When I first started writing again a few years back, I daydreamed about various story ideas, decided which one sounded like the most fun to write, and wrote it.
In the past year and a half, I’ve increasingly written with a specific target in mind. Most of the time, this means I’ve read about an upcoming themed anthology with a deadline, and I’ve prepared an idea to work with the theme, and executed it in time to work with the deadline.
The restriction imposed by the theme, a sort of boundary line within which the concept must work, or touchstone with which the story must make contact, might sound like something that gets in the way. Artistic creation is about freedom, right? Actually, I think an excess of possible options ends up being a problem. Too often I’ve spent months considering wild variations on a story idea, never really moving the story forward as much as zig-zagging back and forth.
The theme isn’t just a restriction. It’s also an inspiration, a nudge off the ground you, as a writer, like to tread. Venture off the path just far enough to encompass the theme. You’ll end up writing something you otherwise wouldn’t have considered.
Also, the theme forces me to focus. Discard superfluous ideas, zero in, and work toward the finish line. The clock is ticking. There’s no time to waste on digressions from the main idea.
Speaking of that ticking clock, a deadline is bad thing, right? Again, I find it narrows my perspective and spurs me to work harder and faster. I’m much more productive when I’m working on something that’s due in less than a month.
The thing you have to accept is that if you write a story specifically for a themed anthology or contest, it will probably be rejected. That might seem like a wasted effort. Why write a Jolly Green Giant riff for that “Weird Beanstalk Talez!” anthology, if it will probably be rejected? What are you supposed to do with a story like that if it doesn’t make it into the intended market?
I’ve written something like ten stories intended for specific markets. I was lucky enough to hit the mark with two of them, “Diamond Dust” which will appear in the Thomas Ligotti tribute anthology The Grimscribe’s Puppets, and “May Dawn Redeem What Night Destroys” which will appear in the Current 93 tribute anthology “Mighty in Sorrow.”
Twice, I wrote a story specifically geared toward a themed anthology, and it was accepted. This doesn’t mean that the other eight, which were rejected by the anthology or contest for which I conceived them, were a waste of effort. I tried to write stories that fit the theme, but loosely enough that if I was rejected, I ended up with a really great story that might work elsewhere.
I have another story, which was rejected for a themed anthology for which I wrote it, which hasn’t been placed yet, but has received extremely favorable notes from 4 of the 5 editors who have seen it since. One of them, perhaps the most prominent and respected of genre fiction magazines, held onto it 4 months longer than usual and told me they very nearly accepted it. I consider that story a success, and I’m sure it will find a place soon.
This month, my story “Nectar of Strange Lips” will appear in Lovecraft eZine. That story, my first effort of this type, was written for a contest – not themed, but with a deadline. I didn’t win the contest, but ended up placing the story in a great online zine, where lots of people will see it.
In April, my story “The Lure of Devouring Light” will appear in Apex Magazine. My first professional sale! I wrote this story for a small-press themed anthology, and received a form rejection. Not a lot of people talk about the anthology, and as it turns out, I’m glad it didn’t make the cut, and found a home at Apex, which was the second place I sent it.
In May, “Arches and Pillars” will appear in Black Static, a great British magazine of horror and dark fantasy. Another high profile sale, for a story form rejected by the anthology for which I crafted it.
I also have a few other stories still under consideration by the editors of anthologies for which I’ve crafted them, so those are still in the “maybe” category.
Overall, I feel this new approach, aiming for themed anthologies with deadlines, has helped me produce more and better work, and to explore areas I might not otherwise have ventured. I plan to continue, though of course every writer hopes eventually to receive invitations to submit by editors who have seen their work. Maybe that will be my next phase.