I had one of those mad moments when I decided to catalogue all the short stories I had ever written and still had a record of. I didn’t need to do this, but it would help with a small project I’m currently working on.
I then took time out to study the results. They were a bit of an eye-opener.
As you would expect, the first stories were either too ambitious for me to write at that time or naff. But I could pick out half a dozen stories that are worth revisiting and rewriting. So lesson number one. NEVER EVER THROW ANY WRITING AWAY. You never know when you come back to it whether their ideas might form a basis of a new story.
There came a point when the stories started to be published, and after the hesitant start, there is a pleasingly high proportion of them having been published in one form or another. As you would expect this proportion drops away towards the end as the short stories had not yet done the submission rounds. This is the kind of pattern I every writer should aspire to. But the interesting thing is that once the stories started being published, there was distinctly less in the way of satires to go back to that could be rewritten. So lesson number two. DO NOT EXPECT TO FIND AS MUCH POTENTIAL STORY MATERIAL FROM UNPUBLISHED WORKS FROM AFTER YOU START GETTING PUBLISHED REGULARLY.
There was one story I had completer forgotten about, and rereading it, I must have been in an evil mood to come with such a dastardly plot. I never sent it out on the submission rounds because of what happened shortly after I completed it. Now that time has gone by, I think it is more acceptable. But, but, but… it needs a rewrite because the language has subtly changed in the intervening period, there are little techno-traps that date it, and well, to be blunt, my writing has improved since then. Sending it out now as it is would not be sending it out at its potential best. Lesson number three. ALWAYS REWRITE YOUR UNPUBLISHED STORIES AFTER THEY HAVE BEEN LEFT ALONE FOR A SIGNIFICANT PERIOD OF TIME.
What I found interesting was that over time my science fiction ideas have become increasing ambitious in scope. It is only natural to start with what you know. I certainly had to put a lot of effort in improving my writing skills. To add significant world-building to that, was at the time a step too far. But as my skills grew and continue to grow, the panorama and intricacy of my new worlds also grow. Lesson number four. WORLD-BUILD TO THE CAPACITY OF YOUR WRITING SKILLS AND NOT BEYOND IT.
This extra world-building comes at a cost. My stories grew longer over time. I actually found it very difficult to write short short stories after a while. The only way I could do that was to focus on a very small part of existence. And even then I would blunder into other existential parts of that world, because they were interesting. I now realise that the emphasis these days on flash fiction comes at the cost of losing the richness you can have in world-building. It is not surprising that flash fiction deals with the familiar, the world as know it or the accepted science fiction tropes. If you want new in science fiction, you have to write at least novelette length. Lesson number five. IF YOU WANT TO SELL SHORT SCIENCE FICTION, STICK TO THE KNOWN WORLD OR WIDELY ACCEPTED SCIENCE FICTION TROPES.
Over time, with a few exceptions, my stories have gone from third person past tense to first person current tense. The reasons are simple. Readers get more buy-in from the latter, so it pays, quite literally to take up this format. Writing in the present tense is a lot harder than writing in the past tense. I had one story I flipped from past tense to present, only to find that some of my paragraphs in the original story were convoluted garbage. As an experiment I flipped the present tense story back to the past tense. The second version in the past was a huge step up in story quality. But writing in first person comes with its own dangers. The people in your stories tend to converge to the same type of person. Be wary of that. If necessary give you character a habit that your type of preferred character would never have. You would be surprised how well this works. Lesson number six. ONCE YOU START WRITING IN THE PRESENT TENSE, THROW YOUR MAIN CHARACTER AS FAR AWAY AS POSSIBLE FROM THE PERSON YOU NATURALLY WANT TO WRITE ABOUT.
Technology, or should I say the improvement in technology, moves fast in our world. What was a new idea several years ago can be bought off the shelf in your local shopping centre today. All near future science fiction writers suffer from the fate of having their stories overtaken by events. This includes some things in my stories. Its painful when it happens, in the sense that the newness of your story has vanished down the drain. The resulting satisfaction of having been right does not make up for it, believe me. There is a but coming… if you exaggerate or magnify your technology of interest, the story loses far less of its gloss. Exaggeration can be done in all sorts of ways. No one way is correct. But it should align with the technology concerned. It has the added advantage of, if done with skill, garnering the wow factor from your reader. Lesson number seven. EXAGGERATE THE TECHNOLOGY YOUR STORY RELIES ON, TO GIVE THE STORY LIFE IN BOTH SENSES OF THE WORD.
To summarise – seven lessons are
- Never ever throw any writing away.
- Do not expect to find as much potential story material from unpublished works from after you start getting published regularly.
- Always rewrite your unpublished stories after they have been left alone for a significant period of time.
- World-build to the capacity of your writing skills and not beyond it.
- If you want to sell short science fiction, stick to the known world or widely accepted tropes.
- Once you start writing in the present tense, throw you main character as far away as possible from the person you naturally want to write about.
- Exaggerate the technology your story relies on, to give the story life in both senses of the word.
I hope these thoughts will help some developing writers somewhere, somewhen.