Anthology Editing for Fun and (hopefully) Profit

Last fall, I proposed an idea for anthology of short stories to my publisher, Virginia O’Dine, at Bundoran Press.  After some discussion she agreed to take on the project and I’m happy to say that Blood and Water will be published in August 2012.

This is my first anthology, though not my first experience with the editorial process.  I’ve sat on juries for contests, including the Alberta Book Awards and edited several newsletters with multiple contributors.  Those experiences are similar but in the end not truly comparable.  Imprinting your own ideas of what makes a good story – and sometimes helping writers make their stories better – is a whole different thing.  It is not even like critiquing someone’s work.  An editor has the power to buy your work – as such writers tend to do much of what the editor asks. 

The first step in creating an anthology is writing the guidelines.  Virginia contributed the “publisher” material – pay rates, rights, who could submit, etc. – while I developed the subject description of the stories we were looking for.  We collaborated on things like story length, original/reprint ratios and deadlines.  In describing the stories we were looking at I wanted to make sure that the guidelines were specific enough to give a focus to the anthology, while not being so narrow as to exclude otherwise excellent work.

Still, we tried to make it clear we were mostly interested in near-future science fiction that address the impact of resource conflicts from a Canadian perspective – though we would accept urban fantasy or other close genres if they met the general theme.  Most – though not all – submitters more or less followed the stated guidelines.  We would consider reprints, though mostly on an invitational basis.  We also decided only to accept e-mail submissions.

Once we had announced the guidelines in December, I began to promote them through Facebook and Twitter and Virginia placed notices in several of the more prominent market sites, such as SF Canada and Ralan’s.  A few stories began to trickle in – mostly reprints or stories that people happen to have written that fit the guidelines.  However, the vast majority of the submissions arrived in the ten days prior to the deadline in early March.  Nearly one-third arrived on the final day.

I read stories as they came in and did my initial ranking based on what I hoped were consistent criteria.  A few stories I knew I would reject right away; a few others were almost certain buys.  However, I had committed to myself to read every story at least twice before making final decisions.  As I said, most people adhered to the guidelines.  A few seemed to feel their work was so brilliant that I would accept it even though it was completely off-topic.  Those were the only stories that didn’t get read a second time.  One was so far off-topic, I didn’t read it all the way to the end.  Note to writers: READ THE GUIDELINES.  SUBMIT ACCORDINGLY.

After the second read-through, I was able to reject about half the stories.  I’d like to tell you that every story was brilliant and it was hard to reject any of them – but that would be lying.  A few were so bad that it was frankly painful to read them once, let alone a second time.  You might ask why I would bother.  I’m sure some editors wouldn’t.  But this was my first anthology and I wanted to make sure I had the best stories possible.  It was possible that hidden beneath the surface of bad writing there was the germ of a great story, that, as an editor, I might draw out.  As I said, I had the power to accept or reject – to buy – stories.  With great power, etc., etc.

In the end, I short listed thirty stories, knowing that I would be able to buy between 18 and 22.  Only about a quarter of them were in my definite-buy category.  At that point, I sent them off to Virginia for her views.  As publisher, she had to be comfortable with the selection.  After all it was her company’s name that was on the cover and it was her money that would bring it to market.

Generally, we were in agreement on the relative ranking of stories, on those we would buy, those that we would likely buy with some changes and those we might buy with significant rewrites.  We also at this point agreed on the optimal length of the anthology – which also affected the final decision.  At 90K words, twenty stories was probably the limit. We did have some disagreements and, while our debate was heated it was also productive and, in the end, we were both satisfied we had crafted the best possible anthology.

Eight more writers were sent their rejection notices, reducing the final list to twenty two.  Now came the fun part.  A few stories were bought outright, with only minor requests for changes – spelling, typos, a few suggested re-writes.  Most of the rest were asked for substantive rewrites.  In doing so, I tried to identify aspects of the story that were strong (more of that please) while giving specific instructions as to what needed fixing.  I tried to avoid being prescriptive by focusing on the problem and not the solution, though I did occasionally tell people to cut unneeded scenes or to make very specific changes. 

It was a great strategy.  Not only did the writers respond in a positive manner to my suggestions, they did so in surprising ways, always giving me at least what I wanted and often providing so much more.  Every rewrite was a substantial improvement on the original.  It was difficult to send those last two rejections but the happiness of the writers I accepted (three of whom were making their first sale) more than made up for it.

But the work was far from done.  I now had to do a final copy-edit on the stories, making sure spelling (Canadian English) and style were consistent and catching those pesky typos.  The writers picked up some I missed but I’m sure Virginia found a few more as she did the lay-out.  Copy-editing takes several sets of eyes and an attention to detail that is sometimes difficult to maintain.  It may not be my greatest strength as an editor.  I also had to prepare a page of biographies and another of copyright acknowledgements.

Next, I had to decide on the order of the stories which may be the most creative aspect of an editor’s function.  There is a flow in reading collections of short stories that is very different from that of a novel.  Some stories are ideal to bring the reader into the collection and to set the tone and feel of the experience.  Others sustain interest through the book.  Variation in length, style and substance are important.  With a collection like Blood and Water where a lot of the stories are dystopian, you need to place the optimistic stories at strategic points.  Lightness has to follow dark; contemplative stories need to be separated by more action-oriented tales.  And finally, you need to pick the last few stories to take the reader out of the collection, thinking and feeling a certain way.  Time will tell if I made the right choices.

Finally, I had to decide what type of editorial material to provide.  In the end, I decided against trying to comment on each story – let them speak for themselves.  Instead I wrote a thousand-word introduction to the theme and even made a few suggestions for further (non-fiction) reading.  Then it was off to Virginia for layout and book design, including a very impressive cover.

The final thing I have to say is about objectivity.  I’ve been kicking around Canadian science fiction for twenty years.  I don’t know everyone in the field but I know a lot.  Inevitably, many of the stories came from people who were friends and colleagues – though nearly half were from people I had never met.  I solved one conflict right away – I asked my wife, Elizabeth Westbrook-Trenholm, not to submit a story.  If I had bought it, everyone would have yelled: Fix! And, if I hadn’t, well, you can imagine.

However, four members of my current writing group did submit.  I bought two and rejected two others.  It was not easy.  But in the end, I had a responsibility to make the best anthology I possibly could.  That meant I had to focus on the stories, not the writers.  So, to my many friends whom I rejected, I apologize and to all those I accepted, it was your story that I was judging, and nothing more.  And even then – it was only my opinion.

And that, I think, is what I liked most about the process.  I’ve often read stories published in big-league magazines which, frankly, ‘didn’t grab me.’ {to borrow the most popular catch-all rejection of a certain well-known editor}.  I now realize just how personal the editing process is.  Anthologies and magazines inevitably have to reflect, not merely the tastes of the editor, but also their theories of story.  That’s what the editor brings to the table – not simply selecting the ‘best’ stories (as if, once competence is achieved, there were some objective measure) but to select the stories that go together best.  I’m satisfied with the results – I hope my readers will be, too.

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One Response to Anthology Editing for Fun and (hopefully) Profit

  1. [...] who is also a fantastic SF writer, has blogged about the process of editing the [...]

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