Storyville: Anthology Calls—How to Write to Theme, and Stand Out in a Crowd
Over the years, I’ve been published in quite a few anthologies—sometimes cold calls via submissions, and other times from a private invite. But every time I send a story in to an editor, there are things I think about, and consider, as I try to address the theme, stay true to my voice, and yet still stand out in a crowd. Here are some tips from my experiences.
Read the Theme, Study It In Great Detail
The first thing to think about is the theme of the anthology. Do you know what neo-noir or new-weird is all about? Does the genre (or sub-genre) make sense to you? If not, do some research. What exactly does “Qualia Nous” or “Chiral Mad” mean (two anthology series I’ve been a part of, edited by Michael Bailey). If it’s just a general horror theme, or even a general sub-genre such as psychological horror, you probably have a pretty good idea what that’s about. Other themes and calls have very specific requests. So read the submission call, study the directions, absorb the details, and do whatever research is necessary. Sometimes they’ll mention past anthologies they’ve edited, and/or authors that fit the vibe of this project. If you recognize the past works, and have read the authors then you may not need to do more research. If you aren’t familiar with ANY of that, then get to reading. Trust me—not only will you find some amazing stories and voices, but it’ll help direct your work.
Follow the Guidelines
Similarly, read the guidelines and follow them. If the genre is science fiction, don’t send in magical realism. If the genre is historical fiction, don’t turn in contemporary romance. If they say the word count is 4k-6k don’t send in a story that’s 2,500 words or one that’s 7,000. You know this. If your story is 6,001 words, just cut it down to 5,999. If your story is 6,200—cut it down. If you can’t, then just don’t submit it. They may also say something like “no hatred, rape, bigotry, misogyny, pedophilia, or excessive gore.” This is not the place to protest or push back. If you have some splatterpunk that is not a good fit, just send it somewhere else. Look at the dates, and keep that timeline in mind. Honor the requests of the publisher and editor, or send your work elsewhere.
On the other hand, don’t remove yourself from the equation if you’re not sure. It’s one thing to send in a horror story to a cozy call for mysteries (don’t do that), it’s another thing to question what a certain theme, genre, or word might mean. Take the aforementioned Qualia Nous and Chiral Mad anthologies.
QUALIA NOUS—“Qualia: instances of subjective, conscious experience; the internal and subjective component of sense perceptions arising from stimulation of the senses by phenomena; the way it feels to have mental states. Nous: intellections; awareness; perception; understanding; reason; thought; intuition; the faculty of the human mind; having the ability to understand what is true or real; practical intelligence.”
CHIRAL MAD—“Fiction that disturbs the nonlinear fabric(s) of reality. Mindbenders…that could not only be classified as horror, but as psychological horror with chirality as its backbone. This anthology suits stories that push the limits of the human condition. The keyword being ‘human.’ Strong character development is a must, and all stories must have some element of chirality, whether it is in character reflection, physical and/or mental symmetry, structure, or any other way you can manage. Chirality—the property of a figure that is not identical to its mirror image.”
So you may be saying, “What the hell?” LOL. I know, that was my first thought when submitting my stories to these calls, but it’s actually quite freeing. I looked for a jumping off point, something I could grasp at, so for Qualia Nous it came down to words like perception vs. reality, stimulation vs. immersion, understanding vs. unknown, reason vs. the uncanny. For Chiral Mad it was all about the madness—key words like disturbing, mindbenders, psychological horror, beyond human, symmetry, reflection, mirror images (which also made me think about dopplegangers).
So what did I publish in these anthologies?
Qualia Nous—“The Jenny Store” is a science fiction story about AI/robotics, where you can buy yourself a mate, a “Jenny.” Of course, the story flips that plot upside down.
Chiral Mad 2—“Playing With Fire” is a dark fantasy about life on an island, where things are not what they seem, and the wolves that come out at night are more than wolves.
Chiral Mad 3—“The Offering on the Hill” is a post-apocalyptic story in the vibe of The Dark Tower series, about a man that comes down out of the mountains to find his family, and the world, have moved on. There is madness in his pursuit of that loss, and the things he finds along the way—everything from ice storms that sweep across the desert, to a devil in a child’s form that won’t grant him passage, to what lies over the hill.
Chiral Mad 4—“Golden Sun” is a linked “Rashomon” with Michael Wehunt, Damien Angelica Walters, and Kristi DeMeester that focuses on a family at the beach in the summertime, and the missing middle child. So much of this story deals with madness, perception, time, dark magic, wishes, lies, and reflected stories and images. It was later reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year, Volume 11.
How to Stand Out
- Submit early and try to be the first to do A, B, or C with your story or the opposite—submit late, and try to be the last (and hopefully best) attempt at certain themes, genres, or characters.
- Avoid your first instincts, and first plot choices. In other words, leave the low-hanging fruit. If you thought of something right away, then so did most of the other people submitting. Let that one go. And the next one. And the next one. Avoid anything that feels cliché, obvious, expected, or standard.
- Lean into your strengths. I write maximalist, weird, psychological horror, so that’s most likely what I’m going to try to do. But that could go anywhere. I’m always going to keep my strengths in mind, as well as my weaknesses, and try to write a story that takes advantage of whatever I think I do best.
- Similarly, what do you bring to the table that nobody else submitting to this anthology can do? It might be your childhood, your education, your family, your cultures, your influences, where you live, your religion, your orientation, your gender. Whatever you think will stand out. A story by Usman T. Malik is a different take than Chuck Palahniuk. Priya Sharma will tell a different story than Kelly Robson. Victor LaValle a different voice than Josh Malerman. Dig deep, and use whatever you have.
- Zig when everyone else zags. If you think everyone is going to write something set in the far future, write in the far past. If you think monsters will be in every story, redefine what “monster” means. If the stories beg to be written at night, write yours in the day (see “Golden Sun”). Female lead vs male lead, second person epistolary when everyone is writing immersive first, or maybe a structural bit of weirdness that will stand out among the bleak, maximalist emotions.
- Give the editor what they want. In this case, speaking about Michael Bailey (though the same thing might apply to Doug Murano, David Ward, Joe Mynhardt, Ellen Datlow, etc.) if you’ve read his past anthologies you may have a sense of what he likes. Having published with him four times now, I THINK I know what might work with him. And luckily for me, he seems to like publishing the kind of stories that I like to write. Win-win, right?
When it comes to anthologies, just like any publication, a lot of this advice may seem obvious—understand the theme, follow the guidelines, and give them what they want. Sure, you’re not wrong. But it’s the other half of this article that I think can really help you to stand out. Follow those obvious parameters, but then figure out what you, and only you can write, and then do that thing. If you lean into your strengths, and can find an original idea, done in a way that the editor won’t see coming, while also satisfying his requests? Then you have a really great shot at breaking through. Good luck!
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