For many aspiring science-fiction authors, the first frontier of publication is short fiction. A few stories published in the right markets can launch your career. But it helps if you're prolific. Here are 12 tips on writing more stories faster.
Why should you want to be prolific as a short-story writer? After all, just look at Ted Chiang. He writes one short story every twenty years, and he's become a living god of science fiction, with stories like "Exhalation" justly receiving tons of awards. But he might actually be the exception.
There are a couple of reasons why you might need to be more prolific than Ted Chiang. First of all, short-story writing is a skill that takes practice, and the first few dozen stories you write probably won't be that good. It takes lots of practice to create a winning short story. And second of all, you can expect many fiction markets to hold onto your painstakingly created story — exclusively — for months, if not longer.
(I've had short stories in the slush pile at several magazines for five years or more. In one instance, I joined the editorial staff of a magazine and dug out my own envelope, which I'd mailed in years earlier, from the pile. I had the honor of rejecting my own work.)
In any case, authors as diverse as Ray Bradbury and Jay Lake have made a practice of writing a short story a week, which is a challenging goal but a sure-fire way to improve your writing and get your stories out into circulation.
But writing short stories is hard, especially if you follow the idea that something actually needs to change in your story. (As opposed to the type of story where someone stares out the window a bit, and then sighs, and then goes to bed or something.) In some ways, a short story has many of the same elements as a novel, including a beginning and an end — just with less middle.
But you know what? Writing short stories is fun. And writing a whole bunch of them can be an exhilerating process, where you get to try out different voices and characters and styles. Compared to the long slog through the underbrush that is novel-writing, short-story-writing is just a frolic.
Anyway, here are 12 entirely subjective tips on how to speed up your production of little gems of short fiction. If you want to know where to send your brief masterpieces after you've written them, a good starting point is the market list over at Ralan.com.
1) Know how your story ends before you begin it. This doesn't always work, but it often does — my biggest problem with short stories is that I get halfway through and then have no idea what happens next. Maybe I have a really cool setup or a really interesting dilemma for my characters to face, but I don't have an ending in mind. And this can derail a story for weeks, or permanently.
The difference between short stories and novels, in my experience, is that you often can see the whole shape of a short story before you begin, including how it ends. You can outline a novel, too, but that's a more involved process and stuff will definitely shift about during flight. During that first flush of invention, when you're creating the story's premise, is the perfect time to try and imagine the ending as well. Once you get stuck in to writing the thing, you'll be more absorbed in specifics about the characters and situation, plus the beautiful images you'll no doubt be crafting.
2) Don't just write the same story over and over again, or you'll bore yourself. This seems like a no-brainer, but really, it's something to think about. And if you set yourself the goal of writing a story a week, you'll start seeing pretty quickly if you're just writing the same story every week. Repetitive patterns that you might not notice over a period of weeks or months suddenly become really obvious — wait, in every single one of my stories, the self-obsessed loner has a moment of altruism at the story's turning point? — become really obvious if you're doing a story a week. If you do find yourself writing the same story, with variations, then of course you're going to get bogged down. Also, avoid HAITE (Here's An Idea, The End) stories.
3) Start crude, and then work on refining When I first tried writing a short story a week, I found that I was having a lot of trouble with the basic shape of the short story — my efforts at short fiction often meandered a lot, featuring scenes that didn't add anything to the story. Often, I would realize at length that the story really started on page five, or that one of the many strands I'd layered in really was the story. So one experiment that I tried was writing stories that were very basic.
Here's what I mean: try starting your story with the central problem cropping up in the first sentence. Like "At first, Admiral Apoplexy thought the glowing warning light on the flight console was just one more bit of disco mood bling, but soon he noticed the words COLLISION IMMINENT written under it." And then resolve that conflict in the very last sentence, like "At last, the hundreds of danger indicators had stopped their insane strobing, and normal atmosphere and gravity were restored. Admiral Apoplexy looked at the beloved Gloria Gaynor record he'd had to sacrifice to save the ship, lying in jagged black vinyl pieces on the space-capsule floor. And wept."
Obviously, you don't want every story you write to establish the problem in the first sentence and resolve it in the last one — see tip #2 — but it's not a bad way to get used to the idea that a short story typically has a single central conflict, with a clear beginning, middle and end. There's nothing wrong with a story that's meandering or even sprawling, but I found I was much more successful at writing those types of stories once I'd gotten better at doing the type where a problem is introduced, developed and then resolved.
4) Have a bunch of stories on the back burner, and keep rotating. In an ideal world, you'd write a single short story in a week, maybe revising a bit the following week, so every Monday you'd start with a blank slate. But it doesn't always work out that way, and if you do get stuck on one story, it's a great idea to start another one. You can have half a dozen stories in progress at any given time, and just make an effort to finish one of them every week. Just don't let this become another kind of procrastination, where you endlessly start new stories as an excuse to avoid finishing the earlier ones.
5) Don't be afraid to stare at the blank screen for a few hours. Sometimes you gotta spend some time chewing over the turning point in your story. Sometimes the ending you thought was so crystal clear when you started out has turned mushy. Sometimes you have to throw out a thousand words of perfectly good story because it rang false and didn't feel like the direction the story should be going in. There's no substitute, on occasion, for sitting and sweating it out. Think about the characters, and what they're actually thinking and feeling in the situation you've set up. Think about the themes you've established and what sort of resolution they're leading to. Take the time to visualize the right ending for this story, or put it aside — see tip #4.
