2016 Anthology Workshop

It’s been over two weeks since I got back from the Anthology Workshop. I meant to do a write-up about it before this, but I caught some kind of crud on the flight home (best as I can tell, looking at the likely incubation period) and I’ve only just gotten over the hacking and sniffling. I hate trying to sleep when my sinuses are clogged up; I think the sleep deprivation is worse than the actual hacking and sniffling. πŸ˜›

Anyway. Great workshop as always. I only sold one story (an SF mystery to John Helfers for an anthology called No Humans Allowed,) but I had a great time anyway, and learned a lot. I had a chance to talk to a bunch of folks, get to know some new people and some people who’ve been around, but we just never had a chance to really sit down and chat before.

The whiteboard John built his TOC on. My story’s on the right, in darker marker; it was a “Hold” at first, and he decided to add it at the end, when he was filling in stories to make his wordcount.

We wrote stories ahead of time, as always. About 45 attendees wrote about 250 stories, totalling 1.1 million words of fiction. The reading was like a tidal wave, seriously. We’re supposed to be learning to read like editors — who definitely do not read every word of every story that’s submitted — but it’s hard when you’re dealing with quality this high. If this were open-submission slush, most stories could be rejected after a paragraph of two. That’s not the case here. This is a pro-level, invite-only workshop, and people who attend are ridiculously good at this stuff.

Six of the editors — John Helfers, Kerrie Hughes, Kris Rusch, Mark Leslie (aka Mark the Kobo Guy), Kevin Anderson and Rebecca Moesta — had established books they were reading for. We got guidelines for one book per week we were writing, and had a week (or a bit less) to write a story in accordance with the guidelines and get it in. Dean Smith was the odd guy out this year; he read all the stories and had to put together an anthology out of the ones the six other editors didn’t choose, coming up with a set of stories that created some kind of theme as he went. He ended up with a bunch of stories on the theme of Hard Choices, and he had to fight a few of the other editors for some of those stories.

It was fun to watch. πŸ™‚ If the editor for whom a story was specifically written doesn’t want it, any other editor who thinks it’d fit their book really well can steal it. All the editors with established books had dibs over poor Dean, who often found himself wanting a story, but standing in line behind two or even three other people. By the time he put his TOC together on the last day, he say the process had been a lot harder than he’d expected. I definitely wouldn’t want to have to do it, although watching him do it was educational.

Most of the workshop was spent watching and listening as the editors went through the stories one by one, evaluating, disagreeing, arguing. There were a lot of WTF?? expressions scattered through the week as one or more editors loved a story that one or more other editors hated. Discussion got pretty heated once or twice. In the middle of all of this, Kris reminded us that this was because the stories were all very good. If this were a beginner workshop, where all or most of the attendees were still learning how to write, the editors would all agree. Obvious flaws would stick out to everyone. In this group, everyone can write, so the disagreements and arguments were all a matter of individual editors’ taste. Even the common disagreements that sounded like craft issues — like Kris and Dean insisting that a lot of stories had “no setting” (since they’re both really aware of setting) while John and Kerrie often loved those stories and thought they had just the right amount of setting, or that the characters and plot were so interesting they hadn’t noticed or didn’t care that there wasn’t much setting — were really matters of taste. There are readers like Kris and Dean, and there are readers like John and Kerrie.

And that’s the point. Just because one editor, or even five editors, rejects your story, that doesn’t mean it sucks. It might just mean it wasn’t to that editor’s (or those editors’) taste. Keep trying. Some of my stories that didn’t sell would’ve sold to one of the other editors if they’d been editing that particular volume. Which is the point. Keep going. Too many writers get a rejection or three, decide the story sucks and stop sending it out. Don’t do that!

As we’ve done before, we had sign-up lunches in small groups with most of the editors, and a few other subject matter experts, like Christy Fifield, who writes fun cozy mysteries, and is a hotel Controller in her day job; she’s a great source of info for finance and accounting and such. We also had an audio expert, and someone who writes comics for major publishers, for folks who are interested in that. I went out with John, Dean and Christy, and had a great time with each of them, and the other writers who signed up to go with.

