MIND MELD: Behind the Scenes…How the Hottest Short Fiction Anthologies Are Created (Part 3)
Short fiction anthologies come in many flavors: some contain original fiction and some are comprised of reprints; they can be themed or non-themed; they may restrict themselves to a certain sub-genre of speculative fiction… But one thing they all have in common is that it’s Editors that put them together.
Read on to see their illuminating responses…
My experience to date in anthology editing is rather thinner than that of most of my colleagues, as I have edited only “Best of the Year” collections. That makes my job easier on several grounds. Compared to an original anthologist, I don’t have to commission stories, nor wade through slush, nor work with authors to improve their submissions (either by line editing or by suggesting more dramatic changes). Compared to many reprint anthologists, I don’t have to look through nearly as many stories, and the authors I reprint are likely to be pretty accessible. (I have heard some harrowing stories about difficulties with finding out who controls the estate of dead authors, and also of difficulties working with authors’ heirs with unusual ideas of the market potential for reprinting old short stories.
The story of the conception of my books is simple enough. For many years, as an offshoot of my reviewing work for Locus (and prior to that, Tangent Online), I have prepared a list of the best stories of the year, organizing them (on occasion) as “virtual” best of the year books. A few years ago I had the thought that one market segment that was underrepresented in anthologies of this sort was online fiction. I suggested to Sean Wallace at Prime Books an anthology of the best online fiction of the year. Sean was unsure of the sales potential of such a book, but shortly later he suggested that we simply do a pair of more traditional Best of the Year anthologies: one for Science Fiction, one for Fantasy. (As of this year, those two books have been combined into one – and, happily, I am finally doing a Best Online short fiction book, Unplugged, for Wyrm Publishing.)
Selecting stories is on the face of it a simple process – I read as much short fiction as I can stand every year, and pick the best 250,000 words. But that’s a very oversimplified view. Every year I can pick several stories that I feel essential, but the remaining spots – say 10 stories out of 15 – have at least twice as many equally worthy candidates for filling. At that point the job becomes in part a balancing act. The simplest thing I do is balance sources: it doesn’t seem to make sense to choose too many stories from the same magazine or anthology (or from the same author: one story per writer was my rule for the shorter books in past years). Then I try to balance styles and tones and subgenres – it’s nice to show off the whole range of the field: serious stories and comic stories, near future and far future, heroic fantasy and urban fantasy, etc. A balance of lengths is likewise desirable – though I regret that often I have to leave out outstanding novellas, simply because they take up so much room. And a balance of viewpoints is also worthwhile. In addition, I like to find stories from outside the traditional genre sources: so far I have reprinted pieces from the New Yorker, Tin House, and Zoetrope All-Story.
What happens once there is a list of stories? I am fortunate here to have lots of help from my publisher, Sean Wallace, who does the heavy lifting of contacting writers and arranging contracts. But even at this stage there are issues. Occasionally writers don’t give permission for stories to be reprinted. Sometimes they have contractual reasons – a story may be already scheduled for reprinting (in their own upcoming collection, perhaps), and the publisher of that book may not want competition. Sometimes they don’t think the fee is high enough. One at least one occasion we could not make contact with the writers in time (it was a collaboration – perhaps there was some problem in the two writers’ themselves communicating). We have had some problems with mainstream writers (or their agents) – our field doesn’t always present as a sufficiently prestigious place for some writers to seen their names, perhaps. (But most mainstream writers have been very generous, I should add.)
Once we have a complete lineup, the process for me is fairly simple: my main remaining job is to arrange a lineup. Again balance is a consideration – mixing up lengths and (in particular, in this case) tone. There is still a lot of work to do on the production side, mind you – layout, art selection, final proofreading, and so on.
Putting together a good anthology is like making a good mix CD or MP3 playlist. The important thing is knowing what assets you’ve got (and by this, I mean authors and stories), where they are best positioned in relation to one another and ultimately striking a good balance.
