Thursday 19 October 2017

Interview with womag legend Clare Cooper

Clare Cooper's last guest post was so popular that I simply had to plead with her to come back. I'm delighted that she's not only agreed to an interview, but has offered to answer some of your questions too!

There's a new fiction editor at WW now and preferences and requirements vary from magazine to magazine, but I feel there are more similarities than differences between womag short stories. Do you agree?

Definitely. I think everyone wants to read stories that engage them and draw them in, stories with warmth and integrity, believable characters in believable situations that resonate with the reader. I know I do!

What do you think are the key ingredients to a good womag story?

Everything I have said in my comment above. Something to make you think, laugh and cry, to coin a cliché. The ones I remember most of the many thousands I read were those that made me cry and that struck a chord in some way.

How many stories did you receive at Woman's Weekly in an average week/month?

Impossible to say for sure. Several hundred maybe. It varied hugely; for instance, summer holidays and Christmas would see a slight dip in submissions.

And you were there for 29 years! I've done the maths and factoring in your holidays, that works out at... umm, LOTS. I'm guessing that, due to space constraints, you sometimes had to reject stories which didn't really have much wrong with them?

Holidays or not, the stories still had to be read! We would never return a story we liked enough to publish unless, for example, it was a Christmas or other seasonal story that had just missed the deadline, in which case we would ask them to resubmit it in good time the following year, if they still wanted to.

Another scenario would be if we had just bought/were about to publish a story on a similar theme. We would have to hang on to the new story for a very long time before we could use it, which would be unfair to the writer as they could try to sell it elsewhere first. Especially since, under the new Desknet payments system, stories can’t be paid for until they are assigned to a specific issue.

One of the reasons you gave for rejection was 'well-worn theme'. Which themes cropped up far too often?

Brace yourselves! Relationship break-ups, retirement, weddings, age-gap stories of both sexes, difficult stepchildren, school reunions where the narrator hopes/dreads bumping into someone they used to lust after, or the school bully (or both), or they turn out to have been the school bully themselves, lonely elderly people being befriended by their new neighbours’ cheeky young children, bringing them out of themselves and becoming their surrogate grandparent, blind date stories, or ones where the narrator’s partner was “stolen” by their best friend and they have a chance to make it up years later - or not! Evil mothers-in-law. Awkward daughters-in-law. “Surprise” anniversary parties. Affairs from both sides. Adopting rescue animals and ending up with the man/woman from the rescue centre, or the vet, or someone they meet while out dog-walking. Someone sorting through the contents of their loft, reflecting on the past, etc. People you thought were real but who turn out to be ghosts. Confirmed bachelors set in their ways being forced to look after someone’s pet or child and having a change of heart. Wives getting their own back on their miserable, mean husbands, to the point of murder sometimes (I would write in the margins: JUST LEAVE HIM)!!

These are the ones that spring immediately to mind but there are many more! Of course, there are no new themes under the sun, it’s how the writer tells the story that matters and we have used all of the above themes ourselves over the years.

What were the most common reasons for rejection?

The dreaded well-worn theme. In other words, no real surprises, which was another way of saying too predictable/guessable. Stories that seemed to be about more than one subject, disjointed and hard to follow. Stories that were, to put it bluntly, too soppy, twee or sentimental for our market or where the plot is too slight. Endings that tailed off in a limp, unsatisfactory manner. They are hard to do for a lot of people and we often tweaked them ourselves. Sometimes it was only a matter of adding a line or swapping the final two or three paras around to strengthen the whole thing. Ex WW Editor, Diane, hated endings which were, as she put it, “Wrapped up in a bow”. In other words, “And they all lived happily ever after.” Too neat, too cosy, too safe. So long as there was some hint of resolution, or hope on the horizon, that was usually enough. Never anything too hopeless, downbeat or miserable, though.

Another reason for rejection is “too far-fetched and unlikely”. Often, we would say this and then the writer would come back and say that it really did happen to them, or a friend of theirs.  My reply to that would be a true event doesn’t necessarily always make for a good, “proper” well-rounded story.  Sometimes we just have to accept that truth really is stranger than fiction and leave it at that!

