Stephen Jones's writing tips

In the latest issue of SFX, we've launched the new Pulp Idol short story-writing competition. As part of this momentous event, we spoke with renowned editor Stephen Jones and promised we'd deliver more of his considerable wit and wisdom on the site. So here you go...

SFX: What do you look for in a short story when you're compiling an anthology?
Stephen Jones : "I've been doing this now for more than 20 years on and off, since the early '70s, so I've read a lot of short stories in that time. I guess what I'm looking for more than anything else, and it's not a glib response, is I like to be surprised; to read something that really blows my socks off when it comes to short stories because I have read so much material over the years by some of the great writers of short fiction but also by some of the worst writers of short fiction – and unfortunately more of the latter."

"The combination of good writing and solid storytelling is what I'm always looking for technically in a story. You can have one and not the other and it doesn't work. There are many writers who are great stylists who have really nothing to say, who have no story in them. There are a lot of people who come up with a good idea for a story but simply don't have the technical abilities to write."

SFX: What makes a good short story as opposed to maybe the plot for a novel?
SJ : "I wish people would try to put a plot for a novel into a short story. Unfortunately most of the short stories I read tend to be anecdotes or incidents. There's not really a story there."

"I know it's a terrible thing, or an old-fashioned thing to say, but what I'm looking for in a short story is a beginning, a middle and an end. I want to be brought into a short story, to get to know the characters, I want to get some idea of what's going to happen later in the story, I want to look forward to what's going to happen. I also want to go forward through the events in a logical and interesting manner. At the end of that story I want to find out what happens, I want the characters or the incidents to have changed in some way, but more importantly as a reader I want to have changed in some way."

"So often I see manuscripts that are just little incidents, where nothing basically happens, where people just have little bits of dialogue, talk about something, or something goes on, and at the end of the story neither the characters have changed nor the world has changed or my opinion of those characters has changed."

SFX: Let's talk about the second part of your equation for short stories, style – could you elaborate?
SJ : "Absolutely. I think the first thing for any author is to know how to spell and how to punctuate. It's a terrible thing to say and in these early years of the 21st century unfortunately most people don't. When I was growing up and was at school 30 or 40 years ago, it was something we were taught, and it seems to me now that people aren't taught this; or it's not considered important where to put a full stop, a semi-colon, how to capitalise, even how to present, lay out a manuscript to be easily readable."

"The thing would-be authors have to realise is that when you're reading multiple manuscripts in a day as I do, it's a very tiring process. We all know that if a story gets published it will go through various stages of copy editing and other editing processes, but even at this manuscript stage it should be as clean a manuscript as possible."

"One thing I'd always say to any writer is when they've finished writing a story put it away and go off and forget about it for a few days or a week, go and do something else, start another story or whatever. Then go back to it with a new eye and I guarantee they will find missing words, things that don't make sense, repetition, which is one of my big bugbears. These are things which you can put right before you submit it to a market."

SFX: To go a little bit more into the style thing, what makes a good stylist? It's kind of a nebulous concept...
SJ : "It is and obviously the concept of style changes from editor to editor, and a style I like another editor might not like, but I would say that any writer should be true to themselves. One of the things I make sure happens in any of my anthologies is the stories I have accepted have their own individual voice. It sounds like a cliché but you hear it all the time on shows like the X Factor, if you go do a cover of a song, make that cover your own. The same applies to writing, if I'm reading a story I don't want to see something that's a pastiche of HP Lovecraft or Ray Bradbury. I want to see someone who has a legitimate voice of their own, an original voice, a unique voice, a voice that stands out to me."

Stephen Jones is the editor of The Dark of the Beast and Other Fantastical Stories by Rudyard Kipling, part of the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks series. Find out how to enter the Pulp Idol writing competition here .