Saw Dame Edna Everage on the One
Show the other night. Oh my goodness – stirred a strange sensation in my stomach!
Once upon a time I interviewed “her” while working as a BBC TV presenter. What an experience. Technically I was
the one doing the interview but dear Edna had done her research and seemed to know as much about me as I did about “her”.
By the time she was asking after my family and home life in alarming detail, there was real sweat on my brow. Where would this go next? How MUCH did she know about me. Beam me up!
If anyone reading this knows the glamorous Dame Edna, please be reassured that – cross my
gladioli - I am a big fan – but there is no question in any TV studio, who has the upper hand. Respect!
All of which points neatly to the subject I was planning to write about this week. Opening lines.
Throughout all my years as a journalist, whether interviewing a TV icon or someone “ordinary” with an
extraordinary story to share, I always wait for what I can only describe as “the moment”. It is that special awareness that you have hit upon the opening to your written feature or the sound clip for telly.
News coverage is very different, of course, because you are looking more simply for the strongest and most current line but with features and lifestyle writing or filming, it is that special hook you are after. The
unusual. The offbeat.
And you will guess now where I am going with this because it is precisely the same in fiction. We all know that openings – for both short stories and novels - need to engage immediately. To pull the reader right in. We are told this over and over but I wonder if we always listen quite in the way that we should.
It doesn’t mean, please note, that we should panic. Drive ourselves to writer’s block. Chances are there are a
million options for a first line so try one for size - aware that you can always change it ( and will probably want to). The crucial point is to recognise its importance but not to let that paralyse you.
For myself – when writing features, I admit to relaxing inwardly when I hit upon the“moment”. The ping in my brain as I clock my opening line – but I don’t allow that to distract me from the interview as a whole. I just have faith that the“moment” will come at some point. It may be at the beginning of the interview….or it may be the very reason the guest has to end the interview early – “sorry, just got to tend my competition marrow. Judging is Saturday…” Ping!
And if I were writing a feature right now on that interview with Dame Edna?
“I began to sweat when Dame Edna asked after my dog…..by name."
You get the drift…
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. )
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.
Pester power. Mmmmm
As parents, it’s hard – isn’t it? Especially at this time of year. I remember when my children were little, wanting on the one hand to meet their wish list for Christmas, but wanting also to teach them that too much pestering doesn’t pay.
And yet – the hypocrisy. I got my first job in journalism through pester power of a kind.
I remember so clearly sitting in the office of the first editor who took me on. I had written to him many times throughout my journalism course – enclosing cuttings and updates on my progress. Pestering? I preferred to call it enthusiasm. I saw the door as ajar because although there was no advertised vacancy for a trainee, he hadn’t said “go away”. So what did I have to lose?
At the end of my course he agreed to see me. I remember he opened a drawer, bulging with application letters from wannabe writers. Oh gawd...“And then, these are all yours….” So I had my own file! “ And I’m thinking that if you are half as persistent getting me stories, Teresa…”
He then asked me a tricky legal question – in effect, a contempt- of-court riddle. Thankfully I got it right (phew) – and that was that. Foot in the door.
So when people ask me about a career in journalism, I check the eyes for determination. Sorry - but it’s so very competitive these days that only those who are absolutely determined are going to succeed. It’s not enough to want it. You have almost to smell the “need” in the person. It’s the ones who are reading every paper they can find, watching every news channel and digging out their own stories. Their own tips. Their own contacts. The ones who are willing to put in the flying hours – and learn. They’re the ones that make me think – ah yes. You’ve got it. Good luck.
And I guess in fiction, it’s not so very different. From submitting my first short stories to pitching for an agent, I’ve always had to dig deep for determination (and to bounce back from the set-backs).
So my best tip for pitching? Stand out from the crowd. Keep it short and punchy. Perfect grammar and spelling obviously (she now checks blog nervously for mistakes!). Show enthusiasm and a willingness to learn and grow. Believe in yourself by all means but know the line.
