Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Serial writing by Penny Alexander part 1

Today's guest is Penny Alexander, who has kindly offered to give some very useful advice on writing serials for The People's Friend – although actually a lot of it applies to all types of womag writing. 

I simply couldn't resist talking Penny into splitting this up into a mini serial. Here's part 1, the rest will follow in a few days. (Comments in purple are me interrupting.)

 by Penny Alexander
part 1

Thank you, Patsy, for inviting me onto your blog!

Hello, I'm Penny Alexander and I write for The People's Friend.

The magazine already offers clear and helpful guidelines on their website (you can find them here). I've been writing fiction for them for only 20 years, while the magazine celebrated its 150th birthday last year. Still, I hope my thoughts will be useful.

Before anything, read the magazine! The Friend has a distinctive, traditional style. I'd suggest also taking note not only of the short stories but also of the non-fiction articles and advertisements. Do they indicate what kind of readers you may have? Keep them in mind, because without readers there would be no magazine. Hint: your readers are not all Ladies of a Certain Age... (This applies to all types of womag writing. Do make sure you're reading current issues, not some you found in the loft. Things change.)

MAKING A START... or, writing it all down isn't scary, really!

Now, with possibly more than one suitable storyline whirling in your head, I'd suggest pinning down a few ideas. Don't worry about the order. I invariably grab a pencil (a lovely, soft 2B for me, please) and start scribbling. At this stage, I also like to have a decent-sized box handy in which to keep notes, drawings, photos, maps, or to corral conkers and pebbles as, believe me, round things will roll and erasers will bounce away across the floor whenever you're not looking.

I also like to grab the largest empty cornflake packet I can lay my hands on. Cut along one edge, squash it flat and use for spidergrams, useful words, sticky notes, plots and plans. In between scribblings, it can be kept in view while propped sturdily on your desk. (Well, every writer has their eccentricity, and empty cardboard (serial?) packets are mine!) (That's terrible – I love it!)

The point is, at first I do not aim to write in sentences. I like to make my own notes, drawings (luckily no-one else sees them) and maps, and to collect relevant photos or objects. For me, a picture or a diagram is worth a thousand words as well as an inspiration if the narrative gets stuck later on. We all know that can happen!

Every writer has their own methods, of course. Some prefer not to invite chaos by spooling out lots of ideas at once, but instead will expand their story from one specific point. But however you write, I strongly suggest that if tackling a serial you make A Plan. This is because at The People's Friend your editor will want to see, and approve, a detailed outline before going ahead with the first episode. Each episode is accepted and paid for separately, so it's difficult to change afterwards. A clear idea of where your story will end and how your characters reach that destination is essential.

IF YOU'RE NOT SURE... you can take the shorts route.

Uncertain what kind of theme will suit? Then you couldn't do better than first submitting a short story. It's true, a serial will have more characters and more narrative threads, as well as a rather different pace or rhythm. (More on that later.) But there's no better way to find out if your ideas work for this market. Another bonus: even if at first unsuccessful, you might gain valuable feedback from a Friendly editor. Inwardly digest all advice, and remember your editor is wiser than you are about the magazine they work for. To coin a well-worn phrase (naturally, you'd never use such hackneyed words in your own highly polished submissions!) you have to be in it to win it.

If there's one thing writers have, it's persistence. So I'm sure you won't think of giving up!

Penny's serial, 'The Quest for The Dove Tree' is published by The People's Friend in seven parts from January 25th, and is the sequel to The Flower of Hope. Follow the adventures of Luke Hathern, a Victorian plant-hunter, and Caroline, his very practical and artistic wife, as they travel to the Far East in search of the Davidia Involucrata.

The photos are of a real Dove Tree, which helped inspire Penny's writing.


ados123 said...

Thanks for this Penny and Patsy. Can't wait for the next installment! :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I'd like to try writing a serial – if I get a good idea for it – but had no idea how to start. Will be interested to read the rest of the advice.

Anonymous said...

Informative and interesting - I seem to be stuck in a rut. I really should get back to the habit of jotting things on bits of paper, even silly things. I need ideas!

Maureen Brannigan said...

Great to see you here with serial Penny. I just told Ginny about it. Getting very few UK mags here now. I think the import tax is too much for the bookstores but will try to get my hands on it. It's just not the same reading from Kindle etc:-) ttys. mo xo

New girl on the block said...

Thanks, that was very interesting. I've never had a story accepted by PF, so that was a timely reminder to look at the articles and adverts as well as the stories. A lot of the adverts in particular do seem to be aimed at women 'of a certain age' though, don't you think?

Penny A said...

Alyson: thank you for reading!

Anon: please keep reading, and hope it's helpful.

Maureen: Hello from UK, my friend! You may be able to read it (in due course) on the PF website later.

New Girl: I agree the ads. and knitting patterns point that way... but recent articles on health and money matters might show there's a wider range of readers over all. (Even blokes, apparently :-) which is nice to know.)

Lynn Love said...

Hi Penny, this is a great article. I've been really lucky with the Friend and have had four serials and two short stories accepted by them in the last two and a bit years. And I totally agree with you re subject matter and tone. There is a huge misconception that the Friend is very twee - all marmalade recipes and happy ever after stories. But so far my stories have featured - a child drowning, arson, blackmail, poverty, racketeering, smuggling, attempted murder... Yes, they've all had a 'happy' ending and yes, you have to treat the subjects in a 'Friend' friendly manner. But I write darker mysteries and they've accepted 6 out of the 7 stories I've submitted so far - the rejection was for a Christmas story that was too twee for them! Looking forward to reading more from you, Penny

Penny A said...

Thank you, Lynn! Have enjoyed your stories too.