I hope you have a snack or at least a cup of your preferred beverage nearby as this one may (read: will) be a little longer than my usual recaps. 🙂
Let me see if I can summarize the structure of this one-of-a-kind workshop that has so many learning opportunities and learning angles that it’s difficult to even wrap my mind around it. I’m almost positive I won’t be able to relay to you all of the useful information I’ve pulled together.
If you are serious about writing commercial fiction and have the means, please, take this workshop. It will propel your learning beyond anything you’ve likely experienced so far. PLUS, you will have the chance to make a professional sale on top of it.
The on-site portion of the workshop happened over five-and-a-half days (Friday morning to Wednesday at noon) at the beginning of March, but it started much earlier.
Fifty-one writers were tasked with writing at least three short stories at the end of November, one a week (with an option to write two additional holiday-related stories in the third week). We were then able to take a brief Christmas/New Years break and then write three more stories, again, one a week, until the end of January.
Each short story we wrote was our shot at being included in a specific anthology that would be published around a theme (e.g., warfare, love, etc.). So, essentially, we had eight opportunities at getting into professional-rate publications (paying at least $.06/word per the SFWA qualifying markets definition). I ended up writing seven.
In all honesty, the writing was kind of the easy part…
During the whole month of February, we were to put on our editor hats and read all 1.3 million words that people fed into the system.
How does one do that when one barely has time to finish a much smaller collection of short stories one’s been trying to read for a month? *ahem* *cough*
Well, that’s one of those learning angles I referred to earlier. Not only did we have the opportunity to learn as we wrote our stories, but now we had the opportunity to learn as we read our stories.
After a good start to my reading, then a life-roll in the middle of January, I had to really catch up. I didn’t finish my reading until the second day of the on-site workshop.
I quickly discovered what it means to read like an editor. Our official task was to take these collections of stories and build our own version of the anthologies we wrote for. Each one had wordcount limits, so when reading through all of the stories, if I loved fifteen stories that added up to 70,000 words and my publication limit was 35,000…
Let’s just say that I now have a better understanding of how good stories receive rejections:
- It may have just missed the theme more than another.
- There may have been two stories hitting the same setting for some reason (e.g., both take place in World War II) and so an editor may just pick the one with the lowest wordcount.
- Three-fourths of a story may have been great, only it was the wrong three-fourths–the writer didn’t hook the editor (read: reader) soon enough in the beginning. Editors have the same number of hours available in a day as the rest of us, so their reading time is extremely valuable. Imagine going through this many manuscripts on a regular basis. Yeah…strong openings are very important, people.
During the on-site portion of the workshop, we all gathered in a small conference room at the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino. The editors were ensconced on-stage while the writers sat before them in uncomfortable chairs, dry-eyed with typing-fingers at the ready, awaiting judgment on our stories.
Let me tell you, sitting and taking notes in this manner for six-plus hours a day is its own kind of exhausting. Maybe it’s good training for writing full-time. It messes with you physically and emotionally–your heart rate steadily builds as your story approaches discussion time, after which, depending on the response, is an unsettling mix of anger, anxiety, happiness, and general satisfaction at having run the proverbial gauntlet.
You hear the editors praise a story in which you couldn’t manage to get past two paragraphs. You also hear them (constructively) tear apart one that brought you to tears.
Rinse and repeat for five-and-a-half days.
This was the next learning angle. I learned, again, all of the things that can keep a “good” story from being bought. And when it turns out that there are so many strong writers putting their stories before the editors, poor writing was the least-used reason for rejection. What came up?
- Editor Tastes – One of the phrases that popped up quite often was “reader cookies.” Editors are just readers like the rest of us. We all have different tastes and things that excite us in a story. We also have things that turn us off (“anti-reader cookies”). The thing is, unless you know an editor’s past, you have no idea which cookie you’re giving them, or if you’re giving them one at all. And even if you do know the editor tastes well enough to purposely give them a reader cookie, you better hope you baked it right. 🙂
- Wordcount – As I mentioned before, editors must deal with hard limits when putting together anthologies. And, unlike those of us who got to do it for play, editors are putting up cold hard cash. They must be very selective. If you can put together a good story with an economy of words, your chances of being bought increase.
- Not a Short Story – More than a few times, what people wound up submitting were really parts of a longer story. They didn’t really wrap up as a short story should, or they started in the wrong place. The editors would often say, “Finish writing the novel,” or “Your story starts on page eight.”
I could probably type a few short stories-worth about everything I learned from this workshop, but I’ll wrap it up here and say that I learned way more about how to write fiction in this microscopic period than I have over the past several years. I learned how to take unbridled criticism as well as unbridled praise (very important). I learned what some of my blind spots are with regard to craft so that I can focus on them. I also learned more about my own tastes and the kinds of stories I enjoy.
Most of all, I learned that the only way to get better at this writing game is to keep learning, keep writing, and keep submitting/publishing. You never know whose reader cookies you’re going to hit.
Speaking of reader cookies, I’ll wrap up this portion up with some good news:
I sold two stories. 🙂
As I get more information regarding publication, I’ll keep you posted. I tried to go in with low expectations, but I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t hoping to sell a story. But to sell two?
It’s something to keep in my ‘positive reminders’ file when I need a boost.
That said, I have five stories left over that I need to figure out what to do with. I can submit to traditional markets or self-publish. I’ll probably end up doing both, depending on the story.
P.S. If you want to read a more in-depth Anthology Workshop write-up from one of the paying editor’s perspectives, check out this series posted by Ron Collins as he was buying stories last year (and will next year). He’s also an astounding writer in his own right and I was thrilled with the opportunity to pick his brain over a slice of pizza. 🙂
Well, based on the wrap-up above, I think you know where this is headed. I managed no writing while I was out of town (unless you count the notes I mentioned last week).
…on Friday night, I managed to wrap up my first “book” of my 2019 goals. Let me tell you; it’s a hot mess. It wound up around 36,000 words and it needs a complete redraft to make any sense. The information flow is terrible (one of my identified craft weaknesses from the workshop), the main character was definitely the wrong one to use for the POV, and the number of inconsistencies across the manuscript make it impossible to enjoy.
That being said, I learned a lot. Maybe I’ll revisit it in the future, but rather than redraft this story (because I get bored easily), I’m going to take those lessons and apply them to the next one.
I hope to start this week, but I only have the time to type out all of this because my son has the flu and he’s sleeping a lot right now. Praying I don’t contract it, but jeez…the one year I miss getting my flu shot…
This was another winner.
I hope you had a wonderful week and are looking toward a productive new one!