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Keynote Address, March 18, 2000

Spaceships, Spells and Size Acceptance:
An Activist Invasion of Fantasy Land

Lee Martindale

Image of Lee Martindale
Good evening. Tonight, I'm going to serve as your tour guide behind the bookstore shelves, and share with you a journey I've been on for the last two years.

There are a lot of similarities between being a size issues activist and a science fiction and fantasy writer. Being introduced as either often prompt people to ask "That's a joke, right?" In both cases, when you say that no, it's not a joke, you will be looked at as if you're a couple of beers short of a six pack. Both require thick skins and a high tolerance for rude remarks. And, for both the size issues activist and the SF&F writer, at the absolute top of the list of "job requirements" is the inability to take "NO" for an answer.

All of the above also apply to editors pitching an anthology. On any given visit to a bookstore with a decent science fiction and fantasy section, you'll find anywhere from twenty to thirty anthologies on the shelves. About a third of these are reprint collections: "The Best Of..." or "The Year's Best...", and theme anthologies put together from stories that have appeared in various magazines. The vast majority of the rest are "by invitation only." The publisher invites one of a handful of "Big Name Editors" to do an anthology of stories from a pre-set list of writers.

Very few of the anthologies you find on the shelves today are done as "open reads", and even fewer where a first-time anthology editor contacts a publisher with a proposal and gets a contract to do it. It is, unfortunately, a trend that seems to be growing. As a reader, I see the same editors' names on the covers and the same writers' names in the Table of Contents. As a writer, I see fewer and fewer entries in the "anthology" section of the market reports. But once in a while, I see something different. Such as the announcement, two years ago, that Meisha Merlin Publishing was looking for book-length manuscripts and proposals.

A book proposal is a cross between bidding on a job and selling vaporware. Basically, you're telling the publisher what you have in mind, why it will be a surefire hit, why you are the only person who can do it, how much you think the venture will cost and why said publisher should finance said venture. I'd never done one of these before. I'd never seen one of these before. What I did have was experience from the writer's side on two volumes of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress anthology series, a rather unique set of credentials, and a concept that just might fit Meisha Merlin's requirement for "different." Oh boy, was what I had in mind "different."

On April 28, 1998 the proposal went out. And I'll be honest with you; I fully expected to get a nice little rejection back. That is, you see, part of the game. You learn what you can from the rejections, use those lessons to make improvements, and send the improved "product" out again to another market. If memory serves, I even had a rough idea where I would sent it next, after Meisha Merlin turned it down.

One bright afternoon in late September, I opened the mailbox to find a #10 envelop from Meisha Merlin. I prepared myself for a "thanks but no thanks", opened the envelope--and stopped breathing. The proposal, wrote Stephen Pagel, co-founder of Meisha Merlin Publishing, was about as wrong as a proposal could be. I had made about every mistake it was possible to make. Here was the phone number if I was willing to discuss what would have to be changed if we were going to do this project.

To borrow a phrase from the gamers, "No guts, no glory." I picked up the phone, after I picked up my jaw, and made the call.

Stephen Pagel is one of the names on a short list of people for whom I have a great deal of respect. Writers and editors who have worked with him have good things about the experience. I had shared the podium with him a few times on panels at SF&F conventions, and I liked his style. I'd seen his work as an editor, and knew he was good. The high opinion I had of him only got higher as we talked. Stephen had done his homework. When presented with an unusual (and as far as either of us knew, never-been-done-before) concept, he talked to people. And what he was told about what I had in mind was "Well, it's about damned time."

Bottom line: I came out of our discussions with more time to put it together than I had asked for, half-again the number of pages to fill, more money to pay the writers than I had asked for, money that I hadn't asked for, to cover expenses, and more solid support than I had ever expected. I came away with something else as well--half of the title for the proposed anthology. Among the people who had supported Meisha Merlin's taking on this project was Lynn Abbey, who had also suggested a title with which just about any woman who saw it could relate. The second half of the title was my own suggestion, partly to differentiate it from a similarly-named out-of-print non-fiction book, and partly because it defined the kind of stories we were looking for.

Meisha Merlin had not, as far as I know, published an original anthology before, and no one, as far as anyone knew, had ever done one like this. But the project was on and Such A Pretty Face: Tales of Power and Abundance was good to go.

The Guidelines

The first step was letting writers' know we had a project in the works. Of the various components of the project, that part was, by far, the easiest. News of an "open read" is always welcome, especially one for which professional rates (3 to 5 cents a word) and a pro-rata share of the royalties are being paid. Within the short span of a couple of weeks, Meisha Merlin was getting calls and emails asking if this was for real. When assured that it was, the response was generally "All right! It's about damned time!"

Writers' Guidelines serve two purposes. They tell writers what an editor is looking for, and they tell writers what an editor is not looking for. Here are the guidelines that began circulating.

Wanted: Original science fiction, fantasy or horror, to 5000 words, for a groundbreaking anthology of size-positive fiction where "fat" is not a four-letter word. Looking for solid stories with fat men and women in prominent, positive and heroic roles, and well-crafted, non-stereotypical fat villains. New writers welcome.

Not interested In: stories about "miracle" or supernatural weight loss, deliberate weight gain, FA erotica or feeder fiction. Also no fat-bashing, "fat-girl-loses-weight-and-gets-revenge" stories, promotion of diets and diet drugs (thinly-veiled or otherwise) or "fat gene" stories. No simultaneous submissions.

