Sunday, 26 July 2015

Writing Away From Home - Holiday/Retreat/Conference

The writing calendar is full of wonderful events. With financial resources at a premium how does one choose what to attend and what to just hanker after (apologies for the split infinitive)?


It’s late July, ostensibly the middle of summer here in England though you wouldn’t know it looking out of the window. It’s been raining persistently with more to come. Several of my writing friends are even now travelling to Fishguard in Wales to attend the annual Writers’ Holiday. While I’ve always thought ‘holiday’ was a bit of a misnomer, Ann and Gerry Hobbs have consistently maintained that delegates are there to enjoy themselves. This much is true as I can testify, having joined them on three consecutive years (the first two at the Caerleon Campus near Newport). In blazing sunshine last year we did indeed manage a couple of outings and a walk on the beach. One of us actually paddled – it wasn’t me! That said, we attended courses and talks, learned a huge amount and left with a strong desire to learn more…there’s always more to learn, isn’t there? A holiday? Not entirely; maybe more a combination of work and play. A wonderful week and one I can thoroughly recommend to anyone who hasn’t been before, and indeed to those who have.


In the spring of this year I went with three writerly friends on a retreat to Whitstable – I wrote about it on this blog here (you may want to refresh your memory) and the benefits of this type of ‘holiday’ are huge. Disciplined enough to set aside time for our writing, the ‘time out’ we took was essential as, in my opinion, it is impossible to maintain such a high level of concentration and output without taking any breaks. In any case, there were some little gems we were able to gather in the name of research.

It may be argued that one could work just as easily from home but that isn’t in fact the case. No matter how dedicated, there are always distractions…coffee breaks, phone calls, emails. Internet access at our retreat was almost non-existent and while this was frustrating at the time it did have the benefit of precluding displacement therapy. I know I can speak for my companions when I say that more output is achieved under these circumstances than is possible under normal circumstances.

Romantic Novelists’ Association Annual Conference

My favourite event of the year. There is little time (read that as no time) to do any actual writing. I have recently returned from this year’s Conference which took place at Queen Mary University in Mile End Road, London. It’s a wonderful campus on the Regent’s canal and I was astonished to find an old Jewish cemetery situated within the grounds. I’m sure many of you reading this will also have been there. Much has been said already on various forums so I will not expand here other than to say that I came away with my usual regret of not being able to attend two sessions at the same time. There is such a wide choice and so many opportunities to extend one’s knowledge. Ah well; it would seem the only solution is to go again next year and play catch up, while at the same time missing others – so obviously I’ll have to go again the year after, and so on.

RNA members know how to work hard but they also know how to play hard. The Gala Dinner on Saturday evening was no exception, a wonderful glittering event. Then there are the flat parties (most definitely not in the sense of dull) but no, I promised I wouldn’t expand. Suffice it to say there was much merrymaking. I’m never quite sure how it’s possible to cram so much work and play into three days but it’s a hell of a lot of fun trying.


It takes time to learn what best suits one’s needs and indeed what is most enjoyable. There are many other events in the writing calendar that I haven’t talked about here and many I have never attended, nor will I be able to. I can’t do everything but I think I have found what suits me best. Sadly Fishguard is probably off my radar for the foreseeable future. The RNA Conference and the writing retreat, be it in Whitstable or elsewhere, would always be my first choices. Anything else would be a bonus. What stands out as special in your writing year?


Friday, 17 July 2015

It's Just a Matter of Time

Just when I thought it was safe…

In my fifteen years as a writer, and with the exception of a few short stories, my work has always taken place in the 21st century. I have recently completed my fourth novel with all the advantages and disadvantages of modern technology. Mobile phones, for instance, with their instant access when really it would be much easier on the plot if contact couldn’t be immediate. How often can one pull the ‘no signal’ card? On the other hand, emails and instant messaging can and have proved a real asset at times.

But with no new plot thrusting itself to the front of my mind I wondered about changing my time setting. I looked at some of my short stories for inspiration. I thought of those authors I most like to read. Not all were contemporary. Georgette Heyer was almost my first love and most of my copies of her books have disintegrated over time. Frederica fell to pieces when I dropped her in the bath! Sadly I don’t think she’s still available with the old green cover. A seed was planted and I ordered six books. More will follow.

