Monthly Archives: January 2012

John Steinbeck on the impossible question: How to write a good short story

“I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.”

In 1963, John Steinbeck revealed his conviction that there was no magic formula for writing a good short story but that the work must first be created and then judged on its merits. Has anything change?

Dear Writer:

Although it must be a thousand years ago that I sat in a class in story writing at Stanford, I remember the experience very clearly. I was bright-eyes and bushy-brained and prepared to absorb the secret formula for writing good short stories, even great short stories. This illusion was canceled very quickly. The only way to write a good short story, we were told, is to write a good short story. Only after it is written can it be taken apart to see how it was done. It is a most difficult form, as we were told, and the proof lies in how very few great short stories there are in the world.

The basic rule given us was simple and heartbreaking. A story to be effective had to convey something from the writer to the reader, and the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, there were no rules. A story could be about anything and could use any means and any technique at all – so long as it was effective. As a subhead to this rule, it seemed to be necessary for the writer to know what he wanted to say, in short, what he was talking about. As an exercise we were to try reducing the meat of our story to one sentence, for only then could we know it well enough to enlarge it to three- or six- or ten-thousand words.

So there went the magic formula, the secret ingredient. With no more than that, we were set on the desolate, lonely path of the writer. And we must have turned in some abysmally bad stories. If I had expected to be discovered in a full bloom of excellence, the grades given my efforts quickly disillusioned me. And if I felt unjustly criticized, the judgments of editors for many years afterward upheld my teacher’s side, not mine. The low grades on my college stories were echoed in the rejection slips, in the hundreds of rejection slips.

It seemed unfair. I could read a fine story and could even know how it was done. Why could I not then do it myself? Well, I couldn’t, and maybe it’s because no two stories dare be alike. Over the years I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.

It is not so very hard to judge a story after it is written, but, after many years, to start a story still scares me to death. I will go so far as to say that the writer who not scared is happily unaware of the remote and tantalizing majesty of the medium.

I remember one last piece of advice given me. It was during the exuberance of the rich and frantic ’20s, and I was going out into that world to try and to be a writer.

I was told, “It’s going to take a long time, and you haven’t got any money. Maybe it would be better if you could go to Europe.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because in Europe poverty is a misfortune, but in America it is shameful. I wonder whether or not you can stand the shame of being poor.”

It wasn’t too long afterward that the depression came. Then everyone was poor and it was no shame anymore. And so I will never know whether or not I could have stood it. But surely my teacher was right about one thing. It took a long time – a very long time. And it is still going on, and it has never got easier.

She told me it wouldn’t.

A budding science fiction short story writer? Enter our competition



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A Direction.

A Direction..

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Words Just Words events calendar and deadlines

  • 27 January – Rangers FC announcement
  • 31st May 2012 – Science Fiction Short Story Competition deadline
  • July 2012 – Science Fiction Short Story winners announced
  • 1 August 2012 – Science Fiction anthology published


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Tired of being called pretty?

They say a picture paints a thousand words but English has a rich vocabulary for describing beauty.

Try these 100 words for describing beauty – or ugliness – from Daily Writing Tips and make your prose come alive.

Do you have a Science Fiction short story? Enter our competition and win a cash prize.

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Like us on Facebook

Please like our new Facebook page and we’ll be nice to you some time. 🙂

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Richard Harland: How to write Sci-Fi, horror, fantasy and popular fiction

Richard Harland, author of World Shaker and numerous other titles took four months out of his writing schedule to create a list of tips for writers of fantasy, science fiction, horror and popular fiction. It’s a must-read for any writer in the genres.

Take part in the Words Just Words Science Fiction Short Story Prize. Write a story of up to 3,500 words and win a prize of up to £50, as well as seeing your story published in our anthology. Terms and Conditions apply.


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Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules for writing fiction

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every chaKurt Vonnegutracter should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

— Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1999), 9-10.


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Jeffrey A Carver: How to write science fiction

Jeffrey Carver, author of the Chaos World and Starrigger series offers advice to aspiring writers.

Enter the Words Just Words Science Fiction Short Story Prize competition.

See the published terms and conditions.

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Putting everything into writing

Every aspiring – or established – writer can learn something from A.L. Kennedy’s excellent series in the Guardian.

“Complete commitment, down to the last comma, is the only way for me to make writing work. Which isn’t good news for everything else in my life…”

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Terms and Conditions: Science Fiction Short Story Competition

The Rules

No entry form is needed. Entry is online.

Entries should be submitted by email attachment in MS Word, Open Office or PDF format. No responsibility is accepted for other formats which cannot be opened by the judges.

The address for entries is:

The Closing Date is Sunday, 10th June 2012 (deadline extended). Winners will be announced in July 2012.

You may enter as many times as you wish, provided that each entry is accompanied by the entry fee of £3.50. Payment should be made by Paypal to or by clicking the link on the site.

The competition is open to writers of any nationality writing in English.

Entries are to be on the theme of Science Fiction in any sense. There is no restriction on style.

Maximum number of words is 3,500.

The prize for the winner will be £50. The runner-up will receive £35. This will be usually be paid via Paypal. Other winning entries will be published in the anthology. The anthology will be published in August 2012.

The winning stories must be available for the anthology and, therefore, must not have been published previously. By entering the competition, you assert that all material is your own original work.

Words Just Words holds full, exclusive worldwide publishing rights for one year after entry and non-exclusive worldwide rights in perpetuity after publication. These rights include but are not excluded to printed publications, Kindle and any other e-book, internet, digital or electronic editions.  Copyright remains with the author.

Notification of receipt of entry will normally be by email.

The judges’ verdict is final.

No correspondence will be entered into once work has been submitted.

Stories cannot be altered or changed after they have been entered.

Your work may be edited for spelling, grammar or other reasons to ensure it is of a professional standard.

The short story competition is open to writers of any nationality writing in English.

We reserve the right to amend these Rules where it is deemed necessary to do so or where circumstances are beyond our control. Any changes to the Rules will be posted on the website. We reserve the right to extend the deadline, not to award the first prize, and to cancel the publication of the anthology, where circumstances are beyond our control, or if the judges’ overall verdict is that the level of entries is not up to the required standard for publication. In the unlikely event of the competition being cancelled, entry fees will be refunded.

Entry is taken to be acceptance of these rules.

Short Story Online Entry Fees

Online Entry                    £3.50 per Entry

Critique (Optional)        £30.00 per Entry

Entry plus Critique    £33.50


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