We didn't have long to wait before the stories--the good, the bad and criminally insane-- started coming in. Of the first fifty manuscripts that arrived, forty-nine were immediately rejected. Most of those were obviously trunk stories--pieces that the writers had lying around because they hadn't sold to other markets--with the character's description changed to make them "fat." Some read as if the writer hadn't so much as glanced at the guidelines, while others deliberately incorporated everything the guidelines said I didn't want to see. A few made honest attempts, but it was pretty obvious that they either didn't know any fat people or didn't like us. And some were just plain abysmal writing.

One gentleman sticks my mind for both his persistence and his stupidity. The first story he sent prompted a rejection letter congratulating him on having managed to write a story that was 100% opposite the guidelines. The second with his byline was one of only three so gory that they sent me to the bathroom to lose my lunch. The third time around, the story made it apparent that this guy was just a little too fond of the movie "Boxing Helena." Not only did he use it as a weight loss method, he included a little note stating that I'd better buy his story or the same thing could happen to me.

Threatening an editor is about the last way in the world to get published. But this guy had done something even stupider than that: he had picked on the wrong fat lady. My rejection letter rather cordially asked if he was familiar with the phrases "carry permit " and "come ahead, sucker." There was a fourth submission--and while the writing was just as bad, the cover letter was, oddly enough, much more polite.

The mail brought encouragement as well as stories. About once a week, throughout the seven-month reading period, I'd get a letter along the lines of "I'm not a writer and don't have a story to submit. I just wanted to say thank you for doing this. I've always wanted to read stories with characters who looked like me."

And then there was the day I opened an envelop to find "Dear Mrs. Martindale: I know your guidelines said 'no fat gene stories'. But would you consider a 'Fat Gene' story?" I looked at the letterhead. It was from the legendary Gene Wolfe.

All told, there were over 300 stories submitted, of which roughly a third--a high percentage as these things go--made first cut. By the time I got through the "semi-finals," I had fifty stories, every one of them winners.

The Selection Process

Okay, let me set the record straight on one thing right now. There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that the final selection process involved pinning the Final Fifty up on a wall, being blindfolded, and throwing darts. Although I easily could have, and come up with a final roster as good as what ended up between the covers. Final story selection was done the old-fashioned way. And I'll tell you all right now it was not easy. But from where I sit, it was well worth the investment in that 55 gallon drum of Visine.

Where It Goes From Here

In the race to get a book from concept to bookstore shelves, we're in the home stretch. A couple of weeks ago, 100 copies of the bound, pre-final-proof galley came off the presses, and 99 of them are headed to people who review science fiction and fantasy for newspapers, magazines and other media outlets.

Such A Pretty Face: Tales of Power and Abundance will be hitting bookstore shelves, in trade paperback, on or about May 15th. Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble's online bookstore, Borders.com and Meisha Merlin's own website are already taking advance orders. The official Premier is at ConQuest 31, one of the biggest and best fan-run science fiction and fantasy conventions in the country. That takes place in Kansas City, MO over Memorial Day Weekend.

All through the process, Meisha Merlin Publishing has been solidly behind us. One more indication of that is their decision to do a special limited hardcover edition, signed by the editor, complete with full-color wraparound jacket. These are available by advance order only; after the April 30th deadline, the number of copies will be set and once those are gone, they're gone. If you didn't get a flyer and would like one, or need extras to take home to friends, talk to me after we adjourn.

What The Future Holds

A few months ago, as the editing and proofing process was in full swing, Stephen Pagel mentioned that he'd been hearing from some of the name writers who contributed to Pretty Face who liked my work as an editor and who would like to work with me again. He's also mentioned hearing from other name writers whose schedules hadn't permitted them to participate this time around, asking when we would be opening up the read for the next one. Would I be interested in doing a second anthology of size-positive stories, possibly for release in 2002?

Would I be interested in giving more new writers the kind of chance that Marion Zimmer Bradley gave me when she gave me my first professional fiction sale? You bet!

Would I be interested in keeping the tradition of "open reads" alive? Absolutely!

Would I go through all the hard work again in order to present more positive, fat heroes and heroines to the reading public? In a heartbeat!!

There are dozens of awards for which this anthology, and the individual stories, will be eligible, and between you, me and yon gatepost, I wouldn't be surprised if we didn't nail a few nominations, if not the actual awards. And those would be wonderful. But publishing is a business, and what will determine if we go forward with a second volume is how well this first one sells.

That's the reality of it, and where you can help. You have friends who read science fiction and fantasy? You hear someone looking for stories with fat-positive characters? Tell them about Such A Pretty Face. Get your favorite bookstore to get a few copies in. Go to your local library and ask them to order a copy. Or buy a copy and donate it! The Meisha Merlin website hadn't been up for more than a couple of hours when an order came in for several copies of the hardcover and half a dozen trade paperback copies, all for donation to branch libraries in the customer's area.

However good an advertising campaign may be--and the print ads by Kevin Murphy, Meisha Merlin's art director, are exquisite--word of mouth is better. And your help would be invaluable. Thanks for anything you can do.

GiveAway

I said before that 99 of the 100 review copies have been distributed. I have the 100th in my hand. Meisha Merlin very kindly donated it as a door prize to be given away tonight.

Closing

Five years ago, I had the pleasure of being the keynote speaker at the very first Big As Texas Spring Assembly. I said, then, that activism comes in many forms. Such A Pretty Face is one such form. This anthology, with stories by the likes of Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, Gene Wolfe and Jody Lynn Nye, puts us on the bookstore shelves. Not in the "Self Help" section. Not in "Women's Studies." And not tucked away among umpteen dozen diet books.

We'll be right there with the Size Three Junior Petite "Chicks In Chain Mail" and the buff spacers who owe their physiques more to Arnold than Asimov. And we'll be there not "when we lose weight" or "in spite of our size," but NOW and AS IS.

Yes! I am proud of Such A Pretty Face. I hope you will be, too. Thank you.


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