Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Recognise your Reader

Jean was eight years old when she was evacuated to the country in 1939. Strong bodied and big for her age, Jean was a shy child and not very confident. She was picked out by a farmer and spent the next couple of years being worked from dawn till dusk and sometimes beyond to earn her keep.

When she went home it was to learn her father was dead and her mother was about to marry someone else. There was no room for Jean in her mother’s new life and she moved in with an aunt who used to beat her.

At sixteen she got pregnant by the first person to show her any real affection – and he promptly left her. The baby was stillborn. Later Jean married and had four children. She seemed to attract bullies. Her husband was part of the trend.

He died of alcohol poisoning after putting her in hospital. She struggled to keep her family together, working all hours to bring in enough money to feed them and keep a roof over their heads. Her oldest daughter went off the rails. The boys were often in trouble. Jean’s whole life was blighted by illness.

Now she lives alone in her council house. Her friends and neighbours are dying off and she’s surrounded by young families who ignore her; her family rarely visits.

Mary had an idyllic childhood. Her parents doted on her and when she was fifteen she met the love of her life, a kind, gentle boy who grew into a kind, gentle man.

Mary had two daughters. Like their father they were kind and gentle. When they grew up and had families of their own, they lived just round the corner and visited often.

In later life Mary, now a widow suffers with arthritis. She is in a great deal of pain which is unrelenting and not helped by the pills which in some ways make her feel worse.

She still lives in the cosy little semi that she and her husband bought when they first married. There are problems with the roof that she can’t afford to fix and a damp patch by the living room window which she keeps hidden with the curtain.

Her daughters can’t help. They are finding things tough at the moment, struggling to keep their own heads above water, so Mary keeps her problems to herself.

She used to go out in the evenings with friends, but tends to stay at home now. Since her fall she is less confident. And she feels intimidated by the kids that race past her house every night in their noisy cars and others that stand outside her gate talking in loud, frightening voices.

So what have Jean and Mary got in common? They both have The People’s Friend delivered every week.

This is where I’m going to add a disclaimer – I don’t know who the typical reader of the People’s Friend is. And I’m quite sure that among their readers they really do have people who have never suffered a day’s illness, never experienced the death of a loved one or never had to deal with a drunken abusive partner in their lives.

But for the most part their readers are real people who have lived through harder times than many of us can even begin to imagine. It isn’t because their readers are these untouched, angelic puritans that they require such safe, gentle stories. It is because their readers want to escape into a world that perhaps they once knew, or wished they’d known.

They want a world where if something bad (not terrible) happens, it can be easily sorted out by good friends or loving family. They want to read about real life, but not necessarily their life. They want to immerse themselves in nostalgia and they want it viewed through the rosiest tinted spectacles money can buy.

They don’t want to read about death and divorce and poverty and who can blame them? A lot of them have lived through it.

Jean and Mary don’t exist - well they do I’m sure, but my Jean and Mary are composites of People’s Friend readers that I have known. They’ve lived through similar things to Jean and Mary and worse.

Often when the knocking of women’s magazine stories is going to be done, the People’s Friend is waved about as an example. So what are we supposed to do? Write stories about gangs of kids setting fires to cars and kicking cats into oblivion? Social workers who come round and tell vulnerable old people that they aren’t going to be allowed to live an independent life any more? Sons and daughters who only visit when they want something?

Are we going to write stories that tell it like it is for the Friend reader? Or stories that tell it how people would like it to be?

Few lives are complete unremitting drudgery. Most have their happy moments, weeks, years. You take one of those shining moments and you write a story about it, sprinkle in a bit of conflict and add a happy ending. It sounds easy, but those are the stories I find the most difficult to write.

These days the trend with magazines is for real life stories where people can read about people worse off than them (blimey, my uncle Fred might have been a murderer but at least he didn’t chop Auntie’s head off and feed it to his pigeons – that makes me feel much better). I don’t really have an Uncle Fred, but you see what I mean?

One more thing. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because the readers like gentle stories with happy endings that they are lacking in the brain department. If there’s one thing sure to get my back up, it’s looking down on readers, wanting to “better” them or give them a challenge. Real life can be tough enough to deal with and has its own challenges, who can blame some people for wanting to get away from it for a while?


  1. How brilliantly you put that. My mum always said that in the war pepole went to the cinema to be cheered up - reality was grim enough without reading about it all the time. We need happy endings - or we need to belive in them to carry on. I'm so glad you've started this blog. I've learnt so much already.

  2. A very interesting post, Teresa.
    You've certainly made me see People's Friend stories and readers quite differently, but personally I find their stories far too twee and I've never managed to sell a story to them. I've more or less given up sending them things now especially as I hear you often have to do a lot of re-writing to get it just right. But I have to admire the writers who can get their stories accepted.
    Great to have you back by the way. Hope you had a wonderful time with your granddaughter and are back to writing now.

  3. You made Jean and Mary feel very real and I'm itching to find out more about their lives.

    I adore the People's Friend. My grandma used to get it every week and introduced me to the wonderful stories when I was about 8. Over the years I've dipped in and out and am never disappointed.

