Saturday, 13 February 2016

A STORY TOLD, A STORY SOLD

What a difference that first story sale can make

 

There are lots of us out here in ‘womag’ land (that’s women’s magazines, for those who don’t know), who are regularly sending off our short stories, with varying degrees of success. After spending many hours, days, sometimes weeks, working on a story, all we really want is to see our work in print and to know that others are reading and enjoying it, but that means finding an editor who likes our story enough to buy it. It’s the only true indicator that we have been recognised as professional writers whose work is worthy of publication - and payment. And what a magic moment achieving that first sale is!
I can still remember how I felt when I received my very first acceptance letter. It was way back in 1997 and the story was called ‘The Real Father Christmas’, about a family feud and how a young boy’s belief in Santa helped to heal it. It was bought by Woman’s Weekly and, along with a lovely little illustration by someone called Katrina Lewis, who I had never met, it filled just one page, yet I was paid the grand sum of £230 for it. For me, this was the turning point in my fledgling writing career. I had won first prize in a national writing competition three years before, and had sent two previous stories to Woman’s Weekly, neither of which was quite right for them, so to get a yes at only the third attempt was pretty exciting. There would be no stopping me now!
In fact, many rejections followed, but the occasional successes kept me going, and after three more (longer) stories in Woman’s Weekly, I managed to break through into other magazines too, with stories appearing in My Weekly, The Weekly News and The People’s Friend, who all paid less but gave me a home for those stories I knew weren’t quite written to Woman’s Weekly’s style. In all, I have now sold more than 120 short stories to UK women’s magazines, and it’s still a thrill to open up a copy and find out how each illustrator has tackled my story and characters, who often look nothing like the way I have imagined them! I’ve even had a couple of ‘fan’ letters from readers who have found something in my stories that’s resonated with what’s going on in their own lives – a great compliment to any author.
In recent years, my writing ambitions have spread and grown, largely down to the confidence and experience my short story successes have given me. Even getting used to the inevitable rejections and deciding not to be put off by them is a valuable lesson in the life of any writer. I have now written hundreds of articles and book reviews, a non-fiction book about solving cryptic crosswords, and several as-yet-unpublished novels, but short stories remains my first love and I can’t imagine a time when I will ever stop writing them. 
 

So, how do other womag writers look back on their first short story success? Was it a pivotal moment for them too, and what has happened since? I asked some of the UK’s most prolific and popular short story writers to tell me the story of their first womag sale.
 
Here’s what romantic novelist Natalie Kleinman has to say:  
 
In May 2012 I sold my first short story to Hjemmet, in Norway, some sixteen months after I first began submitting. I hadn’t appreciated until then what the time frame was, but I was obviously determined to succeed. I had in the meantime been shortlisted in competitions but this was my first sale and I can still remember how good it felt. That, and the £220 they paid me for it. The story was about a play on names where, should the hero and heroine marry (as of course they did) she would have a first name and surname that were in complete contrast to each other. Sounds weird, I know, but it worked and they do say love conquers all. 
My next sale, in October of the same year, was to The People’s Friend, and brought me the princely sum of £75, though I did go on to sell several stories to them, and the fee does rise with the number of sales. All in all I sold thirty stories to magazines as well as having two published in anthologies. It was an amazing confidence builder and led me ultimately to trying my hand at novels and, although I do submit short stories from time to time, my focus is now on my books.

Next comes Leonora Francis, one of very few black writers regularly contributing fiction to women’s magazines, and certainly the most successful:

My first story was published in The People's Friend in 2011. It was a comical story about a granddaughter encouraging her granddad to give up smoking in exchange for her removing her navel ring.  Whilst I thought I had 'made it', my second story with them wasn't published until 2012. Since then I've had over 120 stories published in women's magazines. At first my rejection rate was painfully high, but I can't complain because I learnt something new from each rejection. I still have some of those stories sitting on my hard drive and they make me cringe!
 
The best lesson I learnt during the entire writing process, for me at least, is to write what you want to write, instead of what you think the magazines want. It's the best way to find your natural voice. Once you've found your voice it makes writing specifically for magazines easier. I receive far fewer rejections than I used to - but I still get them!

I now concentrate more on serial writing and have written 6 serials for Woman's Weekly. I am currently writing one for The People's Friend. I believe the short story form is a good way of learning how to write. Many short story writers have gone on to write very successful novels.


It’s still quite rare to see a man writing for the womag market, but here’s Simon Whaley, who has had huge success with his non-fiction articles and books, talking about his own early ventures into the world of the short story:

My first womag story was published on 5th February 2004. I called it ‘Jungle Jane’, and it appeared in the weekly edition of Take A Break, for which I was paid £300 (they paid £400 for each subsequent story they bought from me for the weekly mag).The story was inspired by my sister who’d been on a girlie weekend with her friends, living it rough on a survival course. It reminded me of those team building exercises you have to do when employers feel staff aren’t getting on with one another. There’s always one person who thinks they’re in charge at these events, and so this story was partly my revenge on those people.