Other days we grabbed lunch with whoever was available, and there’s plenty of talent in the room and lots of brains to pick. Dinner was also chaotic in a fun way, and I hung with a lot of different people at various times. Sometimes it’s fun sticking with a few friends — I usually do that at SF conventions, that sort of thing — but at this kind of event, the more people you can hang out with and get to know, the better. The networking at these events is worth the workshop fee all by itself.

Allyson, the Publisher at WMG, announced that they’re starting up a companion line of anthologies called Fiction River Presents. These will be reprints of stories that’ve already been in Fiction River, remixed in various ways. Fiction River is starting its fourth year now, and a lot of people only heard about it recently. Doing the reprint volumes is a good way of giving folks different mixes of stories, so if one theme from the past didn’t appeal to you, maybe another will and you’ll see some stories you’d have otherwise missed.

From the WMG site: “Appropriately, the first volume, Debut Writers’ Showcase, commemorates first sales by up-and-coming authors. Future volumes will revolve around themes such as family, thrillers, offbeat stories, and Readers’ Choice.”

My first professional sale was “Staying Afloat” in How to Save the World, and that story will be in the Showcase volume.

Othere random bits I noted down during the workshop:

Short fiction is an entryway to your work for people who’ve never read any of your other stuff.

Anthologies are an exception to BookBub’s one-book-per-author-at-any-one-time rule. you can only have one novel up at a time, but you can have multiple multi-author anthologies, or a novel and an anthology, or whatever combination.

If you’re looking to build up your sales ranking on sites like Amazon, advertise sales on multiple sites in succession rather than all at once. Start with BookBub and then go through others week by week. BookBub will raise your book up the ranks, and the smaller lists will keep it up there.

A workshop attendee who writes romances puts out a new short story each month. He makes it free on his blog for a week, with a buy button on the page. He sells a few during the free week, then when the story comes off of free, sales shoot up. He sells the e-books for $2.99 and paperbacks for $5.99, and he gets bookstore/warehouse sales; he sees batches of 10-15 of the paperbacks selling. He does this once a month, and now makes a third of his income off of short fiction this way.

“Free” is the most popular search term on Kobo, always, no matter what else is going on or what hot book’s been released.

Writers are generally pretty awful at writing our author bios. I’ll admit I hate doing it, and the standard one I use isn’t great. An author bio should talk about your writing. It doesn’t matter that you have five cats unless there are cats prominently in your work. It doesn’t matter that you like to garden or knit unless your characters are gardening, or some detail about historical knitting is a plot point in your story. What do you write? What have you published? Have you won any awards? Or been nominated? Made any significant bestseller lists? When writing your author bio, remember — not too long, not too short, not too modest. Most of us seem to have a problem with that last bit. πŸ˜›

If your story is set during a big, horrific event, it’s hard to get your readers to hang on to it. If you deal with it head-on, it’s better to deal with a smaller part and make it representative of the larger events, with a close emotional grab. Trying to deal with the whole, sweeping thing will probably require a lot of tell-tell-tell narrative, which can get boring. Keep the reader down IN the events, focused on a representative character. Also, use little details, like in the middle of a huge event that’s caused shootings or protests or whatever, there are going to be closed streets. Have your characters deal with that, to make the larger events have an impact on their lives in a given moment.

Make your manuscript readable. Small fonts are bad. Courier is iffy.

Make sure your name and the page number are in the header of every page, because some editors still print things out to read. If they drop a stack of pages, or they go for coffee and the printer spits the pages for a dozen stories all over the floor, the editor’s not going to bother to play literary archaeologist to figure out which pages belong to your story and what order they go in.

