Monday, July 24, 2017

Karen Byrom – Commissioning Fiction Editor - My Weekly

We are delighted to welcome Karen Byrom to the RNA Blog’s monthly series where we speak to book bloggers and reviewers and get an insight into their world. This month we take a small detour to speak to a fiction editor who commissions short stories and is well know to the RNA. Thank you to Ellie Holmes for this most interesting interview.

Welcome Karen, tell us a little bit about yourself and your work at My Weekly
Hello, my name’s Karen Byrom and I am the commissioning fiction editor at My Weekly. I’ve
worked in magazines for over thirty years, having begun my career with D C Thomson straight after graduating from St Andrews with a degree in Ancient History and Latin – which at least ensures I can spell!I live and work in my hometown of Dundee, a city beautifully situated on the firth of Tay, in the most beautiful scenic surroundings. I’m married with one daughter, who married two years ago, and lives nearby.

How long have you been at My Weekly?
I started my journalistic career at D C Thomson back in 1982, on the fiction desk of My Weekly. The fiction editor at the time was Liz Smith, and I remember thinking, “I want her job.” I had to wait 32 years! After eight years on My Weekly, I moved around the different magazines, working on features and fiction on Annabel and People’s Friend before returning to My Weekly for good in 2010, where my main responsibility was the health pages. When Liz announced her retirement in 2015, I seized my chance!

Tell us a little bit about a day in the life of a Commissioning Fiction Editor
As each day is so varied, it’s probably easier to describe my week. I check emails for submissions coming in and news about new books. I read and choose stories for up-coming issues – we don’t hold stock any more, so every story I buy must have an issue date. I send back stories that aren’t right for us, with feedback. I aim to have a six-week turnaround, but that doesn’t always work out, sadly.

I go to work on the bought stories, finding or commissioning artwork – I work closely with the designers on this, and often send artwork out to be enhanced so that it matches the story. Then I sub them lightly before sending them off to our production team. I don’t see them again until the page stage, when I give them a final check over.

Every week I choose archived stories for the website, and publish them myself – that’s quite a lot of work. I do the same for book reviews, author Q&As and giveaways. Then the tweeting begins – I think it’s a great way to build up relationships with writers and publishers and get My Weekly’s name out there.

Every four weeks, we have book reviews in the magazine so I’m constantly skimming books to decide what our readers will enjoy. I try to get to London three or four times a year to meet authors and publishers, and this year I’m off to Devon to take part in a literary festival, which is exciting.

I attend lots of meetings, contributing content ideas for the magazine as a whole, and I write occasional features, particularly travel and royal features. I also attend brainstorming meetings for new publications. At D C Thomson, we really are one big team.

I write fiction, too, for the Specials and The Annual, but tend to do that in my own time.

You must be inundated with books and stories, how do you choose which books and stories to read?
I receive and read around 90 submissions a month. It would be more, but I have a rule that you must have been published before in My Weekly before I’ll consider your story. It seems harsh – and I wish it could be different - but it’s the only way I can cope with the workflow, as I am the fiction desk! I’m constantly streamlining, though, and hope that someday I’ll be able to welcome submissions from everyone.
I wish I could read every book that comes in but I get around six a day! I skim them, then choose the ones I think will interest readers – a mix of romance, historical and detective thrillers. Even then I can’t read them all, but fortunately lots of my colleagues are voracious readers, too, and willing to give me reviews.

Do you have a submission policy for authors to follow?
I do. Short story and serial writers must have been published by My Weekly before, and I have a pool of around 100 such writers. I send out guidelines to them every two months, explaining the length and type of stories I need for upcoming issues.
I also consider approaches from publishers whose authors are keen to write a story for My Weekly. I’ve got some top names that way – Veronica Henry, Victoria Fox, and C.L. Taylor, to name just a few. Liz already had Milly Johnson and Sue Moorcroft on board - they continue to contribute charming stories and serials.

My Weekly is known for its lovely short stories and serials and its specials packed with lots more stories – your wonderfully titled Sunshine Celebration Special is on sale now – how far ahead do you plan what will feature in each edition?
Thank you for the lovely compliment. For the weekly, I have an eight week rolling programme, choosing stories to fill issues up to eight weeks’ ahead. That’s flexible of course – a story may come in that I just have to have, or a publisher may approach me with a fantastic story from a big name author. Or I’ll suddenly realise two stories in the same issue have the same theme! So it can be a juggling act. But once a story is bought, it will be used, even if I have to move it to a 2018 issue…

Specials’ stories are chosen around eight weeks in advance. I choose them to reflect the theme of the Special, and work closely with Specials’ editor Maggie Swinburne to ensure they complement content. She sees to the artwork for these, thank goodness.