An anthology should start with a bang. You want an attention-grabber that is strong and acts as a sort of ‘statement of intent’. It should also be indicative of the anthology of a whole i.e. this is a collection about ‘X’ or celebrating ‘Y’ (not that I’m suggesting for a moment that anthologies based on two graphical axes are a good thing…). Anthologies are, and should be, an eclectic mix and even if you’re intention is not to go with a specific theme, a general ‘shape’ based on the stories you’ve got will usually present itself. By working within this shape, providing a strong opener, some solid interim stories to get you to the midway transition, where the bar should be raised again, and then another batch of interim stories finished off with your show-stopping finale, you’ll get a collection (at least in theory) that the majority of readers can appreciate. I tend to think of it like a set list at a gig – you need to get your audience going, mellow them out a little, lift them back up for the middle section where they might be flagging, mellow them out again and finish off with a memorable denouement.
Of course, anthologies are meant to be picked at – not everyone reads them in order. They might choose a favourite author first or gravitate towards an interesting title or a subject that appeals to them. By aiming for balance within an anthology, where one story compliments the next and works with it, presenting a different voice, a fresh angle or a unique approach you increase the chances that even after your reader has cherry picked, they’ll have had such a good time they’ll want to read the rest.
From personal experience, anthologies can be difficult to pitch alongside a full novel. You run the risk of trying to please everyone but end up not really pleasing anyone. Some of this can be mitigated by subject. By choosing something loose (so not exactly themed but in a pretty broad ball park all the same) that you know your readership is into, you’ll guarantee at least tempting people to look. The plan is then to hook them with that first awesome story and take them on a journey from there.
Anthologies can also fulfill several different functions. Having a commercial product that sells in its own right is obviously one, but they can also be a forum to showcase new talent or introduce a new series or set of characters by an already semi-established author. Short stories that lead into new and exciting novel series are a good hook and tap into the collector gene that a lot of sf/fantasy readers already possess. In addition to top authors that you know your readers will adore, you can add fledging talent about to embark on new series to your roster. An anthology can be as much a marketing tool for young talent you, as an editor, have confidence in as much as it’s a strong collection in its own right. One, strangely, leads in to the other.
But when it’s about putting together a collection of ‘known names’, it’s all about the balance and the running order. Pairing authors together with different voices and styles works well, as does letting them off the leash a little to pursue something a little more unusual. When I think about putting a collection together there are several discrete phases.
- What’s the collection about (does it have a broad or narrow theme)?
- Who are the best writers on my roster who’ll get and give the most from contributing?
- What do I already have on the shelf that could contribute (anthologies are a great way to utilise stories that no place in any other novel)?
Once I’ve got my stories, I then ask…
- Who compliments who?
- What’s my opener?
- What’s my high mid-point?
- What’s my closer?
The points of transition in between maintain the shape and the journey. Is there a new face you can push here or a surprise for the reader? Could you do linked stories (bookending a collection in this way is a neat trick and offers a nice twist/pay-off)?
Most of all though – treat it like a novel. An anthology should flow and lead you just like any good book. Think about word lengths too. Don’t open with a mini-novella – you can risk losing a reader’s interest. Give them something really meaty when they’re warmed up and ready for it. Shorter stories (the really short ones) can appear in the interim sections – a light bite to maintain momentum and build up to the next high point. You’re as good as your weakest part. Ideally, there should be no duffers in a collection. Every story should offer something unique unto itself, whether that’s voice, style, subject or even author.
Get the right parts, put them in the right order and you’ll have a collection that not only leaves an impression but has your readers shouting ‘encore!’.
For me the experience of putting an anthology together is akin to making a good mixtape, and is just as personal a process. With novels it’s essential that the reader does not see the editor’s hand in the work; the book belongs to the author, and the editor’s role is to guide the author and their book to publication. With an anthology things are completely different, in that it’s fundamental that you *do* see the editor’s hand. Because the editor not only selects the stories, but is responsible for shaping the book, for placing the stories in the correct order so that the anthology as a whole develops peaks and troughs, highs and lows, and so that it carries a cohesive message, even if that message is simply: here is good science fiction or fantasy.
