Anthology Workshop 2020: A Newbie’s Takeaway

A few weeks ago, Little Miss Muse and I left for Vegas to attend an anthology workshop. I (along with forty-plus other writers) crafted six short fiction pieces to submit to various anthologies or magazines.

Excuse me. I knew this would happen… Little Miss just nudged me hard and rolled those impish eyes at me.

Yes, yes, Little Miss. You supplied all the genius for those pieces. Now be a good little muse and go play with your bottle rockets. Gotta get the blog in, dear.

Okay. I’m back. She’s been high maintenance since we landed in Indy. Itching to death to start 29 new shorts and 19 novels all in the next week. If I don’t toss her an ego stroke every now and then, she’s simply impossible to live with…

The tales were written and turned in over the course of November and December last year. Then everyone’s stories (nearly 300 of them) were read by all of the attending writers and the seven editors that sat on the panel—the same editors that would decide whether any of those manuscripts would make it into their respective projects (different anthologies or magazines).

But the most important thing (aside from networking with some jaw-dropping amazing writers), and the thing worth the hassle and the work and the travel, was the learning gleaned from listening to seven professional editors critique the manuscripts in front of the whole group. That panel has forgotten more about publishing than I could ever hope to learn.

It was a glorious five-day glimpse behind the curtain of the submission universe as to how editors think and their differing processes when scouring massive amounts of reading to build a magazine or short story collection.

Seven opinions, sometimes they agreed, sometimes they didn’t. In all cases (whether the manuscript up for discussion was mine or the guy’s sitting behind me or the gal’s in the front row), I picked up on bits of craft or business or form. And in all cases, the only opinion that ultimately mattered out of the seven belonged to the single editor (or in one case father/daughter editor team) who was in charge of the project at hand.

I knew it would be brutal, having my stories critiqued like that. I imagined it would be like standing naked in front a room full of strangers, and as soon as I (uh, we—Little Miss and I) stepped off the plane in Vegas, I’d wondered what in the world I’d gotten myself into. I wondered that multiple times over the course of that day before class started—I’d felt like I’d crashed into someone else’s family reunion. No one made me feel that way, it was all internal on my part, but it seemed that, aside from a few other newbies, most everyone knew each other.

Hugs and happy catch-ups abounded at lunch and dinner. Everyone was kind and full of wisdom curated over years of attending this workshop and hours and hours and hours to infinity of butts-in-chairs writing time.

And anytime anyone mentioned a cat, no fewer than a dozen phones would whip out from pockets and purses creating a collective breeze that could be felt all the way to The Big Dam.

I. Kid. You. Not. Cats everywhere. And no one thought it was odd. Not in this group.

And as that first day went on, and after the first day of class, I had to wonder why anyone would want to stand naked in front a room full of people not once, but five or eight or even twelve years. What was I missing?

I’d come to Vegas with the firm belief that this was a bucket-list thing for me. A once-in-a-lifetime experience to learn and grow as an author. But the more I listened that day before class started, the more I realized that this event had the strong possibility of sending Little Miss Muse packing up her gear to live with another newbie writer in another part of the world.

Little Miss, free spirit she is, caught sight of the shark tank swimming pool, and I decided before class started each morning that I’d drop her off at the pool (though I confiscated her firecrackers and made her promise to keep her bathing suit on and her wings tucked in). She’s got such an ego and can be so moody, I just couldn’t concentrate on the learning at hand and deal with her sprinkling and spitting purple glitter all over the conference room.

Wee into the night hours after a long day in class and wonderful lunches with the editors, some of us newbies piled like cordwood on our couch and licked our wounds and concocted generalized analogies regarding our experiences that don’t translate so well in the light of day and when one isn’t so slap-happy and stupid tired. I’ll spare you those and give another that may help.

I had a pile of six blankets that I carefully knitted. I chose the colors and patterns and textures. I finished some off with fringe, others with satin ribbon. Some were chunky and thick. Some were dainty and tightly woven. Some smooth, fit for a newborn’s swaddle. Some rough and itchy more fit for a saddle blanket.

For five days, the editors unfurled each blanket in front of the room and spoke their thoughts out loud. They looked through the blankets. Some liked the patterns. Some liked the colors. Some were too big for what they wanted. Some were too small. Or the wrong color. Or not fit for their couch. Or the editor was looking for a blanket for a king-sized bed and I’d provided more of a table runner thingy. (I’ve no idea, Little Miss had the knitting needles and EVERYTHING would have been purple had she gotten her way, so a little left-brained sensibility balanced out her obsession a few times).

Some editors would tug at a stitch and I feared the whole story would come unravelling right there in the room. And for some editors, that stitch was a deal breaker. Others liked the overall blanket enough to overlook the wayward threads.

Once I got the feeling that the editors thought my blanket had come from the pile the Spanish brought over laced with the pox. Burn it. Burn it and never look back.

But that was, again, internal on my part. Fear reigned supreme at times. Nothing was personal. It was all about the blanket/manuscript. No one told me to burn any of my stories, but on that particular critique, I was eternally grateful Little Miss was swimming with the sharks. No telling what she’d have done.

My takeaway: Valuable networking. I’m not alone anymore. There are others like me. Those with desires to create a career out of sitting alone in a room and making things up. I met those with office supply fetishes and cat stories and the ability to talk writing and publishing and all things books for hours on end and not blink off into boredom. And I met those who never once judged me despite the fact that not once did I successfully find my way to my hotel room without incident.

I’ve made writer friends!

My tally? Out of six, three of my blankets were good fits for the editors’ projects and counted as sales. (Giddy little jump-and-squeal moments, I’m tellin’ ya…) I’m waiting to hear back on a fourth one—a strong maybe.

Would I go back? Well, let’s put it this way: Even if I never made another sale to the panel, the answer would be heck yeah.

Because it’s not about the sales; it’s about the learning and networking. Learning and networking are priceless.

Annnddd… I’ve secured my seat for 2021. The good Lord and the universe willing, I’ll go back to stand naked in front of a room full of people with six more of my blankets. Let them pull and tug at the threads. Let them stomp on them and wad them up and set them on fire. I’ll even let them drag a blankie or two off to The Analog Couch (more on that another time).

Let them help me be a better writer.

I get it now. Why people do it more than once.

It might very well classify as a sickness.

I’ve already contacted the Golden Nugget’s lifeguard. I figure I’d give him a good heads up about the Little Miss Muse in the purple bathing suit. Better check her bikini for pop rocks and firecrackers and match sticks.

Hers are waterproof…

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