6) Write a bunch of stories in a shared world. This is a time-honored tradition in science fiction (as well as literary fiction — see Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, which any aspiring short-story writer should read twice.) You can do the work of world-building once and then amortize it over the course of writing a number of short stories. This not only allows you to deepen your stories' shared setting, but makes it easier to think about your next story — what's the corner of this world you haven't gotten into yet? What's the problem this world's residents must grapple with, or an underlying problem of this world, that you haven't yet plunged into?
7) Some stories are just the turning point in the story, not the whole story from beginning to end. This one is really important. If your stories are all turning out sprawly, or you're getting so bogged down in figuring out where your story begins and ends that you're spending weeks just getting traction on one tale, try thinking of it this way. Sometimes a good short story just gives us the turning point, the moment where one person makes a crucial decision. We don't see everything of how she or he got to this point, we don't see all the ramifications of the decision afterwards. Because this isn't a novel, and we don't have to follow every streamer to the end.
8) Try creating a character study, or a collection of potent images, instead of just a series of plot twists. This is sort of the opposite of tip #3, in a way. People sometimes assume that science-fiction stories should, by their nature, be plot heavy — the collision alarm goes off, the undiscovered new element has weird properties, someone makes a defining choice, the end. But some of the best stories in the genre are really just collections of cool images or a few really great character moments in an intriguing setting. At the very least, this is a great idea for changing your pace if you've done a few very plot-heavy stories. And sometimes the quiet, subtle moments turn out to be when the really interesting stuff happens.
9) If you're getting bogged down in a particular story, you probably haven't found what it's about yet. This is sort of an extension of tip #5, I guess. Maybe you're trying to make your characters care about what you want them to care about, instead of what it makes sense for them to care about. Maybe you're focusing on a supporting character, while your main character is wandering around just outside the frame. Maybe the real theme or idea of your story is something you've only touched on in passing. The power of storytelling is so great, that when you find what your story is actually about, you may feel it propelling you forward with its unstoppable logic. The characters will be motivated to move forward, the mysteries will feel more and more urgent until someone solves them, and the underlying themes will get clearer and clearer until they form into some kind of potent image. That's the idea, anyway.
10) Try an exercise, like rewriting a well-known story from a different viewpoint. Try rewriting Star Wars from Leia's point of view — you may not be able to publish this one, unless you do a really good of filing off the serial numbers and making it into your own thing. But sometimes it's good to try an exercise. Or else, try writing an autobiographical story with one element tweaked to make it science fiction. Or else, try writing a story backwards, so you begin at the ending and work your way back to the beginning. It may sound like sort of a cheat, but part of "writing a short story every single day" can include the fact that some of these short stories are writing exercises that you may or may not ever try to publish. The important thing is to get into the habit of producing a finished piece of fiction every week — or however often you decide to set as a goal for yourself.
11) Don't be afraid to take crazy risks. Don't think of each one of these puppies as THE STORY WHICH IS GOING TO MAKE OR BREAK YOUR LITERARY REPUTATION FOR EVER. Most of these stories will never appear in print, or they'll be in a small-press mag or low-profile website. Quite possibly, nobody will see this particular story except you and maybe your friends whom you beg to look at it. So why not just go nuts and try some freaky shit? Go all William Burroughs or Don Webb on the mutha. Acid trips, logical lapses, surreal moments, over-the-top characters, prehensile tongues, and a resolution that's no resolution at all. Sometimes you can't find the parameters of good solid short story writing until you've found the outer limits and blasted past them.
12) Write for different markets. One of the most basic pieces of advice beginning short-story writers hear a lot is to read magazines before you submit to them. This is aimed at making sure you're familiar with what the editors are actually publishing, so you don't waste your time and theirs sending stuff they would never touch. (But actually, it works just as well the other way around — if you read an issue of Super Flotsam Stories and decide that you hate every piece in the magazine, and you can't understand why they publish such garbage, that means it's probably not the right place for your story. If you hate the stuff they publish, chances are they'll hate your story, too.)
But you can go one step further — read Clarkesworld, Asimov's or Weird Tales, and then set yourself the task of writing a story that's ideally geared towards each of those magazines. Don't just rip off the stories those magazines have already published, since you'll just be creating a bad copy, and the editors will be able to tell. (In the worst case, you might even be accused of plagiarism, which really can destroy your rep.) Instead, set yourself a new magazine to try and conquer every week — think about the type of stories that Asimov's likes to publish, and come up with your own spin on that type of story. Pick a different every magazine every week and try to tailor a story idea you've come up with to that publication. This will force you to vary your style and approach from story to story, and give you a goal to work towards. Maybe you'll actually break into one of those magazines, maybe not — but at the very least, studying a different magazine each week will force you to read a lot of fiction and think about what the authors in each magazine are doing, and how you can learn from them. Make a list of 20 or 30 magazines you'd like to be published in, and check them off one by one.
Short-story writing can be a great way to get noticed as a science-fiction author, or just a way to hone your craft before you write your hard-driving 10,000,000 word novel that spans ten billion years in the life of a space-faring immortal genetically engineered mega-computer shaped like a gummy bear. Either way, being prolific can be a great way to start telling unforgettable stories.
Magazine images by Jim Barker, vivir_descalzo_mx, t3knomanser and carbonated.