So bearing this all in mind, the approach I’ve always taken to compiling an anthology is, I suppose, a pretty selfish one: I find stories I want to read.
The Solaris anthologies I edited were, ostensibly, non-themed collections of new SF and Fantasy. But I don’t actually believe it’s possible to put together an anthology without a theme. I think you’d end up with a mess of a book. There’s always a theme, but it may be buried, or simply not explicit. The first Solaris SF anthology, for example, was intended to be a calling card, a statement of intent for the new imprint we were launching. So I was looking for a range of stories across different sub-genres, a mix of traditional stuff from established genre names, and some up-and-coming new writers, too. Stuff that I liked. Stories that I could get excited about. Stories that represented the publishing philosophy of the imprint. I was, in truth, trying to put together the sort of anthology that *I* wanted to read.
So my process has always been a bit crazed, a bit disorganized, and very emotive. I don’t have an open reading period – I go and look for stories. I talk to writers I admire. I try to sniff out the new talent, reading widely in the genre, talking to other editors, looking at who others are reading and going there to look myself. And then, when I have some stories, I try to put them into some sort of shape. It usually takes a few goes. Putting together a table of contents is not as easy as you might imagine. It’s not about simply throwing the stories together. You need to know the stories inside and out, try to see any other themes emerging, consider what story sits well next to which others and why. Where to start, where to finish. Where’s the uplifting tale in the middle? Where does the downbeat, dystopian story work best? Like I said, it’s like making a good mixtape. When considered as a ‘gestalt’, a body of work, do the stories convey the original intention of the editor?
One thing I’ve learned is that you must leave yourself time. These things can’t be rushed. Give the authors good, long lead times to deliver the best possible stories, and then leave yourself time to read and digest them. That’s essential.
I’ve recently finished compiling a massive, 750,000 word retrospective anthology of Sexton Blake stories (the famed British pulp hero). On the face of it that seemed like it was going to be an entirely different proposition to an original anthology, but in truth, the process was exactly the same. What was my theme? To find the best, most representative Sexton Blake stories I could. Then it was simply a case of doing all of the above: finding stories that appealed to me, talking to other Sexton Blake fans to find out what their favourite stories were, and then reading those, too. Then it came down to putting them together in such a way that the book works, that it has an internal consistency that appeals to readers.
So I think that’s my philosophy, both as a reader of anthologies and an occasional editor, too. Realise it’s a personal book, that the editor is showing you what he or she loves, or what they think is representative of the genre they’re working in. I think that helps the reader to see the stories in context. People tend to judge short stories on their individual merit, and yes, it’s true that any story must stand up on its own merits. Essential, in fact. But when you read an anthology, remember that story *isn’t* in isolation. It’s surrounded by other stories, and each one of them is there for a reason, chosen by an editor with a purpose in mind. An anthology should be read on two levels – for both the stories in isolation, and for the overall impact of the anthology as a *book*.
I felt like last week’s contributors have dealt with the nuts and bolts of anthologies more than sufficiently. I don’t have anything to add about how to solicit or pitch a book, or the importance of a first and last story, that they didn’t say. So I wanted to take a different tact and talk about why I edit anthologies to begin with and my overarching philosophy of anthologies and their place in the field. Now, as stated, anthologies can be reprint or original, and original anthologies can be either open reads or invite only. I simply can’t do open reads and also run a book line, and I personally don’t favor reprints, so I stick to invite only. Now, I’ve learned to “never say never,” so I won’t make a blanket statement that you won’t ever see my name attached to one, and I did do a mixed reprint/original nonfiction anthology once, but they aren’t my personal preference. Leaving aside the very important “Year’s Bests”-which are attempting to catalog a history of the field and which make great reference works for sampling the tenor of any given period in SF/F history-I tend not to buy them either, and the majority of anthologies in my own library shelves are original works.
