How often we recall, with regret, that Napoleon once shot at a…editor and missed him and killed a publisher. But we remember, with charity, that his intentions were good.
-Mark Twain. Letter to Henry Alden, 11 November 1906.
First you have the writer who can write but can’t spell. Then you have the editor who can spell but can’t write.
Well folks, I’ve now acted as the senior editor for The Rabbit Hole anthologies of weird stories volumes IV and V. Since these were my first experiences editing an anthology (I’d helped with editing a couple of stories for The Rabbit Hole III), I thought I might offer some thoughts from the viewpoint of an (admittedly amateur) editor on the experience.
To start, I want to thank Curtis Bausse, GD Deckard and Atthys Gage for all their help and hard work on RH IV and V. We’ve read through over three hundred submissions, worked on accept/reject decisions, and the editing of the accepted stories.
Now, some thoughts about the process.
First off, no matter how much an editor would like to give some hints or suggestions along with a rejection slip, it’s just not possible since we are only allowed 24 hours in a day (although I will post some helpful [?] hints below). This last go around (The Rabbit Hole V) we had over 220 submissions from which we chose 37 stories. Now consider, we are a non-paying publication, with a volunteer staff (me, Curtis, and GD). Imagine what it’s like at major magazines and publishing houses swamped with mountainous “slush piles”, along with submissions from agents of well-known authors. (Something I assume most, if not all, reading this to be well aware of.) If I remember correctly, Molly Barton, one of the initial creators of our sorely missed Book Country, stated that it was her inability to help aspiring authors with criticism, etc. that led to the idea of a site where writers could help other writers.
Second, the accept/reject decision. Ah, if only this were easy. We are all human (no AI editors yet, that I know of — thank God!), and we all have our likes and dislikes. That’s why I insist on having three editors for the decision-making process. Why? Well, each reader sees stories in their own unique way. Editors should be like a clichéd tv family of siblings (e.g., a bookish one, a dumb one, and the jock), only in this case with different likes and dislikes (genre 1, genre 2, and literary). Why? Because it keeps the resulting anthology diverse in tone and substance, but that diversity of opinion also results in a diversity of approach. I think Curtis, GD, and I made a good team for RH V (GD replaced Atthys who did great work on RH IV), because when their comments came in, I often felt like I was in the US Congress—no one agreed on anything (with rare exceptions). The most common initial vote was 1 Yes, 1 No, and 1 Maybe. But there’s nothing wrong with that! It’s good to have a range of tastes from the more literary to the more pulpish, action or fantasy stories. With the publication of an anthology, we seek to engage a diverse readership, and you can’t do that when only one editor makes all the decisions. I’d say that each of us saw stories we liked go to the reject bin, just as each of us got some of our choices approved. The result is like a candy sampler, lots of delicious variety. It’d be a pretty poor sampler if all the candies were the same, eh? So, everyone gets their say, and decisions get made. Remember, weird (the genre of our anthology), like humor, ranges from the subtle to the outrageous!
I also want to note how much I learned from my co-editors, especially how very important it is to have feedback from multiple sources in making these decisions.
Why? Well, each reader sees stories in their own unique way. Another reason for multiple input is we are all apt to look at different aspects of writing. Consider that there are three basic criteria for a decision: a) does it meet the needs of our anthology (in other words does it fit the genre), b) is it a good story, and c) is it well written.
I, for instance, tend to read the story for plot, for ideas. The result is that I end up ignoring a lot of the mechanicals of writing on a first run through (I find this kind of funny because if I have any strengths as an editor, it’s as a line editor). In at least a couple of cases I was all in favor of a story based on concept, only to be alerted to the fact that the writing was particularly sloppy, or the overall structure was poor. There was one, submitted for The Rabbit Hole IV, which I remember really liking, but following that reread, had to admit I didn’t have a month to turn it into acceptable English (a total rewrite, or line-edit, of someone else’s story isn’t my job anyway), so into the reject bin it went. On the other hand, there are stories that are quite nicely — even beautifully — written, but go nowhere, or are simply stories you’ve read a thousand times before with nothing special about them. Again, these get weeded out when a few people are contributing to the decisions.