Then there’s Jane Austen. I never got on with Emma but Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion are long-standing favourites.

Could I write a Regency novel? 

What about the future? One of my stories, Beyond the Fringe, a sci-fi, appears in the anthology Fusion. I had a lot of fun with that one and it still makes me smile but a whole book? I think not.

Continuing to rifle through my short stories I found another that appeals and which I feel sure I could convert into a time-slip. The thought both attracts and terrifies me but what is writing without a challenge?

So…am I procrastinating? Absolutely not! I will continue to ‘play’ for a while longer until one of the now several ideas buzzing in my head shouts ME! Then the work will truly begin. After all, with contemporary romance I have had the luxury of minimal and accessible research. This new venture, if indeed I move out of my comfort zone, will take time and a huge amount of hard work and planning. For someone who is normally a pantster the thought is terrifying – but at the same time incredibly appealing. Regency/Time-Slip. Time-Slip/Regency. I’m hoping one of them will call loudly and strongly in the next few days.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

RNA Conference 2015: Are YOU Going?

As this year’s conference approaches I remember my first – Sheffield 2013. Who could forget the breakdown of the air conditioning in the midst of an amazing heatwave, much like the one we’re experiencing at the moment. Even the discomfort didn’t detract from my pleasure, and the extra knowledge and advice I took away with me were immeasurable. So when I made my booking last year for Telford it was with the expectation of (a) having a wonderful time and (b) experiencing another steep learning curve. Two years down the line I’ve come to appreciate that a huge amount of work goes into preparing and ‘staging’ this event so I asked a few questions and some advice…from some who know and from one who, as yet, doesn’t.

Eileen Ramsay – RNA Chair: How many conferences have you attended in the past and in what way, as incoming RNA Chair, has your approach to this one been different
I have attended several RNA conferences and enjoyed each one. Most are marked, not by the sessions I attended - although I still benefit from much that I learned – but by the friends made and still treasured. One or two conferences were marked by events. 2005 when there were the London bombings and I missed almost two days and the one when, with feelings of disbelief and delight, I won the Elizabeth Goudge trophy.
I must be honest and say that I’m looking forward to attending the 2015 RNA conference with a feeling akin to pure, unadulterated terror. This year I am Chairman of this wonderful organisation and my head and heart are full of the ‘hard acts’ I have to follow.
Having judged all sixty-three entries, I do, however, look forward to presenting the Elizabeth Goudge trophy to this year’s winner. Whoever you are, WELL DONE!

Jenny Barden – Conference Co-ordinator: Having received my information pack for the Conference, I’m wondering how you manage to find so many interesting speakers and panellists, and how long before the event does your work begin?
Finding speakers is part seeking out, part being receptive. It’s a complex process that I’ve done for so many years now for various literary organisations that it’s become almost second nature. Enjoying parties and networking is a help! At every literary function I go to I’ll be making new contacts and putting out feelers. Once I come across someone, whether an author, editor, agent or other professional with something interesting to offer, then I’ll make a mental note and try and obtain contact details unless the means of contact is obvious. The details are then banked and followed up as appropriate, often several months down the line. The important thing, I find, is to jot down particulars quickly but unobtrusively, so for me at parties there’s quite a lot of scribbling on the back of business cards in the ladies! In my experience, people, particularly publishing industry people, are generally much more inclined to be amenable to approaches if they’re made informally and convivially in an unpressurised way over a drink. A lot of my first introductions are made with a glass of wine in hand (or my favourite, a G&T!). I confess to enjoying it – I like finding out what people do, what makes them tick, who they know and how they relate to one another – and generally I find authors and those in the publishing industry to be very good company.

The result of all this is that I now have an extensive list of first rate people I know whom I can call on to appear at literary functions. For this year’s RNA conference the job was made much easier by the past success of RNA events and the magnificent work of conference supremo, Jan Jones. Pretty well every author and publishing professional with a serious interest in romantic fiction is familiar with the RNA and their conferences, and that awareness is now extending globally. For example, this year we have Jim Azevedo, marketing director of Smashwords, one of the largest world-wide distributors of self-published ebooks, talking via Skype from the US about ‘How to Top the Charts with ebook Preorders’. Jim was one of those speakers who came to us rather than being sought out, and I would say that a significant proportion of authors on the cast list are there for the same reason – because they have made an excellent pitch for a programme place. This is what I mean about ‘being receptive’. You have to be prepared for the unexpected! – ready to make room, jiggle and balance for those who come forward with good ideas, as well as seek out those with special expertise who are new to RNA events so that delegates always have fresh faces on the agenda. Sometimes you have to jump very quickly. The process becomes much more intense in the closing stages of finalising the programme, and inevitably there are those who come forward late with great suggestions who then have to go on the list for next year. A sure sign of a tip-top conference is a strong waiting list!

