I posted recently about a story I had written in response to a specific open call. That post focused on stylistic editing and working within mandated word counts, partly because I found that angle interesting and partly because I didn’t want to talk too much about the story itself. Label me irrational or superstitious if you must, but since the story was merely under consideration at the time the post was composed, I felt I might cosmically undermine myself if I revealed even the smallest detail regarding the story’s subject matter.
The good news is, the story was accepted! More details to come when the anthology has a cover to promote and a release date and so forth. But for the moment, it’s noteworthy that my tale was accepted in a somewhat roundabout way, which provides an excellent entry point for discussing yet another aspect of Big Three (or Four) Genre Writing. I’ve made all the points I’m capable of making about how understanding genre, intuitively or otherwise, shapes how a reader experiences and interacts with a piece of fiction. Now I’ll tackle it from the writing side.
A good sense for the boundaries of genres, particularly the subgenres within them, is important for any writer trying to place stories in open call anthologies, because by and large those anthologies organize themselves along genre lines. If an anthology is supposed to have a science fiction theme, or more specifically hard sci-fi about human interstellar exploration, then no matter how entertaining your yarn about alien pirates who fly between the stars in leviathan jellyfish may be, you’re unlikely to be deemed “a good match” for the project. Whether you’re going through your personal back catalog of unpublished stories or sitting down to write something brand new, the genre expectation game should be a part of the process.
The call I responded to was for an anthology called “The Pulp Horror Book of Phobias”, which appealed to me with both “pulp” and “horror” right there in the title. Pulp is one of those overly broad categories that can encompass any number of genre-related ideas depending on whom you ask, but I happen to have my own pulp character always at the ready in the form of Kellan Oakes. I’m certainly no stranger to horror, and some of Kellan’s adventures have skewed towards that quadrant. What probably sealed the deal was the fact that the editor was looking for stories addressing very specific phobias, eschewing the more common (and understandable) fears of spiders and snakes and enclosed spaces in favor of strange and unusual phobias. Near the top of the alphabetical list was botanophobia, and if I couldn’t write a compelling story about the son of a druid facing off against someone deathly afraid of plantlife, then I might as well break my keyboard over my knee.
The open call made direct reference to the Lester Dent Master Plot as a guideline for constructing a proper pulp story. I’d been aware of Dent’s formula for a while but never actually tried following the recipe to a tee, until I started working on the Kellan Oakes story I intended to submit to the Pulp Horror Book of Phobias. I outlined the story to hit the beats Dent suggested, and included the requisite number of twists and turns. The Dent formula recommends no more than 6000 words, as did the guidelines for the Pulp Horror Book of Phobias, which is whence the word count concern in the previous post arose. In the end, I wound up with what I thought was a gem, if I do say so myself. I had expanded Kellan’s supporting cast and fleshed out his background a little bit more. I had written a pulp tale of two-fisted action, no question, and I had incorporated one of the specific phobias being solicited. The only uncertainty I felt as I appraised the finished product was that it might not have enough horror in it. Clearly it had some horror ingredient, including an actual monster, but the overall mood was more thrilling than chilling. In the end, I simply submitted the story to let the editor decide what “pulp horror” was supposed to mean. Maybe the whole anthology was intended to be a broad spectrum of stories, some pulpy adventure stories with horror signifiers around the edges, some terrifying tales with a dash of pulp signifiers, some striking a perfect balance. Either it was a good match or it wasn’t, and if it were rejected, I’d find a home for it somewhere else.
I got the story in just before the deadline so I didn’t have to wait long to hear back. And what I heard back was … sorry, not exactly what we’re looking for. And while I had absolutely acknowledged that potential outcome ahead of time, the reasons the editor gave caught me off guard. It all came down to the botanophobia element, which the editor said didn’t match their vision. In hindsight, I realized that they probably wanted the main viewpoint character to suffer from the phobia in each story, either succumbing to it or overcoming it, to convey some visceral horror permeating everything in the tale. That wasn’t really an option for me once I decided to dive headlong into a new Kellan Oakes story, because I had no desire to make a previously undisclosed phobia a part of his character. So I incorporated it into an antagonist, where it became a plot driver but not really a vehicle for putting the audience directly through the emotional wringer. I respected the editor’s decision.
The emotional roller coaster took an upswing as the editor assured me that they really loved the story all the same, and then threw me for an even bigger loop-de-loop by asking if it would be all right if the story were accepted instead for a different anthology called Death’s Garden. I had been aware of the Death’s Garden open call as well, but hadn’t considered it for this story. From the title alone it sounds like a great fit, right? Botanophobia, Death’s Garden, same difference? Except that Death’s Garden had billed itself as an anthology of extreme horror.
As far as I ever knew, the extreme horror subgenre was the darkest of the dark, where no act was too unspeakable to write down and describe in literally gory detail. I’m not judging anyone who likes their fictional horror messy and in-your-face, but that’s never been my preference. And I never imagined that anything in the Kellan Oakes story I had submitted would come across as extreme. But, I’m not one to turn my nose up at an acceptance, however circuitous, so of course I agreed to have my story take root in Death’s Garden.
Even more so than usual, I will be curious to check out the anthology once it’s formatted, and see just how extreme the rest of the contents are. Maybe my Kellan Oakes tale will be the tamest in the bunch, or maybe the editor thinks extreme horror is anything even slightly more sinister than sparkly vampire romance. We shall see.
The point, once again, is that I would have thought the story I wrote was pulp horror, not extreme horror, and that it was a perfect fit for the Pulp Horror Book of Phobias and ill-suited for Death’s Garden. But apparently I was wrong across the board, so do I really have an unerring sense of genre conventions and distinctions? Probably not, but I still like to talk about it all the same.