Stealing the editor’s chair

My co-editor JA Ironside has already given a fascinating account of the process of editing the anthology A Seeming Glass on her blog here, so I shan’t go over ground she has so ably covered. That said, I thought it might be interesting to add my perspective on how this collection of stories came into being.

Find out more about A Seeming Glass on the Random Writers website, here

The creation of the Random and Speculative Short Story Appreciation group on the Word Cloud writing community has affected a number of writers in ways we didn’t really envisage at the time. As Jules has indicated, the one thing that can do most to improve a writer is to find one writing buddy – someone who instinctively gets your work but has the honesty and insight to delve beneath its skin and help you bring the best of it to the surface. At a stroke, a whole group of such people had now found each other. I heard later it was a sudden, almost instinctive decision. It was certainly a good one.

We had helped each other with our writing for eight or nine months before the suggestion that the group produce an anthology. It was another sudden, instinctive decision. I’m surprised it took that long, in retrospect. It was just a moment of observation that so many of the stories we were working on had their roots in something older, mining myth, fairy tale and classical sources to create something new. And the logical progression – we should produce an anthology. Of course. As writers we so often seem to be on the same wavelength it was obvious that our work should sit together well.

Looking back I’m not surprised the response was so positive. And within weeks, the first drafts of the first stories were being produced. All radically different takes on the notion of reflecting an old tale to show us something different many in ways I hadn’t considered before, all making me think about the familiar in a new way. In a sense, that was the easy bit, having lit the blue touchpaper with no desire to stand well back. What was particularly satisfying was that a number of people said they had had this or that idea for a story for a while but hadn’t known what to do with it until now. Others were spurred to completely new stories from looking at the source material. It was worth doing for that alone.

Jules has talked about receiving, considering and choosing the stories for the collection. It was just as tough as she described, but part of that, at least from my perspective, was because we could already see the thing taking form. One thing I had not appreciated about an anthology of stories before, when it comes to the selection, is that it’s not just about picking the ‘best’ stories, whatever that might mean. No, we had a selection of very high quality stories, but which had to find their place in a larger entity. We kept the word limit deliberately ‘soft’ in case there were longer or shorter pieces that worked best

The flow of the anthology was suddenly very important, and another thing I had been blissfully unaware of in the past. Do you open with a story that wows you for the beauty of its prose? Or one which encapsulates the chosen theme so neatly the collection could have been written around it? Do you end with a punchy little coda (we had a couple of stories just over 1,000 words) or, having built to a pitch, with something epic (there were several almost novelistic stories over 8,000 words)? Do you try to balance a darker piece with something lighter, or would that simply introduce incongruity? To what extent do you ask for changes to make a piece fit better? To what extent to you make acceptance dependent on those changes?

As Jules said, I now appreciate the task of the editor very much more. And those professional publications must receive many, many more entries than ours did.

I’ll add a word about the cover, as this was another element that almost fell into our laps. I had been in Barbados for my brother’s wedding, and the bridge and groom had asked me to take photos of the reception, which began on a catamaran sailing up the coast. Somehow, among the photos of grinning guests posing in front of the sunset or mocking-up moments from Titanic, was a dreamy, indistinct image of a ghostlike figure gazing out over seemingly misty waters. I couldn’t work out how this photograph had got in amongst the others. I can only assume that I had accidentally switched the camera to the wrong setting, as the alternative – that the young woman I had accidentally framed is actually a water spirit, and the camera somehow captured the bond between her and the sea – is surely too strange even for this anthology.

Of course, turning this image into a cover took a lot of work that may not be apparent from looking at it, or indeed any book cover unless you have a background in graphic design. I have done a little design in the past, from my student magazine days, then from working at Autosport and with various NHS publications, but fiction covers are another world. Natural focal points, the direction the eye travels over the cover, and three being the magic number all had to be factored in. Furthermore, with a relatively few words we had to try to present the maximum information to inform a potential reader about what kind of book they were looking at. Jules kindly credits me with the design, but the truth is that a huge amount of collaboration took place and there were around thirty evolutions of the design, each discussed at length, before we reached the final version.

Reaching this point has been a mammoth effort, and that’s without any of the work to try to bring this embryonic work to an audience…

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