Part of this is just my personal tastes, the obsession with looking forward not backward that makes it very hard for me to ever rewatch a television series once the finale has aired. But mostly it’s the way that I approach my own anthologies, which is as a vehicle for engaging in the shared, ongoing dialogue that I believe makes speculative fiction such a unique genre. By shining a spotlight on emerging trends or asking a group of authors to tackle a question head-on that I personally think needs addressing, the anthology can be positioned as a part of the conversation that occurs at the vanguard of short form sf&f. If I don’t feel like the topic has the potential to contribute to the future advancement of the field, then it isn’t for me. For this reason, I also tend to avoid “frivolous” themes, More Stories about Vampire Cats, Werewolves Ate my Buick, etc…. (This, of course, is down to my own individual goals as an editor, the areas where I am choosing to focus my own career and seek to make my own contributions. It has nothing whatsoever to do with whether Werewolves Ate my Buick might be entertaining for a reader, and I make no judgments about readers or anthologists who favor werewolves. Or Buicks…)
So… For my first professional anthology, Live Without a Net, I was concerned with the disparity I was seeing at the time between the exuberance of what we now call the New Space Opera that was coming largely out of Britain and the profusion of dour, post-cyberpunk work that formed much of what I saw coming from American writers. So the anthology chose the very unusual theme of asking writers to imagine a world where some standard trope of cyberpunk was removed and replaced by an alternative technology or magic that could accomplish the same thing in a new way. The stories that came in ranged from a Victorian establishment that used directed dreaming to create a shared virtual worldspace in the aether (courtesy of Matthew Sturges) to the first Celestial Empire story from Chris Roberson.
Its follow-up, FutureShocks, was an attempt to explore the intersection of science fiction and horror, by asking what new fears might exist tomorrow that do not exist today, as their sources have yet to be invented. After all, it’s impossible to fear nuclear Armageddon before the nuclear bomb exists. What might we have tomorrow to be afraid of? Ironically, the authors solicited ended up turning in a lot more comedy than horror, though I felt the results were a very solid book nonetheless.
In Sideways in Crime, I was exploring the intersection of mystery and SF. I had keyed off Robert Sawyer’s statement that mystery and SF authors utilize similar skills, in that both must “artfully salt” clues to the nature of their story or (in the case of SF authors) their world, rather than say them upfront outright. I wanted to explore this by having SF authors write actual mysteries, and in the excitement of Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, use alternate history settings so that setting would have to be explained in the way Sawyer meant as well as the mysteries of the narratives. So an anthology of “alternate mysteries” was the result.
The duology of Fast Forward 1 and 2 was a deliberate attempt to positively address the very public lament at the time that the market for short form speculative fiction was “dying,” and that the markets that were emerging to replace the traditional print market were perceived to publish more fantasy and slipstream than science fiction. They were unthemed insofar as they attempted to deal with the full breadth and range of what SF is and can be, though an inevitable focus on forward-looking stories and the idea of “the future” emerged. To date, I’m probably prouder of Fast Forward 2 than anything I’ve done that has yet been published, so the fact that two stories from it were nominated for the Hugos, two for the Sturgeons, two for the Locus awards, and the collection itself for the PKD, while the cover won a Chesley, is a big source of gratification. Content-wise, I think Fast Forward 2 says about everything I’ve got to say about SF at this time, and as such, may be my last SF anthology for the foreseeable future. (See aforementioned comment about “never say never” and take with grain of salt.)
But lately I’ve been thinking about how to expand the readership for the field in general, how to reach younger/newer readers, how to move beyond genre walls, etc… etc… I’ve also reversed my long-held bias against media tie-ins and become interested in the “convergence of media” that I think may define 21st century fandom. I’ve also been thrilled with the quality of superhero narrative appearing in film, television, and games. The result is the anthology I’ve just handed in to Pocket, With Great Power, an anthology of superhero prose fiction in which the majority of the contributors are regular writers for DC and Marvel comics. It’s not like anything I’ve done before, and I’m very curious to see how it is received both inside and outside of SF&F. I’m also thrilled to be debuting a few writers who have never worked in prose before!
