The Coast Anthology Workshop


Every year, the folks behind the Fiction River Anthologies (Kristine Katherine Rusch, Dean Wesley Smith, Kerrie L Hughes, Rebecca Moesta, Mark Leslie Lefebvre, John Helfers, and Kevin J Anderson, editing) do a workshop down on the coast to provide the guts of the thing. It goes like this:

Once a week, in the dead of Sunday night (mid-day for Dean) participants get an email with this week’s theme, editor, and rules. From that moment, the writers have until midnight the following Sunday night/Monday morning to deliver your story: on topic, in theme, within length requirements.

If you’re late, you aren’t in.

Now, repeat that for six week.

This year, the topics were: Fear, Justice, Taverns, Wishes, Aliens, and Pulse Pounders. So: horror, crime, travelers, YA, SF, and adrenaline.

Forty something authors participated. Big names, newbies doing their first Coast Workshop, everything in between, and one camp cook (me). Fabulous Publisher Babe™ does these as a participant, but I just sit in awe and watch.

Actually, that’s not true. I go down for one very specific reason over and above taking a week off to be a writer. Some of you already have heard that I’m going to be editing a pair of anthologies this year, targeted for publication in 2017. This is where I learn my own craft.

So you have 40+ writers that have done stories, and most of these people do all six. And they are all damned good. These are the kinds of people who support their families on their writing alone.

Each day of the workshop is dedicated to one anthology. All (five or seven) of the editors will be at the front of the room, a Greek Oracle of accumulated wisdom.

For each story, Dean reads the title. John reads his summary of the story (which can be quite silly), and then each of the editors takes a turn discussing the story.  For each of them, they are telling the writer if they would buy the story for that particular anthology, or not, and why. The authors each sit quietly and listen and (hopefully) learn.

For the writer, this is invaluable information about why the story worked or didn’t work, from some of the best names in the field, including the only person to ever win a Hugo award as both a writer and an editor (Kris). The others are all professional editors with decades of experience in the field and dozens of novels. Freaking amazing insight.

(One of the rules is that though all the authors have the opportunity to read all the stories, the authors are FORBIDDEN to discuss the stories with each other. The only ones allowed to express an opinion are the editors. This is not a peer workshop. This is led by seasoned pros.)

So each editor reviews the story. They have different tastes, different impressions, different back-stories. You will see a broad swath of opinions.

What’s fun is that only one person matters.

The last editor to speak is the one who is actually buying for her anthology. You might have six people who hated the story, and one who loved it and is buying it. You might have six who loved it and rated it a strong buy, and get down to the last person saying “I didn’t get it.”

Editing like this normally happens in a blank room. The author only gets an acceptance letter, or a rejection, with no exposure to the actual sausage-making.

What this workshop does, is it teaches writers how to understand the editorial process, hands on. It really drives home that given a professional level of storytelling (and these folks are pros), it all comes down to a matter of taste.

For me, I go to the evening sessions, after all of the stories have been reviewed. That’s when the fun part happens.

Having picked 4 strong buys and 20 maybes, the editor now has to “build” their anthology.

This is the secret sauce. This is the reason I take a week off work and bribe my way in the door with fresh brownies.

Last year, many of the stories were at the top end of the length category, so around 6,000 words. When it came time to buy, the editors all had around 70,000 words to work with, so roughly 10 stories, plus anchor authors (big names invited to send in a story). Several very good stories didn’t make it last year because the editor simply ran out of space.

People took that to heart. Stories came in around 3-4,000 this year, and some editors ended up with 15 stories.

Lesson: in addition to on topic and theme, shorter stories have a better chance of being bought.

Also, the editors talk to themselves out loud while working, so you see them rate every story into genre and sub-genre, and then talk about only having one of this genre and seven of that. As a result, the one gets in, and only two or three of the seven do.

Lesson: understand what other contributors are likely to do, and try to find corners where you are all alone.

If you hit everything else—theme and genre and word count—but nobody else will have done something like this, you create a slot in the editor’s mind that needs filling. And guess what? You have just written piece to fill it.

Lesson: swing for the fences when it comes to weirdness. Don’t go for low-hanging fruit or obvious stories.

This year, forty-some writers turned in 250-some stories. Roughly 1,100,000 words. One point one million.

The quality of work, after several years of these workshops, was such that last year, they did an extra, seventh anthology just from the left-overs. And it was filled with really good stuff. This year, they just said up front that there would be a seventh. And that editor had to cut their story selection for the final anthology down from the twenty-five stories he originally wanted, AFTER the other six had taken what they wanted.

I’m a pretty good writer. I don’t do short fiction, like this stuff. (Technically, what I do it serial fiction. The soon-to-be-fourth Brak story coming out this week is an example.) I could probably spend a year honing my writing chops to be able to fit into the middle of this group in terms of skill or craft, if I wanted to take the workshop next year.

But to reach that level, I would have to take an entire year of working on short fiction, and doing nothing else. Seriously, these people are that good. And worse, they’re going to spend this next year working on their own craft, so I would maybe, barely, hold my own with them, year over year.

If I was committed to short fiction, I probably would make that choice. I would have, two years ago.

Instead, Fabulous Publisher Babe™ suggested I go longer, and write more novellas and novels, so I can sell my stuff Indie. There are already bookstores and places on the West Coast where you can buy my novels off the shelf (squeeeeeeeeeeeeee). I need to keep turning out longer material to keep my fans happy, and to keep growing the pool of folks looking forward to buying my next title.

But I learned a LOT from being there. The two anthologies I’m planning to edit will be different from these, but Fabulous Publisher Babe™ and I spent the five hours driving each direction discussing editing. Every morning, a long walk on the beach and around to Taft, talking craft. How to organize, what order to put things in so as to evoke the emotional response I want from the reader. Even how to stack stories in order to have strong and weak ones complement each other as the reader encounters them.

That being said, if you want an amazing selection of writers to read and discover, I highly recommend that you go wander through the back catalog of Fiction River and get yourself some issues. All around a theme, so you will be exposed to a variety of genre exploring such a thing, from Romance to Science Fiction, Mystery to Fantasy. (And these authors are being nominated for major awards, sometimes for stories in the Fiction River anthology. Let that sink in for a moment.)

And you will help support these authors. For many of them, short stories in an anthology like this are advertising for their novels. They are a way for you, the reader, to be exposed to a new voice that you might like, in the hopes that you will go walk their catalog and be excited enough to tell other people about it.

Because that is a significant view of the future of Indie publishing, right there.


shade and sweet water


West of the Mountains, WA