Monday 8 June 2015

Writing Serials for the People's Friend - Guest Post Shirley Blair

As most of you will know, I recently had my first serial, Charlotte's War, published in The People's Friend. Although the timescale from pitching the idea to seeing the serial in print is quite a long one, I enjoyed the whole process and each week would rush off to the newsagents to see what lovely illustration David Young had created for me. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I wrote a second!

Knowing that The Friend is looking for new serial writers,  a couple of month's ago, I wrote an article for Writing Magazine on what fiction editor Shirley Blair is looking for when it comes to serials. Due to word limit, I was only able to include some of Shirley's answers to my questions in my feature, so I asked her whether she would be happy for me to use her quotes in full in my blog. Lovely lady that she is, she said she was more than happy. I have found writing the serials both challenging and rewarding and I would encourage anyone who had been thinking about moving on from short stories to have a go.

In your view what makes a good serial?

We look for a cast of strong, engaging characters who come alive in your head so that you can see them and hear them talking. Together these characters deliver an absorbing storyline with perhaps an unusual setting. Attention to detail in terms of location and period always helps.

Should it include a romance?

Yes. We’ve noticed that sometimes the romance gets overlooked in a serial, but it offers a change of pace, a breathing space in the midst of the action.    

Do you have a preference for viewpoint and tense? (Do you ever accept ones written in first person?)

We prefer a third person narrative in past tense. First person would be single viewpoint, whereas we look for two or three viewpoints telling two or three interweaving storylines, scene by scene. I always liken it to a TV soap in that respect. 

What qualities do you look for in a serial writer?

Commitment. Discipline. Methodical planning. We hope they’ll be flexible and receptive to our input. It’s also helpful if they can understand that their serial becomes part of our publishing schedule and deliver it in a reasonable time; some writers are quite slow which can throw my plans haywire! I know, though, that the stop/start nature of writing a serial for us can be equally frustrating for them.

Do you have a preferred serial length?

Nowadays People’s Friend readers are happiest with serials of four to ten instalments. Gone are the days when we’d offer them twenty-instalment marathons!

What is it that you DON’T want to see in a serial?

Too linear a narrative. As I’ve said, we look for two or three character viewpoints telling their interweaving stories. We don’t want stagnant characters or stagnant action. Then, of course, we don’t want any of our usual Friend taboos of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll!

What is more important in a PF serial, storyline or character?

Oh, always character. You’ll remember a great character long after you’ve forgotten what the story was about. I still have a bit of a crush on a character called Magnus from years ago, though now I can’t even remember which serial it was!

Would you recommend trying short stories before attempting a serial?

Generally yes. The People’s Friend has its own particular style, and a serial is such a commitment, that it’s helpful if both writer and editor have the confidence of previous success to support them.  

Are you more likely to consider a writer who has previously written a short story for the magazine?

Yes, for the reasons I’ve mentioned, because we’ve learned their strengths and built up a relationship, but never say never!

Are there any themes you wouldn’t consider?

Loads! But a quick look at our guidelines will steer you in the right direction. And we’re always more than happy to offer advice.

What is the most common mistake you have seen serial writers make?

The main one is a lack of planning. You know, not thinking out their story in its entirety so we all know where it’s going, at what pace, and how it ends. And then not maintaining the momentum and tension within the story as they write. Some try to get on their soapbox, using their story to make a political point, but that’s not really the Friend’s style. Finally, some forget to give their characters different voices; all you hear is the writer’s voice.

What would you say your role is as an editor?

As editors we’re here to support, to encourage, to communicate, cajole and congratulate. We’re here to handhold as much or as little as we and the writer feel necessary. We always say, ask us anything, it’s what we’re here for. Stuck? Let us help. So I’d say the relationship between editor and writer is one of trust and teamwork.

How much input do you have in the planning process?

Every writer is different. Some come to us with a fully-formed and perfect story that they write with next to no input from us. Others need significant help in shaping and planning the story as a whole, and then again as they write each instalment – but that’s OK. I can’t stress enough that it’s what we’re here for. Ask us anything!
Thank you very much, Shirley, for your lovely detailed answers. If you fancy having a go at writing a serial for The People's Friend, you can find their guidelines here.


Since writing this post, The People's Friend have announced a serial writing competition with a prize of £400 for the winner. Closing date: October 30 2015. Details and entry coupon can be found in the weekly magazine and on Shirley's Fiction Blog here.


  1. Lots more food for thought here, Wendy. It sounds as though once you're 'in' at PF you have a lot of support from Shirley and her team.

  2. Absolutely, Julia. The editor they assign to work with you is more like a friend.

  3. I can second that, Wendy.
    Wonder if Shirley's crush was my Magnus, a Canadian documentary-film maker from my serial The Family at Farrshore – would love to think it was!

  4. Thank you Shirley & Wendy for an excellent interview. Lots of interesting points here and invaluable for anyone thinking about writing a serial for TPF.

    1. Shirley is looking for more serial writers so this should give some pointers for those thinking about it.

  5. Thanks, Wendy. Doubt I'll try a serial for this mag, but I imagine many of the pointers will apply to other magazine stories too.

  6. Hm, yes, I'll add a serial to my to-do list!
    Seriously, I do have a number of would-be novel beginnings that were abandoned when I realized I probably wouldn't be able to stretch the storyline into a full length book. But 4 - 10 instalments might be a more manageable length.

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