In which I clear my throat and offer an announcement

Ahem.

That was the throat clearing. Here’s the announcement.

I am absolutely beyond delighted to announce that I have signed a contract with Choc Lit Lite to publish my first novel. I’m ecstatic to have signed with Choc Lit – they’re a really forward-looking exciting publisher, with a really good reputation for working with their authors and developing new talent. Waaaaaaah!

Obviously I’m a teensy bit excited about becoming a published author, but at the moment the whole thing feels utterly unreal. Fortunately I’ve just spent the weekend at the Romantic Novelists’ Association conference where there were lots of other published Choc Lit authors I was able to poke to check that they were really really real. After they’d got over the poking we even took a big group photo.

In which I appear to be a giant
(taken by Lizzie Lamb)

We don’t seem to have all managed to look at the same camera in this one, and I do appear to be quite huge – there’s a learning point there about not standing at the front when having your photo taken with thin people – but nonetheless it’s a Choc Lit Authors picture and I’m in it! Huzzah!

At this point I do need to thank just a couple of people. You have three choices about how to read this next bit. You can: a) take a very deep breath and just rattle through it as quickly as possible; b) do the full-Gwyneth and read the whole thing aloud with appropriate sobbing; c) scan quickly for your own name and ignore the rest. If your name isn’t there, it’s because I’m stupid and I’ve messed up and missed you out – unless I’ve never met, emailed, tweeted, written, phoned, texted or spoken to you in my life, in which case, seriously, what were you expecting?

So, in no particular order, thank-you to all of the following who have helped, supported, not ridiculed my attempts to do writing…

Deborah Catesby, Dawn Hudd, Holly Magill, Candi Miller, Tamara Bolger, Anne Milton, Lisa Bodenham, Kate Johnson, Julie Cohen, everyone who I’ve been on one of Julie Cohen’s lovely writing courses with, everyone I’ve ever taught on a creative writing course, the entirety of the RNA but particularly Melanie Hilton and the NWS readers, Helen Harron, my mum and dad (if you’re reading this in Gwyneth style you probably need to weep a bit here), the Choc Lit Tasting Panel, everyone else at Choc Lit, Tim Butler, Tony Judge, Dunstan Power, Clive Eardley, Taliah Drayak, Polly Robinson, all the RNA Conference speakers for the last 3 years (every last one of them), Katie Fforde, Greg Mosse, Kate Hill, Deema Davidson, Rich Badley, Eva Cubero, Isabel Phillips, all the lovely writers and readers on Twitter, the RNA Birmingham Chapter, everyone who has let me play at being a writer on their blog – a big hand for Nikki Goodman and the Write Romantics, everyone I’ve got pished near in an RNA kitchen – I’m looking at you Immi Howson, Jane Lovering, Ruth Long, Jules Wake, Talli Roland, Sarah Callejo, Jane Tranter, Denise Deegan, Colette Caddle, Brigid Coady and others too numerous and fabulous to list – and finally EngineerBoy for his most excellent services to engineering and mortgage paying, while I work the whole penniless writer vibe. Thank you all. Some of you will know how you helped. Some of you won’t ever read this or even know who I am, but thank you all the same.

Right. Gushing over. Time to get bum on seat, fingers on keyboard and actually do this writing lark for real. I’ll be back to the blog tomorrow to tell you all about what happened at the RNA Conference this year. Be warned – it will almost certainly involve pictures of shoes.

In which I consider the virtue of patience

Patience, they say, is a virtue. If that’s true then wannabe writers are, without question, shining beacons of good morals, because waiting is one of our main activities.

I was at a day-job meeting earlier this week, where I found myself sat next to one of those people you see at meetings. You know the people – the ones you only know from the fact that they turn up at all the same meetings as you and you see their email address a lot on contacts lists. Being a fundamentally genial fellow, this person enquired after my well being, and then, demonstrating quite marvellous social skills, remembered that I Do Writing, and asked how that was going. “Oh well,” said I. “I’ve got my first novel out with a publisher waiting for a response at the moment, and I’m working on the second.”

“Oh,” he said, failing to mask the slight air of disappointment in his tone. “That’s what you said last time I saw you.”

Well, yeah. It is. And the last time I saw him, I reckon was November. Sometimes that’s just how long these things take – any writers out there feel free to share your “longest wait for a response” anecdotes in the comments! Patience, as I already mentioned, is a virtue.

Unfortunately, for this particular wannabe writer it’s not a virtue that comes naturally. I am a deeply impatient soul. For example, I restarted my ongoing (and largely good-intention based) diet on Monday, and have stuck to it for 2 whole days. I am, therefore, utterly dismayed at the fact that I am still Not Thin. It’s really getting quite frustrating now. It’s almost as if I’m going to have to stick with the diet for weeks and weeks and weeks (or more probably months and months and months).

Dieting aside, impatience has generally served me pretty well. It’s given me a healthy intolerance of situations that make me unhappy, which led me to go back to university to study creative writing and, later, led to me quitting proper work altogether to go freelance and Do Writing. Both excellent (if somewhat flakey) life decisions, which wouldn’t have been made if I’d adopted a “wait and see” attitude.

