Adventures of a First-Time Editor: Stage 4 – Editorial Eavesdropping

This is the fifth installment of a series I’m doing about the Oregon Coast Anthology Workshop (now, I suppose the Las Vegas Workshop!), which is a week-long immersion into the world of traditionally published short fiction. The first post in the series outlines the event and provides linkage to the entire series of posts. The workshop is intense and multi-faceted, so if you’re not familiar with it I suggest reading that post before proceeding.

That first post also notes that Brigid Collins (my daughter) and I are editing Face the Strange, an anthology in the Fiction River series that comes out of the workshop. I can’t begin to tell you how much I’m anticipating being able to present these stories. I love them all, and I’m not afraid to say it!

Anyway, the first few posts of the series covered what many will consider pre-work (though I hope you know by now that the pre-work includes many, many learning segments). The next couple posts are going to finally deal with what happens at the workshop itself. I should note that with the workshop moving from its home in Lincoln City to Las Vegas, I expect some of the surrounding aura and a few specific rules to change, but not the base spirit of the event.

Regardless, I’m calling this segment “Editorial Eavesdropping.”

By now every writer has written their six stories in six weeks and has gone through the 240/1.2 process to arrive at their proposed anthologies (240/1.2 is now my official lingo for the act of reading 240 stories consisting of 1.2M words and selecting your TOC for each anthology). Each writer has also gotten on a plane or hopped into a car and traveled to (now) Las Vegas.

So, if you have travel anxiety you’ve dealt with that. If you don’t you’ll have at least dealt with the normal wear and tear that such travel brings. I’m more of the later than the former, but, regardless, travel always takes something, eh?

Then you’ll walk into the conference room that first day and find a buzz of activity—conversations flowing, laughter ringing out, cries of recognition and hugs. If you’re brand new to the workshop, these things can feel a little intimidating. This is because, as I noted earlier, a good chunk of the crowd who attends this workshop are repeat offenders. This means there’s a culture here. Like most writer cultures, it’s an aggressively friendly culture (at least once you’re inside it). But like most cultures everywhere, it can take a while to adjust to.

You can mitigate this by being active in the shared message groups that are created in the earliest days of the process (way back when you first started writing for the workshop). Creating some form of relationship online is good, but, still, that first step into a room full of new people can require a little extra shot of courage for some.

Of course, I’ll start by suggesting that—if you can make yourself do it—you just walk right up to some folks and introduce yourself. You’ll almost certainly find the door opens with some level of ease. But, here’s the thing—writers are notorious introverts, even those of us who fake extroversion well enough to stay under cover. So, I get it. Me saying you should just step into a group of strangers can feel like I’m telling you to just go put our hand in that wood chipper over there. I am personally quite capable of making conversation among strangers, but I admit it’s never comfortable—and I find that after periods of time in such environments I need a break.

So, yeah, I totally get it.

The good news here is that over the next week you’re going to have time to slide into the culture. Between lunches, chatting during breaks, having dinners together, late-night gab sessions, or whatever, you’ll be able to gain a relationship with pretty much every writer who attends. So the goal in this first stretch is really just to fret as little as you can and make yourself comfortable.

It’s all good.

I mentioned before that there were several very firm rules regarding the workshop. Kris and Dean (and Allyson) will go over them that first day. In a nutshell, they’ll sound something like:

