I had planned to blog about attending the Romantic Novelist's conference for the first time - my initial impressions, the talks, who I met, the food etc - and I took lots of photos, wrote lots of notes and then Saturday threw me a total curve ball.
A wonderful, totally unexpected curve ball.
So I think I'll start there and work backwards...
After a day full of brilliant talks (I'll be blogging the descriptive writing and creating credible characters ones in more detail later this week) it was finally time for the Gala dinner. The main hall had been completed transformed by the wonderful staff at Caerleon Campus, Newport...
...and I took a seat at a table with Tamsyn Murray, Ruth Saberton, Miranda Dickinson, Joanna Cannon, Kate Harrison and Julie Cohen (I know - talk about esteemed company!).
(from l to r: Joanna Cannon, Miranda Dickinson, Ruth Saberton, Tamsyn Murray)
We swapped news, made each other laugh and had a good old gossip over dinner (avocado and tomato starter, chicken tarragon main and some kind of pannacotta dessert) and then it was time for the winner of the Elizabeth Goudge Trophy to be announced.
I nearly didn't enter the Elizabeth Goudge competition (to write a 1,000 word novel opening on the theme of 'keeping a secret') because the info arrived bang in the middle of my move from Brighton to Bristol and the closing date was about 2 weeks later. I was also a bit nervous. I'd been editing my second novel, 'Home for Christmas', for what felt like forever and I was worried I'd lost 'it', the ability to write something fresh. But, never one to walk away from a challenge, I decided that I'd bloody well write an entry - no matter how rusty or rubbish - and I'd finish it and get it the post. It would give me a sense of satisfaction that I'd written something new and different, if nothing else.
Annie Ashcroft, the new Chair of the RNA, took to the microphone and announced that, like the Oscars, she'd be talking about each of the six shortlisted entries in turn before revealing the top 3. The names of the authors of each story were in sealed envelopes so the judges, and the listening audience (of approximately 160 writers!) had no idea who'd written each story - they just knew the title.
Annie announced the title of the first shortlisted story and Kate Harrison turned to look at me to ask if it was mine (I'd, somewhat stupidly, announced to the table that I'd sent an entry in).
I shook my head. No, not mine.
We repeated this routine for the next three shortlisted stories and my heart began to sink - what an idiot for getting my hopes up that I stood a chance of making into onto the shortlist when I was in the company of so many talented writers. But THEN...
"Story number 5 'The Somnambulist's Daughter'"
I sat up with a a jolt. That was mine!
Oh my god. I'd made the top six. How wonderful! Not only that but I was on the shortlist with fellow blogger and Orion writer Liz Fenwick who was sitting at the next table with Anna Louise Lucia (who'd kindly sent all conference newbies a series of emails to calm our frayed nerves before it began) who was also shortlisted.
I listened, bursting with pleasure, as Annie described my novel opening and the audience gasped in response (it's one of the darkest things I've written in a while!).
Then it was time for the top three, in reverse order. I listened, my heart in my chest, as Annie announced third place, then second place - Liz Fenwick! Cue loads of whoops and excited clapping from the next table.
I held my breath...surely...no...
"And in first place, the girl in the coma story..."
My heart sunk. My story was called 'The Somnambulist's Daughter' not the 'The Girl in the...' Hang on! Why was Tamsyn Murray bouncing up and down next to me? Why was my table beaming at me and clapping wildly?
"And the writer," Annie said as she opened the sealed envelope, "is Cally Taylor."
Oh my god...my novel opening was about a girl in a coma...my story had won! I stood up, as the other finalists had been asked to, and clasped my hands to my mouth. I was so shocked it was all I could do not to burst into tears.
Annie and Jan Jones beckoned me over the the microphone and I accepted my award in a complete daze. One second Jan was explaining to me about how I should get my name engraved on it and the next every woman in the room was raising her glass to me.
*okay, the memory of that moment just overwhelmed me. Slight pause while I have a bit of a cry*
Right..*coughs*...sorry about that... where was I? Yep, somehow I got back to my table and composed myself enough for some photos. Call me cheesy but I couldn't resist doing 'a Wimbledon' pose with my cup (I've never been any good at sport!). So many people came over to congratulate me and say wonderful things about my novel opening I couldn't even begin to name them all and the rest of the evening passed in a glorious, delirious blur.
It was quite honestly one of the best nights of my life and HUGE THANKS to everyone on my table for making it so special, the judges, Annie Ashurst, Jan Jones, Catherine Jones/Kate Lace and everyone else involved. I should also thank my fabulous boyfriend for spotting an error in the first paragraph when I asked him to give it a quick read before I sent it off (it was swiftly corrected before it went in the post!).
Big, big congrats to Liz Fenwick (who has also blogged about the award) and Anna Louise Lucia.
