Goals for Making Anthology the Best It Can Be

I recently had the honor of coediting the anthology We Got This: Solo Mom Stories of Grit, Heart, and Humor with Cheryl Dumesnil, Domenica Ruta, and Katherine Shonk. As editors of an anthology aimed at giving voice to a diverse community of solo moms, we plunged into our labor of love with passion and determination. Along the winding road to publication, we learned that anthologies are often overlooked or viewed as less worthy than other genres. Although many anthologies transcend this reputation in sales and literary merit, publishers and booksellers often say that readers buy books because of their dedication to a specific author, or perceive compilations as potentially containing more misses than hits. Inspired rather than defeated by this information, we set out to compile an honest representation of solo motherhood through powerful essays and poems—each one of them, in our view, a “hit.” We wanted the reader to be blown away by the writing, and by the heart and the breadth of experience shared by more than 70 solo mom writers.

Our dedication to We Got This is now being rewarded with media interest, a growing audience, and positive reviews, including a coveted starred review from Kirkus Reviews. If you have an anthology in your heart or are already working on one, don’t be daunted by the fact that they’re not the darlings of the literary world. Instead, focus on these five goals to ensure that your anthology gets the respect it deserves.

1. Love your content. Search far and wide for content that will make you proud to have your name attached to it in print. You need to love the material enough to defend it. When searching for essays and poems for We Got This, we cast a very wide net that included well-known and up-and-coming writers. We scoured the web and spread the word to our personal and professional networks that we were looking for original writing by solo moms. We also revisited published work to find our favorites, including work by deceased writers, such as Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, and Ruth Stone. We found plenty of content to fall in love with, then gave ourselves time to determine and defend each poem and essay’s value to the anthology. Some content, such as a hilarious excerpt from Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions, was a favorite from the start, while others, including “Dad’s Day,” Lenlee Keep’s essay about honoring an ex who died from alcoholism, were last-minute discoveries. Now, of course, we can’t imagine our anthology without these voices.

2. Aim for a few literary rock stars. When people see that we have essays by Mary Karr, Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Alexander, Ariel Gore, and other well-established writers, they often ask if we’re friends with these luminaries. We wish that were the matter, but the truth is more pragmatic: We persistently reached out to their agents, publishers, and publicists to get permission to reprint their work. Once we got through to the individual or organization in charge of rights, we were rarely turned down. However, securing rights can be cumbersome, time-consuming, and expensive! For some of the big hitters, we had to secure not only U.S. rights, but also rights from England and South Africa. Permissions can add up, so figure out a budget in advance. We were lucky that some writers were kind enough to give us rights at no cost, based on their belief in our book. And a special shout-out to the poets who contributed: Overwhelmingly, they gave us rights for free. Shipping books to all our contributors was incredibly poignant because we knew that up-and-coming solo mom writers would be thrilled to see their names among literary rock stars.

3. Be a ruthless editor. This tip is fairly straightforward, but should not be underestimated. Don’t be afraid to edit original content and excerpts to manage the overall page length and keep your reader’s interest. We were particularly determined to keep each contribution short because busy solo moms don’t have time to read for long chunks of time. The book is designed to pick up for quick inspiration. It might seem presumptuous that we chose very short excerpts from writers like the brilliant Mary Karr, but that’s what had to be done. Our edits were not always popular with contributors, but we did our best to communicate the larger goal. And we believe that the finished product is a testament to the value of editing for the greater good.

4. Focus on representation and placement. It’s easy to become so immersed in your content that you overlook glaring omissions, in terms writers’ stories and identities. But editors need to be self-aware of representation to achieve an honest expression of their mission. We wanted to represent the diverse array of solo mom voices, yet even late into the compiling process, we found that we’d neglected a particular perspective. Focus and effort were required to find writing that represented the rich diversity of the solo mom community. Once we’d gathered all their stories, we ordered them by chapter in a way that made thematic sense. We didn’t cluster all annulmented moms or all African American moms together, but instead divided our chapters around thematic experiences and made sure that each chapter represented a range of circumstances, whether it was a mom with a deployed husband, a lesbian mom’s dating story, or even a mom losing her partner to mental illness. Our quest for representation ensured that We Got This is honest and powerful.

5. Embrace collaboration. I was incredibly fortunate to be part of a dream team of editors. With each of us bringing unique experience and expertise to the project, we were definitively better than the sum of our parts. Any anthology, even one that has a single editor, will benefit from being intentional about collaboration, since collaborating with contributors and editors at your publishing house is necessary. For instance, although we were determined to edit ruthlessly, we still communicated with our authors so they were aware of the process. Four editors might sound like an organizational nightmare, but it was quite the opposite, for a number of reasons. First, there was so much work that it was great to divide up responsibilities. Second, as a collaborative team, the book’s best interest always surpassed personal opinions. Finally, as collaborators with diverse opinions and skills, we complemented one another, to the benefit of our book. A collaborative spirit carried us through the challenging parts, made our book better, and now remains one of the most inspiring outcomes of our journey. Thanks to the relationships we formed with each other and our authors, our contributors are enthusiastically promoting We Got This on social media and their own websites. They’re also raising their hands to read at our events, which are proving to be a true celebration of the solo mom community. Our anthology belongs to every solo mom who contributed to it, and that’s the way it should be.

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