  • No talking about stories (The rule I mentioned in the Personal Workshopping post): Only editors will provide feedback on your work. You are not to talk to any writer about their stories—not even a simple “I loved it!” or whatever.
  • No strong perfumes: This is a matter of personal health for Kris, who has such violent reactions to some aromas that they literally had to move from Oregon.
  • Watch the Sneaker Waves: Oh, okay, this one probably won’t be in existence, since the next wave that hits Vegas will be its last. Regardless, I’m sure there will be a safety discussion of some sort.
  • No Politics, No Religion: Given the splits these topics can create, the fundamental rule of conversation here is that you will be expected to steer clear of these topics. From a personal standpoint, this is a critical item. I am aware of several people who attend the workshop who have considerably different views on how the world should work than I do. This rule is not intended to change how you or I think, but instead asks that we respect the environment enough to take any disagreements elsewhere. You can always argue on Facebook or Twitter, but, for this week, this rule keeps us focused on what we’re here for.
  • No social media about the event while the event is happening: There are no restraints after the event is over, but the goal is to keep the event contained while it’s going on. So, please no blogging, tweeting, or whatever. Seriously, even your good news can wait a week, right?
  • Treat each other with respect: While this has always been assumed, I’ll note that it’s been made a priority in each of the last two or three workshops I’ve attended. This rule is here to highlight issues of harassment and all other aspects of an environment where people are thrown together while emotions run high. You will be asked to behave well, to respect each person’s spaces, and (if you see or receive abuse) report incidences in a timely enough fashion that they can be dealt with. The workshop is intended to be a place of safety.
  • There may be more, but those are the basics. You’ll note that every one of those rules is focused on creating a healthy environment for learning—which is, of course, the point.

    Finally, right? After four and a half posts, we get to the part of the event that people think about the most—that point where the panel of six or more editors begin to pick up manuscripts and talk about their reactions to them.

    I think this is the marquee reason most people come to the workshop. In that light, I think it’s related to the whole critique group effect I mentioned in an earlier post, that writers tend to join critique groups in order to get other people to tell them where their work went wrong. Yes, despite my caveats about workshops in general (also noted in that earlier post), hearing feedback is valuable. And, yes, it’s even more valuable to hear it from editors who are actually buying the work in real time.

    The process works as follows: Each day is focused on a single anthology. The editor of that anthology will go last, the others go in whatever order seems most straightforward. One by one, each manuscript is introduced to the room, and one by one the editors provide their feedback. The buying editor then pronounces the verdict, which can be anything from them buying it (which will elicit a round of pom pom waving, cheering, and great glee for the writer in the room), putting it on a maybe pile (which will put the writer through a real time wait and see period), to rejecting it (which will be put kindly, and may even follow a period of the editor saying how much they loved the work…which may be the harshest rejection of them all when it comes down to it—an in person, personal rejection, as it were).

    At the end of the session, each writer is generally asked to turn in their own list of which stories they would put in the anthology. These lists are gathered at the end of the day and presented to the public anonymously, giving writers an even broader view on how editorial/reader tastes can vary.

    There is no doubt that much of the direct feedback you receive on your manuscript will be something you can funnel into it to make it better. An example: at this past session one writer (whose story we eventually bought) got a hands-on example of how to affect pacing in their manuscript. It was a great story in its original form, but the feedback made the manuscript more effective (note, again, the separation of story and manuscript there?).

    So, yes, that’s a learning item.

    But, in my opinion, the biggest learning you can get from this portion of the program is in watching the dynamics of the panel as it works. See how editor A looks at things, and then how editor B is different. That’s the magic, you know? If you watch the editors, I mean really watch them, and then put yourself in their shoes—something I’ll talk about in a personal way in just a moment as well as in the next post—you can learn a lot about how to think of the guts of the publishing industry.

    For example, in an earlier post in this series I took a digression into the concept of a “pro pile.” Watching this play out from the audience over the years has given me an idea of which writers are in which editors’ pro piles. You hear it in the way an editor references past work from that writer. You hear it in the subtle differences in the way an editor phrases feedback—sometimes it’s a little more direct in relationships that can take it.

    * An aside as an example: a Fiction River editor a couple years back, who I have known for nearly twenty years, picked up my manuscript, looked at me, and said, “Ron, I like your work, but to be honest I just didn’t like this story as much as I liked some of your others” … and that was that. It was all there needed to be, too. Others had other things to say about the manuscript, but that feedback told me everything I needed to hear: For that editor, the story was competent, but didn’t pay off with enough oomph in the end. I hadn’t been risky enough. I wish there was a more robust way to explain it, but that editor could put it that way because I’m on that editor’s pro pile.

    This is a very personal business—not really in the “it’s who you know” vein, but more in the vein that the quality of our product is so subjective, and the way that we talk about that quality among ourselves leads to us being judgmental in ways we may not even realize

    Which leads me in highlighting the pure learning available in the old saw that that one person’s … ahem … trash … is another person’s treasure.