Meanwhile, I’ve also been pondering whether the really exciting, relevant work — the work that engages our current times head on — and the “cutting edge” of our field, isn’t being charted outside of SF entirely and occurring instead in the “new fantasy” that’s all the rage right now (and with which, perhaps not coincidentally, my employer Pyr books has been having great success lately). I find myself interested in fantasy in a way I haven’t been in decades, as the post-Tolkien epic variety of fantasy seems to give sway to the post-GRRM variety of moral ambiguity, gritty realism, complex politics. It seems a swords & sorcery sensibility is on the rise, and that the pendulum is swinging away from Tolkien and Brooks towards Moorcock and Leiber. As someone who never made it through the third book of LotR but devoured tales of Conan, Elric, and Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser, this thrills me no end. It also interests me as a phenomenon, something I want to poke at and prod. The result, then, is Swords & Dark Magic: The New Adventure Fantasy, which I’ve co-edited with Jonathan Strahan, and which we will be delivering to Harper Eos in about a week. It may be the biggest anthology book I’ve ever done — in terms of actual pages as well as in terms of its impact — and is unique for me in that it’s already generating a good deal of online discussion a year before its publication date (some proof that my supposition concerning the location of the “cutting edge” is correct). It’s also the first book I’ve ever co-edited, a process that proved to be more enjoyable and less painful than I would have previously imagined.
I don’t have anything else on the horizon. Lately, I’ve been asking very broad questions about the future of the entire SF&F “community,” the direction WorldCon should/could go in if it wants to stay relevant to publishing, and the changing nature of publishing itself. None of these ruminations have lent themselves to an anthology idea, but you never know. In the meantime, Werewolves Ate My Buick is starting to grow on me.
Behind the scenes when creating a short fiction anthology. Well…first I get a large black cauldron filled with boiling matzah ball soup and then start with a small bit of eye of newt. Then I add the tears of rejected writers. No, just kidding. It may seem like magic and once I hold the finished book in my hands I forget the pain and suffering that preceded it. It’s almost like having a baby!
Seriously, though. I love editing anthologies. Each project is unique and although we approach each project differently, there are some basics in all of them. First and foremost we brainstorm the concept. Oftentimes this takes place while we are hiking. Jeff and I do some of our best thinking when we’re out of the work/home environment and away from the internet. Jeff brings a paper and pen with him everywhere so he can jot down ideas while we talk. We also set a schedule of dates & deadlines for each step in the process (this all gets written down on the big calendar in our kitchen).
Once we have a basic concept down, we start inviting the writers on our list. If it is a reprint anthology, we’ll research (and research and research some more) seeking out the best stories for the project. We ask the writers about reprint rights, etc. For original projects, we query writers to see if they’re interested. We also have an open reading period (usually very short). And often we’ll ask others to make recommendations.
Jeff and I feel very strongly about an open reading period. It benefits our projects in the following ways: it helps if we’ve forgotten to query a specific writer, it keeps each project unique in that we won’t always have the same names, it allows us to keep on top of the new and upcoming writers (which in turn also helps me with Weird Tales and Weird Tales submissions help me with the antho projects). I am also a big proponent of mixing it up, placing well-known writers together with up-and-coming writers.
We take all the possible selections and place them in a spreadsheet along with word count. We discuss (sometimes heatedly) the merits of each one. And then we look at how the stories will work together. Each story is read several times during this process. If we feel that something is missing, some element, we’ll go back again and seek it out.
Early on in our partnership, Jeff and I made an agreement on how we would reconcile our different literary tastes. Each of us is allowed one “keep” story and one “kill” story. (for example: one story I love so much that we must take it and one story I hate so much that we must not take it – Jeff gets the same). This keeps the arguments to a minimum and it’s worked for us very well. Usually, though we’re in agreement across the board. But by having this agreement in place, we know we don’t always have to agree and yet we each get what we want.
Once we’ve made our final selections, we contact each writer and start the contract process. We start putting together the manuscript for the publisher. And we brainstorm ideas for marketing and PR. Writers are told what to expect when, so we can make all our deadlines.
