In which Cora gets shortlisted for an award

Yesterday the shortlists for the RoNA Awards were announced, and (cue much jumping up and down and squealing) Cora’s Christmas Kiss is shortlisted for the RoNA Rose prize for best short or series romance. Here it is alongside the other four shortlisted titles:

Rona Rose cover images

Being shortlisted for the RoNAs is ridiculously exciting. The RNA, which organises the RoNA awards, is the organisation that made me think that maybe I could be a writer. Doing my degree in creative writing was what made me determined that I wanted to try, but it was the RNA that made me think it might actually be possible.

It was through the RNA that I met fantastic, inspirational working writers like Julie Cohen, Rowan Coleman, and Katie Fforde. It was through an RNA party that I first met my current publisher, and off the back of a really constructive RNA New Writers’ Scheme report that I actually got up the nerve to submit my first manuscript to her. It was through the RNA’s local chapter groups that I made some of my closest writing friends (one of whom – the utterly fab Janice Preston – is also nominated in the same category). So to be shortlisted in the RoNAs is particularly pleasing. It’s like having an especially valued teacher or a mentor tell you that you did ok. In her own post about the RoNAs Liz Fenwick describes the RNA as her tribe, and I can’t think of a better way of putting it. Although writing is, in many ways, a disgustingly solitary endeavour, it takes a village to get a book from idea to publication – especially a first book – and the RNA were my village.

It’s also particularly pleasing to see Cora’s Christmas Kiss shortlisted for this award. Cora has already had one shortlisting for the Love Stories Awards, and I’m ridiculously proud of the positive response to the book. While I was writing Cora the book had the working title of ‘Ridiculously Complicated and Stupidly Over-Plotted Novella’ and the moments of self-doubt as to whether I could pull off the idea that I had were many, deep and lasting. Part of me thinks that I shouldn’t need the validation of shortlistings and nice reviews, but I really really do. Ultimately books are for readers, not for writers, so hearing that readers liked a book is both massively gratifying and a huge relief.

So there you go. I’m quite excited, and prone to much giddiness at the moment – I haven’t even started on the list of people who’ve previously won RoNAs (JoJo Moyes, Jenny Colgan, Veronica Henry to name just three – squeeeee!) Anyway, I do hope you’ll excuse the light gushing.

I hope you’ll also excuse me mentioning that there are still places on my June Developing Your Novel Workshop and the May Novel Writing Retreat I’m running with Janet Gover, and that they’re both now taught by a RoNA nominee so are totally better value than they were yesterday…

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 go to a party and consider a political tsunami

Two weeks ago I confidently announced the Friday was blogday from now on. And then last week I failed to post anything, so I think we can all agree that that idea’s going well. I have an excuse though, which given my mother’s reluctance to write me a note excluding me from blogging duties*, I shall explain myself.

I was at a party.

Ok, so it’s not a great excuse. It’s pretty much on a par with taking a  day off school to go to the Radio 1 roadshow, a common practice at my school, but another one I could never get my own parents on side with. Anyway, last week was the RNA‘s Summer Party which includes the presentation of the Joan Hessayon Award for new writers. As an award contender, I squeezed myself into my spanx, did my hair, applied actual make-up and made my merry way to London town. There were seventeen of us up for the award, which mathematically equated to a 5.88% chance of winning, and the winner was… drum roll please… not me. Ah well, never mind. It’s fantastic just to be a contender etc. etc. Cue much use of my excellent ‘magnanimous loser face,’ and many many congratulations to the very lovely and clever Jo Thomas who actually did win. Hurrah for her!

2014 Joan Hessayon contenders
2014 Joan Hessayon Award contenders

Whilst I was glamming it up in London Town being all writerly and control-panted, there were European and local elections going on across the country. The results of those elections caused a political earthquake, or tsunami, or storm (depending on the natural force metaphor selected by your news provider of choice), which is a media way of trying to make the story that UKIP did quite well and the Lib Dems did quite badly sound significantly more exciting than it actually is.

If you look at the actual numbers – I know boring, but potentially actually informative – you end up feeling that rather than looking at a tsunami you’re looking at a moderately sized wave, and nobody ever uttered the phrase, ‘Look! A moderately sized wave – run for the hills!’

