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How To Write For Sci-Fi Shorts: A Primer


Image Copyright 2023 - SFS Publishing LLC


Writing for periodicals is not a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s also not for the faint of heart, and it’s definitely not for those who can’t stand criticism and rejection.


That’s a lot of negative to throw at someone, so I got it out of the way up front. We’re past it. From here on out, this will be positive.


Every venue has their own unique must-haves, basic rules you need to follow in order to get past the first glance of the slush reader. Here at Sci-Fi Shorts, we have specific requirements for formatting and layout, which we cover extensively in our Submissions Guidelines page. But for the most part that’s once you’ve already got a story you want to submit. This guide is for when all you have is a blank page and an idea.


Target: 1000 Words Or Less


The only way to learn to write is to write. There are no shortcuts, no easy ways around it. ChatGPT can do it for you, but not well, and if you rely on a mechanical brain you’ll never learn how to do it yourself.


We publish sci-fi flash, which has a hard limit of 1000 words at the absolute most. I can’t recall us ever publishing anything under 500, so that’s your range.


Begin at the beginning, write until you’re done, then throw most of it away. This second process is called “editing”, and it is by far the hardest of the two.


Editing


“It is easy. You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.” — Michelangelo (spurious)


Our Discord server has a Beta Readers channel which can help, but before you’re ready to go in there, you need to know a few basics, like how to spell, what the correct words are to represent the concepts you want to express, and how to employ idiomatic expressions. If you’re still working on those skills, never fear: Google Docs will help you for free. It’s not perfect, but it’s not bad… and, again: FREE.


Before you do that, though, it’s vital to know in advance what your end result is supposed to look like.


Key Parts of a Good Story


After your first draft is finished, move on to the following list, which is here in order of story structure. Rather than starting at the beginning, my advice is to start at the end and work your way backward.


Some of the best stories break these rules. Once you have a few dozen published, maybe you can think about bending one or two.


  • Title: Should be interesting, but without giving away the story’s secret. This may be the last thing you finalize, but you should always start with something to fill the empty space.

  • Subtitle: This is the next to last thing you write, and it’s arguably the most important. Like the title, it’s got to be meaningful, and it can’t give everything away. Like the first line, it needs to grab the reader.

  • First line, known as “The Hook”: This should be clean, concise, contain only the merest scraps of exposition, and have a barb that refuses to let a prospective reader stop.

  • Opening: This is where you introduce the characters. A flash piece rarely has room for more than two or three. Roughly sketch the scene, but only enough to showcase the characters.

  • Exposition: If you absolutely must, say a couple more things about the weather, or the sky, or the fact that there are tall buildings, or that there’s a war going on and artillery is falling all around and everyone is terrified of dying.

  • Action: Something must happen in your story. The action exists to explain the characters, to give them a purpose and the reader a reason to care what happens to them.

  • Build suspense: Something important is going to happen. Don’t give it away, but leave hints. They can be subtle or bold; they can even be designed to mislead. Have some fun with it.

  • Climax: Every story contains a choice, which creates a change. The climax is when the gambler calls, the outlaw draws his gun, the lovers kiss, the poet sets pen to paper. What happened before is prologue; what happens after is inevitable.

  • Either a twist or an ending: The ending is the explanation of just enough of the inevitable to satisfy the reader. If instead you use a twist, it’s the revelation of information that either the characters or the reader didn’t have which changes everything. A twist that only impacts the reader is called “cheating”, but it can work; a twist that turns the whole story into a dumb joke is called a “shaggy dog”, and that can work too.


Anything in your story that is not part of one of these elements needs to be cut. If it’s essential knowledge, find a way to put it in, but only within the above framework.


Polishing


You now have a story. Hopefully it’s spelled correctly, uses the right words, avoids repeating itself, and so on. (If you want Sci-Fi Shorts to publish it, it should also be science fiction.) If not, go over it from top to bottom and from bottom to top, pruning a word here and there and softening the hard edges.


Your hook must be clean and barbed. Your prose must be tight and active. Your characters must feel the action and react to events. Your climax must be sharp. Your ending must be short. If any of these is not the case, go back and polish it again.


Being Done


Some stories fight back. They want to be more than 1000 words, or to have more exposition or characters than is strictly necessary. You have two options: Be ruthless, if necessary enlisting assistance from our Beta Readers for the purpose… or surrender to the story and let it become what it wants to be. If you do the latter, you may well create deathless prose, but it probably won’t be a Sci-Fi Shorts story. That’s OK; the world needs novels too.


Very few stories will be perfect, which is by design; humans are fundamentally imperfect, and we object to unreality. Your objective is “good enough to make it past the editors”, and if you don’t, they’ll be sure to let you know.


Got it? Good. Now go write something.

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3 Comments


Rod Castor
Rod Castor
Nov 28, 2023

When we started Sci-Fi Shorts in 2020, the maximum word count was 500 per story. Just imagine!

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Gnerphk
Gnerphk
Nov 28, 2023
Replying to

It's all I can manage to keep them under 4000, and even then I spend hours pruning. Good Lord! 500!

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Keith Raymond
Keith Raymond
Nov 28, 2023

Don't be afraid to go long... not every story is short. Structural edit helps identify the plot holes and your science should be strong. Line edit should easily remove ten percent, and don't be afraid to shift whole paragraphs around. Finally, read it out loud. You'll find stuff, trust me.

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