An Interview with Alison May

Director Alison MayI am delighted to welcome the new chair of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, Alison May. Welcome and congratulations, Alison!

Before we talk about the RNA I would like to ask you about your own writing life and you’re your lovely books written independently or as one half of Juliet Bell.

What were your first breakthrough moments as a published writer?

I sold my first book, Sweet Nothing, in 2013 and it was actually the very first novel that I wrote. I’d been writing seriously for 11 years at that point though but it had taken me about six of those to work out that I wanted to write a novel. So my biggest and first major ‘breakthrough’ moment as an author was probably realising that I wasn’t built to a be a Very Serious Playwright, but am much happier writing novels.

My second big breakthrough was discovering the RNA’s New Writer’s Scheme, which I joined in 2011. The New Writers’ Scheme gives unpublished authors membership of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and a critique on a full manuscript each year from a working author in your sub-genre. Joining the RNA also gave me access to a whole world that I never understood before – a world of writers, but also editors and agents. I think it takes a village to shepherd a novel from idea to publication and the RNA is my village.

You co-write novels with writer and TV journalist Janet Gover, as Juliet Bell. Does this present very different challenges to writing your own novels?

Completely different. Neither of us are big planners when we’re writing on our own – Janet is probably more of a planner than me but that’s not saying much. Writing collaboratively we have to plan. We hardly ever actually write together in the same room so we have to plan the story to stop either one of us getting over excited and killing off a character the other desperately needs in the next chapter. That makes it a really different writing experience.

Writing collaboratively is also a great way to stop you from being precious about your own work. Having a writing partner who can, and will, just put a red line through your masterpiece is a sobering experience but ultimately a very healthy one I think for any writer.

How would you describe an Alison May novel?

That’s tricky! I started my career writing romantic comedies, and I still love to write comedy. I’m planning a return to that genre after I finish my current novel-in-progress. But, my most recent Alison May book, All That Was Lost, is neither romantic nor comedic. It’s an emotion-driven story about a woman who’s built her whole life on one single lie – the lie that she can talk to the dead.

How would you describe a Juliet Bell novel?

Juliet Bell writes modern retellings of misunderstood classics. She’s a sucker for a Bronte novel with a hero who is really anything but heroic!

What key advice would you share with aspiring writers?

Read lots and write lots. There is no substitute for actually getting words down on the page.

It’s definitely worth investing whatever time and money you can spare in developing your craft. I’m a big fan of writing courses and retreats – I run them myself and you should definitely all come on one – but they’re something to do if you are able on top of actually writing not instead of it.

Each author has their own favoured way of working – would you share yours with us?

I’m currently working on book 9, so you’d think that by now I’d have a definite process, wouldn’t you? Realistically it’s different for every book. There are a few constants though. I write horribly shoddy first drafts, and do most of the work on shaping the idea into an actual novel when I edit and revise. I always hate the book at around twenty thousand words, and regularly chuck out the opening 20k of a first draft and start again. I do very little plot planning and what I do I generally never look at while I’m actually writing. So what process I have is messy and disordered but if I try to organise and plan more and create order then I don’t write at all. It turns out messiness suits my writer brain.

 What project(s) are you working on next?

I’m currently working on a dual timeline contemporary and historical novel about witchhunts, both literal and metaphorical. It’s my first novel with a substantial historical storyline – the earliest I’ve gone in time before in 1967, and this goes back to 1695 so it’s a big departure for me from writing contemporary fiction, but I’m really excited about it.

You have just taken over from the lovely Nicola Cornick as chair and next year is very important as the RNA is 60!

What is your vision for the future of the RNA?

I see the next couple of years for the RNA as being about two things. Firstly I want to protect and nurture the things that are already so brilliant about the organisation – the sense of community, the mutual support, and the generosity towards new writers. I’m really keen to ensure that that sense of community continues and to ensure that it’s an inclusive community that welcomes writers of all forms of romantic fiction and from all backgrounds.

Secondly, I think every Chair wants to develop the association and make sure we keep moving forward. We have our diamond anniversary year coming up in 2020 with lots of events planned and lots of online activity to help our members engage directly with readers. We’re also working to develop some new education activities, alongside our existing New Writers’ Scheme, to provide professional development opportunities for both published and unpublished authors.

