This is the third of a series of posts I’m doing about the Oregon Coast Anthology Workshop.
The first post noted that my daughter (Brigid Collins) and I are editing Face the Strange, an anthology in the Fiction River series that comes out of the workshop. I may have even mentioned how amazing it’s going to be! That post also walked through the workshop’s construction. The event is a bit of a monster so, if you’re not familiar with it, I suggest reading that post before proceeding. I’ll also connect up all the posts in this series on that page, so it’s a good place to start if you want to get the whole effect.
Anyway, today I’m going to focus on the second module of the workshop, something I’ll call “Story Selection.”
Naturally, story selection happens after the writing is finished. This means every workshop participant has now written six stories in six weeks. For some this can be a heavy workload, meaning that after the last deadline passes they might want to take a deep breath and relax. There are, after all, only about three weeks before the actual event…
THE TASK: SELECT YOUR OWN ANTHOLOGIES
Here’s the problem with that idea, though: on Monday the floodgates open and each participant suddenly receives the full collection of stories that have been written for the workshop.
The goal at this point is to treat these stories as if they are your own personal slush pile. You read them all and make your own selections for each of the six anthologies. You put yourself in the editor’s shoes. You get 70,000 words for each anthology, give or take, and your task here is to decide which stories you will buy for your own volumes.
This, you quickly find out, can be a huge, huge, huge amount of work.
No rest for the weary, though, right? Welcome to publishing.
I should note that neither you, nor the actual editor in question, have to fill your anthologies with these stories. You get 70,000 words, yes, but if you don’t have 70,000 words of fiction you like in this pile, that means you’ll have to go outside to find other work. This happens in the workshop often. As active editors, Brigid and I were not required to fill the anthology from the workshop. In fact, we had direct options to go outside if we needed to.
So, the bottom line here is that, as a participant, your task is to develop your own vision of what each anthology should look like, then to go populate it in your own image.
A Note on the Term “Slush Pile”
While I was at the session, I had a couple highly animated conversations that focused specifically on my use of the term “slush pile” to describe the mound of manuscripts that get sent your way at this point of the workshop process. At least one writer’s view was that the stories here were not “slush.” They said the stories were too good for me to use that term.
I also spoke with Kris about the model at one point and she noted she would call the stories a “pro pile,” meaning that if she were still editing F&SF the works would be funneled off into a much shorter stack than pure open “slush.”
Everyone gets to use whatever language they want, of course, but I would just note that the differentiation is not of any value in the big picture and that you might be missing some important things by ignoring this question. We’re talking about traditional publishing, after all. As you will find in the workshop, there are many reasons a story might be rejected—some of which don’t have anything to do with story quality. But rejection is rejection. This world of traditional publishing is a harsh world. To pretend otherwise is not, to my mind, particularly valuable.
My own view as a writer who often submits to magazines on spec is that my work is always viewed on equal terms with every other writer out there. In other words, every story I submit goes on a slush pile.
* An aside: I remember sitting with Mike Resnick back in the days when I was a baby writer. I was describing a personal rejection I had received from an editor—which was a matter of some joy to me at the time. He listened to me with that smile he can get and, when I was done, he said: “you realize that the key word in the phrase ‘personal rejection’ is ‘rejection,’ right?”
The reason I separate this out is that—if you let it—this workshop provides the opportunity to question yourself regarding this part of the process. Do you react aggressively to the idea that your work is in a “slush pile?” If so, why? When you receive a rejection, why does it matter to you if you were in a “pro pile” or a “slush pile?” Would you even know? I mean, my work has been rejected well over a thousand times in my lifetime and I’ve never been told how an editor processed my work—which is kind of the point here.
In the sense that a “pro pile” is about preconceived quality, this question is valuable for writers to think about. In fact, if you’re paying enough attention, this part of the workshop can help you absorb what the difference between a “slush pile” and a “pro pile” really is. In this model of traditional publishing, the differentiation of “open slush” and “pro pile” is more about editorial processing than anything else.
Think of it this way: Working as a participant/editor in this workshop you get a pile of manuscripts from mostly the same authors. You read them with the goal of actually buying stories. Anthology by anthology you see manuscripts from the same writers over and over again, and eventually you get a sense of the writers’ skill level and how well their voices, approaches, and sensibilities fit your personal tastes. After a few rounds, you get to a point where you start to see a name on a manuscript and—for any one of many reasons—before you even start to read it you have an idea of whether you’re going to like it or not.
In this context, the writers who get you excited are now in your personal pro pile.
The other writers are not.
