Reasons to be cheerful

orange geum
Geums make me smile

I was messing about on Facebook, as writers do, when I saw this link to an article in the Guardian. It summed up very nicely why I read what I read and why I try and write cheerfully.

In a nutshell, Victoria Coren Mitchell says there’s too much awfulness in current affairs at the moment and not enough sand to bury your head in. So she gives us lots of lovely things instead – pictures of Cornwall on a sunny day, the Queen parachuting into the Olympic Stadium and so on. Thank you, Victoria. Gold star for thoughtfulness. And taste (nice to see P G Wodehouse in there).

Too much awfulness is why I don’t read books about ‘real characters’ and ‘real life’. I get real life in the day job, thanks. I come home exhausted from other people’s real lives. Literature might be about deft character portrayal and the god-awfulness of their situations, but I don’t want that when I’m tucked up nice and warm under my duvet last thing at night. Most mornings I get that when the radio wakes me up anyway. It was a van mowing down a group of men outside a mosque in Finsbury Park today.

What I want is a bit of escapism, the thought that two people who love each other very much might live happily ever after, or that a dogged if flawed detective will catch the serial killer who’s been terrorising Barnsley. Is that too much to ask?

So how do you turn bad things into happy things on the page? Find the positive spin and use positive words. Use an antonym dictionary if you have to.

The first story I sold was about a man who was grieving for his only son. He hadn’t smiled or laughed for months. I sold this to The People’s Friend who are known for being upbeat.  So how did that work?

I counterbalanced Don, the main character, with the son’s girlfriend who was a ray of sunshine and who ultimately helped him to get over his grief by painting a beehive (it’s a long story). Everything about Sofie, the girlfriend, was uplifting, from the sun which ‘glittered in her hair’ in the first paragraph to her willing Don to say ‘yes’ right at the end.

It’s about finding a form of words and trying not to be too miserable: there’s enough misery about as it is.

happy cat
Happy cat

Inciting Incidents

what would incite you to get blood on your hands?
What would incite you to get blood on your hands?

There was a remarkable conjunction in bed this morning. It got my creative juices going, even put a smile on my face. Not easy to do at sun up on a curmudgeonly night owl.

First I was reading about inciting incidents in Christopher Vogler’s eminently readable book The Writer’s Journey. At the end of the chapter he asks you to think about inciting incidents in your own life. Easier said than done as you have to think of something you have achieved first. I was trying to do this when I got distracted by Twitter (it was something to do with checking when the shopping was being delivered: my mind has never been the most focused). Here was a tweet about crime-writing opportunities from tontines. It was sent by a finance journalist with a link to an article in The Economist.

Tontines? What the heck?

Surprisingly, it was a very interesting article. I read it out loud to my husband and it got our thoughts racing.

Tontines are (now illegal) schemes where a whole bunch of people pay in and the last man standing reaps the rewards. Obviously there is potential for skulduggery which has been exploited by many writers over the years including, apparently, Agatha Christie. But with increasing longevity and the resulting squeeze on pensions, there is talk of insurance schemes based on the same concept making a comeback.

Cue the inciting incident: what would make a scheme manager stoop to hiring a hit man to bump off a couple of scheme members in order to boost the profits?

Getting published is not an insurmountable hurdle

I was walking along the canal when I noticed a huge lock ahead. It canal lock gates

towered ten or fifteen feet above the calm basin before it and posed what must seem an impenetrable barrier to the casual skipper who knows nothing about navigating locks.

It struck me as a perfect metaphor for writers trying to get published. We get an idea. We write our story and everything for a while is plain sailing. Our family loves the story. Our friends love the story.  The members of our writing group (except the pedantic one who used to work in public services and is unhappy with anything that falls short of best Dickensian English) love it and are kind enough to correct punctuation errors for us, too. Surely it will be easy to find a publishing home?

But then we come up against magazine editors and agents and publishers. All of a sudden, while the water is calm, the lock gate is vast and the instructions are missing. Rejections come streaming in and your barge (or manuscript as it might be) is going nowhere.

