Henrietta Clarke, Jayne Butler and I turned up very late on Friday. Partly, this was due to employment beyond writing, and partly because the sat-nag kept us circling like drunken vultures around the Royal Marriott as we were afraid of killing a cyclist by crossing over their lane to the front door. The underground car park was traumatic, to the point we, the cases, the swag and the cake had to get out before we parked by a concrete strut.
For the eagle eyed among you, yes, I said cake. Jayne Butler marked a special birthday that week, and we made cake. Lots of cake. My cake didn’t survive sudden braking around the one way system of Bristol, but I’m told it tasted fabulous. Actually, many people asked if that’s what I did for a living. This killed my self-deprecation gene made my ego struggle to fit through the door frames. I thought I’d made a humble chocolate and cherry cake presented in a Union Jack tin, and cheeky fluffer nutter fairy cakes in rainbow cases. Apparently I’d made cake that competed with the patisserie chef that was slaving away for the delegates. The food was, as best described, posh tapas.
Saturday morning my Doctor Who gene was activated when we walked into the restaurant – the uniform had red bow ties on it. The coffee was nucleic, the food abundant, and the staff happy at my rainbow chequered shirt. I also bumped into someone wearing a brown and blue shirt with the Tenth Doctor on, which I felt was infinitely cooler than my Keep Calm – I’m the Doctor shirt. Although I did get a backhanded compliment when someone said, “Oh no, not another keep calm thing. Oh wait, it’s Doctor Who. That’s awesome.”
Saturday morning was also a very early start, as Jayne Butler had volunteered to stuff swag bags. This year, to motivate me to write my story about a kiwi photographer, I’d put photos of New Zealand attached to coffee – A Taste of New Zealand.
If you didn’t get the photo you wanted, or you’re curious about what other people may have had, or maybe you’re interested in purchasing to admire or adorn a book cover, you can find them here: http://templedragon.deviantart.com/
The first panel was Novel Openings, and how important it is to start well. We wondered if the days of slow starts like The Hobbit were fading into history behind technology. These days, we have e-readers full of books that are cheap to get – we haven’t made a huge financial investment like a paperback, so there’s no incentive to read. As we have such a large backlog to read, if a book doesn’t grab our attention quickly, we skip to something else. A good beginning was described as scene setting, but only what we need to know – it’s not the place for full character descriptions or orgasms, as we’re not emotionally invested yet. We just need a hook. The volunteers who read the first 150 words of their book certainly had hooks, be it scene setting of a pre-decimal coin, a nickname or an earworm piano tune (chopsticks). We wondered if sloppy writing was a hangover from fanfiction (and how British that the example given was Torchwood), when we didn’t need to describe people or the situations as we already know. Editors pointed out a book should start at the point the characters are going to encounter something they need to work through. We had a belly ache about book covers and blurbs not matching the story. I had a moment of resting my eyes, and wondered how easy it is to get gay romance in audio book format.
Murder at the Sci-Fi convention was an interesting foray into spelling the different genres without the help of autocorrect. Participation was encouraged with the lure of free chocolate. We decided there were no forbidden combinations of genres, as good writing pulls everything together. It isn’t necessary to explain why things work in fantasy and sci-fi – as long as the author knows. We mused why we restrict ourselves to our universe with things like physics, when warp travel could just be something no-one questions – by that point in the future we’ve figured it out. Historical does need to be researched. Small details, like pre-1970 UK drivers licenses not having photos, can change stories as they can’t be used as identification. There was a wish for more period pieces set outside Georgian Regency.
Marketing was a full on affair. First, we identified the brand – your character, attributes and values, which is the pull to lure people to you. A few picture examples were put up to see if we could identify brands, and what we thought when we saw it. Starbucks came up, and we all said slave wages and poor coffee! This may have surprised our American guests.
Then we discussed marketing, which is how we push our brand into the world. We have to find the methods that produce the greatest return on our investment of time, money and energy and relationships. It’s better to have invested interest than a load of apathetic followers. There’s a balance between catering to existing fans and creating new ones. Ultimately you do what feels right for you, as awkwardness shows. Suggested strategies included: conferences (beyond romance into other genres e.g. sci-fi), swag, avatars (headshots, logos), engaging in discussion (avoiding flame wars), blog tours, author blogs/op-eds, social media, newsletters and street teams. Regardless, we must have a holding page online with our contact details, and finished with a note to not over promote.
Research – if you need to research a fine detail and don’t find it in five minutes, put a note in square brackets and continue writing the rest of the story, so you don’t lose your momentum or get lost in research for three hours. Fine details ground a piece of work. For bigger details, it’s better if you already know something about it, but we all know muses aren’t that easy! Thankfully, the Internet makes a huge resource with Google Maps and Youtube (and Wiki, if you must), and there’s always paperbacks. Nothing compares to actually handling objects, and talking to people. Be upfront that you’re researching for gay romance. Police have amazing stories that you may have to tone down to make believable. Whole stories can spawn from one interesting fact or anecdote.
No UK Meet would be complete without me meeting other asexual people, and the buffet of banter was no exception. We migrated to the QUILTBAG and discussed stereotypes, such as my chequered shirt meaning I must have a hot girlfriend at home. We had a joke than an asexual car mechanic would never be interested in sex as part payment for services. We also discussed poly relationships as separate to ménage and orgies.
Belinda McBride was our first keynote speaker. She describes herself as a writer, not a genre or gender pairing writer. Mostly she spoke about overcoming writer’s block, where the ideas are there but they are not flowing out.
