30 November 2017

How an Anthology Kick-Started My (Fiction) Writing Career

Patience. There's a tie-in. All will be revealed below.
by Brian Thornton

I have written extensively (herehere, and especially here) about the rebirth of that antique artform:
the novella. As I have also noted elsewhere, the novella's return to literary fashion owes much to the changes wrought by the publishing revolution of the last decade. Print-on-demand technology has given rise to a host of independent publishers willing to take chances on stories deemed not profitable by legacy publishers, and self-publishing has proven itself a viable and profitable option for many authors shut out by these same legacy publishers.

As the novella, so the anthology.

Now, I know what you're saying: "But wait a minute. Has the anthology ever really gone away?"

I take that point.

But while the anthology has never really gone away, it hasn't exactly thrived as an artform or as a commercial vehicle, either.

Instead, it's just sort of hung around.

Now, I am not dissing the anthology format. Quite the contrary. I owe the beginning of my career as a professionally paid writer of fiction to an anthology that never even saw publication.

The Immortal (and Prolific!) Michael Bracken
Well over a decade back, I was reading through the posts on the Short Mystery Fiction Society's email list and read a call for submissions by then SMFS stalwart (and newly-minted fellow Sleuthsayer) Michael Bracken for a projected crime fiction anthology with the working title City Crimes, Country Crimes.

Bracken, then as now, was a publishing machine. Always working. Always churning out content. Short stories, confessional pieces, and collecting and editing short fiction anthologies for a variety of boom and bust small presses. He did it all.

City Crimes, Country Crimes was intended to be a themed anthology, with the expressed purpose of emphasizing setting as practically another character in the collected stories (think the desert in John  Ford's cavalry movies). I'm a big fan of a well-drawn setting that serves as something more than a backdrop for the action in a piece of fiction, so I was especially intrigued.

Long story short: I wrote a story, submitted it, and was pleased to have it accepted. A genuine thrill to have my work recognized by a pro like Michael as publication-worthy.

Fast-forward a few months, and Michael got back to myself an all of the other projected contributors to the project with the bad news that the publisher he had lined up for this project had folded. This was when print-on-demand was still in its infancy, and e-publishing had not really taken off yet as a viable outlet for one's work product.

So the project was scrapped. All that hard work (especially on Michael's part!) down the tubes.

Come to find out that this sort of thing happened a LOT. Especially with anthologies.

And then along came Amazon and its Kindle game-changer. But wait...I'm getting ahead of myself. More on that paradigm shredder in later (I promise).

Anyway, so I was left with this pretty decent short story, an orphan for which I needed to find a home. It was crime fiction, set in frontier Montana during the Cheyenne uprising circa 1873.

Speaking of prolific! R.T. Lawton, ladies and gents!
Since I'd been burned going the anthology route, I decided, on the advice of old friend (and fellow Sleuthsayer) R.T. Lawton to submit it to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, one of the few venues at the time that paid for fiction at rates which weren't outright insulting.

AHMM accepted it, and this story, "Counting Coup," was the first piece of fiction I got well and truly paid for (I'd already made a bit of money writing book-length nonfiction).

And it all started with a promising anthology that never got off the ground. So thanks (again) to Michael Bracken for believing in my work, and to R.T. Lawton for the same thing.

In two weeks, the next round of my long association with anthologies: my first experience collecting and editing one!


  1. Editing an anthology is sometimes referred to as a thankless task because it often involves a lot of work for minimal financial reward. Only years later do we realize the impact we have as editors--the writers that receive award nominations for stories in our anthologies; the writers we first publish (or, like you, that we almost publish) that go on to long, rewarding careers; and the writers that, somewhere down the line, become editors themselves and provide opportunities for the next generation of writers.

  2. Fascinating to hear this path to publication! A fun story, and yes to the shout-out to anthologies and their editors (having been on both sides of anthology work myself).

  3. Oh, Brian and Michael, I remember that anthology, 'cause I got accepted into it, too! It was a heartbreaker when it fell through. But my story also eventually got published elsewhere (Tough Crime). Michael, thanks for all the anthologies you've put together over the years, and all the help you've given!

  4. First, bless you, anthology editor. I've been picked up my four anthologies this year and it is quite encouraging. When the hefty book comes in the mail, I think "oh my gosh, someone read all of these and lots more and edited them and sequenced them and formatted them" and what a ton of work! You must do it for love of the genre.

  5. Brian, I was surprised to see a picture of me, gazing out at me, in your blog article this morning. And, I do remember that story of yours. Good one.

    As for anthologies these days, they seem to pay anything from a few cents in royalties to a couple hundred bucks. And then there are the donated story ones, such as the New Orleans Blood on the Bayou for a good cause, and others for charity. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the 2018 Bouchercon anthology is paying $75 for accepted stories.

  6. Interesting to hear the background, Brian.


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