Depending on the project, we may also be involved in the cover design/interior design. Sometimes it may be us actually working with the designer/artist and making the final decision or sometimes just approving the design from the publisher. Some projects require a lot more direct hands-on work from us with the interior (such as the Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases).
We get the galleys back from the publisher and pass them on to the writers for their final line edit. We finalize that and pass it back to the publisher and will see it once more before it goes to press. We work closely with the PR people to make sure the right people see the book at the right time. We keep the writers in the loop every step of the way and encourage them to promote the book because they have an interest in making sure the book does well, too.
Once the book comes out, we continue to promote and get the word out. Often the marketing ideas are creative projects in themselves. For example, with Fast Ships, Black Sails I asked all our contributors to send me a short video of them in pirate garb (or not) reading some of their story. I asked a musician friend to send me some original music that was piratical. I then spent some time putting together a short promotion video using these clips and music. It was a blast putting it together and we were fortunate to have the official Pirates of the Caribbean fan website host the video for us. Things like this make the projects so much fun and spark other creative ideas. (I also try to be creative in how our contributors receive their contributor copies – hee hee).
At the end of the day, I feel as if I’ve accomplished something important. I love working with my husband, the writers and everyone involved in making the book a success. We’ve also been very fortunate to have worked with some amazingly creative people at the various publishing companies. But it’s the reader who really makes my day. If the book makes that certain connection with the reader, I know I’ve done my job well.
Well, the process is basically the same for most of my original anthologies. I generally put together themed anthologies; so once I have an idea, I start thinking about the writers I’d like to see in the book. I then work up a solicitation letter, these days an e-mail, which I send to the select group of authors. I usually don’t advertise that I’m ‘open’ for submissions, although authors who have been invited have been known to suggest to other authors that they might try submitting a story. This happened with Dreaming Down-Under and Dreaming Again, which weren’t as tightly themed as some of my other anthologies. (The anthologies showcased Australian fantasy, sf, magical realism, and horror.) I rarely receive unsolicited manuscripts for my theme anthologies, which works for me, as I don’t really have time to read through what magazine and book editors call the slush pile.
Once I’ve got letters of intention, I write up a killer proposal and send it to my agent in the States. I also often deal directly with my publishers and then pass contract negotiations over to my agent.
Once an offer for a contract has been made, I let the authors know the parameters, such as deadlines, etc., and wait for the magic to happen.
Sometimes one has to cajole the magicians, as writers can’t make their living writing short stories; they do it out of love of the form and sometimes as a favor to the editor.
I’m a hands-on editor and am told I have a reputation as a story doctor, so sometimes I give authors feedback; but as I’m also a writer, I know how I feel when someone messes with my story. So I never try to “piss in the soup.” I might make some suggestions if I feel it might benefit the story. If the authors agree with the suggestions, they revise. If the author doesn’t feel that the suggestions are spot-on, I wouldn’t ask them to compromise their work. After all, it’s their names on the bylines, not mine! However, if a story comes in over the transom and I think it has possibilities, I might offer suggestions for a rewrite. In that case, I wouldn’t buy the story until it worked for me. But this isn’t the way it works with solicited stories.
I try to keep in touch with the authors during the process…again, some might call this cajoling! <Grin%gt; Once I have a story in hand, I accept it by sending a contract and then, depending on the publisher–and my contract with the publisher–I send the author a check directly or the publisher does so.
I like anthologies with introductions and interstitial material; I think it unifies the book and makes the reading experience more personal. So I usually ask authors to comment on their stories and interweave that material into the story introductions or afterwords.
And that’s pretty much it. Once I receive galleys and/or page proofs from the publishers, I read them carefully for mistakes and typos; and I make sure the authors also receive galleys of their stories, so they can make changes and corrections. Depending on the publisher, I may or may not be involved with cover art and design. Once the book is out, I do as much promotion as I can. I can’t pass a bookstore without going in to do what one of my editors calls a “drive-by signing”.
But that’s a long story and belongs in a dialogue about book promotion.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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