by Michael Bracken
Copyright © 1993, 1998 Michael Bracken
(The following is adapted from an article which first appeared in The Gila Queen’s Guide to Markets #63)
It’s been said that confession is good for the soul. It’s not bad for the pocketbook, either. I know because my confessions have sold to Black Confessions, Black Romance, Bronze Thrills, Intimate Romances, Intimate Secrets, Intimate Story, Jive, True Experience, True Love, True Romance, and True Secrets.
Where do my confessions come from? While my imagination certainly plays a role in the development of a confession from concept through completion, nearly all are based on a real-life event which happened to me or to someone I know.
I’ve found that reality-based confessions are both easier to write and easier to sell, and, after discussing the basic structure of confessions, I’ll describe how I’ve turned a few of my own experiences into manuscripts and from manuscripts into money.
A confession is a “problem” story. The protagonist finds herself confronting a problem–from something as simple as feeling unappreciated by her family to something as complex as spousal abuse–and must resolve the problem either directly or indirectly through her own actions. The more emotionally-charged the problem, the greater the reader’s involvement and the more “confessional” the story seems. While the structure of a confession is essentially fixed, variation in subject and theme are permissible.
A typical confession is written in the first-person from a lower- or middle-class woman’s viewpoint, though confessions written from a male viewpoint are published occasionally.
Confessions are written in a colloquial manner, almost as if the narrator is speaking directly to the reader while they both sit in the narrator’s kitchen sipping coffee.
Each confession follows standard story structure: each has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The story begins with the narrator confronting her problem. Then, if necessary, background information is supplied to the reader, explaining how the narrator came to be in her current situation. This is followed by the narrator’s attempts to solve her problem and the results of her attempts. The conclusion comes from one or more of the narrator’s attempts to solve her problem and, more often than not, is a happy ending.
Even though I’m not female, I’ve written confessions by concentrating on topics that are universal rather than specific to a particular gender–financial problems and relationship problems, for example.
Many of my confessions are originally sparked by events in my own life.
- For example, in “Your Eyes Tell Me What Your Lips Can’t Say” (Secrets, July, 1984), a young woman falls in love with her deaf boss. At the time I wrote the story I reported to a deaf man and, although I never fell in love with him, I learned fingerspelling and some sign language and was exposed to a few aspects of deaf culture.
- In “That Other Me My Husband Doesn’t Know About” (True Experience, April, 1985), a married woman receives an invitation to her fifteen-year high school reunion but does not want to attend. Around the time I wrote the story my own ten-year high school reunion should have been held–without, for reasons other than the ones in the story, my presence.
- The protagonist in “Married To A Loser” (True Love, July, 1992) regrets her marriage to a hard-working, blue-collar man. This was sparked by the earlier dissolution of my marriage and my thoughts on what causes someone to regret the choices they’ve made in their life.
- The couple in “For Richer, For Poorer” (True Love, December, 1992) are in desperate financial straits because they’ve both lost their jobs and their unemployment benefits have expired. I wrote this after I lost my job and my unemployment benefits expired.
Each of these examples could just have easily come from an event in your life.
If you take a moment to review all of the major and some of the minor events of your life, I’m sure you will discover any number of things you could develop into a confession.
Plots should be reasonably simple–describable in one paragraph.
- In “Your Eyes Tell Me What Your Lips Can’t Say,” the narrator’s mother is adamantly opposed to her relationship with her deaf boss until it’s revealed that the mother is losing her hearing and his presence is a constant reminder of her own future. After the narrator confronts her mother, the three of them come to grips with the situation.
- In “Big Spender” (Black Romance, September, 1987), a woman becomes engaged to a man who seems to have money to burn. When she discovers that her fiance is deep in debt and behind on payment of his bills, she breaks off the engagement. She’s scared to be involved with a man who treats his finances irresponsibly because her father was the same way and her family lost everything. When her fiance finally discovers why he’s been dumped, he goes to a credit counselor and starts to put his financial life in order. This convinces the protagonist of his love and they get back together.
- The narrator of “Afraid of the Dark” (Bronze Thrills, June, 1988), is a rapist’s only surviving victim. She is afraid to leave home, but develops a tenuous relationship with the police officer who found her and who periodically checks up on her. The rapist comes back to kill her, and the police officer arrives during the attack and rescues her. She marries the cop.
- The narrator of “Married to a Loser” regrets her marriage to a hard-working blue-collar man. She had the opportunity to marry the man who became the plant foreman where her husband works, as her mother constantly reminds her. When her husband is elected union shop steward and has to interact with the plant foreman, the issue comes to a head. The plant foreman and his wife are invited to their house for dinner. During dinner, he’s crude and he treats his wife like dirt. The narrator discovers exactly what life would have been like if she’d married him and she realizes how much better off she is with her husband.
