Yes. it’s that time of year again already, when I do my annual ramble about what nuggets of educational loveliness came into my head at this year’s RNA conference. So here we go – this year I learnt…
1. That writing novels set in the twentieth century is a minefield
Jean Fullerton did one of my favourite talks at this year’s conference about the perils and pitfalls of writing 20th century fiction. Those pitfalls are essentially threefold. Firstly, there’s just so much more research material available than if you write about tenth century peasants. Secondly, lots of the people who read the novel will remember and they will judge you if you get it wrong. And thirdly, the attitudes of the mid/early twentieth century can be very alien to modern readers even though it’s relatively close in time. That last point was particularly interesting to me. It’s mind-blowing to think how quickly cultural attitudes to gender, race and sexuality, in particular, have changed over the last century. Homosexuality was only decriminalised in England in 1967, and in Scotland in 1980. If you write a character in 2015 who is homophobic then you’d probably be expecting your reader to see that as a very negative character trait. In the 1950s or 60s it would have been entirely normal, if sexuality was even mentioned at all. And the difficulty is heightened because the proximity in time of the mid-twentieth century tricks us into expecting the people to be ‘just like us.’ That presents a challenge for writers – how do you write a good and attractive hero, for example, when to fit realistically into the time period that character may well have to be sexist, racist and homophobic?
2. That writers shouldn’t be grateful for any offer from any publisher
This is a really tough lesson for most writers to accept, but it was the message that came across loud and clear from the agents’ panel on the first morning of conference, and from Daniel Hahn from the Society of Authors later in the weekend. There are situations where a bad contract is worse than no contract, so be prepared to get contracts checked by the Society of Authors, and negotiate, negotiate, negotiate.
3. Flat shoes rock
After the shoes that nearly crippled me in 2013 I’m finally learning my lesson. This year I took three pairs of shoes to conference – all flat sneakers. For the big swanky gala dinner on Saturday night I went for purple converse. They matched my dress and I had comfy comfy feet all night long.
4. Fighting the flab doesn’t involve giving up wine or chocolate. Apparently.
On the last afternoon Jane Wenham-Jones gave me a copy of her book, 100 Ways to Fight the Flab and still have wine and chocolate. I should make clear that she had a free copy to give away in return for feedback on how well it works, and I grabbed it. She wasn’t just wandering the building looking for fatties to thrust diet advice at against their wills. That would be Very Wrong. So far I’ve had the book two days and read the first quarter. I’m not thinner yet, but I imagine I have to at the very least read the whole thing to see any effect. Watch this (hopefully rapidly decreasing) space.
5. Don’t try to get across London in a tube strike.
Don’t. Just don’t. It’s carnage out there I tell you.
And that’s this year’s snapshot of what I learnt at the RNA conference. There was a lot more asides from that to do with the importance of friendship and loveliness and wine, but you’re all very wise so I’m sure you appreciate all of those things already.