To Theme or Not to Theme

A couple of cool announcements, before moving to today’s wander…

Artemis Awakening made Locus magazine’s list of recommended reading for 2014.  Needless to say, I’m thrilled!

I now have a mailing list.  Sign up for announcements of contests and new releases.  Even if you’re a regular reader of the Wednesday Wanderings, you may find this useful for those weeks when you get busy.  Don’t worry!  Your information is not going to be used anywhere else and alerts will be limited.  Oh!  You can also sign up on my website home page or on my Facebook page.

Fantastic Anthologies

Fantastic Anthologies

Award-winning audiobook reader Joe Barrett has been signed on to continue reading the “Artemis Awakening” series with June’s release, Artemis Invaded.

As I mentioned in last week’s interview with Darynda Jones, one of my current projects is assembling the short story collection you folks requested last year.  As I was writing the afterwords that follow each piece, I found myself thinking about theme anthologies and the role they played when I was getting started – and continue to play even today.

I’d better clarify that: by theme anthologies, I mean those anthologies for which original works are solicited – not reprint anthologies for which an editor collects already printed stories that fit a particular theme.

Theme anthologies have never been given the same respect that the magazines have.  I once heard a then high-end magazine editor lament, “I don’t see why writers submit to these!  I’ll let them write about anything they want.”

Leaving aside that this is hardly true, I’d like to focus in on why I have always found theme anthologies appealing.

While every writer has more story ideas than he or she has time to write, an idea is not necessarily a story.  To me, an idea is a seed.  The story is a full-grown tree.  This is why writers are not thrilled when someone says, “Hey!  I’ve a great idea for a story.  How about I tell it to you, you write it, and we split the money?”

So why, if a writer has all these ideas, would writing for a theme anthology be appealing?  Wouldn’t that impose an unwanted constraint?

Rather than being constricting, theme anthologies can provide a challenge.  Whenever I’ve been interested in a theme anthology, I’ve always tried to write a story that will provide a different take on the theme.  The first thing I do is make a list of all the most common takes on the designated theme.  Then I try to find a different twist.

The “Fantastic” anthology series edited by Martin H. Greenberg with various co-editors, and published by DAW books, provides a good example of these anthology themes.

I’ve had stories in Dragon Fantastic, Fantastic Alice, Cat Fantastic IV, Elf Fantastic, Wizard Fantastic, Spell Fantastic, Assassin Fantastic, Apprentice Fantastic, and Pharaoh Fantastic. There were many other “Fantastic” anthologies to which I did not contribute.

Sometimes a theme anthology provides a writer with the opportunity to explore an idea or expand a location.  “A Touch of Poison,” my story in Assassin  Fantastic, is set in the same world as the Firekeeper stories, but does not feature any of the characters or settings from the novels.  It did give me a chance to explore Waterland, which Firekeeper heard about, but never reached.

At other times, I’ve used theme anthologies to tell a character’s back story.  “Beneath the Eye of the Hawk” in Pharaoh Fantastic is a prequel to The Buried Pyramid.  “Fever Waking” in Children of Magic tells of the childhood of Ynamynet, a key character in Wolf’s Blood.

One time I received three separate anthology invitations with deadlines close together.  I really wanted to write for them, but wasn’t sure I could manage all the background material.  One of these anthologies, Maiden, Matron, Crone, pretty much demanded a story with a central female character.  It hit me that I could write three stories – each fully independent – about the same person.  I wrote “Seeking Gold” for Maiden, Matron, Crone, then expanded Andrasta’s story in “Fire from the Sun” in Women of War, and “Comes Forth” for In the Shadow of Evil.

I’m not the only author to find theme anthologies inspirational.  Roger Zelazny’s award-winning novella, “Unicorn Variation” was written to fit into three different (reprint, in this case) anthologies.  You don’t have to take my word for it.  He writes about the story’s genesis in the introduction to the story in his collection Unicorn Variations.  It’s a fun anecdote – and a good story, too.

Readers seem to like theme anthologies.  I’ve had many tell me they hunted out the “Fantastic” anthology series because they would be assured of a degree of variety and creativity, but without the sense of “potluck” they got from many of the magazines.    Andre Norton’s Cat Fantastic anthologies went to multiple volumes.  As I noted above, I have a story in number four.

Oh, and that editor whose lament I quoted earlier in this piece.  Funny thing.  Several of his most recent projects have been theme anthologies.  I guess he finally saw the appeal.

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3 Responses to “To Theme or Not to Theme”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    I always figured that creativity does better in general when challenged with constraints, so it’s good to see another example of that.

  2. Paul Says:

    I always thought you can work any kind of story into about any general theme.

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      Well… Yes and no. Sure you can if you use the theme as window dressing (include a cat or robot or something), but I don’t believe that’s true if you’re really getting into the challenge.

      I once heard Fred Saberhagen (who I liked very much) say that “all panels become the same panel). My thought was, “Not if I’m moderating… I’ll keep it on topic!”

      If I were editing a theme anthology, I’d insist that the theme be part of the meat of the story, not the condiments.

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