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.

Where I muse on chick lit, writing and accepting feedback

There’s a bit of a rumpus in chick lit world at the moment. Earlier in September the author, Polly Courtney, publicly dumped her publisher, Harper Collins, ostensibly for marketing her books with what she felt were misleadingly chick lit-ish covers. She explains in her own words more fully here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/sep/16/chick-lit-womens-fiction

This was closely followed by a flurry of news stories detailing the fall-off in chick lit sales (for example http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/have-we-fallen-out-of-love-with-chick-lit-2361445.html), and topped off by this delightfully reasonably headlined piece by Harriet Walker in the Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/harriet-walker-saccharine-silage-that-fails-women-2361506.html

Obviously, what this debate needs is another random internet opinion, so here we go. To start off in any sort of half intelligent debate, it’s important to agree about what your terminology actually means. Doing so can avoid a lot of unneccessary bickering over stuff it turns out everyone actually agrees about. So what do we mean by chick lit?

Probably most of us who frequent bookshops or spend inordinate numbers of hours browsing on Amazon can bring a picture into our minds of what we perceive as a classic chick lit novel. You’re probably picturing a pink, or predominantly pastel coloured, cover with sparkly writing and a semi-cartoonish picture of a woman wearing shoes. Alternatively, you might be picturing one of those stylised photo covers showing just a woman’s legs, or a pair of hands entwined. But that’s just the cover. What makes a story chick lit?

Again, the classic understanding would probably suggest that we’re talking about a youngish single-ish female protagonist, a plot that’s heavy on romance, a contemporary setting, a good dash of humour, and usually a story that involves some sort of self-discovery or self-development on the part of the heroine. So let’s look at a couple of those writers that the Independent cites as being emblematic of the fall-off in chick lit sales. Do they match that template?

We’ll start with Dorothy Koomson. I would suggest that Koomson’s early work fits well into that classic chick lit template. The Chocolate Run, for example is a story laced with humour and centred around a heroine learning to trust rather than run in a developing relationship. But Koomson’s work has shifted and developed over time. Her more recent novels, notably The Ice-cream Girls (which is fabulous – you should all definitely read it) would probably be better described as psychological thrillers. The cover art, though, remains stylised and heavy on the pastels.

Marian Keyes is another interesting author. Often described as one of the first chick lit writers, she has been seen as one of the big players in the genre for over 15 years. Her work is certainly funny, and generally follows female protagonists. However, in a number of her novels, for example This Charming Man  or Rachel’s Holiday, any romance is a secondary plot, while the story’s main focus is on an issue such as addiction or domestic abuse.

So, it looks like it’s actually kind of tricky to define what we mean by chick lit, and that’s before we even start to try to unpick the broader term used by some booksellers, “Women’s Fiction.” What is, perhaps,even more fascinating is the level of vitriol towards what is perceived as light entertainment aimed at women. You don’t generally see a lot of newspaper opinion pieces arguing that the wide availability of action thriller novels has stunted male intellectual development, so it makes me uneasy that female writers are expected to in some way represent their whole gender.

There are essentially only two types of book that matter to me as a reader or writer. There are good books, and there are lousy books. There are lousy books in most genres, and chick lit is by no means exempt from the lazy and the formulaic, but there is also some really classy and interesting work out there. (I’m particularly liking Sarra Manning at the minute). Being light, being funny, and being by and about a woman, does not make your story intrinsically inferior. Suggesting that it does was daft when people did it about Jane Austen and it’s still daft now.

Which shouldn’t be taken to imply that I have no issues with the way that fiction by women, and about women, is sold and marketed at the moment. Here I can only write from my own prejudices and opinions, so please jump into the comments and argue with me if you don’t agree.

About 3 months ago, I attended a talk by a editor from a very large mainstream publisher of popular fiction, who said that they were looking for chick lit that was lighter, frothier and more escapist. That made my heart sink a little. There is absolutely a place for those books, and for writers and readers who love those books, but looking at writers like Marian Keyes, tells us that in the past chick lit was a much broader church. It does worry me slightly that publishers aren’t seeing a place for more issue-led or just slightly edgier romantic comedy. And it’s also concerning that books like Dorothy Koomson’s more recent work might be being marketed in such a way that is making it harder for them to reach the widest possible potential readership. The pastel cover will attract Koomson’s existing readers who recognise her “brand” but will it encourage regular readers of crime and thriller novels to give her work a go?

It’s also interesting, I think, to look at another standout successful romance novel of recent years, this time by a male writer. David Nicholls’ One Day was a huge hit with readers, and spawned the obligatory bestseller’s movie. The book was published under a very gender-neutral orange and cream cover, the colours and artwork being striking but very un-girly. My guess it that the same book, by a female writer, would have been marketed quite differently, in a manner that could have alienated a potential wider audience, including a lot male readers.