What has being a member of the organisation meant to you over the years?

So much. It’s almost impossible to overstate the career benefits of joining the RNA for me. I found my first publisher after a recommendation from my New Writers’ Scheme reader. I heard about my agent through a contact I made in the RNA. It’s a genuine privilege to be involved in leading the organisation.

I also can’t overstate the personal benefits. I’ve already said that the RNA is my village in writing terms, but that’s true in life terms as well. My RNA friends are some of the first people I message in a crisis or turn to celebrate good news.

How has the romance genre changed since you joined?

There are always trends and fashions in romantic fiction. I joined the RNA around the time Fifty Shades of Grey came out and kickstarted a boom in erotic romance. At the moment we’re seeing a big peak in sales of lighter, more escapist fiction. Sagas are also selling in huge numbers at the moment, often set in the mid twentieth century, and following a heroine, or group of heroines, through a range of trials in their lives, not just finding love.

Romantic authors are also at the forefront of tackling issues raised by movements like ‘Me too’. It’s absolutely right that we’re thinking about consent as a central part of how we write about sex and relationships.

LGBTQIA+ romance is also finding new readers at the moment which is brilliant to see. We want readers to be able to access as wide a range of romantic stories as possible – every reader deserves to see their own version of Happy Ever After on the page. And if you’re a reader who can’t find that in a book yet, why not join the New Writers’ Scheme and write your own?

Looking forward, how excited or optimistic are you about the future of the romance genre within publishing?

Incredibly excited. If you look at Netflix and other streaming services you can see that there’s a huge appetite for romantic stories. As romantic novelists we’re competing with all of those other forms of entertainment, but ultimately I believe that story is king. If you can tell a satisfying romantic story then there are readers out there desperate to hear that story.

Do you think organisations can stay genre specific, or is there a need for a more open working relationship within the industry, which reaches out to other genre specific organisations? 

I don’t think it’s an either/or question. There are no plans at the moment for the RNA to stop being a genre-specific organisation. I think there are genre-specific challenges that it’s good to be able to view as a single group. In romantic fiction, for example, we’re still fighting the perception that books predominantly written and read by women are somehow ‘less than’ and I think it’s valuable to have a strong genre-specific voice to address those sorts of issues.

But I’m also really keen to work across genres with other organisations. We’re really pleased to have a strong relationship with the CWA for example. Some of our local groups have already organised joint events, and I hope more will do so in the future. We also share ideas with one another at a Chairperson level and I think both organisations are stronger for having that relationship.

BIOGRAPHY
Alison May is a novelist, short story writer, blogger and creative writing tutor who grew up in North Yorkshire, and now lives in Worcester. She worked as a waitress, a shop assistant, a learning adviser, an advice centre manager, a freelance trainer, and now a maker-upper of stories.

She won the RNA’s Elizabeth Goudge trophy in 2012, and her short stories have been published by Harlequin, Choc Lit and Black Pear Press. Alison has also been shortlisted in the Love Stories and RoNA Awards. Alison writes romantic comedies and emotion driven fiction. Her latest novel, All That Was Lost, was published by Legend Press in September 2018.

She also writes modern retellings of misunderstood classics, in collaboration with Janet Gover, under the penname Juliet Bell (www.julietbell.co.uk & Twitter @JulietBellBooks).

Alison is currently Chair of the Romantic Novelists’ Association.

Website: http://www.alison-may.co.uk

Twitter: twitter.com/MsAlisonMay

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/AlisonMayAuthor

Instagram: instrgram.com/MsAlisonMay

BUY LINKS:

Juliet Bell – The Heights

Juliet Bell – The Other Wife

 

Alison May – All That Was Lost

Nicola Cornick, chair of The Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA), an historian and award winning novelist, explains what the organisation offers both published and unpublished writers of romance.

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I am delighted to welcome back Nicola as chair of the RNA.

What can the organisation offer romance writers in 2018?

‘The RNA is the professional organisation that supports and promotes romantic fiction in the UK. Membership of the RNA offers authors the chance to strengthen their career through developing their craft at our workshops and conferences and to build a network with other authors who understand the challenges we face and can offer advice and support. We are also building strong links with the industry and our events give authors the chance to meet a wide range of agents, publishers, booksellers, librarians and other professionals.’