Publication gave me the confidence to continue targeting the womag market, and ‘Jungle Jane’ was also my first success in the Australian mag, That’s Life. Since then, I’ve successfully sold stories to The People’s Friend, Ireland’s Own, Yours, The Weekly News and …  eventually, Woman’s Weekly Fiction Special (although that one did take me nine years to crack).

Not all men are quite so open about their gender when they first pop a toe into the womag water. Rob Nisbet was a student in one of my own creative writing classes (and very keen to make sure he met what he perceived to be the magazine’s requirements) when he made his first attempt. Rob explains:
I sent the story to People’s Friend, complete with Scottish names and a mention of a tartan blanket, thinking that might help - and I received my first rejection! I wasn’t disappointed though. I’d had a rejection letter - from a real magazine!
I reprinted the story and sent it to Woman’s Weekly and to my delight they accepted it.  In October 2006 I was paid £100 and ‘Jean’s Bread Pudding’ took up two pages in a national magazine. I bought several copies, and still have one nearly ten years later. I remember leaving one in the tea-room at work and being encouraged by the post-it-note comments that grew on the cover as it was read again and again.
I chose to submit this story under my wife’s name, with some vague idea that a woman author might be more acceptable to the intended readership.  Whether this helped or not I couldn’t say; I have used my own name in womags many times since then, purely to see my real name in print, but I still resort to becoming ‘Trixie’ if I feel a story is strongly from a woman’s point of view. 
I wrote as a hobby, but that first sale gave me a confidence boost and a focus. Magazines paid for stories that I would have written for fun! There have been many sales since that memorable first story. I’ve won a couple of national competitions, read in art galleries and fringe festivals, and recently had three audio stories recorded by Big Finish for their Doctor Who range. I’m still trying to get agents interested in a novel I’ve written for teens. I’ve had a few encouraging comments but all rejections so far.  But I know that just one acceptance can change everything!
 
 

And, last but not least, let’s hear from Wendy Clarke, one of The People’s Friend’s most popular fiction writers. Just wait until you read how many she has written and sold in only four years – a true success story if ever I heard one!

I started sending stories out to magazines at the beginning of 2012 – just a few at first to test the water. After nine story rejections, I had my first sale in July of that year. It was to Take a Break Fiction Feast and I was, of course, over the moon. The story was called ‘Try Saying Yes’ and was the story of a girl whose friend gave her the challenge of going through a whole day without saying no to anything. It was published in November 2012.
My next sale was to The People’s Friend in September of the same year. It was called ‘Dancing Queen’ and was the story of what happened when a ballroom dance class was double booked with a Zumba class (this was me writing about what I know as I’m a keen dancer). There followed several more sales to both of these magazines before I had my first sale to Woman’s Weekly in October 2012 – a story called ‘Too Much to Lose’ about a woman whose attempt to lose weight alienated her from her husband.
Totting up sales and rejections is difficult to do as a rejection to one magazine doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the road for a story. It might take several submissions before a sale. I’ve written around two hundred stories for magazines and, not counting those still ‘out there’, have around twenty that I haven’t sold (and probably never will as they were early ones and not very good!) At the time of writing I’ve sold 160 stories.
Although I still write for the other magazines, I now mainly write for The People’s Friend and have also written two serials for them. They don’t pay as well as the other magazines but I have a great relationship with them and know that they will take most of what I write. A huge plus is that when you start writing regularly for them you are assigned an editor to work with – I love working with mine.
Writing for magazines has been hugely beneficial to me. It’s been a way of learning my craft and without the short stories I would probably never have written my debut novel which I finished last year.

 
My thanks to all who agreed to share their ‘first sale’ stories with me. There are nowhere near as many women’s magazines publishing fiction these days as there were when I started out, but the ones that do are always in need of good stories, and most will welcome submissions from new unpublished writers. So, if you are still struggling to make your first sale, please don’t give up. Amongst all the hard work and perseverance, there’s still a lot of luck involved too. We all struck lucky… and so can you!
 
Viv


 

 

12 comments:

Pat Posner said...

Really enjoyed reading about other womag writers, Viv. Thanks to you and them for a great blog post.

Jackie Sayle said...

I really enjoyed this post. I was interested to read of other writers' experiences and the advice given is realistic but also very encouraging.

Viv said...

Thanks, Pat. All our stories are different but we all had the perseverence to keep at it. I always enjoy your stories in PF.

Viv said...

Glad you enjoyed it. There are so many successful womag writers. I would have liked to talk to them all!

Kate Blackadder said...

I always love to read about writers' experiences, thanks for this.

Beatrice Charles said...

Lovely to hear from such prolific writers.

Karen Clarke said...

Lovely article :) My first sale was to TaB and Norah McGrath phoned me in person. I nearly fell off my chair, and will never forget the thrill!

Viv said...

It is a great feeling, isn't it?

Viv said...

Thank you

Viv said...

My pleasure!

Maria said...

What an inspiring post Viv, many thanks for sharing. :-)

Viv said...

I enjoyed writing it! Thanks for reading it.