Monday 7 July 2008

RNA Conference 2008 - Chichester (Saturday Only) Part One

Isn't this the most divine cover? The green carrier bag comes off to delight you with a gorgeous pink, black and white cover underneath. Scrumptious.
As I discovered, being lucky enough to sit next to Kate Harrison and Sarah Duncan (and Ray-Anne) at lunch time there are some writers that are not only incredibly skilled at what they do but who are also extremely friendly and generous people. One of my difficulties when starting to write a book is how to go about deciding what exactly I'm going to write about. Sarah Duncan had me howling in laughter at the tale of her experience on the London Eye - not a place for someone like me who is scared of heights and then has to suffer for the entire ride in a state of abject terror.

She also said something to me that gave me a lightbulb moment. When Sarah is deciding what to write about for her next novel, she thinks about what she knows and then about what she would like to know more about. For example, if you've read her excellent novel, Nice Girls Do about a garden historian who goes to work on an estate (and comes across the charismatic grandson of the client and also the estate gardener), you will have most likely not only thoroughly enjoyed the book for the romance but also for the fascinating insight into the symbolism of the gardens at these historic places as it all intertwines. So clever and a memorable story that certainly stayed in my mind.

I also had a chat with the lovely Victoria Connelly whose book, Flights of Angels (Unter Deinem Stern) has been made into a film and is currently under production in Berlin. I said a quick hello to Liz Fenwick
and have to say that even though these people have lovely photos on their websites/blogs they all look so much prettier in the flesh.

As does the exceedingly talented and funny Jill Mansell who gave a brilliant and amusing talk at the end of the day about how she started writing and answered questions about her writing day. When asked about her writing place, Jill said that she sits in her lounge with her feet up and writes (by hand with a Harley Davidson pens) with the tv on and doesn't understand successful people who have lovely homes who sit in sheds at the bottom of their gardens. Okay, I may not be successful (I'm working on it) but I am one of those shed-dwellers and I can see why this does appear a little strange but I find that once I go into my shed, I'm in my own little world and also the rest of the family know not to interrupt me unless they have to.

Right now that I've written about the end of the day, I shall now tell you about the talks that I attended.

I started off with a workshop given by Diane Pearson, President of the RNA who began her career in publishing with Jonathan Cape Ltd and as well as being a successful writer she was also senior editor at Transworld for thirty-eight years. We had to send in the first two lines of our novel together with a 200 word synopsis. This was read out to the attendees (an angst-ridden moment for me) and then discussed. What did we think? Would we want to read on? How could we improve our wording?

I was stunned but delighted when everyone laughed at my first two lines (thankfully the book is supposed to be a romantic comedy) and Diane Pearson thought my synopsis good and said that she wouldn't change a word of it. I picked myself up from the floor and continued to take notes.

Opening Lines should contain: the mood/tone/content and should encapsulate what book is about.
- You should have a provocative title that links with the first line. Look at good examples for a clue as to how this is done ie Penmarric by Susan Howatch, Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth, Pride & Prejudice is a well-known first line and one that completely encapsulates the entire novel and Penny Vincenzi, Windfall.

Synopsis - Diane Pearson said that as an editor she preferred a short synopsis that was almost a blurb and not the entire story, just hint at the end. She suggested saying in the cover letter that you send with your submission that a fuller synopsis could be sent if required.
- Make sure you have the character definitions in the synopsis, ie whether they are manipulative, sexy but inarticulate etc and make sure that they knit with the plot.
- It should set the situation of the book, describe the characters and give a tantalising look at the book.
- For historicals or HMB she thought a title ie March 1456, Portugal, was a good idea too.

DP also advised that a book shouldn't begin with dialogue although thought that this was probably okay with chicklit (mine does start with dialogue).

Next was, 'Polishing Your Manuscript' with Anna Jacobs. You have to:

-Build your strengths/develope your weaknesses.
- She said not to worry about getting the first draft right, but get it written.
- There are 4 basic needs for a Polisher (See Robert McKee's, Story). You need to:
1. Need to know your craft
2. Need time to polish your m/s - AJ suggestd setting your book aside for a year (yes, an entire year), write another novel and then come back to the original one. She says you will see at a glance what is wrong with it if you do this. If you leave it for a while you can then come back and read the novel as a reader, rather than the writer and will be able to polish the story/plot/actions.
3. Need to know your polishing needs - the first few chapters are so important, but you need good pace and tension all the way through with twists and turns.
4. Need to know your market - bear in mind market and genre keys when polishing. You have to give your reader what they hope for and more than they imagined. You need to satisfy your reader and then they will read your next book.

