Hello everyone and welcome to the third event in the Put it in Writing Virtual Book Festival. Today it’s a pleasure to welcome writer Kate Blackadder. Kate writes serial fiction for a woman’s magazine as well as being a novelist. And here in a fascinating feature she explains how she got into serial writing and how it has developed for her since. So over to Kate …
One serial writer – 400,000 readers
by Kate Blackadder
I’d had a few short stories published in The People’s Friend and elsewhere when I entered the First Instalment of a Serial competition that the magazine sponsored in 2008. As a member of Edinburgh Writers’ Club www.edinburghwritersclub.org.uk
I was automatically a member of the Scottish Association of Writers and this competition was part of their annual conference that year.
I’d never written ‘long’ before but nothing ventured … I remembered something I’d written when having a writing session with friends. We were handed paperbacks at random, asked to turn to a particular page and a particular line number and to start our own story from there.
The book assigned to me was in the horror genre and the line involved a stone which had some supernatural significance, seen through torrential rain. I wrote a page or so but knew I wouldn’t continue because I’d stuck with the genre and it’s not one I like.
But something of the atmosphere of the piece came back to me as I pondered the serial. Cathryn, recently dumped by her boyfriend, could be driving through the rain on her way north to spend the summer on an archaeological dig. Staying in the same lodgings is Magnus, a Canadian film-maker, investigating Viking history and sites – and also researching a mystery in his family tree.
I looked at current PF serials with a writer’s eye. I read the guidelines www.thepeoplesfriend.co.uk/guidelines/ to find out about instalments and chapters and word counts. I had fun bringing in more characters and placing them in a part of the world I used to live, the north-west coast of Sutherland (although I made up place names, and the local big house I transplanted from somewhere else entirely – the superpower of a writer!).
And of course I ended the instalment with a cliffhanger!
Then came the conference and the judging …
The adjudicator, one of The People’s Friend fiction team, began to describe the first-placed entry. My heart raced … Was that mine?
Competition entrants choose a pseudonym and mine was ‘Belle’, the name of a late great-aunt, in whose house I first encountered The People’s Friend although my interest then was only in the children’s pages.
I hope she was listening as her name was read out as the winner.
One of the points the adjudicator made was not about the story itself but the fact that apparently I was the only entrant who had adhered to all the rules, so my homework was worth it, the difference perhaps between winning and not winning.
The prize (of which more anon) was a year’s subscription to the magazine, and the chance to have the serial published – which was a problem. I’d never expected to win so after I’d posted my entry I forgot about it. Now, because I hadn’t written a serial before, they wanted a full synopsis before giving me the go-ahead. Full as in full … what would happen in each and every chapter?
Reader, I hadn’t a clue. Obviously the archaeologist and the film-maker were going to get together but that couldn’t happen until the last instalment. What was the puzzle in Magnus’ background? Why was Sara going to Inverness every week? What caused JD’s accident? I’d set up these and a dozen other questions in the first instalment and now I had to answer them.
It was agony! I had to give myself many a severe talking to when I felt like giving up. I asked a well-published novelist friend for advice and one thing in particular was really helpful – include scenes involving different permutations of your characters so that you don’t forget about any of them.
Eventually – eventually – I wrote a paragraph for each chapter, all thirty-seven of them, and submitted it. Green light! And then it was, almost, like joining the dots.
The serial was published as The Family at Farrshore and it was a real thrill to see it in print over seven weeks with a lovely illustration at the head of each instalment.
The People’s Friend celebrates its 150th birthday this year; a copy is sold somewhere in the world every 3.44 seconds. The readers are not all elderly ladies as is the perception … and, besides, the ‘elderly’ today are not like those of a generation ago as regards fitness and outlook. Sadly, The PF is almost the last (wo)man standing in terms of magazines that take stories. It seems strange in an era when we’re all supposed to be so short of time/concentration that magazines have dispensed with bite-sized fiction.
Back in the day The People’s Friend weekly sales headed for a million (220,000 sales today, 400,000 readers) and their payment to writers reflected that. In the 1880s they ran a serial competition with a first prize of £100, around £8500 in today’s money. Ah well …
Since The Family at Farrshore I’ve had two more serials published, The Ferryboat and A Time to Reap. I had to send long synopses for these but not with the detail required the first time. I’m halfway through a fourth.
The way it works is that you send an instalment and wait for feedback before continuing. You are paid as each instalment is accepted. As the main events in the synopsis have been approved you can’t veer from them and (unless you’ve discovered a glaring error) you can’t go back and change earlier instalments. Unlike those of Charles Dickens or Alexander McCall Smith, who produced instalments every day after the previous ones were already in print (now that would be scary!), PF serials are not published until they’re finished.
As copyright remains with me I’ve sold the serials to a large-print-for-libraries publisher plus I have put them on Kindle myself.
Knowing that I could plot and finish longer stories gave me the confidence to tackle a novel, Stella’s Christmas Wish available here (published by Black & White). So it’s true: something ventured, something gained.
Anne: Thank you, Kate, for this interesting insight into how writing magazine fiction works and it’s good that copyright remains with you and you’ve been able to produce your stories for Kindle and paperback. I’ve read them all on my Kindle and thoroughly enjoyed them.
Kate Blackadder was born in the Scottish Highlands but now lives in Edinburgh. If you don’t count adolescent poetry (and best not to) she came late to writing but is trying to catch up. She’s had over sixty short stories published in magazines and has been successful in various competitions, winning the Muriel Spark Short Story Award (judged by Maggie O’Farrell) and being shortlisted for the Scotsman Orange Short Story Award and long-listed for the Jane Austen Short Story Award. She has also written three magazine serials and a novel, Stella’s Christmas Wish, published by Black & White.
Kate can be found in various places online: