Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Queenie's Cross

There was a teeny tiny speck-like blot on the landscape of my lovely trip to London. I ran into an old acquaintance who I know to be an interesting, quirky, intelligent woman. I was pleased to see her, and in the course of catching up, I told her proudly that I've sold two short stories to women's magazines.

'So you've worked out the formula, then,' she said.

At which point I suddenly wanted to get all shouty, but being a v mature grown-up type of person (yeah, right!) I managed to control myself and muttered something inane before rapidly changing the subject.

It did make me feel cross, though. It's not her fault; she's absorbed and repeated a common misconception, and I'm sure I've done that myself many times. For sure, women's magazine short stories are hardly Grate Litrachur. But there is no formula. There are many types of story beyond the boy-meets-girl romance, such as crime, humour, historical, family, or supernatural, and there are some that don't fit into any genre. There are a few do's and don'ts - which differ from magazine to magazine - and beyond that, it's all creativity and skill.

I was writing for years and years before I sold a short story. That's 'writing,' not 'working out a formula'. Mostly I was writing rubbish, but it was good practice and I learned a lot from the process. Still do, in fact. In the last year, I've written 26 short stories, of which I've sold two. There are several others out there, so my average could go up any day - but actually, as mags receive 50-100 stories for every one they publish, two out of 26 isn't at all bad. And the other 24 were, again, good practice.

My stories won't change the world. But they may provide a little entertainment for someone sitting on a bus or a train, or putting their feet up at home. One of my stories might give a slight lift to someone's spirits, or offer someone a nugget of new information, or just enable someone to pass a few enjoyable minutes. Small effects, but positive ones, that I don't think could be achieved by using a formula.

17 comments:

Lane said...

Damn right. And well done you for being a 'v mature grown up person'. I may not have been so mature:-)

Carol and Chris said...

That was a very harsh thing to say....if there was a formula then surely everyone would be doing it??

I think getting two stories published is fantastic. Your friend needs some educating...

C x

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

Very interesting, particularly as I have spent the week researching the possibility of doing this myself.

I've bought a ton of women's mags this week (well, eight) and have been reading all the short stories. The first one I read filled me with despair. It was cliched, unimaginative, trite, badly written. I'm sorry, but it really was. How on earth can I write something like this, I thought?

I already know that a common mistake made by writers is to read a publication and think, "I can do better than that," then rattle something off which of course is never published. The reason being that the editors know who their readers are and they know what fits their remit and they're not interested in anything else.

I also know that you normally have to enjoy reading the kind of stuff you're trying to write to have any chance of success. Hence my despair.

But then I carried on reading... and was drawn in... and across a whole range of women's magazines I found several stories I genuinely enjoyed. As you say, they're not great literature and it's easy to be sniffy about them, but I've had fun trying to write some sample material. Compared to a novel, it's quick to write - just as it is quick to read. It fulfils a certain purpose, it makes people happy, and as long as you don't have any great pretensions about it - which you don't - then it's all good.

But I would say this: It is a valid criticism to say that a lot of the fiction in women's mags is, um, unfulfilling to a particular kind of discerning reader. Just as you (Queenie) find a lot of TV and other popular culture to be unsatisfying. So you're going to have to toughen up and accept / expect this reaction again, several times over, and from other people you love. Sorry, but I'm just being realistic.

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

PS Wot Carol and Chris said! It isn't easy to get these things published, it is a talent, and I'm fully expecting to get several rejections and potentially no successes at all.

Bernadette said...

Well done on containing yourself - though I'm not sure I would have done the same! A writing tutor on a course I attended had much the same attitude when I mentioned womag stories: 'Formulaic, I expect,' he said. 'Not really, no,' I replied and left it at that, but at least I felt I'd done something to redress the imbalance of opinion.
How much of what is published IS great literature anyway? Even amongst 'literary' fiction? And how many people want to read that? How many of the people who are sniffy about womag writing would quite happily read a chick-lit/romance/crime or other genre novel and not judge in the same way, 'discerning reader' or not?
If people don't like womag stories then they shouldn't read them (and certainly shouldn't try to write them!) but there is no need for them to judge or undermine those who do either.

Karen said...

I've had a comment like that levelled at me before and it does make me cross.

So does the assumption that short stories for women's magazines are easy to write and that the women who read them aren't discerning.

Grrrr. I think I'd better go and have a lie-down.

HelenMHunt said...

I must say it doesn't feel formulaic when you're sweating blood over it! As with all these things, it's easy to be dismissive if you haven't done it. Those of us who have, know how much work goes into it and how bloomin' hard it is to get anything accepted.

Queenie said...

Lane: I think it must have been a good hormonal day, I might have had more trouble on a bad one!
Carol: awwww, thanks sweetie!
BS: no kind of fiction writing, or indeed of any other kind of entertainment, is going to please everyone. It's equally likely IMO that a womag reader would find a lot of the fiction in contemporary novel-writing to be unfulfilling or unsatisfying, and for me that is equally valid discernment.
Bernadette: Very good points. I would add that the average womag story has many more readers than the average literary novel, even those that make the Booker shortlist (which mostly sell under five figures, often under four - stats here if anyone's interested: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/oct/19/comment.comment - mag circulation figures are available on their websites but for example Take A Break has the biggest circulation at over 900,000, People's Friend and Woman's Weekly are both between 300,000 and 350,000 - the kind of readership figures most novelists would kill for).
Karen: I know... and sorry my crossness was contagious, I hope you're feeling better now!
Helen: absolutely. And it's not just the writing, is it? It's the research, and the submissions, and making sure you've got the house style right, and the resubmissions, and all the other time-consuming complicated stuff.

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

Fair enough, discerning was the wrong word.

I didn't mean to antagonise anyone. Like I said, I like reading them and I like writing them and it is neither easy nor formulaic. Also like any genre there are good and bad examples. I happen to have read the stuff you've written Queenie, and know it to be bloody good. Was just trying to be realistic is all.

PI said...

Yeah formulaic insomuch as you write what the reader wants to read. And first you have to really study the readers of the particular magazine so you know them so well you know what toothpaste they use.
Sadly there is bitchiness and envy amongst writers and the higher up the echelon the worse it gets. Much more so than in the theatre.
I'm happy to say the writers I have met through blogging have mostly been encouraging and helpful.

Queenie said...

BS: fair enough back atcha!
PI: quite. Interesting to know it's worse than the theatre... if slightly scary.

Tam said...

I'm really sorry you had to endure this treatment, Queenie, and loved your points about the Man Booker shortlist. The bottom line is that you cannot please all of the people and shouldn't try. Celebrate your successes and stuff those who don't appreciate them :-)

Shane said...

...But you have worked out the formula for graceful subject-changing, though - no bad thing.

Queenie said...

Tam: you are so right!
Shane: I'm not so sure about the 'graceful' part, but yes, I can do the subject-changing, and it's very useful at times.

womagwriter said...

Anyone who says womag stories are formulaic clearly hasn't read enough of them. Why do people think they are an expert on something they know nothing about? Those kind of comments just show off their ignorance.

I've had comments like those as well. One good friend wanted me to assure her I would only submit my work to glossy magazines, as I was too good for anything else.

Leigh said...

Your stories are just fabby, love. And you've sold more than I have, so you're doing fine.
x

Queenie said...

Womag, so it's not just me then!
Leigh, I've only sold more than you because I got my act together with the submissions sooner. I know exactly how fabby YOUR stories are, and I would not be willing to bet any money on selling more than you if we equalised the number of submissions. So there!