- Think, 'What if?'. Make the story easy to follow and gripping, give it a clear storyline but not too many characters.
- Narrative thread - give your book to two trusted readers who can give you their own pov and will be able to tell you if the story is clear.
- You have to get the story right. Is is a good story?
- Do not introduce too many characters into the first chapter.
- Are the steps visible and showing you how you got to a certain situation.
- Read widely and what you would like to write.
- Think of the time element. How long is the plot?
- Don't give away all of the plot in the first chapter
- Do give enough twists and turns throughout the book - as Robert McKee says, plot means events must be selected and their pattern displayed.

PACE - This is the last skill to master and you need to have mastered the other four needs first.
- See, Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman (I have this, it's excellent). You have to remember to have changes/surprises/developments. Think about how the plot develops and the plot points.
- Something has to happen in each scene that develops the story as a whole.
- Not too much description, just a bit at a time & only when needed. Remember that readers have an imagination.
- Cut at least 5,000 words when you polish to help tighten the plot.
- Remove repetition of words and action (this will add to the 5,000 words and help with the tightening).
- Even a small bit of action will increase pace.

Quotes Anna Jacobs gave us were excellent, such as:
John Jakes, "Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait, above all make them wait"

CHARACTERS - Are they interesting/vivid enough, do you care about them? Show them in action to show their characteristics. Readers want to know character's passion, pain, etc. Nice ordinary characters are boring, there must be something about them. For help with sub-characters read Friday's Child by Georgette Heyer and look at Ferdy Fakenham. Read Donald Maas, Writing the Breakout Novel.
- Check each scene/twist - can you bring extra tears/worry/laughter to your reader for maximum impact?
- Add a new element or re-arrange the story if necessary, maybe add a new thread.
- Stay open to inspiration.

ENDING - Remember this sells your next book
- Leave the reader richly satisfied
- Have you got a new twist at the ending. James Frey said something similar to, 'A truly great climax/resolution has some element of surprise.'

Anna polishes the end of her book then repolishes the entire book and then re-repolishes her ending incase she needs to add a thread to make the ending even better.
- Towards the end do a list to make sure you've tied up all your sub-characters and then tie up the major characters at the very end.
- Polishing is a never ending battle against cliches.
- Make your book fit the genre but remember to give it a different slant.

The first draft writes the story, after, do the polishing, micro-polishing. Get the story right first, then the detail and the words, sentence structures, lengths etc.
- Every now and then plant a question.
- Work on your vocabulary, ie. First draft: "Mary walked up the hill." Second draft: "Mary limped painfully up the hill."
- Don't use character proper names too much, or start the sentences with the same word.
- Read aloud if the dialogue isn't quite right.
- Don't overload the details/description as it impedes the action.
- Polish yourself as a writer - go on self development programmes, write more in an effort to develope.
- Set yourself realistic goals - Short term/mid term/long term ones
- Where to you want to go.
- Study genre leaders and learn from other genres.

Imagine a Friday in 10 years time when everything has gone right and you've reached your goal. It will tell you what you want.

The most important thing that Anna had to say to us though was, 'WRITE'.

I shall have to tell you all about Anna Scamans: "Sense of Place"; Beryl Kingston: "Let's Play Pygmalion" creating characters and Sue Moorcroft's "What do you mean, you can't write short stories?" tomorrow as I still have to do 400 words to catch up on my 100 Words A Day and then race to collect S from her day of activities with her school mates.

I hope I didn't repeat myself too much and that everything I've posted here is accurate but as I've taken everything from my dreadful handwriting on my notepad, I could have forgotten bits. I've had to post this as quickly as possible and hope that you find my notes helpful.


Yvonne said...

Wow that was really helpful, thanks for going to the trouble of posting your notes! Well done on the great feedback on the workshop, what a morale boost. Delighted for you!

Deborah Carr (Debs) said...

yvonne - thanks, much appreciated. I was thrilled by Diane Pearson's comments, I just hope that others like what I've written too.

Pacha said...

WOW! This is an incredible post. So interesting. You met and chatted to so many people and thank you, thank you, thank you for the feedback on all the insights shared.

Well done! Synopsis are so hard and yours is perfect already - that is brilliant news! And I am sooooo intrigued to read your novel's opening Debs.

Thank you for writing up on it!

CL Taylor said...

Wow what a FANTASTIC report and SO MUCH to think about. Thank you so much for typing it all up. I wish I'd been there (must join next year!). Thanks also for the book recommendations (Oh dear, I've already spent a fortune on Amazon this month!).

CL Taylor said...

p.s. Congrats on the feedback on your opening lines and synopsis. That must have given you a tremendous boost!

Deborah Carr (Debs) said...

pacha - thanks, I was hoping it wasn't too rambling but didn't want to miss anything out.

calistro - thanks, it was a massive boost and just what I needed.

