The Whole Is Greater: Themed Anthologies by Donald J. Bingle
The Whole is Greater is a semi-regular feature on the blog where I ask folks to tell us about their experience working on an anthology. Today's features Donald J. Bingle, whom I've had the pleasure of knowing for many years now, and publishing his short fiction in Sidekicks! and the Crimson Pact anthologies, as well as his novel Net Impact. Don's writing has been in many, many anthologies, so when he offers advice about how to get your work in them, I highly recommend taking a moment to listen.
One thing readers sometimes don't realize about themed anthologies is that most often the writers don't see any of the other stories in an anthology until they review galleys for minor typos--sometimes not until after publication. This is certainly true of open call anthologies and is generally true for invitational or limited invitational anthologies. That makes it difficult for writers to coordinate for consistency in shared settings, sure. But even more importantly, it makes it difficult for writers to submit a story by deadline that they are pretty sure does not step on the toes of or bear too many plot or concept similarities with the story of another writer.
In order to increase your chances of getting your story picked for an open call anthology on a specific topic and to get in good with the editor on an invitational anthology, I always recommend consciously choosing a cast of characters or plot line that is not obvious (i.e., not the first or sometimes even the sixth thing that comes to mind ... unless you have a really twisted and devious mind). If you travel the well-worn route and use the usual tropes, your story will have to be the absolute best of that type in order to be selected or impress the editor. But if it is just a bit out in left field, but still in the ballpark, the editor can choose it because it is the best, because it is so unusual or clever in concept (even if less than stellar in execution), because it is humorous in a sea of seriousness or scary in an ocean of science fiction, or just because it provides a change of pace or palate-cleanser for readers between stories of more standard fare.
Because I write in a wide variety of genres (scifi, fantasy, horror, thriller, steampunk, romance, comedy, pulp,and memoir, to name a few), because I like to write to specific topics and wordcounts, and because I write fairly quickly when I am on a deadline, I have been involved in a number of themed anthologies (many of them for DAW, but also for smaller presses), for which I have been asked to write to a specific theme and length on short deadline by a number of different editors. (The fact that editors talk to each other about who can fill in on a moment's notice has been very helpful to my writing career.) In many cases I was not initially invited to participate in the anthology or didn't know about it, but when some writer bowed out at the last minute or too many writers submitted stories at the short end of the range, leaving the total wordcount short, I would get asked to quickly write up a submission. This is how I came to write a Transformers short story ("Parts" in The Transformers Legends) about a pacifist Cybertronian who refused to transform to fighting form, a Civil War tale ("Stew" in Civil War Fantastic) that focused on the killing of horses during firefights, and a very suggestive comedic piece ("F Isn't for Freefall") amidst the boy meets girl (or alien or robot) in space stories in a scifi romance anthology (Love and Rockets).
Of course, if you are invited to participate in a themed anthology upfront and a storyline immediately occurs to you, it may be possible to stake out your territory with the editor. For example, when I was asked to write for an anthology about horrific garden animals (Zombie Raccoons & Killer Bunnies), I almost immediately contacted the editor and told her I was going to do my tale ("BunRabs") on bunnies. That meant that she told other writers that critter was already taken when they chatted with her about possible stories. Similarly, when Sarah Hans announced her first anthology (Sidekicks!), I almost immediately told her I wanted to do a story ("Second Banana Republic") about the brother of a South American dictator. In that instance, I not only staked a claim, but I asked for clearance in an area that I didn't think other authors would be likely to want to play.
When the theme of the anthology is fairly broad (wizards, steampunk, pirates), avoiding the obvious story lines is relatively easy, but it gets much harder when the theme is narrower. One of the toughest was when I was asked at the last minute to write a story for the anthology Imaginary Friends. I knew the straightforward plotlines and even the standard twists would already be taken. There would undoubtedly be stories about kids with imaginary friends, adults visited by imaginary friends of their youth, imaginary friends that were really scarier things (ghosts and the like), and stories in which the twist was that the character who was imaginary wasn't the one you thought it was. Since I trend toward the dark, I came up with a concept ("Suburban Legend) about a husband accused of murdering his wife, and who claims the murder was committed by her lover. However, the police think the fiendish boyfriend is all in the husband's imagination and the husband begins to think that might be true, too. I won't give it all away here, but when I was finished I was sure that regardless of what the editor might or might not think about the quality of the story or the credibility of the plot, there was no chance that he would think my tale tracked too closely to some other story already in the anthology.
So, the next time you get a chance to spin a story for a themed anthology, try to think outside the box. I'm not worried about the competition there; once you are outside the box, there's plenty of room for everyone not to get in each other's way.
Some of my previously published tales ... and a few new ones ... have been republished as e-story collections in my Writer on Demand™ series. Check them out or find out more about my writing at www.donaldjbingle.com.