The Ones We Let Go
Late July is when I clear my desk and get started on editing stories for the Level Best Books annual anthology of crime stories by New England writers. I love the idea of plunging in and rereading stories I like and discovering new things to like—a minor character I barely noticed before, an especially apt description, an incredibly clever trick of misdirection. But this time I will read with a sense of loss too.
When the other editors and I began this cooperative, we put out a slim volume of eleven stories that came in at 182 pages, plus front and back matter. Last year we published 26 stories coming in at 273 pages. That’s about our maximum for printer’s costs. So what’s the problem? For the most part every year we find that we agree on the good stories, the ones we wished were better, and the ones that are just not ready. We may have to say no to a few stories we like, but we grip our pens and check them off. Over an afternoon of lunch and tea, we whittle the list down to one that we can all agree on and can afford to print. That didn’t happen this year.
I make a sort of grid of the stories, with author’s name, title, word count, city/town/state, and record my thoughts in the space that follows each one. As anyone who has ever read for a contest or collection, these can range from detailed plot outlines to single words telling all—Huh? Yuck! Perfect! This year was no exception. In the left-hand margin I note my vote—yes, good, maybe, no. (I also tend to quibble sometimes and put in yes+ or ok+ or ok- You get the idea.) When I counted up my Yeses, I had thirty-six. Thirty-six! And that was just me! What about Kate and Ruth? (You can see how much this has upset me. I’ve broken one of my cardinal rules—no more than one exclamation point in at least 300 pages.) I knew Kate and Ruth would push the list of Yeses up to at least 50 because my Yeses were just my taste on what works for this anthology—not a judgment on the quality of every story.
The first time I judged a story contest I was given about twenty stories to read over a month’s time. The stories were by high school students and were for the most part pretty good though not yet publishable. One in particular was what I regarded as typical for the age—a teen meditating on life with a single superb poetic sentence right in the middle of the story. The rest of it went nowhere but I still remember that story. The story I chose, however, was one that made me laugh out loud with its droll sense of humor, the writer’s distance on her character, and the unexpected development of the story. This was a writer with a future—she never forgot her audience, and never took herself too seriously. I arrived at the meeting convinced all three of us judges would pick the same story. Man, was I wrong! (Oops! And again . . .) Not only did no one else pick the same story I had chosen, but the other two thought it was too “plot-driven.” And one judge picked the no-story story with the perfect sentence! Truly there is no accounting for taste.
I am reminded of this experience every time I sit down to read for the anthology, but for the most part the three of us at Level Best come in pretty close on our lists of choices. We have the same regrets for stories we can’t include and each of us has one or two that we alone love and champion. This year mine was a short piece by Bill Joyner, whose voice in fiction is unmistakable to me and is one of my favorites. We’ve been in a writers’ group together for a number of years and I’ve enjoyed hearing his novel develop. Two other writers whose stories were especially hard to let go were Mo Walsh and Barbara Ross.
When we started this venture we hoped we’d have enough good stories to make a volume. Now we have more than enough, so many in fact that we occasionally toy with the idea of doing a second volume in the year, but that’s a lot of work and we have other lives.
So, for those of you thinking about next year, here’s a word of advice. Short. We always make room for good SHORT stories—a hundred words, a thousand words, fifteen hundred words. Think of Hemingway’s story in six words: “Baby shoes for sale. Never worn.” Short is good. Another word: Persistence. One rejection does not a career make (or break). We love publishing new writers, good writers, little-known writers. Keep writing. And keep sending.