Picking the Clockwork Phoenix 4 stories: The Process (part 1)

/ Monday, January 21st, 2013 / 2 Comments »

I’ve split this long, long post about the inner workings of the Clockwork Phoenix 4 submission process in twain in an attempt to make it more digestible. Part Two will appear tomorrow. (Click link to read.)

When announcing the Dark Faith: Invocations table of contents, Jerry Gordon put up a post explaining the process involved in selecting the stories. Based on his example, I thought it might of interest, and perhaps even educational, if I offered the same information for Clockwork Phoenix 4.

So how do you get from more than 1,400 submissions down to a final lineup of 18 stories?

I’ll share the brutal truth. But first, a preamble or two.

During the Kickstarter campaign, I received a couple of mild half-joking protests from would-be contributors when I set the $8,000 stretch goal to pursue paying pro rates for stories. The protests could be paraphrased as, “My odds will be better if you don’t pay pro rates.” Which is a bit of a misconception, as I’ll explain presently.

Also, as the opening of the submission window approached, I received an occasional note from some very confident writers along the lines of, “Hey, I’m gonna have a story for you!” My general response was the Internet equivalent of smiling, nodding politely, and saying that I looked forward to checking it out, all the while thinking, Well, so will 1,000 others…. Which proved to be an underestimation. But that confidence falls into the same sort of trap as those thinking about the submission pile in terms of odds.

As editor of the previous three volumes of the series, I have built-in standards in place about the type of subject matter I want to see, the styles I find acceptable, the sort of stories and ideas we’ve showcased previously and don’t need to repeat, and in addition to those things, there’s the harder to quantify matter of whether a story can hold my attention from start to finish and deliver on all its promises by the end. So to offer the first two metaphors of this diatribe, it’s as if I have set a really high pole vault bar that your story must then clear, or propped up an archery target that your story must then peg dead center, splitting the arrows already there a la Robin Hood — and only after you’ve hit that bulls-eye or cleared that jump do you have a shot at actually being included in the book.

So there’s nothing, really, left up to chance, and no one is guaranteed a place.

The fact is, over the course of the submission process, there were maybe somewhere between 30 and 40 stories out of that 1,400 plus that were seriously in the running to be in the book.

You can accurately conclude that the overwhelming majority of submissions did not clear the bar or hit the mark. Within that broad swath there’s a wide range — from those that missed by centimeters to those disqualified on the starting blocks. I’d say most of the stories at least hit the target somewhere and/or landed safely on the mat. (These things were just as true with the previous three volumes.)

There were quite a few in the upper range who executed their leaps and loosed their arrows with perfect form, but whiffed because, though their stories were absolutely publishable — as with previous volumes, it would not at all surprise me to see some of these tales find homes in other, more prestigious venues — thematically and stylistically, the stories weren’t a perfect match for my book. I’d consider the highest range those who did send in stories that fit, but for whatever reason, the story itself didn’t work for me.

So why hold a submission window if so few stories are going to clear the bar? Because I don’t know who’s out there in the whole wide world who might well have written a story that’s exactly what I want, and the only way I’m going to know is if I toss out the nets and let the stories swim in for inspection. (Metaphor #3.) Of our 18, I ended up with eight authors who are alumni of previous volumes, ten who are new to the series and four who are completely new to me. I’m pleased with that ratio.

So, having given that overview and exposed that cruel truth, let me explain the mechanics involved. I suspect this is very similar to what happens at most fiction markets.

First, before the submission window opened, I invited the contributors to the previous volumes and a few other writers whose work I was familiar with to submit. You might think, A-ha! That’s why there’s so many alums! — but actually, that’s not why it shook out that way. Because of the breakneck pace of the anthology, only a handful were able to take advantage of that opportunity and submit early, and of those stories, only one made it into the final lineup, after the author carried out an extensive rewrite request I made. All the rest came in during the submission window.

As I’ve explained, making the final round was all about hitting the target dead center. It makes sense that those who I’ve previously published would have better instincts for what I look for; but there were also an equal number of alums who sent in work and missed the final cut, or were ultimately culled from the list of finalists.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ve now reached the most important part, which I’m going to talk about in the second installment — the management of the submission window.

Tune in next time!


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