Sunday, July 26, 2009

RNA Conference 2009: Sunday and Monday

Yes, another late post. So shoot me: another labyrinthitis attack plus a (not) christening (when I say not, I mean it was basically a christening party without the christening part. After all, I was christened, and it didn't do me any good).

Conference Sunday began slightly better than Saturday, but I still didn't make it to the first workshop of the day. The second was Kathy Gale's "What Publishers Want", a topic of interest to all writers. Unfortunately, what publishers want seems to be unknown even to themselves: jumping on a trend is unlikely to work and nobody at all can predict the next breakout book. But if you want to see what's popular, check the Sunday Times bestseller list, which is usually the most accurate. Misery memoirs seem to be declining in popularity, perhaps due to the gloomy economic climate that makes feelgood fiction so appealing. Kathy wondered if regional sagas might go the same way; they certainly don't seem to be in demand as they used to be.

Her advice for submitting authors was not to worry about pace at the expense of description; get your formatting right (thereby reducing the number of excuses a busy editor has for rejecting you out of hand); and know where you'll fit in the market. Don't get all grandiose about it, but try something like, "I'd like to be considered the new {insert name of bestselling author in similar genre}" in your query letter.

Kathy also advised that contrary to popular opinion, an author's appearance does matter. This does not mean you have to look like a supermodel, but you do need to be professional and promotable. Publishers love having an 'angle' to promote--think of JK Rowling as such a poor single mother she had to write in a cafe because she couldn't afford her heating bills. (Yes, later they admitted this was a fabrication, which I always thought anyway: where I come from, cafes expect you to buy their food, which certainly adds up over the day and can't be much cheaper than leccy bills).

Apparently it takes 10,000 hours of work to become a genius. Now, I don't know about that--I mean, I had to go back and re-spell 'genius'--but by my calculations, if you work on something eight hours a day for five days a week, you'll be a genius at it in less than five years. Do with that what you will.

After morning coffee, our chairman Katie Fforde summed up the conference--I don't recall her exact words but it was something along the lines of how brilliant we all were. Liz Bailey told us about the truly excellent PR the RNA had gathered over the past year and asked us to nominate our dream date for the next Awards Lunch. I couldn't possibly tell you who my vote went for, but...oh go on then. He's tall, he has a brilliant smile, looks fab in pinstripes and likes travelling in time.

After lunch, bestselling author Rachel Summerson entertained us all by reading some of her very early literary efforts, penned when she was a teenager growing up in a rambling country house and succession of mad-sounding boarding schools. I have to say, I felt a lot better about my early writing endeavours...

In the afternoon, Jodi Thomas led an informative workshop on "Plotting for Success in a Writing Career." Jodi attended the RNA conference in Leicester two years ago, and before that I met her at the RWA conference in Atlanta when I took the only available seat at lunch and found myself next to a RWA Hall of Fame nominee (awarded to authors who have won three RITAs. Jodi got hers later that week, and so was inducted to the Hall of Fame). She's a very funny and charming Texan lady who explained in terms even my addled brain could understand how to plot out your story using character motivations and consequences.

Some of her main points included:
*Make sure the reader cares about the character. We don't warm to people who are perfect, so give your character a few flaws.
*Your character must have goals, must need or want something, even if he doesn't know what it is.
*He must be fully rounded, and this means having a front and a back. But what does that mean? That every positive trait has a negative side. Your hero might be a wonderfully gentle man, but that means he's not likely to put up much of a fight when you need him to.
*And don't forget about conflict. Your character wants something, and wants it desperately. You need to put a mountain in his way to stop him getting it--and that mountain is your character conflict.
*Lastly, never let the reader know your character is just a character. Make him real.

She asked us to think of a character we'd been working with and give him a flaw. Then give him a goal. These two are preferably in opposition. For instance, I was thinking of Edward, hero of my next (and last) Empire book. His flaw is that after the murder of his family, he's lost his nerve. Unfortunately, his goal is to avenge their deaths, defeat the Emperor and save the world. Nerve is useful for that.

Then give your character three "What if I...?" scenarios. What if Edward could go back seven years and save his family? What if he met a woman he desired more than he'd desired his dead wife? What if he couldn't do the things he knew he had to?

Then give him five "He would never..." scenarios. At first I dug shallowly. Edward would never be impolite. He would never hurt a child. Well, those are givens for a lot of people. Okay, go deeper. He would never abandon his men. And yet he has, by giving up the fight. He would never forget his wife. Well, that's a conflict right there, with his second "What if". And he would never forgive the Emperor. That chimes with his goal.

What would it take for your character to do one of these "Nevers'? How far out of his comfort zone do you have to push him? Well, what if I made Edward hurt a child? What sort of horrible choice would he have to be faced with to contemplate that? That's a character dilemma. (And that's also why the Empire series isn't sweetness and light).

The last workshop of the conference was by Liz Bailey, PR guru and group humiliator. Why do I say that? Because she made us wear black plastic binbags, write our failings in huge letters on imaginary billboards, and scream for attention. Apparently this will give us charisma. I don't know, Liz--I was just damn glad to get that binbag off.

Picture from the Pink Heart Society.

After that we retired for a much-needed drink, sitting in the very pretty courtyard garden behind the bar. A very light-hearted quiz followed dinner, at which my team (who I won't name for fear of embarrassment) came next to last.

Monday brought a return trip home. All that in three and a half days! Thankfully the return was better than the trip out, although I stumbled at the last hurdle when the train that was supposed to stop at my station wound up taking me to Stansted Airport. Luckily this is only about five miles from me, and I could get a lift home.

Ah, home! Where the cats got tired of being cuddled. I barely had time to turf things from one suitcase to another (much larger) one before a not-very-early night and a 4am start. Next stop: Washington DC and the 2009 RWA Conference!


  1. Thanks for the notes on Jodi's workshop - I didn't get to that one.

    As for the binbags. I though you all looked strangely Sixties/Seventies from the back. (Had to clear up, see, so couldn't take part. Shame.)

  2. Ah, those vintage Sixties binbag dresses. Quite a find in Oxfam.

    And I'll have to remember that 'clearing up' excuse next time.

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