Preaching Loudly to the Choir (so others might hear the message)

Editorial by Susan MacGregor

As I write this editorial, it’s January 1, 2014. This year, On Spec celebrates its silver anniversary: we’ve been representing and supporting the speculative fiction community in Canada for twenty-five years. I’ve been honoured to be a part of this group. I feel as if I’ve been with it from its earliest beginnings. At about the same time On Spec started up, so did SF Canada, to be followed by other great Canadian SF magazines and publishing houses (Neo-Opsis, ChiZine, Edge and Five Rivers Publications are fine examples). In the greater scheme of things, we are all part of the Canadian writing scene, but we remain a minority. Not everyone appreciates what we do, or sees how we have value.

Those who aren’t a part of our unique community often question what the point of speculative fiction is. We encounter this bias fairly often, but it begs the question—why, as an SF community, are we important? Further, what do On Spec and other publications like it contribute to the arts and to society, in general? Isn’t SF just pulp fiction? Cheap action space opera? Rockets in space, monsters and magic? Why should SF be as worthy of notice and support as, say, more important literary work?

Of course, anyone who defines speculative fiction as cheap pulp fiction doesn’t understand the breadth or depth of the genre. Instead of restricting ourselves to what is ‘everyday’ and ‘real’, we tend to reflect reality in ways that stretch the limits of the imagination. As a group, we are bright, creative, and passionate people. Not so unlike other bright, creative, and passionate people elsewhere, except we are a little different. We tend to exhibit:

• a talent for invention and a drive to explore where we are going and where we have been (through science fiction)
• a need to acknowledge and contribute to the beauty and magic that we see in the world (through fantasy and science fiction)
• brutal honesty and acknowledgement of our own demons (through dark fantasy and horror)
• an understanding that our world is not always ordinary, nor is it always as it appears (through magic realism).

My point here isn’t so much as to congratulate ourselves on who we are, but to point out that we bring these same predispositions to our everyday lives, outside of our writing and reading speculative fiction. We are scientists, artists, doctors, educators, business, and trades people. We may write science fiction, but we are also vocal and conscientious about how our society develops—we warn where it may go, what it could become. We may write about flights of fancy, but we also celebrate what is awe-inspiring and unique about our environment. If we pen dark fantasy or horror, we are quick to see where our society fails and where governments go wrong, where people are victimized, and where wrongful situations need to be addressed. We see beyond appearances, we don’t easily accept the status quo, nor are we willing to ‘look away’. When society supports writers of speculative fiction, it reinforces those inclinations to invent, celebrate, correct, and protect. It isn’t about supporting ‘cheap pulp’. It’s about recognizing that this kind of literature reflects a certain kind of thinker and doer—a person who is dedicated to making positive changes in the world.

Question two: genre aside, what does On Spec contribute to the arts, specifically?

Like any minority group, SF writers and readers deserve a voice and a place. On Spec provides a forum for that. Many fiction writers make their first attempts with the short story before attempting larger work. On Spec has been a ‘cradle’ for many writers who have had their first professional sale with us and then have gone on to become successful novelists in Canada and beyond. Unlike many markets, it is part of On Spec’s mandate to offer constructive critique on the majority of manuscripts we receive and reject. Our suggestions have helped writers hone their craft and attain higher levels of proficiency. As a fiction editor, I also contribute to this effort through my blog, Suzenyms ( which I treat as a promotional arm of the magazine (I also use the blog to promote Canadian SF novelists through guest interviews, as well as my own work).

Under the subject heading of The ABC’s of How ‘Not’ to Write Speculative Fiction, I post writing tips that cover many common errors On Spec encounters in the slush pile. These tips are applicable to all types of fiction, speculative or otherwise. For more seasoned writers, I also offer my ‘Letters to the Slush Pile’ which are based on manuscripts that are technically good but fall short in places, making them not quite up to standard. I never mention names or titles, but address the more difficult or subtle errors I see, then offer advice on how they might be corrected. Since I re-started Suzenyms last April, its popularity has risen at a surprising and exponential rate. The posts that receive the most attention are my ‘ABC’s’, ‘Letters to the Slush Pile’ and other subjects I devote to the magazine. I could not do this, if not for my involvement with On Spec. All of our fiction editors also contribute to the Canadian writing scene—Barb Galler-Smith and Ann Marston mentor writers through writing groups, and Diane Walton and I offer workshops, visit libraries and universities, and offer talks.

In 2014, On Spec will be engaging in some new initiatives. To celebrate our silver anniversary, Tyche Books is publishing a 25th Anniversary Anthology that showcases twenty-five stories selected by the editors. The launch will be in summer of 2014. We’ve recently switched to Submittable, a submissions handling software that will keep writers better informed as to the status of their work. We editors expect it will also make our handling of manuscripts easier. As I write this, our six-week submissions window is currently open; we will close it at midnight on January 5th, 2014. On Spec has never received so many manuscripts during a submissions window—to date, nearly five hundred, a new record. I’m not sure to what this increase is attributable, although possibly, it may be because of the popularity of our I Read On Spec Facebook group and Suzenyms. With so many manuscripts to choose from, the magazine will have an outstanding year’s offerings. Very recently and further afield, we are encouraging writers to represent On Spec at conventions and other events in other provinces. To date, we have one representative in Saskatchewan, and hopefully we will have more. Here in Alberta, editors Barb Galler-Smith and Ann Marston will soon be presenting a teacher’s kit to the upcoming Edmonton Teacher’s Convention that Barb and Robin Carson created using “Space Monkeys”, a short story the magazine recently published. They hope to encourage teachers to include it in their high school curriculums as a thoughtful, poignant, and excellent example of speculative writing.

Why is On Spec important? As for my own reasons, I’ve been with the magazine two years short of its inception, since 1991. Diane Walton, our Managing Editor, is the only remaining founding member. For her dedication, I thank her and everyone else who has contributed to On Spec over the years, whether they are writers, editors, assistants, volunteers, readers, friends, fans, or those who have supported the magazine financially. As 2014 begins, I am grateful for the twenty-three years I have served as a fiction editor. Because of On Spec, I’ve become the editor and novelist that I am today.