My third consecutive year of quintessential Britishness. Where caffeine dependency and weather commentary are indoctrinated.
The UK Meet has a special quality to it, and that is kindness. It runs on the kindness of others, to share and to volunteer. This year I opted to bring my photography studio to add to the diversity of books the UK Meet already offers, from authors to readers to publishers to book designers… and now author profile and branding. And people who wanted a good photo just because they could.
My Meet started on public transport, and I arrived in fashionable style in my self-made pirate hat, and straight into other Meet-peeps and complimentary tea. It was like walking into a family reunion. I was in time for the Pirate walk, but I wanted to get my studio set up. I had brought a tiny mirror for people to tuck away errant strands of hair, forgetting that half the walls in the Marriott Royal are mirrors, including one opposite my studio. When my cost-reducing-exercise room sharing buddy arrived, we headed out for dinner at Bella Italia in a nearby street, amidst Friday night revellers.
Saturday was an 8.30am start, to drop off my swag for the most efficient bag stuffing I have ever seen. The King’s Room greeted us with A4 plush document folders courtesy of DSP. The whole Suite was like coming home – this place has character rather than the plain passing throughfare of airport hotels. Charlie opened house with news that you could buy Tupperware tubs from across the street to make the most of the regular servings of plentiful food. This year introduced “happy to hug” badges, a board where we could be un-British and mention our successes and things that make us happy, and a competition to match the weather based text to the book and author.
Novel Openings read by readers started the event. Blurbs are to sell books, and don’t always reflect book content! The first three chapters are often the best, as these are sent to publishers for consideration to be accepted. In modern, fast living where there are abundant books, if an opening isn’t captivating it can be ignored and replaced with another book. Keeping your author voice was a key point, and this is developed until it is consistent, so your readers know what to expect in delivery.
I was split between panels, but opted for tropes over myths and legends. Coming from a fanfic background, a trope seems to be a LiveJournal search tag for a type of fiction, such as hurt/comfort, friends to lovers, OT3, etc. Tropes can either tell you what a book is about if you like a particular thing (and online search tags with publishers would be lovely), or they can be subverted. There was an impromptu acting out session, followed by a flash fic per table about tropes. My personal favourite was class divide between a billionaire and his pilot landing their private jet.
I’m sure the Readerzone and Utterly Authorly were fabulous, but I was herding cats trying to get all six members of the UK Meet team into my photography studio. The lure of rainbow umbrellas and rainbow feather boas wasn’t sufficient, so I played John Barrowman songs and that did the trick. Clare London and Charlie Cochrane can hold a tune, and somewhere out there is me and Clare posing with a rainbow umbrella singing “I know him so well” thinking it was a still and not a video.
Elizabeth North was a keynote speaker. It started with the line “Tieing up the bunnies while I’m talking is distracting,” which is instant Twitter fodder. She used to be a minister and conducted a gay marriage. One of the men read straight romance novels, saying gay character books had no happy endings. This is how DSP was founded – gay people having happy endings, and happy lives they could relate to. She also said about holding sacred spaces, such as the UK Meet, to resonate with those that couldn’t make it at this time. For the future, she said competition was unnecessary as readers always read quicker than writers can write! It was up to us what community we wanted to create on a global scale, and I hope it is a kind and diverse one. The UK Meet is a good starting point for that.
My main pre-booked photo sessions fell in the gap between the final panel and the Gala dinner. It is always a pleasure to see people dressed fabulously. The Gala dinner dress code was whatever you felt fabulous in, even if it was jeans. The best photos are about people being comfortable and happy. Not-so-secretly, I’m a self esteem builder using the medium of photography. This time slot did mean I had the quickest costume change in history to put my fabulous clothes on and get to the Palm Lounge.
First, we were serenaded with a Bristol choir, who brought tears to the house with beautiful renditions of classic songs, and one in Celtic about the romantic properties of seaweed. Then the singing became punchier with drag artist Cherry Poppins, who first came on in a red velvet dress that I wanted to wear. She did the singing while a male dancer in waistcoat and high heels danced along. The singing list was influenced by Liam Livings, and I like his choices even if no-one else likes Frozen! This is what comes of falling asleep listening to Let It Go on repeat for four hours. The infamous Butlers in the Buff did the rounds, and it was a special sight to see Butlers, writers and authors dancing to Vogue. It was also a special sight to see bondage bunnies become sporrans.
There was a point during the dancing that I got pinned to the back wall because I couldn’t get past the Butlers without a fair bit of contact. As a belly dancer, consent is an important concept when it comes to nudity. Nudity is not consent to be touched, and nor is it a prelude to sexual activity. It was revealed the following morning that someone who didn’t even attend the event thought having mostly nude entertainment was degrading.