So here we go - possibly the happiest woman at the RNA Conference 2011:
And here's my winning novel opening (for those who asked if they could read it):
The Somnambulist’s Daughter
Coma. There’s something innocuous about the word, soothing almost in the way it conjures up the image of a dreamless sleep. Only Charlotte doesn’t look as though she’s sleeping to me. There’s no soft heaviness to her closed eyelids. No curled fist pressed up against her temple. No warm breath escaping from her slightly parted lips. There is nothing peaceful at all about the way her body lies, prostrate, on the duvet-less bed, a clear plastic tube snaking its way out of her mouth, her chest polka-dotted with multicoloured electrodes.
The heart monitor in the corner of the room bleep-bleep-bleeps, marking the passage of time like a medical metronome and I close my eyes. If I concentrate hard enough I can transform the unnatural chirping into the reassuring tick-tick-tick of the grandfather clock in our living room. Fifteen years fall away in an instant and I am thirty-seven again, cradling baby Charlotte to my shoulder, her slumbering face pressed into the nook of my neck, her tiny heart out-beating mine, even in sleep. Back then it was so much easier to keep her safe.
“Sue?” There is a hand on my shoulder, heavy, dragging me back into the stark hospital room and my arms are empty again, save the sticker-covered diary I clutch to my chest. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
I shake my head then instantly change my mind. “Actually, yes.” I open my eyes. “Do you know what else would be nice?”
Brian shakes his head.
“One of those lovely teacakes from M&S.”
My husband looks confused. “I don’t think they sell them in the canteen.”
“Oh.” I look away, feigning disappointment and instantly hate myself. It isn’t in my nature to be manipulative. At least I don’t think it is. There’s a lot I don’t know any more.
“It’s okay.” There’s that hand again. This time it adds a reassuring squeeze to its repertoire. “I can pop into town.” He smiles at Charlotte. “You don’t mind if I leave you alone with your mum for a bit?”
If our daughter heard the question she doesn’t let on. I reply for her by forcing a smile. It is a traitor’s grimace. No...a police sergeant’s. My husband is a potential suspect and I don’t even know if he’s guilty.
“She’ll be fine,” I say.
Brian looks from me to Charlotte and back again. There’s no mistaking the look on his face -it’s the same wretched expression I’ve worn for the last six weeks whenever I’ve left Charlotte’s side – terror she might die the second we leave the room.
“She’ll be fine,” I repeat, more gently this time. “I’ll be here.”
Brian’s rigid posture relaxes, ever so slightly, and he nods. “Back soon.”
I watch as he crosses the room, gently shutting the door with a click as he leaves, then release the diary from my chest and rest it on my lap. I keep my eyes fixed on the door for what seems like an eternity. Brian has never been able to leave the house without rushing back in seconds later to retrieve his keys, his phone or his sunglasses or to ask a ‘quick question’ . When I am sure he has gone I turn back to Charlotte. I half expect to see her eyelids flutter or her fingers twitch, some sign that she realises what I am about to say but nothing has changed. She is still ‘asleep’.
“Darling,” I fumble the diary open and turn to the page I’ve already memorised. “Please don’t be angry with me but...” I glance at my daughter to monitor her expression. “...I found your diary when I was tidying your room yesterday.”
Nothing. Not a sound, not a flicker, not a tic or a twinge. And the heart monitor continues its relentless bleep-bleep-bleeping. It is a lie of course, the confession about finding her diary. I found it years ago when I was changing her sheets. She’d hidden it under her mattress, exactly where I’d hidden my own teenaged journal so many years before. I didn’t read it though, back then, I had no reason to. Yesterday I did.
“In the last entry,” I say, pausing to lick my lips, my mouth suddenly dry, “you mention a secret.”
Charlotte says nothing.
“You said keeping it was killing you.”
“Is that why...”
“...you stepped in front of the bus?”
Brian calls what happened an accident and has invented several theories to support this belief:
- Charlotte was texting
- She saw a friend on the other side of the street and rushed across the road without looking
- She saw an injured animal that needed rescuing
- She stumbled and tripped
- She was in her own little world
Plausible, all of them. Apart from the fact the bus driver told the police she caught his eye then deliberately stepped into the road, straight into his path. Brian thinks he’s lying, covering his own back because he’ll lose his job if he gets convicted of dangerous driving. I don’t.
Yesterday, when Brian was at work and I was on bed watch, I asked the doctor if she had carried out a pregnancy test on Charlotte. She looked at me suspiciously and asked why, did I have any reason to think she might be? I replied that I didn’t know but I thought it might explain a thing or two. I waited as she checked the notes. No, she wasn’t.
“Charlotte,” I shuffle my chair forward so it’s pressed up against the bed and wrap my fingers around my daughter’s. “Nothing you say or do could ever stop me from loving you. You can tell me anything. Anything at all.”
Charlotte says nothing.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s about you, one of your friends, me or your dad.” I pause. “Is the secret something to do with your dad? Squeeze my fingers if it is.”
I hold my breath, praying she doesn’t.