So, in conclusion, patience is a virtue, but so, on occasion, is impatience. And don’t ask wannabe writers how it’s going more than once a year. The answer will almost certainly be, “Slowly.”

In which I think about what I learnt at the RNA conference

This weekend was the annual RNA Conference, an event at which romantic novellists get together, talk about writing, the state of the industry and generally maintain a communal level of fabulousness not normally seen outside of a glitter factory.

There are lots of posts all over the internet about the conference – the main RNA blog will gives you a taster (and more pictures of shoes than most shoe shop websites), but I wanted to share a few specific things that I learnt this year.

 

1. I must blog more regularly.

The first session on Saturday morning was led by Talli Roland and was all about social media. For most of this session I was quite smug. I tweet. You can’t really move for me on facebook. I blog, and then Talli dropped a reality bomb into my self-satisfied bubble. “You have to blog regularly,” she said.

Ah. Yeah. About that. I have been deeply blog-flakey of late. So my new resolution is this. I will blog every week. Every Monday in fact. It would be really truly lovely to see you here. You could do commenting, and then I would do replying and we would be one big happy blogging, chatting family. 

 

2. Things feel a little bit more positive than last year.

At last year’s conference the overriding vibe from the publishing types in attendance seemed downbeat. I couldn’t escape the feeling that ebooks, self-publishing and the recession were scaring traditional publishers, but no-one had worked out how to respond. There was a sense that if publishers just carried on as if nothing had changed, the world might go back to normal. It had an air of Neville Chamberlain in 1938 about it. The vibe around submissions was downbeat too. The tone was very much, “Our list is full. You could submit, but we’re not really looking for that type of thing…”

This year things were different. Maybe it was just the different personnel in attendance but the vibe was definitely more positive. Publishers were talking about actively looking to acquire new titles. Chatting to authors who’d had one-to-ones with editors, the numbers being encouraged to submit manuscripts seemed higher. And publishers talked openly in their sessions about self-publishing and why they believe that traditional publishing is a better option. Heads were out of the sand and looking forward. None of which is to suggest that getting published in 2012 is easy, or even significantly easier than in 2011, but, to my ears at least, the tone felt more encouraging to try.

 

3. Everyone needs a good day every now and then

Trying to get published is hard. Writing a novel is hard (I mean, not like brain surgery hard or training 10 hours a day to be an olympic gymnast hard, but in its own way, still tricky). Editing a novel is hard. Getting an agent is hard. Editing again with someone else’s input is harder. There are points along the road where it’s easy to think that it’s never going to happen. It’s easy to see other writers signing deals and posting pics of their cover art on facebook, and wonder if that’s ever going to be you.

At times like that you need A Good Day. A Good Day might just be a day you get an tweet from someone who likes your blog. It might be a day when you write a really good chapter and read it back and think, yeah, that’s actually ok. It might be a day when someone else tells you you’re writing is ok. Saturday was A Good Day for three reasons.

Firstly, I explained the concept behind my novel to a publisher, who responded that she loved the idea. Now that doesn’t mean she’ll love the novel. She might hate the way I’ve dealt with the idea. She might read the opening chapter and think it’s not funny enough. She might think it’s too funny and the jokes distract from the plot. She might just get something else that’s similiar that she loves ever so slightly more on her desk on the same day. But she loved the idea. That alone is worth a tiny happy dance.

Secondly, I won the Elizabeth Goudge Award. This prize is awarded for the RNA’s own story competition which is open to any members attending the conference. This year I won. I have a little trophy, which at some point in the next 12 months, will be engraved with my name. I’ll be alongside some fab writers. That’s worth quite a big happy dance.

Thirdly, in slightly drunken conversation with a gaggle of published writers, someone acknowledged that one of the most frustrating stages in the journey towards publication is the bit where people are reading your work and saying “I really like it, but…” That, they agreed, was the stage just before, “I really like it, and…” Maybe, for me, the “I really like it, but…” stage will last for years and years and several more “not quite there yet” novels, but the next stage, the “I really like it, and…”, doesn’t feel so completely unachieveable. It’s still an IF rather than a WHEN, but it’s a doable IF. Altogether now, Massive Happy Dance!

 

So that’s just three of the things I learnt. There were lots of others. “Celebrate often” was a big message from Miranda Dickinson’s talk, which I seem to have taken on board particularly well. Just look at all those happy dances. In summary, conference was brilliant. The RNA is brilliant. And you’re all brilliant too, so if you fancy joining me here every Monday for super regular blogging, please follow or subscribe. It’ll give me yet another cause for happy dancing.