- The couple in “For Richer, For Poorer” are in desperate financial straits because they’ve both lost their jobs and their unemployment benefits have expired. The narrator’s husband collects aluminum cans for recycling and a few days a month he works as a day laborer at the local plastics plant. One day he finds $3,453 in a dumpster and they agonize over what to do with the money. Finally, the narrator convinces her husband that they should search for the money’s rightful owner. They return the money to its owner, who turns out to be the father-in-law of the plant manager. The plant manager offers the narrator’s husband a job as the night watchman at the plant because–thanks to the narrator’s insistence–he’s already proven his honesty.
Confessions can begin with a description of the problem, or can begin with action. I prefer to begin my confessions with action, especially if I can begin with an emotional confrontation between two characters.
“Why won’t you make love to me?” I asked as I leaned over the movie theater’s candy counter. “What’s wrong with me?”
“There’s nothing wrong with you, Angela,” Bob said as he fiddled with his usher’s flashlight. “I just don’t want to hurt you. That’s all.”
“Hurt me? Of course you’re going to hurt me. It always hurts the first time.”
In the first few paragraphs of “Impatient Virgin” (Jive, September, 1987), excerpted above, a young woman offers her virginity to a boy who turns her down. Jilted by the boy she cares about most and eager to lose her virginity (written pre-AIDS and published before there had been much publicity about the disease), she offers herself to another boy–one known for his sexual escapades. As she is about to consummate the act, her “boyfriend” rescues her, and they profess love to one another.
DIALOG AND DESCRIPTION
A well-written confession has a balance of dialog and description, not usually containing more than 60 percent of one or the other. The dialog is about everyday concerns–these are, after all, blue-collar people and not college professors–and it should bounce smoothly from one character to the other. Long monologues are discouraged. In the following scene from “I’m Dead In My Mother’s Eyes” (True Love, March, 1993) two sisters who’ve hardly spoken in ten years discuss their mother’s illness.
I used my chopsticks to chase a piece of chicken across my plate. “How often does Mother go to the doctor?”
“Almost every week,” Lillian said, “between chemotherapy and her check-ups and everything else.” She scooped more fried rice onto her plate and continued, “And Dad can’t drive anymore, so I have to take him shopping every Saturday.”
“Why can’t Dad drive?” I asked.
Lillian appeared surprised by my question. “You didn’t know? No, I guess not. Last year he failed the driving test. It surprised the hell out of him, but it was for the best. I don’t think he ever was a good driver, but the past few years his abilities deteriorated. I think something’s wrong with his depth perception, but I can’t get him to see an eye doctor.”
The dialog in this snippet not only helps define the characters, but moves the plot forward at the same time. In the same story, description is kept simple in order to emphasize the horror of cancer. The narrator describes her mother in terms most readers can comprehend:
My mother sat huddled in her lounge chair, a shawl she’d crocheted nearly twenty years ago wrapped tightly around her thin frame. Only a few dozen wisps of kinky gray hair prevented her from looking like a prune with eyes. The chemotherapy had taken a heavy toll.
This gives the reader a mental picture of the mother without being excessively detailed. Don’t ever stop the action for long passages of description because you’ll lose the reader.
Sometimes the primary subject of a confession is sex–too much, not enough, too kinky, not kinky enough, with the right person, with the wrong person, with the right person for tthe wrong reason, with the wrong person for the right reason–and some confessions aren’t about sex at all. Even so, nearly every confession deals with sex in one form or another, because it’s a natural part of any loving relationship.
- In “I’m Dead In My Mother’s Eyes,” I avoided the issue of sex almost entirely, but the narrator’s husband shows his concern for her through repeated touching. He takes her in his arms, holds her hand, and in the most loving scene:
He continued rubbing my shoulders and my neck, relaxing me. The tension flowed from my aching shoulders as his fingertips worked their magic on me.
- In “For Richer, For Poorer,” the protagonist and her husband have not made love in quite sometime. He hasn’t been in the mood because he feels unworthy of love. When he finds the money, his passion returns and …
Jeremy … leaned over the back of the couch and kissed me. It was a deep, passionate kiss, though from an awkward position. Jeremy hopped over the couch and slid down beside me. We kissed again and our tongues met in a fiery dance.
I felt the warmth of his body pressing against mine and I felt myself responding to it. He lifted the nightgown up and off of me, spilling most of the money to the floor. Then he lay me back on the couch and began smothering me with kisses.
My body ached for him, every inch of skin screaming out for his attention. It had been so long. He urgently caressed me with firm fingers and soft lips, knowing–as all loving couples do–exactly what I desired. Before long, the heat of passion had grown from glowing embers to roaring flames and I could restrain myself no longer.
I opened myself to him like a flower to the sun and he took me as a bee drawn to nectar. Our bodies were so familiar after years of marriage that words were unnecessary, for each of us knew when the right moment had arrived.
Time stood still in our living room as we rediscovered the rhythms of love. I let him guide me ever higher, until we could control ourselves no longer and we shuddered together in love.
The sex scenes in a confession don’t get much more explicit than this, and need not even be this explicit. Whether you write a detailed sex scene or you cut to the next scene the moment your protagonist slips into bed, you can not ignore her sexuality.
