Picking the Clockwork Phoenix 4 stories: The Process (part 2)

/ Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013 / 2 Comments »

I’m back with part two of my explanation of the Clockwork Phoenix 4 submission process, this time breaking down the most crucial piece of the process: what happens while the submission window is open. (Part One can be found here.)

There’s all sorts of misconceptions out there about how short story slush reading works. I’m pretty sure the way I handle it is close to how most pro and semi-pro outfits do things, so hopefully elucidating will be helpful all around.

Here’s metaphor #4. A story submission essentially works like an audition for a part in a play. I think some writers lose sight of this aspect, because sending in an e-mail and waiting for a response feels much more impersonal than waiting to be called in front of the director to start your monologue or demonstrate your dance skills.

And yet, that’s exactly what’s happening. Your story is your performance. And in the case of Clockwork Phoenix, I’m the director.

A side note: I saw an appalling number of cover letters that included attempts to summarize and/or pitch the story. I’m not sure where folks are getting the idea they’re supposed to do this. You shouldn’t. It’s not professional. It makes sense with novels, where you’re pitching agents or editors in hopes of getting them to ask for a copy to read, or with non-fiction projects, where you’re pitching something you haven’t actually written yet … but for short stories, it makes no sense at all. What you’re doing is giving the editor a chance to reject your story without ever looking at it. And it’s not necessary. All short story markets are going to judge your submission based on the strength of your first paragraph and then what follows. There’s no need to include a pitch. Just stick to your credentials. If you don’t have credentials, be brief and polite. Be brief and polite even if you do have credentials, for that matter.

Back to the main event: it really is all about your first paragraph. If you start your monologue and what you say isn’t interesting — and there’s hundreds of people waiting in line behind you — then I have to wave you off the stage and let the next person have their turn. If you start your monologue and what you’re performing is an obviously bad fit for the show I’m trying to put together, in style or subject matter, same deal. There’s no time and no room for something that doesn’t rivet me from the outset. That doesn’t mean you have to start with an explosion. It means you have to start in a way that immediately makes me want to know more. If I don’t care what happens next, I assume my readers won’t either.

And here’s why writing is so hard. Hooking my attention at the start isn’t enough. You have to keep it up, page after page, providing new hooks, new intrigues. Keep me engaged. If my attention wanders, I’ll wave you off the stage and it’s the next person’s turn.

This, frankly, is how you manage a flood of more than 1,000 submissions in two months. Most stories never make it past the first two stages in the audition. That story has to engage me, again and again, all the way to the end. And then the ending itself has to impress. If you pull that off, and not very many do, then I can start thinking about whether you might actually fit in with the rest of the cast.

(I’m not unsympathetic, mind you. I’m a veteran of many failed auditions myself.)

In practical terms, though, the system has to be this mercilessly efficient. And I feel it’s my duty to writers to reject their stories as soon as I’m sure I won’t be using them, so they can start shopping them elsewhere.

This year, I had three assistants, Sally Brackett Robertson, Sabrina West, and Anita, whose much bigger role involves figuring out the shape of the finished book but also sometimes helps with slush. I looked at the majority of submissions personally; this makes sense, as no one can figure out whether I want or don’t want something faster than me. Sabrina and Sally had instructions to err on the side of passing a story up for me to review if they had any questions as to whether it might fit. If they were certain it wouldn’t fit, of course, they were free to turn the story down. Their help was essential for keeping the book on schedule, and I’m really grateful they volunteered.

About a week after the submission window closed mid-December, I’d winnowed the stories down to the list of finalists. When it comes to assembling an anthology, I always consider this phase the most difficult part. Inevitably, there will be stories that I really, really liked that I’m ultimately going to have to send home in order to keep the book within budget; so I have to take a hard look at what stories work best together, the elements each one brings to the mix, and which ones perhaps don’t quite fit the mix. And then I have to write those sad, sad rejections. Again, I’m not without sympathy. I’ve been on the receiving end of my share.

And, finally, as proof that there’s wiggle room even among the top tier, several of the finalists weren’t accepted until after I’d requested the writers consider some tweaks. (This has been the case for all four volumes.)

With Clockwork Phoenix 2 and Clockwork Phoenix 3, when I’d finished all the winnowing, Anita and I both ended up feeling that we hadn’t quite gotten the balance right — usually because of a shortage of that “rococo sf” we covet — and in both instances I wound up soliciting additional stories after the window closed.

One benefit of having so many submissions: that did not happen with Clockwork Phoenix 4. Again, I’m very pleased with the mix that came together. Hopefully all of you will be too.

One last, admittedly peevish thing that I want to point out. Every time I’ve put together one of these books, at least one person complains about not being able to figure out what I want. It’s poor form to lash out at an editor (and seriously poor form to lash out at an editor’s assistant!) anyway — to go back to my audition metaphor, it’s not as if there aren’t also hundreds of people in line with you, almost all of whom have no trouble conducting themselves professionally from start to finish. And so someone who responds to a rejection with an angry note stands out as even more of a jerk than he probably realizes.

But I just want to point out to those who might fume that my tastes are inscrutable: there are authors in this new book, who have never been in Clockwork Phoenix before, who set out to write something with my tastes in mind, and flat out nailed that target. That bar I set? They floated over it. So, it can be done. I’ve got unassailable proof.

Reading the anthologies helps, of course. And now there’s going to be one more to read.

Which is really what’s most important.

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