A Tale of Two Anthologies

The following is likely to be of interest more to writers, especially those interested in having their work included in an anthology, but here we go anyway.

During the second half of 2020, I had two anthology projects on my to-do list — one of which ended successfully, the other, not so much — and it’s that second one that was truly disappointing, because it was an anthology I was going to edit.

A bit of backstory: due to the pandemic, renaissance faires across the country — including the one I’m involved with as fight director, the Connecticut Renaissance Faire — had to cancel their seasons. Beyond the disappointment felt by many patrons and participants, this was a huge blow to artisans and performers who make their living at these shows — and as self-employed artists, their financial safety net options were even scarcer than for a lot of folks with “regular” jobs.*

(* = I say “regular” rather than “real” because working in the performing arts is as legitimate a field of employment as any, but it can be unsteady and irregular in terms of consistency of schedule and income. But I digress…)

Around the time the CTRF producers were debating whether to attempt opening in the fall, I was working on a submission for an upcoming anthology of superhero romance stories. On a bit of a whim, I decided to put together an anthology myself, the proceeds for which would be donated to the RESCU (Renaissance Entertainers Services and Crafters United) Foundation, which provides financial aid to faire participants in need.

I went with fantasy for the genre and submissions would be open to anyone who in any way participated in a renaissance faire, both of which I felt best reflected the faire community’s typical interests and sensibilities. To tie the stories together, I required that they take place in a fair or festival setting.

As a point of interest, this is all typical for anthologies; they frequently have some sort of unifying theme or concept, and submissions are open only to a specific demographic. These criteria may seem like they’d be limiting, but they’re there for good reasons.

On the former point: without a core concept, or at the very least a primary genre to tie the stories together somehow, an anthology is tough to market. It may sound counterintuitive, but trying to be all things to all people doesn’t necessarily net you a wider audience. If you’re a fan of horror stories, how inclined would you be to spend good money on an anthology with only one horror story?

As for opening submissions only to the rennie crowd: I wanted this anthology to be by those within the community to give it extra meaning. When that decision was questioned, I put it this way: if someone was publishing a collection of stories about the musical Hamilton, would you rather read stories by the cast and crew who worked on the show, or by some random audience member?

Besides, the national rennie community was huge, and full of creative energy looking for an outlet. I figured the response would be pretty strong, and at first, I seemed to be right. I worked up the submission guidelines, posted them on my website and posted an announcement on several faire-oriented Facebook pages. Within two weeks, more than 300 people had viewed the submission guidelines.

I thought I was all set. I assumed — based on nothing, admittedly — that half of those people would never submit anything. Of the remainder, half of them would be rejected instantly for failing to follow submission guidelines or submitting a manuscript riddled with errors — the two big reasons for immediately rejecting a manuscript, regardless of the publisher — leaving me with 75 submissions worth reading. I reckoned the odds of finding ten to twelve quality stories from that were fairly high.

Between the time submissions officially opened on September 1 and when they closed on December 31, I received eight submissions.

Of those, half were insta-rejections for failing to follow the submission guidelines — specifically, the criterion that the story had to offer a fair or festival as its primary setting. Two stories had no such setting whatsoever, and the other two used a modern renaissance faire as its setting, which I specifically ruled out because I felt it limited the anthology’s appeal to a too-select audience — and, frankly, because it felt cheesy as hell.

Three stories had potential, but also had some issues that needed to be resolved before they were ready for publication. To be blunt, under different circumstances, two of the stories also would have been rejected out-of-hand because they read like first drafts. There were typos galore, egregious formatting errors, glaring continuity glitches, redundant word choices — issues typical of any first draft.

But I wasn’t exactly experiencing an embarrassment of riches for submissions, so I decided to see if these stories could be polished to professional quality. I asked my friend and fellow indie author Lyndsey Luther (Greencloak) to serve as my co-curator and co-editor, and together we reviewed the stories that had cleared the first hurdle, wrote up our respective notes, and sent the manuscripts back for revisions.

One author sent back a new draft. The other two fell off the face of the earth, neither returning revised stories nor formally withdrawing their submissions.

The eighth story we never read because it came in at the end of December, by which point it had become clear this anthology was DOA. On December 31, I sent emails out to everyone who had submitted but not been formally rejected announcing the project’s cancelation.

Naturally I was disappointed by this, but I consoled myself with the fact that the time I’d mentally blocked off for the next steps in the project — editing and formatting the manuscript, sending out contracts, prepping the Kickstarter campaign to fund everything, etc. — was available to me again and I could focus more on my own writing.

And on the other anthology, which I’ll tell you about now. Don’t worry, this part is much shorter.

Some of the folks behind the website superhero-fiction.com decided to put together an anthology of superhero romance stories. As it happened, I had the skeleton for a story in the back of my mind — a concept for another superhero anthology of pulp hero-style stories, which I never pursued because the anthology was not paying its contributors; the publisher was going to keep all sales revenue for its own purposes, so I tucked the idea away for possible later use.

When the call for submissions for Beneath the Mask – A Superhero Romance Anthology went out, I pulled the concept out of mothballs and got to work. Within a few days, I had a finished first draft of Like a Knife in the Heart featuring a brand-new character, the Sapphire Silhouette. After sending it out to some beta readers for feedback, I reworked it a little, got the word count down to where it needed to be — barely, but I made it work — gave it a few coats of polish, and sent it off.

And then I waited.

Several weeks later, I heard back from the curators, who loved the story but wanted the romance elements to be front-loaded a little more, which I didn’t entirely agree with from a structure perspective. I felt the culmination of the romantic tension between the Sapphire Silhouette and her love interest was just that, a character arc reaching a climax, needed to follow the climax of the plot, but the curators wanted the romance to be up front and center. It was a romance anthology, after all, they reasoned, so I spent a day juggling story points around to give them what they wanted and sent it off again.

And then I waited some more.

Near the end of the year, I got word that my story was good to go, pending a final editorial review — which for me involved one extremely minor note that didn’t even require a fix.

More waiting.

But worth it in the end, because the anthology is locked for a Valentine’s Day release.

I realize I’ve thrown a lot at you, so let me summarize the big takeaways for me, which I hope you aspiring writers might find useful should you decide to submit to an anthology:

  • Pay attention to an anthology’s chosen genre and theme, and craft your story to meet those criteria.
  • Also, pay attention to who is welcome to submit stories. If the criteria don’t apply to you, don’t submit.
  • Anthologies, even from small presses, can receive hundreds of submissions, so patience is not only a virtue, it’s necessary.
  • Follow the submission guidelines, to the letter.
  • Make sure your submission is as polished as possible.
  • It’s in your best interests to submit as early as possible and not at the last minute. It takes pressure off the curator, and it gives you time to submit a new story if your first one is rejected.
  • If the curator contacts you for any reason, respond immediately. Don’t procrastinate, or worse, ghost them.
  • Respect word count limits. Don’t under- or overwrite and assume the curators will give it a pass.
  • Don’t submit to anthologies that don’t pay the author. Your time, effort, and art have value. Don’t give them away for free — or worse, to enrich a publisher who won’t share the wealth.
  • Remember what I said about patience. It takes time to read and review submissions, so don’t contact the curator to ask how things are going. It’s a “don’t call us, we’ll call you” situation.
  • The curator might ask for changes to your story. That’s normal. It’s on you to decide whether to stick to your guns or make the changes, but if you stand firm and refuse to alter your submission, don’t be surprised if that earns you a rejection.

Now, get writing, and good luck!

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