It probably goes without saying that as a judge for the collection and anthology categories of the 2016 Aurealis Awards, I read a lot of speculative fiction anthologies and collections.
Now, this in itself isn’t too unusual for me, as I’m a big fan of short fiction. However, being a judge required me to read everything and anything entered into the category, regardless of my own preferences for subgenre and all the other little predilections and biases that inevitably figure into my usual reading selections. I also had to justify my assessment of each book to the other judges, which caused me to really interrogate why something either worked or didn’t work for me.
By necessity, I was also judging books not only for their individual merits and impact on me as a reader, but evaluating them against one another – we had to choose a shortlist and winner, after all.
On top of this, a last-minute submission flood also meant that I had to read a lot of these recently published, Australian-written or edited books one after the other over a relatively short amount of time.
Under these conditions, previously vague theories I’d had about all things anthologies and collections precipitated into much clearer and more definite ideas. Not too far into the judging, I couldn’t help but notice various trends in the books submitted, as well as similarities and differences between the entries that really stood out above the rest, and those that really didn’t.
With this in mind, I decided I’d throw together some of my thoughts about judging, and what I learned about what makes a standout anthology or collection (as well as some common issues to avoid).
Now… on to the juicy stuff!
Snarky editor warning!
Keep in mind, sections of this post were written by grumpy, caffeine-deprived Editor Michelle (as opposed to more sympathetic Author Michelle who knows writing is hard at the best of times). Editor Michelle tends not to mince words, gets paid for being extremely critical in telling people what’s wrong with their writing, and still hasn’t forgiven you for that misleading opening sentence and not knowing the difference between ‘sewage’ and ‘sewerage’. Some writers are scared of her.
A great anthology or collection works as more than the sum of its parts
If there was one thing that really distinguished the top-tier books from those that were merely good, it was that each of the best works provided a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.
There are plenty of anthologies and collections that package good stories together. But if this is all a book does, then it really isn’t enough to stand out. In contrast, the very best collections or anthologies seem to elevate themselves by giving the reader something extra, something they wouldn’t get if they’d read each story individually.
This ‘something extra’ might be little links between stories that provide additional insights, or it might involve building upon central themes throughout the book, or exploring ideas from different angles in different stories – it could be any number of things. It just has to be there.
Some of the best collections or anthologies submitted for the Aurealis Awards last year contained stories I’d previously read elsewhere. However, even though I very rarely reread books or stories for leisure, I had no problem reading these stories again because they offered a different, richer experience in context with the other stories in the collection or anthology. I think that’s quite telling.
When the equation comes out negative
Unfortunately, collecting stories together can also have the opposite effect to what I described above, resulting in something lesser than the sum of its parts.
In some cases, being presented in the context of a collection or anthology can actually prove detrimental to individual stories, diffusing their impact and significance.
This can happen, for instance, in a single-authored collection if the author often writes on similar themes, with a similar style, tone and aesthetic, and often includes certain types of characters. Collecting such similar stories together means that they can feel a bit samey when read one after the other, resulting in a book that feels monotonous. Additionally, any weaker stories will stand out more to the reader because they’ve just read the same author do pretty much the same thing more effectively.
Similar problems can occur with anthologies that are relatively tightly themed, or where the editor has very distinctive taste. During judging, I read some stories in anthologies or collections that I would have enjoyed much more had I encountered them in a different, more varied context.
Story order matters
The order of stories is vital to the flow of an anthology or collection. Placing stories with just enough (but not too much) similarity in theme, tone, or style close to one another can create a cohesiveness that makes the book engaging to read. However, it is often a bad idea to put stories using overly similar tropes or plots in close sequence.
In some submitted anthologies, for example, stories seemed to have been ordered simply by grouping them into distinct and overly obvious categories. For the reader, the effects of such unimaginative organisation can range from the mildly annoying, to the borderline excruciating. By the time they’re reading the third story in a row featuring a graphic rape scene, for instance, many readers might find it’s getting a bit too much.
(It’s worth acknowledging that this may vary with reader expectations – if I was reading an anthology of stories about overcoming trauma or abuse I’d probably be braced for some pretty full-on content and my response might be different).
Conversely, throwing stories into an anthology or collection in a seemingly random order also seldom works and can be very jarring. Haphazard ordering often impedes the flow, can disorientate the reader, and may disrupt the development of any thematic resonance or other effects that might otherwise be achieved throughout the anthology or collection.
Production values and the (too often neglected) art of editing and proofing
Now, I don’t mean to be one of those people who constantly complains about declining editorial standards and whatever else, but production values really did prove to be a stumbling block for too many Aurealis Award entries.
In addition to errors in editing and proofing, problems with layout, design and (where applicable) typesetting and digital formatting were all too common. To be blunt, some of the books we received just weren’t up to scratch in the production department.
I can only guess at what might have happened behind the scenes, but some of the submissions appeared to have only been given one quick editorial pass. As most authors and publishers should be aware, proofing and editing (including developmental editing, structural editing, copyediting, and anything between) are not the same thing, and you do need both to deliver the best possible book to the reader.
Some submissions showed symptoms I usually associate with skipping editorial steps, or attempting to proof and edit stories at the same time. Even some books that were otherwise well-written had too many instances of missing full stops, typos, misplaced possessive apostrophes, inconsistent spelling and more.