Give your story a significant file name. Some markets call out file name formats, in which case follow that. But if a market doesn’t specify, don’t call it “Story.doc” or “Fantasy.doc” or whatever.

Story titles should be memorable. On the one hand, that means that calling something “Aftermath” or “The Game” or “Conflict” probably isn’t a great idea because that kind of title doesn’t call a particular story to mind. On the other hand, words and names in your title should be reasonably familiar and pronounceable. You want readers to be able to talk about your story to their friends, and editors to be able to remember your title when thinking about their up-coming book or issue, or when talking with their staff. They can’t do that if they can’t remember or pronounce your alien name, or your transliterated Arabic phrase. Put the linguistic fireworks in the story, not in the title.

First person can be very distancing because the reader is NOT the person doing whatever

There’s a convention of a type of mystery fiction by people who don’t know police procedure perfectly and that’s fine. You’re just aiming for a different audience of readers than the folks who are experts on procedure and make that a major focus of the narrative.

Put something in the body of the e-mail when you sub a story, or even just edits. Blank e-mails with just an attachment end up in the spam filter. Also, you’re trying to foster a relationship with the editor, so say hi, looking forward to working with you, something. Not a Christmas letter, but a line or two.

If a published story gets picked up for a reprint, gets into a Year’s Best, nominated for an award, whatever, let the original editor know. They might want to use it in their marketing, and even if they don’t, it’s a fuzzy to them too, just to hear about it.

If you’re writing about one of a series of events, what’s special about this occurrence, this character? Why are you writing about this particular one and not the previous one, or the next one, or the first one? Let the reader know why this person/thing/occurrence has a story written about it.

We were talking in the workshop about the layoffs at Random Penguin, which happened while we were there. Someone there who knows people at PRH said that Nora Roberts’s editor was one of the people layed off, which… seriously? How could anyone with more than two brain cells to rub together for mutual warmth argue that that particular editor wasn’t pulling in enough money for the business to justify their salary?? o_O So when word came out about a week later that Ms. Roberts had taken a hike up the road to St. Martins, I wasn’t at all surprised. That was a ridiculously expensive round of layoffs for Random Penguin; I’m sure someone was called to explain WTF they were thinking, or will be when the company start to feel the lack of Ms. Roberts’s sales in their bottom line.

We had a funny thing happen on the way home. I rode back to Portland with Lyn, who was driving, and Laura. We stopped at Laura’s hotel to drop her off, and ran into Brenda in the parking lot. Brenda had dropped Michele off at the airport and decided, spur of the moment, to stay at that hotel herself. Lyn had planned to drive farther before stopping, but with two other writers from the workshop there, she decided what the heck, that she’d stay there too, so she ran in to get a room. I think she and Laura ended up sharing. I had a room at another hotel a couple miles away, and was having dinner there that night with a writer friend who lives in Portland. Under other circumstances, though, it would’ve been pretty awesome to have one more “workshop” night at the hotel. Or better yet, if they’d all been in mine — it’s the hotel I always stay at when I’m flying out of Portland, and my husband got a great deal on a suite. I had a for-real suite, with a main room and a separate bedroom, and my main room had a full size dining table and six chairs. We could’ve stayed up for hours gabbing. πŸ™‚ Maybe next year.

I had a great conversation with Amelia, and a decent flight home the next morning. I came down with the creeping crud a couple of days later, but the trip itself went wonderfully well. I’m already signed up for next year, and there’s still space. If you write short fiction, the Anthology Workshop is an awesome experience, and one I can’t recommend strongly enough.

Thanks to Dean and Allyson for organizing the event, all the editors for helping make it happen, and all the attendees for making it rock. So long as they keep throwing these workshops, I’ll keep going.

Angie

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Angie

Angela Benedetti lives in Seattle with her husband and a few thousand books. She loves romance for the happy endings, for the affirmation that everyone who's willing to fight for love deserves to get it and be happy with someone. She's best known for her Sentinel series of novels, the most recent of which is Captive Magic.