Like many wannabe writers I vacillate between spending my time on ‘serious’ literary writing, or on the fun and intensely pleasurable writing to be found between the pages of many women’s magazines. Apart from the obvious differences between the content of both approaches, there is also quite a difference in the parameters within which one must create the story. Hence there is invariably a definite and precise word count to which you must adhere if you hope to be published in a woman’s magazine. There are also certain expectations required by the editor and the reader, and these generally fall under the rubric of ‘feel good’ writing. While the story may end sadly, it is not supposed to be upsetting or disturbing. People read these stories for comfort, not to be altered at some deeply psychological level. Both of these requirements are challenging to say the least.
But do these specifications make ‘women’s’ stories less ‘worthy’ than their literary counterparts? I don’t think so. I personally like to write in many different genres, creative non-fiction being one of my very favourite, partly because it affords me a wonderful freedom of expression and structure. I am also making my first forays into the world of novel writing and am thoroughly enjoying the process. [I can almost see the more experienced authors out there shaking their heads at my complete ignorance and innocence…let me enjoy it for now, I know the bubble will burst soon enough!)
But to all of this I have to admit a particular fondness for the lovely gentle stories which I spent many happy afternoons reading as a teenager, rushing out to the local shop to pick up my mother’s copy of ‘Woman’s Weekly’ as soon as I came home from school. And now here I am nearly 40 years later writing stories for the same magazine, hoping that one day they may even publish one of my stories. I cannot begin to describe the warm fuzzy feeling such a thought produces in me. If reading these stories makes me feel good, then writing them just increases the happiness quotient! I may never be published. But it doesn’t matter, because even the simple act of attempting to write one of these stories helps me learn the elements and structures I require for my other kinds of writing. Hence I am learning about characterization, the absolute importance of plotting, how to write interesting sentences, and a whole host of other important aspects of the story writing process.
According to Jane Wenham-Jones, author of wannabe a writer? writing short stories is a wonderful way to learn the craft of writing fiction, and a perfect stepping stone to writing a longer work in the future. Of course, apart from where it may lead to, writing short stories is pleasurable in its own right. Still, it’s very reassuring to know that a lot of great novelists began by writing short stories before moving on to novels.
As part of my learning curve on how to write short stories, I have been reading lots and lots of them from a variety of women’s magazines, especially those to whom I hope to submit my work. But just as I read novels now with an eye to how the author structures her, or his, work, I read short stories as a writer who wishes to learn how to do it from the masters, or mistresses, of the genre. Apart from learning the type of stories each publication prefers, I am also enjoying a lot of pleasurable bedtime reading.
Always on the lookout for guidelines from veteran short story writers I was thrilled to come across these titles – How to Write and Sell Short Stories by Della Galton, and Jane Wenham-Jones in her informative and very entertaining book wannabe a writer?
What follows is a selection of some of their wonderful nuggets of useable and very relevant advice. These women know what they are talking about, and I for one, know that if I listen carefully to their suggestions then I can only improve my chances of success
So in no particular order the following is a list of recommendations gleaned from the two authors cited as well as from a selection of various blogs focused upon writing in this particular genre. See links below.
-Begin by choosing the magazine you plan to submit your stories to. Pick those you enjoy reading. Read them regularly in order to get a good feel for the type of stories each magazine publishes. Looking at the kinds of advertisements in the magazine will give you an idea of the age profile of many of its readers.
-Send for the guidelines, or check out the links below. Take note of the word count and tailor your story to fit within its limits. Every word counts in a short story. Therefore editing, revising and cutting are all absolutely essential. I save everything I cut or edit out in another file, never throwing anything away. However sometimes my filing ‘system’ leaves me a little flummoxed and I have been known to pull out a story, begin working on it, only to realize that there is a later, and inevitably better, version in a different file. Mmmm…..
-Include a covering letter with your story. Submit just one story at a time.
OK so much for the initial background work. Bearing these important considerations in mind, I went blog hopping again (always a fun pastime) and discovered lots of friendly advice on how to actually write the story.
-According to Jane Wenham-Jones short stories require two important elements – conflict and a moment of change. It doesn’t have to terribly dramatic; it might just be a tale of a change in point of view. But it must portray a shift in point of view or circumstance for the protagonist.
-Della Dalton places a huge emphasis on writing an attention grabbing opener, a hook that draws the reader in straight away (and hopefully the editor too before she reaches for that ubiquitous rejection letter). One way to throw the reader straight into the action is to start the piece with dialogue.
-Della also recommends handling your characters carefully. Introduce them slowly, but make sure to open the story with at least one. Back to the hook – place them in an intriguing situation which generates questions in your reader’s mind.
-Handle descriptive passages carefully too. Use them to create a setting which enhances the atmosphere you are trying to create. Avoid including too much description at the beginning.
-Sentences should differ in length and choice of beginning in order to generate interest. Vary the way you begin your sentences, starting with an adjective or adverb instead of a subject. Vary the length of your sentences also, juxtaposing short with longer. Remember too that short sentences increases tension, while longer sentences slows down the momentum.
-Every story needs a focus or theme. Decide before editing what exactly your focus is. Keep asking yourself this question, and periodically review what you have written checking to see if it indeed is fulfilling your own criteria.
Della Galton asks, and answers, the six million dollar question – how do I write good opening paragraphs? And the answer is both simple, and hard. The key is ….practice, practice, practice. She continues
“For me, opening paragraphs are so important that I often write them in isolation. I will set myself a timer and write a page or so of opening paragraphs. Writing opening paragraphs without worrying about how your story will progress is wonderfully liberating. I recommend it.”
But the opening paragraph doesn’t have to be written when you start writing your story. Sometimes it’s best to leave it until the end. The most important thing to remember is that your opening paragraph has to be good enough to keep your reader reading.
The middle of the story should develop the problem set up at the start. It should also fill in some details about how the character(s) got to this point, share a little of the back story, through a combination of narrative and dialogue.
According to Della the ending is the hardest part of the story for here you need to gather up all the threads set down so far and bring them to a satisfying conclusion. Furthermore a good ending is often refers back somehow to what happened in the beginning.
A final piece of advice – don’t send out a story that you know in your heart isn’t right or ready for submission.
According to Jane Wenham-Jones a short story works if it
“haunts you because in some small way it has spoken to you – whether by striking a chord, or sending a chill through your heart.”
Jane quotes Sue Thomas former fiction editor at Woman, who said that what she looked for was a story that would bring a “smile to your face and a lump to your throat”.
So there you have it, some timely and worthy pieces of advice from the women in the know. I know that I am going to keep on writing and keep on trying to have my stories published. Most of all I am going to keep on having fun. For in the end writing short stories for women’s magazines is fun. I often turn to it on the bleak days and as a practice it never fails to brighten my life. And that’s got to be good!
Here is a selection of my very favourite writing blogs from women who write short stories, amongst other things. Check them out.
Blogs and web sites well worth your while checking out:
Superb list of short story tutorials from author Sally Zigmond, as well as a wonderful blog. Highly recommended!:
Short story Tool Shed from Lydia Jones:
Guest post by Helene Hunt here
Womagwriter’s blog for guidelines to all the major UK women’s magazines
Sue Moorcroft, for herself and her listings of short story competitions
Teresa Ashby’s blog ‘A Likely Story’
Della Galton http://www.dellagalton.co.uk/