Recently, I was honored to have one of my short stories, Charisma, included in a new shared world anthology called An Uncommon Collection. Published by the Colorado Springs Fiction Writers Group, a non-profit 501(c)3, the anthology highlights contributions from fifteen of the forty members of CSFWG and has walked an interesting path from conception to publication, one that I thought I would share with you by chatting with Mike Reid and J.T. Evans, who co-edited the anthology (a first for them both). In the interest of full disclosure, J.T. is the President of the CSFWG and I am the VP. We both sit on the board for the 501(c)3. We both have stories in the collection.
Patrick Hester: First up – why don’t you both tell people who you are and what you do.
Mike Reid: My name is Mike Reid and I am a graphic designer for the Colorado Springs Business Journal. I am also a former member and officer of the CSFWG.
J.T. Evans: My name is J.T. Evans and I currently pay the mortgage as a software engineer, but in my spare time, I am the president of the Colorado Springs Fiction Writers Group, webmaster for the Pikes Peak Writers, father of a wonderful five-year old, and still manage to crank out a few thousand words a week on my second fantasy novel.
PH: So – guys. You published an anthology! How was the experience? Gonna try another one sometime?
MR: Yes, we finally did it. There was a lot of learning on my end, since I did the final edits as well as the layout and design. The first one is always the hardest, so I would certainly be willing to do it again – and do it even better next time.
JE: I rolled through the experience like your typical rising tension chart that can be found on the Internet or a quality writing book. The effort involved started low, ramped up some more and then finally hit a high that mixed stress, anxiety and excitement near the end. Once I finally saw the book up for sale on Amazon, I hit my own personal denouement and the let down from the high was exhilarating and refreshing all at the same time. The closer we got to the final deadline for the release of the book, the less sleep I got, but it was all well worth it. As far as doing another one, we’re still gauging sales on the first book to see about that. While we’re not interested in making tons of money on sales, the production of the book did cost the CSFWG some money. As a non-profit, we have to keep a close eye on our bank balances. If we come close to breaking even on the costs involved vs. royalties from book sales, then we’ll most certainly do another one. From the looks of things, we might take another swing at an anthology in 2013, but it might be pushed back to 2014.
PH: I know you did a lot of trial and error in putting this collection together, what did you learn about the anthology process in general, what to do in the future and what not to do in the future?
MR: Typically when someone writes a novel, it’s a pretty solitary endeavor up until the critique and editing process. With an anthology, it’s a team effort from the beginning. Having all those different voices and ideas in the mix can be a challenge to coordinate, but in the end it makes for a very flavorful product. I think in the future, I would give the authors more time to polish the work before submitting, and give the editors enough time for revisions.
JE: The number one thing I messed up on was not setting deadlines for the editorial process, layout, cover photos, and such from the start. We set submission deadlines for the contributing authors, but not for the being working “behind the scenes.” This caused progress on the anthology to languish for several months while the authors waited with baited breath on hearing back a “yes” or “no” on their submission. This wasn’t fair to the submitters, and delayed the release of the book by a few months. Next time around, all deadlines will be set up front, so there are no surprises to anyone and everyone will know what to expect from others and what is expected of them.
As far as what to do in the future, we’ve learned quite a bit about the editorial process and will involve the authors in more depth during the editing process. While I didn’t feel we did it “wrong” this time around, I think we can do it “more right” on the next go around. I also know that we learned quite a bit about the proper layout of print books, covers, and eBooks. That education will go miles in the future for producing a better product at a faster rate.
PH: Where did the idea of a writer’s group publishing an anthology come from?
MR: The idea started about ten years ago, but the group was not ready for a project of this size. J.T. has done a lot of work to grow the membership until there was a large enough base to support the idea. I have to give him the credit for resurrecting the project and really pushing it through to the end.
JE: That all came from Mike Reid. The ideas for Librorum Taberna, Ezra Finfrock and the time/space traveling store all came from Mike. It was a great seed for an anthology. I’ve been part of the CSFWG for six years now, and from my understanding the idea was tossed about the group about ten years ago. When we finally arranged for our non-profit status with the state and federal governments, we were able to proceed forward with the book with a full head of steam. The massive effort of gaining 501(c)(3) status started about two years ago, and finally came through in September of 2011. That allowed us to get going on the anthology in early 2012, and finish it up in November of 2012.
