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 fun.

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 Markets

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.