Monday, February 02, 2009

A Guide for Magazine and Anthology Editors

Do not set a theme.

Every time you set a theme, every author in the land - or at least those who have heard your call for submissions - will rack their brains to think whether they have any unpublished stories or poems that fit your theme. Lucky if they have one, but the odds are that they will not - especially if they're any good and their stuff is getting published. The writer who does not have one, pathetically keen not to pass up a publishing opportunity, will then sit down at the desk to try and write one.

What happens then? Terrible things can happen. Maybe the writer sits there all week and nothing comes (because really the writer has a different agenda) and the writer wastes a week's writing time and still has nothing to send you. Or maybe the writer gets what seems a brilliant idea - a version of your idea - and begins writing it. But half way down the first page the words start twisting away from the idea and towards the idea that the writer would have written if he or she were not trying to fit your idea, your overall theme. The writer tries to twist it back - and here we have a writer at war with themselves, with their own creativity! - and OK, sometimes it works, but more often than not it doesn't, and the story ends up a mess, true to neither interest, yours nor theirs. Or maybe the writer comes up with a story which seems to fit your theme brilliantly, but if it doesn't also fit the writer's own agenda then you are being instrumental in dissipating writers' creativity. And what if you don't accept it? It's OK you saying that writers are 'free to interpret the theme in any way they want', but it's a set theme after all, and we all know you're human, you'll have your preferences as to how it's interpreted, and anyway you've only got a certain number of slots...

Do us a favour. Don't set themes.

Yeah, I know, I know, it's the way to market things, themes...

22 comments:

annie clarkson said...

I laughed out loud at this blog. I quite like themes, but I agree with all your points, it is so so true.

Elizabeth Baines said...

It's heartfelt, can you tell? I've just wasted a week with nothing to show for it, and the only thing to do was have a laugh...

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more! I detest themes. I want to write a collection of disparate stories for my dissertation, but everybody wants to know what the common theme is. Sometimes I find myself overworking a perfectly decent story to force in a tenuous link to a theme. Thank you for this!

Emily P

Elizabeth Baines said...

Hah, Emily! It's a tough one...

Tania Hershman said...

This also made me laugh - I feel your pain, Elizabeth! However, to disagree vehemently, I have found the Mslexia calls for stories on a theme very inspirational, they spawned several of the stories in my book ("Rainstiffness" from the Rain theme, "On A Roll" for the shoe theme). 'Course, lovely Mslexia didn't want to publish any of these stories, but they got my mind whirring in a strange way. Don't knock whatever sets my mind whirring strangely!

Tania Hershman said...

PS Emily - you certainly shouldn't need a theme for your collection, pah, that's terrible! Rebel... and find a damn cool publisher who doesn't care, like Elizabeth and I did.

PPS My word verification word is Purphed - how beautiful!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Ah well, Tania, lucky you! Whatever does it for you...!

SueG said...

I'm with you. Actually, if I see a theme has been set then I automatically skip the whole thing. I figure either I have something in my "arsenal" that's appropriate or I don't. For me, writing to a theme just doesn't work at all.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Very sensible, Sue!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Sorry, Tania, your second comment didn't show up in my email. Yes, this thing about themed collections - I've written about it a lot on my blogs. It's all to do with marketing, as I say: it's much easier to market a collection of stories this way. But the problem with it, in my view, (apart from the problem for writers) is that by publishing collections that mimic novels it panders to and reinforces a demotion of the short story, and an inability to read the short story in the way it needs to be read: ie, a story, like a poem, needs to be read in its own right and not as part of a greater whole.

Elizabeth Baines said...

PS and yes, as you say, Tania, the great thing about Salt is that although they are brilliant at marketing and put a great deal of their energies into it, they are not interested in this particular strategy which put marketing above creative innovation.

Anne Brooke said...

Yes, I'd like to add my vote to those of us who fairly often need a spur to write anything at all. I find themes quite helpful! Though it doesn't stop me writing other non-legislated work. It's finding the balance that seems to be best.

Mind you, I was hugely lucky with my last published short story (which was also inspired by Tania!) as it just happened to fit the webzine's theme when I sent it in. That's unlikely to happen again in my lifetime for sure!!

:))

Axxx

Bournemouth Runner said...

And as for word limits, don't get me started...

Elizabeth Baines said...

Well, Anne, I won't deny that it's great when it happens! Congratulations!

Yes, Adrian, even the most literary mags make word restrictions. It's just amazing to think that a story is debarred from a mag for which it might otherwise be perfectly suited, just because it's a bit too long or too short. In some cases this is clearly driven by the demands of the internet (ie its being most amenable to short stuff), but I can think of at least one print mag which has a lower word limit.

maxdunbar said...

To be fair I think that Succour should get rid of theme.

Word limits are different, and necessary. Writers need discipline and cutting is the most important skill to learn.

Elizabeth Baines said...

I absolutely agree that cutting is the most important skill. But I can't say I subscribe to the notion that every short story over 2,000 still needs cutting (or 3,000 or 4,000, depending on the publication: doesn't that difference in itself say something?)

kate brown said...

I remember you talking about this in Paris, and how dominant themed collections were becoming. I have enough trouble figuring out how to write about my own themes, generally. Competitions in themselves can spur me to either start or finish a story - but that doesn't guarantee I'll end up with something I'm happy with.

Anyway, for those of you who do enjoy a good theme, duotrope's weekly wire stuck this lot in my inbox a couple of days ago - the mind boggles: rebound (erotica)- riding - blood and roses - a steampunk orange - thought crime experiments - mutants, cannibals, human hybrids or the dead coming to life... the list goes on.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Eek, Kate - that certainly sounds like the inside of someone else's head (rather than my own)!

BarbaraS said...

I've always found that if I have nothing to fit the theme, trying to write something to fit won't work! Ever.

So I am nodding and laughing here.

kate brown said...

Yeah, interesting to get a glimpse of what the world out there is looking for, isn't it...

Elizabeth Baines said...

Well, this is one great consolation for a frustrating week: at least I'm not alone!

Charles Lambert said...

Hmm, it's a two-edged sword. I've found that writing to theme has produced some stories I'm proud of, and surprised by, but it's also produced much anguish and wasted many hours, if not days, of my valuable time. On the whole, I think I'd rather be left alone to do what has to be done, but sometimes a little push in any direction at all is better than total stasis.