Guest Post: Writing Tip: Generating Ideas for a Themed Anthology by Joshua Palmatier


Joshua Palmatier was born in Coudersport, PA, but since his father was in the military he moved around. Alot. He’s lived in the states of Pennsylvania (three times), Florida (twice), Washington, California (briefly), Virginia, Texas (twice), and now resides in upstate New York. He has spent the majority of his life so far going to school, earning a Bachelors of Science and a Master of Arts degree in mathematics from the Pennsylvania State University, followed by a PhD in mathematics from Binghamton University. He is currently teaching mathematics (what else) at the State University of New York–Oneonta, taught for two years at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania, and taught for three years at Bloomsburg University while taking a break between his masters degree and the PhD.

Joshua started writing science fiction and fantasy novels and short stories in the eighth grade, when the teacher assigned a one page Twilight Zone-ish short story. He wrote a story about Atlantis. It was from the perspective of one of the inhabitants as he escaped in a spaceship, watching his world being destroyed by water from one of the viewports of the ship. He got an A. Joshua has never stopped writing since, mainly focusing on novels.

Writing Tip: Generating Ideas for a Themed Anthology

By Joshua Palmatier

Zombies Need Brains is running a Kickstarter for three new SF&F themed anthologies right now at (swing on by, back the project, we could use the help!) and one of the unique things about ZNB is that we do an open call for submissions in order to fill out half of each anthologies.  The other half is filled with known, published authors, some of them New York Times bestsellers. So I figured I’d offer up a suggestion here for how to generate an idea that fits a theme AND make certain that it’s an idea that will stick out in that slush pile.  After all, you don’t want to submit a story with a fairly standard concept, since we’ll receive a ton of those.  And while we take a few “standard concept” stories for each theme, we usually only take one or two and you don’t want to be in competition with two hundred other people who used that same idea in some form.  Much better to submit a story that’s NOT standard and that catches our attention, one that is unlikely to have been used by anyone else.

My standard warning though: a cool idea isn’t enough to make it into a ZNB anthology.  There has to be a compelling story centered AROUND that idea.  So don’t just find a cool idea; figure out how to build a story (usually a character-driven story) around that idea.  And make certain that, if you remove that cool idea, the story falls apart.  The story needs to depend on that concept in order to succeed.

OK, so what’s the suggestion/writing tip for generating this non-standard idea that fits the theme:

  1.  Sit down, open up your notebook or blank file, and set a timer.
  2.  Spend the next half hour trying to come up with 24 ideas that fit the theme.

Don’t think about it, just brainstorm.  Write out whatever idea comes to mind.  Don’t worry if it’s standard or not, if you’ve seen it in a hundred other short stories or if it’s just way too crazy.  Let your editing brain go and dive completely naked into the creative pool.  And don’t worry about what the “story” may be yet (unless that comes along for the ride with the idea).  Focus on ideas.  Story can come later.

This process should start out in a frenzy of activity for the first ten minutes.  This is likely because the first ten ideas that pop to mind will be what we’d call standard concepts, the ideas that have been done to death by everyone and their cat.  That’s fine.  Let the frenzy drive you into the next ten minutes.  

This is where you’ll start to slow down and where your brain begins to stretch and reach for those non-standard ideas.  You’ll probably smile with some of the thoughts that flit through your mind here.  Or maybe groan and mumble, “That’s stupid.”  Or maybe you’ll mutter, “Ooo, that has potential.”  You’ll maybe get another ten ideas jotted down here.

The last ten minutes will probably seem like forever, because this where you REALLY have to stretch.  You’ll probably be tapping that pen against your chin as you think.  Every time you get an idea, you’ll laugh hysterically because IT’S JUST TOO INSANE!  But write it down anyway.  Reach for more!  Insanity is fun!  Embrace it!  Drink it in and gargle!  Don’t choke!

You may not reach 24 ideas.  You may end up with more.  The goal is to force yourself to brainstorm and stretch beyond your limits and beyond those standard ideas.  In general, the first ten ideas you’ve scratched out will BE those standard ideas.  The last ten will be just too crazy to really contemplate.  They probably stretch far beyond the theme and wouldn’t make the cut because of that.  But right in the middle–those elusive four in the center–you’ll likely find some great ideas that fit the theme but AREN’T ones that will appear in a hundred other slush pile submissions.  Those are the ideas you should focus on and start developing stories around.  Those are probably the ideas that have the greatest chance of getting picked for the anthology.

