Writing for a Themed Anthology

In 2019, the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers (RMFW) put out a submission call for a then unnamed anthology focusing on the theme WILD. The editors, Natasha Watts and Rachel Craft, accepted all genres—realistic or speculative, contemporary or historical, literary or commercial. The only caveat was that the stories needed to be short fiction (1,500-6,500 words), and writers had to be members of RMFW. The editors received 78 submissions, and eventually narrowed it down, eventually settling on the final stories by how they complemented each other. Interestingly enough, three of the 14 stories selected for the anthology WILD: Uncivilized Tales from Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers were written by HWA members: Carina Bissett, Rick Duffy, and Angela Sylvaine. With the current open submission window for the HWA members-only anthology Other Fears – An Anthology of Diverse Terrors, I thought it might be interesting to see how different authors approached the challenge of writing to a specific theme.

CARINA BISSETT

I always have good intentions when I see submission calls of interest, but I am an agonizingly slow writer. By the time I fully flesh out an idea, it is usually months, if not years, from the original call that inspired the concept in the first place. In this case, inspiration struck more than a year before the call for WILD was even issued. In August 2018, a massive hail storm wrecked havoc on Colorado Springs and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. Softball-sized hail destroyed several structures, hundreds of parked cars, and killed a few of the exhibits’ animals. Luckily, the giraffes were spared serious damage. However, this had me thinking of the purpose of zoos and the fact that giraffes had just quietly slipped on Critically Endangered list. The end result was the story “An Authentic Experience”—a story about a zookeeper and the animals he cares for after Earth had been destroyed by an alien civilization. In all honesty, I just wanted the giraffes to have a chance to fight back, and I worked on the story with the image of a giraffe modified with teeth sharp enough to sever an obnoxious kid’s arm. I never thought this odd sci-fi/horror short would find a home. But then I saw the themed call for “stories of rebellions, escapes, and shattered boundaries,” and decided to submit.  

This is not the first time I’ve written a story that ended up being picked up for a themed anthology. My first professional story was a piece I’d written to a fairy tale prompt in 2015. I never thought this gender-bent, eco-fic, mash-up of “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter” would see the light of day, but a year later it ended up being the sole story selected from slush for the powerhouse anthology Hath No Fury. The submission called for strong female protagonists defying fantasy stereotypes. I figured “A Seed Planted” was close enough, and it turned out I was right. This piece has since been translated into Japanese and was featured this summer in Night Land Quarterly, Volume 21: “The Fantasy of Sky Realms.”

A similar thing happened with my second professional sale. Pantheon Magazine put out a call seeking short pieces based on the theme of transformation for the anthology Gorgon: Stories of Emergence. I had grand ideas of writing a modern horror story based on the Arachne myth, but simply ran out of time. Instead, I submitted “Burning Bright,” a weird piece of flash about tygers, ladies, and the cycle of violence. Not only was it accepted for the anthology, but it recently received a mention by Ellen Datlow in the opening pages of upcoming release of The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Twelve.

Ultimately, I’ve decided that it’s best to write the stories that call to me, regardless of whether or not I think they might be marketable. I polish those pieces and hoard them like a dragon safekeeping gems. And then, when a submission call comes along that brushes up against the theme or mood in one of those stories, I send it out. No agonizing creative stress. No last minute panic. I know it’s not for everyone, but it’s been a winning strategy for me so far.

CARINA BISSETT is a writer, poet, and educator working primarily in the fields of dark fiction and fabulism. Her short fiction, essays, and poetry have been published in multiple journals and anthologies. Her work has been nominated for several awards including the Pushcart Prize and the Sundress Publications Best of the Net. Links to Carina’s work can be found at http://carinabissett.com.

RICK DUFFY

When the call for submissions came for Wild, RMFW used words like fierce, out-of-control, feral and rebellious. Any genre allowed. I’d been working on a cross-genre short story (scifi/horror/disco – I’m not kidding), with robots and explosions and a dash of gore. That sounded like a fit, so I sent it in.

At the same time, I had been stretching my boundaries with a very different short, written from a female PoV in present-tense, both of which I’d never done. It did not contain explosions, and none of the characters get so much as a paper cut. But it did deal with boundaries and personal rebellion and growth. So I sent it in along with the other (Wild allowed multiple submissions.)

To my surprise, they accepted the second over the first. They felt it was a better fit. That’s the thing about anthologies: you can never be sure what a fit is.

My scifi/horror/disco may be the best thing since eggplant parmigiana (or the worst, if you don’t like eggplant) but the editors need to select and arrange a series of stories that don’t just work as individual shorts, but work and flow together. You could send in a fantastic horror short, but if the editors have already gotten two others with the same basic theme, they may reject yours simply because they need more variety.

The moral of the story is if you think you have a story that you can kind of, even if just a little, justify as matching an anthology’s specs, but you’re not sure, considering sending it anyway. If it’s rejected, don’t take it as a stake to the heart. It may have been nudged out because of the overall framework of the anthology and not because of anything about your writing or imagination.

My story is “Castles in the Sky”: A young woman leaves home for the city to follow her dreams—literally. I think its placement gives the anthology a nice contrast from physical wildness to a more abstract take. Since then, I’ve focused on publishing my first novel, The Sigil Masters, a young adult fantasy adventure, and am working on the second book in that series. Maybe anthologies also help bring visibility to your other works and I should submit to more of them. If not, they are good practice in writing different genres and dealing with different markets. In any case, I will always make room for shorts.

RICK DUFFY is a writer of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy. His novel, The Sigil Masters, won the 2018 RMFW Gold in the young adult category. He lives in a peaceful Denver suburb opposite the magnificent Rocky Mountains. Connect with Rick at rickduffy.com.

ANGELA SYLVAINE

The theme for the RMFW anthology was an appealing one- Wild. So much can be done with this concept, and I decided to write a new story specifically for the call. I really enjoy writing new work based on story calls and find it’s a great way to get inspiration. A mixed genre anthology can be challenging for a horror writer, and I took the strategy of drawing the reader into a story that may not seem like horror at first. In other words, trick them. I am a big fan of young adult horror, and “Pruned” follows a teen girl growing into her powers over nature. When she loses control and harms someone she loves, she pledges to deny her true self and reject her powers. The addition of a domineering uncle and raging hormones make controlling herself harder than she’d hoped.

Since submitting to this anthology, I’ve continued to focus on short fiction. 2020 has been a challenging year for many writers, and early on in the pandemic I decided to stop working on novel length fiction. The effort was causing me great stress and just wasn’t much fun. This allowed me to be more productive on the short story front, which has been very gratifying. I have several stories upcoming, including “Here We Come A-Caroling” in Gothic Blue Book: A Krampus Carol, “Starved” in Consumed: Tales Inspired by the Wendigo, and “Midnight Snack” in Campfire Macabre. I’m also very proud to have just been upgraded to active status in the HWA. This was a big personal goal of mine, and I’m excited to be able to vote on the Bram Stoker Awards for the first time.

ANGELA SYLVAINE is a self-described cheerful goth that still believes in monsters and always checks under the bed. She holds degrees in psychology and philosophy. Her work has appeared in multiple publications and anthologies, including Dark Moon Digest, Places We Fear to Tread, and Not All Monsters. A North Dakota girl transplanted to Colorado, she lives with her sweetheart and four creepy cats on the front range of the Rockies. Connect with Angela at angelasylvaine.com.

Listen to five of the authors (including Carina Bissett and Angela Sylvaine) read from their stories at WILD: Uncivilized Tales – Five Readings.

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