Thursday, April 18, 2013

Why "Maybe" Is Way Harder than "Yes" or "No"

I'm making decisions for What Fates Impose.

I know what I hoped to get when I wrote the guidelines. I feel pretty good about the guidelines I wrote, given the stories I've received in response to them. However, for every anthology there are stories that must be rejected early on, because although they may be good in themselves, they may not be right for the book. It's sad to reject them, but it's also easy, because they just don't fit in with what I'm trying to do.

The stories that do fit are also easy to identify. A few come in that are close to perfect, both in style and content, and there are others that are close enough to be tweaked into shape with only a few changes. Everybody's happy about those. YOU WILL NOT BELIEVE HOW GOOD SOME OF THESE STORIES ARE. You know, if you read the anthology when it comes out, which I hope you will.

I'm here to tell you about the problem of the "maybe" pile.

If my reaction to a story is to think "maybe," then the author has gotten some things right. Completely broken stories are easy to dismiss. But there are so many possible combinations of right and wrong in a maybe. I could like the premise, but not the way it's written. I could like the character, but not the plot. I could like most of the story, but be confused about the timeline because of its structure. There could be too much backstory. There could be a vague ending, or an unsatisfying ending, or unclear motivations that make me wonder why a character does something. The story could have a good series of events that are summarized instead of being shown in scenes, or too much dialogue and not enough description, or too many similes and adjectives cluttering it up. There is an endless parade of possible unfortunate combinations, but if I'm thinking "maybe," there's something desirable enough about the story that I want to figure out a way that it could be fixed, if possible.

Then I have to answer some questions for myself. How much space do I have left in the anthology? How much time do I have to work out suggestions for story solutions? How much of a change would be too much to ask for a given story? How committed am I to including this one? Is the premise different enough from any other story I have that I really want to do whatever it will take to get changes made in it? Are the changes I'm considering consistent with what the author seems to be trying to accomplish with this story?

That last question is important to me. When I write stories and then receive critiques about them, I don't mind constructive criticism that will help me turn the story into what I want it to be. But it always makes me feel a bit sick to get suggestions that would turn the story into something completely different than what I wanted it to be, because then I wonder if I've messed up so badly that the reader can't see where I was trying to go. As an editor, is it better to pass on a story or to ask the author to turn it into what I want? That depends on how much of a change I'd be asking for. I have the right to want what I want for my book, but it might not always be the best thing for someone's story to be forced in that direction.

This maybe business can be agonizing. It's part of the job, though, and I'll keep at it until the job's done.


  1. As a writer, I think I'd prefer to have you pass on my story than ask me to make it into something very different. Although it never hurts to say, "You know, I could see this story working for my needs if THIS happened... how would you feel about that?" It could be just the suggestion the author needs to turn a good story into a great one.

  2. So far, whenever possible, I've mentioned the problem I see and offered a couple of options for how to work on it, along with an invitation to think of a different solution and/or talk it over with me. It seems to be working out. :)

  3. I've submitted one story that the editor wanted me to make changes on. As it turned out, I had a significant logical gap in the story, and his suggestions closed that gap. This made my story better without tampering with its "integrity". So far no one has asked me to make wholesale changes to any submitted story. To me, if it needs that many changes, then the concept, if not the idea behind it, doesn't work, and it's time to move on.

  4. Excellent post Nayad. As a (recovering) anthologist myself, I agree with all you've said.

    When it comes to the "maybes," another consideration for me was also "does the author have the chops to perform the needed edits/changes?" In two of the total fifteen novellas in my Panverse SFF anthos, it took three rounds of edits for each. A couple of stories I passed on altogether because I felt the authors wouldn't be capable of it.

    That said, the majority of the authors I published in those volumes were new authors, still learning their craft. But it's one of the countless calls an editor needs to make--and of course also applies to novels.