Writing tips [UPDATED]

In last year's Pulp Idol book we not only printed the winning story from our writing competition, but also a short range of tips for those planning to pen a story in future. We thought it might be tremendously helpful to aspiring writers and competition entrants if we repeated that advice up here on ’tinternet.

Et voila . Below are 30 tips from the SFX magazine team and friends about planning and executing the kind of short story that we’d like to read. Remember, we’re also printing wisdom from authors, agents and editors in the magazine each month – and you can read yet more Q&As from experienced insiders online too:

Interview with Dungeons & Dragons author Richard Lee Byers
Interview with last year’s Pulp Idol winner Alex Clarkson
Interview with agent Simon Kavanagh
Interview with fantasy author Deborah J Miller
Interview with Dungeons & Dragons author Richard Baker
Interview with the original Pulp Idol winner Colin Harvey
Interview with author Liz Williams
Interview with author Kevin J Anderson
Interview with editorial director Jo Fletcher
Interview with Dungeons & Dragons author James Wyatt
Interview with author Paul Cornell
Interview with author Stephen Baxter
Interview with editorial director Darren Nash
Interview with author Una McCormack
Interview with agent and editor John Jarrold
Interview with SF editors Gillian Redfearn and Simon Spanton
Interview with author Jeffrey Thomas
Interview with fantasy author Joe Abercrombie
Interview with the editors of Interzone

2008's Pulp Idol competition is now closed for new entries, but you can see the details we published about it here .



+ Think in terms of a beginning, middle and end. Sounds like cliché but there’s a reason for it. Space is limited, so give it some structure.
+ Maybe it’ll help to think of your story as a joke – even if it’s not meant to raise a laff. What’s the set-up? What’s the punch line? What happens in between? Boil your tale down until it’s a simple skeleton of plot (you can add the fancy stuff later). Does it still work? If not, why not?
+ Plan its pace and development too, right down to the paragraph if you’re able. There’s nothing more depressing to read than a story with a brilliant setup, but a rushed ending because the writer ran out of space.
+ A short story usually has one core idea – a clever premise, a twist, a great concept. Don’t make us wait until the last sentence to find out what it is, especially if we’ve already seen that film/read that book/eaten that cereal. The more time you give yourself to play with it, the better your chances of making even a tired formula seem fresh.
+ A good story needs to have some payoff for the reader, so figure out what your point is and make sure you get to it. No reader wants to get to the end of a story and say, “So what?”
+ If you’re planning on a twist ending then make sure it is actually a good twist – especially if the whole story hangs on it. Why not test it on a friend?
+ Your first line is crucial. They say first impressions count, and it’s equally true in fiction – labour over that opening sentence until it’s bulletproof. And then think about how best to keep the reader ensnared. Never take them for granted: they can leave you at any minute, so you need to earn their attention. Keep dancing.
+ Keep things simple. Detail is good, but you can be thorough without turning your prose purple. Over-writing a scene can kill it. Go easy with the adjectives and similes.
+ Likewise be wary of clever alternatives to “he said” and “she said”. Those are invisible words; they add pacing and clarity but go unnoticed by readers. Let the dialogue itself set the level. The more outlandish your speaking verbs (“she spluttered”, “he ejaculated”) the less effective they usually are.
+ And go easy with the names, especially you fantasy authors. Yes, the world you’re building has its own style and character, but too many sentences like “Brok, high mage of the Goatlickers and fourthfold son of Baroon the Unsteady, hailed King Wamcheese, the Witch-spawn of the Seventh Hall of Slakk” will leave the reader with a cluster headache.
+ Remember dialogue, and use it well. Readers are much less likely to skip it than long passages of description or monologuing, and even moderately snappy conversation will often make things interesting.
+ Be consistent. If you’ve started out writing in third person, don’t suddenly change to first person after the opening paragraph. Likewise for the tense of the story. It sounds obvious, but we do receive submissions with this sort of error.
+ The more perfect you make your hero/heroine, the more we guarantee we’re going to hate him/her. Are they just an example of Mary Sue wish-fulfilment? Good heroes have faults. And probably don’t share your online nickname.
+ Pay attention to your writing style, including your spelling – it’s much easier to enjoy reading a story when you’re not having to decipher someone’s approximation of English. It does matter, so get it proof read please. Microsoft Word’s built-in spellchecker isn’t enough.
+ Read as well as write. Consider it research. It’s not about copying other author’s ideas: it’s about getting to know the current state of the genre, it’s about seeing what’s possible, it’s about learning the craft by example. If you don’t read fiction, how do you know if your own fiction is up to scratch? Make sure you check out current stuff: having read a few novels in your teens will not help you write a modern SF short story.
+ Once you’ve written, edit – and make sure you do it after you’ve written (try editing as you go along and you’ll get nowhere). Write your story, put it down, go away, have a coffee, a good night’s sleep, whatever. Then pick it up and “unwrite”. Go through the story and delete every word that isn’t essential to pushing the plot on or displaying some aspect of character. It can feel frustrating to ditch stuff you’ve sweated over but you’ll be surprised at how much you can cut, and how much it genuinely improves the pace of the story.


