28 November 2016

I Confess

by Michael Bracken

    At the 2016 Bouchercon I received the Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award for lifetime achievement in short mystery fiction. While I’ve done pretty well writing short crime fiction, it represents less than ten percent of the 1,200-plus short stories I’ve placed since I began my professional writing career in the late 1970s.

True Confessions, Oct 2016
    In addition to writing for several anthologies, my fiction has appeared in digest-sized fiction periodicals, supermarket checkout-line tabloids, and slick consumer magazines. I’ve written for readers of all ages, both genders, multiple sexual orientations, and a variety of ethnicities.

    Of all the genres of fiction I’ve written, though, I’ve probably had my greatest success in a sub-genre of women’s fiction known as confessions– so much so that several years ago, when I had only published 170 of them, I was dubbed “The King of Confessions” (“Diversify Your Career: Exploring Fiction-Writing Options” by Vivi Anna, Romance Writers Report, July 2010).

    Now with more than 400 confessions published, another handful under contract, and several more sitting in the editor’s inbox, and with only two confession magazines still publishing original work, I’m confident that no one will steal my crown any time soon.

The True Story

True Story, Nov 1921
    The first confession magazine ever published, and one of the two still published monthly, is True Story. Launched in 1919 by Bernarr Macfadden, True Story became one of many similar magazines produced by a variety of publishers. When I began writing for confession magazines in 1981, only a few years after my professional writing debut in Young World and long past the genre’s heyday, there were still more than a dozen confession magazines, published by at least four different companies, voraciously sucking up content.

    Though not every magazine was monthly, the confession magazines were easily publishing more than 1200 short stories each year, and many of them also published poetry, recipes, and various kinds of non-fiction. The magazines in other genres--fantasy, horror, science fiction, mystery, etc.– did not publish as much fiction in a single genre each year as the confession magazines did. For a young fiction writer seeking publication, it made sense to try every possible publication in every possible genre. So I did.

    In February 1981, my poem “A Dozen Roses” appeared in True Secrets, and five more poems appeared in confession magazines that year. I also sold my first confession in 1981, but the publisher went bankrupt, and I still don’t know if the story was ever published. I had to wait until July 1984, when my story “Your Eyes Tell Me What Your Lips Can’t Say…” appeared in Secrets, to make my confirmable debut as a confession writer. A year passed before my second confession appeared, and two more years passed before my third and fourth were published. Three years elapsed before my fifth confession appeared in print and I’ve had several confessions published every year –except 2002– since then.

Only Your Hairdresser Knows for Sure

    I probably read my first confession magazines while waiting for my mother and grandmother at the hair salon. They were scandalous publications with lurid come-on lines enticing readers to delve into the debauched lives of the female contributors who were confessing their sins. Alas, the stories were never as lurid as the titles. I once sold a story with the working title, “I Slept with My Son, Now My Husband Won’t Sleep with Me,” which sounds like the author is revealing an incestuous relationship, but is actually about a young mother who takes her newborn son into the family bed while the new father sleeps in the other room.

True Story, Nov 2016
Sin, Suffer, Repent

    Confession magazines such as Intimate Romances, Intimate Secrets, True Experience, True Love, True Romance, True Secrets, and True Story targeted a white female readership. Magazines such as Black Romance, Bronze Thrills, and Jive targeted a black female readership. They all shared, and the surviving magazines still share, the same conceit: That the stories contained within their pages are “true.”

    And readers believe it.

    Certain genre conventions make these stories believable. They are all written in first person (most often with a female narrator), in a colloquial style, about matters of interest to blue-collar, middle-class woman. Nothing in a confession can be unrealistic (for example, cancer goes into remission but is never cured).

    Once upon a time, confessions followed a similar plotline, known as “sin, suffer, repent.” A woman does something outside the bounds of polite society, she suffers for her actions, and then she repents. In a story from the 1950s, for example, an unmarried young woman becomes pregnant, is sent away to a home where she gives birth to a baby she gives up for adoption, and returns home a changed woman.

    Modern confessions rarely follow the old sin-suffer-repent plotline, and are more likely to be problem stories– woman has a problem, explores various solutions to her problem, and then solves her problem (an unmarried pregnant woman must decide whether to terminate the pregnancy, give the baby up for adoption, or raise the baby as a single mother; she chooses one and is either happy or unhappy with her choice) or romances written in first person (girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy back).

    Other genres can also influence confessions. I’ve written mysteries, thrillers, and horror stories all while adhering to confession genre conventions.

Means, Motive, Opportunity

True Story, Dec 2016
    With only two confession magazines still publishing monthly– True Confessions and True Story– and with long-time confession writers such as me filling many of the 240 annual slots, the opportunity for new writers to break in is much diminished from when I started in the 1980s. Even so, it is possible.

    But is it worthwhile?

    That’s a tough call. The average response time for one of my submissions is 107 days, but I had one story accepted 542 days after submission, so response time can be slow. The magazines pay 3¢ a word for all rights, and payment arrives several months following publication.

    Also, you won’t see a byline. After all, these stories are supposed to be “true.”