I am happy to say I have been published. But I’ve been there, sitting in that canal basin, staring at a wall of wood, wondering what the magic word is to get the gate to open.

Dear reader, there is no magic word.

Writing is a job. To be good at it we must practice, we must train and we must focus. We must ask ourselves why we write and for whom we are writing.

Most amateur writers enjoy writing. But fiction writers often want to entertain someone, too. The editor of a magazine knows those ‘someones’ very well: he or she will only buy stories which his or her readers want. It is your job to write those stories. If you don’t, the lock gates will remain shut. It is as simple as that.

I say simple, but it is easier said than done. The point is you need to understand the concept if you are to succeed. When you get an idea for a story, think, ‘which market  am I writing this for?’ and write accordingly. That means knowing your market well.

I once sent to The People’s Friend a story about a photographer who was desperate to get a picture accepted for the village calendar. This is a magazine where I had previously found success and which tends towards heartwarming tales. The editor asked me to rewrite the ending where the protagonist misheard something his arch rival said because his hearing was starting to fail; it was felt their (older) readership might be sensitive on this subject. Similarly, a wise writer once told me if a magazine carries adverts for stair lifts don’t send them a story about a character who is injured by one – the editor won’t want to upset a major advertiser.

Cassandra’s Tips for getting your first short story published:

  • Target one publication at a time.
  • Get to know that publication well – read several issues to see what sorts of stories sell and how they are described by the editorial team (yes, that will probably mean spending money). And don’t forget those adverts. Are they all for vegetarian foods? Then I wouldn’t send in a story about a serial killer preying on vegetarians…
  • Get a copy of the author guidelines and follow them.  Check for changes to editorial staff and requirements regularly. For women’s fiction follow womagwriter’s blogs. At the moment, for example, Woman’s Weekly don’t want any more wedding stories but do want longer stories (2500-8000) for their fiction specials.
  • Write the best story you can aimed at that market. Do not underestimate the readership. If you find yourself reading your finished story and thinking ‘that’ll do’, it won’t. If you can see issues, the editor will, too. Sort them out before you send it.
  • If the publication you are targeting runs workshops, attend one.
  • If your first submission is rejected, try, try and try again. Don’t get downhearted. Take note of reasons for rejection if given.

Attribution for lock gate photo photo credit: Cycling Man Caen Locks, K&A Canal via photopin (license)

More famous couterparts and Carina’s first page critique

Well, this is a good start for a Cassandra trying to be cheerful. I spent a day or two reading how to build the right blog post. I learnt that it’s important to use your name in the URL and title and to make sure it looks good on mobile devices (because most people search on those now, not PCs apparently).

So, I’ve done that and I’ve checked how it displays on my phone. It looks great – clean and uncluttered. Then I made the mistake of ‘searching’ for it. The other Sue Cook, the famous one, has got a writing blog too. Will Google find mine, even when I type in really specific search terms like Cassandra, a name harking back to an old blog that I can’t shake off? Will it heck.

It’s enough to make a girl change her name.

Still, onward and upward and all that. No doubt clawing your way to the top of the Google pile is to do with metatags and SEOs and SERPS and other techie stuff I haven’t had time to address yet (for address read ‘understand’). Not sure I ever will, frankly. Money might have to change hands. Meanwhile, I’m desperate to get back to a bit of bodice ripping after a day trying to make sense of customisers and widgets.

But let’s talk about writing. I discovered today in Carina’s blog one of their famous but all too rare first page critiques. Excellent, thinks I. And I read the sample provided. Well, badly written first paragraph, which should have been broken up into oooooh, I don’t know, six, seven mini paras? And there were clumsy and gratuitous bits of physical description dropped in there, too. Do I really want to know how heavy her dog is? But paragraph two, Aha! That’s a bit more like it. Hints of a turbulent past. I’m ready to turn the page.

Let’s see what the editors made of  … Oh…

Sigh. Oh well, I really didn’t expect my first Carina submission to succeed. We’ll see what they made of it when it comes back. All feedback is good feedback.

No, really, it is.

Cheerful Kalmia from my garden. © Sue Cook 2017