“A Breakdown of the Break-In”
by Kealan Patrick Burke
Among the questions I get asked is this one, which pops up quite a bit:
“How did you get a story in Cemetery Dance?” or “How did you end up editing Taverns of the Dead?”
Unlike a lot of the questions put to me, these come with simple answers. Answers so simple, in fact, that they lead me to wonder why the question needed to be asked in the first place. If the inquisitor wants to know the process by which a story leaves my hands and ends up in the pages of a magazine, that I can understand. When writers set about submitting their efforts for the first time, it’s not a bad idea to ask someone the proper way to go about it, or to look it up. I did the same thing when I started out.
To this, I respond by telling the writer (a) to pick up a copy, or better yet copies, of the magazine they intend to submit to, to get familiar with the sort of stuff the editor is looking for, (b) to read the guidelines carefully (sending a vampire story to a publication that has an Absolutely No Vampires sign over the door won’t win you any brownie points), and (c) make sure your submission is neatly typed, typo-free, polished, and has your name and address in the upper left hand corner of the cover page so the editor knows where to find you if they need to.
However, if the writer is asking me what magic button I pressed to get my story into the magazine, who I fooled, or where I found the key to the executive washroom, then they are more likely to get scrutinized with the same intensity one usually employs when studying viscous matter on a petri-dish. Because this kind of attitude–that writers who get published in respectable magazines MUST be scratching someone’s back or kissing someone’s ass–drives me nuts. To such people, the concept of hard work, learning from rejection, and the betterment of craft, is an alien one. You’ve been published in that magazine, so now you need to tell them how they do it, what the trick is to get in with the ‘clique’. They prescribe to this theory methinks, because the long hard road seems too much like hard work. These quick-fixers would rather squander their time trying to find the magic mushroom that once devoured, will lead them through the wondrous gates of Publicationville, rather than having to sit down and work at it like everyone else.
And that’s a shame, because for quick-fixers, the desperate need for instant gratification usually leads to them self-publishing before their work is polished enough to be seen by the reading public, or turns them into trolls, who dedicate themselves to the online persecution of other writers, usually successful ones.
To the second question: “How did you end up editing Taverns of the Dead?” the answer, assuming I’m being asked about the process of editing and publishing an anthology is: (a) Come up with a theme, or if you don’t have one, then an angle that makes your project different from the multitude that have preceded your arrival onto the anthology scene, (b) compose a list of the writers you’d like to see in the book and find contact information for them (usually pretty easy to locate these days as almost every writer has a website and an email address), (c) compose a professional letter of invitation (invites to the tune of: “Hey Buddy, want to, like, be in this book I’m, like, doing?” rarely yield a response), and send it. Remember to let the writers know from the start that for now you’re only looking for an expression of interest until you get a publisher, because you can’t expect any writer to come on board a project or spend time writing a story for one that may never see the light of day, (d) with a provisional list of interested writers, compose an equally professional query for the publisher. There’s no need to prattle on for pages about how great the book is going to be and why they’d be mad not to publish it. Instead, introduce yourself, briefly, outline your idea, and provide your list of interested authors, (e) wait, which means do not hound the publisher with emails. Wait. Or, if you absolutely positively cannot wait for more than a few months (scroll up for a reminder of my opinion on quick-fixers), then drop the publisher a polite email asking if they’ve had a chance to look at your query. Then WAIT. If you get turned down, don’t get disheartened. Simply send that query out again, and again, and again, until you find someone who’s interested. If no one bites, it may simply be a case of bad timing, or maybe you don’t have the names a publisher wants to see (anthologies are always a tough sell, unless you’ve got a King, Straub, Barker, Koontz or Rice original story in the bag. Trying to get those stories would fill an essay by itself, so…maybe some other time.) So, assuming you do manage to get a publisher interested (f) you do a happy dance that wouldn’t look out of place among the drunk Irish guys at a wedding, then sign contracts, agree on a pay rate for you and the authors, and set a time period for submissions (at least five or six months. Sometimes the longer you allow for stories, the more chance you have of getting a story from even the busiest of your contributors), (g) once the stories start coming in, you find out just how tough the editing game can be, because you’ll be a lucky editor indeed if every single story you receive from your contributors is what you were looking for. After all, even the best writers write a bad story every now and again, and if you decide you’d rather not risk insulting someone you consider a hero of yours, then you’ll put that story in the book, and pay for it later when the readers and reviewers have their say. Better to have the courage of your convictions and only take the stories that fit your vision of the book. Assuming you don’t blatantly offend the writer of the story you’ve deemed unsuitable, I think you’ll find they’ll take it in their stride. Every professional writer faces rejection at some stage, and it rarely matters who doles out that rejection. If you’re polite and your reason for passing on the story is a fair and specific one (“I don’t want this, ya jerk” will get you your ass handed to you, and with good reason), then there shouldn’t be a problem, and you get to keep your book on track. (h) Once all the stories are in, acceptances and rejections dealt, contracts returned and signed, payment to the contributors taken care of (though this can come later depending on the terms of your contract), it’s time to decide the order in which the stories appear in the anthology. I’ve been asked more than once if this really matters, and it absolutely does. If you put the tales in willy-nilly, you run the risk of having thematically similar entries, or ones in which the setting is the same, appear too close together, which will only lead the reader to compare them, criticize your judgment, or assume the whole book is going to be exactly the same tale told by different writers. Go for variety. With your stories in order, next you have to (i) format your manuscript, following traditional guidelines, or those set out on the publisher’s website. If you don’t know what format the publisher prefers, ask. After that, all that remains is for you to deliver the book (again, using traditional methods). The rest is up to the publisher.
The other way in which the question, “How did you end up editing Taverns of the Dead?” can be taken?
It would be better for all concerned if I left that one go. I think we’ve seen enough viscous matter on petri-dishes for one day, don’t you think?