Wednesday, 13 July 2011

On being a virgin (RNA conference virgin, that is)

I can't remember why I didn't go to the Romantic Novelist's Association conference last year - possibly because I was knee deep in Home for Christmas edits - but there was no way I was going to miss this years', particularly as Newport is only half an hour from Bristol by train!

My weekend got off to a great start when I ran into Kate Harrison at the train station at about 2.30pm on Friday afternoon. We shared a taxi to the Caerleon Campus where the conference was being held and navigated the stairs and corridors to find our way to the main RNA registration room (we were actually looking for reception and the keys to our rooms but it didn't matter in the greater scheme of things). We were greeted by a very cheerful Jan Jones and given our name badges (it's surprising how quickly you can get used to other people immediately peering at your chest the moment they meet you!) and a goody bag containing 4 free books (woo hoo!), various promotional postcard, bookmarks & pens and a 100g bar of Green & Blacks chocolate (yum).

We left our suitcases there and went off in search of the first session - the 3pm session by literary agent Lizzy Kremer.

Here's a quick summary of what she said:

- in order for her to take on a novel she has to know that she can sell it. She also has to love it. Mostly she needs to love it.
- the characters in the novel need to feel real and she has to like spending time with them.
- pacing and plot need to work, she has to be eager to find out what happens next.
- and the voice needs to ring out
- she takes women's fiction by, and about, women.
- she likes books about love - romantic love, mothers, female friendship, grief and journeys of self-discovery (self love)

The rest of her talk was about what makes for a good contract and I learnt loads.

After Lizzie's talk I sped round to reception with my case and picked up the keys to my room. It was a fairly Spartan student room with a single bed and a noisy warm fridge but it came with complimentary toiletries and an en-suite. Result! (I'm easily pleased!). I made it back to the main building in time for Anne Ashurst's (RNA Chairman) welcome, swiftly followed by the RNA Award Winners Panel. It featured Louise Allen (love story of the year), Elizabeth Chadwick (historical novel of the year), Jill Mansell (romantic comedy of the year) and was chaired by the effervescent Jane Wenham-Jones.

I didn't write notes on this session but it made for fascinating listening, finding out how long other authors took to write their books, whether they plotted or not and how many drafts they completed. The biggest surprise of the discussion, for me, was finding out that Jill Mansell writes all her novels long hand. She splits the page in half down the middle, writes the first draft on the right hand side and edits on the left. When she's finished someone (I think she said her daughter) types it up for her. It's not that she's a technophobe, she said, she just can't type very fast!

Friday ended with drinks in the bar and self-service dinner in the refectory. There were so many people I recognised, and so many friendly faces that were up for a chat, I was never without someone to talk to.

Saturday started at 9am with a terrifically useful workshop on descriptive writing, lead by Linda Gillard. I took extensive notes and - with Linda's generous permission - I'll be writing a full blog post on what I learnt later this week or next.

After the morning break it was time for Jane Wenham-Jones's session on finding the hook/angle for your book.

(Jane Wenham-Jones: Where's the hook? What's my angle?)

It was a really fun, interactive session where the audience got to shout out their 6 second elevator pitches to gauge Jane's reaction.

What's an elevator pitch? Well, imagine you are in a lift with the agent/publisher of your dreams and you've got 6 seconds to tell them what your book is about before the doors open. You can't waffle, you need to be specific and paint a picture with your description.

I really struggled with mine for 'Home for Christmas' (and didn't shout it out) but think it's something along the lines of 'One Day meets When Harry Met Sally, set in a Brighton cinema' (see, told you it was rubbish!)

The next session I attended was run by Flo Nicholl & Anna Boatman (assistant editors at Mills and Boon) about 'the unpredictable journey to happy-ever-after'.

(Flo Nicholl & Anna Boatman: the unpredictable journey to happy-ever-after)

I was hoping the session would be generic to all novels with happy-ever-after novels but it was quite specific to Mills and Boon. If you'd like to know what they said please leave a comment and I'll type up my notes if there's a lot of interest.

