Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Stories

My favourite short SF story ever is ‘They’re Made out of Meat’ by Terry Bisson. It was published way back in 1991, but it hasn’t aged. It’s short, less than 800 words, but it perfectly encapsulates what a short story should be. It’s a single idea, delivered succinctly and it has an original premise. Go ahead and read it. I’ll wait.

I’m not a great short story writer, though I’ve had over forty published on both sides of the Atlantic. I don’t mean I write bad short stories (well, there are the ones I couldn’t sell, but I digress) I mean that my main writing thrust is novel length – and long novel length at that. I’ve often tried to pack too much into a short story, and that doesn’t work. They are not slimmed down novels, but an art form in their own right.

Sometimes you see writing advice which recommends baby writers start with short stories and then progress to novels, but I’d disagree with that because short story writing and novel writing demand different techniques. My first writing attempt, age fifteen, was a novel. It was actually a terrible post-apocalyptic novel peopled by my favourite pop stars, thinly disguised. You can be relieved that I never got beyond chapter six, and even more relieved that all trace of it is long gone. I only tell you this because even at the age of fifteen, I never considered writing short stories first, and still don’t think it’s good advice to start there. Yes, oaky, my first publication was a short story and the novel publications came much later, but I’d written three novels before I wrote my first short story.

My advice is to write what you want to write when you want to write it. If you don’t feel as though you can tackle a novel, but have story ideas that are simple enough to explore in a piece that’s 500 – 7500 words, then you might be a natural short story writer. If you have a head full of twisty plots and sub-plots, simply get stuck in to that novel.

The first short stories I wrote were very much on the 7,500 word end of that scale. I couldn’t seem to condense what I wanted to write. It’s taken me the best part of twenty years to be able to write a 500 word short-short or a 950 word story short enough to be accepted for publication in Nature Magazine.

My first short story publication came via my music connections. I used to be (and still sometimes am) one third of vocal harmony trio, Artisan. My friend Felicia Dale (of the folk/sea-shanty duo William Pint and Felicia Dale) was over from America on tour in the UK. I’d arranged their tour and they were staying with us. Felicia had been offered the opportunity to contribute a story to an anthology called Warrior Princesses, being edited for DAW by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough. I didn’t think I could write a warrior princesses story until Felicia said to just treat it as a writing exercise. I emailed Annie and asked if I could submit a story for the antho, and it turned out she was an Artisan fan, so she said yes. She figured if I could entertain an audience on stage, I could probably entertain one with my writing. I actually wrote two stories and gave her a choice. One was a jokey story about a bunch of warrior princesses on a day trip to Blackpool in the 1950s, and the other was a twins-separated-at-birth story, called The Jewel of Locaria, and that was the one Annie chose. I didn’t know enough about writing to know that you can’t sell twins-separated-at-birth stories because they’ve been done to death, so hopefully I put a different slant on it, different enough for Annie to accept it. I got paid well for it, too, which is not always the case with short stories. (The other story, called Aunt Agatha’s Agency, was later bought by Liz Counihan for Scheherezade magazine in the UK.)

I’ve always done better selling short stories to anthologies rather than magazines. Out of my first six short story publications, five of them were to anthologies. Of course, if you’re going to sell short stories to magazines you’ve actually got to write them and send them out and I’m very bad at submitting shorts for publication… except…

I was at Milford Writers’ Conference in 2014 and one of the other attendees, Debs, wrote and sold masses of short stories. Her output shamed us all. At any one time she had fifty stories out on submission and her success rate was phenomenal. Her motto was ‘submit until your fingers bleed.’ So I took this to heart. My first book came out in late 2014 and I’d written the second and was waiting for editorial coimments, so I decided to take some time and send off some of the short stories I’d written but not found homes for. I determined that if they came whooshing back with a rejection, I would send them out again immediately. I had about thirty short stories and within a couple of months I’d sold fifteen of them, doubling my short story count. Debs also alerted me to the joys of being published in translation, and some of my reprints have been translated into Estonian, Catelan, Polish, Italian, and Galician. How cool is that?

Isn’t it funny that the harder you work, the luckier (and more successful) you become.

Of course, I got busy with the novels (my seventh, The Amber Crown, has just come out) and my enthusiasm for writing and sending out short stories waned along with my available time. Surprise, surprise, I sold fewer and fewer stories. In the last few years I’ve only written short stories to order, many of them for anthologies such as those published by Joshua Palmatier’s Zombies Need Brains press. In fact I’ve just finished writing my sixth one for Joshua which will come out in the summer in the Brave New Worlds anthology.

You can catch up with my short stories here.http://www.jaceybedford.co.uk/shorts.htm

So my advice to novice writers is to only write short stories if you want to. Write them as well as you can. Polish them and send them out. It will help if you read short stories so you know what’s out there already and what type of short stories are being published in specific magazines or online markets. If you read some of the magazines of e-zines that you are submitting to it helps you to assess suitability.The site for serious short story writers is Duotrope, which is a fee-paying, internet listing of over 2000 markets for fiction and poetry. Market entries are searchable by genre, pay rate and manuscript length. The other good one is Ralan which is comprehensive, but not searchable. But the one I use is the Grinder at Diabolical Plots.com The Grinder is searchable and it also logs response times, so it makes sense to send your stories to not only the highest paying markets, but also the ones that reply quickly.

You’ll also find short story markets on the web. Google and see what you come up with. Here are a couple I found.
https://publishedtodeath.blogspot.com/2021/05/list-of-science-fiction-and-fantasy.html
https://www.neonbooks.org.uk/the-big-list-of-paying-sci-fi-markets/

The best magazines pay pro-rate which at the time of writing is considered to be 5 cents a word or higher. Lower than 5c a word is semi-pro rates, and then there are magazines and websites that pay a token amount or nothing at all. If it’s a physical magazine they might pay in contributors’ copies. It’s a good idea to send your precious story to the highest paying markets first. and then work your way down the list. Some have a fast turnaround, others might take months to get back to you.

Just because you get a few rejections, don’t get disheartened. Send yiur story out again. Selling a story is often down to the luck of landing the right story on the right desk at the right time. Yours can be the best fae-in-a-spaceship story ever, but if the editor has just bought one of those, she’s not going to buy yours. Always remember the ‘money flows to the writer’ Never be tempted to pay for publication or for someone to fix your writing (unless you’re paying a professional editor to edit a book you plan to self-publish, but that’s a whole other blog post).

If you’re going to take writing seriously you might want to take a look at Heinlein’s Rules.

Good luck.

About Jacey Bedford

Jacey Bedford maintains this blog. She is a writer of science fiction and fantasy (www.jaceybedford.co.uk), the secretary of Milford SF Writers (www.milfordSF.co.uk), a singer (www.artisan-harmony.com) and a music agent booking UK tours and concerts for folk performers (www.jacey-bedford.com).
This entry was posted in fantasy, historical fiction, reading, science fiction, writing, writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Stories

  1. Benoit says:

    Love this Jacey! Very well-written. Science-fiction stories have significantly changed the world. Most of the technologies people rely on today were built from science-fiction novels, magazines, or movies.

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