So having three editors working on the decisions makes a big difference.
One other thought on evaluating stories: as I said, I am mainly a line editor. If a story has major structural flaws, has pages of extraneous material, etc. I just vote to reject it. My guiding principle is that it is the author’s story, not mine. I try, in small ways, to help make it better, to make it as presentable and polished a work as possible, but I don’t try to rewrite it. I have some small experience with editing extremes, both from reading through friends’ stories that appeared in independently published anthologies like ours but where no actual editing appears to have occurred (typos, etc., by the dozen), to dealing with an editor so impressed with their own credentials that their orders to rewrite character, plot, etc. were like bolts tossed from on high by Zeus himself. Let’s just say I find it best to be in the middle. Offer helpful advice, but if that advice is rejected just remember that my name isn’t under the title of the story. Also, never demand, and never, ever argue with the writer (it’s their story!).
Well, I did promise some hints about submissions (feel free to share). So here they are (and I apologize ahead of time if anyone is offended):
- Please read the call for stories, and/or the publication’s descriptive blurb, carefully! The editors know what the theme of their publication is, and so should you. What do you think would happen if you submitted a story about growing up in Middle America for a cookbook compiling only flaming chili recipes? Or maybe a story about the great time you had getting drunk in college to Alcoholics Anonymous magazine? Why wait for the rejection slip? It’s a real shame when we get a beautifully written story about a little girl raising her first puppy or about an author mulling their life while facing his or her final days, but we’re specifically looking for, and asked for, weird stories.
- Weird and gross are two very different things! If necessary, look up the definitions. While potty humor works well in elementary school and at frat parties, it doesn’t age well in print. (I’ll spare you examples.)
- Submit fan fiction to fan magazines. Enough said.
- Look, it may be true that every plot in this universe has been, in some fashion or other, previously used in a story or novel. But please, please, at least try to add sufficient originality to your effort to avoid a red flag waving in the wind proclaiming to the reader, “You’ve read, or seen, this already!” We had rehashes of “Through the Looking Glass” and “Alice in Wonderland”, but the worst was the blatant rip-off of Hitchcock’s “The Birds” (except the meanies were, I kid you not, commas! Yes, big, fat, flying, killer punctuation marks that impaled people with their pointy bits! I’ll give the author this much, it was reasonably well written, and it was, I guess, weird but it was also such a blatant rip-off we just had to pass on it (and no, it wasn’t a satire)).
- Note: a jokey narrator generally comes off as a wise-ass, not a wit. Pass.
- Please have someone who has a reasonable grasp of the English language read your story before you submit — and take their advice. Please.
- Never, ever, ever submit a first draft. (Yes, that means just because you’ve completed the text of the story, it does not mean you are finished.)
- Gibberish is not weird, it’s just gibberish.
- This should actually be 8a) if written while stoned — Please don’t submit it.
- A personal bug-a-boo. If you haven’t got an ending for your story, you haven’t got a story. Others might disagree, but from my perspective, a good writer should know both how a story starts and how to end it.
- And finally, please put your name and contact information at the top of the first page of your story. I often had this wonderful experience teaching technical writing. It seems people assume that since they have their name on the email containing the story file that grants immediate author recognition. Instead it means, after downloading the story file into the “To Be Read” queue, the editor has to go search through email to see who sent it. (I, being nice, will. I assume that larger publications just send “To Whom It May Concern” rejections slips when you inquire six months later.)
Let me finish by again saying that despite all of the above, it has been a real joy working with Curtis Bausse, GD Deckard, and Atthys Gage. They are insightful, knowledgeable, and understand how to arrive at a group decision even if it means rejecting a personal favorite. The Rabbit Hole IV and V would not have been the lovely anthologies they are without them. (And if you get a chance, take a look at their books — all well worth the read!)
OCTOBER 23, 2022