When the answer is a “no” – there's no point trying to tell them they are wrong.
Just try somewhere else.
* Good luck and a very Happy Christmas!
Tap, tap, tap….ping. Tap, tap, tap…ping.
Oh but I cannot begin to describe the walk down memory lane it has stirred for me – the end credits, confirmed recently as the final British typewriter rolled off the production line.
On the basis of “use it or lose it” I make no case for complaint. Haven’t used a typewriter in years. Don’t even have one in my house (sadly). But the memories, folks.
When I first started in newspapers, I couldn’t believe the noise. It really was - tap, tap, tap… Ping. Tap, tap, tap… Ping. ALL DAY! Most of us had manual typewriters with the snazzy electric models reserved for the copytakers on headphones (taking dictation from reporters in the field).
Back then most newspaper journalists were pretty nifty on the ol' keys too. Classes in touch typing were a compulsory part of my pre-entry course in journalism and - thank heavens. Forget writer’s block. On a deadline, you need to get the words down fast.
We had to turn in several copies of each story and so the Kent Messenger newspaper group (where I trained) bought in huge rolls of multi-sheet paper with continuous carbon woven through. You just threaded the end of the giant roll into your typewriter and ripped the story off when you’d finished. One copy to your newseditor. One to the group newseditor and one onto your “spike” for reference. (Yes. Health and safety – you heard me. We had proper sharp spikes on our desk...)
It wasn’t until I transferred to Thames TV that the first computer system appeared in the 80s. It was called BASYS. How the yoof would roar. Big, chunky system which at the time we considered the bee’s knees. You should have seen me – tap, tapping at my giant computer, then rushing out with a HUGE shoulder pack to charge my not-so-mobile phone.
Then when I transferred to the BBC in 1990, there was a techno time-slip. To my horror they were still on typewriters in Plymouth so for a time it was back to hand -typed autocue with corrections by tippex (I kid you not).
All this personal history means I am genuinely staggered when other writers and authors say they write by hand. Pen and paper? Seriously? Having tap, tapped away my whole writing career – it just wouldn’t occur to me. Quite apart from anything else shorthand completely ruined my handwriting. Pitman New Era was also a compulsory part of my training (100 words per minute or you couldn’t get your Proficiency Certificate) and once I learned to notate that fast, I never had the patience with longhand. Sadly my handwriting, so lovingly nurtured through my schooling, paid a terrible price.
Now, of course, I am wedded to my laptop. Love the convenience. Love that I can store all my work on a tiny pen. Love that I can email an entire MS to my agent and love that I can so easily transfer material from one computer to another.
But for all the neatness and convenience of a computer manuscript, I still feel a sad pang at the thought of a typed one. The letters ever so slightly out of alignment. The slow fade as the ribbon wears down. And come to think of it, I realise now that I owe much of my discipline as a writer (ipso facto my tendency to get cracking first and edit later) to those early years as a journalist when it was so darn infuriating to make corrections.
Whenever new and aspiring writers ask me for advice, I always remember that lesson; that the most important thing is to get going. To trust your “voice” and to get the words down as they flow. Don’t make the mistake of talking too much about your writing, I say. Don’t overthink it, either.
I find this especially important when starting something new. A big mistake to spend hours and hours honing the first paragraph just because a computer makes it easy to do so. That’s just a recipe to lose confidence. I prefer to write a good chunk first. Honing is for later.
If it helps, pretend you are back there in the ol’ days with a typewriter which will leave a record of every single crossing out. The solution? Don’t cross everything out.
Write now. Today. Lots.
Let it flow.
(PS And by a timely coincidence, I now find myself assigned to the role of copy typist for my younger son who has trapped his hand in a door! Tap, tap, tap.....Are you sure they set this as homework??)
One of my most heartening moments as a writer in recent weeks was watching Ian Rankin on TV’s Imagine programme as he read feedback from his editor.
