By Joshua Palmatier: Mike Glyer asked me to write a post about some of the behind-the-scenes action at my small press Zombies Need Brains. As some of you might know, ZNB holds an open call for a short window (usually from the time the Kickstarter funds to the end of December) where anyone can submit a short story that fits one of our themes and have it considered for possible inclusion in that anthology. I thought I’d talk about how we handle these submissions and perhaps get into a little bit of what I look for in the stories as I read them. But first, a quick introduction just in case some of you don’t know about this small press, along with a plug for our current Kickstarter.
ZNB is a small press founded by me, fantasy author Joshua Palmatier. Every year, I run a Kickstarter to fund a set of themed anthologies. So far I’ve managed to produce seven anthologies over the course of four years. What I think makes ZNB unique is that we fill half of the anthologies with well-known SF&F writers, but the remaining slots are up for grabs with an open call for submissions. So each anthology has New York Times bestselling authors alongside authors who’ve just made their first professional sale to ZNB. [ZNB is recognized by SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) as a qualifying market.]
We’re excited about the themes and anchor authors we have up for grabs this year. THE RAZOR’S EDGE is a military SF&F anthology where the stories will explore that fine line between being a rebel and becoming an insurgent. We hope to see some great sci-fi—and yes, fantasy—from our anchor authors, including Gerald Brandt, William C. Dietz, D.B. Jackson, Chris Kennedy, Kay Kenyon, Sharon Lee & Steve Miller, Seanan McGuire, L.E. Modesitt, Jr., and Steve Perry. In GUILDS & GLAIVES, authors will explore their sword & sorcery sides, with a dash of guilds for flavor; anchor authors include David B. Coe, James Enge, David Farland, Esther Friesner, Howard Andrew Jones, Gini Koch, Violette Malan, and Seanan McGuire. And lastly, we have SECOND ROUND: A RETURN TO THE URBAR, which is a follow-up to a previously released anthology called AFTERHOURS: TALES FROM THE URBAR, published by DAW Books. Here, Gilgamesh bartends a time-traveling bar where history mixes with a touch of magic. Anchor authors include Jacey Bedford, Gini Koch, Juliet E. McKenna, C.E. Murphy, Kristine Smith, and Kari Sperring.
If any (or all) of these themes intrigue you, check out our Kickstarter! Help us bring these three themes to life by backing our project! You can find out further details about our past projects and the small press at www.zombiesneedbrains.com.
So, how does ZNB handle the “slush pile”—all of the stories that authors submit to the anthologies for consideration? Well, the basics are simple and boring, yet essential: I take the submissions, copy them to a folder on Dropbox, and then share them with the editors of that anthology. I usually do this every day once the submission window opens until the last day, December 31st. We get a lot of submissions, so if I didn’t do it every day, I’d end up spending an entire week at the end taking care of it. As I move the submitted stories to the Dropbox, I record in an Excel file the title, author, date of submission, and word count.
Then it’s time to read.
I pretty much read stories non-stop from the moment the open call starts until February of the next year. I read in the car (when I’m a passenger), during breaks at work, in the evenings, basically every chance I get. With every story, I usually read the entire thing, then give the story a ranking from 1-5. I record the ranking in the Excel file, then write a few words about the story so that later on I’ll remember it, and then a few words about what I thought worked or didn’t work in the story (essentially, the reasons behind my ranking). Then I move on to the next story.
You’ll note that I said I usually read the entire story. That’s true, but typically by the end of the first or second page I’ve already got a solid handle on a) how well the writer writes and b) where the story is going. It’s surprising how quickly you can reach these conclusions. HOWEVER, even if I’ve already decided that the story isn’t going to make the cut (at least for me; the other editor might disagree), I keep reading. I do this because there are rare instances where the story either went in a direction I hadn’t foreseen OR the story simply had a bad start and there really is a good story in there, it just starts on page 7. I’ve had both of these happen in the past, so I keep reading.
This policy may not continue, however. ZNB has been receiving more and more submissions with each new set of anthologies. We’re going to reach a point where we have too many submissions for me to get through them all by the end of February. If this happens, I may have to forego reading every story all the way to the end. I don’t want to do this, but if we don’t get our stories picked by the end of February, we’ll fall behind in the production process and then the anthology won’t be delivered in August, as promised. So … make the beginning of your story strong!
At this point, you’re probably wondering what makes certain stories stand out over others. The answer is: a complete story with a cool idea that’s on theme and involves characters I care about. It sounds like a simple statement, but there’s a lot going on in that one sentence. Let’s break it down:
First, the idea must be on theme. This is the number one reason for story rejections. For example, the slush pile for TEMPORALLY OUT OF ORDER had many stories where the word “time” or “time travel” was mentioned on page 8 out of 10 and was never mentioned again. The theme was everyday objects that were somehow acting temporally out of order. These stories had no object acting out of order, they just randomly mentioned time somewhere and were about something else entirely. This is an automatic 1 ranking: it’s not on theme.