    It is not unusual for editors on the panel to snipe at each other when disagreements arise (I can’t believe you didn’t like that!). From the perspective of being a workshop attendee, these are often the most entertaining of the discussions (Don’t listen to Dean. He’s clearly wrong!). If it’s your manuscript being “discussed” you might disagree on how entertaining this process is—you might get just the teensiest bit of indigestion from it all, and you might encounter a series of emotions that can range from despair to anger to wonder. There are no wrong emotions here, but these reactions rest directly on the fulcrum of the chief learning this workshop provides that very few others can.

    The process continues, each editor giving feedback and stating whether they would have bought the manuscript for the anthology in question or not. Then comes the final editor, who weighs in with the only opinion that matters. Sometimes every editor in the chain loves a story only to have it turned down by that one final judge. Other times its reversed, and every editor picks at a story only to have the final word be “I loved this story!”

    That’s the core learning here: Every editor is different. A rejection does not mean the manuscript sucks.

    In that light, while attending the workshop I can guarantee you’ll hear the terms “reader cookies” and “anti-reader cookies” several times. They originated from Gardner Dozois and have to do with elements in a story that, when he came across them, were like being passed a plate of cookies.

    As readers, we all have them. A baseball story, for example, got me literally bouncing on my seat and arguing for the editor to take it. Alas, my bouncing was for naught and the story went down on a wicked slider that just caught the outside corner. Yes, baseball stories are a cookie (he says for those who attend when I’m editing again [*]). Likewise, we also have anti-reader cookies. Things we just don’t like reading about. This does not make us bad humans, it makes us human humans. But it also means that if you hit an editor’s reader cookie (or an anti-reader cookie), you’re going to get a reaction that may go beyond the “quality” of the story in either direction.

    * Realize, though, unless I’m editing a baseball anthology I’ll probably take only one baseball story. So there’s a game theory aspect to deciding to write to an editor’s known reader cookies that can make it dangerous.

    Anyway, there’s a model here. Stories get rejected for a lot of reasons, many of which are not related to quality. If you consider each editor on the panel a stand-alone market, a story that every Fiction River editor in turn struggled to love, but that then gets purchased by the editor in question is a perfect representation of the idea of Heinlein’s 3rd, 4th, and 5th rules crammed all together.

    Don’t believe me? Well…

    Rule 3, for those who do not know them off the top of your head, is that You Must Refrain From Rewriting Except to Editorial Order. At the workshop, by definition, the manuscript does not change as it’s handed from editor (market) to editor (market) so the writer is not physically able to make alterations between submissions. Rule 4: You Must Put Your Story on the Market, is taken care of merely by submitting the story. Rule 5: You Must Keep it on the Market until it has Sold, is represented by the manuscript being passed down the line of editors. When five editors reject it and the sixth buys, you’ve got your perfect model.

    So, there you are. From the attendee’s position, the learning here is intense and it’s draining.

    Every day is another anthology. Every anthology is 40 stories or so of arguing, discussing, loving work, and analyzing it. Every day is about watching the editor fill up their white board with the Table of Contents of their anthology. Sometimes the editor knows what they will finish with when they start, other times it’s not so certain.

    The process puts writers through an emotional wringer, but as long as that writer is able to pull all these elements together at the end of the process, it’s well worth it—even if they never sell a manuscript.

    * Another aside: When I was a newbie, back those many years ago, advice for how to break into the field of short fiction was always accompanied with the comment that you should read a couple issues of any magazine you wanted to break into. This was pricey, though. At least it felt like it for me at the time. $4-$7 for each issue of each magazine I wanted to appear in could add up. But the fact is the fact. An editor’s taste is all they really have to offer, and reading what they’ve bought is one solid way to determine it. Watching editors argue over different stories is an equivalent process, but happens much fast and is considerably more, uh, entertaining.

