6.25.19 On anthologies, eclairs, paring knives and the merits of learning something new

I recently spent a week at the International Culinary Center in New York City learning all about the essentials of pastry making. It wasn’t easy: Five hours a night standing on a concrete floor, going until about 10:30 each evening, for five days straight. I gouged my thumb with a paring knife. But I made eclairs! Charlotte russe! Chocolate covered macadamia nuts! I rolled out fondant! And I had my pal Chandler Klang Smith along for the ride, which made it even more fun.

Eclairs! Done by mine own hand.

In everyday life, we’re hit over the head with the mantra of never stop learning, but it’s a valuable ideal to keep in mind. The brain needs exercise. We all need to know we can still learn, and how hard learning can be, as well as enjoying the fruits of our incremental success. As a writer, you get bonus value out of new skill acquisition, whether you like the new thing or not – because everything goes into the hopper for potential future usage in stories.

The other new skill I’ve been learning lately is how to co-edit an anthology. As any frequent reader of this site or my social media feeds will know by now, I’m co-editing (with Michael Ventrella) the “what if” speculative fiction anthology Across the Universe. On June 14, we concluded our story acceptance period for “slush” (i.e. non-invited writers) to submit stories. We had 122 stories to read through and sort into yes, maybe and no piles, a process that’s still ongoing as of this writing for some. (We haven’t officially accepted anything yet, because while we have a shortlist there are space issues to consider, and we have to see how long all the invites stories are.)

And boy, is it a learning experience to be on this side of things. The process of assembling an anthology, particularly one where you have nearly a dozen pre-accepted stories (assuming those authors get them to you in time) is a tricky, tricky beast. Obviously stories need to be well-written, but they also need to be on point. And so, I’ve assembled a short-ish list of things I’ve learned so far about the anthology submission process – and as always, your mileage may vary.

I now pull out my paring knife to tell you …

Format according to instructions.

This is not a Van Halen-no-brown-M&M’s “did you read the rider” test. This is critical because a) you show you are a professional by being able to read the instructions, but more importantly b) when you have 122 (or more!) stories trickling or pouring in, the last thing an editor wants to have to do is anything other than download that sucker to a folder on their hard drive, in a coherent and consistent way so that they can find it again and read it.

This means:

  • Name your file something that makes sense. You know, like: STORY NAME – AUTHOR NAME. No spaces, no joining underlines (we’re not using DOS any more, folks), no extraneous words.
  • If the editors have actually linked to a format example (we did, with Shunn) then for fork’s sake use that formatting. 
  • If asked to include your cover letter as the first page of your story (as we did, to avoid double downloads/multiple files), do it.

Again, this is about not exhausting all the spoons or psychic energy or what have you of your editors. Think about what will make their lives easier, and do that when submitting.

Don’t hide your contact information.

Of course, if you’re following Shunn or proper story formatting this is not an issue. But you’d be surprised: Some folks hid their contact info in the header. Why would you do that? Consider the content you’re sending.

How to get sent to the “no” bin pretty fast (which we saw frequently):

  • Cut/Paste stories. If you had a story lying around and you cut/pasted the Beatles’ names in where other characters’ had been – trust me, we could tell. We wanted to see the lads in different circumstances, but they still needed to be the lads.
  • Subhead Stories. “Interview” stories of nothing but dialog; each section told by a different Beatle; all magazine articles. In most all cases, this interrupts narrative flow and tension and prevents the writer from creating a true story arc.
  • No Plot Stories. As Michael noted in his comments on one story, “Too many people are giving us clever ideas without any character development or plot.” I can’t tell you how often we got a story that started off with a grand plan, then survived to keep us interested in where this plan was going, then petered out in the final third with some kind of summary. A premise is not a story. A set of characters sitting around doing nothing is not a story.

Watch for red flags in your story.

Small things like these aren’t likely to get your story booted from jump. But just like red flags in relationships with people you’re dating, red flags like these in stories often tell us early on to lower our expectations. And keep lowering them:

  • A copyright symbol next to your name. Yes, I’m sure there are valid reasons. It doesn’t shout “professional.”
  • “To Whom It May Concern.” This makes sense if you’re submitting to a faceless entity or a publication without names on the website. My name and Michael’s are pasted everywhere this anthology is mentioned. It suggests you haven’t read the guidelines.
  • It’s also pretty clear with about .05 seconds of Googling that I’m not a “Dear Sir.” Or a “Mr.” When you’re not sure, or you’re too lazy to Google check it, use first names. Honestly, I’d rather be called “Randee” than “Sir.”

Responding to a rejection.

There is no need to respond to a rejection. If you feel you must, and want to say “thanks for considering,” then go ahead. But don’t ask for revision information.

And for fork’s sake, don’t argue with your editors. There are approximately 1,000 reasons why your story wasn’t included – many of which have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. Telling me, “This is the best thing I’ve ever written” as an argument just makes me want to hug you, then kick you in the rear. That is not an argument. There are no arguments. You cannot argue your way into the book. You also can’t shame me for not including you in the book. You’re not in the room.

So why wasn’t I included?

This is a nonexclusive list but the reasons may be:

  • Lazy writing.
  • No plot.
  • No characters.
  • No arc.
  • Didn’t talk enough about the members of the Beatles.
  • Focused on a song, not people.
  • Gave us your characters dancing around the idea of The Beatles.
  • Had a plot like another story we preferred.
  • Went for too many obvious song puns at the expense of story.
  • Focused too much on dead Beatles.
  • Failed to consider Beatle personalities.
  • Relied too heavily on actual/apocryphal quotes they made in lieu of writing dialogue.
  • Was boring/made us scan for things to get going.
  • Was confusing.
  • Was inappropriately archaically insulting with slurs.
  • Just didn’t tickle us.
  • Just didn’t make us think.
  • Didn’t fit the brief.

In the end, it’s about learning, and in this case, what I’ve learned is that your story can be rejected for any reason. It might be awesome. It might be no good. It probably is somewhere in between. But in addition to it needing to be great, it just has to fit in this all-too-small box we have.

The good news is this: If Across the Universe soars once it comes out in December, who says we can’t do a Volume 2? I’ll have more to say once we’ve finished with the acceptances, on the process of winnowing out the “yes, accept” from “the loved it, but no.” Meanwhile, what have you learned from the acceptance and rejection process (here, there and everywhere)? Let us know in the comments!

Chandler Klang Smith and I are certifiable!