I am on a roll, short story wise, so I felt it would be a good time to share some more guidance for fellow writers and to offer a little giveaway. So today my collection of stories “Moments” is free for Kindle download.
Actually, between you and me (ssshh) this isn’t so very
generous really as I have already been paid for these stories. All bar one have been published in leading women’s magazines – mostly Women’s Weekly for whom I write regularly. I tell you this, not for head swelling- promise - but because quite a few writers ask me the secret to writing short stories which sell.
They also make the mistake of assuming that I write romance…which in fact I don’t.
What I explain is that you need to be very professional in your approach if you want to earn from short fiction. This means researching the markets and reading different magazines regularly to get to know their readership and their fiction preferences.
Those who want only to write literary stories, with no nod to markets, should of course look away now. You
can write without rules. As dark as you like (optimism entirely optional). The Bridport and all the other wonderful prizes and literary magazines are for you. I love a challenging literary story with the best of them. But I write for a
living and I have yet to meet a writer who earns very much from this sector.
So - many years ago I examined the women’s magazine market and began to see where my writing might fit in. I realised very quickly that romance was not for me. All respect to those who do it well; it just isn't my first choice as a writer. Very occasionally I will do a comic story with a nod to hearts and flowers but mostly I write challenging relationship stories and this is where you may be surprised.
The first story in my collection Moments is called The Jam Jar and I am incredibly proud that Woman’s Weekly ran it for it deals with a tough subject and not at all sentimentally. I chose a hindered narrator….and pushed the boundaries. All credit to Women’s Weekly . We had some very moving letters in response.
Because – here's the thing. Sure; women’s magazines want stories that will move readers. They want fiction to be ultimately uplifting. Hope needs to hang in there. But they also want range and good writing and they don’t want stories written to formula.
For myself I like writing relationship stories which explore what we learn from very difficult experiences. How tough stuff makes us grow.
But my memo to self is always to draw a firm line between strong emotional landscape and indulgent sentimentality. How?
I will give you an example from the television programme The Hours. Being a journalist ( 25 years in newspapers, magazines and TV news) I loved this series. There was a scene in the last one where an editor and foreign correspondent had been searching for their child – left behind in France for safety during the
war. Presumed adopted.
They followed some false trails, trying to find her and eventually discovered that she had died.
After confirming this terrible news, the male editor asked his former lover to leave the room. He began to tidy items on his desk. Straightening papers and staplers and the like. His former lover refused to leave. “You do what you need to do,” she said. His compulsive behaviour over the tidying became more and more extreme . Straightening. Tidying. Straightening. Tidying.
By the time his emotions finally exploded and he began to destroy the room, I was in bits.
For me portraying strong emotion in film and in literature is not about describing people weeping. It is about
describing what we all do to try desperately to hide what we are really feeling. The final story in my collection Dust is an example of this.
So. If you are looking to get into the commercial short story market – do have a look at my stories and let me know what you think. The Jam Jar is my personal favourite. There is just one in there which is clearly experimental (way too dark for the commercial sector). You will be able to guess which one easily.
The rest should help to illustrate that it is not only romance that leading magazines are looking for.
Happy writing. And just click on the MOMENTS book link opposite to download the collection. Or
click here FREE STORIES .
(And if you fancy a current story - my piece Balloons is in this week's Feb 19th Woman's Weekly. )
Sometimes in our literary lives we need to regroup.
I’ve been doing this with my agent this past week and it has been a bit like unbuttoning a shirt too tight at the neck. Ipso facto - a relief.
We have pulled the submission of a manuscript while I press the pause button a moment to ensure that I am targeting the right genre and that I am truly playing to my strengths.
This kind of regrouping is perhaps inevitable for a writer like myself who loves to experiment as a means of growth. Make no mistake –experimenting is good. But it can take you a little
off track now and again and I fear this may have happened just lately in my case.
No matter. No problem. I have just had a couple of short stories published (this week and last) so I have rewarded myself by stepping away from the desk to enjoy a week of pottering.
I have been scouring antique shops and bric and brac stalls for inspiration. I have filled my house with yellow which for some reason never fails to help me focus. And I have bought a new teacup and some beautiful new hearts to hang in my kitchen.
For however often we may need to press pause and whatever agonies we endure as writers over genre and
strengths and highs and lows, one thing for me is always crystal clear. If I am not writing from
the heart about the things in life that move me and truly matter to me then I am not doing my job.
It’s official. I’m a fantasist. Probably not such a bad thing, come to think of it, for a writer. But I still admit to surprise.
This particular “fantasy” is a timeslip story about how I found an agent . The truth is I signed with a literary agency a while back and have only been reminded recently of the whole query angst because a writer friend is currently pitching for representation herself.
So – I was trying to remember what my own query letter was like to try to offer some tips. Next I am undertaking a rare tidy of the office, ferreting through very old MS and papers and – Geronimo : I found my pitching letter…
Cue – double take.
In the years ( yes – years) since I was signed up, I have somehow managed to convince myself that I must have written the most amazing, original and quirky query letter – surely? At the time (heaven only knows how?) I struck lucky and had four agents interested.
My advice to my friend was going to be along the lines - oh, make it stand out. Make it really quirky and original and amazing. (Mine must have been? Wasn’t it? Can’t remember?)
My letter as it turns out was not so very off the wall at all. It was much shorter than I remember. Straight, punchy and direct. It kicked off with my writing experience ( yonks as a journalist and TV broadcaster) . It built up to the fact that I had wanted to write fiction since childhood and might actually commit murder if this did not come off for me…(OK. I made that last bit up. Told you I was a fantasist - but I did manage to sound passionate rather than desperate. Fine line. )
Then I wrote just one punchy par about the book and why I felt compelled to write it. And then I said – “judge me please by my work” and did the usual. Namely I added that “ I know where you live”…..No, No. No. Fib, fibbing again.
I attached three pars and a snazzy blurb.
So there we are. If you too are pitching for an agent just now, I can only speak from this one experience. Very unscientific. But in my case, it seemed to hit the spot to keep the query letter short, punchy and passionate.
I do also remember editing and re-editing those sample chapters until I could recite them in my sleep.
Some agents used to ask writers not to make multiple submissions but I think we need to be realistic here. You could very well die waiting for representation if you stick to single subs.
So I would recommend sending out three or four pitches at a time – but do your research and ensure you comply with the exact requirements of each agency. Most seem to accept email queries these days but do check latest guidance on their websites.
The little rider I should add here is getting an agent does not guarantee a book deal – especially in this changing marketplace. But it is lovely to have a vote of confidence – so here’s wishing you the very best of luck.
Teresa Driscoll - journalist, author, mother of two and lover of great coffee.