I think of myself as a very independent writer. An idea will occur to me, I’ll play with it, work at it, expand on it, and if things go well, it will grow into a story. But fiction doesn’t have to occur all in isolation. Sometimes a request for a specific sort of story can be the inspiration to push past our own creative limits.
The first time I was asked to write a story to request was in the late nineties. Back then I was young and cocky, significant money was involved, and the project was unique, so I agreed. The assignment was to write a story with a positive, near-future setting. I talked over the details with the editors, took notes on all the technological and societal elements they wanted to see included, warned them that stories set in utopian milieus tend to be a bit dull, and set about it. The result was a decent novella. That project never reached publication, but I didn’t mourn because I’d been well paid and got all the rights back. I rewrote the novella, stripping out all the parts that were there only because the editors wanted them, and I ended up with an edgier story that I retitled “Goddesses.” It sold to Ellen Datlow for publication in SciFi.com, and went on to win a Nebula Award.
Here’s the takeaway: I would never have written this story on my own — it had nothing to do with anything else I was writing at the time — but once pointed in a specific direction, I was able to move beyond my own ingrained limits, and write a story of a kind that was new for me.
A few years after that, I dropped out of writing for nearly a decade, but this past year I had the opportunity to write two more stories to request — and they were very different experiences.
Jonathan Strahan was putting together an anthology called Reach For Infinity, to include science fiction stories set in “that period when we’re trying to get off Earth and into space.” Sounds simple, right? Ha! Off and on amid other projects, I spent hours brainstorming, developing and then discarding ideas, either because they didn’t inspire me, or they seemed too involved to handle at short story length. It took me nine months of intermittent work before I came up with an idea that intrigued me enough to build a story around it. The result was “Attitude,” due out in Reach For Infinity in 2014. Would I have spent that much time pursuing the story if I didn’t have an editor waiting on it? Absolutely not! So again, writing-to-request led me to try harder, to push beyond my own boundaries, and come up with a story I never would have discovered on my own.
The other story from this past year resulted from an invitation from editor John Joseph Adams to submit something to an as-yet-unnamed military fantasy anthology. I’d never before considered writing a military fantasy, but as soon as the suggestion was made, I knew I wanted to do it. I’d been working on military science fiction for months so I couldn’t wait to break out and write a fantasy story instead. This one went fast. The result was a story titled “The Way Home,” also due out in 2014.
So while at first glance it might seem like writing to an editor’s request would restrict creativity, for me it’s been the opposite. Writing to request inspires me to look in new directions — and I like that.