    Romantic fiction often takes a similar beating to the People's Friend. I think the critics tend to forget that, especially when times are hard, readers who pick up books and magazines want to be entertained.

  4. What a lovely post. My mother-in-law has the People's Friend every week and often asks why I don't write more for them, but it is incredibly hard (They've only taken one of mine.) It's easy to think that 'nothing much happens' in a PF story, but it's making an enjoyable, complete story out of the small things that matter most to people that is so difficult.

    Loved your WWFS story today, BTW.

  5. A great post - really made me think. I have a story which I thought I might rewrite for PF, I must dust it off. It might cheer someone up :-)

  6. Fabulous post, and a great insight into the readers of the People's Friend - a market I just can't seem to crack. It's given me fresh incentive to write the 'right' kind of story for them :o)

  7. Anon, my mum had a great time in the war and she made it sound like an adventure, but at the same time I know she went through a hell of a lot.

    Susan, it’s true you do often have to rewrite for PF and sometimes more than once! And you aren’t guaranteed a sale at the end of it. I had a lovely time thanks (and no, I’m not back to writing yet – oops).

    Suzanne, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head about people just wanting to be entertained. Also true about romantic fiction - as someone who has tried and failed (so many times) to write romantic fiction I know just how hard it is.

    Bernadette, I don't think anyone realises how difficult it is to write PF stories unless they've tried it do they? And thanks for the compliment – I haven’t had my WWFS yet.

    Tam, that sounds great. Good luck. I think they’re looking for stories of 3000 words max at the moment if that’s any help.

    Karen, good luck with cracking PF. I went for quite a while not being able to write the right thing for them at all and I seem to have lapsed again lately, but I really have to be in the right mood!

  8. I've had no success with PF so far - but every now and then I come up with something I feel is worth a try with them. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  9. Nice to have you back, Teresa! Hope you enjoyed your time out. I absolutely agree with you about PF. I love writing for them, but have to be in the right mood. I think there are basically 2 reader reactions to the awful stuff life life throws at you: either "thank God that's not me" (the real life horror stories so prevelant in TAB for example), or the desire to read about a world where the bad stuff gets solved. One of the stories I sold to PF actually came from a situation I was experiencing (nothing every parent doesn't go through) - but while I was feeling awful I got the idea for a story where a happy ending happened. It makes me mad when people look down on PF or romantic fiction - there's nothing wrong with wanting to escape for a while and if something I've written helps someone to do that, I reckon that's a worthwhle thing to do.
    I don't know about lapsing Teresa - there have been a lot of your stories in PF recently, but I guess maybe they were sold some time ago? Incidentally - has anybody noticed PF and other mags' response time getting longer lately?
    Thanks for another great post, Teresa and good luck to us all in pitching to PF or anybody else!

  10. Paula Williams21 May 2009 at 08:28

    I loved your post, Teresa, particularly the bit about respecting the reader and giving them a little ray of hope. Goodness knows, we all need a bit of that with so much doom and gloom about at the moment.
    One of your stories that touched me was about chickens! I don't know if you remember it (I've just read your interview with Sue in Writers' Fortum. 2,000+. Wow!) but it was about naming chickens. I thought it was the most perfect story and kept it for ages: humour, conflict, plenty of tension, great characterisation - and, of course, the all important happy ending (especially for the chickens!). Sadly I've mislaid it but as you can tell, I still remember it.

  11. Keep trying, Helen!

    Yes, Lydia – response times do seem to be getting much longer. I think particularly with the Thomson mags, it is the case that they are using up some of their stock.

    Thanks, Paula. I do remember that story – I know three people who kept chickens – two who let their chooks live to the end of their naturals and one who let her daughter name them, then filled her freezer with them. I enjoyed your Ideas Store in WF this month – I smiled about the weddings, specially the grandma letting slip the family secrets. And I fancy giving your fiction square a go!

  12. Well said, Teresa. PF publishes really special stories. They are uplifting and take me to a different place. They're about escapism for me.

    I'm fed up of some magazines running stories [not talking about story mags here] but my old favourites that no longer resemble what they once were. So many have turned their backs on good old 'learn something from them' articles and heart-warming short stories. Instead, all we are seeing in many of them are celebrity tittle-tattle and sensational stuff. Many now have more Pap shots than stories and articles.

    May People's Friend continue to reign. It's one market I would love to break in to.

  13. It ocurred to me whilst thinking about this post (another displacement activity - God bless the internet!) that the themes of stories in mags like TAB (which I have yet to break into) aren't so different from PF. Although TAB like to think of themselves as street smart, a lot of their stories have happy endings - even the ghost stories!

  14. Great post!

    I have to say I'm avoiding all violent and depressing entertainment, particularly the movies. I want to walk out of a theatre or close a book and not feel like the world's just ended. Gotta love those happy endings!

  15. This is so informative and helpful. Many thanks.
    I rewrote a story for PF in January, but have heard no more. Is it usual to have such a long wait in your experience?

  16. There’s no other quite like People’s Friend is there, Lynette.

    I think you’re right, Lydia, they all like to have upbeat endings.