But having an idea on theme isn’t quite enough either. It has to be a COOL idea that’s on theme. For example, SUBMERGED was an underwater themed anthology. I expected, and got, tons of stories about Atlantis, mermaids, sirens, etc., because when you say underwater SF&F, those are the ideas that leap first to mind, right? It’s possible to write a cool story with those topics and be on theme, but we aren’t going to choose 5 stories about Atlantis. We want the anthology to have some variety. It’s better to try to come up with something ELSE that’s cool and different. A suggestion is to sit down and start writing out ideas that fit the theme in a notebook, numbering them from 1 to, say, 24. The first 10 are probably doing to be standard tropes about that theme, which means we’ll likely see many, many stories like that. The ideas from 15 on are probably going to be far-fetched—you’re reaching at that point and the ideas just become crazier and crazier. Too crazy to make sense, actually. But those in the 10-15 range … those might be just outside the box enough to be cool and interesting, while still not so far out that they’re entering crazy territory.
But having a cool idea that’s on theme isn’t enough. I see many stories where I find the idea interesting … but then the story goes nowhere. It’s just an idea. You need to build up a story AROUND that idea. Story is probably the second biggest reason a submission is rejected. So ask yourself, once you have this idea, what you can do with it. What are the consequences of the idea? What are its ramifications? How can the idea go wrong? What can you do with that idea that will bring in some kind of conflict? Having a cell phone that can call the past is interesting, but how can that bring up conflict? That conflict is the story.
And lastly, connected to the conflict, there needs to be a character that we care about. I’ve read tons of stories where I thought the idea was cool, there was a story, but as I was reading I found I just didn’t care whether the character lived or died, found the lost city, or talked to their dead relative. The character needs to be interesting as well. (Notice it didn’t necessarily say they had to be likeable; I’m perfectly willing to read a story about a character I hate if he/she gets his/her comeuppance.) The character, along with the conflict, add the human element to the story that’s so essential for it to work as a whole.
OK, so I read and rank the stories. The other editor is doing the same thing. Once we’ve both read the stories, we get together with our rankings in hand and talk about our top 20 picks. Most of the time, there are a few stories we both agree are great. Those usually get automatically put into the anthology. The rest … well, we sit and argue about them. We each explain what we liked and didn’t like about them. We also compare them to the stories we’ve already accepted and the anchor author stories. As I said, we want variety, so if you wrote something similar to an anchor author, well, the anchor author is already guaranteed a spot. We also compare tones—no one wants to read an anthology with all dark, depressing stories. If yours is the only humorous story in our top 20s, you’ll likely get in. In the end, usually over the course of a couple of days, the arguments resolve all but the last slot or so. This is when it becomes really tough, because the stories left to consider are usually all on an equal standing. A decision has to be made though, whether it’s me being “publisher” and saying this is the story we’re taking OR, if the stories truly are equal, deciding to take both (or neither).
After that, decisions made, I have the happy job of sending out acceptance emails to those we decided to keep, and the horrible job of sending out the rejections.
So that’s how ZNB chooses their stories from the slush pile and also a little about what I look for when I’m reading. I hope it was at least mildly interesting. And once again, we can’t produce these anthologies without backers for our Kickstarter, so check out our current set of anthologies at tinyurl.com/insurgenturbar and help bring a new batch to life!
The Razor’s Edge: One man’s insurgent is another man’s freedom fighter…
From The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to The Hunger Games, everyone enjoys a good rebellion. There is something compelling about a group (or individual) who throws caution to the wind and rises up in armed defiance against oppression, tyranny, religion, the government–you name it. No matter the cause, or how small the chance, it’s the courage to fight for what is right against overwhelming odds that grabs our hearts and has us pumping our fists in the air.
On the other hand, the greater good isn’t always good for everybody, and someone (or some group) must enforce the laws necessary to keep the disaffected from tearing society apart. Where is the line between the freedom fighter and the insurgent, or is it simply a matter of perspective?
Win or lose, it’s the righteous struggle we cherish, and those who take up arms for a cause must walk The Razor’s Edge between liberator and extremist.
Edited by Troy Bucher & Joshua Palmatier, this military SF&F anthology will explore the heroes and villains on both sides of insurgencies. It will contain approximately 14 stories with an average length of 6000 words each.
Second Round: A Return to the Ur-Bar:
In 2011, DAW published AFTER HOURS: TALES FROM THE UR-BAR, the first anthology edited by Patricia Bray & Joshua Palmatier, starting them down the road that eventually led to the formation of the small press Zombies Need Brains. Now, we’d like to return to that legendary time-traveling bar with all new authors and all new stories set throughout the ages. Here you will find heroes and villains alike, as the immortal bartender Gilgamesh serves up drinks mixed with magic and a dash of intrigue. And if you’re lucky, perhaps he’ll even mix you up his own special elixir! Edited by Patricia Bray & Joshua Palmatier, the anthology will contain approximately 14 stories with an average length of 6000 words each.
Guilds and Glaives:
Sword and sorcery has long been a much beloved staple of the SF&F community, from Fritz Leiber’s “Lankhmar” novels and Moorcock’s “Elric” saga, to Violette Malan’s more recent “Dhulyn and Parno” series. Who doesn’t like a daring thief skulking through back alleys in the dark of night, or a deranged mage conjuring death spells in a bubbling cauldron? This anthology will tackle the subgenre of thieves, assassins, guilds, and dark magic with some of today’s hottest authors! Edited by S.C. Butler & Joshua Palmatier, it will contain approximately 14 stories with an average length of 6000 words each.