And this brings me onto my own writing. Now I don’t normally blog about writing. I do have a slight sense that writing about writing is a tad on the self-indulgent side, which given that in this sentence I’m now writing about writing about writing, probably means I’m about to drown in a torrent of my own self-importance. Moving on…

I have just received my feedback report from the RNA New Writers Scheme on the current draft of my first novel, which would probably fall under the broad heading of “chick lit”. There were some really positive comments, and some really useful feedback about plot and pacing which has got my head buzzing with rewrite ideas. I am, though, unsure whether those ideas will ever make it into the manuscript, as there are elements to the book, which I’m starting to feel are too fundamental to change, but really weaken the chances of interesting an agent or publisher in the finished manuscript.

For example, the story is told from the point of view of four different first person narrators, a technique which I now realise was quite ambitious for a first novel! I also now realise that a lot of readers (and writers) just don’t like first person narration. So do I rewrite the whole thing in the third person, as my feedback report suggests? I’m unenthusiastic about the idea at the moment, partly just because that’s a massive job, but also because I, personally, really like the different narrative voices, and do I really want to end up with a novel that I don’t like as much?

So, what to do next? Redraft using the feedback on pacing/plotting but leave the narrative style alone, accepting that the chances of publication in that form are beyond super-super-super-slim? Redraft fully into a third person narrative, and risk losing part of what I love in the manuscript? Or just chalk this down as novel writing attempt number 1 and move onto something else? At the moment that last option seems to be beckoning. I have an idea for novel number 2 which is buzzing at my brain, but would that be “giving up” too easily? Would it be better to do another redraft of number 1 and try to follow through with that piece of work? Decisions. Decisions. Comments about chick lit and suggestions on the writing both welcome – do you always take all feedback on board, or do you make decisions about when to accept feedback points and when to stick to your guns? And when do you walk away from a work-in-progress?

Another review… The Last Letter from your Lover

Well, three posts in, this seems to be turning into a reviews blog, which wasn’t really what I was intending, but these are the thoughts that are popping into my brain, so I’m going to go with the flow for the time being. Although, that in no way implies the adoption of a definite theme – I totally reserve the right to mainly be thinking about Marmite by this time tomorrow.

So, another review, but a book this time: The Last Letter from your Lover by Jojo Moyes. This was the Romantic Novellists Association’s Romantic Novel of the Year at their Pure Passion Awards, and they were right. It’s a great book. Go out; buy it; read it. That is all.

Now anyone who is feeling in a hurry can depart at this point, having gleaned the central elements of the review. For the rest of you, here’s a bit more detail, and a (slightly belated) attempt at a bit of critical balance. The book is one of those wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey narratives with a present day bit and a historic bit, and a bit of a literary device with a newspaper and some letters to marry the two halves together. In the past, the story centres on Jennifer, suffering from amnesia after a car accident and, somewhat inconveniently, losing all recollection of her ongoing extra-marital affair. In the present, Ellie is a journalist who’s currently dating a married man. Both narratives have elements of classic romance, but also explore fidelity and, more to the point, infidelity.

I should state up front that I loved this book. It drew me in and made me laugh. It didn’t quite make me cry, but I’m a hard northern bird and it still came pretty damn close. I believed in the characters and I had to keep reading to find out what would happen to them. This should serve as a health warning on this review, because  it’s tricksy to critically analyse something you simply love. It’s like being asked to evaluate your own baby. Objectively, they may look a bit Gollum-y, but they’re still your baby and you (hopefully) love them despite, as well as because.

I think the love is more because than despite in this instance though. What I liked, more than anything, about this book was the intelligence of the storytelling. Very often romance stories are so tightly bound to the necessity of a happy ever after, that the jeopardy along the way doesn’t work – you know full well that Girl always ends up with Boy. It’s like watching the bit in Grand Designs when Kevin tells you it’ll never be finshed – we believed him in series 1, but now we know that he says that every week. The “Girl loses Boy” bit of most romance stories is much the same deal. This book manages to undermine those certainties, and is, in many ways, as much about the ends of affairs as their beginnings.

A lot of the plot and structural ideas are ones that have been seen before, such as the deployment of amnesia as a plot device, but here they’re just done better. The books feels like the Jojo Moyes crafted it, and cared for it, and kept tweaking and polishing until she achieved her just-right Goldilocks novel. At least I hope she did. If I hear that she wrote it all in one go without shifting out of first gear, then Moyes might actually manage to make me cry.