    On the flip side, if you can master the style and can produce work at a steady pace, you might become a regular contributor with regular income. I once calculated that I earn $20+/hour when I write confessions, which is as good as or better than what I earn on an hourly basis writing for better paying publications in other genres.

    And the lack of a byline might be advantageous. If you are a literary wunderkind publishing in all the best non-paying literary journals, you might not want your fellow writers to know you pay the bills writing confessions, just as I don’t reveal the titles and bylines of all the pseudonymous sex letters I wrote early in my career.

How to Write Confessions

    For detailed information about how to write confessions, read “Writing and Selling Confessions” and “Sin, Suffer, Cash the Checks”. Though both articles are a little outdated– especially submission information– the nuts-and-bolts details remain the same.

    For True Confessions and True Story writer’s guidelines, and for other information about the publisher, visit True Renditions, LLC.

    Oh, and never tell your grandmother that confessions are fiction. You’ll break her heart.

13 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

Michael, I took a look at the True magazines’ guidelines and mission statement, and I was surprised how moral they were with a strong suggestion of inspiration. At the behest of Vicki Kennedy, I attempted to write one. I’m not sure what I did wrong, but Vicki went “N-n-n-n-uh-uh. It’s not a confession.”

You have matters well in hand, Michael, and I’m glad you give readers a peek behind the curtain. Well done and thank you!

janice law said...

Interesting! And clearly excellent training for creating characters beyond your own experience.

Art Taylor said...

Fascinating! Thanks for your own confessions here! Need to try my hand at this..... :-)

Michael Bracken said...

Leigh, there are a few things that trip-up many would-be confession writers.

Stories absolutely, positively must be written in first person, and not every writer is comfortable doing that.

Confessions have a specific style, more like two friends chatting over coffee than "literary."

Female P.O.V., which trips up many male writers. A story written about a man by a man for men isn't the same as a story written about a woman by a woman for women. When male writers attempt to write confessions, they can't set aside their "guyness" and it shows. Here's an example, and it's a gross oversimplification, so please forgive me in advance:

A first-person male narrator, when describing his clothing, might write: I wore my blue suit, white shirt, red tie.

A first-person female narrator, when describing her clothing, might write: I wore my two-piece blue pinstripe skirt suit paired with a while silk blouse my mother gave me for Christmas and a pair of low-heeled black pumps I bought at an after-Christmas sale.

O'Neil De Noux said...

Outstandin piece. No wonder you got the big Derringer Award this year. When I grow up I wanna be more like you. Thanks for the information about the markets as well. Again, great piece.

John Floyd said...

Interesting column, Michael!! As Leigh said, this was a fascinating peek behind the curtain. You've had great success writing for a market I would never have even thought of trying.

Well done!

R.T. Lawton said...

Michael, an interesting article and very well written. I've found that I can engage my softer side long enough to write mini-mysteries for Woman's World, but for some reason I cannot write romance or "true" confessions. They just don't work. Must be my computer.

B.K. Stevens said...

Thanks for this fascinating post, Michael. It's amazing that readers can believe the "confessions" are true, especially since they all have to follow the same basic patterns--after a while, you'd think readers would catch on. Then again, I've known people who believe everything in NATIONAL ENQUIRER and the other supermarket tabloids, and plenty of people believe all sorts of outrageous stuff they read online. So maybe it isn't so surprising after all.

Michael Bracken said...

B.K., I think the believability of the stories is a testament to confession writers' ability to write true-to-life stories, aided by the presentation of the material (the current magazines have, and several of the defunct magazines had, "true" in their title), and, as Leigh mentioned in the first comment, the stories are often "moral" with a "strong sense of inspiration." Good usually wins. When good doesn't win, the stories leave the reader with the sense of "there but for the grace of God go I."

Thanks everyone for your kind comments!

Elizabeth said...

Yam wars? Fruitcake warriors? LOL ... the confession mags must really have changed since I used to read 'em when I was in high school, back in the last century.

I still recall a couple of confession stories from back then, both written from a male POV. The stories were not at all what one usually saw in the confession mags. One of them was a forerunner of geezer noir, and one had something to do with gender reassignment. At least that's what I think I remember all these years later.

Eve Fisher said...

Michael, I have a paperback anthology of "True Confessions" which has stories going back to the 1910s - with ads - that I just love. Florence King, the humorist, wrote about writing a lot of "true confessions" as she began her writing career. It's an interesting genre, but I've never understood how anyone could take them as real - but then I have a sneaking suspicion that professional wrestling isn't, either!

Jeff Baker said...

I wish I'd tried that market back about 1980 when one of my teachers started talking it up as a market! But I was young and lazy! :) And thank you, Michael, for your insider's view of writing for the market!

Michael Bracken said...

Professional wrestling isn't real? Tell me you're joshing, Eve. I spent many a Saturday morning during my early teens watching professional wrestling on a UHF station out of San Francisco.

And just to share a bit of serendipity with y'all:

Today's mail brought copies of the January issues of True Confessions, which includes my story "Kicking Bad Habits," and True Story, which includes my story "Surviving Cabin Fever."