Adventures of a First-Time Editor: Stage 5 – Selection/Production Eavesdropping

When I first sat down to write this, I thought it would be a quick one.

This goes to show just how silly I really am.

This is the sixth installment of a series about the Oregon Coast Anthology Workshop, which will be held in Las Vegas from this point on. It’s a week-long look into the inner workings of traditionally published short fiction. The first post in the series outlines the event and provides links to the entire series. 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 my daughter (Brigid) and I are editing Face the Strange, an anthology in the Fiction River series that comes out of the workshop. It’s going to be an awesome anthology. Some of this post might describe why!

My previous segment got us into the classroom where we watch editors argue over stories. That’s not, however, the only thing that happens in the workshop proper. Each day attendees get to see a new anthology take shape, how the editor thinks about their project, and how they go about making that vision happen.

This is a great way to see how this element of editing is an art in itself and, as such, seeing it happen can play into the way a writer looks at their so-called “job.”

That’s why I decided to break it out as a separate island in itself.

Unlike most of the segments I’m writing about, the act of selection and composition is something that runs in parallel with other elements of the workshop. For example, the process of establishing the vision for an anthology (or magazine, I suppose) starts at the point where the editor writes the guidelines.

Earlier I discussed what Brigid and I went through to create our guidelines, but I didn’t talk about the contents—how we crafted the guidelines to get what we wanted. We knew, for example, that we wanted stories of conflict between people of different cultures and social viewpoints. We wanted an array of genres. We wanted diverse viewpoints from a perspective of gender, politics, and religion. Beyond this, we were open to other thoughts, other things that might be interesting. So that’s how we wrote the guidelines.

We considered multiple titles for the anthology before Brigid struck on Face the Strange—which I immediately fell in love with but which, even then, I knew was going to create interesting side-problems. I’ll get into those later, though. If you’re planning to attend the workshop, what’s important at this point is to realize that the act of selection starts with the guidelines.

So, at this point of the workshop every writer has done their best to interpret the guidelines by presenting work they hope will strike a chord with the editor. It turns out that this can be tougher than it looks.

Every day starts with a new anthology and a clean white board. The editor in charge gives a brief overview of that editor’s vision, and discusses word count available as well as other works they may or may not already have put words aside for. Then, throughout the day, that white board will get filled up as the editor buys stories or put stories on a maybe pile for further consideration.

At the end of the day, the editor will make final decisions, sharing the reasons for those decisions with the group as they do so.

Wow, is this a huge topic or what? I mean, seriously, the lessons inherent in this step of the process are almost infinite.

This is because the workshop allows you to ride shotgun with each editor as they work. You’ll see what pieces each editor hones in on and which pieces fall off the mark—and, perhaps even more interesting, you’ll see how those editors deal with pieces they think are on the edge of their vision or how editors react to flawed pieces that fit what they were looking for but will require work. You’ll see places you agree with the editor, others where you’ll disagree. You’ll watch as pragmatic or commercial elements out-weigh other aspects, and vise versa. Yes, it can piss you off. Yes, it can make you smile with satisfaction. Yes, it can boggle your mind. At one point a couple years back I literally had to leave the room when an editor did not buy another writer’s story I thought was award quality (which that editor did because it didn’t fit their vision).

Things have a way of working out, though.

Yes, indeed, he says with that satisfied smirk, things do have a way of working out.

There is no other environment that I am aware of that allows a writer to see this in action.

Here are a few of the hundreds of things you could come away with—some you already intellectually know, but even then it’s different to see them in action.

