The Story isn’t the Whole Story

Anyone who says ‘the story’ is or should be the only thing that an editor uses to pick out a table of contents is being at a minimum naive.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say you have an open call for horror: no caveats; no themes; no restraints. Now, in your top ten stories, SIX have nearly an identical plot. For example: family haunted by a demon, turns out to be kid’s teddy bear.

Now, these are all great, they are in your top ten after all, but you will not pick all six to be in your anthology. In fact, you probably won’t pick more than one of them, despite the fact that they ranked as highly as they did in your reading. Why? Because if you put six stories with identical plots in your table of contents, people will not like your book.

‘The Story’ fails you as solo criteria in this case, and now you have to re-address criteria for decisions.

Think of ‘the story’ as step one in the process. If the story isn’t good, then the rest doesn’t really matter. But, just because the story is good doesn’t mean the rest doesn’t matter.

The quality of the prose is a factor. A fantastic plot with amazing characters and a great hook will utterly fail if the prose fails. Prose is easily the glue that holds everything together. If it is weak, it takes the story with it.

Is a story a reprint? Where is it reprinted? In your open call, are all your top stories vampires? werewolves? Lovecraft? Does this fantastic story even fit your call? (I do get this one all the time; great stories that aren’t right for the publication) Is the story great, but relies on something factually incorrect to work, like Romans with diamond tipped weapons, or Denver’s very large sea port?

Is it too long? too short? Do I have the word count in my budget for this one? The financial aspect of making a book cannot be overstressed.

Does it completely not fit with the rest of the TOC in theme, tone, length, or any other host of reasons? An anthology is a lot like a mix tape in composition. The stories can ebb and flow as you read, but some, no matter the quality, aren’t a good fit.

Even with the authors themselves, we still have criteria. Was this person in the previous issue / anthology? Did they just generate a lot of bad press about something? Sellability and marketability can both be factors (though, personally I try to not use these as criteria).

The idea that ‘the story’ is the only criteria a piece is chosen for is simply not true.

If the product of this open call was an anthology of all straight white men, no one would notice. If it was all black women, the implication would be that it was a ‘special’ call, or that I had somehow sacrificed ‘the story’ to get such a TOC in the first place.

That is the real insult. The implication is those of us who produce work with diverse TOC’s have somehow sacrificed ‘the story’ to get there. It is insulting to the editors, to the writers, and to the readers.

This is, of course, for open call anthologies. If it was an invite-only anthology, then the makeup of the TOC is 100% on the editor. The criteria for these anthologies was not ‘the story.’

But the open call editor’s don’t get a reprieve on this. Every table of contents is choice by the editor.

Every table of contents was a choice made by the editor.

Say it again until you believe it.

Every table of contents was a choice made by the editor.

As a gatekeeper it is important to audit yourself, important to look back at your decisions and choices. It is important to look at ourselves with the same level of scrutiny we are looking at the writers.

And if your TOC’s have been homogeneous, it may be time to reflect and ask yourself “why?”

The reason why these factors should be taken in account is that they can help you see any personal biases you may have. What is your reading list? Did you reject a good story because it was too “feminine” or too “foreign”? Is there something in your tastes that is influencing “the story” in ways you aren’t noticing?

As editors, we do not have the luxury of ‘comfort zones’. We should be constantly stretching ourselves just as we ask the same for writers.

Because, to be blunt, if you say your criteria is “the story” and your TOC is all white men, I don’t believe you.

Author: jake

poet, editor, kilt wearing heathen. he/him