Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Lessons Learned as an Editor

So, if it hasn't been smashed clean through your skull right now, I've got an anthology out. My first one — well, my first one editing. Unearthed was largely an experiment in what it took to make an anthology.

Up front, the question was never "Could I do an anthology." If I was uncertain about my ability to actually follow through, I wouldn't have done it; I don't feel right about stringing along that many people with that much work for potentially no result. My question was a lot more simple: "What will I not be expecting, and what will I know for next time?"

I was fortunate to have more than a dozen creative, helpful people on board. From being prompt with their work to lending a hand when I found myself unexpectedly pressed for time or at a loose end, I had a pretty darn good team of people. And I absolutely did learn a lot of things... because nothing goes off without a hitch, no matter how well it goes from the front.

Originally I was going to take these down privately to go over for the next anthology I do (eventually... got plenty on my plate right now, so while I have a couple ideas, they're going to have to stay on the back burner until I get my work load sorted out). But, as with most things, sharing is caring. Some of these may be obvious. Some of these may not apply to all. But hopefully it's helpful to some.

Lesson 1: Don't start without a schedule (and bake "disaster days" into it early.)

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I was of two minds on this anthology when it came to schedule. On the one hand, it was for charity. Not because it uses licensed properties (it doesn't — any existing characters used are either in the public domain or owned by the author), but because royalties vs. flat fees are something I want to figure out on their own. Because it was a charity gig and my first anthology, I felt awkward putting too much pressure on people to meet specific dates.

On the other, specific dates make the project go 'round, and I very much regret not coming in before anything else with an indelible schedule.

Now, "indelible" isn't entirely true. We had a couple unforeseeable events go down, one of which was me being rushed to the ER with an infected gallbladder and having to have emergency surgery right during the stories' extended deadline. There were others related to the individual contributors, too.

In retrospect, the first thing I would have done, once I had my concept, is a calendar. Ginger Hoesly is really good about schedules for her charity zines, so I may be consulting her. Ideally — especially since I was one of the people with an emergency — I'd tailor in some sliding dates to account for the unpredictable. Because oh boy, things are unpredictable.

Lesson 2: Format stories on arrival.

laptop technology editing computer keyboard personal computer personal computer hardware

James Bojaciuk of 18th Wall (who also contributed the story "An Egyptian Cameo") was a massive help in many ways on this project... one being the whole editing situation. In fact, he gave me a worksheet for how to get stories into a printable format that, like, can become muscle memory before long.

He also handled editing on Unearthed thanks to my aforementioned difficulties, for which I am eternally grateful.

Since this was a charity volume with fairly open concepts, my editing consisted mostly of proofreading; and that, I did as things came in. But as I watched the book assembly go forward, I realized that formatting for print is something you can do one bit at a time. Once the last story comes in, boom. Then you just have to assemble them... which is a whole other job.

The idea of breaking the book down into smaller elements that could be done on each piece's arrival had occurred to me, but the best practices for doing so still eluded me. 

Lesson 3: Schedule updates, even if there's nothing to say.

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I outgrew the concept of "No news is good news" a long time ago when it came to projects. If I don't hear anything, I panic. So, really, it's only fair if I treat my contributors like a dozen me's who would like to hear something regularly, even if there's nothing going on.

Another thing to bake into the schedule in future? Weekly emails. Even if it's just to say "Hey, how's it going?" while not applying pressure (that's for before the deadline). Something to let people know things are ticking over and it's still a priority, even if there's no news to tell.

The trickiest part, I think, is that pressure thing: making sure that if something is not urgent but just a friendly check-in, it comes across as such. We've all known (and been) that guy. Plus, sending a weekly check-in that isn't "HEY ARE YOU GUYS WRITING ARE YA HUH" means finding other good things to talk about with the project... which is a stress reliever.

Lesson 4: Keep notes.

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When I first got Unearthed pitches in, there were a couple I kept off to the side. They didn't make it into the book, but what they pitched made me sure I wanted them for other Altrix projects — which would be private calls rather than public. (For what it's worth, one person who didn't get into Unearthed is going to be writing a full-length book for us; more on that at a later date, but when they pitched back the book idea it reminded me exactly why I kept their Unearthed pitch in my back pocket.)

As much as we talk about fresh blood and widening the playing field... unless every project you do is in a new genre or medium, you will likely work with the same people more than once. Hell, there's nothing wrong with having a couple of go-tos you know will deliver certain things well.

In the aftermath and sales period of Unearthed, I've been taking notes on everyone I worked with now that I've seen their writing in action and dealt with them on a business level. Which I know sounds like some sort of weird imperious "I've got my eye on you" quasi-threat, but it's worth doing. It's not just a matter of "Yes, we worked well together" or "No, I probably won't work with them again" — it's learning what conditions some people work best under, what styles they shine at, what styles you know they'd like to take a crack at, all that. Knowing that if I ever decide to do something specifically cyberpunk, or specifically historical, I can look at this list and go, "Hey, so-and-so really knocks this kind of story out of the park" feels like an extra level of preparation.

Lesson 5: We are not good at predicting how easy or hard an unfamiliar task will be.

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Coming into the final stages of Unearthed, I assumed formatting would be the easiest part and getting printing set up would be the hardest. Boy, I couldn't have been more wrong.

To be fair, I have a garbage track record when it comes to estimating which unfamiliar tasks will be most difficult, so I probably should have expected more of the same here. That said, even attempting to assign "easy" or "hard" to something new in advance sets expectations. Classing something as "easy" makes you lax about it, thus you'll be taken aback when there are difficulties; classing something as "hard" makes you put it off because it seems big.

I'm pretty sure every time I put out a new book, there will be at least one unfamiliar element. That's just how things tend to go. The trick, I think, is listing the building blocks, and then not assigning any difficulty level to them that is anything beyond objective time spent and materials needed. It's exhausting to hold yourself to anything else.

Will I do this again? Hell yes. I have one (shorter) anthology in the super-early planning stages, which will be my first foray into handling royalties for authors. My friend Rob gave me an idea for one that's too good to pass up, which is way on the backest of back burners. And I'd love to collaborate on charity anthologies or zines in future.

Overall, I'm pleased. I miscalculated several things, and I had to fall back on several safeties, but Unearthed has turned out to be both a lovely book and a great learning experience. I really hope all of you will give it a read:

Order Unearthed from Altrix Books.

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