So You Really Want To Write An SF Story? : an update by: GF WIllmetts

July 22, 2019 | By | 2 Replies More

You like Science Fiction? You read Science Fiction? You eat Science Fiction? If you could get it in a bottle, then you’d probably drink it down neat or through a straw. You think you can write Science Fiction? Hmmmm!!! Are all these thoughts conflicting?

Chances are that you’ve read some pretty naff material and had the reaction that you can write better? We’ve all had that feeling, thinking publishers probably had rocks in their head when they commissioned such-and-such a story. You might have had the feeling that you just need the outlet for some big publisher to think you’re the writer they’ve been waiting to appear on their doorstep. You might be the sort of person who has a unique imagination and writing in your blood and treat it as second-nature, irrespective of whether there is an audience willing to read you and want your material to be read by others. But does this mean you’re capable of writing first class SF at your first or tenth attempt without knowing some of the basics that will help your story-telling?

In any story genre there are as many poor as good stories. I doubt if anyone goes out of their way to deliberately write atrociously but whether the work is seen by a readership depends on the quality the editor expects or have the experience to write well. It often takes a lot of reading to find what are classified as gems amongst the also-rans. The worse responsibility is having to tell those who are rejected the bad news that they are simply not up to scratch and better luck next time. It’s nothing personal. Such comments can only be made on what an editor sees on the table. That’s how most evaluations are normally done. There simply isn’t enough time for ego to get in the way. If you’re any good, then you get used. If not, then time for a re-think and learn from what you’re told, assuming you’re given any inkling as to what went wrong. We believe in helping you get started and focusing on some of the key areas that should improve your chances. I should point out that although the focus is on writing Science Fiction, a lot of the advice below can be used in other genres as well.

A lot of the problems occur with having a poor writing style. If you’re told you fall into this category, all you can do is work out where you’re going wrong and try to do something about it. This means being self-critical to the faults and practise to get them out of your system. As writing style is individualistic and could probably have an article devoted entirely to it, this article will look at SF story structure and provide the tips that will help you eliminate these problem areas here so you can concentrate on getting the writing side sorted out. For those who have a reasonable writing style but fall short in ideas or development area, this article will address this area. Whatever category of aspiring or amateur SF writer, there should be something here to provide some insight to improve your storycraft.

SF has the distinction of having writers capable of improving or failing over a period of time. There has also been a number of innovative writers who start brilliant and stay that way through their careers. Others have started well but end up re-hashing when they’ve run out of ideas. If this happens on the professional side, why should it be any different for the novice or amateur? It’s a legacy any aspiring SF writer has to be aware of because most of the innovative and clever ideas have been re-worked many times over the last hundred years. Offering something different and unique is up to the individual writer. For the aspiring or amateur writer, if only they realise what they are letting themselves in for, it should be a daunting prospect. Yet, year in and year out, there are always new writers and you want to be one of them.

This doesn’t mean that to say that all you aspiring writers following the tips below are going to become suddenly brilliant. The points below have to be continually practised to be effective. These points can be applied to most story genres as much as SF. Sorting out one set of problems will inevitably show a different set of problems, although hopefully not in the same kind of order.

I make no apologies for the fact that a lot of the information will be similar to things you’ve probably read elsewhere on creating stories. Just because it’s SF doesn’t mean it can’t have any bearing in the genre. If anything, they tend to be more important.

Since these are tips, I make no hesitation in numbering and bold marking the important bits so they can be seen clearly. Take heed, especially of those that you feel most sensitive about, as they are the ones that need the most attention in your own writing. If you can’t rationalise that what you’re doing is right, then chances are you’re doing something wrong and need to think about your approach.


  1. What makes Science Fiction Science Fiction? SF depends on ground rules that are laid down and applied throughout the story. It doesn’t matter if you make a mish-mash of your science, the important thing is to ensure that it is used consistently that way throughout. Readers will think you’re smarter than you were. If you don’t, then you’re genre jumped into fantasy and you’re cheating on your readers because any time you’re stuck, you’re going to pull a rabbit or some exotic weapon out of a hat to sort it out. That’s not SF!!