Where I talk about why I won’t be self-publishing soon (which is not the same as ever)

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about self-publishing. The ability of Amazon to capture books in their magic butterfly nets and trap the words inside their lovely Kindles means that writers have a realistic alternative to wading through the months of submission and rejection (a process which, almost invariably, ends up with them having nothing published, but having contributed considerably to the coffers of the nice people at Rymans who sell the Big Envelopes). More and more writers are thinking why bother? And there are good reasons for feeling that way. The perception is that mainstream publishing is getting increasingly risk-averse. Publishers are prepared to spend money on books by posh girls with famous sisters and even more famous bottoms, but not so happy to risk an outlay on a new novel by an untried writer.

If your book doesn’t fit easily into a neat marketing box, there’s even more encouragement to go it alone. Across web forums, writer’s conferences and writing courses, new writers are repeatedly told that they must be able to describe their book in a single sentence. To attract the capricious attentions of a mainstream publisher you have to have that instant-appeal marketing hook.

I’ve also been told, by an editor for a major publisher, that she expects writers to be able to explain what genre their book fits into and where it would sit in the market. That is just one person’s view, but a person who should know of what she speaks. So, if you’re writing a sort-of literary rom-com based on Shakespeare but with added maths, for example, you might decide that it’s easier to sell your novel directly to readers than to jump through that particular hoop. It’s a problem a lot of writers face – two others describe their own responses to this particular publishing headache here and here.

The economics of self-publishing, at least in e-book form, are also looking increasingly enticing for writers. Advances from publishers for new writers tend towards the modest. Publishing directly to Kindle through Amazon gives you a much bigger share of the cover price. In principle, it’s perfectly possible to make more income from e-publishing a book independently and selling fewer copies at a lower price, than if you published through a traditional publisher.

Despite having made a stunningly convincing arguement in favour of self-publishing, I still don’t wanna. In traditional “Alison does like a numbered list” style, here’s why:

1. It’s possible to make better money, but possible is not the same as easy.

I’m a totally unknown writer, and I’d be publishing without any marketing support behind me. Now there’s stuff I could do to promote a book at very little cost. I can tweet. I can blog. I can bully close personal friends into buying it. I reckon that between this blog, Facebook, Twitter and good old-fashioned real-life (you know where your parents and the old people live), I can put information out directly to somewhere in the region of 1000 people. Now, they won’t all buy the book. 1% of those people buying it would be 10 people. 10%, which is probably ambitious, would be 100 sales. That’s charming, but several orders of magnitude below what you need to get a book to the tipping point where word of mouth sends it on its way.

So I’d try other stuff: getting reviews from friendly blogs, encouraging Amazon reviews, making myself a proper glossy website, making myself a lovely shiny Amazon author page, trying to get some local press coverage – realistically I’d have to do a lot of that if I had an agent and mainstream publisher too, but I wouldn’t be doing it entirely on my own. And, at the risk of sounding overly focussed on the money, I’d be doing it while eating marmitey-toast paid for out of my advance.

2. There’s no such thing as a free-to-publish (and good and successful) book

So marketing is one problem. What about the actual novel itself? I could write the book, edit the book, draw myself a lovely little cover in Paint, and stick it up on Amazon. The problem there is that what I’d have published probably wouldn’t be a very good book.

To get a book  to publishable quality involves a bit of cost. I’d definitely want a professional cover design. I’d probably want the book professionally edited. That’s expensive. Even non-commercial critiquing services (like the RNA‘s fabulous New Writer’s Scheme of which I’m a very proud member) aren’t free. To self-publish a properly finished, professional-looking book, even as an e-book only venture, involves some investment, and, unless my numbers come up (which would involve me buying a lottery ticket, which I don’t because I, y’know, have a basic understanding of probability) I’m not really in a position to fork out that money.

3. Good enough isn’t good enough (for me)

Without the costs described above, particularly professional editing, would I be confident that my novel was good enough to put out there? Writers develop – I definitely hope to be a better writer in the future than I am now. The book I’d be e-publishing at the moment is my first completed novel. That inevitably means that I’ll look back on it in the future and see lots of things that could be improved, but I don’t want to look back and wish it had never been published. It might be a novel that I’d be proud of on the day I sent it out into the world, but would I still be proud in two or three years time?

Part of this is about my personality. I’m a perfectionist. I have high standards – that’s part of the reason that I’m good in my regular money-earning job as a trainer. I have high expectations of students, and generally find that if you set a bar just above what people think they are capable of, they will exceed their own expectations to achieve it. It also means I set high standards for my own work, and I do still see acceptance by a traditional publisher as a validation that I’ve achieved a particular standard. It’s would be a massive shiny gold star on the star chart inside my head. Perhaps the fact that that’s important to me is a weakness. Perhaps it’s just a view that’s getting out of date, but in my gut, it’s still how I feel.

So that’s why I won’t be self-publishing my first novel, and am, instead, about to embark on the long tortuous journey to repeated rejection. I applaud, wholeheartedly, all those people who are braver than I, and are going it alone, and I’d love to get your comments on the self-publishing quandary. I’d also love to hear from anyone who’s decided against, and from anyone else who thinks anything at all really about things. Comment away! And why not subscribe or follow the blog while you’re here? Good-o.