  • Reading the guidelines is important, but stretching the guidelines is often more important. Finding fresh or unusual takes on the ideas inside a set of guidelines is often what makes a story stand out.
  • It’s hard to stretch the guidelines in a way that works without first understanding those guidelines deeply. So, yes, that first idea—read the guidelines, and read them carefully—really is important.
  • The stories with the freshest and most interesting takes are often things that come inherently from places closest to the writer’s heart. This can be scary.
  • The game can feel rigged, but it’s not—except for where it is.
  • Facts of business (space available, money available, inclusion of other writers, etc.) constrain the field, but are totally out of your control. Deal with it. Absorb it. This is the primary truth of writing in the traditional market.
  • Writing is not a competition, except when it is.
  • That said, it’s really easy to cheer when another writer sells their work.
  • Sometimes great stories get rejected because the editor received two or more of the same thing. I kid you not, one editor received two stories from an orc’s point of view in this last session. I don’t think I’ve read a story from an orc’s point of view in any of the other workshop’s I’ve attended. Go figure.
  • It helps to be a mind reader. Sometimes the guidelines aren’t quite what the editor wanted. Yes, that sucks, but who said traditional publishing was easy?
  • So, yeah. I could go on for days here—the environment is just that filled with lessons.

    Yes, it can be hard to watch your work go through this in person—sometimes a lot harder than you thought it would be. Being in the room as your stories are rejected or bought is considerably different from receiving the news in a cold e-mail. I know writers who almost cannot bear the pressure leading up to the moment their story is ready to be discussed. It’s hard to wait, you know? When it’s morning and you know your work isn’t slated until the afternoon, you find yourself counting words the editor’s bought and the words that remain. If you’re put in the purgatory of the “maybe pile,” you have a whole different set of emotions to deal with.

    A thick skin helps, of course, but it only goes so far. The adage about making sausage comes to mind, of course.

    Here’s the thing, though: as draining as it can be, the fact that you can see the process is a huge opportunity. It’s hard when you’re on the outside, after all, isn’t it? I mean, a whole industry of rejectomancy has popped up in newbie writer circles that’s completely focused on trying to interpret the meaning of a word in form rejections.

    Perhaps the best way to reveal more of the selection process is to talk about my actual experience. This was my first time ever, after all. Maybe this is the only time I’ll be able to look at this process the same way. I need to be clear here, though: this is my view only. On occasion I’ll try to speak for Brigid, but please note that I could always be wrong and that her experience will be nuanced in different ways from me.

    So, where to begin?

    Let’s see. I already discussed our guidelines, but I want to springboard off that in two different directions.

    First, our title is Face the Strange. To us, the word “Face” entailed the personal confrontation we were looking for. Cool enough. But now look for a moment at that word “Strange.” Think about it. For Brigid and I, “Strange” was dependent upon the character’s viewpoint. To us, any story with the idea of a person dealing with any culture/person with which they felt out of place against was enough to qualify. But, yes, we knew what we were getting into by using that word. We live in a genre that values the Strange in some specific ways. We have an entire Weird genre, after all. We have people who can write a mean off-the-wall story. There’s monsters and aliens and bears, oh my! In other words, there are a lot of ways you can bring Strange to bear in a story. So we expected to get a wide array of characters and perspectives—which really was the point.

    Our writers did not disappoint.

    Second, given that our guidelines were so open around genre and convention, we assumed from the beginning that we would find stories in every anthology that would fit our tastes. True to form, this happened: we wanted at least one story from every single anthology in this year’s mix (and more!).

    This caused us “problems,” though. As noted before, the primary editor gets first dibs on any story submitted to their anthology. FTS was on the slate for the third day, meaning that—unlike some of the other editors—we had to wait to lock down our Table of Contents until well past our session.

    Pity us. Yes. Pity us poor editors who write open guidelines.

    Bottom line: Brigid and I had 43 stories submitted directly to us, and 240 submitted to the workshop as a whole. We came out of the initial pass with maybe 30-40 stories that both of us thought worked to fit our vision.

    LEARNING #1: The first-page thing gets real when you’ve got to dig through 240 manuscripts. In all seriousness—make the first page pop. Hook, character, setting, problem, whatever. Make something interesting happen NOW. Unless you’re on my personal pro pile, your chance of making this first cut was very low if you didn’t impress me on that first page.

    Across the whole we were happy with the genre split we received. Stories for FTS slanted toward fantasy (maybe 40-50% of our submissions fit that category, split among several sub-genres), but the pile also had several nice SF efforts, some historical fiction, a contemporary romance or two in there, and, yes, some just flat-out weird stuff.

