The Anthology Game
by Tim Waggoner
Many writers believe that the short story, while as vital as ever as an art form,
is past its publishing prime. The days when
large circulation glossy magazines routinely ran short fiction
are long gone, and while there are still plenty of literary
journals around, many have a print run of only a few thousand
copies, if that. Sure, it seems like there's
a new webzine popping up on the Internet every nanosecond
or two, but the quality of such publications varies wildly,
and usually they don't pay - not even in copies.
But there is a market for short fiction that not
only pays well and has a decent circulation, it also has a
longer shelf life than most magazines and journals.
I'm talking about theme anthologies.
Theme anthologies are book-length collections of
short fiction (although sometimes poetry is included as well)
centered around a particular theme. Among the anthologies I've had stories published in are such diverse
titles - and themes - as Vengeance Fantastic, Villains Victorious, Guardian Angels, Prom Night,
Civil War Fantastic, Monsters From Memphis, and (perhaps
the weirdest of all) Alien Pets. The idea is that the theme will be an effective marketing hook, and
for this reason, many writers are cynical about these anthologies,
feeling that the themes constrain creativity and don't lead
to a writer's best work. But in a very real
sense, the plethora of "Year's Best" anthologies center around
a theme as well: the best work (stories, essays, poems, etc.)
published in a given year. And let's be honest;
who's going to plunk down anywhere from six to twenty-five
dollars for an anthology called Really Good Stories by Really Good Writers About Whatever They Felt Like Writing?
Besides being a good business tool, a theme can be
a lot of fun for writers to work with. It can
provide structure and spark ideas, in the same way that a
poet might be challenged by attempting to write a sonnet or
sestina. Whenever I start a story for a new
anthology, I always ask myself the same question: How in the world am I going to write a story about that?
(Remember Alien Pets?) I find the challenge invigorating, and sometimes frustrating, but always
To Market, To Market
So let's say you want to try your hand at writing
a story for a theme anthology. How do you find
markets to submit to?
It's not always easy; some anthologies are invitation-only,
meaning the editor contacts specific writers and asks them
to submit stories. But there are anthologies that are open to any writers, and you can
find their submission information listed in writers' magazines
- like Writer's Digest, of course - and often the
same information is available on these magazines' websites.
Gila Queen's Guide to Markets is another wonderful print and web resource. Various writers' organizations supply market information to their members,
but even if you don't yet have the credentials to join, you
can often subscribe to their newsletters or market publications. For example, the Bulletin of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, which
contains all sorts of articles and market information of interest
to professional writers, is available on newsstands as well
as by subscription. Often, various writing-related
websites, sometimes affiliated with professional writers'
organizations, sometimes not, will have message boards where
people post market information.
Even if an anthology is by invitation only, you might
still be able to submit to it. Read and research
published anthologies and compile a list of editors' names.
These editors attend a number of writers' conferences
throughout the year. If you find yourself at
the same conference, go up and introduce yourself and ask
if the editor has any open anthology projects that you might
be able to submit to. If you can't attend such conferences, you might be able to track down
editors' e-mail addresses - especially if you are a member
of a writers' organization with access to other members' contact
information. Send a short, polite e-mail inquiring
if the editor has any open projects you can submit to. You'll be surprised how often an editor is willing to look at a story
for a supposedly "closed" anthology.
An Idea is Worth Several Thousand Words
So, after diligent research and perhaps a little
networking, you've discovered an anthology you'd like to submit
to. How do you come up with a story idea?
First, remember that your story has to center on
the anthology's theme. Sometimes these themes can be broad - Love, Friendship, Revenge, etc.
- and sometimes they can be very specific. I've done stories for anthologies based on TV shows like Xena: Warrior
Princess and role-playing games like Dark Tyrants
where the guidelines are very clear on what the editors expect
and what writers can and can't do with the characters and
concepts. Whatever the theme, broad or narrow,
your story needs to add to the anthology's exploration of
it while at the same time avoiding covering the same ground
as all the other stories. And if the anthology
is also genre-specific - horror, science fiction, mystery,
romance, etc. - you have whole host of other
concerns to attend to as well.
I always begin by mulling over what personal experience
I've had with the theme. For example, the cross-genre
anthology A Dangerous Magic was built on theme of
fantasy stories dealing with romance. After
thinking back on my own romantic experiences over the years,
I came up with the idea of how our view of romance evolves
(or doesn't) as we mature, from putting the object of our
affections on a pedestal to, hopefully, achieving a more balanced
and realistic view of our loved one. Thus my story "The Man of Her Dreams" was born, a tale about a woman
whose literal (and absolutely perfect) dream lover comes to
life one day. At first she's thrilled but she
soon realizes that it's possible to have too much perfection.