To the best of my knowledge, the Butlers were employed freely, without threat or coercion. They are very confident in their bodies, and seem to enjoy the attention they get from all the eyes. No-one touched them in a way they did not consent to. We are probably very respectful as a group compared to drunken hen parties. And if they felt uncomfortable with any part of Saturday night, I hope they told the UK Meet team and their employers to weed out bad experiences.
One person on the night told me the Butlers tried to put her hand on the bottom of another Butler, so she took another Butler’s hand and put it there instead. “Are you feeling my bum?” he asked. “No, but your fellow Butler is,” she replied, at which point he scooted forward a bit. That might be difficult to read as text without verbal nuances. It was taken as surprise, but I do wonder what the rules are in the Butlers’ employment that you don’t touch up fellow Butlers, or that he wasn’t used to the idea of men touching him.
I hope that the UK Meet can trail blaze a wave of body positivity and body confidence, as the genre and event has pioneered so much. In the meantime, I’m going to dream about having a bum like the belly dancing butler next to me in the photos, to go with our matching swan backs. There was a point I was going to run back to my photo studio and get my coin belt, strip down to my flesh coloured bra and add gender diversity to the entertainment.
Sunday morning started equally early, with people who are perky in a morning and best photographed. It made me a bit late for the humour in fiction panel, which was hilarious. The advice was not to over analyse writing humour, and to write what makes you smile. Some jokes are universal, like body flatulence, and some may be lost to cultural or contemporary trends. In-jokes in a series of books need to reward those who have read other books and not alienate newcomers. Blurbs need to be just as funny as the book, and one-line funny pitches can be hilarious.
The panel Unlocking Your Dark Side was educational for me. Ultimately, every person and every character does what they do because they believe it is the best thing to do. People that never do good things in anyone’s eyes are not believable, so the reader detaches. There has to be moments of humour, even dark humour, to connect to the reader and to put the dark elements in contrast to the light. Darkness isn’t for the sake of it – it must be necessary for character development, and narrative perspective plays a role. Many writers volunteered their tearful struggles at writing dark parts of books, and the need for showers and fluffy movies after temporarily being those characters either doing or being on the receiving end of bad treatment. A publisher on the panel said they did accept most dark things, but drew a line at animal and child cruelty because we believe they have no power of consent in situations.
Lunchtime came, and Henrietta Clarke and I (and can I say, trying to find your red headed companion at a writer’s convention is like trying to find a needle in a haystack) had a tactical go at the weather quiz. Of the 25 clues, 20 of them involved thunder, which makes me wonder if this is a trope or a good drinking game. Henrietta applied her reading knowledge, and I applied my logic brain by picking out names, context and writing style. And for the rest we put down an uneducated guess as it wasn’t negative marking. We won! She had the book and I had the tea mug. I also added my post it note contribution to the Board of Happiness, which was doing six out of photographing all two hundred countries and the poles.
The final keynote speaker was KJ Charles, a freelance editor and writer. She gave many humorous anecdotes about her experience in publishing, including instant rejection causes – glitter, biro on bog roll, topless photos, and lifelessness. After all, you can’t revive a corpse. She said decades of knowing how to write a book was no preparation for actually writing one! And a note that publishers are humans, too, so the rejection letter has come from a real human being who matters. Her advice was to write the story that you want to tell, and not a story you think will make you rich. We all need stories, as the upcoming Queer Romance Month says. Despite her reputation for swearing, she managed the entire speech without slipping up, but decided the £50 self bet to give money to the Terrence Higgins Trust was more important.
A final batch of photos before international best selling authors helped me pack away by 6 metre backdrop. It doesn’t matter how rich or famous you are, we are all super normal and super helpful.
Sunday evening a group of us had dinner at Za Za Bar, an international buffet where all tastes are catered for. After this, my swimming costume and I dived into the basement spa at the hotel for two hours. I caught up with another group of people who introduced me to Cards Against Humanity which was played until midnight. If the UK Meet team still want suggestions for Friday night entertainment, this would be a good start.
Monday morning, breakfast was finally a leisurely affair with more people from the Meet, followed by more chatting in the drawing room. Compliments about for people’s shoes, jackets, humour abound, an infinite supply of hugs for the sake of hugs, and an equal amount of goodbye hugs a slight sadness that the Meet was over for another year. A shared taxi to Temple Meads train station, and for me, the work begins on photo edits.
Another year of information, inspiration, and see you next year?