To Theme or Not To Theme

Never “write to market” I tell my students.  Go with the ideas that excite you, I say, and don’t worry about that cowboy elf anthology you saw mentioned in Gila Queen that offers to pay twenty cents a word.  Come on, you know what happens.  More often than not you end up writing some drivel under the pressure of a tight deadline.  Even if you are inspired, what happens if they don’t buy it?  You’ve got yourself a mutant-freak genre story you can’t sell anywhere else.

Thus imagine my horror when I was offered my very first invitation to write for a themed anthology.

I probably should have said thanks, but no thanks.  The deadline was insane.  I had a month to write a story that combined vampires and birthdays (seriously?!), and worse, I was the rookie of the team.  If they went for it, my story was going to appear next to New York Times Bestsellers like Charlaine Harris, Kim Armstrong, and Jim Butcher. Luckily, I’m one of those writers who thrive on high pressure situations. I’m actually quite proud of the result (and if you are so inclined it is available as of today in Many Bloody Returns [Ace Hardcover, 978-0441015221]).

But being asked made me re-think my advice to my students.  After all, as a long time reader of Romantic Times, I’ve noticed that collections of themed short stories (or novellas, at any rate,) are becoming quite popular particularly in paranormal romance.  Any given month, there are a dozen to choose from.  Some have one author writing on various, loosely interconnected themes, and others, like the one I’m involved in, have several writers all riffing on common factors, like birthdays or whatever.

I remember a time when the rumor mill would have authors believe that no one bought story collections and that you’d be a fool to proposal one.  There were always exceptions, of course.  I remember Chicks in Chainmail being one.  Shared-world anthologies had their day when I was young, too, (think Thieves’ World) but I’m not sure anyone is even writing those any more (of course, it may be that I just don’t notice them).

What’s changed, I wonder? 

Do you read short story compilations?  Themed books?  What do you like about them?  For myself, I have to admit that I’ve only been tempted by a few.  One of the strengths of themed anthologies (that each writer brings his or her unique vision to the collection), often works against me as a reader.  The abrupt changes in voice will sometimes throw off my appreciation of the work as a whole.  I also tend not to read anthologies like a book – instead I pick and chose my way through, often returning to the book several times before sampling every story. 

Yet they can be great.  I’ve “discovered” a whole lot of authors after stumbling across a short story I particularly liked in collection.  I still check out anything by Cory Doctorow because I so loved “Craphound,” which I read in a Year’s Best anthology. 

So what’s the verdict?  For or against themed anthologies?  Why do you think they’ve become so popular, particularly among the romance reader set?

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  1. 1. Kelly McCullough

    Hey, it was damned good cowboy elf story. Sure, I haven’t been able to sell it, but I’m still proud of the work.

    I personally like reading themed anthologies, though I’ll probably never write something for one on spec again. I also like shared world books–the latter still exist, I’ve heard that George R.R. Martin’s doing another Wild Cards set (Psst, George, if you read this and you liked WebMage and you need another author for Wild Cards…).

  2. 2. Diatryma

    Some years ago, I read a bit about a guy who more or less destroyed the anthology market by putting out too many too quickly. I do not remember who he was, though, so it’s not good for much. If this is true, that anthologies sold well until the market was crushed, then we may be returning to normalcy.

    I like anthologies better as a reader for… anything where I have to put the book down. Meals. Long trips– having to pause every two or three stories to keep my brain from reboot-shock is good for sleeping, and I don’t get carsick. Reading between things– took me three days to get through one long short story once, because I was working. There’s a better chance that I’ll find something I like in an anthology than in a novel because there’s more there. It’s not as big a there, but eh.

  3. 3. Patricia Bray

    As a Regency author with one title under her belt, I remember being stunned when my editor called to offer me a slot in a Regency set Halloween & Kitten themed anthology.

    My initial reply was to point out that Halloween wasn’t a commonly celebrated holiday in England during the Regency era (aka the time of Jane Austen). But it was pitched to me as being good for my career, so I swallowed my misgivings and agreed.

    The anthology Bewitching Kittens was published for Halloween 1998. It went on to be translated into multiple languages, among them Portuguese and German (separate German and Swiss editions, of all things). And I’m still seeing royalty checks from that sucker.

    So you never know.

  4. 4. Alyx Dellamonica

    What I like about theme anthologies is that the restrictions on the subject matter of a story are inspiring. How to write a good Van Helsing story? Something off-beat enough that it won’t tread on the other invitees? Some of my best stories have come about this way; it doesn’t work for everyone, but this particular type of challenge really does it for me.

  5. 5. S.C. Butler

    Themed anthologies don’t tend to work for me as a reader unless I really, really like the theme (did someone already mention chicks in chainmail?). But I do tend to like shared world anthologies, having plowed through both Man/Kzin and Thieves World in my time. And, yes, Kelly, Wild Cards is coming back. I think January is the pub date. I also think our own Daniel Abraham is included.

  6. 6. Jim C. Hines

    As a writer, I enjoy doing themed anthologies. They often force me out of my comfort zone, and I end up writing something I might not normally have done.

    As a one-time editor (Heroes in Training came out on 9/4/07!), it was an interesting experience. I think the theme was broad enough that the stories didn’t overlap too much. At the same time, looking back, I don’t think the theme is exciting enough to really take off. Most of the stories are pretty darn good, but I worry that the collection itself won’t sell as well as I’d like.

    If I pitch another one, I’m going to work harder at finding a kickass theme…

Author Information

Tate Hallaway

Tate Hallaway is the best-selling paranormal romance alter-ego for an award-winning science fiction author. Her most recent novel is DEAD IF I DO is forthcoming from Berkley Trade in May of 2009. Visit site.

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