Saturday, August 2, 2014

RWA 2014 Debriefing

Okay, if you’re looking for a short blog post, skip this one. I’m still reeling from the RWA Conference, but I promise it’s in the best way possible. Every second of sensory overload was worth it. I will also warn that my use of adjectives is—at best—repetitive and—at worse—something worse.

Day 1...The Travel

I left for the conference from Sacramento, California. On the plane I met several people who were also going to the conference, including Mary Tate Engels, who graciously allowed me to pick her brain about what to do with a backlist and how to approach the conference. She and I hung out together as we collected our luggage and were going to take the airport shuttle to the hotels.

Another woman was standing near the ticket booth and since the man running it had stepped out, the three of us got into a conversation. The newest lady asked if we all wanted to share a taxi to get there (cheaper and much nicer than taking an hour on a loop of the major hotels). Since we were about to become taxi buddies, we introduced ourselves. Turned out that nice woman was Brenda Novak.

Cue fangirl moment #1.

We all hopped into a taxi and discussed a ton of stuff in our ten minute taxi ride. Brenda discussed more about the industry (I now will be looking up ACX) and mentioned that one of her newest book series is set in Alaska and she might have to pick my brain.

Cue me handing over my business card with a personalized note about emailing me for Alaska info while praying that she wouldn’t notice how rabidly excited I had become to be of use.

I reached my hotel. I updated my family and husband that I was indeed alive and in San Antonio and that yes, it was much hotter than I was prepared for. I got my room. I showered. (You probably didn’t need to know that, but trust me, after hours on a plane, it was definitely one of those treats I couldn’t deny myself.) Then I headed across the street to go find two of my Harlequin forum buddies who were at the first-timers session (I got in too late to make it).

Stepping into the lobby of the Marriot stunned me. Literally. I stopped in my tracks and I’m sure all of the wonderful people milling about in the lobby probably thought, “Huh. Why does she look like a deer in the headlights and stop in the middle of the sliding glass door? Doesn’t she know it will try to close on her?”

Noise. And bodies. And happy squeals of greetings that I have now come to adore because it is one of the purest, most joyful sounds here. Oh, and a line for Starbucks that was at least 40 people deep.

I wandered upstairs, managed to check in and get a bag of loot, and started to get myself to rights. While waiting for the session to get out I was able to purchase my audio recordings of the full conference sessions (totally going to be my driving to work audiobook for a while). I stopped at the goody room and got more loot. Then I stood somewhere that I figured would be obvious and waited.

The session ended and out comes a flood of people. Again, overwhelming. Then I hear the squeal and find Carol and Cheryl (a.k.a. carolopal and CASpeakman from the boards). Cue hugging, gushing, and true wonder at meeting them in the flesh. I was starving and hadn’t eaten anything but a Rice Krispie treat lovingly made by my mother since 3:30 a.m., so Cheryl (who lives in San Antonio) took us to Dough. The food was incredible and it makes sense why it was featured on Food Network. She also brought macarons from Bakery Lorraine. We ate and talked and talked and talked and finally headed back to the hotels.

I unpacked. I ironed my clothes. I scheduled out my days. And I crashed hard.

Day 2…Let it begin…

Met C & C in the lobby for breakfast at 7:30 a.m. after getting a tea from the Starbucks. At this time, it was early enough to get in line and not wait a long time. By the way, the ladies working there are ah-mazing and fast and polite and should be tipped in gold bouillon. Just saying.

First session was “Bang! You’re Dead: Guns for Writers.” I’m a nerd and take tons of notes at conferences. 9 pages later the session ended. I thanked the presenter (Antoine de l’EspĂ©rance of Captive Unicorn Publications) and headed to session 2.

