Today’s post is something of a reminder to myself, as this spring I’m writing to spec a little more aggressively than I normally would. That means I’m keeping an eye out for calls for certain kinds of stories, ideally in publications that will carry the sort of cachet my university will recognize. I find that writing to spec–writing for a specific audience or venue without any guarantee the piece will ever see the light of day–keeps my creative juices flowing, and in many cases it helps me to drain my perpetually overfull Stories to Be Written folder.
I heartily recommend writing to spec when you can, especially when it seems your brainpan feels a little on the dry side. But I offer that recommendation with three asterisks.
First, try not to force it. I tend to do well under deadline pressure, and my mind likes to tweak, twist, and recombine ideas, which usually means I can come up with a good fit for a collection or a special issue on fairly short notice. There are times, however, when I recognize that my idea isn’t especially interesting or original, or when the topic involves an expedition well outside my wheelhouse. Sometimes it’s energizing to face and embrace that sort of challenge, but it’s also worthwhile to recognize that there are stretches in our lives when we’re just not ready. If you fiddle with an idea or start drafting a story and it just doesn’t seem to be working for you, it’s well worth saving the file and setting it aside for some other time. and you can be sure that another call for a special issue is somewhere on the horizon.
Second, going in it’s worth knowing that even a very fine story might not find a home at the destination you have in mind. This piece, for example, was written in response to a specific call, but the length of it, my sense that I didn’t have many profitable ways of expanding it, and a few other variables made me realize I’d probably have a hard time revising it or finding a home for it elsewhere. It’s not a bad idea to write with open eyes, knowing that your story (while tailored to a specific call) is best left open enough to travel well. One collection I’ve submitted to, for instance, has received 240 entries for about ten spots, per the editor. I wrote that story, however, with enough circumspection so that I can put it back into rotation easily if it doesn’t fit into one of those vacancies. It’s determinedly tailored to suit the needs of the collection, but it stands well enough on its own that I think it will find a spot in a different venue somewhere down the road.
And with that in mind, it’s a good idea to maintain a hopper so that you can sit on a story that doesn’t fit a given collection or special issue for a little while. In the case above, more than 200 writers are going to be left with 200 stories that are focused on a given topic, a given theme. Those pieces will flood the submission market as soon as the special issue is filled. Lots of editors are going to see lots of stories that look a little same-y. Knowing that’s going to be the case, I plan to set my submission aside for several months if it’s not accepted. I’ll revisit the piece to see if I can slough off any content that was tailored to the venue I had in mind, and with luck fresh eyes will sharpen and brighten the story. It doesn’t guarantee I’ll get the piece published somewhere down the road, of course, but I hope it will translate into fewer pieces finding their way into The Folder of Misfit Stories.