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Writing to a Theme

I write a lot of stories that are prompted by themed calls for submissions. These are often for anthologies, but they are sometimes for a themed issue of a magazine or for a magazine with a very specific genre/aesthetic. I’ve had fairly good luck with placing my stories in themed anthologies, so today, I’m talking a little bit about how I write to a specific themed call, along with some advice on how to not entirely pigeonhole your story.

The first thing I do when finding a themed call is to think about potential stories that would fit that call. Oftentimes, there are one or two ideas that come to mind immediately on reading the open call. Those are the ideas that I generally put on the back-burner–having them in mind is helpful, but whatever I’ve thought of first is likely to be the same thing that other authors have thought of first. So those are the ideas I don’t really want to write, if I want my story to fit the call but also stand out.

Once I’ve got those initial ideas on the back-burner, it frees up my ability to start spinning different ideas in unusual directions. I have to give myself some time to let the ideas percolate and branch out. Sometimes, one of those initial ideas will come back to the forefront, but with an interesting twist that would take it from something that many authors might come up with to something that is a much more “me” story.

One thing that sometimes helps me find the twist or unique approach I want to take is doing a little bit of research. For example, if the call is related to “monsters,” I might go to Wikipedia and look at a few pages on types of monsters, following the rabbit hole of clicking on links to related articles, until I find a specific monster that appeals to me. Then, once I’ve got that sorted out, I can dig deeper on that specific monster (or whatever the topic of research is) to find the details I need to get the idea moving.

After I’ve got my idea mostly sorted out, I have to figure out an outline (yes, even for short stories, and sometimes even for flash fiction!). My outlines for non-novel length fiction are often just a quick summary of what scenes need to be written and what should happen in each of these to get to the end point I want. I also have to figure out character names fairly early on–I find that I can’t really get the characters doing things until they have names, even if those names end up as placeholders. (Though I can’t name them all Steve. I still haven’t sold that story …)

Then of course comes the writing, and the revising, and the submitting. And then I’ve got a themed story to submit to the call that started the process.

One of the fears in writing to a themed call is that if your story doesn’t make the cut, then what? If the call is super specific, you may be stuck with a story that’s hard to sell elsewhere, because everyone who had their stories rejected from this call will be shopping around their stories as well, or the story is so niche that there’s no one else looking for something like what you wrote.

One of the solutions I’ve found for this is to try, when writing the story, to find the ways in which the “serial numbers” can be filed off. For example, I wrote a story for a themed call that was related to a band. But as I wrote the story, I realized that if the story didn’t make the cut, I could change the names of the characters, and it would become generic enough that it might not be traceable to its original inspiration.

Another solution is to have your story speak to the theme without being complete beholden to it. This can prove a little trickier, because you want the editors of the themed call to be able to see how your story fits in with their vision. If you stray too far from that vision, it makes it a more difficult sell to the market you’ve written it for. But I have had some success with writing a story to one theme and then, if it’s rejected, making some small revisions to either make it fit another theme, or to make it slightly more generic.


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