    We weren’t as happy that we found fewer stories focused on individuals facing the challenge of the strange head-on. At one point we went back to our guidelines to see if we weren’t specific enough, but this expectation seemed clear to us. So I chalked it up to general happenstance until we came to read for another anthology—in which the guidelines expressly stated a list of things the editor did not want, yet for which the submission pile contained several stories with those elements included.

    LEARNING #2: Read the guidelines, folks. Remember that bit about reader cookies from the last installment of these notes? Remember the counter-comment about anti-reader cookies? Seriously. Read the guidelines. If you get nothing else out of these rantings, take that one to heart.


    Our next step was to winnow down the list, which we did, removing probably 15-20 of those stories from the final list. This is where things really started to heat up.

    I mean, sure, we first thought that we’d just tell Allyson (the publisher) we needed more words, but then sanity rose up and we came to the consensus that we both liked our various body parts right where they were, thank you very much. So, yes, winnow.

    A few stories fell off the list for similarity issues, meaning categories we assigned them against our guidelines brought them into competition with stories we liked better. Others, though, fell off because, while we liked them on first read, for whatever reason they weren’t memorable as we went back to them.

    LEARNING #3: The right title can make a huge difference. The right title brings a story back. The wrong title makes people work harder to remember the story. Even after taking detailed notes, both Brigid and I would have to go back to several manuscripts to remember the story. In my own case, I can say that tiles are tough, and that sometimes being unable to title a story of mine means that I don’t really know what it’s about. Take that for what it’s worth. Perhaps what I’m really saying is that, for me, a story without a memorable title may be an indicator that the story isn’t quite there yet? Your mileage could clearly vary here!

    LEARNING #4: Take risks. Big risks stand out because they’re big. Big risks that fail somewhere can still be worth fixing. Stories that take big risks bury themselves in your memory. Stories that take no risks…well…they don’t.

    ….and, here’s another thing….

    Earlier I said I had gotten so angry at an editor a few years back for not taking a story. Both Brigid and I thought that piece was amazing. Both of us were stunned when it didn’t sell.

    Well … let’s just say this: we knew the writer of that story was going to attend the workshop again this year, so when we finished setting the guidelines one of us (I think it was me, so that’s going to be my take!) turned to the other and said: “You know, we’ve already bought one story.”

    That’s right. We asked for approval from Kris and Dean first but, once they said “of course,” we added that story to our list. The only question here was whether first rights were still available or not. I did the Google and couldn’t find it, but all we could say for sure at that point was that if it was available we were going to buy it.

    LEARNING #5: Editors have memories, and if you write something that moves people, strange and wonderful things can happen.

    To summarize the process, though, it was a heck of a lot of fun.

    There’s a cool vibe to being inside the process—being in on a discovery that no one else knows about. You have these stories, and you know some of them are going to go on to greatness—and no one else knows about them yet. Very cool.

    It was fun, too, because, while Brigid and I have a reasonable overlap in the things we like, we each have our own views. She brings a more modern sensibility to culture than I bring. I have a stronger grasp on certain histories. I bring a stronger view on the SF side of things, whereas she’s more passionate in fantastical areas. I’m more impressed with stylists than I think she is. I love me some voice, after all. I think I enjoy literary elements more than she does. She’s better with middle grade and YA voices. What I’m getting at is that while we have similar tastes overall, we often see stories from angles that make one or the other of use us better able to get at the inner core of what a writer was trying to get to.

    This alone is a very interesting thing.

    By the time we got on planes to head west, I think we had it down to twenty or so stories we were interested in, a list that included an ideal line-up and a whole freaking matrix for what we would do if story X from anthology Y came available or unavailable.

    As a first-time workshop editor, it was good to not have FTS be first out of the chute. We were third, which meant we had two days of commentary to give before we had to run the show. This allowed us to get more comfortable working out in the open like that.

    The “bad” part was that we watched editors in front of us pluck stories we wanted out of the pool. Grumble. Each night Brigid and I would go to dinner and adjust our plan for the stories that were no longer available to us, a task we did much with heartfelt moaning and groaning.

