I had a conversation recently with some writing friends about different types of story calls and submissions, and we ended up chatting about anthologies. I’ve been in a few, I love the challenge of writing for them, but I’ve also learned a few things along the way. So pull up a chair, because it’s time for practical advice!
Follow the Guidelines
Seriously, if you take away one thing from this post, let it be this. Don’t try to be too cute, don’t give people what they’re not asking for, don’t expect people to bend anything for you.
Let’s just get it out of the way that yes, I’ve broken this one. John Hartness is never going to let me live down The Big Bad anthology call as long as I draw breath. I was working on a giant costume build at the time for the dayjob, and I ended up missing the deadline and going over word count. However – I also knew him a bit and had emailed him asking if I should still submit and stated that there was a word count issue. He told me to send things as is, so technically I’m not the only one to blame for that monstrosity of a story.
The thing is, I got super duper lucky. Incredibly lucky. NEVER do what I did if you’re going in blind and don’t have a relationship with the editor. Hell, try never to do that if you do, because that tends to tick people off. Get your word count right. Get the theme right. Get your formatting right. Pay super close attention to how they word the call. Which brings me to…
Pay attention to the unwritten rules
There’s a thing in calls that goes a little something like “while we’re mostly taking A, we won’t /not/ take B, but it’s not what we’re absolutely looking for.
Don’t presume you’re going to walk into a slot with a story about B. Unless your idea is so unusual and phenomenal and hits every other part of the theme/call well and is incredibly clean editing-wise, find an idea that goes with A. What this really means is that they’re hedging their bet that they might get a super-phenomenal story that has to do with B (or they may be talking to someone about a story about B behind the scenes. Yes, this totally happens. Get used to it.), so they can’t say they’re not taking it. Still, you’re best served sticking to the call – especially if you’re a new/unknown author. If they want contemporary, don’t go historical. If they want superhero, don’t go sword and sorcery, if they want horror, don’t go paranormal romance with a dark twist, even if there’s some loose room for genre interpretation. Same for other stuff – if they want dynamic characters, don’t rely on narration. If they want world building, don’t neglect that. Give the people what they want and use your own personal genius to fill in the blanks.
There’s a great throwaway line at the end of David Bowie’s Blue Jean video when the plot gets out of control about how he’s being too clever clever, and that term has stuck with me ever since. Seriously, don’t be too clever clever. You may think you’re being awesome and gaming the system, but you may find yourself writing your way out of a potential spot and payday.
Don’t neglect resources
If the editor/publisher mentions that they really like the work of a certain author in this anthology genre/theme and you can read something by them, by all means, do it. I’ve beta’d for people who didn’t get into certain books and it became obvious pretty fast that they were so intent on being clever that they were neglecting what the editor flat out said they liked about the genre, or neglecting other important elements (like characterization, or items of the plot that the editor really wanted to see). What I see and hear a lot of from editor friends and from my own personal experience is that there’s personal interpretation, and there’s flat out not knowing a theme/genre (or ignoring the call/resources). If the call is part of a series and you can get previous volumes, suck it up and do it. I’m not always the best at this, myself, but I can tell you it’s infinitely easier to read the sort of thing an editor likes than try to mind-meld and get that information telepathically.
I’ve also gone around googling genre terms and asking people what they mean to them, because one of the other things I’ve seen is authors misinterpreting or getting stuck on minutae or the parts of the genre that they prefer, that may not necessarily line up with the actual call. Do your homework and your life will be easier.
Plan your story for the word count
The thing that I really had to learn when writing for anthology calls was that word count was king, and there were just some things that I couldn’t do in the context of an anthology story. For Big Bad 2 I had originally wanted to pick up where the story in the first book left off – I /really/ wanted that. But it became obvious pretty quickly that my idea was much too big for an anthology story. So, I had to get creative. I stuck to the world, but went way back in the timeline, and it really served to expand my thoughts on the characters and produce some fun, vintage-inspired horror.
Change things up to work for you
When I wrote The Ruins of St. Louis for Thunder on the Battlefield, I had already done some research on sword and sorcery and had some vague ideas on how to make it my own. The structure was what really was tripping me up, though, until I remembered my high school addiction to watching Xena. While not the same genre-wise, I found that if I structured scenes like I was writing around commercial breaks, I was able to get in under the word count and still have a driving narrative with some interesting characters.
Pretty much, when I’m writing to theme, I write different than if I’m just taking off from an idea that’s popped into my head. It’s a different type of writing for me that takes more structuring. I had to really go through scene by scene with my Sherlock Holmes story, for curious incidents because there were so many stipulations to that call, it wasn’t necessarily in my comfort zone, and I’m a horrific overachiever sometimes. At the end of the day, it took me streamlining my scenes and really focusing on how to reduce the details and still show characterization. You may think 8-10k is a lot (or however many words your given), but when you get going, it’s hard to stop. I have to get really nuts and bolts in my anthology story planning, or else I’d drive myself bonkers (and still sometimes do, anyway).
Give yourself time
You want at least enough time to edit your first draft. Don’t send the first draft in, please. i’ve been there, I’ve done it, I’m always mortified when I get the edits back on those stories if I get accepted. Edit your story. Edit it again. Really go through, not just for line edits, but for content. Does your story hit the right notes and fit well within the theme? Are your characters conveyed well? Do all your details line up? I have a horrible habit of changing the amount of kids my characters have midway through stories, so I always have a list of details I’m double checking. Make sure all your names stay the same, places are what you want them to be, etc. Reduce your stress and plan so you can take the time you need. Instead of spending time in advance worrying about a call, talking about it, daydreaming about it, whatever, use that time to research (but don’t fall down a research hole), pound out your first draft, then finesse the hell out of it. That way you can also double and triple check your formatting and get your cover letter and bio all nice and neat without a panic attack.
Don’t get too upset if you don’t get in
While I’ve taken part in a decent amount of anthologies, I also get turned down a lot. Them’s the breaks. However, it means that I have that many more stories in my arsenal for other things. It’s also why I tend to not write for every anthology call that I come across, and really pick and choose what I want to submit to. These sorts of calls can stress me out for some reason, so I want to make sure it’s with people I want to work with or there’s going to be some good benefits going forward. Like anything, you live and learn, but I’ve also learned to not beat myself up over something that has a limited amount of spots, anyway. It’s all a marathon, not a sprint. Like dating, sometimes you just don’t mesh with a call or a publisher, so you can’t take that to heart. Take your story, dust it off, and see where else it might fit.
So how bout you guys? Do you like writing for anthology calls? Are there certain genres or themes that you look for or prefer?