Over here at the Literary Lab, we've been publishing anthologies for two years now. This will be our third year and third anthology. Sometimes I've wondered why we do this, but it's really not that big of a mystery! We do it because we adore fiction. We adore writing it. We adore reading it. We adore showing it off - especially your fiction. Getting my own work published is a huge mixed bag of trinkets, but publishing other writer's work...that's magic. It's nothing but exciting.
As I've been reading through the entries for the 2011 anthology contest we held last year, I find myself smiling a lot. There's some really great stuff in there. Here are the three main things that happen in my head as I'm reading along.
#1 - I JUDGE THE BEGINNING
As much as I hate to say that everything rests on the beginning of your story, I do have to admit that as a reader who is looking for stories to publish, the beginning is essential. And it's not just what is happening in your story. It's everything combined. Your prose, your sentence structure, your word choice, whether you start it with dialogue or not, point-of-view, cliches, tense shifts, etc. If your beginning doesn't work for me, I lose faith in the story. I tend to read the rest of it with less interest, and that can affect how I feel about the story as a whole.
I have read many stories in my lifetime where the beginning doesn't work, and the rest of the story redeemed itself by the end. That's always surprising and happy. It's why I read through an entire piece before making a decision. Sadly, many agents do not do this with manuscripts, and many literary journals probably don't, either. So your beginning? Yes, it's important.
#2 - I JUDGE THE GENRE
Since we love all genres here at the Lit Lab, our anthologies are usually open to all genres for the entries. This has become a bit of an issue for me as I read through entries because there are some genres the really do turn me off. However, this is something I'm learning to look past.
I've been reading more and more genres, and as is obvious to many readers, genres have specific rules most of them follow. I hate rules, but they are something many of us must play by if we're going to stay believable in a genre. So what I do when I run into a story that is in a genre I don't particularly enjoy, is look at it as objectively as possible. Is the writer following rules or cleverly breaking them? How well are they following the rules? Are the cliches in here working or hindering the story?
In the end, genre never makes or breaks my decision to choose a story for publication. It's simply one element of many that I use to judge the story's success.
#3 - I ASK MYSELF WHO WROTE THIS...
Okay, I'll admit right here and now that since we have a moderator who makes it possible for us to read the story entries completely anonymous, that I find myself wondering who sent in certain stories. We are familiar with many readers here over at the Literary Lab, and so I naturally want to know who wrote what. Too bad! I have to read without knowing, and therefore judge the fiction on its own merit. Knowing the author would weigh too heavily into my decisions, as sad as that is.
Still, it's fun to try and guess. I have found in the past that I am 99% of the time WRONG. Dead wrong. It's a fun element for me to try and guess, at least, but as with the previous to points I've made above, I don't let the basis of this enter into my decision-making.
So after those three points, you may be asking yourself how I pick a particular piece for publication. Honestly, it's so many elements combined that I couldn't possibly discuss it all in one post. It's based on what I like, but not what I like, how well the prose is written, how much line-editing I think a piece needs (if it's publishable in that sense or if the piece needs more work and time than we have to put into it), how much the story surprises me (that one his huge for me), etc.
A great story, for me, must leave me smiling - and as odd as it may sound, even tragic stories leave me smiling, especially if the tragic ending was unexpected. I know that when I read the last sentence of a story, if I let out this little sigh and feel my lips turn upward, that I have a winner on my hands. This may all be subjective, but it's a thousand little elements going into that reaction, and many of those elements are as objective as I can possibly make them. But I have to argue that subjectivity is also a key element to judging a piece of fiction. I'll save that for another post.