There are a few reasons for thinking that politicians from the main parties should dial down the panic levels in relation to the UKIP surge (and be warned – there are very few jokes in this bit, but there are a number of moderately interesting statistics). Firstly, turnout in the European elections is always low. This year, in the UK, it was around 34%. As a comparison the turnout in the 2010 general election was just over 65%, so there’s an awful lot of potential voters who simply didn’t participate in this election. Within the 34% who voted, UKIP secured around 27.5% of the vote – that’s less than a third of the vote from a third of the electorate, and it’s always wise to be a little bit cautious about electoral figures based on relatively low turnouts.

Secondly, it’s very difficult to assess how much of the UKIP vote is either likely to translate into UKIP votes at a general election, or is suggestive of strong anti-EU feeling. Mid-term European elections are traditionally a repository for protest votes and dissatisfaction with the government of the day. A YouGov poll looking at general election voting intentions yesterday put Labour’s lead over the Tories at 7% (38 to 31) with UKIP down on 16% – significantly different from the European election results just a week ago. And we can add to that the fact that pre-election polls suggested a disjoint between voters choosing UKIP in the European elections, and voters who actually want to leave the EU. A YouGov poll just before election day suggested that 42% of voters who planned to vote UKIP, would actually vote to stay in the EU in a referendum on the subject.

All in all, that suggests that what we’re dealing with here is a significant protest vote, and the main parties have to decide how they deal with that. The answer to that question all depends on what they think people are protesting against. Is the appeal of UKIP that they’re anti-EU and anti-immigration? Or is it that people feel Nigel Farage is an ‘ordinary bloke’ rather than a media-trained slick politician? Some of those polling figures, combined with the fact that scandalette after scandalette during the campaign failed to dent UKIP support suggests to me that it’s probably more the latter than the former.

So here’s a crazy idea for the other political parties – less spin, less focus-groups, less trying to guess what the electorate might want and pretending to care, less trying to make Ed Milliband look like a ‘regular guy’ when he’s clearly the natural born leader of the political uber-nerds, and more saying what you really think and letting the electorate decide. The European election results suggest to me an electorate grown weary of politicians, tired of the disingenuous streak that runs through political debate, and which isn’t often challenged effectively by the Westminster bubble political press. So stop wittering on about which party leader has the best idea of the cost of a pint of milk, and try actually thinking something’s a good idea and then doing it. It really doesn’t seem that complicated. *Sighs wearily in the direction of Westminster*

So there you go – a writerly awards party and a little bit of electoral statistics. A lovely start to the day.

Comment your little hearts out and come back tomorrow when there will be a bonus blog post following on from Laura E James in the Main Character Blog Hop.

 

* At least I assume she’d be reluctant. I haven’t actually asked. That would seem like I was taking the whole endeavour far too seriously.

In which a fat girl climbs a massive mountain, is up for an award (and rants a bit about UKIP probably)

It’s been a bit quiet on the blog of late, primarily on account of how I have been On My Holidays in the Lake District where great rains did fall from the skies, but the hotel had a jacuzzi so I didn’t really mind. Due to the blog quietness there are now a number of things that I could witter on about and I’m struggling to pick just one. Therefore, with no respect to theme or any notion of coherence, here are a number of things that have occurred:

 

1. I climbed a Massive Mountain

Between the holiday rains EngineerBoy, who, when not engaged in manly engineer type activities, likes a bit of outdoors, made me go outside into the countryside and walk about. Here’s me at the top of a Massive Mountain (which EngineerBoy, quite wrongly, termed a small hill).

Atop a massive mountain

The climbing of the massive mountain was something of an effort, on account of how I am Not Thin. However, I made it, and I realised that actually despite the Not Thinness, I’m not that unfit. All the Zumba-ing and Bokwa-ing might actually be having some effect, just not on my overall girth. Ah well, I suppose fit is better than thin, although both would be even better still.