    Day three was our day. Face the Strange got written on the white board, and we listed a few constraints—words we knew were used, and 3,000 words set aside for the two-year-old story “we hadn’t heard back from.” It was a delicious secret to see the writer in the room. At the end of the week, the process of finding out in public that this story was available and revealing to that writer that we wanted to buy it was a lot of fun.

    That’s a thing here. I admit I hated to say no to writers in person, but I adored being able to buy stories face-to-face. Seeing the expressions on those writers’ faces was sublime, and the act of buying those stories made me very happy.

    I would have bought more if I could, but, you know … Allyson.

    LEARNING #6: Something you need to really understand…editors love stories and editors love writers. If they didn’t they wouldn’t be here. Sure, sometimes life gets in the way. Sometimes they chip a tooth at lunch and have to deal with that in the process of doing their job (heh!), but the act of putting great stories by great writers into a single package is just huge fun.

    However, given that we had three more anthologies downstream, we ended the day with only four pure “buys” on the board.

    The rest would have to wait.

    One poor writer, bless their soul, wound up with literally three stories on our maybe list at one point—a list that played out over four days.

    Yes, life is tough.

    Something else I need to note here regarding guidelines and the selection process.

    At the front of this piece I said we knew in advance that including the word “Strange” in our guidelines was going to set us up for all sorts of weird. I also said that the writers did not disappoint. Since our vision was slanted more toward conflict with the other than toward the truly weird, that meant a lot of really inventive stories didn’t make our cut. In a lot of situations that would be problematic for the writer. In the workshop situation, however, that cloud turned out to have a silver lining because, rather than buying for an edition of Fiction River, Dean was buying for Pulphouse.

    Pulphouse is all about the Strange.

    I take it as a matter of pride that a whole bunch of the stories that were written for Face the Strange will find their way to light through the pages of that magazine.

    That too, makes me very happy.

    MY ADVENTURES: Day 4-6
    After the entire set of anthologies were finished, Brigid and I completed ours. We’re working on compiling it now, but I can tell you without doubt that this is going to be an amazing anthology. So cool.

    Open the pages of Face the Strange and you’re going to find tales around everything from mer creatures to scientists. You’ll find orcs in Detroit, and vampires and hunters in a new world order. You’ll find characters struggling with identity and religion and just what it means to be human and alive. Genetically created beings from different houses tearing each other apart—or not. There’s magic. There’s weird monsters, and sacrifice, and quests for freedom. You’ll get families and physicists and artists trying to come to grips with their lives in their own ways. People finding their places, or not. You’ll get flavors of fantasy, contemporary settings, space stories, historical work and alternate histories.

    But mostly, what you’ll get is a set of stories that have deep hearts.

    I joked that we could have done two anthologies out of this workshop (well, Allyson didn’t see the humor in it, but I’ll call it a joke anyway), and really, we could have.

    The point here is that, as we took stories off the list, we often took them off not due to quality but because we were building a specific tapestry that we had in mind from the beginning. We wanted stories with that heart I just spoke of, but that fit slots in our vision of the anthology’s content. We removed a great paranormal story with a fairy vs. human as it’s central conflict because we had another paranormal kind of universe in the mix that we thought was just as strong and that fit our size limits better. Actually, we removed another paranormal story for reasons of redundancy, too. We dropped a fantastic contemporary romance from the roster because we had two other stories that were also odd takes at romance (and, again, for size constraints). We dropped one because we thought changes we would need would be too hard, but we kept two that needed some rewriting because we thought the extra work would be so worth it (big risks, remember). Turns out we were right.

    LEARNING #7: Sometimes rejection really isn’t about quality. Yes, I’ve said before that sometimes stories don’t make it because, sadly, the quality isn’t quite there. It happens. But you can’t possibly watch this process happen before your eyes and not come away understanding that rejection is often not at all about quality. Both Brigid and I loved a lot of stories that we could not keep.


    Whew…I’m glad this one was going to be short.

    The next one, however, will probably be short, because I’m going to take a moment to talk about how the workshop might (or might not?) help one deal with rejection.

    In the meantime, have I mentioned how amazing Face the Strange is going to be?

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