31 October 2020

Themed and Tailored


No, I'm not talking about fall outfits. My question is, How open are you to being prompted, guided, or otherwise steered, in determining what you write about?

A little background, first. As I've mentioned before at this blog, I have for the past few years been sending almost as many of my short stories to anthologies as to magazines. The reason is simple: There seem to be more anthologies out there now, than in olden days. Or maybe I'm just getting better (and luckier) at being able to locate their calls for submissions.

A buncha stories in one book

Those antho announcements, when I do find them, are usually a hit-or-miss deal. Either I already have a completed story that might fit the anthology's theme (or not) or I believe I can write one in the time remaining before the deadline. Or not. If I'm extra lucky, it's an anthology that's receptive to reprints and I happen to have one of those that fits the theme sitting there snoozing in the waiting room. If so, I wake it up and send it off, which--if my luck holds and the story gets accepted--is the easiest way in the world to get something published. 

Sometimes, though not often, I'm fortunate enough to get invited to submit a story to a particular anthology. When that happens it's usually because the editor is someone I've worked with before. On half a dozen of those recent occasions, two were requests for a PI story, one was for a time-travel story. and three were for stories based on songs of a certain era or by a certain performer. And even though I didn't have any work already finished or in progress that fit any of those bills, I did have a lot of time before the deadlines and all six were for the kinds of stories I enjoy writing, so for each of those requests I sat down and created a story from scratch. All of them turned out to be fun to write--but truthfully, half of those particular theme-prompts were just for mystery subgenres, and nothing more specific.

Your mission, should you decide to accept it . . .

The fact is, I'm usually not too enthused by suggested themes and topics. I generally prefer to come up with my own story ideas rather than get prompts of any kind, from others, about what kind of story to write. I'm not sure why that is. I certainly know a lot of writers who welcome those kinds of suggestions, and are particularly good at working to a predetermined theme. Some have said they actively seek out submission calls with detailed themes, or even websites for publications that require pre-set titles or content, like the story's opening or closing lines. They feel that those prompts provide the needed inspiration to kickstart their creativity.

There are several of those sites/publications/markets out there. I think one of the better known is called The First Line. Your assignment here, Mr. Phelps, is to use, verbatim, their suggested opening line as the first line of your story. For me, that wouldn't be an impossible mission, but it would be difficult. I can only conclude that my stories work better when the first line is my own and not someone else's. (Another conclusion might be that I'm just not clever enough to come up with a story to match one of those force-fed lines.) A similar market is called, appropriately, The Last Line. They give you the ending sentence, and it's up to you to put together the rest. I haven't yet tried them, but I suspect I'd have a tough time.

Hitch up the team

A close cousin to this subject of writing-to-a-theme or writing-based-on-a-prompt is collaborating with other writers. This is something I've tried but that I've, again, found hard to do. Stated another way, it was fun but didn't result in a sale. (My fellow SleuthSayer R.T. Lawton told an interesting story about collaboration as a part of his column here last weekend.) I'm well aware that this has worked well for some, and I applaud them for it. Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the Michael Gregorio team, the Ellery Queen team, Anne McCaffrey and Mercedes Lackey, and many, many others, including my friends Frank Zafiro and Jim Wilsky. The process itself varies, of course. I once heard that for each of their two novels together, Stephen King and Peter Straub would each write a chapter, back and forth, throughout the project.

As I mentioned, I think working together that way is demanding. Each of us has his/her own style of writing, and for any two authors to agree enough for the result to be successful can be hard. When it does work, though, I think it's great, because you have a built-in editor/critic/sounding-board as a part of the deal, and two heads are often better than one. The fact that it hasn't worked for me is probably my own fault. (Sorry, Mrs. Floyd, little Johnny just doesn't seem to play well with others.)

My questions for today

Anyhow, class, having said all that . . . Are you one of those writers who are inspired by the challenge of a predetermined theme or prompt? Does that help your productivity? How detailed do you like those prompts to be? Have you sought out markets that provide that kind of thing? Have you submitted stories to them, and if so, how'd you do? Have you written many stories for themed anthologies? Do you do that regularly? Have you been invited to contribute to themed anthologies? Have you collaborated with other authors on either short stories or novels? How did that go? Did you survive with sanity and friendships intact? Would you do it again?

