A Question About – Story Commissions

Photo by Kriss Szkurlatowski

by Vanessa Gebbie

To accept a short story commission, or not, that is the question.  It may seem a no-brainer, when there is a fee attached, as there usually is – but I suspect there may be more to the decision-process than what might at first appear. Writers of short stories are likely to receive many more commission requests than writers of other forms – so perhaps it is worth considering.

This request lands on your desk: “We’d like to invite you to contribute a short story of up to 5000 words. The story can be on any subject, and any theme.” You can write exactly what you like, working to your favourite subjects, exploring those themes that inspire you most. Who knows, you might even already have something waiting for a home, or something half-finished, ready for you to to draw it to a close and then polish.

But there is also the other sort of commission, where the desired end-result is perhaps an anthology exploring a particular subject, a particular theme.  “We invite you to contribute a story that illustrates the following…” and that is not quite so simple.  You are being pushed outside your comfort zone, to write about something you might not naturally choose. But is it just a question of comfort-zones, or is there something else at play here? I am writing such a story at the moment, and am finding it much harder than the first example – so thought this might make an interesting topic for discussion.

Under normal circumstances, both as a writer and as a teacher, pushing the boundaries is something I love doing, and something I would recommend strongly as good practice. It is good to ‘play’, to stretch, to try new things, to challenge yourself as a writer.

But I wonder if we produce as good a story to a commission with a tight brief as we would when writing freely, or for the joy of it, exploring that to which we are drawn naturally as creative beings?

In the end, isn’t the best fiction produced when we follow our hearts, not our heads?

About the author

Vanessa Gebbie has written 2 articles for THRESHOLDS

Author of two short story/flash collections: 'Words from a Glass Bubble' and 'Storm Warning' - both from Salt Modern Fiction. Author of the novel 'The Coward's Tale' (a tapestry woven from 36 stories) - Bloomsbury UK and USA, Nov 2011/March 2012. Contributing Editor of 'Short Circuit, a Guide to the Art of the Short Story'. Contributor, 'A Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction' - Rose Metal Press, USA.

2 Responses to "A Question About – Story Commissions"

  • Wena Poon 07:24 PM 10/11/2011

    It really depends on the commission. There are some that one simply should not accept, or if one accepts, one can politely turn down. Uninspiring, “duty” commissions can make writing seem like an awful chore. There are other commissions, however, that so perfectly align with one’s interests as a writer, that they inspire works that one ordinarily would not have thought of creating.

  • Pauline Masurel 05:33 PM 11/11/2011

    Last year I accepted a commission to write this audio story: http://www.headsandtales.org.uk/audiostories/colour_infinity.htm The only real restriction was that it must accompany a walk set in Staple Hill, South Gloucestershire. My experience of writing to such a generously wide but site-specific brief was pretty positive. I spent some time in a place that I would not otherwise have visited and the story that emerged explored a theme which had long interested me but about which I had never written. In fact, it can’t have been too painful because I’m just about to record another audio story that I’ve written for Heads & Tales set in Bath. I agree with Vanessa that while I very much welcome the chance to be pushed in a new direction with my writing, I reckon there are some types of commissions that I would be reluctant to accept. For example, I would probably refuse if there were a requirement to write within a specified genre if I knew that I would out of my depth.

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