In April 2013, I attended a “Writing to Sell” workshop at the 52nd Natcon Convention in Canberra. This workshop focused on factors to think about when writing short-form fiction for the professional speculative fiction market. The following contains some of the tips I gleaned and, while most of them are familiar and self-explanatory (writer 101 stuff), there were a couple of pointers I hadn’t thought of so I thought I’d share.
Obviously, the usual rules apply. There is no one way to get published and no ‘formula’ per se to writing fiction (after all, if there was, everyone would be doing it). There is also hard work involved. Like any of the arts, writing is a skill that takes time and practice to master.
1) Your work should come across as professional (fail to do this and you won’t get a look in)
Ten Rules For Writing a Traditional Murder Mystery
1) There must be a murder. (Suicides and accidents won’t do.)
2) A detective – amateur or pro – must solve it.
3) The detective can’t be the killer.
4) The murderer can’t be a total stranger.
5) There must be only one killer – with perhaps an assistant helping out with an alibi.
6) The reader should be able to guess the killer’s identity if they spot the clues.
7) The identity of the killer is revealed only at the end of the story.
8) The detective solves the case with little help from anyone else.
9) The murderer must have a strong motive.
10) The murderer conveniently confesses when faced with the evidence, making a conviction guaranteed.
A large number of very good stories have been written by obeying these ‘rules’, but the danger of sticking to the rules is you can produce formulaic fiction.
I loved reading Agatha Christie novels when I was at school, but I lost interest once I started solving them too quickly. After reading about thirty novels, I just knew the character with the unshakeable alibi was the killer. And I just knew the character with no motive had one hidden. It started to feel like I was reading the same book over and over.
Agatha Christie’s most memorable stories were the ones where she broke her own readers’ expectations by making the murderer the detective or the narrator or a character supposedly killed earlier in the story. Everyone remembers The Murder on the Orient Express for its unique resolution – while other more formulaic novels are forgotten.
A writing formula can be a useful tool if used as a framework for a solid plot – but if it is too strictly followed nothing new will be produced and readers will become bored.
I’ve never understood why a writer would want to write the same story again and again. If you want to do that, you might as well just change the names in a book and republish that. It’s the literary equivalent of remaking a successful movie.
Writing should be like a science experiment. Try something different each time to see what works best for you. A new formula might result in a breakthrough.
You might have some failures along the way – but at least you will not repeat yourself.
There should only be one unbreakable rule for writing.
Never write the same story twice.
Amazon launched Kindle Unlimited on Friday, giving self-publishers a big decision to make.
The long-rumored subscription service will allow users to download unlimited books for $9.99 a month, and reader reaction has been, from what I can see, overwhelmingly positive – especially because they will be able to test the service with a month’s free trial. Writers have been a little more cautious, for all sorts of reasons I’ll try and tease out below.
The main stumbling block for self-publishers is that participation in Kindle Unlimited is restricted to titles enrolled in KDP Select – Amazon’s program which offers various additional marketing tools in exchange for exclusivity. Author compensation will be similar to borrows under the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library – a percentage of money from a fixed pool. The only real twist is that payment will be triggered when 10% of downloaded books have been read.
Here are some 25-word flash stories. I wrote them in response to a fiction thread asking for stories of exactly that length. I thought it was impossible to do that until I gave it a go. Each had to include a specific word in story used as the title. I hope you’ll find some of them amusing.
The chameleon met his old friends for their high-school reunion.
They all said the same thing.
“You’ve changed a lot.”
A street poet offered me a poem for ten bucks.
“No thanks. Anything cheaper?”
“If you don’t need it to rhyme, I’ve some free verse.”
Warning! Never press this button!
He pressed it anyway.
The screen emitted hypnotic lights and sounds.
His mind ceased functioning.
The television claimed another victim.
His adversary was in the mirror, mockingly copying his every move.
So he smashed it.
Unfortunately, the shards sliced his throat
He died, too.
The vampire children gathered in the cave entrance, their feral eyes shining in dawn’s half-light.
The sunlight frightened them back.
But tomorrow they would feed.
She waved goodbye to her husband at the station, tears streaming – until the train had gone.
Then she smiled.
Her new lover was waiting.
Marisa filled her basket with everything for a great dinner party: fine wine, delicious food, scented candles.
The only things she forgot were the guests.
I cracked the egg and tasted the creamy orange yolk. Yum!
My comrades were appalled.
“NO!” they cried.
“What?” I said.
“That’s the last dodo.”
Spring started with rain. And more rain. And even more rain.
The downpour was endless.
Noah looked up at the dark, cloudy sky.
In the spring Laura loved watching the tulips and daffodils growing, but they made her sad, reminding her that life was beautiful outside her cell.
Every Halloween several children gathered outside his house – hurling eggs and yelling abuse. He didn’t care. Ignoring them was cheaper than paying the alimony.
The arrogant man showed off his multi-million-dollar house to the famous painter Picasso.
Picasso drew the man’s key and smiled.
“That’s worth more,” he said.
The safe contained all of his valuables.
“Where’s the key to the safe?” his wife asked.
“Er … locked inside.”
Yeah, he thought.
He should have put her in, too.
He did not know why everyone panicked when he produced the key for the door.
“Wait until we’re back on the ground!” the passengers shouted.
Josephine noticed everyone staring at her on the crowded Parisian street.
“Why are they staring?” Josephine asked Marcel.
“Oh – we’re on Rue Du Glare.”
Something strange happened as I was messing around writing those tiny stories. I found taking a few minutes to write some 25-word stories turned out to be a excellent way of getting my creative juices flowing for that day. If you become stuck writing something, I’d recommend trying it. It inspired me to write some longer stories with much larger word counts.