Can you offer any tips to make sure a story grabs the editor's attention for the right reasons?

As with novels, you can usually tell from the opening sentence if a story is going to grab you or not. Certainly, by the end of the first para/page you will have some idea. We would always advise writers to study the magazine over several issues to get a feel for our tone and style. At the end of the day, though, you have to write in your own voice, as Fiction Editor Gaynor used to say. Read other people’s stories but use your own voice to tell yours.

Did you see any avoidable errors which resulted in stories not being accepted? 

Yes, a lot of people don’t realise that magazines have to work weeks and weeks ahead of the printed issue, so for Christmas stories it’s never too early, as I always used to say. By now, the Christmas and New Year stories will have been chosen and worked on for both Woman’s Weekly and the Fiction Special. Easter, Mothers Day, Valentines Day, etc - get them all in well before Christmas!!

No contact details and even, in some cases, no name or title on the story, let alone pages not numbered and words not counted used to drive us potty. Imagine the scenario: You have just printed out 30 or 40 stories which have been emailed to you and now you have to marry up story and writer, write their details on the copy, go back into the story to check the word count and write that and the page numbers down as well. A laborious and time-consuming job which happened far more often than it should have done!

However, for the unsoliciteds, our assistant Maureen kept a large file marked “No details” and it was sadly full of stories such as these. So those people who grumble that they have never heard back from a magazine should realise this could be the reason why!

Despite the frustrations involved, we would never outright reject a story just because it wasn’t presented correctly. That would be pointless. Or if the number of words wasn’t right for our needs. In that case, we would ask the writer to go back and either trim the story down to a one-page, or increase the wordage to a two-page, if the plot could take it. A comment I often heard was, “Do you read them all?” My response to that was always, “What on earth would be the point if we didn’t?” We needed the stories, simple as that. The only stories we rejected outright were the hand-written ones, as they were almost always impossible to read and, in any case, if accepted would have had to be either scanned and corrected or typed up by us.

Was there any 'magic' ingredient which would improve a story's chance of success?

There’s no magic ingredient, sadly. Just a well-written story that grabs the reader from the start. Presentation is important, of course, but the best presented story in the world won’t make it if it’s not well written or doesn’t hit the mark.

Sometimes contributor letters asked for particular styles or lengths of story. Was there anything which was generally in short supply?

While it could fluctuate at times, we always found the one-page stories to be the hardest to get right. To fit everything into just under a thousand words yet still have a fully-rounded story in there, with not-too-obvious a twist (or slight bend) is incredibly difficult to do.

Writing is hard. We know that. And on that cheerful note, I wish you all the very best of luck!

If you have writing related questions for Clare, please put them in the comments and she'll select some to answer. (Please use a name or nickname to help her with replies.)


carrie said...

Hi Claire, fascinating reading, thank you for your insight. I've, unfortunately, never hit the mark with WW and am not on the 'list'. However, I did send a Christmas story at the end of July and have never heard anything! I promise I put my name and contact details on it! ;) I was wondering if it's still likely to be sitting in a cupboard somewhere or disappeared into the Narnia world?! :D Or whether I should assume it is lost and keep it for next year? And do you think overall shorter stories stand a better chance? Thank you! Carrie

Unknown said...

Hi Clare, thanks for taking the time to pass on all your insider knowledge. Like Carrie above, I was never successful with WW and so I'm not on the list either, however a lot of the information you've given us will be handy when it comes to submitting to other mags. By the way, I did have a very nice letter from you a few years back saying that although my story was a well worn theme you did like my writing style. This was a huge confidence boost, so thanks for taking the time to write to me. Best wishes, Lisa x

Clare said...

Hi, Carrie. When we all left at the end of August, someone remaining in the office was going to return all the unread unsolicited manuscripts. Unfortunately, we/they had to put a temporary stop on these, to allow our successor, Danni, time to acclimatise herself and to read all the regular writers' submissions. I am sorry you have not heard back about your story. I will contact Danni for you and see if she can find out what has happened. I know she is only part-time, though, so please bear with her. Thank you for your patience!