That seems to present a broad spectrum of activities and opportunities to support your members.

‘In addition, members receive Romance Matters, our quarterly journal covering all aspects of writing romantic fiction from the craft to industry issues, discounted tickets to all our events and the opportunity to join regional groups. So the benefits are both professional and social.’

Nicola stresses that although the emphasis is on the professional advice, events and networking a friendly and welcoming atmosphere is nurtured. So how does a writer become a member?

‘The RNA welcomes traditionally and independently published authors. Membership is in different bands: A full or independent Author Member is currently £50 (£57 for non EU based) and £60 for Associate Members (£67 for non EU based). All the details can be found online at or by contacting the membership secretary, Gill Stewart, on info@romanticnovelistsassociation.org.

The organisation also welcomes and encourages as yet unpublished writers into its ranks. The New Writers’ Scheme is unique as Nicola explains.

‘We’re very proud of the New Writers’ Scheme (NWS), which provides the opportunity for aspiring authors to submit a manuscript for critique by an experienced writer in the genre. Not only is it a great way for new writers to improve their craft, it also gives encouragement and support. As the RNA has close links with publishers and agents the NWS can provide a route for them to make those connections. Unsurprisingly it is hugely popular and each year a number of NWS members go on to achieve publishing contracts.’

The scheme is open to writers interested in submitting an unpublished romantic novel (or partial) and this year the membership fee cost was £135 (£145 for members outside the EU). This also allows unpublished authors to take part in all RNA activities as well as submitting a manuscript of a full-length novel for appraisal. More details are available by email to: NWS@romanticnovelistsassociation.org There is a cap on the number of submissions that can be accepted each year and acceptance into the scheme is therefore on a ‘first come first served’ basis. The entry slot for submissions closes at the end of August each year.

Today’s publishing environment seems to be becoming more challenging, but Nicola is very optimistic about the present market for the romance genre.

‘I think the romantic fiction genre is changing all the time to reflect both modern life and the changing publishing world. The genre is a broad one. You can find strong romantic elements in many different sorts of novels where people are writing about relationships, whether this is contemporary fiction or epic historicals or books for young adults. Our membership reflects all of these different threads. We also see the books reflecting the concerns of contemporary society, whether it is issues such as work life balance, infidelity or health. The recent return to popularity of Gothic romance perhaps reflects the idea that spooky stories resonate in uncertain times. And of course romantic fiction also continues to provide its readership with the wonderful feel-good stories that readers love.’

Looking forward, I asked Niocla if she thought that the scope for romantic fiction will narrow as lines in the market place are redefined, or do she saw it flourishing as it has done in the past?

‘I see a lot in the press about how the genre is being more and more tightly defined and categorised into sub-genres, but actually at the genre level, in the UK at least, I see it continuing to broaden out. There are romantic relationships represented in a whole range of novels from crime and sci fi to literary fiction. The RNA’s membership reflects that and our awards and events will continue to embrace that wider focus.’

How would Nicola like to see the organisation evolve under your tenure?

‘I’d like to see the RNA continue to provide great support for its membership whilst looking outward a bit more in our promotion of excellence within the genre. We would particularly like to build our relationships within the industry, with booksellers and librarians as well as with publishers and agents. We’d also like to put romantic fiction even more firmly on the map by reminding people what a very successful and dynamic genre it is in business terms.’

Nicola’s natural energy and enthusiasm for the genre shines through her vision, but can romance remain genre specific if there is a need or desire for a more open working relationship within the industry?

‘I think we can do both if we don’t constrain the genre too tightly. Our core role is to support our membership and as this is drawn from a broad range of romantic fiction this fits with the idea of needing a more open working relationship within the industry. With this in mind we are planning a series of joint events with the Crime Writers’ Association and the Historical Writers’ Association, amongst others, where we can explore the things we have in common and the support we give each other as writers more generally.’

 

Nicola Cornick is the author of dual-time gothic novels House of Shadows and The Phantom Tree (HQ) and also forty plus Regency romances. She is a former trustee of the Wantage Literary Festival and a historian and speaker specialising in public history.