This is a real shame. Kind of like cooking a lavish meal and then just chucking a handful of sawdust on as garnish, forcing the person eating it to pick through everything to get to the good stuff. (Yeah, cooking knowledge isn’t my strong point – I should have got someone who knows about cooking to edit this.)
Ideally, for the best results, the proofer should be fresh to the book. The person who edits the book should not be the same person who proofs it. The editor or proofer should definitely not be the author. Everyone makes mistakes and it’s always going to be much more difficult to proof your own writing. Some publishers I’ve done freelance proofing or other work for actually use two different professional proofers (after editing) before anything goes to print.
Now, I understand that the types of non-fiction publications I work on in my day job have much larger budgets than most spec fic books (often with production costs well within the five-figure range) and that shelling out thousands for top-notch editors and multiple proofers is probably unrealistic for even some of the larger spec fic imprints. It may actually be financially impossible for most small presses or indie authors.
I also know that as a professional editor and proofer, I’m pickier than most readers. However, there’s only so much accommodation that can be made for smaller budgets. When it gets to the point that excessive typos and inconsistencies are really impeding the flow of the writing and jerking readers out of the stories, it becomes a problem that needs to be addressed.
Authors and publishers need to keep in mind that their work will be competing (in both awards and the market) against books that have been gone over by at least one professional editor and proofer. At the very least, even small presses and indie authors should get someone to check over the things that really stand out, like story titles and running heads.
And don’t get me started on ebook formatting. Digital books shouldn’t be physically painful to read.
A niggling suspicion about the power of a name
This one may be primarily a matter of personal taste, but I often find that the stories I consider the weakest in a given anthology turn out to be written by the most well-known authors.
This is something I’ve noticed for years. Not particularly an Aurealis thing.
If I don’t look at the names on the stories before reading them, as I sometimes do in an attempt to limit bias, most of the time when I find a story that has me perplexed about how it made the cut, it turns out to be written by a ‘big name’. Often it’s also someone who’s better known for novels, but that could be because authors who primarily write short fiction rarely become ‘big names’.
Could it be that well-known authors are sometimes given a bit more leeway with the quality of their stories? While this would make perfect sense on a ‘how to sell more books’ level – after all, the popular authors bring in readers – it still bothers me from the perspective of editorial ethics and quality control.
If an author invited to an anthology lacks the time or inspiration to write to a particular prompt, then perhaps they should decline the invite, or maybe the editor should be a bit braver and reject a story or tell that superstar author they need to do some revising or accept a heavier edit.
I guess it’s a matter of striking a balance between market and artistic considerations, and I’d be interested to see if anyone else has noticed this.
Resonance – hard to pinpoint, but vitally important
Another thing I noticed when judging was that if a book or story really works for me, I’ll remember it without needing any prompting. If not, it will quickly dissolve into the amorphous mass of stories that I don’t particularly care about. That sounds harsh, but a lot of it comes down to one question:
Will I remember this story in a day, a week, a year?
Even if a story is not to my personal taste, it can still be memorable and powerful. And to clarify, I don’t mean ‘memorable’ in a cheap shock ‘Well that’s burned into my brain and now I need a shower and a stiff drink’ kind of way.
There are a lot of competently written stories and books that simply lack an additional spark or some element of passion to make them resonate. And when it comes to award judging, few judges are going to argue for the shortlisting of a book that is just ‘well done’. It needs to stand out and it needs to get readers passionate about it, it needs to make them feel something.
I guess that’s a question that comes up a lot in fiction. Why should I care about these characters or situations? I need a reason to care. And I need to care for the story to affect me as a reader. Make me feel something. Anything!
(I am cold and dead inside please send help…)
All in all, despite my griping, the experience of judging the Aurealis Awards has been overwhelming positive (despite a noticeable lack of bribery attempts) and reaffirmed to me that there are many talented writers of spec fic in Australia. I’d encourage other speculative fiction writers and readers to give judging a go if they can. But keep in mind that, depending on the number of entries in a category, it can be very time-consuming. There’s a reason I chose to do it during a year off study before starting my PhD.
I can honestly say that I’m very confident that our winners and shortlists in the anthology and collection categories this year are deserving. I’m also confident that I did my best to be a good and fair judge of all the entries that were submitted.
Do you agree with my musings? Or do you think I’ve missed the mark? Is there anything else you think is vital for great collections or anthologies? Feel free to let me know in the comments.
2016 Aurealis Award Shortlists
The complete 2016 shortlists for all award categories can be viewed on the Aurealis Awards website.
Crow Shine, Alan Baxter (Ticonderoga Publications)
Concentration, Jack Dann (PS Publishing)
A Feast of Sorrows, Angela Slatter (Prime)
Winter Children, Angela Slatter (PS Publishing)
Dreaming in the Dark, Jack Dann (ed.) (PS Publishing Australia)
Defying Doomsday, Tsana Dolichva and Holly Kench (eds.) (Twelfth Planet Press)
Year’s Best YA Speculative Fiction 2015, Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein (eds.) (Twelfth Planet Press)
Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 10, Jonathan Strahan (ed.) (Solaris)
In Your Face, Tehani Wessely (ed.) (Fablecroft Publishing)