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Writing for Themed Anthologies

by Paula Fleming

Writing on a specific topic or theme is par for the course in academia, where the professor sets some limits on the topic, and in commercial nonfiction. For Bark magazine, as an example, you might propose an article on dog-friendly landscaping. If the editor expresses an interest and asks you to write sections for each region of the country, then you'd write an article on dog-friendly landscaping and organize it by regions. You wouldn't turn in an article on the Chinese space program, even if you found that subject more interesting.

Fiction writing, however, usually comes from some internal spark. We typically write from our own minds and hearts, using themes, characters, research, and settings that seem to merit or even demand a story. When we write about the things we care about, then we tend to write better.

Thus, when we find out about a themed market, many of us are bemused.

  • Can we muster sufficient energy or inspiration to write a story that we will feel proud of in response to someone else's idea?

  • Even if we write a strong story, how do we know it will be different from the other 300 stories, all using that same theme, that the editor receives?

  • What if we don't sell our story -- does it go out to another market, right along with all the other rejected stories with the same theme?

These concerns are legitimate. On the other hand, in the science fiction and fantasy field, a number of opportunities arise each year to get published, sometimes at a professional level, in a themed market. Themed markets are usually anthologies, published either as books or in an electronic format. Sometimes they are contests where the winners and runners-up receive prize money and/or are published in a chapbook, on the Internet, or in an otherwise nonthemed magazine. Occasionally, a magazine/e-zine will seek submissions for a themed issue, and a few magazines/ezines have a theme for every issue.

Here are some examples of themed markets from the summer/fall of 2003. (Don't submit to these markets -- the deadlines are all well past!)

  • The Many Faces of Van Helsing; an anthology about Bram Stoker's vampire-hunter character to be published by Berkley; paid 8 to 10 cents/word as advance against royalties.

  • Path of the Bold; an anthology about superheroes in the Silver Age Sentinels™ role-playing universe to be published by the game company, Guardians of Order; paid 3 to 5 cents/word.

  • Bloodlust: Gay Vampire Stories; an anthology about gay men and vampires to be published by Alyson Press; paid $50 (reprints) or $100 (original stories).

The above examples were all excellent markets. By that, I mean that they paid well, were backed by publishing companies with a track record, and had very experienced editors selecting the stories. Despite the difficulties inherent in writing and selling to themed markets, it's a shame to eliminate them from consideration.

So here are some tips on writing for and selling to themed markets:

Write to themes in which you're interested. If your writing time/energy is very limited, then only write stories for those themed markets that jolt you with, "Oh what I cool idea! I'd love to write about that." If the guidelines leave you cold, then pass up that opportunity.

For example, when I read the guidelines for the Such a Pretty Face anthology, which features fat heros and villains, I knew immediately that I wanted to write about a heavy xeno-fitness instructor who dealt with employment discrimination. I was pleased with the resulting story, and it was accepted into the anthology.

Be open to different markets. If you have more time/energy, and if getting published and paid is more important to you than creating great art from the heart, then be open to writing for markets that don't inspire you right away. Read the guidelines carefully, free associate and/or brainstorm a little, and see if a compelling--or at least workable--idea emerges from your subconscious.

Using this method, I've written several stories that I'm proud of and that I believe will find good homes someday. I also used this approach for the erstwhile Scavenger's Newsletter Killer Frog Contest/Anthology for over-the-top, silly horror, winning an honorable mention one year and first prize another year.

Consider submitting a story that you've already written, if it fits the theme. Unless the market is open to reprints, then only submit a story that has not yet been published. Under no circumstances should you send the editor a piece that doesn't fit the theme well. Themed anthologies--or any market for that matter--are not a place to throw your trunk stories without regard for the editor's needs.

For example, some years ago I'd written a very weird, humorous horror story involving ersatz neo-Druidism and scatological feeding behavior. It was just too twisted for every market I sent it to, until it found a home in a small-press anthology that was looking for stories of all sorts about contemporary witchcraft.

Make your story different. Themed markets tend, for marketing reasons, to focus on well-explored areas. Taking a look at the examples above, we see erotic gay vampires, a vampire hunter, and superheroes. A lot of people have already written a lot of stuff around these ideas. So, if you're writing for a time-travel anthology, for example, take some time to make sure you're familiar with what's already been done to death or done very well. You don't want to replicate a Twilight Zone episode or H.G. Wells's The Time Machine (1898). (See also my article on writing about shapeshifters.)

Be prepared in case your story is not accepted.

  • Write a good story. If the main strength of the piece is that it contains all the elements mentioned in the themed market's guidelines, as though the author was checking them off, then it probably won't stand much of a chance at any other market.

  • Have a short list of alternative markets ready in case the story comes back. That way, you can send it out again right away.

  • Have in mind a strategy for rewriting the piece. If, say, a professional-rate Arthurian anthology opens, it will probably draw, at a guess, between 300 and 500 submissions, of which it will accept around 20. That means that hundreds of stories set in the Arthurian landscape are about to go to Fantasy and Science Fiction, where editor Gordon Van Gelder will scratch his head and wonder why in the heck everyone and their dog is suddenly writing about King Arthur and friends. He'll--perhaps--buy one or two. The hundreds of rejected stories will probably stop next at Realms of Fantasy, where Shawna McCarthy will wonder the same thing and--perhaps--buy one or two. Can you rewrite your story so it retains its strength--without that particular setting and characters?

Don't pass up themed markets because you've heard that "those are for hacks who don't care about art," because you're afraid you won't be able to write a story that stands out from the others, or because you think you'll be writing a story that will never sell anywhere else. With some thought and preparation, you can write quality work and avail yourself of some great opportunities for publication.

Copyright © 2004 Paula Fleming
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Paula L. Fleming's science fiction and fantasy have appeared in a variety of publications, including gothic.net; Tales of the Unanticipated #20, #22, and #24; Meisha Merlin's Such a Pretty Face anthology; and Lone Wolf Publishing's Extremes 3: Terror on the High Seas anthology. By day, she's a human resources generalist at the Wedge Community Co-op. To help her, she has three big dogs, two cats, and one husband. Visit her home page at http://home.comcast.net/~paulafleming/index.html or her blog at http://paulaleafleming.blogspot.com/.

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