I think that magazines such as WW find it easier to fit the shorter-length stories. These are the ones they use every week. When it comes to the Specials, however, the longer- length stories are always very welcome.

I hope this helps. Best wishes and good luck with your writing.

Clare said...

Hello, Lisa. Thank you for your comment. I'm so pleased my letter to you gave you a boost. That's really nice to know, thank you! Wishing you lots of success with your writing. Best wishes. X

carrie said...

Hi Claire, thank you so much for that, very kind of you. I quite understand how difficult things must have been for you all. Must admit I was kind of holding out hope for it!! lol
Do you think WW will open its doors to open submissions again in the near future? Sorry, I realise that is probably like asking how long is a piece of string! ;) Very best wishes to you too :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks Clare! Really useful stuff. I can't think of anything to ask that you haven't already covered!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this Clare and Patsy.

I've managed to think of a question.

How did WW feel about writers starting a sentence with the word 'So'? Apparently The People's Friend editors hate that.


Kitty said...

Hi, I did leave a comment earlier but it was on my smartphone so may not have worked!

Thanks for giving us this insight, Clare, it's so helpful. What I wanted to ask was what kind of attitude would you have taken to somebody who sent a story in for a second time - not because a rewrite had been requested but because they felt they'd addressed what might have been unsatisfactory in the first place? Would such a story have been considered and would you have preferred the writer to be upfront about it rather than just sending it back without saying anything? I'm asking because I've never actually dared do this - well, only once, with a different magazine, and then I OK'd it with the editor first before even changing anything because I could see instantly what needed doing.

Very interested to read about "so" in the question above! I'm always doing that and must drive the editors at TPF mad!

Clare said...

I'm afraid I don't know, Carrie! I do hope so. We found many new writers that way over the years.

Clare said...

Thank you TW!

Clare said...

Good question, JS. I know people who speak like that and also post on fb in that way. It's trendy, if a tad irritating. As to how it would work in a story, I guess it would depend on the context. You can but try. If the story is good enough, the editor would tweak it if they didn't like something. We often did this. Just don't use it too much. See what happens. Good luck!

Clare said...

Great question, Kitty. We never minded seeing stories again. It happened quite a lot, in fact. Without wishing to sound patronising in any way, it was a good exercise for the writer. The only thing I would say is to tell the editors you have tried your story with them before. If you don't do this, they may think they have read it already and reject it. When you think how many stories they must read, there is a strong possibility this could happen and you have to be as clear and upfront as you can. I hope this helps and good luck.

Clare said...

Carrie. I meant to add that it would be such a pity if they didn't but it's not down to me, I'm afraid! Thank you for your good wishes, too. X

Geraldine Ryan said...

The first story I sold to Woman's Weekly I think I rewrote three times. It was great encouragement for me and I learned so much about not sending off a story as soon as I'd finished it but letting it mature so that later I could make those little tweaks that turned a "No thanks" into a "Yes please".

Clare said...

Good advice, Geri! Thank you. I still remember some of your lovely stories, btw. I miss reading them! X

Lindsay said...

A really interesting post - one I will come back to. I never managed to get a story accepted by WW and my last was just before the change and so it was returned unread. (Thank goodness I'd remembered the contact details and SAE!) Hopefully I and other writers not on your list will be eligible to submit in future when the above advice will be noted!

Clare said...

Thank you, Lindsay. I do hope things will change for you and others. Best wishes and good luck!

Geraldine Ryan said...

Aaw, thanks Clare!

Jo said...

Thanks, Clare. Really interesting.

I'll make sure I come back to this when they open up again to new people (If they do - hope so) It might help with other magazines as well. They probably get the same types of stories as you used to.

Kitty said...

Thank you, Clare, that's very helpful.

Sherri said...

Lovely to hear from Clare again and thank you for all the information.