Ian, of course, is well past the traumatic stage of handling true rejection. But even with his block-busting track record, I still noted a familiar, slightly haunted look in his eyes when his editor told him ( evidently with some frankness ) that she didn’t like the way he had handled one of his characters in an early draft of his new book.
Oh, but it really hurts, doesn’t it? Whether you are just starting out, longing for that first deal, or a superstar on the bestseller lists it is difficult but yes, also heartening, to know that all writers suffer an attack of the doubts and the angst when the criticism rolls in. The big issue – and this I see more and more as the crucial bit - is what you decide to do next.
Ian – ever the pro – did absolutely the right thing. He allowed himself just a little bit of hurt and then he got back to work. He made changes. He took the criticism on the chin and eventually worked out what to do about it.
Not all criticism is going to be right, of course. There is, after all, so much that is subjective in literature. But when someone with long experience and good intentions gives advice, I firmly believe that writers, whatever the stage of their career, should think long and hard before they reject it.
Some writers tell me they worry that making too many changes in response to feedback means losing ownership of their work. For myself I disagree. Many years as a journalist has taught me that editorial discussion is nearly always fruitful. You do not have to accept all input, but it is both necessary and professional to at least weigh it all up. Editors and agents only advise, after all; they do not do the re-writes. We do. So of course the work is still ours.
I am lucky to have a very supportive agent - also I have worked with the editor of a major publisher who has been kind enough to guide and, dare I say, champion my “apprenticeship” in fiction. But for all that I respect them, very often I do not like their feedback on early drafts of my work. It can wound to know we have not got it right. But for myself, I have learned how best to handle this first response of both panic and hurt.
What I always do now is go for a long walk. The fresh air and the time allows me to move on from the panic to the next, more crucial stage of figuring out how the hell I am going to fix things.
My long-suffering husband has learned to watch this transition with a wry smile. It is not at all unusual for me to declare “the book just isn’t working” and “that’s it; I’ve had enough” as I set off on in a huff, only to return later all fired up with enthusiasm and new ideas about the changes I am going to make.
So my thanks to Ian Rankin and the Imagine team for reassuring all writers that no one is immune to this process of doubt and re-evaluation.
(And herograms to all the loved-ones whose lot it is to live with all the highs and the lows!)
So I wake up one morning and the elder son has transformed into a faun. Mr Tumnus to be precise.
I kid you not – he is sipping tea in the kitchen, bare-chested bar the red scarf with furry legs and the most extraordinary hair and ears.
In a household with two teenage boys, I should be used to these fanciful (for which read “fancy dress”) transformations yet they still take me unawares; picture, if you will, the same son as an inflatable turkey last Christmas.
It is not in the genes. Call me a spoil sport but for myself I am not so very keen on dressing up. During my first year as a presenter with the BBC I was kitted out in an outfit the weight of a small carpet to “play” Elizabeth 1 for Children in Need. This seemed all well and good and I was tickled pink when the rather grand costume arrived from BBC HQ with the name tag “Glenda Jackson” stitched inside suggesting she had worn it too – but the logistics proved more challenging than I had anticipated.
It poured with rain the night of the fundraiser (why is CIN not held in the summer?) and the dress took on a lot of water while I was being filmed outside. By the time I sat back down inside alongside a roaring fire, clouds of steam filled the set. The floor manager, bless him, thought it was dry ice. It wasn’t. It was the water from my dress evaporating …
But back to Mr Tumnus. The mother in me is worried on two fronts – first he is moulting faux fur everywhere and second I am concerned he will catch cold but I bite my tongue for on reflection if he has the confidence to go topless on the school bus at this time of year, who am I to spoil his fun?
All of which sets me thinking, as I return to my desk, about characterisation. What is it that brings our characters to life for our readers? Do they really need furry legs? Weird ears? Funny mannerisms?