If you could give one piece of advice to authors what would it be?
Read, read, read the magazine. In the last 10 years, My Weekly has evolved considerably, to reflect modern trends and attitudes and that’s reflected in the fiction content. While there’s always a place for what we Scots call “couthy” stories, involving old aunts, country cottages and cats, our readers also demand up-to-date stories with empathetic characters and convincing plots.

What are your interests away from work? Do you ever read just to relax?
I love to read – on a Sunday afternoon you’ll find me lying back in the conservatory reading a book
for review. I read on the bus to and from work, at lunchtime, at home in the evenings, with one eye on the TV. The only time I don’t read books is during working hours – I don’t have time!
I have always particularly enjoyed literary and historical fiction, but being fiction editor has forced me to expand my taste, and I find I really enjoy a well-written romance or detective story.
Hilary Mantel, R J Ellory, Neil Gaiman, Anna McPartlin and Joanna Courtney are all high on my list of favourite writers.
Other than that I love yoga and attend three to four classes a week. I also play tennis.
Family is important, too. I spend time with my elderly father – Mum died just 18 months ago – and love to go to yoga classes and shopping with my daughter, or walking with my husband.

We often ask agents and publishers what they consider to be the next 'big thing' - what do you hope to see next?
I hope to be surprised! I’m not too keen on the next “big thing” – too often it leads to a raft of copycat themes, never quite as good as the original. The “unreliable narrator” is a case in point. When it’s done well it works – I’m thinking about Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty and Jane Corry’s My Husband’s Wife – but it is now in danger of becoming a cliché.
I don’t like to invest a lot of emotional energy into a character, only to find she’s been lying to me, if only by omission. Never mind the plot, for me, characters are what make a good book – and, of course, a good short story.

Thank you Karen for such a wonderful insight into your world and a fascinating behind the scenes peak at My Weekly.

Twitter: @FictionEdKaren

About Ellie:
Ellie Holmes writes commercial women’s fiction with her heart in the town and her soul in the country. Ellie’s debut release was The Flower Seller. A member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and the Alliance of Independent Authors, Ellie’s latest book, White Lies is out now.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Louise Allen: The Confessions of a Pantser

Are you a Pantser or Plotter? This discussion often pops up on the RNA Facebook group. Today Louise Allen explains how she writes her novels.

Thank you for the invitation to the RNA blog.

I’m a pantser by profession – in other words I fly into writing a novel by the seat of my pants, with no
route map, usually two lines of notes in my head and almost certainly with thick fog ahead. It is dangerous (is this book ever going to get finished, let alone by the deadline?), worrying (3am: what the heck is going on?) and full of technical difficulties (how do I maintain pace, for example, when I don’t know what is happening next?). You’d think after 55+ novels that I’d know better.
Why do I do it? Essentially because once I’ve told myself the story then I mentally file that under ‘solved’ and want to get on with spinning the next one, whereas flying into the fog keeps me as intrigued as I hope my readers are going to be.
I always start with a situation and two people in it. How did they get there? Who are they? What are they? Then I’ll start writing. Often I’m hazy about their names, but they usually tell me those by the end of the first 2,000 words. By about 20,000 I begin to know them, understand what makes them tick, recognise the parameters of the situation that they’re in.
By this point I’ve had the equivalent of three or four emergency landings, the undercarriage is getting a bit shaky, one wing is coming loose, the cockpit is in a terrible mess (empty tea mugs everywhere) and the pilot (me) is feeling somewhat queasy. Time to go back to the beginning and revise with my new knowledge of who these people are, my understanding of what their issues are and what the conflicts, internal and external, might be. A spreadsheet emerges with a timeline and character details and the names of everyone so far and the chunks of text in red where I did not stop to do research get turned black.
Phew. Off I go again, this time keeping the spreadsheet updated as I write. I still don’t know where we’re going, but I do know who is going there and why, which is a huge help.
50K in and a vague landscape is beginning to emerge from the fog, so time to land again for more revision. That can be quite drastic – I have just realised that at 57K (out of a projected finished length of 75K) a large chunk of my hero’s backstory was making him look decidedly unheroic. Problems and issues are one thing, but he was coming over as weak, which was absolutely not what I had intended. Back I go and sort him out.
By now I know my characters inside out. I know and understand the conflict, the story has structure – Brilliant, I tell myself, brewing more tea. Only problem is, I have no idea how it is going to resolve itself. This is the point where the 3am panic is liable to set in, the moment when I have to tell myself firmly that the previous 58 novels found their ending, so this one will too. (The memory of the one where I had no idea how it would end until halfway through the final chapter still haunts me. I was starting to feel like Nanny Ogg in Terry Pratchett’s wonderful Discworld novels – she was the witch who could start to spell any word, but had no idea how to stop.)
Finally I work it out, or rather, I assume that my subconscious does, but I try very hard not to poke about in that for fear of what I might disturb. By some miracle that resolution always occurs at about 75,000 words – and don’t ask me how I do that, because I have no idea. I can only assume my subconscious has some kind of internal pacemaker. Then it is time to revise, but, thanks to the number of times I have stopped and gone back, I am working from something closer to a third than a first draft.
There have been books where I had to plot to a certain extent – when I’ve been working with other authors on continuities and series, for example, or where a novel follows an actual historical timeline very closely – but I’m not comfortable with it and the spreadsheet comes into play to maintain continuity rather than for any character or conflict development.
My long-suffering editors have, over the years, learned that it is pointless asking me for a synopsis. Either they receive a very short work of fiction bearing no relationship to the final product or they get a lot of arm-waving and err-ing and umm-ing. On one occasion, pushed to provide at least an outline for a novella set in the early 19thc Middle East, I said, ‘There’ll be an oasis and palm trees and…and… Oh, insert camel here!’ The contract came back for a novella entitled ‘Insert Camel Here.’ (It eventually became Desert Rake.)