PH: When did you decide that this was something that was not only possible, but a project you wanted to take on and do? Why? Were you inspired by other anthologies? If so, which ones?
MR: Back in February of 2011 we sent out a call for submissions along with a synopsis of the shared world. At that point, we felt like it would only take six months to gather the stories, a few more months to edit and layout the book, and we’d have the finished product in time for the holidays. Totally feasible in theory, so we jumped in. In reality, it took twice as long, but it’s done. The main reason for doing it was to give the group members some experience with the publishing process. For a large portion of the contributors, this anthology is their first publication and the mission of the CSFWG is education. What better way to learn than by doing? As far as inspiration, I would have to say Thieves’ World and Wild Cards come closest. A shared world with common characters and stories told from different perspectives. The whole concept just appealed to me.
JE: I always thought it was possible. There were a few moments here and there when doubts crept into my mind, but I ignored those little whispers and pushed ahead with all my will to enable the anthology to happen. Tons of work was put it in by tons of people. I just did what I could to keep everyone on track and on the same page. I think my main motivation for getting the anthology done was when I heard about Mike’s idea from years past. I thought it would be fun, educational, rewarding and an all-around good thing for the CSFWG and its members. So many anthologies are based on a common theme or concept, but the series of anthologies that really stand out in my mind are the shared-world Thieves’ World series edited by the late, great Robert Asprin. I would love to tackle something along those lines in the future, so my efforts on this anthology are kind of like “prep school” for that larger effort.
PH: Mike, you came up with the initial idea for the shared world where the stories in this anthology take place. Could you tell us a little about the genesis of the whole thing and the world in which the stories are set?
MR: The inspiration came from the first story in the anthology, If Wishes Were Horses… by Hollie Snider. She ran the piece through the critique group way back when and I couldn’t help but wonder about the odd bookstore and it’s owner. From there it just became a series of “what if” questions and grew from there.
PH: Mike – were you nervous or did you have any misgivings about letting other people ‘play in your sandbox’?
MR: Honestly, I was really excited to see what everyone would do with it. In my own writing, I have a big problem deciding what comes next. There’s too many options, so I sit and spin my wheels. By coming up with a fairly general idea with a few simple guidelines and then turning people loose with it, I didn’t have to make those choices myself. I was able to sit back and enjoy the story and be surprised by the direction the authors took. They came up with things I would never have thought of myself, and the final product is better for it. There was an element that was added by one of the authors that was so good, we went back and sprinkled it here and there in other stories. I loved that.
PH: How many story submissions did you receive? What was the process you went through to decide which stories made it in? What criteria did you set for submissions? Were you looking for specific kinds of stories (fantasy, scifi)? Character driven? Adventure?
MR: We received about nineteen submissions, I think. The editorial team read all the stories and made individual decisions to accept or reject. We used a shared document to keep track of the progress, which was invaluable for this project. Most stories were unanimous one way or the other, so those were easy. With the handful that we didn’t all agree on, we sat down together and discussed pros and cons. In the end, we ended up with the fifteen strongest submissions. On the handout, we set a minimum and maximum word count and the basic ground rules for the world. Other than that, writers were free to be creative. I think the only genre stipulation was no hardcore porn. That’s how the writer’s group is set up and the anthology was no different. As long as the store and/or Ezra played a part in the story, anything was fair game.
JE: We received 19 stories total. The people on the editorial staff read the stories as they stood and decided what (if any) editing would be required to make them publishable material. If we decided the storytelling or characters justified the effort required to bring the mechanics up to par, then we’d accept the story. If even one person wanted to bring in a story, we’d consider it. It doesn’t mean we accepted the story, but we would at least talk about it.
The criteria we set was fairly broad. We specifically did not set a genre because we’re not a genre-specific organization. We have writers in pretty much every major genre and many of the smaller subsets. We were looking for stories in the 3,500 to 10,000 word range. I know we accepted at least one story below the minimum because it was so well written. Likewise, we accepted one story that weighed in around 16,500 words because the storytelling behind those words was phenomenal.
As far as what we were looking for, I think we just wanted good stories. Cleaning up mechanics (within a certain limit) is easy. It’s hard to tell a good story. I can overlook the occasional typo or missing comma if the characters are engaged in a great story.