The beautiful thing about this is that we're all different--plotters, pantsers, team players, loners. There is no one correct way of doing it. The right way is (1) whatever is satisfying to you and (2) whatever results in a good story.

Either way, good luck, Happy Halloween, be sure to vote, and set your clocks back an hour. I'll see you in a week.


  1. Productiviy? I have no problem with inspiration and imagination. Time management is an issue, even since I'm retired. I write all the time, writing a new novel and short stories. I like reading themed anthologies more than I like subitting to them, more like a tennis player watching a football game.

  2. O'Neil, I've certainly never known you to have any problems with imagination or productivity, that's for sure.

    I too love reading the themed anthologies, and I like writing for them too--I just sometimes find it more difficult to fit a theme than to come up with my own. One thing that's interesting, I think, is that there now seem to be many more stories from anthologies selected for awards nominations and for best-of anthos than in the past.

    Thanks as always!

  3. Back in the '80s, John, I had an idea for a collection to be titled PARTNERS IN CRIME, in which each story would be a collaboration between two authors ... and, in each case, one of the two authors would be me. I invited a bunch of authors I was friendly with to participate, and most of them said sure. I was living in what was then West Germany at the time, and this was pre-Internet, so the stories were written by back-and-forth exchange of transatlantic snail mail. The book never happened — not yet, anyway! are you reading this, publishers?! — but EQMM, AHMM, and other places published the stories I wrote with Edward D. Hoch, John Lutz, Dan J. Marlowe, Michael Avallone, Francis M. Nevins, Stanley Cohen, Jon L. Breen, Joe L. Hensley, and Edward Wellen. In recent years, I've written stories with my wife Laurie (for The Saturday Evening Post) and my daughter Rebecca and Dutch friend RenĂ© Appel (both for EQMM). I also started a collaboration recently with Bill Pronzini, but we reached a point where we had very different ideas about where the tale ought to go and agreed to let go of the idea of collaborating and each write the story his own way; Bill's version wound up in EQMM, and mine is in the new Chessie Chapter of Sisters in Crime anthology Invitation to Murder. So I'm a fan of collaborating!

  4. Josh, you're good at it, too! I agree that it can be great when both writers embrace it and work well together. I've read some of those collaborations of yours, so I'm even more certain that it works in your case.

    One of the most impressive things about your tale, here, is that a lot of your co-conspirators were/are heroes of mine (Hoch, Lutz, Nevins, Breen, Pronzini). I bet those projects were fun as well as productive. And what a kick, to be able to write stories with your wife and daughter!

    Let's face it, you're easier to get along with, than I am. Keep up the great storytelling!

  5. A terrific read, John. I like writing for predetermined themes/prompts. Once some ground rules have been set up, I feel like I can stretch out imaginatively. The more detailed, the better. I think of it like a jazz musician soloing on a standard. The tune is in place, but the fun is the riffing. I recently got invited to submit to a sci-fi themed anthology where the rules of the world I was writing for were firmly in place. It was a lot of fun.

  6. Larry, I've heard so many people say that. And anytime something makes us stretch the imagination, that's a good thing.

    On the occasions when I do decide to submit a story to a place that sets up those kinds of detailed prompts, I usually find I enjoy it--but I think I still feel most comfortable when I come up with the story idea (often from out of the blue) on my own. It's sort of a case-by-case thing. Sometimes venturing out of my comfort-zones can be good for me and for what I'm working on.

    Thanks for the insights, and please keep me posted--I'd like to read that SF story of yours.

  7. John, I tend to write my stories in series. Currently, I have six series going in AHMM. To some degree, I see those stories as writing to a theme because that second story and forward is always the same main characters, same background and setting, same time in place, etc., except that I’m the one setting the rules based on the first story. So, in this case, I guess I frequently do write to themed stories. I can also tell you that after about the ninth story it becomes more difficult to write that tenth one and beyond. In contrast to that, Lopresti has a multitude of stories in AHMM for his Shanks series and keeps on turning them out.

  8. I like those series of yours, RT, and Rob's series too. I agree with you--I have 5 different series that I usually market to different places (WW, AHMM, etc.)--and sure enough, there is a predetermined set of facts that accompany those series stories. But, as you also said, you're the one who came up with those facts.

    I also agree that after a certain number of stories in a series, the rest are a little harder to write. Mainly, I think, because I have to be careful not to say anything about a place or person, etc., that doesn't fit with the places and people in previous stories. So I guess there are pluses and minuses.

