For the curators of, The Final Summons we encountered a lot of firsts. While none of us are slouches when it comes to publishing and the written word, taking on a leadership role provided a unique insight into the world of submissions. We received more submissions than we originally anticipated and the caliber of writing ranged from poetically perfect to rough draft at best. However, we poured through them, discussing the merits of each story and how it would combine into a cohesive anthology. We fought passionately for the stories we loved and had to make tough decisions. There were victories, many of them, but there were also a series of eye rolls that had us asking, “What were they thinking?” We wanted to provide some insight into this newly discovered world that we think will help authors in submitting short stories for anthologies.
Follow the Guidelines.
It sounds simple, but we were shocked by how many people didn’t follow the guidelines. We clearly stated you must be a member of the New England Speculative Writers and located in New England, yet we received submissions from across the United States. We asked authors to include some basic information such as word counts and a tag line. While we were able to fill in the gaps as necessary, the extra work made us move these titles to the bottom of the slush pile. Imagine a publisher receiving hundreds of entries? The fastest way to get rid of the muck (even the best written muck in existence) is to see if an author did these basic steps. If they haven’t, it’s a way to be stricken before you’re even read.
It gets trickier when it comes to “theme” or the anthology “vision.” We left our topic extremely broad to give writers the most latitude possible. However, some of the stories were so off topic it was obvious they were written for another anthology. Some of the stories never even came close to reaching the theme. We got aggravated when an author wasted our time with a story that had no business being submitted. Now unfortunately, those authors’ names are associated with that aggravation. It means the next time they submit, they walk in with a strike against them. So when submitting, make sure it hits the theme squarely enough that you leave a good impression. Previously submitted stories are welcome, even encouraged, but they need to be on “brand.” This might require a little bit of rewriting or tidying up a plot. The extra effort shows.
Short vs. Epic.
The most common thing we said while reading the submissions was, “This isn’t a short story, it’s a condensed novel.” There were some great stories to be had, but some of them weren’t short stories, not even by a long shot. Epic tales are amazing, but they need the room to breathe, develop, and flush out an intense plot. We sent several stories back with notes suggesting that the author take the story and use it as a building block for a lengthy epic tale. The stories were good, some even compelling and wonderful, but they need more than 7,000 words.
With such a tiny word allotment (and let’s be honest, some of us write 100,000 novels that only touch the tip of the iceberg) these epic tales won’t work. In a short story, the world building has to be done in a manner that works alongside the story and not a heap of information at the start. Submissions that started with an uncanny amount of “info dumping” put us on alert. We didn’t need to know the background of the world, how it came to be, or why magic/technology was at its current incarnation. Sometimes the mystery of not knowing is even more alluring. We need a single character (or perhaps two) to exist in a world that we experienced through them. If they don’t meet elves along their journey, there’s almost no point in mentioning them (even if you know they exist in this world.)
Listen & Digest.
We decided at the start that no matter what we read, we’d provide positive feedback to the author. We believed this to be an essential part of the process with New England Speculative Writers. Sometimes we focused on mechanics, sometimes it was centered around plot, it all depended on the author and what their work needed. Never once did we feel that a story was unsalvageable.
We understand that veteran authors have resources, such as beta readers, critique groups, even editors working with them when they prepare to submit short stories. We are not them. We are a set of virgin eyes, exploring your world (and often your writing) for the first time. We come in without bias wanting the very best of your characters and your plot. We aren’t on the hunt for perfection (not a single story was accepted without feedback) we are on the hunt for potential. With work, passion, and an open mind, even the flattest characters can be rounded and rocky stories can be smoothed. When an author criticizes our feedback, it says two things instantly: 1) I’m difficult to work with or 2) I’m incapable of being a team player.
Having submitted to dozens of anthologies, we know that most often, you receive a form letter. This goes for agents and publishers as well. So when an agent/editor/publisher gives you advice, you don’t have to take it, but you do have to stop and consider it. Are they speaking accurately? Truthfully? Are they offering words to uplift your story? Many people wrote back when they resubmitted saying, “I liked your first two points, but I tried your third and it just didn’t work.” We’re not perfect either, but when we get responses saying somebody has attempted our suggestion we see “TEAM PLAYER” and it excites us to build a relationship. Don’t burn your bridges.
This is a double edge sword. You need information, but you don’t want to pester. We found both sides of this happened while we were open for submissions. We had forthright questions, “Do you see any gaps in your submissions?” all the way to, “I have a pitch, can I get feedback?” We responded to as many as we could with as much information as we could. But there came a point when some of the questions stopped being about needing information and turned into needing validation.
Ask a question if you must. But remember you are one of dozens of emails each day. When it became obvious some of the emails were essentially asking us for a plot so they could write the story, we ceased communication. Needing facts is very different from needing creative energy. Ask facts. Be specific, be clear, and be concise. If time allows, you’ll receive a similar answer. However, if your answer requires time, energy, and especially creative energy, you might be overstepping boundaries.
Ask questions through the proper channels. Yes, we have twitter and Facebook which allow us instant access. Some of the authors even have our cell phone numbers. Text and you’re dead to us. Shoot a fast message on Facebook, we’ll try to respond. Put it in the official email, then it feels like business and we want to foster professional relationships, so that gets the fastest (and most thorough) answers. Seeking out on social media is okay if you’re tight with the editor, but don’t abuse it. Some of us only use Facebook to swap recipes with our moms. Social media is still not considered a professional line of communication (your mileage may vary with this statement.)
Patience is a Must.
In the fast paced world of self-publishing, an author can finish writing a book and have it published in days. Even micro publishers move within months where the old model of traditional publishing can take years. Times are changing and with deadlines and quick production, there is a sense of urgency. “Did I get in?” “Any word?” “When will the decision be made?” The more these questions are asked, the more stress/pressure goes on the publisher. We’re not saying don’t ask, it’s important to your livelihood to know these things, but give it time. Even with forty submissions, it took us nearly two months to read and provide feedback. As each of us have full-time jobs, as do many small presses and free lance editors. We spent every available moment reading and making comments. The editorial process takes time.
With many self published authors simply putting their book online and wondering why sales aren’t taking off, it needs to be a constant reminder that success takes time as well. Curating and providing feedback is only half the job. We spent countless hours preparing a marketing plan on how to fund, produce, and market our anthology. We set the publish date a year into the future to allow time for editing, cover production and pre-orders. Always feel free to ask what the “plan” is, but be aware, the time-table might not be a mad dash to the finish line.
We debated on what should go onto this list. We had many other thoughts and considerations, but these we felt were a universal truth with our anthology and beyond. As always, we want to watch our authors flourish, so we hope this bit of insight behind the scenes of The Final Summons, helps guide your hand in future anthology submissions!