There you are, scrolling the Submission Grinder, when it catches your eye: a call for a new pro-rate solarpunk anthology with a due date only two weeks away! It’s a very specific call, with bizarre, narrow requirements. Your story must feature vampire hunters in space and something called “skysurfing.” Your ending should be uplifting and optimistic, and it should say “something profound” about the future of our species—in Hemingway’s narrative style.
You race to draft your submission, hammering words onto the paper. You imagine a desperate man who wants and needs a promotion. Your protagonist will fight to win this promotion, no matter the cost. To you, this protagonist seems like someone older with some trauma. He’s seen some things, made sacrifices, wears his exhaustion on his face. You don’t want to write about a detective, but this character definitely is one. You hate to say it, but it feels like this detective’s gotta discover something important here, so he’s not winning that promotion. In fact, something much worse will happen, something that will force your protagonist—Kirk Bond—to discover what he’s really made of.
In your mind, this story unfolds naturally, the way it’s meant to. It develops a shape—maybe a box shape—and as you explore these ideas, it sprouts strong arms, long legs, and perhaps an adorable fedora or monocle. By the time you’re mentally outlining the third act (assuming things are going smoothly), it’s dancing for you, practically writing itself.
Only—wait, the call wants vampire hunters, so maybe Kirk Bond isn’t a detective, after all. Oh, and the story has to involve skysurfing somehow, so he can be a skysurfer. Now that he’s a skysurfer, though, he’ll have to be younger (or it won’t be believable).
You cut a part of your outline, and your box-friend changes; one of those long legs twists at an unnatural angle. You staple a new scene into the first act to include a required element; an eye pops out and rolls away. You insert a new POV character for plot convenience; a strong arm deflates into a floppy noodle.
As you continue chopping and stitching; the jolly smile puckers into a tight scowl.
Your story’s evolution is stunted by your desire to force it to conform to the call. The resulting creature looks monstrous. Maybe you run it past a friend or two (neither of whom have any real investment in your success) who tell you it’s great before you send it off. Whatever, right? You met the requirements, you checked all the boxes, so you’re good.
Before the submission fully uploads, you’ve already found another call and are preparing to slam yet another story out. Meanwhile, rejections are pouring in, and you’re not sure why you can’t get a break. You know publishing is a numbers game, and the odds are pretty stacked against you, but maybe if you just keep answering every call, your number will come up, right?
Unfortunately, you’re unlikely to get anywhere haphazardly chasing submission calls unless you’re an experienced writer with strong storytelling skills.
Stories hastily written to fit a call, especially a specific one, often have plots that feel contrived. They can lack the depth of a story written without constraint. In the absence of arbitrary restrictions, narratives and characters develop naturally, the plot limited only by the rules of the world and the beliefs of the characters you’ve created.
When you’re relatively new to writing, you need this freedom. You need to learn how to operate within your own limitations before you can create stories that conform to someone else’s requirements.
As someone who posts calls and compiles anthologies from the submissions, I can tell when writers tried to force a story to fit a call: character motivations are thin, literary devices are incompatible (or lacking entirely), and themes (if present at all) don’t integrate neatly or follow through from beginning to end.
To be frank: I can tell when writers have slapped together a half-assed story to hit a deadline rather than crafting something with thoughtful intent.
Creating under arbitrary restrictions can be a very illuminating creativity exercise, but doing so well takes practice and experience. One of the best ways to gain this experience is by playing solo journaling games, which combine writing prompts and gameplay elements. (I recommend listening to “Playing Games,” an episode of the writing and storytelling podcast, Start With This.)
You can gain this experience by chasing calls for submissions, but it’s debatable how much you gain from doing so before you develop an intuitive understanding of storytelling. Operating under the pressure of an impending deadline can be as anxiety-inducing as it is motivating. Even for experienced writers, it can be hard to create something beautiful, cohesive, and meaningful under pressure–and generally, that’s what editors are looking for.
There’s a larger discussion to be had about the authenticity of art created under such conditions, and whether you, as an artist, are being true to yourself if you’re sculpting something to satisfy commercial demands versus writing stories from the dark, mysterious corners of your subconscious—but we’ll save that for another day.
Instead of chasing calls, consider writing stories you feel compelled to write, the stories that haunt you and demand to be written.
Take your time crafting them, shaping them into the best versions of themselves. Find a market or a call that fits your art instead of forcing your work to fit someone else’s vision.