I may talk more about this in later segments, but what I’m saying here is that this workshop can teach you that there is no single pro pile. As editors, my pro pile is different from your pro pile. So, yes, everyone starts in one big pile of slush. That’s the fact of life in the world of traditional publishing and open submissions. Until you are known by and anticipated by an editor for whatever good reason, you are in the big world of slush. There’s no shame in this, and especially early in your carer it has very little to do with the quality of your work and a lot to do with the fact that no one knows you. If you get offended by the term “slush pile,” I suggest you use the experience of being an editor to help you think about why the term matters to you.
As I look back on the conversations I had at the workshop, I think part of the issue with the workshop in this sense is that many of the writers return several times. So by definition they are known commodities to the editors in question. This aspect of the environment murkies up the process. It also makes for a barrier between first timers and more established workshop participants. It’s a barrier that (hopefully) goes away by the end of the week, but it’s also an interesting dynamic regarding the idea of what a pro pile is, and what an open slush pile is.
That’s my .02, anyway.
THE WORKSHOP MODEL: YOU BECOME AN EDITOR
The question you might be asking here is: why should I spend all this time reading what will turn out to be some 240 or so short stories in three weeks? Wouldn’t it just be easier to show up, get my acceptance or rejection, then leave?
Well, yes, of course that would be easier. That would also be a perfect reflection of the act of being a writer in the world of traditional short fiction publishing. You do your best work, then chuck it into the void and forget it until it comes back with (or without) a check attached. But that’s not why you come to the Anthology Workshop. Or, I guess I should say that if you come to the Anthology Workshop with the sole purpose of selling fiction, then you’re missing 99% of the point.
The goal of this step of the workshop is simple in concept but nuanced in practice.
For three weeks, you get the unique opportunity to become an editor. If you spend time actually doing the work, for three weeks you get to feel the intense time pressure of needing to create a fantastic piece of art, but do it to a production deadline. For three weeks, you get so understand what it’s like to read work from a wide array of writers and make real decisions.
WHAT WILL I LEARN IF I ATTEND THE WORKSHOP?
Perhaps the most important lesson of the entire workshop is that an editor’s time is like gold.
Attending the workshop means you need to push yourself to read 1.2 million words well enough to make buy decisions at the same time as you live the rest of your life. You probably have a day job. Family events. Favorite teams to follow. Editors have those, too, but they still need to put out a magazine every month (or whatever). In this case, you get about three weeks to deal with those 240 submissions. A relatively small workload for a major magazine.
The first thing you might come to grips with is an understanding of exactly why the legends of editors rejecting you on the first paragraph exist. Reading like an editor is different from reading like a reader, after all. If you’re like me, when you read to read you’re looking for a way in. You want to be hooked. But when you begin to read as a time-crunched editor, you suddenly find yourself looking for a way out. “I’ve got 35 stories to finish by tomorrow,” you think. “How can I get this done?” If you’ve been doing this writing gig for any time, then intellectually you already get it. But until you get stuck with the work, you don’t really feel the depth of the pain.
What does this mean to you?
The simple things, of course. There’s a reason why your openings are important: first sentences with hooks, character in a setting with a problem, clean language and strong voice. The “rules” work here because they can give stories early velocity. They help readers get going. Break them at your own peril. As a writer, you can come to this pile of stories and ask yourself why you faded on page two of this manuscript or page five of that one. And if you’re thinking well enough, you can usually see the cause—or at least an indicator that it was going to happen—on page one. Your goal is to learn from that.
There’s more, too.
I’ve done this workshop a few times. I’ve had that 1.2 million words dropped on me often enough to know what I’m getting into. I’m also different than most, however, in that I read pretty much 100% of the words submitted to every workshop because Brigid and I have always done another step, which I’ll talk about in the next episode of this series. But I say this here because it relates to the discussion above on slush piles and pro piles.
When you are facing a mound of work you need to read and you come upon a piece by someone you are familiar with, my guess is that you’ll find it nearly impossible not to be predisposed one way or the other about that work. It will be impossible not to be rooting for that writer, or be worried for them, or…whatever. I suggest that when you run into those feelings as a workshop participant (either positive or negative), examine them. Use them. There’s value there.
You’re “buying” for an anthology, but if you think about it right, you can also extrapolate the slush pile you’re looking through to be about a periodical.
* Another aside: When I was just starting to sell, Stan Schmidt, the Analog editor of the time, told me the worst thing I could do was to sell him one story. “I want to buy from someone whose name I eventually can put the cover,” he said. “I’ve been following you in the slush pile. I’ve been rooting for you because I know you’re going to keep sending me stories.” This feeling of excitement you feel about a writer in your own slush pile is as related to that idea. Editors of traditionally published magazines are rooting for you. They want to buy careers if they can. That’s your goal, and it’s this aspect of expectation that is at the root of moving into the “pro pile.”
Yes, I know. I’m harping on that now. Sorry about that.
