Old Themes, New Twists

Every so often I run across submission guidelines that give me a chuckle, but also lead me to thinking about  writing, more specifically my story ideas.
The guidelines at Clarkesworld Magazine is one example. In the guidelines they talk about what kinds of stories will be “hard sells” for them. Their “hard sells” include stories with talking cats, talking swords, stories in which the words “thou” or “thine” appear. (Ouch! I was guilty of the “thou” and “thine” story-stumble once. Luckily, I cut them all out before ever letting anyone see.)
See the full guidelines here: Clarkesworld Submission Guidelines

Likewise, the editors over at Strange Horizons have three whole pages dedicated to the kinds of stories they see too much.  Check out their guidelines here: Strange Horizons Guidelines Not too much to laugh about there; the guidelines are pretty straightforward. But the links they provide under the titles of Stories We See Too Often and Horror Stories We See Too Often give insight into the mounds of stories with similar themes editors must wade through every day.

Lists like these must give a writer pause. A writer has to think about what makes his  story or story idea fresh. Has it been done before? If it has, does my story  give an old theme a new twist?

A good example of authors giving old themes new twists can be seen in the evolution of popular vampire stories.

In folktales vampires were depicted as rotting, stinking, deathless monsters. No more appealing than your average zombie.  Bram Stoker took these legends and spun them around and created a monster urbane and sophisticated enough to grace a Victorian drawing room. Of course, Dracula later scratched at the bedroom windows of the daughters of the house and did unspeakable things to them.

While there  was a terrifying sexiness to Stoker’s Dracula, Anne Rice took vampiric sexiness to a whole new level.  For Lestat, and others of his ilk in Rice’s novels, blood-sucking was beyond sexual. Rice’s vampires not only experienced blood-drinking physically, but also psychically. They drank the essence of their victims,  a sort of communion between victim and vampire.

In turn, Charlaine Harris (True Blood) made her vampires hyper-sexual.  Harris’ Vampires have the hots for humans all the time and are capable of having sex. In fact, in many instances, the blood-sucking in Harris’ novels enhance the sexual experience for both the vampire and human.

I can’t address Stephanie Meyer’s treatment of vampires in her novels since I never made it through the first book. I do, however, find the journey the vampire mythos makes from pitiless monster to adorable boy next door (who just happens to give super-intense hickies) fascinating.

All of these examples, and these are only a few, show how authors  gave their stories new elements that add to or even change the vampire mythos.

Naturally,  authors add new elements to all kinds of stories. Throwing zombies into works of classic fiction comes to mind.

The trick is to find ways to add new and interesting elements to  stories.  For example, in my story “Aversion Therapy” I  wanted to give a vampire story a humorous slant.  In “Before Paphos” I  tried a mythological rewrite that was a contradiction of Ovid’s story of Pygmalion and Galatea.

Both of these stories began with “What if?” For “Aversion Therapy” I started wondering, What if one of Woody Allen’s characters became a vampire? For “Before Paphos” I thought, What if  Pygmalion and Galatea had other children before Paphos came along? I’ll just ignore what Ovid said about it.

Some of my twists are more successful than others, but I keep trying.

A quick check of the guidelines mentioned above is a good reminder to be careful when working with themes that have been done before. This doesn’t mean I can’t write a story about talking cats.  It means that if I do write a story about talking cats, (unlikely) it better contain new ideas and fresh elements that will set it apart from the stories that have come before.

And it all starts with the question, What if…?


7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. pankaj arya
    Sep 24, 2010 @ 06:19:10

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  2. Catana
    Sep 24, 2010 @ 09:47:35

    I made a note of the Strange Horizons submission requirements. I’ve thought about trying to write some short stories for publication, but everything I write seems to turn into at least novella length. I love the challenge of making old themes new. Also love well-written variations on the vampire theme. One that I’m still working on involves a subspecies of humans whose ancient origins may have given rise to the belief in vampires.

    • lorettacasteen
      Sep 24, 2010 @ 10:49:42

      That idea sounds really interesting, Catana. I have the opposite problem of yours. Everything I write seems to want to get things wrapped at about 10, 000-words or fewer.
      If you have a novella-length piece ready, you may be able to find a place for it. Check the market listings at Ralan.com for more links to submission guidelines. I know for sure that Orson Scott Card’s Intergalatic Medicine Show e-zine doesn’t have a set word limit.
      Thanks for posting!

      • Catana
        Sep 24, 2010 @ 11:04:53

        Appreciate the Ralan link. After National Novel Writing Month is over, I have to get serious about finishing up some stories.

      • lorettacasteen
        Sep 24, 2010 @ 16:26:58

        Ralan.com a terrific resource for anyone who writes speculative fiction.
        I’m not too familiar with National Novel Writing Month. Is that where novelists are challenged to write a whole novel in one month? I’ll have to go poking around the internet to find out more.

  3. Catana
    Sep 24, 2010 @ 16:34:58

    You got it. I’ve done it four times. Finally made it to the finish line last year. Hope to do it again this year.

    • lorettacasteen
      Sep 24, 2010 @ 17:04:43

      That’s awesome! I have a novel started. It’s not Speculative Fiction, more of a humor/mystery story. I keep getting stuck and abandoning it though.
      Good luck and get to it! 🙂

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