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This is the first of a series of blog posts that I wrote last year to show how I create the anthologies for Zombies Need Brains, the small press that I founded in order to produce anthologies. It's basically a behind-the-scenes look at the process, which will be covered in multiple parts. Obviously, this is only how I produce an anthology and there may be other roads to follow in order to produce one. Keep that in mind.

So the first step in creating an anthology--at least a themed anthology, like the ones Zombies Need Brains creates--is to come up with a concept. This isn't as easy as it sounds. Ideas are a dime a dozen and can be found on every street corner. The problem is that not every idea will actually work as an anthology theme. There are some key aspects to the idea that need to be present in order for the anthology to work.

First, the idea has to have an immediate "cool" factor. There are two main reasons for this--it needs to appeal to writers and is needs to appeal to readers.

An anthology is, of course, composed of short stories and in order to get good short stories to fill your anthology, you need to have an idea that appeals to writers. When you give your elevator pitch for the theme to an author, their eyes need to light up and they need to say, "Oooo! That's cool! I already have an idea for it!" That initial idea they have is probably too cliche or obvious, but the key fact is that your theme must seize a writer by the throat with its awesomeness and squeeze the creative juices out of them. If you propose your theme and the writer sits back and says, "I need to think on this to see if I can come up with something, I'll get back to you," then the anthology has already failed. If you can't inspire the writers to write stunning stories, then you won't be able to pull the readers in either.

And that's the second thing about the theme's "cool" factor: it needs to draw in readers. You want people to buy the anthology, don't you? Well then, it better have a theme that makes readers sit up and say, "That rocks! I must have this anthology!" If you give the reader the elevator pitch, they need to immediately ask, "Where's the book?" Otherwise, it's never going to sell.

But a stunning "cool" factor isn't enough either. Your theme needs to be focused and broad all at the same time. It can't be too narrow, because then you'll end up getting a set of stories that are all exactly the same, and no one wants to read an anthology of story after story where they all involve exactly the same characters, set-up, setting, or outcome. There needs to be some room for variety, for the authors to interpret the theme in different and unique ways. For example, an anthology about werewolves with vampire lovers and an aversion to the night and the moon. You might get a few good stories with that theme, but once you put fifteen of them together in an anthology, they're going to start to sound repetitive.

At the same time, it can't be too broad either. If it's too broad, you'll end up with stories that are wildly different and perhaps have no cohesiveness to them at all. At that point, you may as well just say you're collecting random SF&F stories for the anthology. The themes needs to be narrowed down enough that there's some uniqueness to your anthology, something that makes it stand out on the shelves, but leave enough room for some variety between the stories. Again, this uniqueness should be part of the "cool" factor.

I think the Zombies Need Brains anthology CLOCKWORK UNIVERSE: STEAMPUNK VS ALIENS had such a theme--aliens invade a steampunk Earth. Focused but broad. As soon as Patricia Bray and I mentioned "steampunk vs aliens," most writers got all wide-eyed and you could see the idea engine spit out smoke and start churning. I don't think anyone we asked said they'd have to get back to us on whether they wanted to participate. Same for the readers. I think that's why that first Kickstarter we ran actually made its goal; readers were drawn in instantly by the concept. I see it happening again and again at the dealer's tables I set up for ZNB at cons. At the same time, the idea is broad enough that writers have some room to play with the idea. We never specify whether the aliens or the steampunk society wins. We never said what kind of aliens invade. This left a lot of leeway for the writers to get creative, which in the end gave as an extremely broad spectrum of stories. Variety is the spice of life, as they say.

So, coming up with a good, solid concept for your anthology is the first step. Once you have that idea nailed down, you're ready to move on to the next step: collecting authors and/or stories. That will be the topic of the next blog post in this series. In the meantime, here's a message from your sponsor:


Zombies Need Brains is currently running a Kickstarter ( to fund THREE new SF&F anthologies and we need your help! We can't produce anthologies unless we can get the funding to pay the authors, the cover artists, the print and ebook designers, and the printers. That's where the Kickstarter comes in, and you, THE FANS! We've got a ton of stunning anchor authors on board, including NY Times bestselling authors and award winners. And we've got a ton of great reward levels, such as tuckerizations, signed copies of books by your favorite authors, and more! Our themes for this current Kickstarter are:

PORTALS: In the blink of an eye, the familiar disappears as you step into the unknown. What new creatures will you meet? What strange planets will you explore? Will you find happiness, or doom? Open the pages of PORTALS, the newest anthology from the small press Zombies Need Brains, and you just might find out. From wardrobes to monoliths, wormholes to fairy rings, there is a rich tradition of stories in both science fiction and fantasy that explore what happens when--by accident or design--characters are transported from one world to another. Join fourteen of today’s leading science fiction and fantasy authors as they offer fresh takes on this classic theme. Whether a routine trip or unexpected journey, each tale will explore new worlds of adventure, mystery, humor, and horror, with stories for every taste and fancy. Edited by S.C. Butler and Patricia Bray, PORTALS will contain approximately fourteen stories with an average length of up to 6,000 words each. It will include short stories by: Jacey Bedford, F. Brett Cox, James Enge, Esther Friesner, Nancy Holzner, Gini Koch, Violette Malan, Jaime Lee Moyer, and Ian Tregillis.

TEMPORALLY DEACTIVATED: In our spam boxes today, we both received notices that our bank accounts required resolution, and the content of the spam contained the following sentence: "We have noticed that you need to resolve important security issues on your account to prevent temporal deactivation." Of course, our immediate thought was of a new anthology called TEMPORALLY DEACTIVATED! For this follow-up to 2015’s TEMPORALLY OUT OF ORDER, we are looking for stories that take a person, object, event, or phenomenon and somehow, during the course of the plot, “temporally deactivate” it, whatever that may mean in the context of the story. “Temporal deactivation” should refer to something more than a simple death, malfunction, or termination, and instead should touch in some way on issues of time — its flow, distortion, dislocation, etc. Edited by David B. Coe & Joshua Palmatier, it will contain approximately 14 stories with an average length of up to 6000 words each. It will include short stories by: C.S. Friedman, Faith Hunter, D.B. Jackson, Gini Koch, Stephen Leigh, Misty Massey, Jenna Rhodes, and Edmund R. Schubert.

ALTERNATE PEACE: All too often, alternate histories are based on a battle or assassination. We’re looking for stories where change grew out of more peaceful activities…science, business, and culture. Imagine a world in which the branch point from our own was caused by scientific endeavor, social change, natural forces, or other points of divergence which don’t rely on military activity or violence. Edited by Steven H Silver & Joshua Palmatier, it will contain approximately 14 stories with an average length of up to 6000 words each. It will include short stories by: D.B. Jackson, Stephen Leigh, Ian R. MacLeod, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Kari Sperring, Harry Turtledove, Rick Wilber.

If you'd like to help fund these anthologies, swing on by the Kickstarter at! And share the Kickstarter with your friends, family, and total strangers! We need more SF&F anthologies!

"Portals" by Justin Adams of Varia Studios


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Joshua Palmatier

March 2019

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