Science Fiction stories only use the tools of the reality you provide for it. As such, any alteration to the ground rules of basic Earth science or technology have to be established early on in the story to acquaint the reader with them and applied throughout. This aspect is no different to detective stories that spread clues from the first chapter. They are an intellectual exercise in plot development. It’s hardly surprising that SF is seen as a medium for ideas. SF is also the arena for the problem-solving mind to speculate on how it can be done. If you can pull off a story that can’t work in any other genre than SF then you’re probably in the right genre.

  1. The idea. A primary idea is usually the basic gist of the plot. Only one is required for short stories. Novels might demand more than a couple primaries but that’s largely because they can afford to have a couple or more interlocking storylines. If you’re playing with more than a couple primary ideas, keep the spare ones noted for future stories. Don’t overload your story. The richness of your reality will come out from the secondary ideas which are the embellishments or consequences of the primary idea. They are used to flesh out the primary plot. In some respects, they require more work than the primary idea in defining the reality.

Don’t put all your ideas on one basket. This is really an extension and understanding of point 1. It’s really a question of understanding the difference between a primary and secondary idea for both reality and plots. How they slant your reality will have a great bearing on the final story.

Always keep a notebook for your ideas as you get them. They come in useful for remembering them and, especially if you suddenly have a dry period, need something to stir up your creative juices. Even bad ideas are stepping stones to good ones.

Whatever, always use your best ideas in your stories. A lesson I learnt from AE Van Vogt who said that if you have one good idea then you’ll always get another. What he meant was you can only work out from good ideas. Using second-rate ideas just gives you second-rate standards. Always use the best you can offer if you want to make it.


  1. Map the plot. Map your story before you start writing it. A lot of novice writers find this extremely difficult. Largely because they see the story as a journey in which they want to find the ending as much, they hope, as the reader. It’s also the best way to do the worse disservice to your story and the reader by not thinking through what you’re writing. Stories are often left uncompleted because the writer has lost the thread in the maze and hasn’t figured out any solution to the problems he or she set themselves. SF is problem solving. You need to know where you’re going with your story cos it’ll save a lot of re-writes when you could be moving on to another story.

The blame for this bad habit can be attributed to school education. You go in an English classroom, given a piece of paper or three and told to write a story. All the English teacher is really concerned with is line composition, grammar and spelling. If a good story comes out then it’s a bonus. Quite why no school doesn’t think to cultivate imagination is open for debate, although I suspect it’s largely because free thought is seen to be disruptive. Its no wonder imaginative kids at school get classified as eccentric and disruptive! If you want to develop quality, you need to work out elements of the entire plot first and make sure the plot hangs together.

Your plot map doesn’t mean you have to follow it to the letter. Often as you write, you find alternative solutions to problems you set your characters in the story. This might be a result of getting inside your characters’ heads and realise they wouldn’t do certain actions. You can then change the plot elements to see how this will affect the outcome. It keeps you aware of the whole picture. The plot is the guide to keep you on track.

The plot can be as detailed or as brief as befitting the story requirements. Sometimes it’s sufficient to layout simple plot elements with the options for choice that propel the story along. This sort of framework can help you decide how many characters and settings are required. Keep focused on the story rather than drift off in pointless directions because they take your interest. In cases like this, note them as potential for other stories within the same reality. You waste nothing that way.

Be careful of convenience plotting and clichés. The right gadget or the right training means the problem can be quickly solved. Next to the million-to-one longshot that just worked, this has to be the most clichéd plot device. Show your characters working through the problem and getting the solution from the information available to them. Readers like to feel as challenged as the characters in the story and respect writers who treat them intelligently. With an SF reality there is always a certain amount of convenience plotting in what you change compared to our reality. Saying that, by only extrapolating from information presented without having to bring in something special to sort it out – frattistats anyone? – scores more points. If you’re really clever, figure out the solution from what you’ve given yourself to play with without adding any convenient problem-solving device or deux ex machina solution. Be intelligent with your plot options.

Currently, I find that once I know what the plot elements of my stories are going to be, I then re-map them as scenes. It supplies an opportunity to look at all the choices for decisions the characters are going to make as they pass through the story. This allows selecting the most appropriate, and even original, solution to the problem. On the word processor, they can be laid out in order and expanded into full scenes. If any area causes problems, work through the choices open to the character and decide what is the most appropriate for his or her or it’s mindset.

In practice, it enables you to start off knowing what the ending is going to be like and work back to where the beginning should be. It’s a strong system. The people who can carry a plot in their head from beginning to end are few and far between and certainly are not aspiring writers selling them. Writing it down is the smart move. It gives you something to look at in a tangible form.

