Thursday, 31 March 2016

Short Stories and Going Back To My Roots

To those who have only known me in latter years, it probably seems that I’m all about the pocket novels. This is not entirely untrue. I’ve been writing them since 2008, when I penned The Secret of Helena’s Bay and tentatively sent it to Maggie Swinburne (nee Seed) at My Weekly Pocket Novels. I now have over 20 under my belt (not all published by DC Thomson, but all published by Ulverscroft in Large Print), and I have to say it’s my first love.

However, I started off writing short stories (actually I started writing fanfiction, but that’s for another day and is not about original work), and had some success in women’s magazines, with over 60 stories published. That took some time though, and I remember receiving 9 rejections in one day from one magazine. Ouch. I did okay, but never as well as my more talented story writing friends. I know I did much better when I was in the fantastic Story a Fortnight Group and learned so much from those talented friends. You can see our joint efforts in Tears and Laughter and Happy Ever After, the anthology we put together to show off some of the stories that did so well.

Then I decided to spread my wings and try pocket novels, which were 30k at the time. It was as if I’d found my niche. I not only loved writing them, but I turned out to be good at it. That first novel, The Secret of Helena’s Bay, was accepted and I’ve literally never looked back.

Not least, because I found it hard to switch from one discipline to the other, so the short story writing has suffered somewhat. And it’s fair to say, that despite my success with some short story sales, I’ve had far more success (around a 99% acceptance rate) with pocket novels. So it was natural that I stuck to what I thought I was good at. Especially when it pays the bills.

Over the past few months, life has been a little difficult. As well as health problems, there has been some personal family stuff going on that I can’t discuss on the blog. The writing that used to be an escape for me, has eluded me, mainly because my head is all over the place. I’ve been finding it hard to sit down and complete a novel, though I have lots of first, and sometimes second, chapters knocking around.

Then last week something wonderful happened. Maggie Swinburne telephoned me and asked if I fancied writing 7 interconnected stories for a My Weekly special. Once I had picked myself up off the floor, we thrashed the details out over the phone and I suggested an idea I’d had for a pocket novel that didn’t quite have enough to sustain a longer story.

For the first time in ages, I felt invigorated and excited about writing again. The ideas literally flowed from my fingertips and in a week I had all seven stories written and submitted (more of which later).

It all sounds pretty easy, right? Well as with all things, it wasn’t quite as simple as that. I have become used to writing on a larger canvas, so my first attempt at the opening story, which was to be 2000 words, ended up at around 2400 words. Eek! The first three paragraphs were me literally writing my way into the story, but did nothing to advance it. It told the reader lots of stuff (‘told’ being the operative word) they didn’t need to know but showed them nothing they did need to know. The story lacked focus and I wasn’t entirely sure how it should end. The idea was that I would write the first story and send it to Maggie, but I couldn’t work like that. I needed to write every story before I could say the first one was as I wanted it to be. By messing around with it, after I’d written the other six stories, I found my focus and my ending.

The next five stories had to be 700 words. The lowest word count I managed on the first draft was 749. One was nearly 900. By the final story, another 2000 worder, I must have caught on, as it actually fell 100 words below the limit on the first run.

Then there was the fact that whilst the stories were to be interconnected, they also had to stand alone, with a resolution of some kind at the end of each one. I’d never done anything like that before. I’d never even tried writing a serial for a magazine (that’s probably my next challenge…)  I used Love Actually as my inspiration, so that everyone was connected somehow, even if only in a fleeting way.

Surprisingly I had learned a lot from writing novels, including the ability to chop and change ruthlessly, which I’d never been very good at in the past. Whereas before, I’d have been afraid of moving one piece of the tower, in case it all fell down, now I find myself able to look at my work with a more subjective eye. So those first paragraphs were deleted with extreme prejudice, along with any unnecessary storylines. I also managed not to add too many characters, having learned that even in longer fiction, everyone has to earn their place in the story.

I did shed a tear. That was when I got to the very last story, and the big reveal I had been leading up to could be … well … revealed. I always take it as a good sign if I cry whilst writing (as opposed to crying when the writing is just not working), but I still knew my short story writing skills were rusty. Nevertheless, I polished the stories up and sent them off. I had to remind myself that it sometimes takes up to six months to hear about story submissions – whilst at the same time I kept refreshing my inbox, just in case... It had been so long since I’d written a short story, let alone sold one, I was in no way confident that they’d be accepted.

The good news came in a telephone call, just over a week after I’d been given the initial commission. Maggie loved the stories, and says her editor did too. So I will have 7 stories, under the umbrella title of The Little Shop of Lost and Found in the My Weekly Special which comes out on 30th June 2016.

When I first started writing, I used to dream that editors would ask me for my work, but soon realised that almost never happened unless you were a ‘big’ name, which I am definitely not. What I never dreamed was that I’d be invited to have 7 of my stories in one magazine, because such a thing didn’t seem possible. Yet somehow it is a dream come true.

It’s actually given me the short story writing bug again. As well as those stories, I’ve written two more. I sent one to another magazine and though I haven’t had an acceptance yet, I had a really lovely response from the editor who remembered me from when I used to send stuff to her all the time.

I won’t be giving up the pocket novels anytime soon. They’re still my first love. But it’s great to find I can still write short stories as more instant gratification.

What’s more, it’s got me over a bit of a dark time in my life, and that’s why I started writing in the first place. As an escape from the bad stuff.  


  1. That is excellent news, Sally.
    I'm sorry you've been having issues in other parts of your life but delighted that it has returned you to the short story world, if only for a while!

  2. Great news, Sally, that's brilliant. I'm pleased you've come through the dark patch, and hope all things lovely keep on happening. Can't wait to read your collection.

  3. How lovely to have rediscovered your love of writing short stories, Sally, though a shame it came about during some dark times. And congratulations on having your connected stories accepted for MW. I'll look forward to reading them. :o)

  4. What a lovely post Sally. I'm really looking forward to reading the serial and will make sure I don't miss the issue it's in. Glad you've found your enthusiasm again.

  5. Great news for you, Sally. I'm glad you found your love of writing again, it's horrible when it goes. I went to a Women's Weekly short story writing workshop recently run by Della Galton and found it very inspiring. Short stories are an art form all of their own and so satisfying when it works out. Looking forward to reading your stories in My Weekly. Carol

  6. That's wonderful news, Sally, congratulations.

    Glad you've found your writing spirit again- I know how health and family issues can knock the creativity about for a while.

  7. Really pleased for you, Sally. Wishing you lots more nice surprises and inspiration.
    Good wishes
    Kate Hogan


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