 

2. I have a new kitchen

And it is a thing of great wonder and prettiness, at least until the first time I spill something in it and stain the worktop. After which it will be ruined for all eternity, but for now there is much wonder and prettiness and baking.

kitchen

 

3. Sweet Nothing is up for an award

See how I saved that one for third, so I could appear all nonchalant and not at all giddy about it. My debut novel, Sweet Nothing, is in contention for the Joan Hessayon Award. I’m not expecting to win. There are 17 contenders in total, so as the woman who wrote a romantic comedy about a mathematician, I have to acknowledge that 1 in 17 isn’t brilliant from a probability perspective, but I get a trip to London town where I will wear clothes that aren’t pyjamas and drink wine and get to do my best impression of a ‘nominated for an Oscar but didn’t win’ face.

 

4. There are European Elections coming up..

… in which I am led to believe UKIP are expected to do marvellously well. I find this disheartening for a whole range of reasons (some of which I banged on about previously here). The thing I mainly find disheartening though, is the quality of political journalism at the moment. It feels like nobody in the mainstream media is actually looking in detail at any of the party’s stated policies and pointing out the claims and assumptions that are simply untrue. There are some really good sites online that do this sort of thing (eg Channel 4’s FactCheck blog) but they don’t form part of the newspaper headlines or the nightly TV news, which is where most people get their information. It is all very weary-making.

 

5. And an audiobook

Back in writer land, the other excitement of the week is that the audiobook version of Sweet Nothing is now available to pre-order as a download from Amazon. I’m ridiculously excited about this. An audiobook sounds very much like something what a proper author might have.

 

So mountain, kitchen, award, elections, audiobook. Those are the things that are going on around here, along with a switch to Friday’s for my ‘regular’ blog day. At least I’m intending it to be regular, but you know what I’m like. Anyway how are things with you merry blog-reader?

In which I am Truly, Madly, Deeply excited about publication day

Truly Madly Deeply

Today is publication day for Truly, Madly, Deeply an anthology of short stories all written by RNA members. I’m absolutely delighted, over the moon, bursting with pride, and a range of other cliches besides, to have a story, Feel The Fear, included in the anthology. And so, along with a whole lot of other authors I’m blogging today about the inspiration for my story.

Feel The Fear is a story about a girl, a boy and a great and fearsome beast. You’ll have to buy Truly, Madly, Deeply to find out which of those three ends up with which. It’s a story I wrote originally fo

r a competition, a competition that I won, and for which I was given a little cup, a fact that I hardly bang on about at all. The brief for the competition was to ‘Write a short story featuring an animal.’ I considered a range of animals – dogs, cats, baby orang-utans, wild salmon, and hummingbirds (which are after all the five main sorts of animal) – before deciding on the great and fearsome beast.

But actually, cool though the beast is, that’s not actually what the story is about. The story is about fear. And that’s often the way. You can describe what a story’s about by describing who’s in it and what they do, or you can talk about what it’s really about. The theme, if you want to get all highfalutin about it.

‘So what’s your play about Mr Shakespeare?’

‘Well there’s this boy and he loves this girl, but then he sees this other girl at a party and there’s a bit of flirting on a balcony, but then it turns out she’s the daughter of his arch-enemy, which is awkward, but he, like, really really likes her. But then he murders her cousin which makes it, like, double awkward. And then there’s some business with a priest and some potions, and the boy thinks the girl – the second girl, not the first, she actually wasn’t that important at all, sorry – anyway he thinks the second girl’s dead, but she’s not, and then he is dead. And then even though she wasn’t dead, in the end she is.’

‘Er, thanks but no thanks Mr Shakespeare.’

Take 2:

‘What’s your play about Mr Shakespeare?’

‘Love. Doomed love.’

And so you see I’ve digressed from talking about Truly, Madly, Deeply and ended up on Romeo & Juliet, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Rom and Jules would score high points on the True/Mad/Deep scale, I’m sure, especially the ‘Mad’ bit. I mean, if you like a girl, don’t murder her cousin. It’s just bad manners.

Anyway. Truly, Madly, Deeply is out today featuring great stories and at least one fearsome beast. You can buy it in paperback here, or you can buy the ebook edition, which has 11 extra stories, here.

We’ve also got a handful of copies of the paperback to give away, so why not enter here.

