Writers are constantly asked from where their ideas come. My response usually is: Everywhere. As a writer, nothing is ever wasted. Nothing you see, hear, taste, touch, observe, smell, or experience is ever wasted. It’s all material. Genuine writers are never bored, because they’re constantly transforming even the most mundane, rote experience into something interesting.
In the past few weeks, I grew aware of another source of inspiration: Calls for submission. I’m going to use a recent experience as an example, with the hope that you can find it useful.
The submission call I found particularly notable was for an anthology. I received it with about a month’s notice to create, revise, polish and submit. The call had been out there for several months, but it only came to my attention with a month of the deadline.
The premise had to do with water; the word count limit was 5000 words.
I’m a Pisces; I’m drawn to water, especially ocean. Writing about water comes fairly naturally. The 5000K word count is easy to hit. Using my first 1K of the day, I should be able to come up with the first draft in five days. Plenty of time to edit and polish.
I puttered and pondered and came up with a character who loved to swim and spend time in the water. She encounters a frightening creature under the ocean on one of her swims, but manages to evade it. When she surfaces, her foster brother tells her they have visitors, and the visitors seem extraordinarily interested in her. So was born “Be The Monster.” I knew where the piece started. I knew a couple of events that it needed to hit on the water, and the place where I wanted to stop the tale for the purposes of the anthology submission. My character was clearly defined in my head. So were the reasons for her being sent to foster care, her retrieval at this moment, her training, and the training she sought out in secret, not realizing it had something to do with her destiny. As I percolated and wrote and wrote, her circumstances came more clearly into focus, as did both her obstacles and her antagonists. Because not all of her obstacles ARE antagonists — some of the obstacles are there to prepare her for The Life-Changing Confrontation I knew an adventure on the way to The Life-Changing Confrontation, where she’d wind up with an unlikely ally in the form of a pirate who winds up having a connection to her Life-Changing Confrontation that neither of them could have suspected. The love and support developed in her foster family create a lot of her strength to face down her antagonist, even though she always felt somewhat like a misfit. It also gave me a chance to explore bonds of created families and bonds of blood families.
That’s a lot to pack into a short story. But that was this particular character’s story.
When I hit 4000 words and she hadn’t even gotten on the boat to encounter the pirate and leave for The Life-Changing Confrontation, AND one of her biggest tests took place on land, I knew I was in trouble.
Here, I was faced with several choices. Choice 1 was to cut out any scene that didn’t fit the parameters of the anthology guidelines and then make sure it was only 5K. It also meant cutting out one of the sections at sea with the pirate. Too much was lost in character and story development, in my opinion. It did not serve the piece’s innate rhythm OR my vision for the overall piece. Choice 2 was to choose an important scene or series of scenes from the bigger piece and rework them as a short story. Had I already written 12-15K, that would have made sense. With only 4K written, and still in the developmental process in tandem with the writing process, it didn’t make sense. Choice 3 was to make notes so I didn’t lose the scenes I envisioned and the ever-growing ensemble of characters that was starting to feel somewhat Shakespearean in scope (hey, if you’re going to have a mentor, it may as well be the best), put it aside and try another story. Now that I’d written my way a bit into “Be the Monster”, I could also see that I needed to do some world-building in tandem with the writing. That takes time, and can’t necessarily be stuffed into the deadline period.
I chose #3.
I put aside “Be the Monster” and wondered what else I could write. As I thought about the future of “Be the Monster”, I also started making a mental list of submission possibilities, one if it wound up as a novella, one if it wound up as a novel. But what to write now? Something involving Capt. Kit Erskine and the crew of my popular Merry’s Dalliance seemed to make sense — pirates in a fantasy world could encounter any kind of threat at sea. I started spinning ideas.
I’d driven past a lake surrounded by beautiful trees turning gorgeous colors in the autumn, with a rather lovely, spooky mist rising from it. A day or two later, I overheard a pre-teen trying to talk his aunt into chaperoning a school camping trip. We’re also in the season of ghost stories, and doesn’t one always tell ghost stories on a camping trip?
