The first time I had a short story published I was ecstatic.
It didn’t pay a fortune but the real pleasure came from seeing my story appear in print with a glorious illustration to boot.
I wrote several short stories in the mid to late nineties for ‘My Weekly,’ – a long-established, women’s magazine that is still going strong today. Each time I had a story published, I felt that frisson of excitement that any writer gets from seeing one’s words in print.
I was delighted to find myself in the company of such celebrated writers as Catherine Cookson and always pleased to note that I was placed next to her in the contents list. If nothing else, my claim to fame could always be that I was published alongside Catherine Cookson. Having a surname beginning with ‘B’ meant that, alphabetically, our paths were bound to cross.
Most stories were bought as presented and very few changes made. There were the usual in-house edits to make them fit the page at times and the kind editor would add or remove an erroneous comma or typo. However, there were a couple of times when manuscripts were returned to me with requests for more major changes.
On one occasion, I was advised by my editor, Gladys, that a certain story might offend some readers. It was about a dog who had managed to eat a visitor’s dress ring. The description of how the ring had to be retrieved, in secret, need not appear here but you don’t need to be Einstein to guess how I might have told that scene. So, I had to have the dog bury the ring, still in its box, in a flowerbed instead. A much cleaner and far more tasteful scenario that would be more to the taste of my readers it seems.
In another tale, the main character was an elderly widow who was moving house. The story centred on the memories that surfaced as she said goodbye to her home for the last time and in doing so, revealed the answer to a puzzle that had had people guessing for years.
The character’s status might make my readers sad, I was told, so I must change it. The change meant that we now believed the husband to be either dead or missing throughout the entire story but were then delighted to find him waiting in the car. Did resurrecting him make a difference to the story? It changed it a little but it was a compromise I was happy to make. The story was published.
Perhaps Catherine Cookson had to compromise at times too?
I continued to write short stories in between working on my novels and producing a couple of monthly columns which inspired the blog I write today. ‘My Weekly’ published several more of my stories and I often wondered if my readers liked them or indeed, had any opinions about them at all.
Who were my readers? The magazine seemed to have a large circulation and a broad readership of women of all ages according to its guidelines. I knew my mother read it and of course she loved the fact that I was frequently featured. She still has those magazines in which my stories appeared, I believe. On the whole, I was writing for a group of unknowns – for women over the age of 50 perhaps but for no one in particular. Essentially, they were anonymous.
One good thing about writing for magazines is that you can buy as many as you want and read as many you want and put it all down to ‘research’. In fact, it is a necessity.
Bent on carrying out some of this ‘research’ I was browsing the newsagent’s shelves one morning when I was joined by an elderly lady. White hair freshly permed, ruby framed glasses perched on the tip of her nose, the woman smiled in a triumphant fashion and plucked a magazine from the shelf to my right. The magazine she had picked was, ‘My Weekly’. I smiled to myself. I knew I had a story in that copy. The elderly lady walked over to the counter to pay and beamed at the assistant.
“I do look forward to my magazine each week,” she confided. The assistant smiled.
“Good is it, Grace?”
Grace nodded as she handed over her change,
“I love reading all the stories, I read them over and over again,” she admitted, “they brighten my day.”
I smiled and picked up my own magazine – I don’t recall what it was. I was just so pleased to have ‘met’ one of my readers and to have heard her say how much she liked the stories in the magazine. Chances are she liked mine as much as any. So, this was who was reading them. This was who I was writing for.
From that moment I had my target audience in mind. I wrote for Grace.
My editor never asked me to change the contents of a story again.
Knowing one’s target market is essential of course and although I will not always be able to meet my readers, I remember and am eternally grateful for my unexpected,
‘Audience with Grace’.
P.S. My Weekly underwent a revamp in 2006, targeting a younger audience. I like to think that Grace has continued to enjoy her magazine just as much.