Thursday, July 26, 2012

Behind the Scenes at Penrith - From a Speaker's Point of View

Today we take a peek behind the scenes at the 2012 RNA conference at Penrith and see it from four speakers’ points of view. A warm welcome to Kate Walker, Jenny Hutton - from Harlequin, Julie Cohen and Maggie Seed - from D.C. Thomson. You made us think about how we write or should write, laugh and even cry in a good way.

Kate Walker

Talk us through the run up to your talk at the RNA conference, how did you prepare for it?

 - Your question made me laugh - the run up to my talk was such total chaos and a lot of panicky rushing about doing so many things, while scribbling notes to myself on things I must remember for the Emotion talk in Penrith. We have had major renovations on the house, and are only just  getting back to normal and organisation and that plus an already late deadline on my latest book haven't left me with much time to spare. I did a talk on Emotional Punch  some years ago and I still had the notes from that, so I pulled them out, and of course I checked through the relevant sections in my 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance, but most of all I wanted this to be slightly different.  To quote a Senior Editor at  Harlequin Mills & Boon, "Three things sell most in romantic fiction and they are- emotion emotion, emotion" so I wanted to get people to see how to express that emotion in their writing.  There have been a lot of books - the 'misery memoires'  that detail lots of miserable things happening to people and some of these have become confused with real emotions, the sort that need to be put into writing romantic fiction. I wanted people to look at themselves, to think about how they react to different emotions, the effects these would have on them personally, so they could then use those reactions when creating their characters. Because when creating the emotional punch for a book, it all needs to come from the characters. The note for that bit I actually wrote on my phone when I was out doing my usual morning walk before I started work. It was one rare day when it wasn't pouring down!
Jenny - We had a number of brainstorming meetings where we looked back at what we had spoken about for the last couple of years and then forward at the submissions we’d like to receive and how we see the publishing world changing.

We nailed down the concept when we thought about it from the audience’s POV. If I was an aspiring author what would I like to know? Then it seemed obvious, we felt that we could give an insider’s view on what we were seeing in terms of submissions, the trade, digital, genre patterns and in contrast we could try and dispel some myths about editors and the submission process!

Julie - This was one of those times when the workshop topic actually arose from my everyday life, so I had a lot of the tools to give the workshop already in my head when I pitched it. 

First off, I watched lots and lots of Pixar films, with a notebook and a stopwatch. This was hugely enjoyable, as you can imagine. I had a very fun evening drawing a three-act story structure diagram and putting the story of CARS on it. And I also had fun selecting film clips to show: I wanted them to be short, yet pack a big emotional punch. 

The day before my talk, in the kitchen in our accommodation in Penrith, I showed my film clips to the other writers who were staying in my block. When they cried, I knew I'd made the right choice.

Maggie - What excitement being invited to give a talk – then total panic while I thought about what I would say. My main aim was to not have an Eric Morecambe moment (All the right words, but not necessarily in the right order).
I debated about whether to enact my favourite scene - FYI, it was in a novel by Sally Quilford, where, after discovering that her deceased aunt had been in a relationship That Dare Not Speak Its Name, and our feisty heroine had inherited her Wild West ranch, she was saved from the baddies by our half-Indian hero, (swoon)…
So, back on track, I decided to keep it simple, focus on the benefits to my audience of a clear message, that I am really keen and enthusiastic about reading their work. I was also grateful to organiser Tom for his advice, when I did a quick run-through beforehand, of not crossing my legs when I talked, as it made me look like I had an urgent appointment in the ladies.

Jenny Hutton

What aspects of appearing as a speaker do you find enjoyable?

Kate - I love sharing talking about writing with an enthusiastic audience, people who want to find out as much as they can and learn how to put what they have learned into their writing. I'm always very nervous before I start  - even though I've done lots of  talks  and courses and l know I've prepared well. Then once I get going  I  relax and enjoy myself. I love it when people laugh because they've got the jokes or, as happened this time at Penrith, when I hear someone mutter 'Oh of course - that's so true . . .  ' Then I know that they've 'got it' - whatever I'm trying to teach. I can almost see the 'light bulb' go on over people's heads. I love questions and answers at the end because then I feel that I can really try to give people the information they most want, or to clarify what I've been talking about if they haven't quite understood it fully.  While I am talking one to one, I can hope to make things clear for everyone else.  I also like  teaching writing because it makes me feel as if I'm giving something back. I've been lucky enough to have a long and successful career (nearly  28 years and 60 romance novels) and it's great  to be able to help people who are just starting out on their journey to publication or are at their beginning of their careers.

Jenny -
All of it is enjoyable – meeting new authors and authors meeting us – putting faces to names, sharing information that may help to further someone’s career, when you see a particular point sparking someone’s imagination, and the laughter (at the bits that were meant to be funny)!

Julie - I was a teacher for ten years, and I gave it up to be a full-time writer. I really miss teaching, though, and I get my teaching 'fix' through giving workshops to writers. As an analytical person, I love breaking down topics and figuring out the best way to present them. And to be honest, I'm a bit of a diva and I really like having the attention of everyone in the room.

