the incredible number of books published each year.Thereís a decent-sized shopping mall not far from where I live, which must have at least 150 storesóand none of them sell books.This is a reality we have to be aware of.I think itís a good thing that editors are more involved in the business side of things than they were when I started in the industry.It makes them better at their jobs, in my opinion.After all, we want to make moneyóso that we stay in business, stay employed, and keep being able to publish more good books.Editing canít take place in a vacuum.As for my personal workload, at this point in time, I do spend a lot of time on business-related work and on administrative work.But Iím a senior staffer at a publishing company that doesnít have a traditional editorial hierarchical structure.We donít have an editor-in-chief, so I and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who is the Director of Science Fiction, each have significant administrative and business-related responsibilities.

 

  1. From your perspective, how has the industry changed in recent years?

 

Answer:As I said above, there are fewer outlets for books than there used to be.The shrinking wholesale market has been a big blow to the industry.Additionally, thereís more focus on brand-name authors, which can make it harder to break out a newer writer or a midlist writer.While online sales have slowly increased, shopping online still doesnít replicate the experience of browsing a shelf and having something new catch your eye.I canít think of how many writers I started reading because I was scanning a shelf in a bookstore or library and thought, ďhey, that looks interesting.ĒYou simply canít do that onlineónot yet, anyway.There are also just a huge number of books being published, which again can make it hard for a good book to stand out among the crowd.

 

  1. What are the compelling elements that you think are necessary for a good
    read? ††What particularly grabs your attention?


    Answer:This is really hard to answer, because again, it depends on the book.Some books grab me because the writing is just gorgeous and I want to read those slowly and savor every passage.Others get me because they are tightly-paced and move like a bat out of hell and I canít wait to keep turning pages and find out if any of the wrong people die and how the author is going to get the main characters out of the seemingly unavoidable trap that he or she has constructed for them.And others reach me because of the characters, because I become absorbed in their lives and struggles and care about them as much as I care about some flesh and blood people.The best books reach me in more than one of these ways.I want to be absorbed, to be entertained, and to learn something.

 

  1. Based on a query letter or pitch, you ask to see a partial. You love it, ask for the complete, but eventually reject the manuscript. What are the top reasons for a manuscript's rejection in such a scenario?

    Answer:I alluded to the main reason for this earlier:the rest of the manuscript simply doesnít live up to the level of the partial in terms of the basic quality of the writing.Or the author canít sustain ďvoiceĒ through the whole book.Or the story just doesnít work at novel length, though it sounds like a good idea in the synopsis.Other reasons?Sometimes plot elements that seem to work in a synopsis, when laid out in brief, donít work in the finished manuscript.This can happen even to a published writer; there have been times when an author and I have junked entire subplots because they fit fine into the synopsis but made the whole book too long or negatively impacted the pace of the primary story.Sometimes the synopsis and the manuscript donít entirely agreeóthe author says a subplot develops in a particular way but doesnít manage to bring it off convincingly on the page.

 

 

  1. Does meeting an author face-to-face at a conference make a difference in your response time, the submission process, or the rejection process (i.e. Form letter vs a few sentences of advice)?

 

Answer:Not always, but sometimes.I canít really say more than thatóthere are just too many variables involved:the circumstances of our meeting/conversation(s), the type of book submitted, the quality of the work, etc.

 

  1. Besides the writing, the story and the talent, what are the most important elements you look for in an author, i.e. contest wins, cooperativeness, affiliations to writers organizations, knowledge of publishing industry, promotability, etc?

 

 

Answer:Thatís a good question and one that is actually difficult to answer, because different things pertain to different parts of the publishing process.A writer who knows other writers can be helpful when we are trying to get quotes before the book is published; a writer with good promotability can be great to have when the book is first coming out; a writer who knows something about publishing can often simply be easier to deal with overall because you donít have to explain as much.Everything helps, in other words, albeit in different ways.

 

  1. What do you love most about your job?

 

Answer:Ask me on the wrong day and Iíll say ďNothing, I hate it all.ĒBut at the root, what I love most about my job is getting to read a lot of really good stuff.I love working with writers on books, and I love that I work with each writer differently.Sometimes all my editing is done in one or two short emails at the synopsis stage; sometimes the author and I have substantive conversations; sometimes, after all the large-scale editing is over, I sit down with the final ms. and a pencil and line-edit to get the last few loose ends tied up.Iíve been blessed to work with some writers who literally were childhood idols, and some who are so brilliant that I want to run around putting copies of their books into the hands of everyone I meet.When the boxes of new books arrive in the office each month, the editors crowd around to crack them open, and I always go away with one or two that Iíve been waiting to read since they first turned up on the schedule months earlier.

 

  1. Which celebrities do you find most fascinating/respect and why?

 

Answer:I donít.

 

  1. Whatís your favorite genre/type of:
    1. Book:donít have oneóIíve read just about every genre of fiction and nonfiction there is.
    2. Food: ††donít have oneóone of the great things about living in New York is that you get to eat foods from many, many different cultures.††

                                                               i.      SweetsóChocolate rules, but whether I like milk or dark depends on my mood at that moment.

                                                             ii.      Other Foodóas long as itís dead and not octopus, squid, or something youíd find on a raw bar, try me.(I donít eat commercial beef but thatís because I know too much about the beef industry.)

    1. Music:Show tunes and good rock.
    2. Sports:Baseball and almost any Olympic sport
    3. Color:Not pastels
    4. Movie:donít have one.Donít like horror films or raunchy comedy or movies that are just excuses for explosions.

 

  1. What are you addicted to?

 

Answer:My daughter above all.Family.Readingóbooks, magazines, comics, manga, you name it.

 

  1. What have you always wanted to do?

 

Answer:Travel to Japan and China