Friday, 22 July 2011

The secret to falling in love with your novel again... holding the bound proof/Advanced Review Copy in your hands for the first time.

It arrived today and I actually gasped when I opened the package.

I've seen a pencil sketch of the actual cover - it's completely different to this one - and I know this cover is just temporary (a bound proof is for marketing/PR purposes and isn't for sale) and the 'real' book isn't out until 10th November but it's just so damned pretty!

And pink!

And the tag line - 'All she wants for Christmas are three little words' - is just perfect!

Not only that but, all of a sudden, the 90,000 or so words I've rewritten and edited fifteen million times over the last two years (okay so I'm exaggerating slightly but I did put a hell of a lot of work into this novel) are suddenly real.

They're not just part of my laptop they an actual, proper, you-can-turn-the-pages-and-everything BOOK!

There have been times over the last few years where I would quite happily have thrown this novel (if it existed outside of my laptop) against the nearest wall but now I just want to stroke it and stare at it (I'll draw the line at coo-ing!) and carry it around with me.

I know people compare books to babies and even the mother of the ugliest baby in the world thinks it's beautiful, so excuse the gushing. I'm ever-so-slightly in love.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Cally joins the 21st century reading revolution!

I finally did it. I finally caved and bought myself a Kindle.

I ordered one:

- partly b/c I was ashamed that I was in the minority with my hand not in the air when Simon Petherick asked, in his RNA talk on the future of publishing, who had a Kindle

- partly because I'm getting sick of weighing down my handbag (and shoulder) with a heavy book during my once-weekly Bristol to London commute*

- and partly because I think it might be a good way to proofread the novels I write without causing the destruction of several small forests.

But mostly because I'm a bit of a geek and this looks like one gadget that is going to be around for a bit.

It is, I have to say, quite lovely. Much lighter than I thought and the text on screen really is easy on the eye with no glare whatsoever. But now I'm faced with a dilemma...which book to buy first?

If you're a Kindle owner what did you buy? Any hints/tips you'd like to pass on to a newbie?

*Please note, I haven't gone over to the dark side and will continue to buy lovely, strokeable 'proper' books as well as the 'e' kind. I'll just stick to reading them at home!

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!)

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Rough drafts and thick skins

This time it's my turn to do a guest post on someone else's blog!

Back in April writer and Writers' Forum competition compiler Sally Quilford challenged the writing world to try and write 80,000 words in 80 days, starting on 1st May 2011. Over 100 writers signed up and she's been encouraging and writing alongside them ever since on the blog she set up especially for the challenge -

When she asked if any writers wanted to contribute a guest blog I stuck my hand in the air. While I haven't written 80k in 80 days, or even a NaNoWriMo 50k in 30 days, I did write the first draft of Heaven Can Wait as fast as I could (roughly 99k in 105 days) and know how hard it is to keep your motivation up.

So here's my post on 'Rough Drafts and Thick Skins'. It's about the importance of writing a fast, dirty first draft and saving the polishing for your edits. In other words, as I wrote in the guest post, "if you read your first draft back and think ‘this is shit’, that’s absolutely the RIGHT thing to think."

Monday, 11 July 2011

A wonderful surprise at the RNA Conference 2011 Where do I start?

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

"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 novel opening was about a girl in a 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

Cally Taylor


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...”


“ stepped in front of the bus?”

Still nothing.

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.