Today's guest is my writing friend and critique buddy S. Bee. She's kindly sharing the amount of work, rethinking and perseverance it sometimes takes to get a womag story accepted for publication.
Some writers can be precious about their work and refuse to change even a word, let alone the character's name or the main plot. I used to feel like that when I set out in 2010, trying to sell my work to the woman's magazine market. Over time, I changed my mind when I realised that in order to sell, I needed to adopt a more flexible approach.
This piece outlines my experience of how I re-drafted a story several times in order for it to be finally accepted.
I first wrote a story called 'Too Good to be True' around eight years ago. It was about a middle-aged hairdresser (Marion) who, on her day off at home, answered the door to an out of the blue caller – her twenty-something daughter's primary/ infant school friend, Lisa.
Marion hadn't seen Lisa for years, so hardly recognised her, but invited her in for a cuppa. Daughter Abbey was away on holiday. Over tea, Lisa spun Marion a story of woe. She was currently homeless and had been kicked out of a hostel because (apparently) they needed her room. She was unemployed, too. She asked if Marion would consider her as a live- in housekeeper.
Feeling sorry for her, and put on the spot, Marion said yes – but she came to regret her decision. Lisa didn't do any housework and played her music loud.
Mild-mannered Marion tried to confront Lisa, but nothing had changed. Lisa was taking her for a ride, with free food, shelter and bills. The loud music attracted a dishy male neighbour, Ken. He asks Marion out. They go on a date and work as a team, to come with options for Lisa. When they return to Marion's, they discover that Lisa has disappeared. As a parting gift, she's cleaned the house.
And that was the end of the story. Marion found romance and the 'Lisa situation' had solved itself!
I subbed it around the magazines, but it didn't get anywhere. For a start, social problems aren't very womag friendly. No-one wants to reads about hostels and unemployment.
Marion's daughter didn't appear anywhere in the story, either. Lisa was the connection to Abbey, so Abbey ought to have made an appearance. And why would Lisa change her ways, then suddenly disappear?
I still liked the idea of a ID fraudster taking advantage, so put the story aside until I felt ready to begin version 2, called 'The two Lisa's.' The basic plot was the same as before, but I'd dropped the dishy neighbour. Marion arrived home from work to find Lisa had disappeared again (leaving the house in a mess).
This time, Abbey rocked up early from her holiday, with yes, you've guessed it, her school pal, Lisa – she'd bumped into her at the airport. The real Lisa explained she knew Trina, who was also a childhood pal.
Trina had posed as Lisa, preying on the parents of her former school friends, in order to gain free lodgings and food. She found these friends online. It was around fifteen years since anyone had seen Lisa, so like Marion, the parents wouldn't recognise her – so she got away with it.
Lisa explained that Trina had probably run off to join a boyfriend in Paris, as this was her pattern of behaviour. Marion's head whirled (mine did too!) When Lisa left, they suspected them of being in cahoots. The last line was when Marion turned to Abbey and asked 'How do we know that was the real Lisa?'
Although I'd left the ending open, I was convinced it had a fantastic twist. With hopes high, I subbed it to suitable magazines again. Yet there was no joy. It was only with the distance of time that I could clearly see that the plot was too complicated.
It raised more questions than answers. If Trina and Lisa were partners in crime, what exactly did they get away with? Nothing was actually stolen. I didn't like the 'tracking down folk via a website' aspect, either. It was way too sinister. And as my womag writing critique friends said, certain parts of the plot just didn't ring true.
Why would Lisa / Trina go to all that trouble, just for the sake of grabbing 2 week's free nosh? If she had a fella in Paris, why wasn't she with him? And why would the real Lisa help Trina scrounge like this? What would she get out of it? It was also bit of a coincidence that she'd bumped into Abbey at the airport. Surely, if Lisa was a rip-off merchant, she'd want to avoid her?
I couldn't think of a way around it that was less complex. I was seriously struggling. So I asked myself, what was the important angle, for me, with this story? Well, I wanted to emphasise the 'never trust a stranger' idea.
When inspiration struck, I ditched the whole 'daughter's fake school friend' set-up. But passive, polite Marion needed someone on her side, so I kept Abbey.
Version number 3 was called 'The Doorstep Stranger.' It had never occurred to me to bring in her job – Marion was a hairdresser. But this time, I did.
The big question was – had Marion been conned by Linda, who called herself a market researcher? I'd try and keep the reader guessing whether Linda was genuine or not.
Abbey made an appearance at the half-way point, to listen to her to mum's reservations – and to confront Linda. I also cut down on the words to make it short and snappy, plus to suit the mag's length.
The new plot involved Marion discovering that Linda had stolen her jewellery whilst pretending to need the loo. Linda turned out to be the daughter of Marion's new work- mate. Marion had found this new recruit difficult, and had given her a telling off. So the newbie and her daughter had cooked up a revenge plot!
I was hugely relieved when in early 2022, Take a Break's Fiction Feast accepted it. So the moral of the story is - don't give up on a tale you have faith in, even if it requires the art of re-drafting!
Ah I love that, so useful. Thanks S.Bee and thanks Patsy for making this happen, I have quite a few stories that didn't make the cut and I'm never sure why, (I guess I could use a critique buddy from the world of womag writers!) so this is really interesting stuff. I must dig out some of my old stories and revisit them with fresh eyes especially as I am not doing much creative writing at the moment.
Thank you both for sharing this, its just what I need to read at the moment.
Thank you very much to you both. I enjoyed reading it very much indeed. Some really helpful advice from S.Bee.
That was really interesting, and very encouraging. It can be hard work to go back and edit again and again, but I like the idea that a good story is worth persevering with, even if it goes through many changes.
Well done on all that perseverance! I think we can only see the weaknesses in our stories by looking back at them over a distance of time. And this goes to show that it's always worth attempting a re-write, once we can see what elements in the story aren't working.
Thanks for sharing. Really interesting to read about the evolution of your story.
Really interesting article, and it just shows that perseverance pays off. Thank you S.Bee and Patsy.
I do much the same thing with some of mine, but even so it's easy to think other people's stories go right first time and that it's just who has to work at them.
I enjoyed this very interesting post - it's great to get an insight into how other writers approach a story, and how initial disappointment can later be turned into success.
Thank you for this - quite an insight in to the many hurdles that need ironing out (sorry about the mixed metaphors!). It does seem that leaving a gap between the doing and reading helps. There is, sometimes, also that light bulb moment - ah, that would work! (and sometimes there isn't!) A critique buddy must be helpful.
Quite an interesting post. I’ve had ideas, and even written stories, only to realise they’re just not working. The obvious signs for me are when I find a story particularly difficult to write or if it doesn’t ring true. I find that if you rest an idea for a while, it can reinvent itself into something else - usually for the better.
I've got an unrelated question. I hope somebody can help me please. I haven't submitted to Allas for ages, and have a story which I'd like to submit. I'm not sure whether I still have the correct contact details for the magazine. What's the name of the fiction editor and the email address for subbing, please? Many thanks.
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