    With all the worry and uncertainty and horrible things happening around the world at the moment, we all need a little escapism don’t we, Lacey.

    Joanna, yes, the long wait is usual and often in the case of PF no news is good news. They did tell me how long the wait was in their last rejection letter, but typically for me I shredded it and promptly forgot how long they said. It was several months. If you’re waiting it means your story has gone for a second read

  17. This is very reassuring. Thanks so much. I'll allow myself to hope for a fair bit longer!

  18. Great post, Teresa! Think I need to link to it on my blog as I don't often say much about PF. I've only ever sold them one story.

  19. Thanks for that, Womag! Your blog is fantastic - I've been referring to it a lot lately. A great resource!

  20. Hi, Teresa, great post. I've tried (am trying) to write stories for all the women's mags that take fiction at the moment. I haven't managed to crack any over here but had one success with That's Life Fast Fiction (Australia)recently.

    I always advise people to just keep at it. Read the magazines thoroughly - not just the stories, and get a feel for their readers likes and dislikes. Read the guidelines and follow them to the letter, and don't give up!

    But when you feel that you've done all that until you're blue in the face and still not getting any where, it can be so hard to just carry on can't it?! Particularly considering how long you sometimes have to wait for a verdict on a story you've sent off! I definately lose the will sometimes!


  21. Congratulations on the Fast Fiction success Julie.
    You're absolutely right about reading the whole magazine and not giving up!
    Yes it can be hard to carry on sometimes, particularly when you've done everything you're supposed to do, but keep at it and don't lose the will!

  22. Excellent post and a very sharp reminder to all of us to think about who we are writing for.

  23. I had a PF story considered but I agree they are hard to please. I am so determined to have something published with them now. It is like a mad mission I am on.

  24. Thanks, Tara.

    Thanks, Chris H too!

    Good luck with the mad mission, Anonymous!

  25. Excellent post. Sums it up perfectly.

  26. Thanks for this brilliant post. I so agree that just because PF readers don't want death & divorce stories, it doesn't mean they're innocent or old-fashioned,and it certainly doesn't mean they're daft. At least they know what they want, and the editors at PF know, too. I've sold a few stories there and have found the editors wonderfully encouraging and helpful even when they reject a story. So it's really worth trying to get it right for them.

  27. Thanks Gonna Be and The Write Woman - I really agonised over posting this and almost didn't - I'm so glad I did now!

  28. Another rejection. I just can't seem too please. I feel I'm writing suitable material. I just don't know where I'm going wrong. Help Anyone??

  29. Did they give you any kind of feedback, Anonymous?

  30. They did with one story. They said they liked it and the character were endearing. They asked me to change the ending whichc I did and then rejected it with a bog standard letter LOL. I tend to write in the third person ans see alot of the stories in PF are written in the first. Should I change do you think???

  31. That's happened to me, Anonymous - after 2 or 3 rewrites I got a Thanks but no Thanks! Quite unusual I would think but it does happen.

    I wouldn't force yourself to write in first person unless it feels right to you. I sometimes get halfway through a story and change from 1st to 3rd or vice versa and realise that's what I should have been doing from the start.

    The fact that they said your characters were endearing and that they liked it is very encouraging. You must be on the right tracks!

  32. I love writing for PF, and have always found them so encouraging and so very NICE! I find it odd that so many writers can't crack that particular market yet are able to sell to TAB. I have always found the complete opposite! Just can't get TAB to accept anything, even though PF and WW have bought loads. Just shows how different we all are.

  33. They are nice aren't they, Viv!

  34. What a brilliant post - I'm only just starting on the road but have a couple of stories in pipeline that I intend to send to PF as soon as I can.

    Thanks for your sage advice

    best wishes

  35. Get them sent in so they're out there working for you Bluestockingmum - and good luck!

  36. Viv, I have the same problem! I've had lots of stories accepted by PF, and they are so lovely there. But I can't for the life of me get anything into TAB, never had so much as an 'encouraging' rejection - and of course I want to because it pays more (shameful I know). But I do love the Friend and all the people there. My Weekly are lovely, too.

    Thanks for a most interesting post, Teresa.

  37. You're welcome, Merry and good luck with TAB!

  38. You have really hit the nail on the head, Teresa. PF stories are quite different from any other magazine.

    I have been writing for PF for several years with a fair amount of success but I still have a lot of rejections. I recently submitted two stories to match illustrations they had in stock and were having difficulty using. At their request, I re-wrote both stories three times and they were still rejected.

    But it's worth persevering. They publish around 6 stories every week and pay promptly on acceptance (although the process is taking longer than it used to). Also, the editors are far more helpful and encouraging than any other mag I've come across.

  39. It is hard when stories are rejected after rewrites isn't it, Gail. I rewrote one once three or four times before it was finally rejected, but as you say it is definitely worth perserving.

  40. Really helpful Teresa. I know several People's Friend readers. What they have in common is, they'd lend each other a cup of sugar and not ask for anything back. Even though they would get something in return the following week.

  41. That sums up a Friend reader nicely, Susan x