I had a harder time coming up with an idea for the
anthology Vengeance Fantastic. I guess I'm not a very vindictive
person because I couldn't think of any time that I wished
to get revenge on someone. But then I turned the question
around: was there a time when someone might have wished to
get revenge on me? Years ago, when I worked as a reporter for a small weekly
newspaper, I did some theater reviews, and I always felt uncomfortable
criticizing actors' performances. What if one
of those actors had wished to get back at me for a negative
review? "Exits and Entrances" became a story about a theater critic with a poison
pen (or more accurately, a poison keyboard) and the ghost
of an actress he'd once devastated with a mean-spirited review. But to keep this story from being a cliché, I had my critic character
believe the ghost has come back solely for revenge when, in
reality, like Marley's ghost, she's returned to help save
the critic's soul.
Avoid Clichés Like the Plague
And that brings me to one of the most important considerations
when writing a story for a theme anthology: avoiding the obvious
and the cliché. Since an anthology might contain stories by a dozen or so different
writers, you want to avoid writing the same kind of story
as everyone else. To do this, try to find an
aspect of the theme that isn't apparent at first glance. For A Dangerous Magic, I chose not to write a fantasy story
that merely had elements of romance in it, I wrote about a
central issue regarding the concept of romance itself: the
difference between the ideal and the real. For Vengeance Fantastic, I wrote a story that at first seemed
to be about revenge, but turned out to be about redemption
(though my character certainly does get what's coming to him
in the end).
Don't go with your first, second, or even third idea.
Keep pushing yourself to explore the theme until you
come up with an idea that's more original, and perhaps more
off-beat than any of the others the editor is going to see.
That way, your story will stand an even greater chance
of being accepted for publication.
While getting a story published (and receiving a
check to cash) is nice, the main reward of writing for theme
anthologies for me is that I've written stories I never would
have otherwise (need I mention Alien Pets again?),
and they've often turned out to be some of the best work I've
done. The themes have not only sparked ideas,
they've taken me in directions I never would have explored
otherwise and helped me grow as a writer.
And they can do the same for you.
Sidebar: Advice From the Pros: Top Editors
and Writers Tell You How to Break Into Theme Anthologies
Given that the author follows the editor's guidelines for the themed anthology,
most of the time stories are turned down because there is
nothing in them that makes them "special." Hackneyed
phrases, mundane plots, and so on are certain to get the story
rejected. You need to ask yourself, "What makes this
story 'special.'" I mean, just because it has that dragon
in it, that doesn't make it special. Heck, all the
stories in this dragon anthology have dragons in them. What
is it that makes my story better? What makes it stand out?- Dennis L. McKiernan, author
of Once Upon a Winter's Night and Dragondoom.
Read enough anthologies to see what you like about them and what you don't.
Submit to the editors whose instincts you trust. Also, if you work is published where editors can read it, and if an
editor like it, she will approach you [to submit to an anthology].
- Ellen Datlow, fiction editor of SCIFI.COM and co-editor
of the Year's Best Fantasy and Horror series.
One of the most common questions I get has to do with the difference between
writing for an anthology versus writing for a magazine.
I think writers are frequently surprised when I read
a story and ask for revisions, while the magazine market may
(depending on the magazine, the editor, etc.) be more of a
pass or fail kind of scenario. Anticipate some
editorial feedback when writing for theme anthology titles
- in order to deliver the best possible book to the publisher,
the editor must keep in mind not only each individual story,
but the flow of the book as a whole. -
Russell Davis, author of Touchless, and editor of Apprentice Fantastic, Mardi Gras Madness, and Heat.
If a writer is writing on spec, it pays to get the story in as early as possible.
That dramatically increases the chances that the story will
be read and purchased. It also allows time
for editorial input and rewrites, if the story is intriguing,
but not quite right for the book for whatever reason. -Denise Little, editor of A Dangerous Magic, Perchance to Dream, and A Constellation of Cats.
A lazy writer will do the bare minimum work needed to make a story "fit"
the theme, and no more. It's a cheat to the reader and to
other writers in the anthology who are busting their parts
up one side and down the other to create a worthwhile piece
of fiction. If an editor wants stories about, say, vampires,
I am going to come up with the most unlikely of situations
in which to introduce the thing, and give it characteristics
not normally associated with its type - it might, for instance,
be a chain-smoker, or really love stock-car racing. The point
is, it won't be a traditional vampire; there's got
to be something unexpected in its character. - Gary L. Braunbeck, author of The Indifference of Heaven
and Things Left Behind.
Sidebar: Resources for Finding Anthology
The following websites contain information on joining various writers' organizations,
market information, articles on writing and publishing, conference
information, and numerous links to other writing-related sites.