Thursday, 27 June 2013

Woman's Weekly Fiction Workshop

I recently attended a workshop at Woman's Weekly's fantastic London HQ. Gaynor Davies, Fiction Editor, Suzanne Ahern one of their favourite serial writers and Laura Longrigg from the MBA Literary Agency all gave fascinating talks.

I thought people might be interested in some of the notes I jotted down. We were there for a whole day, so in future blog posts I may cover other aspects of what we learnt. Gaynor was a lovely lady, very entertaining and encouraging and this is an idea of what she told us. 

Lots of people hearken back to Woman's Weekly as it was decades ago, but they are far more up to date than many imagine, and open to stories set in all sorts of modern situations. However, all stories even tales of crime must have a sense of warmth and demonstrate the best in people. There must be a conflict/crisis which leads to a change in the characters - this is essential - even in a comic story. At the end there needs to be a resolution, ideally not what the reader might expect. A story without a resolution can be described as a 'so what?' story, they receive too many stories where nothing really happens. Character is all important, it drives plot, don't rely on stereotypes.

In serials there is lots of room for experimentation. They look for strong plots not light romance. Recent plots have included frozen embryos, witness protection, scary ghosts, and Rasputin. Serials give room for background and atmosphere but that mustn't dominate the story which must still be about characters and their problems. The best writing states facts but also catches emotions and is not over written, so don't write as if you've swallowed a dictionary. What are the main reasons for rejection? No warmth, too depressing, too much sex, too old fashioned (which told me that you really need to study the magazine before you start writing).

Suzanne Ahern one of their most popular serial writers urged us to write from our hearts in our own style but to listen to the editors who know what will sell. Reading aloud she said would help us to identify the rhythm and flow of a story and would help to spot repeated words and stilted dialogue. One of the main things she does is to think whose story it is going to be. One of the most useful things I picked up was to create a storybook and Suzanne showed us one of hers. It was a simple technique which a seat of the pants type writer like myself would do well to follow. I often leap in to my story and forget exactly what characters and locations look like I get so wrapped up in the plot. Suzanne collects photographs of characters and places from the internet or magazines, and short passages of text which inspire her such as quotes about clothes, food, and the smells of a place. This has been useful for her historicals and for writing about places she has never been to so, for example, she found details of the smell of a river in Elizabethan England to give her writing authenticity and maps of old St Petersburg together with records of the weather on certain days. She keeps all these clippings in a single ring binder which reminded me of the sort of scrap books I used to do for projects at school. I sometimes do something similar but not in a disciplined way so that I have messy scraps of cuttings and bits of photos stuffed into files which get lost and jumbled like my poor brain! It's not rocket science but like so many good ideas is simple and effective. I guess this is about being focussed and organised in our writing, something which I lack often to my detriment. This process of organising information, Suzanne observed helps the story to gestate, like a baby in the womb, and with this research comes real belief in your fictional characters out of which will come patterns in their habits and behaviours as they begin to form into 'real' people.

I hope this has been of some help and if anyone fancies going on the course I'm sure they will get something useful out of it.   


  1. How interesting. (Cara??) I feel inspired to try to write something for them! I too am a seat of the pants sort of writer who really needs some discipline in her life. Maybe it's too late. I do keep notes on my computer however, in a file called Ideas. It's interesting to look in there occasionally and wonder what on earth I was thinking at the time! I remember Woman's Weekly as the one with a pink strip across the top and lots of knitting. I'm so pleased things have changed. Love Chrissie

  2. Thanks for the great overview - really helpful and interesting. I've still to break into WW even though I've read it for years! Would love to have been at the workshop so this is the next best thing!

  3. A really detailed write up, Cara - you must have been making more notes than me! Lovely to meet you there x

  4. Cara, thanks for posting that information. Interesting and useful not only for WW writing. I do exactly the same as Suzanne re writing historicals and files and being organised. Helps keep it all under control. But then I'm a plotter not a pantser. :) I'll expand a bit more this Wednesday when it's my turn to blog. A timely coincidence that the topic I've chosen is connected and relevant to what we're all discussing lately.