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.