– It’s okay to stop
– Look to others to see where the block is coming from
– Physical health – go for a walk
– Mental health – cut toxic relationships, get some sleep
– Spiritual health – meditate, go look at art in a museum
– Analyse your project to see if you need to abandon it
– Decide what you want to do, write it down, make a plan
– Don’t be afraid to fail – recognise that it’s just learning
– Don’t be afraid to succeed
– Recreate the situation that made you want to write
– Get out of your box and read other genres
– Take up a new hobby and engage senses that writing doesn’t
– Life is about change.
Saturday evening. Woo boy, Saturday evening. I’m sure the food was lovely, and the waiting staff did an amazing job squeezing between the tables to serve over one hundred of us. I was too busy admiring the architecture and stained glass ceiling, and wishing they had done lighting to appreciate it rather than for ambience. We were treated to Eddie Adams and a This Is Your Life singalong, along with humour. I admired his dress in that it swagged at the chest and over the bum to create curves there. His partner Dan Burgess ended up sitting next to me for dinner, so we compared cameras and I mined him for information about living with a drag Queen for future story potential.
Then, a Cardiff choir called Songbirds serenaded us. I wondered how Private Universe by Crowded House would sound in their chorus. My research says they have a Christmas gig, so I know what I’ll be doing when I’m at Ty Rosa B&B this December. Then, when they had to brew more coffee as they ran out when they got to me, Butlers in the Buff escorted people to and from their seats as they collected prizes for things like being the first to book for this year’s meet, attending all five meets. Liam Livings loved the random number generator, even if it preferred numbers over one hundred.
By far the weirdest thing that happened on Saturday was someone asking if I was looking up their skirt. You see, I have trouble sitting upright and need to lie down a lot. Most passing people assume I’m hung over, and when I explain my energy levels, offer sympathy and yoga advice. On this occasion, the quick retort mechanism in my mind failed. It only came up with what I say to people in kilts who ask if I’m looking underneath – only to see if you’re wearing it properly – which didn’t seem appropriate. I was taken back to my childhood and watching my friends lifting up their dolls skirts to see if they were wearing underwear. I just quirked my eyebrow and the aromantic in me tried not to laugh. I also wondered if “do you want me to be?” was an appropriate reply, given I’ve only met the person once at the previous UK Meet and have casual online contact. Answers on a postcard (only joking at privatised Royal Mail prices, ping me an email).
Sunday we discussed Avoiding Your Mid-Novel Crisis, and learned different writing styles. Plotsters vs Pantsers. Those that can start at any point in the novel as a way of having something to work towards to overcome block or just because it wants to be written now. Re-read your work to look for nuggets to build on. Ask other people to read your work and ask them what happens next. Try writing in longhand rather than typing. Change modes in your head from creative to analytical. Work on synopsis/blurb. Knowing the difference between procrastination and recharging. Write a list of what you don’t want to happen, so you narrow what’s left as a focus. Try twelve different genres to look for a solution. Ask if you’re in the right emotional space to write a scene. Treat writing as work and schedule an end point. Mind map. Have multiple stories and switch. Write, even if you think it’s awful, as you can’t edit nothing, while you can edit awful.
My health was flagging, so I tucked myself into the Young Adult panel. Arguably, there is less need for exposition as children just accept situations and that some characters are annoying. They have simpler pleasures, such as a new pair of shoes for a street kid. Not every kid has a good life, and this needs to be reflected in fiction. Regarding disability, kids see what people can do and not what they can’t do. YA can be better written, as the language is simpler so there are no fancy words to hide behind. Children learn new words very quickly, especially with the Internet, and this can ground a piece of fiction. Sex depends on the character – a fourteen year old with a steady partner may have sex, while a twenty year old asexual would not (good luck getting a publisher to take on sex with minors stories). Part of an author’s delight may be that they know adults will read their work as escapism, and they can laugh at teenagers planning their coming out speeches. We touched briefly on gender binary when marketing to children and how we can avoid this.
Alex Voinov was our second keynote speaker. He said he had written a million words in a foreign language, which made me wonder if I’ve written a million in my own. We are at the cutting edge of our genre and embracing technology. He wanted to see more historical and more lesbian and trans stories. He believes we don’t write about men or women, or gay or straight – we write about the human experience.
The final panel I managed to do was Getting Out of the Ghetto, about the benefits of joining writers groups and getting awards. The Rainbow Romance Writers group managed to change gay books from the erotica section on Amazon to the romance section, although looking at the book covers at the UK Meet of ripped men, you would think we hadn’t got the memo. A warning about paid groups is that they are after your money, so make sure you’re getting what you want, be it free lunches or passes to events. Don’t limit yourself to romance genre – sign up to sci-fi etc. Ultimately, the more places you are, the better. Know what you’re prepared to do, such as travel to another country to do a book reading in a library. Be nice and reliable, so people will want to work with you.
I dived into the sauna and steam room in the hotel basement. There’s nothing like having a hot Scandinavian pressed against your back.
Sunday evening was a hug fest. It epitomised how friendly and relaxed the UK Meet is. The highlight of the evening was Belinda McBride being surprised that I belly dance, which turned out to be a perfect coincidence. She had a few books she didn’t want to take home on the plane, so she gave An Uncommon Whore to me, with a special cover inspired by a belly dancer. I may be a walking example of don’t judge a book by its cover (I’m not sure what people expect dancers to look like when they are not dancing). I do judge the UK Meet, though, on how amazingly organised it is, and how approachable people are. Everybody there is safe. It’s like we know we are there to do good work, and we know awkwardly phrased questions have an innocent curiosity. I can explain asexuals having sex with a skydiving metaphor. Everyone is free to share their knowledge and belief.
Jolly good show, UK Meet. See you in September, and see you online in the meantime.