As for Carries' comment, I also had a story outstanding from before the changeover. I queried it with Danni and she said she hadn't seen it so it must have been a no. So I do think there are some that might have fallen through the cracks. It is worth chasing up and resubmitting if possible.

Clare said...

Thank you, Jo. Good luck!

Clare said...

Thank you, Bernadette. Oh dear, yes, do please chase anything up. Best wishes and good luck.

Helen B. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joanna said...

So lovely to read this. Thank you, Patsy and Clare.

My way of avoiding the well-worn theme, although of course I haven't always managed it, is to establish the characters first, then to discard the first ten story ideas that come to mind for them, however tempting they are.
And I would also say that a rejection due to a well-worn theme is very helpful because it reminds you what you need to avoid next time. The work isn't wasted because the characters could still live on in a different story. I learn more from the rejections than from the successes.

Clare said...

Thank you, Joanna. Some very helpful comments there! Best wishes.

Patsy said...

Thanks everyone for the interesting questions – and to Clare for not only answering all of mine in the interview, but for taking the time and trouble to check back and respond to all the additional ones. That's very much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this Patsy and Clare, most interesting.

Would you say 'voice' is very important for Woman's Weekly?I know that's hard to define, but when reading the magazine it often strikes me that a lot of the stories have a strong voice.

Lovely comment about stories moving you to tears.

And very interesting about things that really happened.

What a helpful list of well worn themes! Seems so obvious seeing it written down...Might cross a couple of ideas off my 'to be written' list now!


Rosemary Gemmell said...

Thanks so much for this insight, Clare. I was over the moon to have my first story published in WW this year and so sorry to see all the changes. Rosemary

Clare said...

Thank you for asking me back, Patsy. I have thoroughly enjoyed it. Always happy to do more! X

Clare said...

Thank you, Fran. Yes, voice is very important. Gaynor always mentioned this in her talks and workshops, etc. Have confidence in the way you tell your own particular story. By all means research the type of story that magazines are publishing but you have to find your own angle on a very limited range of themes, as Geri has said in this post. Variety is key and we wouldn't want all stories to sound the same. I hope this helps. Good luck!

Clare said...

Ah, thank you, Rosemary! So happy to have been your first! I wish you continued success with your writing. Best wishes.

Celia said...

Hi Clare, thank you for returning. Are you writing now yourself? If Danni is part time as you say, how on EARTH is she supposed to do the work of the four of you who left? Diane, you Gaynor and Maureen were such a team!
Miss you all,

Clare said...

Thank you, Celia. It's lovely to be back. I don't know the answer to that one! I think people just have to be a bit more patient with her. It's bound to be different now. Believe me, I miss you all too! Hugely. Best wishes. X

Sue Blackburn said...

Thank you so much Patsy. And Clare for taking the time and trouble to do this incredibly helpful post. What a reference point to return to again and again.
Hope things are going well for you Clare after all that has happened.
Thanks again x

Clare said...

Thank you for your kind comments, Sue. Best wishes and good luck with your writing.

Sue Blackburn said...

Aw thank you Clare x

debi o'neille said...

Clare and Patsy, I enjoyed this helpful article so much that I'll be passing it on to friends. And Patsy, I'm new to your blog, and as a new follower, I can already say your blog will be on my "read first" list. Thanks!

Patsy said...

Thanks to everyone who has commented since I last thanked everyone for their comments!

Clare said...

Thank you, Debi. I'm pleased you enjoyed it and I hope your friends do too. Wishing all of you good luck with your writing.

Ann Hodgkin said...

Hi Clare, I've only had a few stories in WW but I was beginning to feel I knew you! Thanks for all your input, and good luck n all you do. You had just accepted one of my stories and I've not yet heard from Danni when it will be published, but I guess patience is the key at the moment.
Ann Hodgkin

Clare said...

Hello, Ann. Good to hear from you! Thank you for saying that. Yes, I think Danni must be overwhelmed with stories. I'm sure you will hear from her soon. Best wishes and good luck! X