Writing for anthologies is a pretty hard thing to do unless you’ve been invited to submit, and even then it’s not a guaranteed yes. If it’s a themed anthology, it’s a double kiss of death. Of the two ways of submitting to themed anthologies, writing a new piece or trying to modify an old piece to fit, I’d highly recommend doing the former. The latter is risky and if you didn’t make small enough stitches to all the different places where you added on the theme, laymen can tell.
Of all my sales to anthologies, I’ve only done one that sold with a modification. The story I wrote was about a man in prison who kept imaginary friends around so that when he coughed up his internal organs, he could swallow the organs of the imaginary creature, thus killing it, but continuing his life. His favourite imaginary friend by far was the leprechaun, but after he coughed out his lungs, the leprechaun insisted that the main character take his lungs, just in case.
The anthology call was for stories that included radioactive monkeys who had to die. It was called Requiem for the Radioactive Monkey. The being that was the imaginary friend of the guy wasn’t the point. In fact, I’d written the story because it had to contain a leprechaun for a story reading during St. Patrick’s day. Out went the leprechaun, in went the radioactive monkey, and bang! I sold it. It was the first, last and only time.
So I hope when you find an anthology call, the idea excites you. If it doesn’t, find one that does. If none of them do, keep looking. If none of them ever do, maybe writing for themed anthologies just isn’t your thing. There are lots of other kinds of writing out there. The #1 thing you CANNOT sell to the reader if whether or not you like the story you’re writing. No matter how careful you are, your opinion of the story is going to bleed through it. Yes, some people can phone it in, but they’re being included in any anthology so that other people will buy the book. Your story, if you don’t have that kind of name, has to carry the deadweight and be even more awesome because it’s included.
So how do you do that?
First off, think of the theme. Think of the most obvious way that 60% of the writing population will think of. Then, don’t write that story. Then think of the secondary approach that maybe only 30% of the writing population would think. This is usually where the bad guy is written as the good guy. Don’t write that story either. Then think of the story that no one else could possibly think about. This might take a day, a week or a month, but do not rush it. You do not want to be the nth story where the twist is Y. There was an anthology call for Lovely, Dark and Deep, stories about the woods. Most people who think of that probably immediately think of fairy tales or Celtic mythology with elves. I went new world, literally, with wendigo. I probably won’t be the only person who thought of the wendigo, but I also tied the story and the legend up with new age starvation cults meeting the wendigo legend.
My point is, don’t follow the obvious path. It used to be you just had to think of the story from the bad guy’s POV, but that’s been so overdone that it is the go-to for most writers. When the editor is sitting there with a stack of stories, you do not want to have to compete to be the best story with X as the plot. You want to be in your pile, off to the side and let other people fight it out as to what the best X story is going to be.
Secondly, do not forget the theme. I used to roll my eyes whenever people mentioned theme because I didn’t like grade eight Language Arts, but theme is actually really important. It’s important down to the level of picking your main character, because if there was one piece of information that really moved my writing to the next level, it was always try to have your protagonist moving at odds with the theme, not along with it. If the Main Character is totally okay with what the theme is, there is no conflict. And the last thing you want to do, is have no conflict. The moment where your main character accepts what she has been fighting against the whole time is a massive cathartic moment of the story and should make your climax even more climactic.
Thirdly, do not be disheartened at rejection. No matter how good the story is, with anthology calls, it just might not be a good fit. And if it’s not a good fit, there’s nothing you can do.
Fourthly, be prepared to strip it down for parts. If everything was firing on all cylinders and you still got rejected, try to see if you can do a theme-ectomy. The last thing you want to do, after not being accepted in the first place, is to be a part of the wave of stories being sent to the small pool of non-themed markets after the rejections are sent back. Hopefully, your story is going to be good enough to stand on its own even if it was written to a themed anthology, and if that’s the case, either keep hold of the world, magic and problem and go at it again in six months to a year or sit on it for a really long time before sending it out as is. Let the idea swirl around for a while. Do you like the world enough to turn it into the other N-word? (gasp, novel?) Can you accept it as just being a practice piece and what you’ve learned from it was enough reward? Can you strip out the Rumpelstiltskin references and set it in space?
Rejection sucks. But if you can’t get over it, you shouldn’t be writing. To paraphrase Wayne Gretzky for the second time in the past two weeks, you get rejected from every anthology you don’t submit to.