Would I recommend my method (or lack of it) to anyone else? Definitely not, because it can be exceedingly stressful, although I know other pantsers, all of whom have their own successful technique. I certainly couldn’t teach it because I don’t understand how it works myself, although recently, writing An Earl Out of Time, I realised that what I was doing was building up layers, like creating an onion from the outside in. With that book I not only had to write an historical romance, which was familiar ground, but also puzzle out how to make a timeslip work and add a mystery. Discovering what I was doing with that book has not made the work-in-progress any easier, however, although I’m glad to report that the hero’s backstory is now sorted.

PS I do plot my non-fiction!

About Louise
Louise Allen is the author of over 55 historical novels published by Harlequin Mills & Boon and, independently, of romantic historical mysteries (Loving the Lost Duke) and timeslip mysteries (An Earl Out of Time). She also writes accessible historical non-fiction, including Walking Jane Austen’s London and The Georgian Seaside. Virtually all her books are set in her favourite ‘Long Regency’ period and she can’t bear to think of her heroes getting older and growing Victorian side whiskers.
Louise lives on the North Norfolk coast with her exceptionally long-suffering husband who has learned to keep a straight face when asked if he is the inspiration for all her heroes.
Her next novel, due out in August, is Marrying His Cinderella Countess.


Thank you so much, Louise.

How do you write your novels? We’d love to know. Please leave a comment in the box below.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

RNA Conference - Harper Adams University, Telford

We are thrilled that RNA member Liz Fenwick was able to put pen to paper so quickly to write about her experiences of the RNA’s conference held this past weekend at Harper Adams University in Telford, Shropshire.

I’ve attended every conference except one since I joined the RNA as an unpublished writer in 2005.
Liz Fenwick
And each and every year I have come away with something wonderful…frequently unexpected but always needed. This year has been no different. The conference is my time to be with my tribe where the writer part of me is allowed to be fully present and no one thinks it is at all strange.

In the past the brilliant sessions have been my focus…things to bring my writing up to speed. But this year proved different. The sessions I attended were exactly what I needed to hear, but it was the time sitting quietly with other writers that was what I needed most. Whether it was the quick chat on the stairwell, the one in the queue at the bar, or the leisurely ones in the kitchen.

One of the popular panel discussions
These past twelve months since the last conference haven’t been the easiest. I have kept on writing but it’s been hard and at times truly lonely. What this conference gave me was love and belief from my fellow writers…they believed that I could still do this writing lark. They reminded me that I am a writer not by saying it so much, but by the joy in the discussions. The moments when I could provide the tip or the writing hack that might help them out of a tight corner while they gave me the same. Crucially the pep talk that they gave me that the book I was editing all weekend was good even if it needed more work.

Then there were those long conversations where we all bared our fears that we weren’t good enough
The beautiful wall hanging to commemorate
the life of much missed Carole Blake
or our stories weren’t. Then came the high points when we toasted our successes and that wonderful feeling of being a part of those achievements. I remember the divine Katie Fforde saying to me, when my debut novel came out, that every time a new writer she has known reached that magic moment she loved it…it was a little like living through it all over again. There were many of those joyful moments this weekend as writers I’ve watched on their journey shared their joy.

