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 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 am writerly for the 2nd week in a row

Well, you can wait for months for a writing-related blog post around here, and then two come along at once. So after getting all researchy for my novel in progress last week (thanks to everyone who offered their own memories of being a 1960s teenager in the comments), today I’m thinking about writing shorter stuff.

I used, way back in the mists of time when I was fresh-faced young creative writing student, to write quite a lot of shorter pieces. I dabbled with both poetry and short stories, with fairly limited success. When I decided, back in 2009, that I wanted to Do Novels, I pretty much stopped writing short things. More recently I’ve started again, mainly with short stories – I am so definitely not a poet –  and I’m trying to work out the best approach.

There are gazillions of places that writers can submit or showcase short stories and poetry. There are big competitions, little competitions, print magazines (although sections of that market are shrinking rapidly), e-zines, writing blogs and spoken word events. So what’s the best line of attack? Should one just write stuff that you think is good and interesting and then look for a outlet for the piece? Or is it best to target specific competitions or publications?

One story that I did have success with, winning a lovely shiny little cup, was written specifically for that competition, but that was a competition with a specified theme. Others are more open, so perhaps have less requirement for the writer to write something specifically for that competition.

Another big potential outlet for short pieces of writing is Spoken Word events. These seem to have got more and more popular over the last couple of years, to the point where I, at least, can barely leave the house without someone shouting their poetic offering at me. I find spoken word events tricky though. For me, there’s a big difference between a piece of writing that works well for an individual reading it off the page, and a piece that works as a verbal performance.

Attending Spoken Word evenings I’ve sat through plenty of pieces that might have been just fine to read quietly to oneself, but which all but died on their author’s poor tired feet in performance. So, for me, Spoken Word events are something that, if I choose to do them, I have to write something particular for.

So, how best to target one’s writing resources? Is it better to keep one’s eyes on a single goal – for me that would be novel writing – and exclusively focus on that? Or is it better to pick out and target specific short story competitions to build experience and profile (and if you’re lucky get some prize money)? Or should writing be a purely creative endeavour where we write what we love and look for somewhere to submit/publish it later? What do you think world?