Jonathan Strahan has been editing collections of the year's best short fiction for several years — and it's no easy task. In this essay, Strahan talks about reading a whole year's worth of stories for the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Volume 8.
Reading for a year
by Jonathan Strahan
Being a year's best editor is a bit like being a cross between a detective and the most passionate, obsessed reader you could imagine. You need to have some kind of investigative method to find, weigh and consider stories, and you need the passion to keep looking at stories long after the point when any sane person would have given up and headed to the beach.
I started editing 'Best of the Year' anthologies in Australia nearly two decades ago. It was a gentle introduction to the process of working on a 'Best of the Year' series. The internet was in its infancy, online publishing didn't really exist, and the venues where short fiction could be published were well known. Looking back, I would guess my then co-editor Jeremy Byrne and I read and considered fewer than three hundred stories for The Year's Best Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy, an almost incredibly small number of stories compared to today. Yet it set the pattern for what I do now. Send out calls for stories, make lists, read and re-read stories, and then winnow them down to a shortlist, then a table of contents, and finally a running order in a manuscript.
By the time I co-edited my first 'Best of the Year' anthology for the US market, Science Fiction: The Best of 2003 with Karen Haber, the world had begun to change, but not too radically. While the series covered all of the science fiction published in the English language, there were still fewer than two thousand stories published (if I recall the annual estimates from Locus correctly), and most of those in well-established venues like Asimov's, Analog, or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Online publishing was beginning to be a factor, with venues like Ellen Datlow's SciFiction and Eileen Gunn's Infinite Matrix, publishing top quality fiction, but was still publishing at a manageable rate. The torrent was yet to come. Still, it took organisation and planning to read through the year, and an obsessive eye for a great story.
Move forward just a few years to 2007 when I launched The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year series and the world was changing, and beginning to change very quickly. Online publishing was changing book publishing generally, and short fiction particularly, by lowering production costs and making it simpler and easier to get fiction in front of readers. It was, I suspect, the first year, of peak short fiction. The year when the number of stories published began to explode. Where there were 2,000 or so stories published annually at the beginning of the decade, by the end of the decade that number would have quintupled to more than 10,000 (based on nothing more than my rough guesses and estimates). The good in this almost completely outweighs the bad. The growth in online publishing created the chance for stories from a diverse range of writers and countries, with a diverse range of worldviews, to get to readers in a way that had never existed before. Suddenly it was easy, or easier, to find stories by writers from Thailand or Vietnam or Lagos, and by writers with something other than straight white male backgrounds. It's invigorating, but it comes with the challenge that you have to look through a lot of stories to find the good ones.
It changed my reading year forever. While the calendar year begins in January, my reading year begins in October. That's when the first proofs of quarterly magazines and advanced reader copies of anthologies and short story collections begin to appear in my inbox or post office box. I'm usually still working on the book covering the current year so they go on a bookshelf or into a folder on my reader and are ignore (mostly) for a month or two. Still, as I work through finalising my book, which goes to the publisher in January, I am starting to read. Post-it notes appear in magazines and books with little scrawled notes on them, a spreadsheet begins to get filled out and the selection process begins.
This is slowed by the year ending. Just as I start reading for next year's book I balance completing this year's with working on the Locus Annual Recommend Reading List. It's my role to convene the group of readers who vote on and finalise the short fiction part of the list. It's a collegial time when like-minded people argue over the best of the year. It's enormous fun, but it does delay my paying attention to next year.
I probably only really get fully focussed on reading for the book in February. I already feel like I'm months behind, but by now the new year's book is safely contracted and I'm chasing and reading stories that appear in all sorts of strange places. I typically see and am aware of all of the major markets, but then there's small press markets, small and one-shot productions, international stuff, and things published outside the SF scene altogether. It's dizzying. The process of selection, though, is almost exactly what you think it might be.
When I read a story and like it I make a note of it in a spreadsheet. If I really like it I add an asterisk. I can't bring myself to write in books so I add a post-it note with an asterisk for stories in anthologies or collections. As the year goes on I keep an eye on the list, as it blossoms and grows. Hopefully by August I have a reasonably solid base long-list of stories I've liked from the year. It'll continue to grow through till December, but somewhere around here the winnowing begins. I go back and look at lists. Do I remember a story without re-reading it? How does it stand up to re-reading? Generally any story that makes my final list has been read three or four times, and I'm pretty sure about it. Other factors come in to play as well about which stories get used. Can I get the rights to the story, do I have two or three similar stories to pick between. That kind of thing. And so it progresses to the final list.
How do I spot a great story? Exactly the way you do. I turn to the next page of the book or magazine or website and start reading. If I get lost in the story, and stop thinking that I need to get through it so I can read the next one on my list, then I know it's good. If, when I get to the end of the story, I feel excited about it, then I know it's a good chance to make my book. And if I remember it and think about it and can't get it out of my head, for whatever reason (great characters, fascinating idea or whatever), then I'm pretty sure it's a great story. How do I think you could spot a great story? Well, you read your own way, but if the story speaks to you then it's good. If the people you talk to about fiction are blown away by it too, then it's likely great. And if you're still talking about it months later then you know it's pretty special. And sometimes you just know. I can look back to the electrifying moment when I first read Lucius Shepard's "R&R" in Asimov's in 1986. I knew I was reading a stunningly great story as I read it. I knew it was a classic when I put it down. And I've never doubted that since. That happens rarely, though, and it's why I keep reading. To find the next "R&R", and to experience that sort of moment again. It's also what I hope the best of the year series delivers to readers. The chance to have that experience when reading short fiction. And do I ever read a story once and know it's going to be in my best of the year and win awards: sure. It's the best part of what I do.
Full disclosure: My story "The Master Conjurer" is included in this volume.