First published in Writing Magazine August 2005
I have just sold a short story to a women’s magazine for the first time. I was absolutely thrilled when I got the letter. It’s more money than I have ever earned for my writing before and I was so looking forward to seeing my name in print in a national publication. I was excited by the thought of the illustration that might be used and was planning on buying about a dozen copies – it seemed like a dream come true. But I have been so disappointed by the reactions of others. While a couple of my friends are admiring, others seem to look down on “that sort” of story – especially, upsettingly, those who write themselves. The implication is either that it is not “proper” writing or that it is so easy anyone could do it. Will I never be taken seriously as a writer unless I have a novel published?
Elaine Archard — Torquay
Faced with these kinds of “friends”, even that would be no guarantee. Mills and Boon authors meet this sort of attitude constantly; “chick-lit” writers too. I was recently asked if I hadn’t thought about writing a “real” book by someone who cheerfully admitted they’d never read either of mine. Look at how disparaging people can be about Jeffrey Archer, Barbara Cartland or Barbara Taylor Bradford? (I wouldn’t mind having a fraction of their sales). This reaction to your success is ill-informed snobbery – no more, no less – and almost every magazine writer I know has experienced it. Analysed, it shows the most peculiar logic.
Surely as writers, our primary job is to entertain readers and you only have to look in the shops right now to see the commercial short story doing just that. The shelves are packed with “Summer Specials” – full of the short stories so popular that they are bought by millions. Isn’t the proof of the pudding, at least partly in the size of the readership? Who is anyone else to dismiss their choice of reading matter as somehow inferior?
I don’t know what is more galling really – to find that someone thinks you write garbage or that they believe they could write it too. I remember sitting next to a gynaecologist once, who, upon hearing I wrote magazine stories, said “Oh, that would be a good idea for my wife – she needs something to do”. Hmm, I thought, get her to run off one of your hysterectomies then!
The only answer to anyone who thinks writing magazine stories is “easy” is to suggest they have a go themselves. They would then find out how much imagination, discipline and editing skill it really requires. As Jenny Haddon, the chair of the Romantic Novelists Association, wisely pointed out: “Easy reading is hard writing.” And certainly Mills and Boon Romances are notoriously tricky to perfect. Jenny has published forty-three of them – under the pen name of Sophie Weston – and knows plenty about negative attitudes. She gets them “all the time”, she says. But her books have been translated into twenty-four languages and are sold all over the world. So she’s clearly doing something right and so – obviously – are you. Otherwise, the editor on a national publication, wouldn’t have bought your work.
Anything that involves writing in a genre, to a rigid word count, for a specific market, in a certain style and getting paid for it, whether it is a category romance, a short story, the verse inside a greetings card or the motto in a cracker, comes under the bracket of professional writing. There is nothing improper about it. It is a difficult thing to do, needing a variety of talents. Those that are very good at it get picked from the teetering pile of submissions that the fiction editors get every single day. And those that get picked should feel very pleased with themselves. For it is a highly competitive market and you have succeeded in cracking it. Congratulations! As for how you are viewed, think further than those of your immediate acquaintance.
Sue Moorcroft, who has had over a hundred magazine stories published, told me she began writing them purely so she would get a track record and be taken seriously by publishers. And it worked – her first novel has just been published by Transita and is selling well. But she now thoroughly enjoys writing for the magazine market and does not intend to stop. Good for her. Several great novelists started out the same way – Minette Walters leaps immediately to mind, as does Kate Atkinson. Acclaimed short-story writer and novelist, Fiona Curnow, speaks of it being “an excellent training ground.” Having to write to a word count, she says, “not only makes your prose sharp, but also shows publishers you’ve got a commercial head on you.” There will always be those whose literary pretensions will only be satisfied by winning the Booker Prize. So let them go and try. Personally, I see nothing wrong with writing that is widely accessible and I would rather be read by a wide and varied audience – as your story will be. Which is why you are quite right to be thrilled. I will leave you with the words of the best-selling novelist, Sarah Duncan, who says: “Nothing, not selling the novel, not getting an agent, not winning awards for my filmscript, has ever compared with the first sale to a magazine…”
So there you go. Be happy. Be proud. Go and celebrate selling your short story. Then, with a big smile for your detractors, write another one…