    Good points, for sure--thank you for the comment. Keep in touch!

  9. Hi John,

    Since I'm not well-known enough to receive invitations, I prefer not to write for a themed anthology unless I have a story ready-made that I think will fit. I've even sold some reprints that way. As to collaboration, two of mysteries were collaborations with my sons when they were in their teens. We worked well together and had fun. I believe The Third Eye is still out on Amazon.

  10. I like writing stories based on themed anthology prompts, but I spent many years writing-to-order for the confession magazines and I'm comfortable working that way. Several times, though, I've written stories based on themed anthology prompts but never submitted the stories to the anthology. I've finished a handful of stories too late for the intended anthology, so they've been placed elsewhere, and sometimes what I write winds up not fitting the guidelines. For example, the story I wrote for the Bouchercon anthology call that closes tonight wound up 1,500 words too long. If it had been only a few hundred words long, I might have been able to cut it to fit, but gutting nearly a third of the story wasn't going to work. So, I sent it elsewhere.

  11. Hey Jacqueline -- Good to hear from you.

    I too have found that anthos (well, some of them) are often receptive to reprints, and when I have something that fits the theme, I try to hop in there. As for collaborations, I think you and Josh Pachter have found the secret: keep them in the family! I bet those projects with your sons were a lot of fun. I must check out The Third Eye.

    Thanks as always for stopping by at SS.

    Michael -- I can see how your long experience writing for the confessions built that talent. And like you, I also have written stories that I intended for an anthology that wound up veering off the theme or getting too long (or coming in too short) to fit its requirements, in which case the story got routed to another market. But hey, none of this stuff is wasted, right? I'm of the opinion that if you believe enough in a story, even if it's been rejected multiple times, it'll eventually find a good home.

    Thanks for the thoughts, my friend.

  12. Great post, John, as always.

    I find it hard to co-write, but over the last couple of years, I find that I like writing to a theme much more than I used to. I'm currently working on several stories for various calls. The best thing about them is that if they don't get picked for the particular anthology, most of them have a chance of selling to regular markets.

    The trick is finding out about the call early enough so I have time to come up with a decent idea because my first three ideas are usually terrible. If I find a fourth version or variation, it tends to interest me a lot more, and that really matters. Since I'm not getting rich at this, I need to have fun.

    Of course, a lot of the fun comes from seeing how other writers handled the same theme. That's always a great lesson.

  13. Steve, how true--if they get rejected by the target anthology, just sell them elsewhere.

    I agree, about hoping you find out about the submission call early enough. Some stories seem to get written fast, and others take awhile. Now that we no longer have Sandra Seamans's blog to tip us off to these calls and deadlines, I find myself Googling "anthology calls for submission" pretty regularly to make sure I don't miss something. I might seem to have a harder time with suggested topics instead of my own, but it doesn't keep me from trying them.

    I don't think you're alone in "not getting rich at this"!!

    Thanks as always for the thoughts.

  14. Thanks for the post, John. My main problem for years has been even hearing about anthologies, although that's starting to change. Meanwhile, I've had a couple accepted, and where I haven't, I send them on to other places and see. Never co-written anything.

  15. Hey Eve. I've only tried the co-writing thing once, with a friend who used to edit a magazine and has edited several successful anthologies, up in Boston. He suggested we write a story together and try it at AHMM. He wrote the first half of the story, I wrote the second, and it was probably the fastest rejection anyone ever received from AH. (Must've been his half of the story, right? Just kidding--I'm sure he's a better writer than I am. But the two of us together, man was that a misfire . . .)

    Several times since then I've almost taken that plunge again, but in all cases so far, better judgment has prevailed. And yes, finding out about anthology calls is an iffy business--the submission windows are sometimes really short.

    That's one great thing about AH and EQ--they're always there, anytime you write a story and want to send it in. No calls to watch out for and maybe miss . . . But of course the competition is fierce (as it should be).

    Keep up the great storytelling, and thanks for the comment!

  16. John, I enjoy writing to a theme—if the stated theme happens to kindle a spark in the same mysterious way that an idea comes to me without a prompt. I've had a fair number of such stories published, most of them not in the anthologies for which they were originally written. The bottom line for me is that, prompted or not, I don't write short stories deliberately. I "get my ideas" from a mysterious source of creativity that I can't explain. Same with poems, though this doesn't apply to the way I write any kind of nonfiction, from journalism to academic writing.

