In which I muse on what I learnt at the RNA Conference 2015

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.

 

 

In which I muse on what I learnt at the RNA Conference 2014

There was no post on Friday last week because I was off on my annual trip out into the world of ‘Real People who do talking and that’ at the Romantic Novelists’ Association Conference. As ever, conference was rather marvelous and I learnt many things. As is becoming traditional, I shall relay just some of those things to you by way of a numbered list.

1. Juxtaposing one’s thingy is important in more ways than you might think.

Now I’m presuming that you probably didn’t think juxtaposing your thingy was important at all, but that was the ‘take home’ message from Jane Lovering and Rhoda Baxter‘s talk on writing comedy. Juxtaposition is important in the serious business of being funny. A person giving a lecture isn’t a funny idea. A person wearing a penguin onesie is only a slightly funny idea. A person giving a lecture wearing a penguin onesie has comic potential. That’s juxtaposition that is.

Juxtaposition also came up in Clare Mackintosh‘s talk on creating a writing persona. Clare talked about writing things like the About Me section of an author website, and bios for inside books and on guest blog posts and the like. She also talked more generally about writing copy to promote yourself, and the need to provide an interesting hook for reporters to grab hold of. ‘Writer writes book’ isn’t news. ‘Retired burlesque dancer writes book’ might be. Juxtaposition again. It’s all over the shop, I tell you.

 

2. Sometimes it’s important to sit down and have a little plan

The one and only downside of the RNA Conference is that I come home every year with new ideas and new possibilities for what to work on next and what to do to try to move my writing career forward. This year emphasised how tough things are in the publishing industry at the moment. There are lots of opportunities, and smaller publishers, like Choc Lit, are really well placed to respond quickly to the way the market is changing, but, at the moment, incomes for writers are in decline. It’s not enough to write one really good book per year – if you want to make the bulk of your living from writing you need a plan and possibly a spreadsheet.

That means that right now I’m in a quandary where I have at least 4 different ideas for what my next book could be, and a couple of other interesting possibilities that came up in conversations with other writers during the conference. I need to take a minute to think What’s the best option? What moves me forward to a wider readership? Alongside the basic question of What am I really passionate about writing?

 

3. I have a gift for breaking dresses at crucial moments

At my first RNA Conference in 2011, I snapped the strap on my party dress while I was sitting in the bar before the big Gala Dinner. That meant I got to bond very quickly with the delightful Talli Roland who I hadn’t really met before, while she ran running repairs on my straps while I held my frock up to cover my boobs until she’d finished.

This year I pulled the crucial button off my wrap dress while I was getting ready and, despite best attempts to fix it with safety pins, ended up wearing jeans to the Gala night, which wasn’t very partyish, but did mean I got away with flat shoes that I could walk in, which was rather lovely.

Flat shoes!

 

4. Location, Location, Location isn’t just a TV show

My favourite session of the weekend was Janet Gover‘s talk on Location. I tend to think of a novel as a triumverate of three things – Character, Plot and Setting, andthe weakest of the three in my novelisting armoury is definitely Setting. My editor does, on occasion, have to ask things like ‘Where does this scene happen?’ Oops. So this talk was a must-see for me. And it was well worth dragging myself out of bed for the 9am start on Sunday morning. I came away with lots of ideas about how to strengthen the setting in my current novella-in-progress, particularly in terms of how the place that characters grow up and live might impact on the sort of people that they are.

 

5. And finally, it’s always worth balling up your confidence and talking to agenty, editory type people

The RNA Conference always offers the opportunity to do one-to-ones with agents and editors to get your writing in front of people who might be able to shepherd it out into the world. I don’t normally bother, because I’m awful at the whole elevator pitch thing. It’s really only in the last year that I’ve got my head around even being able to talk coherently about what I write, so talking about it to agents and editors is a bit scary.

This year I found myself in the position of having a project on the back burner that I’d been ignoring because I know it’s not suitable for my publisher, Choc Lit, who are a romance specialist. This is a more literary project with elements of family drama and crime, but when I looked at the conference schedule I saw that Lisa Eveleigh from Richford Becklow was offering one-to-ones, so I took a deep breathe and sent off my synopsis, and then took myself along to meet with her. And very lovely she was too. She offered a couple of really useful plot suggestions, seemed to have really understood what I was trying to do with the story, and said she’d be happy to take a look at the full manuscript once I’m at that stage. Which takes us all the way back to number 2 – time to sit down, take a minute and make a little plan of what to do next…

 

My current novel, Sweet Nothing, and novella, Holly’s Christmas Kiss,  are available now for kindle.

In which I learn some things and wear pretty pretty shoes

Two blog posts in two days! It’s all go here. I’m aiming to post again tomorrow in a more normal random thoughts and rantings sort of way, so that would be three in three days! Don’t hold your breath though peoples – I think we all know that probably ain’t gonna happen.

Anyway, this weekend I have been at the Romantic Novelists’ Association Conference. It was my 3rd RNA Conference and I’m feeling like a bit of an old hand now. This year was particularly exciting as I was able to announce my first publishing contract which was signed just 2 days before the conference! What? You haven’t heard about that? Seems unlikely given that basically haven’t shut up about it since Friday, but just in case, all the details are in yesterday‘s blog, and I’ll gratuitously share another Choc Lit Authors pic (with me in it!) for you right here:

Choc Lit Authors

So what did I learn at conference this year? There were things, and they were threefold.

1. A nice spider graph about your major theme can help in the planning of your novel

In creative terms, the top workshop of the weekend for me was Julie Cohen’s session on Theme. I’ve been on courses with Julie before. She’s a super good writer and a brilliant teacher. If you’re interesting in novel writing I heartily recommend that you book yourself on one of her courses. I think the details on her website are for this year, but watch that space for future stuff.

Anyway, during Julie’s conference session I surprised myself by knowing very quickly what the core theme for the novel I’m about to start writing is going to be. I can also see ways in which that theme will impact on the characterisation and the interaction between different characters. Realising I’ve already got a lot of that stuff in my brain, and getting some pointers on how those instincts might translate into actual character and plot development, was invaluable given that I’m currently suffering from what is commonly known as Total Paralysing Second Novel terror.

I’ve just contracted with a publisher for my first novel, but what if that was a fluke? What if I can’t do it again? What if there is no second book in my brain? What if there is but I can’t work out how to write it? What if I work out how to write it and it’s just a bit pants? This session didn’t make those nerves go away but it did start to make me think maybe I am just beginning to sort of slightly know a little bit what I’m doing here.

2. I must not procrastinate.

Nina Harrington led a fantastic session on procrastination, specifically on how to avoid procrastination. She talked about how fear can stop us from getting on and doing things by making tasks seem overwhelming. Those of you who reached this paragraph via the traditional route of the previous paragraph will understand that that felt pretty relevant for me at the moment.

She also gave some great ideas for breaking work down into achievable chunks and carving out your precious writing time. Combined with talks from Linda Hooper on time management and Sonia Duggan on writing through your fear, I’ve come away from conference fired up and ready to get stuck into edits and rewrites and cracking on with that difficult second novel. I’ve even written myself a little daily schedule to show where all the writing and editing fits into the day. Hurrah.

3. And finally, these shoes are art. They should not be worn as actual footwear.

So very pretty but so very hurty
So very pretty but so very very hurty.

And that is all. According to my lovely shiny new schedule, I’m supposed to be doing some rewrites right now, so I shall be gone from this place. Bye bye.

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.