Fearsome Journeys is a new anthology of fantasy adventure from Solaris. The collection has stories from authors like Trudi Canavan, Saladin Ahmed, Glen Cook, Daniel Abraham, Elizabeth Bear and Scott Lynch and is edited by Jonathan Strahan. Strahan, who lives in Australia, is the reviews editor at Locus.
Jonathan kindly agreed to a “From the Inkwell” piece to discuss the challenge of finding the right authors and stories in order to make a successful anthology.
How to select your author
On the criteria for selecting stories…
First of all, I’d like to thank Geeknative for letting me stop by to chat about Fearsome Journeys and editing. It’s a great blog and I’m delighted to be here.
I sometimes get asked what goes into selecting an author or a story for a book. What makes for a great story? How do you know if a story is great? And I want to answer those questions. In fact, I want to make the process sound more impressive and considered than it sometimes is, perhaps because so much of the anthology-making process is mechanical business stuff about hitting deadlines, negotiating contracts and so on.
The truth is that a lot of the creative decisions I make about whether to invite an author to write for a book like Fearsome Journeys, or to accept a story I’ve been sent for publication are intuitive and exactly the sort of thing I think most readers would recognize. An editor is a reader first. He or she is the first and in some ways hopefully the best reader for a new unpublished story, and the ideal reader for the anthology being compiled. So, experience as a reader comes into play.
While I’ve always read and loved short stories, I read more now than I ever have. Each year I edit an annual “Best of the Year” anthology series. That means I have to look at, at least sample, and in many cases read through, thousands of newly published stories every year. I’ve been doing that for ten years now, and it means I have absorbed a lot about both good story writing and who writes what and what they might write well.
When I start a new anthology project I can be inspired by an idea, by another story, or just about anything. My two daughters loved witches and witch stories, and that lead to my editing Under My Hat, a YA fantasy anthology that came out last year. When I was choosing writers for that book I thought about both classic fantasy stories and recent terrific ones. The authors of those stories were the ones I turned to when I need writers for that book. For example, I’d just selected a Diana Peterfreund story for my best of the year, and she seemed like a perfect choice for that book.
In the case of Fearsome Journeys, the criteria I used for selecting writers and stories was pretty simple. The agreed brief from my editor was that the book would be a heart-of-the-genre fantasy book, one collecting epic/military fantasy rather like Swords and Dark Magic, and a sword and sorcery anthology I’d co-edited with Lou Anders a few years ago. So the first criteria I used was that any writer invited would have to have either experience writing epic/military fantasy, or have the skill to pull it off. Glen Cook, Kate Elliott, Scott Lynch and others have all written wonderful short fiction, and are very adept at writing the kind of story I needed. Involving them was obvious. Jeffrey Ford, Ellen Klages and Ellen Kushner, on the other hand, are the kind of writer who could successfully turn their hand to just about anything. Getting them on board is what helps to give a book real variety.
While skill and relevance are key criteria, two others are enthusiasm and reliability. I love to bring in new writers I’ve never worked with before, and I want everyone to be both enthusiastic about the book and someone I can depend on to deliver a story. I’d already worked with a handful of the writers in Fearsome Journeys so I knew they could be depended on to both write great stories and to deliver. Writers like Elizabeth Bear and K.J. Parker, who will write you a great story and do it on time, are an incredible gift for any editor. And writers like Saladin Ahmed and Robert V.S. Redick, who are both terrific fantasy writers, were so enthusiastic about the project that it was a joy to have them involved.
Once you’ve selected the writers, there’s selecting the stories. Each of them needs to be terrific. How do you know a fantasy story is terrific, or how do I know? The biggest indication is always that when you’re reading the story for the first time you forget that you’re reading a story submission for a book, and just get lost in it or excited by it. When that happens, I know I have something special and will do pretty much anything to get it in the final book. The next is when you come back to the story a couple months later, which I usually do, that you remember it clearly. If both of those things happen you have a winner.
Just because a story is good, though, doesn’t mean it’s right for the book. The next criteria has to do with whether the story is fit for purpose? Is it actually the sort of story that should go in? In this case each story had to either clearly be epic/military fantasy, or comment on that in an interesting way. I always want variety in a book, but you have to deliver what readers expect. A book called Fearsome Journeys with a dragon and a map on the cover must have stories filled with journeys, maps and dragons. But, and it’s a big but, you don’t want to overfill your book with just that kind of thing. So you need to balance stories like Scott Lynch or K. J. Parker’s with ones like those provided by Ellen Klages or Ellen Kushner and Ysabeau Wilce. You also don’t want too many similar stories. I usually make a point of trying to keep in touch with writers to avoid this, and it’s worked pretty well so far, but every now and then you do get something that’s either too left field, too similar, or just too long to fit into your book. Oh, and that’s the almost final criteria. It’s got to meet the guidelines. A book has a length and a budget, and stories have to fit.
The final, final criteria though is simple. I have to love the story. If I do, then I think readers hopefully will. I’ve overridden every other criteria I have to follow that last one important thing. Publish stories you love, and people will love your book. It seems to work pretty well.