If I have learnt anything from years of experimenting , it is that effective charactisation is all about all the C’s. The C-hallenge for me - to make my C-haracters – C-onvincing,C-ompelling…and to make the readers C-are.
Whether that requires the extremity of a bare chest and furry legs is at the author’s discretion. For myself I would quite simply recommend thieving.
Oh yes I know there are plenty of wonderful tips suggesting lists and detailed character portraits before you start writing. It’s good advice - but that’s not how I work.
After so many years in television, I tend to take quite a filmic approach to writing. Probably weird to others – but my characters simply come calling and I just live with them in my head for a while - then watch and wait.
The stealing is not something I do deliberately, of course. But I spend a lot of time people-watching and interesting things that I spot while I am out and about just tend to turn up in my characters down the line. I might watch a woman at the bus stop fidgeting with one of those shopping trolleys – rocking it to and fro. Annoying. And then some weeks or months later one of my characters will do the same thing.
I don’t steal whole people, of course. That would be actionable and wouldn’t be fiction but all observations go quite subconsciously into the big melting pot and I never know what is going to come out.
By the time I have come to know my characters well and placed them in a story, it genuinely feels as they are leading the way; as if I am reporting something real - something that has actually happened rather than something I have created.
Which, on reflection, I perhaps should not be owning up to... because it sounds just a little bit odd.
Though certainly no more odd than a faun, setting out bare-chested in this terrible cold, moulting fur all over my carpet.
I have just received a lovely email from the fiction editor of a magazine I write for – asking me for (brace yourselves/shock horror) “more short stories, please”.
Oh – how I smiled. Oh – how I shook my head in disbelief. Oh – how I share this here not to show off (promise) but to encourage those fed up with rejections to please keep going.
You will see from my writing life that I’ve always earned my living from words – initially newspaper journalism, then telly - so I have a workaday attitude. I don’t do “writer’s block” (try telling a newseditor that you’re not in the zone today) and I write with a professional expectation rather than a feint hope to be paid for my efforts.
But I always knew that stepping sideways into fiction a decade ago would be the biggest challenge in my writing life. And I wasn’t wrong.
I started with short stories for women’s magazines with not the foggiest idea how difficult and professionally demanding this sector can be.
I had what I hoped were two strong ideas and wrote them both up over a few weeks. Back then snailmail submissions were the only option so I sent the first story to a weekly magazine and waited. And waited. And waited.
Months later, having pretty much forgotten about the submission, I was thrilled to suddenly find an email confirming acceptance…and offering me money. My first payment for fiction. How exciting!
All fired up I sent my second story to another magazine. Same long wait. Same outcome. Acceptance. Cheque in the post.
This is too good to be true, I thought.
Famous last words, Teresa. I dashed off three more stories and hurried to the post, mentally spending my new income stream.
Many weeks passed and back came three rejections. The fiction editors were kind and encouraging – admiring my writing ( thank you) but explaining that the stories were on “well-worn” themes. Not sufficiently strong or original.
Wounded, I re-grouped and gave myself a good telling off.
Since then I have experimented extensively, learning much about what works and what doesn’t, what sells and what doesn’t and above all made a pledge never to dash anything off.
There are, of course, many different kinds of short stories.
For competitions and pure pleasure, I enjoy writing literary short stories – loving the freedom to experiment. But they are very hard to sell.
I am a professional, remember – writing as my living - so I am equally thrilled to have developed the skill of writing for women’s magazines – stories which are enjoyed by many thousands of readers worldwide. I am very grateful for the income and approach the sector with the enthusiasm and professionalism it merits.
There are myths to be dispelled here. Women’s magazines are not looking for soppy (or sloppy), sentimental stories. They are looking for original, well-written pieces which their readers will find entertaining and uplifting.
They are looking for unusual themes and unusual treatments. (I feel coy doing any plug but see my story The Jam Jar with a hindered narrator in my collection Moments. This collection will hopefully entertain while also guiding you on what sells to the magazine market.
