Okay, so you want to write short stories, or you wouldn't be here. Great. Glad we agree on that. Now how exactly does one go about that? More importantly, how does one go about that and succeed?
Now let me level with you here. I'm pretty new to short story writing myself. But I've operated in The World of Big Ideas for decades in my day job as a research scientist. I've published scores of scientific papers, received awards for my research on sensing techniques for mobile devices (that little screen rotation thingy on your iPhone? Yeah, sorry, that was my fault.) I have a docket of patents stretching into the triple digits. I was a student of the late Randy Pausch, who is now famous for his impassioned Last Lecture. I've worked side-by-side with Turing Award winners and billionaires, visionaries and gadflies.
So here's how it works, how you can take Your Big Idea and boil it down to surefire success with the pro short fiction markets in three easy steps.
1. Just Start Typing. In case it's not clear, this means that you sit in your chair, and you start typing words. Some of them might even make sense, and some possibly could still be there when you finish, but you won't get anywhere if you don't type, keep typing, and then finish typing what you started typing. And if the story veers off of your big idea? So what, let your mind go where it will. Just finish that story and take another crack at The Big Unwritten Idea in the next story.
2. Now here's the really hard part. You might want to get your assistants on the horn and tell 'em to hold all your calls for twenty or thirty seconds so you can digest this one. Write THE END and put it in the mail to an editor who might buy it. If you really want to be a go-getter you might even keep track of all the professional markets and put them in a big spreadsheet. I do. There's hundreds of them. When a story comes back with a rejection slip, you pick the next market on your list and send it there. You'll be getting a lot of these slips. If an editor really likes your story they might even scribble a short note encouraging you to submit something else in the future.
3. Write the next one. Don't mess with the stories when they come back from editors. Don't re-revise Your Great Unfinished Masterpiece yet again. Start a new story, and finish that one, and mail it. Then do it again. And again and again. What you're doing here is producing output. Sure, most of the stories will probably stink beyond belief. But so what? Anyone can mail a prizewinner but it takes real guts and determination to mail a stinker. But here's the rub. As the writer of the story, you can't tell if your story is any good or not. So mail it and trust the editors to pick out the gems for you.
Now I have a colleague (actually, he's famous for inventing the laser printer) who used to help evaluate start-ups for his corporate minions. He would tell a story about how he would visit these fledgling companies. He'd chat with the executives. Sit through their PowerPoint slides. Ask lots of questions.
But there was only way to tell for sure if they were talking utter BS or not.
At the end of the day, he'd say his goodbyes, and on the way to his car he'd sneak out back and see what they had in their dumpster.
If it was full of coffee-stained memos and mimeographs and discarded office supplies, he knew it was all a gigantic load of hooey.
But if there were sawed-up sheets of plywood, broken contraptions with wires hanging out of them, glue-gunned monstrosities of fabric and electronics and plastic, then he knew he just might have something here. They were actually doing something. Producing failed experiments.
Their dumpster was full.
This works for any creative endeavor. You must create, and keep on creating. Most ideas will fail, but it doesn't matter if you produce enough of them. Keep your dumpster full. It's the only sure sign of a creative mind at work. Just by sheer numbers-- and most importantly, by the practice of continuing to churn out work-- you'll get better. You'll get lucky. But it will be luck that you have manufactured through hard work.
As a writer of short fiction, of course, your dumpster is the mail (whether postal or electronic). You might even want to keep score for your growing scrap heap of literary greatness. For example, I'm up to 142 submissions this year, and I didn't even mail anything the first three months of the year. I've had as many as 34 pieces in the mail at a time. It's a race against yourself. Keep your stories in the mail and see how high you can jam your numbers up there.
So, stop reading this and get to it. Unvarnished Literary Glory awaits if you keep at it.
Alistair Ainscott (@aainscott) is a research scientist by day and a writer of offbeat speculative tales by night. You can find him at alistairainscott.wordpress.com.