(Image: D McPherson)
Ah, the People's Friend, Woman's Weekly and My Weekly. You probably remember your mother reading them, and maybe your grandmother. They've all been on the newsstands for more than 100 years - the People's Friend for nearly a century and a half - and because they've been around so long you may have preconceived ideas about the sort of short stories they publish.
Wartime romances, perhaps. Tales of retired husbands getting under their wives' feet. Family dilemmas centred on old people's homes. The sort of fiction that sits nicely among the ads for slippers and stairlifts, maybe.
Well, you'll certainly find some stories like that. But since I started writing for the womags, as they are known by their regular contributors, I've found that as long as you stick within some core guidelines regarding values and taste, there's no limit to what a writer can write about within their pages.
A whodunnit on the film set of a Dr Who movie in the 1960s; a haunted circus in Paris; the swash-buckling tale of a highwaywoman; and a 1950s sci-fi pastiche set in small town America are just some of the stories I've sold. And with the women's weeklies collectively publishing dozens of stories every week, they provide a ready market for any aspiring fiction writer to get in print and earn decent fees while writing about whatever subjects turn them on.
Writing for the womags isn't an easy option, however. They have exacting standards. So if you fancy sending them some short stories, here are 5 tips to bear in mind.
1 - Write what you love
This is what will give your story its unique selling point. We all have subjects we're passionate about and, above all, know more about than the next writer, whether its a particular job, a hobby, favourite sport, fiction genre, or country that you've visited or lived in. Use that subject as your setting and not only will your story stand out among all the tales set in a park, office or kitchen, but your enthusiasm for the subject will shine through in your writing.
2 - Remember to tell a story
Although a great setting can sell a story - think of Murder On The Orient Express or The Railway Children - the thing to remember above all else is that a setting is not in itself a story. So while your atmospheric steam railway setting may initially catch an editor's eye, giving them a guided tour of the sidings, buffet car and footplate will leave them reaching for the next submission. You may want to show your reader all those things, and your story will be richer for it. But they must always be the backdrop for an involving plot.
3 - Introduce your heroine in the first line.
And yes, I said heroine. The women's weeklies are read by women and almost all their stories are told from a female viewpoint. Male leads aren't forbidden, but are used so seldom that you'll surely diminish your chances unless your story absolutely demands it. Give her a memorable name, suitable for her age and setting, that conveys a sense of her character. Stick to her viewpoint throughout the story. But don't stay in her head - express her thoughts through dialogue as much as possible. 'She said' makes livelier reading than 'she thought.'
4 - Give her a goal
A character striving to achieve a goal or overcome a problem is the engine of any story. It has to be something she desperately wants, so we can root for her, want to read on to see if she's successful, and share her satisfaction when she is. The goal should be established at the very beginning and achieved in the final lines for maximum impact. The goal should not be achieved too easily, and it's useful to have an apparent disaster shortly before the resolution, to keep us on the edge of our seats.
Vitally, the heroine must achieve success through her own efforts. Having the day saved by outside intervention or a stroke of luck is never satisfying.
5 - Stay focused
Short stories aren't just short in length, they usually focus on a short period of time - a moment of change. Get quickly into the story and avoid straying into extraneous subplots or themes. Keep the cast of characters to a bare minimum. In most shorts there's only room for two or three. Stick to one location, or at least one environment. Be sure you know the theme of your story and keep it front and centre. Cut and polish your manuscript within an inch of its life to make sure every word counts, and make the last line a stinger!
Douglas McPherson is the author of How To Write and Sell Fiction to Magazines.