This feature is called Where is your Writing Going? but it might equally be called Where are you going with your writing? For raw beginners, still scarcely able to commit their thoughts to paper, the idea of being published at all is a terrifying one. Write for yourself, in a vacuum, and you can be your own critic, as kind or as vicious as you choose, but taking the step of sending your work out, to an editor who may or may not be sympathetic, is something else entirely. Thanks to the rise of the small press, submitting work isn’t anything like as daunting as it used to be, and there are many magazines catering for beginner writers. However, after three or four such publications, many writers want to move on and tackle something offering more of a challenge. Whether that means more literary small press, or mainstream publishers, either on paper, or on the web, it invariably involves the writer in change, and growth.

Women’s Magazines and Short Shorts

Many short story writers opt for producing work suitable for women’s magazines, chiefly because it’s a huge market. Many of these magazines pay very well, £200 – £300 and more per story, so who can blame those who, having mastered the formula, choose to stick with it. However, and be honest here, how many of the stories you read in women’s magazines do you actually remember? How many of them eat their way into your soul and keep asking their questions?

The rise and rise of the Coffee Break story has a lot to answer for, although editors tell us they are what their readers want. Designed to take only a few minutes to read, and running to probably under 1,000 words, is it any wonder you don’t remember them? Strong and memorable fiction depends to a great degree on memorable characters and situations. Women’s magazines don’t generally feature either. Storylines centre around family and or relationship-centred themes, and are usually lightweight and instantly forgettable.

Having achieved regular publication in such magazines, it is conceivable that writers will want to go further. In my experience, with a few notable exceptions, the UK has few truly literary outlets. What I mean by ‘literary’ here is work which hits you in the gut when you read it. Work which is insightful, which worms its way into your thinking with its layers of meaning, makes you gasp with recognition. I subscribe to US magazine Glimmer Train which occasionally features stories with that degree of power. Call it ‘art’ or apply your own definition, what I can tell you is that the first ever Glimmer Train story I read, almost eighteen months ago, still comes back to haunt me on occasion. And I haven’t re-read it in the interim.

Of course I can hear you argue, why bother with such aspirations? You’re happy writing what you write, and banking the money, thank you very much. Fair enough, and who am I to argue? There are plenty of people earning a very nice living that way. But doesn’t the idea of your work having a profound effect on people appeal to you? I don’t write a lot of fiction, although I’m writing more and more of that, and almost no poetry these days, but I’d give up almost everything else if I thought that would help me develop into the kind of writer who can make people gasp, not as a result of easy sentimentality, but as a result of sheer power.


The first thing I’d say is that wherever you are in your writing, you have to tell yourself that you’re not at your peak. That is, wherever. My own next writing goal is to get into Glimmer Train. Once I’ve done that, (when, not if, I keep telling myself) I shall look for other UK and overseas magazines to target. Perhaps The London Magazine, or New Yorker. In one sense, it doesn’t matter whether or not I ever make it into those pages, what matters to me is that I’m trying, aiming to grow beyond my current capabilities. There is no failure in failing, the real failure is in not stepping beyond the fear that keeps you from trying.

Secondly, keep writing writing writing, exploring words and ways with words, voice, character, ideas, theme. There’s no rule that says everything you write should be earth shattering, but now and again, opt for a theme with depth, something that matters to you, something you really care about. Explore ideas, ask yourself the ‘what if?’ questions, and keep on asking them until you find yourself with a story that absolutely demands to be written. And while you’re involved in the writing, be aware of its impact upon you.

Thirdly, read, and read, and read. Too many would-be writers freely own that they never read. How can they grow if they don’t reach for what is beyond their own thinking? Ideas breed ideas breed ideas. Read classic short stories. What is it that makes them? Look at how the writer uses language, look at how the characters are given form. Also, probably more important in today’s markets, read modern short fiction by good writers. Invest in paperback collections of quality short stories: Best American Short Stories perhaps, or the collected works of John Updike, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, T.C. Boyle, Raymond Carver, Nathan Englander. To some extent, reading and appreciating some of these writers demands its own learning, an openness of approach, but it will pay huge dividends in your own writing.

Closer to home, look carefully at winning competition entries. Why did they win? What is it about them that lifts them above the other entries? You may not always be able to discern the differences, but the more you read, the more you’ll come to understand what it is that moves you. What it is that gives a story the power to come off the page and slice its way into your head, and stay there.

Becoming a writer demands a combination of factors; total immersion in both active learning, that is, learning by doing; and subconscious absorptive learning, that is, through the reading of good literature. The first can be accomplished by attending carefully selected writing classes, or by proactive reading of books and features on writing from established writers, those with a demonstrable track record. However, if you opt for the latter, don’t simply read one author and take his or her advice as gospel, read in the light of other advice, and take from each what you feel will work for you.

Where are you going with your writing? If you are dedicated enough, and are prepared to put in the work, your own personal sky is the limit.

Copyright Zoe King 2001

Zoe King edits and publishes BuzzWords. ( She runs Diss Writers, works as a freelance journalist, and also writes fiction and poetry.

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