How can I write better short stories (science fiction)
January 25, 2008 6:24 PM   Subscribe

How can I write better short stories (science fiction)

I wrote a few science fiction stories, and then sent them off to a few science fiction magazines.The stories were rejected (I'm sure they receive hundreds a week, so it isn't that humiliating).

Rather than to send the same exact stories off to other magazines, I'd like to improve the stories that I wrote,and then I'd like to try again.

I'm not quite sure how to improve or learn to write better on my own.

Things I've done so far (besides writing the stories):
-Edit, edit, and edit again
-Action verbs
-Read the short stories of my favorite science fiction authors or a collection of best Nebula awards scifi pieces (to learn what those authors did)

To be honest, I feel comfortable with the ideas,but I think I may miss things like character development, etc, - because that's not why I read but I think that is what the magazines would like to see.

So what should I do? Can books walk me through this (any suggestions?) and give good examples? Did anyone just keep resubmitting the same old stories and - voila, someone bought them? Any other ideas would be appreciated. Should I try writing exercises?

posted by Wolfster to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

Keep writing. Write a lot of stories. Most will be crap. Some will be crap that can be made good. Some will be good, but can be made better. The more you do it, the better you'll get.
posted by SansPoint at 6:35 PM on January 25, 2008

Be inspired by the master
Read Fredric Brown - any of his short sci fi.
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 6:45 PM on January 25, 2008

Also, don't stop at one or two rejections. I've had stories rejected 10, 15 times before I found the right market for them. Sometimes, it's not that the writing sucks, it's that the piece doesn't fit the publication.

Nevertheless, continue to revise! Get a beta, or ask for a critique at AbsoluteWrite. CritiqueCircle is also handy for workshopping stories. A second (or third, or ninth) opinion can be incredibly useful!
posted by headspace at 7:00 PM on January 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

Books on writing serve two purposes. First, they give you a bunch of guidelines like "show, don't tell," and "don't use the passive voice," which are generally good advice. But hearing the same good advice from six different books doesn't really help.

The second purpose of books on writing is to inspire, to make you want to write more. Off the top of my head, the only writing book that ever really inspired me is Writing Down the Bones, which I hesitate to mention because I haven't read it in fifteen years and I don't know what I'd think about it today.

It sounds to me like you could use someone to actually read your stories and tell you what they think. I'd suggest a writing group, one where everyone writes and critiques. That way you're not at the mercy of one person's opinion.
posted by L. Fitzgerald Sjoberg at 7:05 PM on January 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

You might check out the podcast I Should Be Writing. Mur Lafferty talks quite candidly about her attempts to get her science fiction published.

In addition, there are a ton of similar questions in the archive.
posted by sugarfish at 7:12 PM on January 25, 2008 [4 favorites]

I've never been published myself (and haven't tried, yet) but I love to write. I found Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King to be really helpful in teaching me elements of story writing that I'd never thought about. While it doesn't focus absolutely on short stories or science fiction, it does cover a lot of bases that I think are useful in any sort of fiction writing.
posted by andeles at 7:58 PM on January 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

I can't remember precisely, and this is a total paraphrase, but it might be Campbell, The Editor during the Golden Age (again, I can't remember precisely and I'm chemically impaired), who's advice was to make the first sentence sucker the reader into reading the rest of the story.

In addition to reading your fav authors, maybe hit up anthologies of Golden Age (Isaac Asimov edited one that I'm really fond of) or Years Best.

Only read the first sentence and last sentence of each story.
posted by porpoise at 8:35 PM on January 25, 2008

Funny page on SF cliches from an SF editor
List of books for SF writers recommended by a couple of SF authors (a good place to start. Look at titles that seem promising, check out reviews to see if they'll address your needs. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott might be one place to start, and many libraries would have a copy of it. Ditto On Writing by Stephen King)
Series of informative posts about writing commercial fiction by one of those same SF authors.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:36 PM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

For short stories and developing your voice, I really don't think there's anything quite like a writer's workshop to assist you in honing work. There are plenty of people who get too wrapped up in workshops, but if you take from it just what you need and leave behind the rest, that was my first stop when I was starting out and needed a kick. Look on bulletin boards, maybe meetup, libraries, cafes, online sci-fi writer message boards, community colleges, whatever. Maybe seek out a creative writing class at a local CC. If you don't find a workshop, start one yourself. Reading about writing and talking online about writing can be somewhat reductive -- the social interaction is invaluable, and you might make some good friends along the way. This is definitely a place where face-to-face is far more efficient and useful than online.
posted by incessant at 8:41 PM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

The hardest part of writing Sci-Fi is writing a unique story -- so much has been done before, in some way or another. That said, LobsterMitten's link reminded me of a fantastic writing cliche site -- the Turkey City Lexicon. It's specifically geared towards Sci-Fi/Fantasy writers, but appropriate for any writer. It's also a fun (and looong) read.
posted by changeling at 8:54 PM on January 25, 2008

Definitely workshop your fiction and definitely find a workshop or critique buddy who really, really gets science fiction. I'll suggest, and the Online Writing Workshop.

Read the magazines that you submit to. Ideally, subscribe; if nothing else, read a very recent issue or two. Different editors have different tastes and different magazines have different styles.

Make sure that you're reading, not just good science fiction stories, but good recent science fiction stories; check out the Year's Best anthologies edited by Garner Dozois. (I shouldn't make the assumption that you're not, but my own Nebula anthology has a very '70s feel to it, and... science fiction, like any genre, can be faddish and trendy.)

Finally, just practice. Work on the assumption that you've got a million words of crap in you, and you've got to burn through those before you get to the good stuff (without, mind you, writing just for the sake of mindlessly putting down words).
posted by Jeanne at 8:54 PM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

SFWA's page of advice for writers - a great page.
another general page of useful links on writing issues
Turkey City Lexicon - tics of bad writing, in a brief list
Evil Editor - a blog by an editor, I haven't read it much but it might be of interest.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:56 PM on January 25, 2008

Seconding Writing Down The Bones. It's an inspirational book, peppered with practical advice.

I caution you from reading too many "how to write" books. Some of them can be down-right discouraging. I found Bird by Bird to be discouraging for it's straight talk about how editors don't want to hear from writers. I also didn't care for James Michener's advice that the only way to become a successful, premier writer was to wait for someone to die. Of course, your mileage may vary.
posted by tcv at 9:48 PM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

P.S. You know what sucks? Writing "it's" when you meant "its" in a topic about writing. :-(
posted by tcv at 9:51 PM on January 25, 2008

Don't read The Elements of Style. E.B. White's been dead for two decades, Strunk for six. Language and standards of writing change in the meantime, and a lot of their advice was wrong to begin with. The best positive advice I think I can give about improving your writing is to read lots of stuff in a genre that you do not intend to write in. I am not now, nor will I ever be, a successful writer of fiction, yet my subscription to McSweeney's Quarterly Concern and the subsequent exposure to contemporary short fiction has probably been the biggest positive influence on my writing recently. Style is not something you invent, it comes from taking the things you like from everything else you've read and putting those pieces together in a way that makes you happy.
posted by silby at 12:32 AM on January 26, 2008

In 1947, Robert A. Heinlein wrote an essay called "On the Writing of Speculative Fiction"; in it, among other things, he offered these rules for writing:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

These are pretty good rules, and they're pretty widely recognized as good advice among sf writers. According to this advice, rewriting the stories you've already finished—if they're really finished, if they're not drafts—is wasting time you could spend writing new stuff. Keep submitting to markets from the highest-paying or most prestigious on down, and keep writing new material and doing the same with it, and eventually, unless you suck a lot more than some of the already-published writers suck, you'll be published, too. Good luck, Wolfster.
posted by cgc373 at 12:40 AM on January 26, 2008 [7 favorites]

If you can locate a copy of "Trial and Error: A Key to the Secret of Writing and Selling," which was written in the late 1920s or early 1930s by Jack Woodford and reissued in the 1940s, it will be very helpful. It's hard to get a copy. I think you may be able to find it on Anyway, Ray Bradbury read it when he was young and used a lot of its pointers to guide his writing. The book is also very funny. Good luck.
posted by WyoWhy at 9:27 AM on January 26, 2008

Write stories first, science fiction stories second, and make sure characters, not gadgets, are at the center of your story. If your story is centered on a geewhiznifty idea, not the people (or other interesting beings we can empathize with), it probably belongs in Popular Mechanics.

So try changing genre (at least in your head) and making sure it would work just as well emotionally in any other genre. If the spaceship were instead a boat, the new land instead a newly discovered island or continent, and the aliens instead people from a different culture here on Earth in the past, is it still a great story about interesting characters whose emotional lives matter to you?
posted by pracowity at 4:15 PM on January 26, 2008

Try searching for -ly and removing all the adverbs.
posted by paduasoy at 4:36 PM on January 26, 2008

I do a little freelance manuscript editing here and there, and I always point writers I work with to the 2001 NYTimes interview with Elmore Leonard. It's got a lot of advice I've read in other books, very nicely bound up in a couple of web pages.
posted by lhauser at 10:15 PM on January 26, 2008

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