Ask the Editor: Barbara Ross

RogueWaveFrontCoverHi. Barb Ross here. This week we’re celebrating the launch of Best New England Crime Stories 2015: Rogue Wave from Level Best Books. So for Ask the Editor, I’m interviewing myself, Barbara Ross, one of the co-editors of the Level Best anthologies

Let’s get started.

Barb: Thank you for coming today. It’s lovely to have you. Tell us about your job at Level Best Books.

Barbara: Thanks so much for having me. I’m one of four co-editor/co-publishers at Level Best. We publish an anthology of crime stories by New England authors every November, which is launched at the New England Crime Bake. The four of us split the job of producing and selling the books. I manage the money and do the web and social media marketing. Kat Fast does the design, layout and manages the copy-editing and production. Leslie Wheeler manages contests, reviews and events, and Mark Ammons manages distribution.

But the key is that all four of us read every one of the 200 or so submissions and together we select the 25 to 30 stories that will appear in the book.

Best New England Crime Stories Stone ColdBarb: Interesting. What are you looking for in a story?

Barbara: I think, ideally, we’re all looking for the same thing—which is a marvelous short story that has a crime at its heart, that has a great hook in the beginning, a great twist at the end, has strong voice and is concisely written.

Barb: How can authors make sure their story stands out from the crowd?

Barbara: It helps enormously if the premise of your story is one we haven’t seen before. I always tell people if you’re submitting, think of a victim other than a spouse or lover, think of a motive other than revenge, and think of a weapon other than poison. It’s not that we don’t accept stories with those elements. In fact, we occasionally accept a story with all three. But if you send us a story like that, realize that you’re going to have a lot of competition from other similar stories. It will be that much harder to get in.

bloodmoonfrontcoverBarb: Do you ever accept a story that needs editing?

Barbara: No. We really don’t. The timelines are just so tight. If your story isn’t ready to go, we reject it. It’s too bad, because a lot of times we’ll read a story and say, “There’s something there.” But we don’t have time to help the writer figure out what it is. In that sense, as an acquiring editor, my job is very different from most of the people who’ve appeared on Ask the Editor, who are developmental editors.

Barb: What’s the selection process like?

Barbara: As I said, we all read and rate all the stories. There are usually four to six we all absolutely love, and those are immediately “in.” About half of what’s submitted isn’t for us, either from a quality or a subject matter perspective. Those are “out.” Then we’re dealing with the vast middle, and a lot of arguing ensues. We look at the stories that three of us loved, then at the ones two of us did. If one person absolutely loves something and will go to the wall for it, they can keep it on the list. I once had an author tell me he submitted to us because we ask for four hard copies. He figured he only needed one advocate.

dead calm coverThen we go away and re-read everything still on the list and come together again. We repeat the process, and once that’s over, we usually have about fifty stories left for twenty or so slots. That’s when we start putting a book together, in the sense that we’re looking for a balance of dark and light, short, medium and long stories, from each New England state. We look for different story types, traditional mystery, paranormal, noir, suspense, historical and so on. We also always include one to four first publications. We consider encouraging new authors to be part of our mission. We also include some “names,” which helps us sell the book and get the other authors read.

Finally we have a book. Then we argue about story order. Which we get really riled up about, which I find hilarious, because I never read an anthology in order. But research suggests about half of readers do, so it is important.

ThinIceFrontBarb: So if my story gets rejected, it may not mean it’s bad.

Barbara: Honestly, that has been the greatest lesson for me as a writer. Any story in that last group of fifty could be in the anthology. They’re all good. Even the fifty percent that go out in the first round often have something good about them.

Barb: Why do you only publish New England authors? It’s very annoying to the rest of us.

Barbara: I hear you. Being a regional publication gives us an identity and makes the anthology an easier pitch to bookstores. It also makes doing events much more feasible. But if you live outside New England, but have a story that takes place in New England, there is a way. You can enter the Al Blanchard contest (guidelines are here). We publish the winning story every year.

Barb: Thanks, Barbara. It’s been (sur)real. Does anyone have questions for Barbara? Lob them on in.

21 Thoughts

  1. Thanks for the peek behind the curtain. I knew the anthology had to be a lot of work, especially considering the tine you have to work before taking it to press. Great job!

    1. Thanks for mentioning this, Julie. We consider it part of our mission to get our writers noticed. Last year, three of the five nominees for Best Long Story were from Level Best Books.

  2. I loved reading about the selection process and all that goes into crafting the entire project. Thanks for sharing this, Barb! Or should I say Barbara?

  3. Ah, to be a mouse in the room during the selection process. I could just sit back or serve wine. I think I’d have a story by the end of the evening.

      1. No–terrible premise! Although, come to think of it, in Rogue Wave there is a story about a murder in a writer’s group “Something about Larry” by Christine Eskilson and one that starts at a mystery writer’s conference in Boston, “Murder (Redux) in Paradise,” by Douglas D. Hall.

  4. Enjoy reading the Level Best anthology Barbara. What are some of the crime short stories that influenced you either as a writer or editor? Are you seeing changes (goor or bad) in how modern crime writers take on short stories?

    1. Great question, John. I came to short crime fiction via Ruth Rendell. I love her Wexford novels and I was convinced an event that appears in none of the books must be in one of her short stories. It wasn’t, but it got me reading a lot of crime shorts. “The Woman in the Wardrobe,” by Robert Barnard, is, to my mind, the best crime short story ever. For non-crime shorts, almost anything by Alice Munro. And Richard Russo’s “Horseman,” is a perfect story. Amazing.

  5. Barb, I adore Ruth Rendell and her alter ego, Barbara Vine.

    I enjoyed reading about Level Best’s process. I am amazed that you all manage to put together an annual anthology–that’s a lot of work and takes real commitment. Kudos to your team!

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