The anthology guidelines stated it could take place on a lake. It just had to be scary and have the lake as an important part of the piece.
“Lake Justice” was born. Aunt turned into godmother, the kids were a special class of gifted teenagers, no one was exactly who they seemed, toss in a serial killer. bunch of ghosts, and some humor and we’re good to go. It went along swimmingly, no pun intended.
And then I hit 4K, and, once again, realized I had too much story to fit into the 5K word count. Again, cutting did not serve the story.
That’s frustrating for me, because I LOVE to cut material. The Red Machete is my best friend.
I was still spinning the Kit Erskine story, but it seemed overly complicated. I had hoped to submit the Kit Erskine story AND a second story to the anthology. But now, I knew “Lake Justice” wasn’t going to be it. However, I found another potential market for “Lake Justice” whose deadline was the same as the anthology, AND about a half a dozen other potential markets for it. So work on “Lake Justice” continued.
At this point, I had less than a week to finish, revise, polish and submit “Lake Justice” AND draft, revise, polish and submit the Kit Erskine story, which I had yet to start. Add to that the fact we’re in one of my busiest times of the year, with Samhain coming up and I was going to be out of town for two of the five days before the deadline. AND had two grant proposals due on the same day as the story deadlines.
What’s also interesting is that “The Merry’s Dalliance” – the original story featuring Kit and her pirate crew — was inspired by an anthology call. However, the more I read material by that publisher, the more it struck me they published comic book-style fiction for boys (no matter their chronological ages) who were intimidated by strong and intelligent women. There was no way in hell that this group would accept, much less publish a story with a strong female protagonist unless she wound up raped and/or dead. I crossed them off my list and, instead, submitted the tale to NEW MYTHS, who loved it and published it. Yet another example of the submission call being the catalyst to the story.
I suddenly had an epiphany for the Kit Erskine story, a way to simplify it and maybe bring it in well UNDER the 5K word count (Okay, so after cuts, editing, and refashioning, it came in at 4999 — but it was still under 5K). I thought up a great title for it in the shower, but didn’t write it down immediately and forgot it by the time I was dressed. I should have kept repeating it to myself, and didn’t.
I managed to complete, polish, and send out the Kit Erskine story to the anthology – while still knowing, if they did not accept it, I had at least a half a dozen places that would be interested. I even managed to get it in the day before the deadline.
So I turned my attention back to “Lake Justice.” And then realized I had spent the last 1500 words or so writing myself and my characters into a corner that, had I continued in that direction, just made them look stupid. I had no idea what to do, and was hours from deadline.
I took a shower, and the solution came to mind. I jumped out of the shower, dried off (so I wouldn’t drip onto the computer), made the cut and the change. I finished the story, did a quick edit, and got it out only 40 minutes under deadline.
Not the way I prefer to work. I like to let pieces sit for a few days before I edit them. Or a few months, if it’s novel-length.
But it’s important to meet deadlines. That’s part of the job. Sometimes, you won’t produce your best work in time for a deadline. It will come back, you will revise, and it will either be accepted upon revision at the original house, or you’ll find a better home for it.
But you still have a piece of writing that’s out in the world, finding its place. Which, if you missed the deadline and let it sit partially-cooked, you wouldn’t.
If you have the urge to write, but don’t know WHAT to write, take a look at the calls for various anthologies. See if something sparks your imagination. Even if it winds up in a publication different from the anthology, that submission call will have been your catalyst. Hunt down these calls — they’re listed on legitimate posting sites such as FUNDS FOR WRITERS and WRITERS’ WEEKLY. Anthology calls are also listed on publishers’ sites under “guidelines.” In other words, if you’ve read an anthology by a particular house, you like it and think, “I could do that”, check their site every few weeks. When a call comes out — answer.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, a friend sent me a call for a steampunk anthology and these characters started talking . . .
–Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and nonfiction. Visit her blog, Ink in My Coffee, and her website. She also writes “The Literary Athlete” column for THE SCRUFFY DOG REVIEW.