When I was re-editing this draft for a 2019 update, I realised I carry a lot of plot in my head and, in recent stories, even change direction when I think it’s too clichéd. For the novice writer, the above will get you on track until you find a system that can be effective for you while having something to fall back on should you get a writer’s block and not know how to continue. A good writer’s safety net is always effective.

  1. The characters. The plot and characters are always linked. The idea for your story might come from the possibility of a character than be plot-driven or vice-versa. Whatever, the important aspect is ensuring your characters stand out so the reader will appreciate them as much as you do.

The reason why the antagonists or villains are liked so much is largely because of the time any author spends depicting their villainy and getting inside their heads. The protagonists or good guys are often bland in comparison, largely because they don’t need so much work establishing their credentials as upright citizens that the reader can identify with. Unlike previous generations, there’s a far greater need to produce far more rounded characters exhibiting both good and bad attributes whose motivations for their choices can be explored in depth. These are higher stakes that need some thought. Be careful of making perfect characters. Flawed personalities draw more sympathy and appreciation. Motivation and desire are far more important than understanding every minor detail of your characters’ lives. Background histories have their place but can be destructive if you spend too much time doing them or turning the story into a biography than getting to the main event. I read a couple years back that if you have characters from similar backgrounds, don’t bother doing potted histories of each but focus on how they differ from each other.

It’s often said that characters reflect aspects of the writer’s own personality or that of friends and people they know. Bearing in mind that any story is a reflection of your personal environment, this can’t be ignored. Every writer’s take on their characters is likely to be different but many fail to make them interesting, largely because they don’t see them as others see them.

The most important thing to consider for your main characters is: Extreme Works! Take some aspect of your main characters that makes them stand out and use it as a foundation to throw a quirk into their personalities. This exaggeration enhances the quality of the characters from making them grey and secondary in nature. No one expects you to make all your characters three-dimensional but it’s important that the primary personalities stand above the rest. How this is achieved is up to the individual writer but failure to make them interesting is one of the prime problems of poor stories. Good characters can make up for poor plotting. Endear the reader to your characters’ fate should keep them there until the end.

  1. Research. When you’ve worked out your plot, look at what you need to know for the story and research before getting into the main writing. It saves you starting and stopping to look something up, especially if it affects the plot. This doesn’t mean that this still can’t happen but you’ll have a better flow if you have your research sorted out from the start, especially with SF when it might affect the outcome. All important groundwork.

No matter how inventive you are, SF requires a little knowledge of genuine science if you don’t want to be caught out on the most obvious things. This doesn’t mean that you have to be a qualified scientist, just have an understanding of the basics if you’re given to including hard-tech or science in your stories. You can’t break known scientific facts without knowing why they are that way in the first place or the repercussions should you change something. This doesn’t mean you have to write a thesis about absolutely everything about your changes. Science works from observing cause and effect first and foremost. Broadstroke on this than give too much exact detail that can be open to ridicule. Fake it and you’ll be found out and loose any credibility, so do your homework.

Certain habits should become part of your annual discipline and is something good writers do. Learning something to layman level on at least one or more new subjects each year is a handy way to ensure your background knowledge is continually extending and improving. Usually, this will tie in with whatever story project you’re working on but don’t be afraid to play serendipity to fill in gaps in your knowledge. They might also inspire a story from their own implications. I find watching the more serious TV quiz shows a useful lesson in seeing how much general knowledge I can call up before they answer on the box to keep my memory ticking over. When I can’t do that then I read a lot of books. Who knows you might become a reviewer.

Fictional reading habits should be across the board. I’ll be the first to admit that I found reading the classics a chore and bore at school and didn’t read that many. To some extent, I still believe this because the writing style is not exactly freely adaptable to our end of the century. One thing the teachers did get right is that the more you read the greater your vocabulary becomes. See what you can learn from every author you read. Continually reading SF dulls its impact, as it will with any genre. In my teens, I read three Alistair McLean novels in a row and realised how boring his excitement had become because I had instinctively got into his technique and predictability. Not McLean’s fault but it was a valued lesson in shopping around for authors, stories and realities than stay with a few chosen favoured ones.