The work begins before the last conference even starts! To give you an instance of this, in May, at the RNA’s summer party, I met the lovely Helen Bryant, founder director of Cornerstones, and invited her to the next conference in 2016. It was too late to ask her to this year’s conference, but she’ll be coming to Lancaster. The work never stops. I’ve now stepped down from conference co-ordination, though I’ll still be advising and helping behind the scenes, and I expect I’ll always be keeping an eye open for interesting speakers, glass in hand!

Jan Jones – Conference Organiser: Is there any particular advice or are there any tips you could offer conference first-timers?
Enjoy. Take the golden opportunity of the conference weekend to be yourself. Soak up the
empowerment that comes from being surrounded by writers and writerly talk - and then remember that feeling when you go home and are enmeshed by ordinary life again.

I'd also say go to as many sessions as you can, because you will always learn something, even if it's not what you expected.

Above all, don't stress, don't worry, talk to people and they will talk back to you.

And yes, enjoy.

Elaine Everest – Pitch Session Manager: Many of the delegates will have been hoping to gain one2ones with industry professionals. Can you give us an insight how you organise this aspect of the conference?
I love RNA conferences and have learned so much over the years. This is my second year as Pitch Session Manager as part of the Conference Team. Jenny Barden and Jan Jones keep me in the loop with news of industry professionals and as soon as the schedule of Industry Appointments is created I make my charts and lists. The week leading up to Conference pack going out I will try to prepare myself. This will mean making sure I have no outstanding articles to file for my journo work, class notes are up to date for my teaching work and the dog is groomed if there is a dog show in June – I failed this year and Henry is happy he escaped the bath tub!

The day packs hit doormats my inbox goes mad. I answer each request in the order they arrive and reply with times and dates by return. I also request that the first chapter and synopsis is returned to me as soon as possible. As submissions arrive I complete my lists and send those magical chapters to publishers, editors and agents. Towards the end of June I have to chase those who have not been so quick off the mark with submissions.

I love to meet delegates at the conference with updates of how they got on in their interviews. News of successes later is fabulous as I feel as though in a small way I’ve helped them gain publication.

In the middle of June edits arrived from my editor at Pan Macmillan for The Woolworths’ Girls. My husband came home to find me hiding in the corner hyperventilating. He pointed out that I love my job and all it entails. I realised he was right and carried on…!
PS did I mention we also have to keep the RNA blog afloat as well?

Wendy Clarke – Delegate Conference First-Timer: How do you feel being a member of the New Writers’ Scheme at her first Conference?
Less than two weeks to go, and already I am thinking about it… with a mixture of trepidation and
excitement. Questions go round and round in my head… What shall I take? Which workshops should I do? Will anyone talk to me? I am sure that I am not alone in feeling a bit unsure – I am, after all, a newbie and it’s beginning to feel a bit like my first day at school! So what made me decide to go to the conference? Well, many things – most importantly that Natalie, among others, told me I had to!

Seriously though, as I passed the halfway mark of my first novel, I realised that the chance to hear great speakers, pick people’s brains and generally share experiences would be far too good an opportunity to pass up. I am very excited to hear what the agents and editors I am seeing think of the chapter and synopsis I’ve sent them. Will they like it? Will they give me tips to improve it? Will they notice that I am petrified? There’s only one way to find out.

The conference will be a chance to dress up in the evening, meet people I’ve only ever spoken to online and make new friends… oh, and I’ve also been told there’s wine and chocolate! What’s not to like?

I can’t stress enough how grateful I am to all those above who contributed to this post. I gave each of them very little notice and every one has come up trumps – giving truth to the saying ‘If you want something done, ask a busy person’. I look forward to seeing them and (hopefully) you at what to me has become the main event of the year.