- There’s absolutely no point just chopping a chapter out of your novel and pretending it’s a short story. We can tell that’s what you’ve done. A short story needs to be self-contained and satisfying in its own right, not just a teaser for a larger universe.
- A single room description is not a short story, nor is a profile of one character, nor philosophical musings on the nature of self. No matter how good your writing.
- Does your story end with the revelation that the mysterious alien invaders are actually... “THE HU-MANS”? Or any variation on that twist? Then bin it. This stuff was old hat in the ’50s.
- Likewise anything that involves a time-traveller calling himself “Jesus”, or two interstellar colonists called Adam and Eve who crash-land on a prehistoric world. Seriously: no. Just no.
- Does your story start with the protagonist waking up? Then rewrite the introduction. About one in five start this way, and it gets old really quickly when you’re reading a pile of 30.
- It’s very hard to write comedy stories. Authors like Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams have their own distinct styles and you ape them at your peril. And “wacky” is no substitute for “funny” either. Hitchhiker’s Guide wasn’t simply surreal; it was great because of how it subverted the familiar. Without a similarly strong connection to reality, weird jokes aren’t likely to work – a fridge that longs to be an elephant is a strange idea; that’s not enough to make it entertaining.
- There’s a time and a place to recount 2,000 years of your universe’s backstory. It’s not the first four pages of a short story. Keep it brief and to the point, or better yet, in your notebook.
- Likewise, do not write an entire story which is just a history of the future, all written from an omnipresent viewpoint with no characters or excitement in it. World building is fun, but pages and pages filled with your ideas about what happens to the Earth after World War III is not a story. Where are the characters and the drama? Why should we care?
- Just because space is tight, don’t rush the ending and leave us with a to-be-continued teaser. That’s not a complete short story, now, is it? If you finish a tale with “So Boris swore his revenge, but that’s for another story...” you won’t impress anybody.
- Don’t attempt high fantasy, unless it’s an idea that can be neatly encapsulated in 2,000 words. You don’t have the time to set up an epic arc. There’s a reason why Tolkien’s masterpiece runs to three huge tomes. He never entered it in a magazine writing competition, did he?
- Despite what you encounter on TV sometimes, there’s nothing less satisfying in a story than seeing a problem solved with technobabble. Good SF makes the impossible understandable, and the victories no less satisfactory for it.
- Don’t copy the concept, set-up and tone of your favourite TV show and just change the names.
- Don’t get self-referential, unless you’ve thought of some clever way to do it. Stories that refer back to SFX (and Pulp Idol in particular) are especially jarring. It doesn’t look post-modern, it just looks like you’ve got no ideas except what’s right in front of you. And you won’t really flatter the judges by writing them into your horror stories.
- Don’t try to write fiction of a type you’re not familiar with. That’s not to say you shouldn’t experiment, but don’t force yourself to write hard interstellar SF or elfin fantasy if you’re not comfortable with those genres. Pulp Idol’s remit has always been pretty broad, so write what you love. If you take a look at the winner and ten runners-up in last year's book you’ll see that the SF, fantasy or horror is sometimes quite subtle.

Got all that? Don’t let any of it put you off writing. The more you write, the better you’ll get, and there’s plenty more advice in the magazine and online this month for budding authors, so get stuck in.

You’ll find Pulp Idol features in SFX issues 169 to 171. The 2008 competition closed at midnight on Tuesday 3 June, but you’ll be able to read the winning story later in the year.

This year’s competition is sponsored by Dungeons & Dragons .