This isn’t an exact science, of course.  The best idea on your list may come earlier or later.  Obviously you need to consider each idea individually and decide whether it has merit or not.  Sometimes, trying for that totally insane idea works.  Sometimes, with the right twist, that standard idea will stun us.  YOU’VE got to make that final decision on what idea works for YOU, because if it doesn’t excite you, then it’s already failed.  Find the idea that speaks to you the most.  That will generate the best story.

Then sit down and write it, revise it, polish it up, and send it in.  We can’t wait to read it!

And don’t forget to back our project at  We can’t run an open call unless we get funded! Our themes this year at apocalypses, food, and old tech finding new life.  More details at the Kickstarter campaign!

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*** APOCALYPTIC, GALACTIC STEW, and MY BATTERY IS LOW! is published by Zombies Need Brains and are available to back on Kickstarter TODAY!!! ***

Back on Kickstarter!

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About the Books:

This project will fund THREE science fiction and fantasy anthologies, titled APOCALYPTIC, GALACTIC STEW, and MY BATTERY IS LOW AND IT IS GETTING DARK, containing approximately 14 all-original (no reprint) short stories each from established SF&F authors in the field and new voices found through an open call. The books will be edited by S.C. Butler & Joshua Palmatier (APOCALYPTIC), David B. Coe & Joshua Palmatier (GALACTIC STEW), and Crystal Sarakas & Joshua Palmatier (MY BATTERY IS LOW AND IT IS GETTING DARK).


Who doesn’t love a good apocalyptic story? They come in all kinds, from the straight up SF/horror of Stephen King’s superflu in “The Stand” and the zombie apocalypse in “The Walking Dead,” to the quieter, more reflective tales of loss and survival in “On the Beach” and “Childhood’s End.” Tales that feature people struggling through the end of the world–or fighting to survive in what remains–are always compelling. What better way for readers to safely explore the extremes of the human condition without actually having to fight off the ravening hordes themselves? For this anthology, we’ll be looking for unique takes on how the world ends, both during and after the apocalypse. So bring on your asteroids, your plagues, your solar flares! And ask yourself, would you survive the apocalypse? Would you even want to?

Edited by S.C. Butler & Joshua Palmatier, APOCALYPTIC will contain approximately fourteen stories with an average length of 6,000 words each.  Anchor authors include:

  • Stephen Blackmoore,
  • James Enge,
  • Nancy Holzner,
  • Tanya Huff,
  • Violette Malan,
  • Seanan McGuire, and
  • S.M. Stirling


Food is an essential part of life—not just for energy and exotic flavors, but as a unifier during social events, a focal point for establishing culture, and shared experience to put people at ease. In GALACTIC STEW, readers will sit down at the communal table and sup upon stories centered on food.  Whether it’s a tense treaty negotiation over a full course meal or a trap devised by the fae to chain you to their realm, these stories are certain to be delectable.  Come and savor these delicacies…and hope the taste doesn’t mask a deadly poison!

Edited by David B. Coe & Joshua Palmatier, GALACTIC STEW will contain approximately fourteen stories with an average length of 6,000 words each. Anchor authors include:

  • Rod Belcher,
  • Andy Duncan,
  • Esther Friesner,
  • D.B. Jackson,
  • Howard Andrew Jones,
  • Gini Koch, and
  • Laura Resnick


When NASA’s Opportunity rover sent its last message from Mars–loosely translated by scientists as “my battery is low and it is getting dark”–many of us paused in a shared moment of sadness and gratitude, aimed at a robot left alone on a faraway planet. That moment inspired this anthology. We want stories about technology that has operated long past its time, but we want to give these lost spirits new life, whether it be rescue, a new purpose, a new beginning, or a simple homecoming. What happens to the robots and rovers and AIs and more after their original purpose has faded? What is the next chapter of their story?

Edited by Crystal Sarakas & Joshua Palmatier, MY BATTERY IS LOW AND IT IS GETTING DARK will contain approximately fourteen stories with an average length of 6,000 words each.  Anchor authors include:

  • Jacey Bedford,
  • Troy Carrol Bucher,
  • John Hartness,
  • José Pablo Iriarte,
  • Alethea Kontis,
  • Stephen Leigh,
  • Merc Fenn Wolfmoor,
  • Kari Sperring, and
  • Edward Willett

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