So - what are my tips? How have I reduced the rejections? I have learnt not to start writing until I have something to say.
It isn’t. For there is a big difference between being able to write….and having something to say. I like the quote which says a novel needs a plot and a short story needs a point.
I don’t mean it should preach. I don’t mean that every story needs a big, moral lesson. But there does need to be a strong undercurrent, tugging a reader just a little off balance.
For any story to succeed for me something needs to change - even if it’s just an opinion held by the main character.
So these days I do not even start a story until I have a strong feeling about its raison d’etre. Once I’m moved by something; once I feel that I have something to say – or a character who has popped into my head has something to say- that’s when I write.
And no surprise – those are the stories that sell.
So my tip is to wait for a really strong idea and to dig deep. When they say “write what you know” they do not mean write your story. They mean write about emotional landscape you understand.
Suffered terrible sibling rivalry as a child? Write about it. Not the facts of your experience – that’s not fiction – but the feelings.
Suffered loss? Write about it.
I cannot recommend highly enough the new website for the wonderful Bridport prize which does so much to champion the very best in literary short stories. Read their anthologies and learn. http://www.bridportprize.org.uk/
Above all – keep going. Good luck.
Oh, and pray excuse my indulgence while I smile to re-read that email. More short stories, please…
Two things set me thinking about backstory this week. First I read a neat little quote from literary agent Johnny Geller and second – I had a lovely, real-life treat involving my own TV backstory.
First to JG. I came across his blog pointing the finger very precisely at a mistake I made in my early fiction writing and one which I suspect is quite common among new authors. In it JG said :
“If you have too much back story, you do not have a novel. What you have is an explanation…”
Ouch. Oops. Hands up. Fell for that one early on. Sorry.
It made me smile as I sure wish I had read that years back to spare myself some apprenticeship time!
We all know that backstory is crucial. In real life it makes us who and what we are. In fiction it makes our stories and our characters convincing and intriguing. Great stories often have dark and mysterious secrets bubbling up from the past. But JG is right. Backstory becomes the baddy when it gets too big for its boots. Gets in the way.
For myself it took a while to learn how to handle the delicate balancing act between crucial narrative drive and the backstory necessary for the depth and the intrigue readers so love.
As JG says – too much backstory and you do not have a plot at all. Too little and there is a danger no one will care about your characters. Of course you could just throw it all up in the air and make the backstory the novel itself - think “Water for Elephants”. But then you will have to handle the backstory...to the backstory.
Sometimes I wonder why, as an avid reader, I did not spot all the essential tips and tricks that an author needs before I ever picked up a pen. But isn’t that precisely the problem? Clever authors do things that readers do not notice… Which is why we really do need to learn from our own mistakes (and the mistakes of others).
Below you will find links to the Johnny Geller piece and another with some very good tips on handling backstory.
But before I sign off, I must share the real-life smile which inspired this little blog. Years ago I presented a BBC news programme called Spotlight. Night after night I sat alongside co-presenter Russell Labey and weatherman Craig Rich ( see Telly Days). It was our role to present a calm exterior – often while all hell was breaking loose behind the scenes! We felt a tremendous bond doing that programme, had a lot of fun and amazingly despite the stress that telly can often involve, we never had a cross word.
We all have very different lives these days. I work as a writer, Russell is a busy theatre director and scriptwriter based in London and Craig is busily retired – travelling and sailing the world. But this week we were reunited for the first time in years for a lovely lunch in Plymouth. My goodness we had a lot to say.
This – my real-life back story offers none of the angst and drama that fiction requires. It would make a rubbish book – all smiles and warm glows. No conflict.
But it makes for a lovely life. So here’s to gripping backstory in our fiction….and to good friends and happy memories in our real lives.
Teresa Driscoll - journalist, author, mother of two and lover of great coffee.