You really should join, the RNA are a wonderful bunch and the conference is brilliant. The worst part is trying to decide between the options, which class to attend.

Lane Mathias said...

Thank you so much for this! I'm going to save to file to digest and refer to at leisure!

Glad you had a great time and WELL DONE on your opening lines and synopsis! That's brilliant!

Right of to read your post again:-)

Anonymous said...

Ah, but I love distractions, and there wouldn't be any if I sat in a shed!
And my Google Alert is working, as I said, so thank you for the flattering comments and for not saying I look old!
Very best of luck with your manuscript.
Jill Mansell

Deborah Carr (Debs) said...

lane - good idea, it is rather a long post to absorb all at once.

Jill - thank you for commenting, it's much appreciated. I loved your talk and thought you looked fabulous.

Michelle said...

Debs I am so pleased you had a great time and congratulations on the fab feedback. Your post is excellent and i will be referring and may even copy and paste for future reference. Reading through it again I was aghast at the thought of setting a novel aside for A YEAR I would be way too impatient I fear! I am getting in a stew waiting for news of a submission I sent six weeks ago!

Kat W said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to share so much of the helpful advice you were given. This is a great post that I will be referring to again and again.

Glad you had a good time. Wish i could've been there with you. I'm very pleased that you got such positive recognition from Diane Pearson. I was grinning and happy for you when I read that. Fab!

Kat :-)

Karen said...

Great post, fantastically useful! Mind you, with all that talk of polishing I might need to get my Mr Sheen out :o) Well done on your feedback too.

Unknown said...

What a wonderful post! I can't wait to hear the next part of it. I learned quite a bit just reading over your shoulder, so to speak. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this.

Carol said...

Congratulations on such brilliant feedback on your opening lines and your synopsis - you must be absolutely chuffed to bits!!! (Of course we all knew it would be brilliant since we read your blog!!)

I found this post fascinating. I know how my Dad does it but found it really interesting to read about the process from someone else's point of view. It's not easy this writing malarkey is it....I think I'll stick to my art work :-)

C x

Anonymous said...

Hi Debs - well done for having such great feedback from Diane Pearson - fantastic!
Thank you for posting your notes - I shall copy them and print them out to add to my own. Extremely helpful. :-)

Deborah Carr (Debs) said...

mickmouse - thanks, glad you found the notes useful.

I was also astounded at the thought that I should put my work aside for one year; patience has never been a strong point of mine.

kat - thanks, I was delighted that she was so positive about it. Glad you found the post useful.

karen - I think I may have to get my Mr Sheen out too, I'm polishing right now but there seems to be so much to remember.

chad aaron sayban - glad you found it useful. I shall type up the next bit later today.

carol - that's very kind of you to say so.

It must be fascinating being able to watch your dad work and see how he does things. You're right, there's so much more to this writing lark than I first thought when I started out.

ray-anne - thanks, I do take copious notes when I go to any meeting (all thouse years of being a PA and having to, I suppose). I now have to transcribe the next lot.

Unknown said...

Debvs after that brief hello I never saw you again???? Too many people but wonderful all the same. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for the excellant write up as I missed all of the days session except Jill's (which was brilliant). May I link to my post tomorrow?

I'm thrilled re Diane comments on your opening lines synop!!!

Deborah Carr (Debs) said...

liz - It was madly busy, so much to do and so little time to do it all in, it's difficult to chat to everyone and I was only there for the Saturday. Have just caught up on Romna emails and glad that you've taken loads of photos, can't wait to see them all.

Of course you may link to the write up.

Anonymous said...

Hi Debs, I've wandered over here from Cutting It Fine. Thanks very much for these tips. A very useful write-up. Although WRF may not be my favourite genre (I though RNA stood for Ribose Nucleic Acid), there is still plenty to learn from this posting.

Deborah Carr (Debs) said...

captain black - thanks for wandering over and for you comment.

I've had to Google Ribose Nucleic Acid!

Susie Vereker said...

Terrific report, Debs. Good to meet you in real life too.

Deborah Carr (Debs) said...

susie - thanks, it was lovely to meet you too.

Phillipa said...

Debs - thank you so much for this! I have learned such a lot from your blog as well as Ray Anne's and Liz's. I wish I could have been there!!! i would love to have heard Jill's talk in particular.

Congrats on such a positive response on your synopsis. I didn't know you wanted to write for LBD.

Deborah Carr (Debs) said...

phillipa - my pleasure, glad you liked it. Jill's talk was very funny and interesting..

Thanks. My Reader for NWS last year asked said she thought I should think of LBD for Bea Stings, I then bought loads of their books and loved them. I did send it to them but they didnt want it. My next one Reading Paige is written with them in mind.