Maggie - I loved the opportunity to meet writers, and to answer their questions. I was going to say the most enjoyable part of a delivery is when it is all over, and you can lie back and receive gifts of flowers and baby-grows, but at least at the RNA you don’t get your stitches done. There is also more audience participation, whereas delivering a baby is very much a one-woman show.

Julie Cohen
 In your opinion what makes a good audience?

Kate - My talk at Penrith was almost the last thing on the timetable, at 3pm on the Sunday afternoon in the extra part of the conference, so I was lucky to have a good attendance and to have people there who were keen and interested. By that stage of the weekend - and after the Gala Dinner the night before, people can sometimes be wilting and tired and finding it hard to
concentrate. So  it's always good to look out into the audience and see people obviously listening, perhaps nodding agreement, or smiling at the jokes  or making comments as above- and then when I gave them  a brief writing exercise to do to  'dig deep' into the emotions we were  looking at and they ways they could be shown, everyone was scribbling away frantically,
obviously seeing what I was trying to get across and finding ways to express it in words - which is what we were all there for, to write. One of the best things about an audience like that is that the writing prompts I give sparks off their imaginations and creativity so that they write almost without thinking and not worrying about getting it 'right'.

Jenny -
I once had a lecturer who said that the best audiences were the ones who showed their feelings and their interest as he spoke – that he wasn’t just talking to a sea of blank faces. I felt really guilty because I tended to just sit and listen and write notes without really looking up at him or nodding at the bits that I found useful. Ever since then I’ve nodded away as an audience member and as a speaker I now know exactly how he felt. It’s so important to feel that your audience is engaging with you, and it’s our job to make the talk as unique and compelling as possible and when you see that connection on the faces of people in the audience it’s brilliant.

Julie - They should be interested in the topic, willing to engage and to learn, and they should laugh at my jokes. In this case, the Pixar clips had nearly everyone in the room in tears. Now that's a good audience.
Maggie -The interest, friendliness and enthusiasm of an RNA audience was wonderful, I was really pleased the members were so keen and had so many questions. We had fun.

Maggie Seed
How does speaking at an RNA conference compare with other places you've spoken at?

 - The best thing about speaking at RNA is that you have a 'captive audience' really - people who care  about writing . Who want to write, and want to learn how to improve what they rewrite. They are already committed to the subject. And then of course they are all writers who value romantic fiction - you aren't going to get the  carpers who want to know  why you
want to write' that sort of thing' or  will tell you that  romantic fiction is just 'pink and fluffy' and not worth reading - or writing.   You are also talking to an audience who usually have a basic amount of knowledge so you don't have to explain the most basic things, and the people who come to the conference have put in that extra effort, in travel, in paying to be there
and joining in on the whole event. So they are already enthusiastic and involved  as in question 3 above. Looking at it as both a speaker and as a member of the audience as I've been for other sessions, the great thing about the RNA Conference is the variety of different topics and approaches that each speaker  brings to the same broad topic. I may have been in this business  for nearly 30 years but I always go home from each conference having learned something new or been made to think differently or put a new slant on a topic in the same broad field of writing. The enthusiasm of the speakers for their topics and the audiences for what they're learning always spark new ideas and new excitement.
Jenny - All conferences are different but wherever we go - the RNA, RWA, RWAus, literary festivals, library talks etc - the author community is always really welcoming. We love coming to speak at the RNA!

Julie - Speaking at RNA conferences is both easier and more terrifying than speaking at other venues. It's easier because in the RNA, we're all in it together. It's a supportive atmosphere, populated by my friends and colleagues. At the same time, it's frightening because there's bound to be several people in the room who have much, much more experience and knowledge than I do. Thankfully, because this is the RNA, the people who know better than I do are generous with their time and attention and expertise.

Maggie - Although I have never spoken at a conference, I have run slimming classes, where I had to give a talk – and then weigh everyone! So an RNA conference is fabulous in that I only had good news to give out! It was also well organised, but nicely informal too. Thank you very much for inviting me.
Thank you to Kate, Jenny, Julie and Maggie for sharing how your talks came about with us and for being such great speakers at Penrith.
With best wishes, Kate.
To find out more about our Speakers visit their websites:

Detailed guidelines of Maggie's My Weekly Pocket Novels can be obtained from My Weekly at
For more information about Harlequin visit -


Cara Cooper said...

Excellent blog post ladies. Pea green with envy that I wasn't there. Hope you'll all be in Sheffield next year!

Quillers said...

I'm blushing profusely here. Thank you so much, Maggie. And thank you to the other ladies for sharing their experience.

I really wish I had been there, but I'll definitely be in Sheffield next year.

Toni Sands said...

Thank you so much for giving this insight. I attended my first conference in 2011 and when this one rolled round, with me not going, felt real withdrawal symptoms! Sheffield will be a must, barring being kidnapped by aliens.

Rhoda Baxter said...

There's lots of tips on presentation in your answers. Thank you for sharing your insights.

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