  17. Good thoughts, John. I enjoy writing for a themed anthology, but unlike Lawrence, I like the theme as unstructured as possible so I can try to stray as far as possible without going completely AWOL. Sometimes the theme actually attracts me, such as a call for zombie erotica in an anthology called Fifty Shades of Decay. How could I pass that up? But themes can generally be stretched pretty far, such as the recent MWA anthology call whose theme is "home." Could be about a Little House on the Prairie, a homeless person, a home invasion, a halfway house, a planetary expedition, or baseball. It doesn't do much to box you in.

    After decades as a TV writer, where restrictions were the name of the game--writing for other writers' characters and conforming to strict formulas regarding timing and act endings--I got into crime writing to be free of restrictions. So themes don't bother me, but I'm not crazy about calls for genres such as a semi-recent call for YA stories or Michael Bracken's current call for cozies. Those are even more restrictive than the first line or last line sorts of calls, or even story length calls such as a six-word story (Missed my wife, shot him instead.) or a 100-word story.

    So many choices, so little time. I don't know how you manage to write so many. You're an inspiration!

  18. Sounds pretty mystic to me, Liz--and it must be working, because I love your writing.

    I particularly like your observation that a prompt can sometimes kindle the same kind of spark that original ideas do. How true! Also, the fact that some of your stories wind up in anthologies other than the ones for which they were originally written. That has happened to me many times as well.

    As for mysterious sources of creativity, I must tell you something I once heard: If you eat a full bowl of chili every night just before going to bed, you'll never again have trouble coming up with story ideas, because you'll wake up at three o'clock in the morning dreaming in Technicolor and Cinemascope. I don't know if that's true or not--I've never tried it myself.

    Seriously, thank you as always for commenting here. And keep up the great stories, novels, AND poems!

  19. Craig, I only just saw your note. I think you and I agree--it's easier for me to work with themes that can be broadened a bit, and allow me some leeway. And yes, the current MWA antho call is a good example.

    Fifty Shades of Decay? You're right, it'd be hard to pass that up.

    As for your experience as a TV writer, I understand that to write less-restrictive fiction probably gives you a feeling of freedom--but I suspect that the need for "structure" you had to follow for all those scripts also helps you a lot, right?--and is probably unconsciously at work (in a good way) in your other writing. I can't help wishing I had that kind of background and training.

    I appreciate your insights, my friend--many thanks!

  20. Hi, John. Great post.

    Themed writing for me is hit or miss. I've had some good stories that worked and some that I just couldn't come up with an idea.

    I've written for a few anthologies and gotten accepted, others rejected. I prefer guidelines that aren't too limiting. Example: mystery in a setting you choose. I do agree that for most call-outs the timeline is too short so it works better if you have something already written that will fit works better.

    I wrote a story with three critique partners one time. We won honorable mention in a Romantic Times contest. We did it on a lark.

    Writing is a crazy calling for sure.

  21. Hey Pat. I too have to pass occasionally, when I just can't make anything fit, and other times I try my best and still get rejected. And sometimes I get lucky. As you said, it's easier for me if the guidelines aren't too restricting. As for timelines, sometimes they're generous and other times they're REALLY short.

    Hey, sounds as if your collaboration worked well--congratulations. I can only imagine trying to write something with four participants (!?!).

    It is indeed a crazy calling. I heard once that if you CAN quit doing this, you probably SHOULD. That's good advice!

    Thanks so much for stopping by.

  22. I've actually sold a few stories to theme anthologies! And I write a weekly flash fiction piece based off a picture prompt on a Facebook page called "Friday Flash Fics." (Full Disclosure: I am currently the page's de facto moderator!) It's great practice! After four years, I think I'm a better writer!

  23. Congratulations, Jeff! I think that kind of thing DOES make you, and anyone, a better writer. Stories based on picture prompts are a whole nother area, and I truly believe it takes special talent to write those. A friend of mine named Jim Angelo loves to write stories for AHMM's Mysterious Photograph contest each month, and--I couldn't be prouder of him--he won one of those contests this year, after recently getting Hon. Mentions on three others.

    I must check out that Facebook page--I hadn't heard of it before. Congrats again, on your success there, and also with the themed anthologies. Keep it up!


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>