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.
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. 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.
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
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.