So I’ve come away from the conference much more whole. The many hugs I received have helped put me back together. On the industry panel Isabel Dixon said the thing she would tell writers… is to be generous…generous to other writers and to readers. I can say hand on heart that the RNA does that and this weekend’s dose of generosity has renewed this writer’s soul. I’m already counting the days until next year.

About Liz:

Writer, ex-pat expert, wife, mother of three, and dreamer turned doer....
Award winning author of The Cornish House, A Cornish Affair, A Cornish Stranger, Under A Cornish Sky, A Cornish Christmas Carol (a novella) and The Returning Tide. After nine international moves, I'm a bit of a global nomad. It's no wonder my heart remains in Cornwall.

Thank you for writing such a special piece for the RNA blog, Liz. x

A few of our members have also been blogging about their experiences at this year’s conference:

Monday, July 17, 2017

Festivals and Workshops: Edinburgh Festival of Writing

Elaine Roberts brings us another in her interesting series about literary festivals and workshops. This month she interviews Frances Sutton from the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Welcome to the RNA blog, Frances. Can you tell us something about your festival, how it came about and how long its been running?
The Edinburgh International Book Festival started in 1983 with around thirty speakers, this year we will welcome over 1,000 writers and participants from fifty countries to events in Charlotte Square Gardens and George Street.  In 2017 Edinburgh celebrates the 70th anniversary of the first Edinburgh International Festival and Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and over the last seventy years has become an internationally renowned Festival city – the Book Festival is an integral part of that Festival City.

Who are your main speakers this year?
With over 1000 authors, there are almost too many to mention, but a small selection of highlights would be:
Making his first appearance in Charlotte Square Gardens, bestselling US author Paul Auster discusses the parallel lives of the principal character in his latest novel 4 3 2 1, while fellow American Richard Ford explores the reality of the American Dream in 2017 in conversation with Kirsty Wark. Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie debates the role of women in the world with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon; Andrew O’Hagan delivers a keynote lecture on the future of Scotland; Zadie Smith offers an insightful look at the growing pains of young women; comedian Reginald D Hunter joins novelist Tanya Landman to discuss the long shadow slavery casts over the USA and Meik Wiking, Danish author of the bestselling Little Book of Hygge and CEO of Copenhagen’s Happiness Research Institute, launches his new book over a cosy afternoon tea.

As our blog is for writers can you tell me how your festival would benefit our members?
Audiences at the Book Festival get to not only listen to authors, but also to participate in debates and discussions across the programme.  Almost every event offers an opportunity for members of the audience to ask questions of the speaker, and every author will sign books and engage in further conversation after their event.  We also run both reading workshops where authors discuss their favourite books with small groups of twenty to twenty five people, and this year our writing workshops return, again for small groups of 20 – 25 participants.

How about staying over for the whole event. Where can people stay?
Edinburgh is a bustling city with a wide range of hotels, guesthouses, B & B’s and hostels, however August is extremely busy with hundreds of thousands of performers, authors, media and audience members coming to the city from all over the world so the recommendation is book early, and don’t leave it till you arrive!

What does it cost to attend?
Entry to the Gardens, cafes and bookshops is free, and tickets for events range from £8.00 (£6.00
concession) to £10.00 (£12.00).  Tickets for writing workshops, which last for 2 hours, are £35.00 (£30.00).

Do workshops and talks fill up quickly?
Spaces for workshops are limited to 20 – 25 participants so yes they do sell out quickly.

How much time does it take to organise the festival?
We will start planning the 2018 Book Festival while the 2017 Festival is taking place, and authors are in town from all over the world.  The hard work starts in September and October and continues through the winter until June when we announce the programme to the press and public.

Dates for this year and 2018:
12 – 28 August 2017
11 – 27 August 2018

Email for queries:

Thank you for taking the time to talk to the RNA blog, Frances. We wish the festival every success.

About Elaine:
Elaine is a member of the RNA’s New Writers’ Scheme and is currently working on a family saga. She has sold short stories worldwide and enjoys attending RNA events such as the London chapter and our annual conference. Elaine is a great fan of writing retreats either week long by the sea with friends or one-day retreats with fellow writers in her hometown of Dartford. Elaine runs a writing blog along with writer, Francesca Capaldi Burgess called WriteMindWritePlace.