I’ll leave the rest of what I think you can learn from selecting stories for the next section, because there were a few things that struck me harder sitting at the “real editors’ table” than as a participant.
When Brigid and I got the gig of editing this uber-cool volume (have I mentioned how amazing Face the Strange is going to be?) I thought the reading part might be easier as an editor. Yes, I’m that stupid.
My reasoning went like this:
(1) When you’re an editor you get the stories immediately after they’ve been written (we get the stories for week 1 and 2 in December, for example, rather than getting the whole pile at the beginning of February as a participant would).
(2) That means you have more time to read.
It’s almost embarrassing to admit how much more intense it was to read from the editorial seat than it was to read a participant. As a participant, I thought I was already doing the work. I thought I was making selections. But the truth was that I wasn’t.
As a participant I would walk up to these decisions and pretend to make them, but there was no closed loop there. I never had to justify my decision, and I never had to live with any ramifications of them. I could, for example, just say I loved a story but it needed work, so I would just ask the writer to adjust this or that and never have to consider what this really meant. Or I could create a list of stories and not think through balance issues or how they might play together. There are so many things that you don’t have to do as a participant that are so easy to just ignore without even realizing you’ve ignored them.
This is why I said I was almost embarrassed to admit how much more intense the editorial work was. I mean, actually doing the process taught me exactly how much learning I was leaving on the table as a participant.
Editorial decisions, it turns out, are much harder when you actually have to make them.
In our case, with Face the Strange, Brigid and I had two additional twists to deal with.
First, and easiest, we were collaborating. So rather than just create our own lists we had to come to a collective view. Our tastes are fairly close—we both look for character and some form of emotional kick by the end, and we have an interest in multiple genres—which helped to a degree. But our feel for voice and certain other sensibilities were sometimes a bit different. Operationally, this meant we spent extra time going over certain nuances that we wouldn’t have gone over otherwise.
Second, though—and perhaps not as obvious to participants until they came to the workshop itself—Brigid and I had a more complex problem to deal with when it came to the selection process. Our guidelines were written specifically to be open to cross-genre approaches. This means that, as we read stories that were originally submitted to other anthologies, we found several that we loved and that fit into ours. (Note: per the above, this meant our “slush pile” was 240 stories big rather than just 40 and included stories that were not even submitted directly to us).
This is something unique to the Anthology Workshop. Stories rejected by the anthology they were written for will sometimes be selected by editors of a different anthology.
This created problems for us because we found stories we wanted in piles that were originally submitted to every other anthology. Since the rule is that the “original” editor of those anthologies gets first dibs, we couldn’t plan on them being available to us. So, instead of coming up with a single Table of Contents in our first preparations, we arrived at a series of options—a decision tree that I later took to calling a set of glide paths, and that created a shifting TOC for our anthology that played out in front of the participants over a series of days.
So, yes, this process was considerably different for me as an editor than it was as a participant.
Who woulda thought, eh?
When we were finished with the whole process, though, I told one of the writers there that this experience was going to change my actual writing in two ways that I hadn’t thought it would. Specifically, I had a new respect for the value of titles and the value of taking bigger risks.
I say that about titles because it was amazing to me how some fantastic stories were forgettable even a day after I read them only because their titles were bland. In these cases I would often read the first sentence of one of those stories and then it would flood back. Yes, I’ve always understood titles make a difference but when you’re dealing with 240 works and you’re trying to keep them all separate in your mind, a bland title just makes everything fade. Likewise, it was equally amazing to see how an entire story would come back to me that when the author selected the right title. I loved that.
Titles, my friends. Don’t shortchange them.
When it comes to taking risks, I think the issue is murkier but even more powerful.
I talked earlier about the value of the basic rules, but that’s a very craft-laden view of the game. Craft is deeply valuable, of course, but when you’re looking for memorable stories you’re looking for things that take your breath away. I occasionally say that you can get away with anything as long as you’re interesting all the time, and reading these stories while trying to make true “buy” decisions drove this home in ways no other workshop has.
Bottom line: Brigid and I both ran into stories that were gently flawed, but whose ideas or voices were so strong we knew we had to put them in our anthology. We wanted a story (that we did not get, because the editor it was submitted to took it) with an opening that was technically too slow, but that worked perfectly for the story. We stole a story from another anthology that had pacing issues but that we needed because the concept and the rest of its execution was too awesome to pass up. The question we asked in these cases was “is the extra work worth it?” And when the payoff was high (when the writer took bigger risks) the answer was almost always “yes.”
That’s what you want, right? And editor who says yes?
So, there you go.
That’s my take on the process of story selection: why it’s in the model and why it’s important, and what you can take away. Next time I’ll take on a different aspect of what happens in this same time period, something I’ll call personal workshopping.