Don’t be a passive reader! Think about what you’ve read and how effective the author was in getting his or her ideas across. Readers are readers because that’s all they do. A writer can enjoy a novel but must also be capable of turning it into a learning lesson. That’s a very important dividing line. Assess and be critical, measuring the good and bad points. Compare books other authors have done and see if you can spot any improvements they’ve done between them. Writers are scholars and observers for and of life.

I know it’s obvious that you wouldn’t be writing SF if you hadn’t been reading SF but check similar backgrounded stories to ensure you’re not repeating anything. Apart from avoiding plagiarism, it should enhance your critical facilities to avoid certain paths that your research could illustrate as being impractical or not tried. Finding new directions is important and you might luck on a new variation which is the gold dust of real SF.

This doesn’t necessarily mean additional spending, especially if you’re after early SF books. My greatest cheap finds in recent years have come from car boot sales (if you’re American reading this, translate this as garage sales. What are they called elsewhere in the world?), charity shops and even off the Net far more than specialist media shops. All the current SF authors were influenced by the early material, so it makes sense to look back to them rather than how they interpreted by them. This doesn’t mean you should ignore current books because they remind you of the current acceptable style but it’ll widen your thoughts and ideas. What will have changed is how you interpret the work because you’ll have a wider history of SF in your head to refer to. Mind you, becoming a book reviewer, I ended up having access to a lot of current books.

I should remind you that those in the UK do have the opportunity to become reviewers for SFCrowsnest if you want to lay your hands on reading and expressing opinions about the latest books that have come out.

  1. The story. Thought I’d forgotten this part of the writing process? With the information above, it should be a lot easier to put together the ‘physical labour’ of the story. Those words are the way many writers feel about what they write because knowing the plot and characters, all the real work is done. Wrong!! Writing the story is the only means of convincing the reader you are a writer!! It shows you have a firm grasp of capturing their imagination and emotions and keep them there to the end of the story.

As explained above, your plot is the guide to the story contents. It might not suggest writing it from third person to a central or first person’s point of view. The realisation of this can alter when you start writing. Of the two choices, first person POV is probably the hardest because all the plot facets have to be presented through one character. The third person or ‘God choice’ can show everything to the reader and not limited by where any set of characters are. Mixing the two is fatal in short stories and barely acceptable in novels because it can confuse the reader’s perspective.

Fleshing out the plot gives enormous latitude for developing characterisation, mood and emotional output. Tit-bits about the reality can be tacked on to flesh the scenario out. You’re still chucking ideas into the plot, but they are secondary to the primary plot. Your imagination will be focused and working on bringing the story to life and making sure you’ve covered everything.

If you’re confident with the plot, it’s possible to write the story doing the scenes out of sequence and polish the edges when they are linked together or re-arrange the order later. This technique is effective for mystery stories in not only establishing who did what but enabling you to work out the direction characters’ development from beginning to end. It allows you to put your best effort into each scene rather than writing in a linear fashion. I’m not recommending you all to go out and try this but changing how you put a story together will give you greater insight to making the best of your work. Any scene you feel uncomfortable about writing has the potential to be weak and then can get your best effort. If you feel your writing getting into a rut then playing around with how you put your story together will remove any complacency.

Be brutal with the plot if something feels out of place. Don’t think any plot aspect is laid in concrete even as you write it. Often, it’s easier to combine elements from individual scenes into one major scene than draw things out. With practice, a lot of this work is sorted at the plotting stage.

Writing the story from all this preliminary work gives more time to concentrate on writing style, technique and add passion and quality to your words. You don’t have to worry about what to do next because you’ve already worked it out many times over.

As this part is so important, the additional pointers will be of use:-

Ensure you have a decent hook or opening line. You need to catch your reader from the start so they find out what happens next. Creating this line is never easy. A lot of the time, it’s easier to just start writing and resolve in the revising draft. Sometimes, it’s easier to cut off or re-arrange the first few paragraphs to find the good starting point once you’ve got the story’s opening scene going. By the time you’ve completed your story, your style will probably have settled and it might pay to go over the opening pages with that in mind so the work match.

The title is equally important and can either be decided at the beginning or develop from something taken from the story or both. This should also catch the eye, bearing in mind short stories titles will only ever be seen in the frontispiece. With everyone else trying to do the same, a multitude of ‘exciting’ titles will look mundane.

