Writing for a specific theme

One of the most common bits of writerly advice is to “write what you know”. A corollary to this, “write for yourself,” is less common advice but I have found it to be more important. At least for me.

Author Jim Van Pelt’s column at The Fix this month asks the question “what are you writing for?” I found it to be a very timely article. Since I started writing again, I have written precisely five stories that were undertaken with a specific market in mind. One story, “An Awakening of Shadows” sold to the targeted market, but underwent some substantial rewrites and edits along the way. Two of these stories, “My Day Off From The SETI Project” and “Language Barrier” were rejected by the market I targeted, but sold to other markets very quickly.  A fourth, “Sword In Hand” was rejected by the targeted market and is currently being critiqued. (I pushed to hard to finish it quickly and it suffers some structural problems, I fear.) For all of these stories an idea grabbed me and I was writing for myself, the theme and market were secondary. I feel that this is why those two stories sold to different markets after being rejected.

The fifth story, “Feral”, didn’t get submitted to the target market. I missed the deadline. Over the last few weeks I have been writing the story for myself, and I have also been writing the story with a specific themed market in mind. As with the others, these two goals are not exclusive of each other.

I was quite calm about missing the deadline despite the effort I put into “Feral”. And I put a lot of work and thought into the story, believe me. I invented an alien race, a social and political structure and a binary calendar (of sorts).

The reason I missed the deadline has two parts. First, I didn’t find out about the anthology until recently and I got started a little late; the story also took some time to form in my mind. Second, when I was getting close to the ending of the story and preparing to write until midnight if necessary, I realized that the word count was going to be well below the market’s minimum, by about a thousand words. If I had been able to start sooner I could have worked more on the story’s minor characters and added those thousand words. If I had written more with the minor characters earlier in the week I would have had the time to finish. If, if, if.

So, I asked myself why I wasn’t upset about spending so much time on something with a specific goal and then missing it totally?

The answer is simple. I was writing for myself, and that would be good enough by itself; but is not the whole answer. The answer lies with my decision to complete the story and send it out to other markets. Which finally brings me to the topic of this post. Writing for a specific theme.

The idea for “Feral” popped into my head when I read the submission guidelines for an upcoming themed anthology for Hadley Rille books titled “Footprints”. The idea is this: Human civilization has failed and enough time has passed that all traces of man on earth has been erased by time and nature. An alien species arrives at Earth and because there is nothing to destroy them, discovers the footprints we left behind on the moon.

What a fascinating theme! I am a wee bit disappointed at missing the deadline because it would have been very exciting to be in this anthology.

One of the major drawbacks of writing to a specific theme such as this is that the story will forever carry that theme, and other markets, especially those that are aware of “Footprints” may reject it because it is a recent theme of another market, or more likely because all of the authors that get rejected will be flooding their stories to these other markets and the editors will start balking at seeing the same theme over and over.

You can see how writing to a specific theme has it’s pitfalls.

But I realized shortly after I calculated that I was going to miss the deadline, that because I wrote for me I don’t have to leave the story strapped to the back of this very specific theme. This is why I am not upset at all about missing the deadline. I am going to flip everything over. Humans will be investigating an alien moon and discover the footprints of the alien race I invented. The fun thing is that I can easily fit the story into the milieu I have started calling “the warp lane stories” without any problem at all. A character from a previously written, but as yet unsold story, will even take over a minor character role. The character fit is so perfect I have to wonder if my subconscious didn’t use this previous human character as the template for the alien.

I really feel that if I had been writing only for that theme–writing specifically toward what I thought they would buy–or if I wrote any story with only a specific market in mind, that those stories would become virtually unusable by any other market. But because the voice of the stories is mine I can tweak them and mold them, and believe that any market would be interested in buying them. Technically it is the same theme. It is the same story from my point of view. Hopefully a editor out there will like it.

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2 Responses

  1. Hi, Deven. I’m glad you like the article. Nice post! Reading about how other people are handling these issues, especially at the detail you do here, is always interesting.

    Good luck with your projects.

  2. Thanks, Jim!

    I had more to say, especially about trying to target a specific market .vs. trying to appeal to any market, but figured that could wait for another day.

    I enjoy your blog. Glad I could return the favor and give you something interesting to read. Good luck with your current novel project!

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