March 04, 2011
Recently, I’ve noticed an uptick in authors asking for a critique of the stories I’ve rejected from my anthologies. Most of them ask politely, and I send back the shortest reply I can explaining that I have a rule against giving any sort of critique. This latest round of requests made me wonder if perhaps I was being too harsh, but then I realized that there are very good reasons for me to refuse. Here are the top three:
I work full-time, edit about 6-7 anthologies per year, co-edit a cupcake blog and do freelance writing. Currently, I’m in the process of accepting and sorting submissions for four anthologies (details for the three erotica collections can be found on my website, and for the nonfiction Best Sex Writing 2012, on the Erotica Readers & Writers Association site). I could tell you a ton of other reasons why my time is limited, but trust me, it is. I simply don’t have the time in the day to get my work done, and tack on an added, unpaid task. I wish I had more time (don’t we all?), but the fact is, I don’t, and I need to use my time in the most advantageous and responsible ways and providing unpaid critiques just doesn’t fall into that category.
That being said, if someone’s submission is formatted improperly, or isn’t on topic, or under the word count (basically, if they haven’t followed my very specific rules), I might write to them and simply tell them that this is the reason. But what the authors are asking for, it seems, is a way to crack the code, to tell them how to improve for next time. As I elaborate on below, as an editor, I’m just not the person to do that (I’m not trying to speak for all editors, just for myself).
I get about 100-200 submissions for any given anthology, and my job is to winnow them down to 20-25 to include in the final book. I’ve gone through the process 38 times since I started editing anthologies in 2004, and over the years, I’ve learned a lot about organizational strategies and working efficiently to cull the best stories, in my extremely humble, subjective opinion. And that is the one of the most salient points: I am one lone person. No matter what I decide regarding a story, it’s still just my opinion. Yes, I hold the power, in this instance, to select or not select a story, but I do not have the power to dictate whether your story is Good or Not Good. I don’t know, because I think taste is subjective. There may be a story that I love but another editor wouldn’t, and vice versa. I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling an author something that might steer them down a path that wasn’t authentic to their writing or the story. I don’t have all the answers, and can’t magically steer them in the right direction.
Additionally, I am not just looking for the “best” stories (and I put “best” in quotes because, again, it’s subjective), but the best stories that work together as a whole to create a book that will appeal to the widest array of readers possible. I try to balance points of view, gender of characters (and, to a degree, authors), settings, character’s ages and backgrounds, as well as including some authors I’ve never published before.
I try as hard as I can to include the stories I think are the best, but even then, I can’t always do so, because an anthology has to be a cohesive unit. Each story has to be linked to, yet different from, the others in the book. Sometimes, there’s a story that is excellent, but overlaps too much in content with another story I also want to include. That’s why it’s important to think outside the box, as it were, when submitting to anthologies. When I edited an anthology on female nudity, Smooth, I got a lot of stories featuring strippers. I love strippers and stripper stories, but since that wasn’t the theme of the anthology, most of those I simply couldn’t include. It doesn’t mean they were bad, it just means that to include all of the stripper stories I liked would have created an imbalance in the anthology as a whole. What else made the final cut? “The Sushi Girl” by Anika Gupta, about a woman employed by a restaurant to lie naked while customers eat sushi off her body, as well as a naughty Adam and Eve retelling (“Eden” by Molly Slate), a tattoo story (“Ink” by Jennifer Peters) and a tattoo removal story (“Clean Slate” by Lisabet Sarai), among others (you can check out the table of contents here).
This somewhat encompasses the first two points, so I’ll try to differentiate it. To me, my role when reading submissions for a given anthology is to select the stories that best suit the purposes of my anthology. That is my sole purpose. Sometimes, I’ll read a story that I like but that doesn’t work for that particular book, either because it’s not on topic or repeats a theme I’ve already selected, and I may ask the author if I can consider it for another anthology, since I’m contracted for several at once. But beyond that, even when I appreciate a story, if it doesn’t work for the anthology, I reject it. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad story. It doesn’t even mean I’ve necessarily made the “right” decision; surely if someone else were editing that anthology, they’d make different choices. I’ve seen plenty of stories I’ve rejected turn up in other people’s books, and I think that’s great. Maybe on a different day or different week, I’d have made another decision. Be that as it may, that decision ultimately rests with me (and my publisher), and I do the best I can to select stories that are arousing, on topic, diverse and unusual.
It’s your job as the author to decide what to do with a rejected story, not mine as the editor to guide you. What I do when I’m in that situation is take another look at the story and ask myself if it’s strong enough to submit elsewhere. Sometimes I do just that, sometimes I shelve it for a while, sometimes I tinker with it, or take it apart and create multiple stories from it.
All that being said, when I want to use a story, I’ll either revise it lightly myself and consult with the author as to my proposed edits, or ask them to make some changes. I did that with the gay male story “Missing Michael” by M. March in Peep Show: Erotic Tales of Voyeurs and Exhibitionists. It involved being “watched” by a lover who’s passed away, and I wanted the author to bring out the sense on the part of the protagonist that he felt looked over and protected, to gloss on the category a bit more than the original had.
I might ask an author to add more detail or clarify something I don’t understand. I’m often working right up to my deadlines, so I don’t have the luxury of asking for extensive revisions that I may or may not get, and that may or may not work. I wouldn’t feel comfortable asking for a huge rewrite on spec (my publisher has final approval of all manuscripts), and generally, with the anthologies I edit, this isn’t something I’m forced to ask of people because there are other, suitable, completed stories at the ready.
It’s why one of my pet peeves is when an author sends a submission, then a few days letter sends a “better, revised” version (and I explicitly state not to do this in my guidelines). I may very well have already considered the version they’d already sent and even started editing it for inclusion in my manuscript. It’s disrespectful of my time and, to me, indicates that they didn’t care enough in the first place to go over their story with a fine-tooth comb. Everyone makes mistakes, and one tiny typo is not going to disqualify you; if a story works, I’m willing to work on it and smooth out the kinks, as it were.
I can’t speak for other anthology editors, but that is how I work. As harsh as this post might sound, I truly welcome and look forward to submissions from authors I haven’t worked with before, and authors who are new to writing erotica. My recent anthologies and upcoming ones all feature writers whose work I haven’t published before, and I’m excited to add new voices to the erotic conversation created by my books and my colleagues’. Publishing those pieces is an honor, and new voices, writing styles, and topics help my anthologies to be more well-rounded. So please, submit away, just understand what services I, as an editor, can and cannot provide.