PH: I know that the stories in this collection come from authors across the spectrum in terms of genre and where they are in their career. Tell us about some of the stand-out stories from the collection. I won’t ask you to pick favorites, just to clue us in on the kinds of stories a reader will find when they pick this anthology up.
MR: It would be hard to pick a favorite since there are some great stories in this collection. But there’s everything from time travel, to body modification (some quite extreme), to otherworldy adventures. There are dragons, sure, but probably not the way you’d expect. Some stories are a little creepy, and others will leave you feeling good at the end. All in all, I think there’s a great variety in this book and almost everyone will find something to enjoy.
JE: I’m a huge fantasy reader, but I mainly read for character-driven stories, not the high-level idea-driven stories. We had some great characters in this book going through some fantastic situations. I love every story in the book, but the ones that really grabbed me and kept me thinking about them after I finished the read are:
- Accidental Opportunity by Kari J. Wolfe
- Charisma by Patrick Hester
- Mutiny in the Marketplace by Todd A. Walls
- Pinwheel by Melissa R. Kary
- The Door, The Lock, The Key by R. Michael Burns
I know you didn’t ask me to pick favorites, and as I said, I love every story in the anthology. Those five are the ones with the strongest (or strangest) characters, and really kept me pondering their fate at the end of the story.
PH: What was it like having to pick up an editor’s pen for this project? What did you take away from the experience?
MR: With all the experience giving critiques over the years, it wasn’t as difficult as I expected. The hard part was realizing that I am the last line of defense for the whole thing. If there’s an error in there (and I’m sure there is), it’s my fault. The other thing that was a bit more tricky was making changes and corrections while maintaining the author’s voice. Everyone writes in their own style, and it was important to me to make sure that stayed true. I learned a couple of things from this. One, editing takes time. And to do it right, you can’t rush it. Two, there are some seriously creative people out there that I am privileged to work with. Some of the things they did with my crazy idea just blew me away.
JE: If I were editing an anthology when I didn’t know the submitting authors it would have been easier. In this case, we had to tell a few people that their story wasn’t strong enough to make it into the anthology, and I have to see those people on a monthly basis. That made it rough for me personally.
This process gave me insight into how hard it might be for some editors (and literary agents) to say no to people. While we had great success in accepting fifteen out of nineteen submissions, there are others out there that have to reject hundreds (thousands?) of submissions for a single anthology. That level of negativity in a job must be rough. While I understand a rejection is never a personal rejection, but of the written word, it’s still hard to take on both sides. I can now sympathize more with editors and will only send them my best work.
PH: You’ve both written books/stories of your own, did you find that this helped or hindered your efforts as anthology editors?
MR: I don’t think you can be as effective an editor if you don’t write. You have to have a feel for how a story flows, sentence by sentence. The structure of how the whole thing goes together and makes sense comes easier if you’ve done it yourself. Also, being part of a critique group helps immensely. You learn how to give and receive criticism, along with all the nuts and bolts of the craft. More important, though, is to be a reader. See how others have done it, steal what works and make it your own. I’m talking style, not ideas, necessarily. Plagiarism is wrong.
JE: I think this really helped me polish my skills as a writer. I’ve seen the mistakes other people made, and they’re mistakes I commonly make in my own work. I can now turn my “editor eye” on and study my own writing from that angle. I helped make me a stronger writer and a (I hope) better submitter for editors to look at.
PH: Will the CSFWG be doing more projects like this one in the future?
MR: Knowing what gluttons for punishment writers are, I would think so.
JE: As I said above, it depends on the sales of the first book. We’re not out to make a buck, but we can’t lose money on every project and still “keep the doors open.” Time (and sales) will tell if we do another. From the looks of things, we most likely will.
PH: Where can people get a copy of An Uncommon Collection?
JE: We’re going to do what we can to get it into Colorado Springs independent bookstores as well, but we’re going to wait until after the holidays to make that push. Life is too busy for everyone right now to make that happen.
PH: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me. Anything else you’d like to tell the folks reading this? How about your websites and social media?
MR: Thank you, Patrick. I just want people to have fun with it. Take a break from the real world for a while and escape inside a book. Who knows where it might take you?
JE: Thanks for the interview! This was great. The “one stop shop” for finding me online is http://jtevans.net/ Look in the top-left corner for links to the various social media and other online presences I maintain.