After a lovely lunch of jacket potato with ham and salad, followed by cheesecake (oops!) it was time for Liz Fielding's session on blending humour with emotion.

(Liz Fielding: Blending Humour with Emotion)

It was another fantastically useful session and highlights included:

- Liz pointing out that the big draw in romantic comedies is when the humour stops being funny and becomes poignant
- humour during low moments (eg. In Pretty Woman when Richard Gere asks Julia Roberts several times how she is and she relies 'fine'. Frustrated he asks her for another word to which she answers 'Asshole!)
- stick with wry smile moments rather than pratfalls. The smile of recognition from the reader heightens the emotional impact
- think about using all 5 senses in the humorous bits of your novel

At 3.15pm it was time for 'Creating characters we believe in' with Rachel Summerson (who writes as Elizabeth Hawksley).

(Rachel Summerson: Creating characters we believe in)

This was another session where I took extensive notes and Rachel was kind enough to grant me permission to feature them on this blog. More about that session later this/next week but basically we looked at what makes for a believable hero, heroine and supporting cast.

Next up was Lorelei Mathias's talk on 'Book marketing for small pockets' during which she showed us examples of marketing campaigns/websites/book trailers, including ones for her own books, that had either been successful/well received or gone viral. More on that in another blog post I think!

(Lorelei Mathias: Book marketing for small pockets)

And that was that for Saturday...apart from the wonderful Gala dinner and my wonderful
surprise (see previous post).

Sunday began with a full English breakfast (well why not, in for a penny in for a pound!) followed at 9am by Fiona Harper's hugely useful talk on 'getting emotion on the page and keeping it there'.

(Fiona Harper: Getting Emotion on the Page and Keeping it There)

It was such a gem of a session I don't think I stopped writing once in the hour I was there. Highlights included:

- the importance of universal emotion. Your setting can be unfamiliar to the reader but they must be able to identify with the emotion
- BUT, to increase emotion in your book you need to be specific about how your character reacts to a situation rather than them reacting how everyone would
- build your characters from the inside out, starting with their core truths. What are their beliefs? Their values? Their goals? Their past wounds? Their fears?
- grow your characters, it's all about the character arc of their emotional journey - particularly their inner conflict

Next up was Simon Petherick's talk on 'the future of fiction publishing'.

Simon started his talk by telling us that publishing power has moved from the publishers to the retailers but now the retailers are struggling because of rent costs etc and the key change for the future is technological. are now selling more e-books than physical books. Simon thinks that, because it's relatively easy for an individual to publish their own ebooks, in the future writers will become stronger and weaknesses will be with the publishers. This is because writers will always be needed to create stories but the role of publishers will change. They will need to convince writers to have their ebooks published by them on the strength of the marketing might they can offer. Simon stressed that the most important element when it comes to selling an ebook is to get the jacket right (see the recent Catherine Cookson books on Kindle for an example of getting it wrong!)

The day ended for me with a round table discussion on marketing with fellow authors before Anne Ashurst summed up her first conference as Chairman.

I had lunch then spent half an hour lapping up the early afternoon sunshine with Tamsyn Murray before our taxi to the station arrived. I left, utterly exhausted, but with a notebook bulging with notes, a head throbbing with ideas (I actually woke up the other night with a marketing idea for Home for Christmas and couldn't get back to sleep until I'd written it down!) and a renewed enthusiasm for writing romantic comedies. And let's not forget all the friends I caught up with, the new ones I made and all the laughs, moans and chats that made the weekend.

Will I be going to next year's conference? You try and stop me!

(all photos by me!)


Debs Carr said...

Thanks for the brilliant conference post, I look forward to reading your others.

Glad you had a great time. I intend being there next year too.

Cally said...

Thanks Debs! (I was starting to think the comments were broken, it was so quiet around here!). Brilliant that you're going next year too. See you there hopefully :)

Jude said...

Great round-up Cally. I came away from the weekend with my head reeling and writer's cramp from all the notes I scribbled. See you in Penrith!

Cally said...

Jude - I know what you mean about the head reeling feeling. I'm not sure I've come down yet!