Finally, look out on twitter for the #TrulyMadlyDeeply hashtag where there’ll be links to lots more author blogposts about the anthology, and come join us at our virtual launch party on facebook for virtual champagne and fun and games all day. I’m hosting the afternoon session between 1pm and 5pm, and Laura E James will be there all morning, and Rhoda Baxter takes over hosting duties for the evening.

Truly Madly Deeply eBook cover

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.

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.

The Unromantic Romance Writer

So here’s a curious thing, dear internet, a much adored friend of mine recently pointed out to me how odd it is that I’m currently writing romance, because, she said, I am the least romantic person you could hope to meet. She’s not the first person to observe that I’m slightly lacking in the hearts and flowers department. My sister-in-law, much more recently married than my husband and I, oftens makes fun of our habit of marking shared emotional triumphs with a high five. She considers this unemotional in the extreme. She is equally bemused by the fact that she will share a heartfelt reminiscence from her wedding day, and then ask about memories of my wedding, only to be met with a blank face and a vague excuse about it having been a frightfully long time ago.

We don’t do Valentine’s Day. We don’t do anniversary gifts. For the first 2-3 years we had a competition to see who could buy the other the most ghastly wedding anniversary card, but that petered out after I refused to spend a fiver on objectively the most hideous card ever produced (about 8 pages of “rhyming” verse, much glitter, many badly drawn flowers). It would have been a surefire contest winner, but it cost five whole English pounds, which might otherwise have been spent on important accessories.

The most romantic gift my husband has ever bought me was a dictionary and thesaurus. The most romantic gift I’ve ever bought him was… no, actually I’ve got nothing to offer there.  He’s bought me flowers about three times in 15 years. If he started buying them regularly I’d probably think about getting him checked in for a brainscan. And flowers are wasted on me. They’re lovely when they’re fresh, but the following 3 weeks, where they slowly die and then begin to rot in the vase before I get around to chucking them out, does rather take the shine off.

However, I don’t think any of the above means I’m not romantic. I’d argue that it just recognises that romance isn’t something you can buy off the shelf in a one-size fits all package. To be truly romantic a gesture has to be individual. So, in our special little world, high fives are romantic. The act of mildly winding up people who think we should be more lovey-dovey is a personal, specific shared joke. The dictionary and thesaurus present really was romantic, because it was based on a very vague comment I’d made months earlier about wanting a nice dictionary and thesaurus, because I thought that maybe one day I might like to try to write stories, and a dictionary and thesaurus seemed like the sort of thing a Proper Writer ought to own. That’s personal, and personal, I think, is romantic.

So in a very individual way, maybe I am romantic, but even if I wasn’t I don’t think that would preclude me from writing romantic stories. It’s so common for writers to be asked whether they base stories on real people and real situations, and the answer, if we’re honest, is probably both “Of course,” and “Of course not.” In the bigger sense, you can ultimately only write from the brain that you have and that is entirely conditioned and created by the life you’ve led and the influences you’ve been exposed to. Having said that, I’ve never sat down and conciously based a story on a person or situation from my own life.

As a writer I don’t want to be tied to only writing about what I’ve directly experienced. I want to make stuff up. So even if I’m not romantic, there’s nothing to stop me from writing a character who is. In the story I’ve just begun my heroine is uptight, has an overblown sense of duty and is terrified of losing people she cares about. My hero is impulsive, loyal and focussed on living life to the full. When I write about those characters, I’m not thinking, how would I react in this situation? I’m thinking, how would this character react in this situation?

Your characters aren’t you. You don’t have to live their lives. If you did, there would be no fantasy novels, no historical stories and scary crime fiction would be even scarier, knowing how many people the writer had to dismember for the purposes of research.

So, in conclusion, I don’t need to be romantic to write romance. And anyway, I do think I’m romantic, but probably only in a way that 1 other person on the planet would appreciate, and in real-life, as in fiction, you only need 1 other person to make the romance work.

Reading that last sentence back I’m finding it a bit uncomfortably mawkish, so I think that’s a good place to stop. You can scurry off and follow me on twitter, or subscribe to the blog, or leave a little comment – are you romantic or does the notion induce a mild nausea? If you write, to what extent do you draw on your own experience? Or you could not comment and run along and crack on with the day. I shall go and do something bracing and emotionally unengaging. Good-day to one and all.