Sunday, 8 March 2015

On Writing for Prompts

Lately I've been thinking about - and discussing with writer friends - the merits of producing work for specific markets, or for markets with very particular guidelines.  By that I guess I'm mostly talking about anthologies of the "we only want to see historical stories about cybernetically enhanced chickens" ilk, though of course there are such things as work-for-hire and specialist publishers like Rebellion, whose recent opening for submissions was one of the events that got me mulling over this in the first place.

At any rate, it's something that in the past I've found myself arguing against pretty adamantly.  A lot of that, it occurs to me now, goes back to how my first attempt at writing to a prompt went very badly - or very well, depending on how broad your perspective is.  It was an anthology of fantasy stories about assassins, and I had a suitable idea ready to go, so I thought why not?  It wasn't great money but it was okay, and it was an open enough premise that I figured I could always sell the story elsewhere if it didn't get picked up.  But once I'd finished I felt good about the results, and hopeful that it might find a place.

It didn't, of course.  Instead I got a detailed personal rejection, based entirely on the first page.  This was exactly as galling as you'd think it would be, especially since every criticism the editor had made would have been addressed if he'd bothered to read on a couple more pages.  (It only occurs to me now to wonder if he lived all his life like this.  Dating must have been a nightmare, unless people were wearing really nice shoes.)  Anyway, as will often happen, it worked out okay in the end: I sold the story, which was Ill-Met at Midnight, for considerably more money to Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and felt briefly grateful to an editor who thought judging stories on a single page was a viable thing to do.

This experience, inevitably, coloured my perceptions.  So, a couple of years later, did writing a story at an editor's personal request and to an extraordinarily specific mandate, for no money, which they then rejected at the last moment for reasons nothing to do with the story itself.  The conclusion that both experiences led me to was this: I could write a story specifically for one market and have it rejected, or I could write a story that I wanted to write, that was appropriate for any number of different markets and, with perseverance and a little luck, sell it for as good or better money.  Except that it was even worse than that, because writing for a specific prompt - especially an obscure one - was practically doomed to failure.  Since well-paying anthologies tend to get flooded with submissions, my fantasy story about assassins had to stand against maybe hundreds of other fantasy story about assassins, and had proportionately less chance of standing out.  Writing to a prompt actually decreased my chances of selling a story, and so seemed to me pretty much the definition of a mug's game.

Anyway, as is often the way with these posts, I only mention any of this because I've sort-of changed my mind. To the point where a fair portion of last month and this one have been devoted to writing stories for specific anthologies.  Is this the complete reversal it looks like?  Um ... not exactly.  But I've got to admit, I've seen another side to the argument, and that is, writing to someone else's pitch can be fun.  It can also be inspiring, in a world where inspiration isn't always as close as you'd like it to be.  In three cases since January, a stranger's suggestion kicked my brain into churning out ideas that I found myself helplessly eager to get down on paper.  In one case that meant that something which had been rattling inside my brain for half a decade becoming suddenly clear and writable.  But for the other two it was just sheer, distilled inspiration, the seeds of new stories manifesting out of nothing - and, man, I've missed that.

So from now on, maybe I'll be a bit more open to writing for specific markets. Or maybe all three of those stories will get rejected and I'll go back to my old opinion.  And perhaps the point here is more that no matter your writing practices, no matter the kinds of markets you favour, it's good to open your inspiration-radar up wide.  I suspect that I'd forgotten a little just how much ideas can come from anywhere, but it's absolutely true, and it's no bad thing to let someone else's suggestions guide you every once in a while.

No comments:

Post a Comment