Friday, 14 January 2011

Pocket novels - interview with Maggie Seed

This interview by Douglas McPherson, with My Weekly's pocket novel commissioning editor Maggie Seed, appeared originally in Writers' Forum a few months ago. Douglas kindly sent it to me to publish on this blog - many thanks!

Douglas is a regular contributor to Writers' Forum, and is also a women's magazine fiction writer, having sold several stories and serials and pocket novels to My Weekly. He's also just sold his first (of many, I hope!) story to Take A Break.

Douglas blogs at and has reproduced one of his MW serials on his blog. Go take a look for more tips!

A Little Romance

Maggie Seed is a woman looking for romance - and lots of it! As the commissioning editor of My Weekly Pocket Novels, Maggie buys 50 love stories a year, making the imprint a big market for romance writers.

The 30,000-word novellas, published at a rate of two a fortnight in a floppy A5 format, are the perfect stepping stone to longer fiction for writers who have cut their teeth on short stories for women’s magazines.

They’re also a good starting point for writers aiming to move on to other publishers in the field, such as Mills & Boon.

The competition is healthy. Some regular authors churn out four or five Pocket Novels a year and Maggie receives between five and ten unsolicited manuscripts per week.

But she says, “I always like publishing new writers,” - as I can attest to, having had two Pocket Novels accepted on my first attempt!

Within the realms of romance, Pocket Novels offer authors a lot of freedom. Settings can be modern or historical, home or abroad. Plots can revolve around work, parents, children, a crime or mystery, or even supernatural themes for Halloween.

“If it’s a good story, I won’t say no to anything,” says Maggie.

The main criteria for success is that authors create characters the reader can identify with, laugh and cry with. The story should take the reader through the gamut of emotions.

Above all, because Pocket Novels are a quick read, designed to be consumed in a couple of hours, they should be shameless page-turners.

“You’ve got to be able to make people not be able to stop reading,” says Maggie. “You have to make it so thrilling that at the end of every chapter, you have to read the next one to see what happens.

“With just 30,000 words in which to tell the story, there’s no room for loads of description or extraneous stuff. There isn’t much time to set the scene, introduce your characters and get the story going - it has to get going straight away, and you have to make it interesting straight away. Then you’ve got to get from A-Z at a nice brisk pace.”

Characters and dialogue are the most important elements, says Maggie, with plot and setting in third and fourth place.

Her reasoning is if you’re swept up in the emotional drama you won’t notice that the situation may be improbable. Whereas, “When something stops me liking the characters, then it makes me notice the plot and other details, and that’s when stories can get rejected.”

Heroines can be any age, but are typically in their 20s. The guidelines, available on request, say they should be ‘compassionate and morally sound.’

“We don’t want any criminal activity from our heroines,” Maggie elaborates. “But, generally speaking, they’re interesting; they have a lot to say for themselves. They’ve got strong principles and they take action to change their lives.”

As for the heroes...

“I like them to be handsome and sexy. You’ve got to fancy the man!

“In historical dramas, I quite like it if the hero is tormented in some way, so the heroine can save him from his mental anguish. We had one where his house burned down with his wife and child in it. I quite liked having the heroine coming along and saving him from himself.

“But there’s a fine line between making them moody and broody but at the same time appealing. I don’t like cross and grumpy characters.

“There’s a similar fine line between making heroines feisty and tough without being annoying.”

A particular dislike of Maggie’s is having the characters clash too much before they fall for each other.

“There has to be drama and complications to sustain the story - a mystery to solve, a dilemma to resolve or something to keep the characters apart.

“But some writers are so busy creating drama between the characters that they forget that if they’re shooting sparks off each other they may come over as not very nice. You have to like the main characters.”

The preferred way to get characters across is through dialogue.

“I like them to be revealed through conversation and interaction, rather than loads of description telling you what they’re thinking... or what the reader should be thinking.

“I like to find out who the characters are by what they say and do... and I like to decide for myself what to think.”

Whether modern or historical, Maggie feels there are some essential ingredients to any romance.
“You have to have a moment of tension when the characters suddenly realise they are interested in each other, and another moment when they think they might lose the other person. That feeling of Oh God, I’ve blown it now. I like to torture my characters by making sure they go through the tension of thinking they’re going to lose the person they love.”

Other key scenes are the second-chance moment when the heroine realises happiness can be hers and, of course, the climatic big kiss.

The no nos are violence, swearing and explicit sex. The characters are allowed sex lives and it doesn’t have to happen entirely off stage, but the rule is “Passion not pornography. It’s definitely a case of less is more. I don’t want anything that makes me feel queasy.”

Above all, Maggie stresses that a Pocket Novel should be escapist fun.

“I like the writers to think up nice things for the heroine to do. I like them to have adventures and enjoy themselves. It shouldn’t be all angst.

“Sometimes I tell writers something is too gritty and realistic and they get a bit cross with me and say, ‘That’s what it’s like in real life.’ But real life is the last thing I’m interested in. I don’t care if people were being tortured and murdered in the 18th century, I’m not having it in my novels, no matter how true to life it is.”

Instead, Maggie likes her heroines to have plenty of delicious food, clothes and shoes to die for - and good weather to boot.

“In the summer, I like summery stories. But then, in the winter, I like the escapism of stories set in hot climates: Italy, South America. I don‘t like it when it‘s raining all the time.”

If elderly parents or other older people are to enter the story, they should be feisty and independent rather than decrepit and burdensome.

“I’d like to think our older readers are busy, active people. So I prefer older people to be away on a cruise instead of losing their marbles or vegetating in an old folk’s home.”

Maggie says she’d currently like to receive more contemporary stories: “Modern heroines with modern dilemmas.”

Her pet hates include road rage and car accidents as plot devices to introduce the characters, while a recent influx of stories involving murder mysteries and people renovating old houses means, “I don’t really want anymore of those at the moment.”

Because of the number of Pocket Novels published each year, Maggie asks authors to be patient, as it can take several months to reply to a submission. (My own Pocket Novel was submitted in January and accepted in August for publication at Christmas).

The one-off fee is modest, but Maggie buys only the First Cheap Paperback Rights, leaving copyright with the author to sell again elsewhere. Many Pocket Novels go on to be republished by large print publishers.

In many cases, Maggie suggests revisions to manuscripts that are “not quite there,” and may steer an author through a couple of re-writes. Endings are a frequent problem, with the story cut off too abruptly: “It’s as if they got tired of it and just finished, when I felt there was more to come.”

Whatever you write, Maggie assures would-be Pocket Novelists that their manuscript will get a warm reception.

Like the romantic she is, Maggie says, “I do love all my writers. I appreciate them writing me lovely stories and always try to reply nicely and be encouraging.”

Maggie loves...

- Kisses
- Tortured heroes
- Knights in shining armour
- Fun and adventure
- Nice clothes and shoes
- Cake and chocolate
- Spunky old people
- Brave aunties
- Interesting children

Maggie hates...

- Sleazy sex
- Dull men
- Prissy heroines
- Pedigree dogs
- People on diets
- Annoying children
- People nearly getting run over
- Road rage
- Forced marriage to sexy men
- Constant rain

The opening of Douglas’ Pocket Novel:


Chapter One

The Ryman Auditorium - the original home of the Grand Ole Opry. They called it the mother church of country music and back in the 30s it had indeed been a church.

Standing on the edge of the surprisingly narrow sidewalk outside the front doors, Cindy Coin tilted her head back as far as it would go. Three tiers of arched windows and a decorative balcony led her eyes up the dark brown brickwork to a sharp triangle of pitched roof that scratched the grey-blue Nashville sky.

The enormity of the building was dizzying and so was the sense of history. Early on a chilly Tuesday morning there was barely a soul on the street, but over the past century what country singer from Johnny Cash to Tammy Wynette hadn’t stood where she stood now, paying their respects before the altar of country music, before walking around the corner to the stage door? How many millions of fans had worn those smooth dips in the pale grey steps as they swarmed inside to witness the concerts broadcast live on radio station WSM every Saturday night?

Nothing was more overwhelming to Cindy than the fact that she was finally standing here, the stub of a train ticket from Alabama still screwed up in her raincoat pocket, a suitcase in one hand and a guitar case in the other.

A man’s voice, low and friendly, spoke just behind her: “Y’all just got into town?”

Distracted from her reverie, Cindy took a step back. Her heel missed the kerb and she fell backwards into the arms of the most handsome man she’d ever met.

Douglas’ Tips

- Read some Pocket Novels to get a feel for them before you begin.

- Create an interesting setting, but stay focused on the romance.

- Don’t try to write to a formula. Write the story you want to write.

- Give it some sparkle and glitter, and keep things upbeat. Go for the feel-good factor.


Pocket novels should be around 30,000 words and no more than 32,000 wds.

Submit synopsis and first three chapters by email to:

Postal submissions* may be sent to:

My Weekly Pocket Novels
DC Thomson & Co
80 Kingsway East
Dundee DD4 8SL

*If accepted, the final MSS must be sent electronically.


Jarmara Falconer said...

thank you for sharing this with us.

Quillers said...

Thank you, womag and Douglas. I've linked to this from my blog and will be adding it to my Pocket Novels page.

Old Kitty said...

Where's the rest of the story?!?! LOL!! Now I want to read this pocket novel!! Wonderful - thank you for the excerpt and the fab article - makes me want to search out my very old M&B copies I used to devour as a teenager!!

Take care

CarolB said...

More inspiration to encourage us to write a pocket novel.
Thanks to Douglas for sharing this.

Evelyn said...

I found this very useful when I read it in Writers' Forum, and it's handy to have it here for almost instant reference, thanks.

Teresa Morgan said...

Yes, thank you, too. Very useful and might give me some inspiration.