Consequently, it’s more important to have a title that will have an immediate bearing on the story so it will be remembered and associated with your name. When your name turns up against another story it is hoped that the connection will induce the reader to read it. Familiarity rules and explains why certain authors’ popularity to be included in any anthology even if the story isn’t as good as previous ones.

The title and opening lines are entrapments to first catch the reader’s attention. Once you’ve got them interested and you keep up the tension of events, they’ll want to see what happens next. Don’t disappoint them!!

For short stories especially, avoid waffling when you should be concentrating on the story plot. If your ideas are good then they’ll come out in the story. If you do waffle to get the story out, remember to remove or tone it down when editing or polishing the draft. With short stories where a conservative word count is important, every word used should be regarded as precious.

Trying to impress the reader with your knowledge of long words interrupts story-flow if they grope for a dictionary if they can’t work out what you mean from the context of the story. Think like a mongoose with a cobra: Go for the neck of the reader and ensure you keep them there until the end of the story. If you can’t keep the interest tight, then there are either too many scenes or you’re straying from the dramatics. If you lose interest in either your story or characters, how can you expect others to keep their interest from beginning to end? Take a break, do something else and come back and finish the work when you’re in a better mood to write.

End a short story at the high point of the action or dramatics than bring everything down to an anti-climax at the end. It’s like detective stories. It’s enough to know the villain has been caught out rather than spend time on due process of the law and sentencing. The same thing applies to SF leaving the reader to figure out what happens next without prompting. That way, you’re getting them to use their imagination rather than spell out every last word and detail.

All writing improves with practice. There is no such thing as an instant writer. Where there’s an actor or celebrity turned writer, there is usually a ghost writer doing the real work and I don’t care who tries to sue me!! It requires regular working routines and dedication to produce good written copy.

Don’t do over-long sentences. An idea to a sentence is best. With sentence dialogue, if you can’t say it aloud in a breath than the punctuation needs re-evaluating. If a character is physically active, then dialogue is shorter as he or she draws breath. Embellishments like this add to the validity of your characters. The most common place to check this over is in the editing once you have the words out of your head. This doesn’t mean all sentences are short just as they shouldn’t all be very long. Achieving the balance is all part of learning how to tell a story.

Be self-critical of your work and in evaluating how readers see your work can only enable you to improve. It’s the difference between telling a good joke well or badly. An understanding of timing employed in a story will make it all the more satisfying. Don’t be self-destructive in self-evaluation, just weigh up the good and bad points about the story. If the story is really bad, you must decide whether to totally re-draft or treat it as a lesson learnt to do better on the next one. In practice, a look at the plot should have you realising whether you have a dork or quality idea to work from. If it looks lousy, you have time to work out a few twists to improve it. If your story bores you then it will bore the reader!

  1. Polish, proof-reading and getting other people to read your story. The days of having to re-write your entire story have more or less gone with the word processor. All modifications can be done to the original draft. Keep back-up copies in case you wipe a single draft and a lot of work. In fact understand how your word processor makes a back-up in case you delete it. Word uses .wbk suffixed files providing you’re had the sense to check that it is turned on.

There are arguments that this makes today’s writer lazy but it can also make life easier when it comes to modifying or correcting than re-writing from the start. If anything, I spend more time polishing and tidying now than I ever did using a typewriter. The same applies to grammar and spell-checkers. They can’t tell you if a word is properly spelt but not in the right context. Used correctly they are handy providing you can also tell when they are wrong. Keep that hardcopy dictionary and thesaurus close by to ensure you really have chosen the correct words. Rule your computer, don’t be its slave. Passive sentences are important in getting the balance of a composition right.

I’m probably not the only one with this problem but I find it easier to spot mistakes in a hardcopy than looking at the monitor. It’s the equivalent of going away and doing something else for a couple weeks before looking the draft over again. A fresh eye will spot mistakes than your brain so used to the story that it overlooks them. It happens to all of us. Write another story or something and go back later to check it. A fresh eye is a good error checker.

Editors don’t appreciate doing all your proof-reading work for you. If you do find spelling or grammatical mistakes after sending out, send a revised copy, saying what was wrong and apologise. If the material is accepted, this will serve you in good stead and good will for caring about your work. Try to avoid doing this regularly though or the canny editor will wait for a later draft. The real lesson is getting it right in the first place. The less work an editor has to do with your material, especially correcting punctuation, the more likely they’ll resist sending it back to you.