The end of a confession should summarize any lesson the narrator has learned. This summary is not always subtle.
- The married narrator of “That Other Me My Husband Doesn’t Know About” receives an invitation to her high school’s fifteen-year reunion. She destroys the invitation, just like she destroyed the invitation to her ten-year reunion. She was extremely sexually active as a high school student but has since moved away from her home town and started a new life with a husband who–she thinks–knows nothing about her past and who–she thinks–won’t love her anymore if he finds out. Her husband finds the invitation and insists they attend. The more excuses the woman thinks up and the more she tries to hide her past, the worse her internal torment becomes until finally she reveals everything about her past to her husband. It turns out he’s known all along and it doesn’t matter to him. He loves her. At the end of the story, the narrator says:
As I finished getting ready, I knew that now I could handle anything that happened at my reunion. I knew I could handle it because I had Bill at my side, strong and supportive and, as he had always been, full of love and tenderness.
- In “Desperate” (Bronze Thrills, April, 1988), the narrator and her husband decide to blackmail his ex-wife with nude photos he’d taken during their honeymoon. His ex-wife is now married to a prominent surgeon and she is highly visible in the community because of her charitable activities. At the last minute, he receives a job offer. They meet his ex-wife, hand her the photos, and refuse to accept the money. The narrator concludes:
Ever since then, I’ve realized that desperation can sometimes drive even the best people to do things they know are wrong. I’m just glad we were lucky; even though we almost lost our balance, we walked on the thin wire of desperation and made it to the other side without falling off.
- The narrator of “Battered Wife” (Black Confessions, June, 1992), divorces her husband and moves across town to start a new life. She spends her off-hours as a volunteer in a woman’s shelter where she assists a woman who’s just left her abusive husband. She also begins a relationship with a co-worker at the convenience store where she works. One day her ex-husband appears unexpectedly. His anger flares. He grabs her and is about to strike her when her new boyfriend appears and chases him away.Later, the woman she’d been helping ends up returning to her abusive husband. The story ends when the narrator compares her fate with the fate of the woman she’d been trying to help:
“There is one small ray of hope, though. Her husband agreed to enter counseling.”
I unconsciously crossed my fingers and silently wished Ellen Harper the best of luck. She would need it. At least, I no longer needed luck. It had taken a year, but I’d put my life back together, and I’d found Parker. My future looked bright.
Confession magazine editors are seeking stories ranging from 2,000 words to about 6,000 words and they expect you to present your manuscript in a professional manner. Each story must be typewritten–never handwritten–on 8-1/2″ x 11″ white paper, double-spaced and on one side of the page only. Your name and mailing addresss should be placed at the top of the first page of the manuscript. You may wish to add your phone number and/or your social security number as well. One variation from the norm is the use of bylines: don’t. Confession magazines do not normally print bylines, so there’s no reason to put one on your manuscript.
Each confession should be submitted separately, one per envelope. Enclosed with each submission should be an envelope that you have addressed to yourself and upon which you have placed sufficient postage for your manuscript to be returned.
There are three important things to remember about the confession markets:
- Confession magazine publishers purchase all rights.
- Confession magazine editors edit heavily.
- Confession magazine editors expect you to sign a release attesting to the veracity of your story.
At the time this article was updated in July, 1998, the primary publisher of confessions, Sterling/Macfadden Partnership (233 Park Ave. South, New York, NY 10003) produced at least twelve regularly-published confession magazines.
Caucasian titles include Modern Romance, Secrets, True Confessions, True Experience, True Love, True Romance, and True Story. Black titles include Black Confessions, Black Romance, Black Secrets, Bronze Thrills, and Jive.
Each publication is independently edited so a rejection from one magazine is not necessarily a rejection from all of the magazines.
Response to a submission takes from one to twelve months. Submissions are usually accepted or rejected as is; I’ve rarely had an editor request a revision.
Sterling/Macfadden purchases all rights and publishes what they accept in a timely manner. Payment is made at the end of the month of the cover date of the issue your confession is published in, and is based on a per-word rate that varies from submission to submission.
Two books I found particularly useful when I first started writing confessions:
- Feldhake, Susan C. How to Write and Sell Confessions. Boston: The Writer, Inc., 1980. ISBN 0-87116-123-0.
- Palmer, Florence K., and McClain, Marguerite. Confession Writer’s Handbook. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1980. ISBN 0-89879-032-8.
I hope the information I’ve provided will help you understand the opportunities available to would-be confession writers, the fundamentals of turning an idea into a complete story, and a few pointers about marketing and selling the finished manuscript.
Keep one thought in mind as you return to the keyboard to create your own confessions: If a middle-aged male like myself can write and sell confessions, so can you.
About the Author
Michael Bracken is the author of several books and nearly 1,000 short stories in various genres. Because he may be the most prolific male writer of confessions, other confession writers have dubbed him the “King of Confessions.” Learn more at www.CrimeFictionWriter.com.