Kate Heartfield

On writing to fit

Most of the stories I’ve sold in 2017 have sold to anthologies, rather than magazines (including a couple of sales I can’t yet talk about).

This pleases me, for reasons that might require a bit of explanation.

Anthologies are not better markets than magazines from either a business or artistic standpoint. Just like magazines, some have lots of readers. Some have very few readers.

But an anthology (and to an extent, a themed issue of a magazine) is usually organized around an idea, and the call for submissions is often quite specific. For example, there’s currently an anthology asking for stories about “space marine midwives“, which is extremely relevant to my interests. I’d love to write a story to submit to it, if I get time between novel revisions and game writing. [Narrator: She won’t get time.]

My very first paid speculative fiction sale was written for the anthology that bought it, but early in my career, that was the exception. My usual pattern was to write a story for an anthology call, submit it, get it rejected, and then sell it elsewhere. In those days it was rare for any story of mine to sell on its first submission. Some of my favourite stories were written for anthologies that rejected them. I can barely remember now that they were originally intended for other markets; at least two, that I can think of, went on to sell to very good magazines at pro rates.

So not getting into an anthology is not the end of the world, and is not even necessarily a bad thing. Anthology calls make good writing prompts. If it sells to the anthology that inspired it, huzzah. If not, well, you’ve still got a story you can submit elsewhere (just wait a while if the subject was very narrow, because there will be lots of those stories on the market for a few months.)

But I’m finding that my stories are getting accepted at themed anthologies more often than they used to. I think this is a sign that I’m getting better at gauging what editors are looking for. In a few recent cases, I wrote a story specifically for an anthology (either the editor solicited a story from me, or I just liked the theme), sent it to that anthology as its first submission, and got an acceptance. In another case, I took a story I had not yet sold and revised it heavily to fit the anthology (it needed revision in general, too). In another couple of cases, I just sent stories I had not yet sold — but even that required me to understand the anthology call and select a story that would work.

(None of this is guaranteed, of course. Next year I could strike out of anthologies altogether. It’s not linear or neat.)

Being able to write to an editor’s specifications is an important skill for a working writer to have (especially a full-time freelancer like me). I know this runs against the mythology that writers should listen only to their muses and never consider publication, but we know that’s crap, right? Art is no less Art for being developed within certain constraints. A commissioned portrait or chapel ceiling is still Art. So is a commissioned story.

You might think that stories written to fit would be tamer, take fewer risks. That hasn’t been my experience. My most recent sale to an anthology might be both the strangest and most political story I’ve written.

Working with four other writers and an editor in a shared world for Monstrous Little Voices probably helped me develop this side of my skill set. So has working with Choice of Games. The game I’m writing for them is my own creation, but within the constraints of the format and the company’s guidelines and practices, and under the guidance of an editor as I go.

Not all writers want to be able to write to order, but I do, so I’m glad to see that develop in my work. (For the moment, though, I’m not writing short fiction on spec until I get the game and novel done, so I’ll have to ignore those tempting anthology calls…).