Don’t rely on relatives or close friends to evaluate your work. Getting other people to read your story before you send it to a publisher/editor is a good test for the story. This can be regarded as a risky business because your friends won’t want to hurt your feelings and tell you your story sucks even if you tell them to be honest. If you want to do an honesty test, let them read one where you know you’ve got some mistakes and see if they pick up on them. I often watch my readers to see if they giggle in the right places to see if my timing is correct for any gags. Better still, throw questions up to see what message they got from the story. Enthuse about one section and see if they disagree or point out something else. Readers will get a different fix from each other so you’ll get contrasting information making at least a differing representation.

Don’t be upset if they spot or don’t spot mistakes. Accept their comments in good grace even if you think they’ve got it right or wrong. If there is a factual or a logic error then it needs a serious look. The rule of thumb or mantra I’ve applied to my stories and articles is: If I can’t defend my argument adequately and rationally, then it deserves to be changed. It doesn’t necessarily follow that you’ll agree with my suggestion or make me change my opinion, but it would certainly allow you a re-think and arrive at a better solution. It’s a useful creed to live by.

Only when you’re reasonably satisfied do you consider sending it to a publisher/editor. I say ‘reasonably satisfied’ because if you’re not careful there is the temptation to continually edit or modify the story and that can often risk damaging the passion you first started with. If you’re only making minor word changes to the draft, then assume you’ve got something close to what you want to present. If you’re not sure, then leave it for a couple weeks and then give it a second look.

Finish your stories, even the bad ones, so you get into the habit of completion. Sometimes, there are editors who will print bad stories simply because they’re better than some they’ve already seen!! It’s a matter of perspective. SF fandom is littered with potential writers who never complete their story. Neither is it wise to brag about how many stories you’ve written. You score points only by how many have been published by other people. The rest are learning experiences to improve upon next time.

All writing is a growth experience and it’s easier to learn from complete story mistakes than give up on a bad job. Optimistically, it’s also possible to salvage the best parts of the story for a later draft or incorporate elements into a future story. Nothing is ever wasted. The more you write and improve, the greater you reduce your odds of doing a bad story.

  1. Be unique. Everyone has a different writing voice that often may take a couple years or more to develop. Treat all written work as a challenge that will be topped with the next story you write. It prevents you from becoming stale and complacent. Spot your own weaknesses and try to overcome them. I find it easier to write a story to challenge the weak point than try to ignore it. Weaknesses don’t go away, they just get compounded as you grow older unless you do something about them.

It’s said that you should only write what you know. SF really doesn’t give you much liberty when you’re dealing with the extra-ordinary and often off-Earth events. It is interesting to note that many early SF authors exhibit the ‘small town’ background from where they live into their stories let alone let vent to their own personal dreams. These things aren’t likely to have changed over the years, so don’t feel guilty about using your own background when appropriate. In context, it really should be: Apply what you know. What you don’t know: research and get it right! There are no short-cuts!!

Interpretation of people in any story is dependent on observation. Watch and learn and apply to your creations and your characters will gain extra depth. For your own characters to come to life you need to get inside their heads to know how they work under the circumstances you give them.

With the diversity and experience of some 80 years of SF history, it should be possible for you to combine your backgrounds with knowledge that will make your stories something unique to yourself rather than look like every other story that comes out.

Deadlines. Learn how to write to a deadline. It teaches discipline to the craft and becomes a necessity when you’re writing for a publisher. Learn to write to a controlled word count. Stories are as long as they need to be. Treat it as a challenge to right a good story with a limited number of words. We run flash fiction, short stories and look at novels for potential e-book release here, so there is something for everyone even with us.

  1. Find a publisher! You can’t claim to be a writer until your work is used or bought and seen by other people. SF is unique in having an amateur magazine market that encourages new aspiring writers. Although some of current professional SF writers have said that they found themselves incapable of even giving their earlier material away to amateur/pro magazines. It is a great way to make your bones, learn how to write and get some titles on your writer’s CV. Self-publishing and vanity press is risking financial loss without developing a reputation in other quarters that you can write first of all.