    I’ll note here that you can stretch this learning to the field of reviews and finding your readership. The bottom line is that the population of editors is not really any different from the population of readers. It’s really hard to please everyone, after all. You see that in the fact that it’s actually quite rare that a story goes through the whole chain of Fiction River editors unscathed—meaning it’s rare that 100% of editors say they would have bought any single manuscript. Add in the lists of anthologies created by the attendees in which it’s exceedingly rare that any one story shows up everywhere, and you’ve got an interesting collection of readers.

    Some love what you did. Others don’t.

    Welcome to the world of reviews.

    You could stop there, I suppose, but we’re working to get 100% value out of the learning here so why would we? The fact here is that the collective of people in this room represent the reading public (at whatever level 50 or so people can represent anything). This means the editors and attendees who loved your work represent that slice of humanity that I will call “your readers.”

    This is the group you want to (1) find, and (2) feed.

    Yes, it would be great to expand that population, too. But the fact of the matter is that as long as you have a sliver of the population, when you extrapolate that to the rest of the world, that’s a helluva lot of readers waiting for your stuff. That’s the magic of creating a career, really.

    If you’re successful enough with (1), finding the people who love your stuff, and move to (2), feeding them often, then that overall population will grow to whatever size it really is by organic growth. And, in the end, that slice will do you fine.

    So I challenge you to look at the people around you at the workshop. These are all people who love writers as much as the love writing. Which ones are your audience? How would you find them?

    Maybe this idea is a bit esoteric, but I find it worthwhile to think about in the quiet moments of the evenings between sessions.

    Of course, this series is still titled “Adventures of a First Time Editor,” so I need to talk about this experience from my own perspective at the front of the room. For me, the bottom line here is that this element of the workshop is where the experience diverges by leaps and bounds. I suppose that’s not surprising, really. It’s equally intense to be an editor rather than a participant, but in very different ways.

    First, I should probably say that this might be different for a person who hasn’t been associated with the workshop. All I can say for sure is that both Brigid and I have been in the sessions as attendees for several years, so we come with that experience or that baggage—whichever you choose to call it. We prepared by talking to Dayle Dermatis and Leah Cutter, two writers who had made that transition the year before, which certainly helped. But, well, it is what it is, and you can’t tell what it’s going to be like until you really do it.

    Here are a few things I learned:

  • The process is more grueling when you’re sitting on the editor’s chair. As an attendee, if your batteries are running low you can check out for a moment or two. But being at the front of the room all day means you owe it to the writers to bring your full attention to every story. Having been an attendee, I felt this deeply. I didn’t want to shortchange anyone. This aspect of the experience made me realize how prescient Dayle and Leah’s advice for maintaining physical and emotional strength through the week was.
  • Needing to verbalize my thoughts about a story makes me work even harder to understand it. Working harder to understand what worked for me and what I consider flaws teaches me a lot.
  • In a related element, the need to make a real decision makes the selection process even more clear. As I noted in the last post, as an attendee I could take a matador approach to the process, but as an editor the constraints are real (No, Ron, Allyson’s Gaze of Death said, you cannot pass 70,000 words, you cannot have an extra anthology per editor. Do Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect $200.).
  • Kris and Dean are tough, but you do not want to cross Allyson. [grin]
  • Breaks are not your time. You can safeguard the morning and evening if you need to, but breaks are when writers who have questions about your comments get to ask them. This is good.
  • Two hours in the morning is just barely enough time to review your notes for 40 stories—as long as you made good notes to begin with.
  • Hearing other editors talk about stories can actually change your mind.
  • There’s more of course, but I’ll hold that for the next post when I talk about the selections Brigid and I made and the “problems” that being third in a process that runs all week brought to us.

    The bottom line, though, is that this was a total blast.

    I absolutely loved immersing myself in these stories and can’t wait to do it again.

    It was great fun.


    So, once again, there we have it.

    That’s my take on how what you should be looking to get out of the process of watching editors argue about your work and the work of others. Next time I’ll cover what it’s like to watch editors build their anthologies, and the things Brigid and I went through in selecting the stories we selected for Face the Strange.

    Have I mentioned how fun it was to work with Brigid here?

    Or what a kick-ass anthology Face the Strange is going to be?

    Yes, I thought maybe I had.

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