Many top-end SF magazine publishers/editors are besieged by stories all the time and a higher standard is deemed the only way to reject the average and sometimes very good in terms of what they deem the subjective ‘best’. To play with them, you really have to have some brilliant work to show for yourself. The rewards are greater because you are seen by a lot more people but this is only proportional to the standards you set yourself. Treat the stories they publish as the ones you have to write better.

If one editor rejects, there are always others you can send stories to, but don’t send the same one out simultaneously. It might cut down the waiting time but editors don’t like accepting stories and then find they can’t use them because another editor has also agreed to publish the same story. Writers with that reputation don’t last long. There’s nothing wrong with sending several publishers different stories all at the same time if you’re that prolific. Keep records of what you do and the result.

Book publishers have a similar problem and your story is likely to end up on a slush pile while they work their way down to you. Read ‘The Artists And Writers Yearbook’ or its equivalent to understand the ropes. Don’t send in a complete novel. Three representative chapters and a thorough outline of the entire plot is a better bet. If you want to be accepted as a professional writer, you must be capable of writing all the time irrespective of mood. If you can switch between scenes, use the mood you’re in for the scenes that require a particular mood so nothing is lost. Probably the writer’s equivalent of method acting.

Oh, unless there’s a very good reason, book publishers aren’t prone to pick up on a first author’s short story anthology unless they have a proven track record. It’s far better to build up to writing novel-size stories from doing short stories than go straight into doing them. That way you have better confidence and a greater chance of completing it. Novels, after all, are essentially a series of combined short stories using the same characters. You don’t run marathons until you get shorter runs sorted first. The same applies to writing stories. A decent novel takes a minimum of 18 months to write, including polishing it. A short story a couple weeks. Where do you think you will get the most experience from? Don’t run before you can walk.

The market has changed drastically in the past ten years with far more writers going self-published. This does not necessarily mean more success and a lot of hard work getting a book reviewed simply because there are so many poor stories out there. Getting a paper publisher to buy your book means you have their promotion side working for you and you can get on with your next novel.

  1. How not to be a one-hit wonder. Everyone literate is capable of getting at least one story or article right in their career eventually.

There are three options:-

You write stories seldom but the quality is better for your devotion. If you’re this type of writer, you’re going to have problems if you’re waiting for a publisher’s letter between each story. Just keep writing.

You become extremely prolific and hope that out of all you turn out, something will be deemed of worth by your readers. The problem with this strategy is you produce poor work and have fewer people willing to seriously read your stories. Assess each story for weaknesses that you can improve upon in your next story.

You become a combination of them both and recognise which of your stories are good and bad send to publishers accordingly. Alternatively, you target the audience group you think will be most receptive to your particular story.

Overall, you have to love writing and are prepared to spend regular hours on a daily or weekly basis locked away in a room typing on the off-chance that it’s all been worth while. Talent has no latitude for hard graft. You have to work at your craft and ideas continually. Those writers that survive as either amateurs or professionals do so because they are natural survivors and are determined to succeed. They – we – are never bored for long and given a piece of paper will write than look into space (sic)!!

If you can put up with having a poor social life, although try to put in some time away from the keyboard because external experiences are important research, then you might have the qualities to make a writer.

You can’t be put off when someone else is having success with ideas similar to your own. Ideas cannot be copyrighted, stories are if published and seen by a lot of people can. Be careful about telling other people your ideas until the story is written and seen. If the ideas have already been used, you must be resolute to the fact and examine what other angle can be exploited from your original idea to make it different or have other ideas you can fall back on. A good writer always has other ideas to fall back on!! Remember to check that notepad I told you to keep ideas in. If this combines with a wonderful writing style and good ideas then someone will eventually take notice of you.

There are always people around who say they have lots of ideas but can’t write. They also think that there are capable writers around with no ideas. From reading the above, if you’re this type of person, I hope you appreciate that this is a contradiction in terms. In your case, the best suggestion I can make is to spend some of your time devoted to ideas in learning how to write. Practice. Practice. Practice. There is no other way.

Finally, I hope you recognise some of the things above as either something you’re already doing or need to do with your writing. Nobody can work in a vacuum and recognising some of the pitfalls and how to overcome them will make you a better writer. SF needs good writers and that really only comes from doing the work beneath the surface to understand the craft. Good luck and write well. No, write brilliantly cos that’s the only way you can write to succeed.

GF Willmetts


© GF Willmetts 2019

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Category: Offworld Report

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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