“Conquering High Concept” was equally fabulous. May Chen of Avon Books and authors Sarah MacLean and Sophie Jordan were leading the discussion. It was interactive, totally packed until people were spilling out the doors, and I took 6 pages of notes. There were a lot of gems of wisdom in this one. Here are my favorites:
  • “As a writer, you need to find the crazy and go for it.” - Sophie Jordan (supported enthusiastically by May Chen)
  • “Never write from a place of fear.” -Sarah MacLean
  • “You’re always searching for the impossibility…and how can it work out?” -Sophie Jordan
  • “Here’s how I describe the plot of a romance novel: shit happens when two idiots fall in love.” -Sarah MacLean
  • “As a writer, at three-quarters of the way [in your book] you should be asking, ‘How will they ever be together?’ and you have to trust yourself to answer that.” -Sarah MacLean

The session was inspiring and energizing. It made me want to go and write. Later that day I got a chance to thank Sarah for the presentation. She was so kind and generous and I suffered from major fangirl moment #2.

I took a break, sat in the lounge and worked on my pitch a bit. While there I met Anne Eliot (YA writer) and she worked with me on the pitch for a while. Again, totally friendly and kind person. And we’d met in the Starbucks line, so we got to talk for quite a while.

Cue lunch. Keynote speaker Sylvia Day. More bags of loot waiting for me.

I have to take a second to gush. Sylvia Day’s keynote speech was one of the most inspiring I’d heard. She covered everything, from industry to craft to personal joy. But it was the end of her speech that teared me up. She said something I really needed to hear.

Let me go off on a side tangent for a second. I’m not a best-seller. I just want to write good books and have people enjoy them. Sometimes in this industry, people tell you that that’s not enough. You have to make it big. You have to have thousands of followers. You have to be a best-seller. You have to tweet/blog/sell your soul at least twenty times a day to get more engagement. (I must pause to give a huge shout out of ridiculous gratitude for Kate Cuthbert at Escape Publishing for taking that risk on me…I’ve been pimping Escape as much as I can here because I really feel like I’ve made a dream connection on my first shot in the dark). 

Okay, now for the bitter truth.

Despite realizing my dream of having my books published, I have felt so inferior so often because I thought it was wrong that I just wanted to write more good stories while saying, “Screw the rest of it.”

Sylvia Day’s keynote was perfect because she said this:

“The only person who can make you real, make your books real, is you.”

Le tweet
I tweeted this quote because it so elegantly encapsulated the issue I’ve been struggling with. And more than that, it validated that it was okay for me to write just because I love it.

By the way, this incredible lady actually responded to that tweet. I favorited it. And I squealed. And I fangirled yet again. Dude, lots of that going on here. More came when, on Day 3 I discovered she had retweeted my quote and bunch of other people liked it. Holy cow.

Getting ahead of myself though…

Another great piece of advice she gave during her speech was, “You must ask yourself, ‘Am I afraid? Am I making the decision because I’m scared?’ Then throw the fear away…We are only the best writer we can be at this time. We can only get better.”

I walked out of that lunch feeling lighter and more inspired than I have since I got my first acceptance letter.

But that’s what this conference does. If you have great CP partners like I do, it’s like throwing two thousand of them together and releasing them on the world. (Love you Kari and JM! Someday we will meet and storm the romance barricade together!) This conference surrounds you with people who understand what you’re trying to do. They don’t look at you funny when you talk about your characters as real people, because everyone here feels the same way. You do not have to hide yourself here. It’s a miracle. It’s freeing.

I spent more time relaxing in the lounge and working on my pitch. I talked to more people and had a great conversation about Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird with Diane Hester.

I sojourned upstairs for “The Secret to Powerful Writing: Activate, Activate, Activate,” led by Claire Cavanaugh and Robin Perini. I know I’m running out of adjectives, so forgive me. It was nitty and gritty and again left me chomping at the bit to get writing. I wrote out the opening scene of The Wastes #2 there. Then Robin was even nice enough to answer one of my specific questions after the session and helped me tweak the scene to do what I needed it to. GAH! FANGIRL!!!!
Carol and me visiting with Travis

Off to the “Celebrating Authors” Reception. 

Lots of cowboys. Lots of food and fun and more people to meet. Pictures and interviews that might go up on Kindle Love Stories. Laughter. Blushing. Super cool.

Quick dinner at Denny’s for me since I seriously needed some downtime and was hungry again. I get hungry a lot when I travel…Anyway, my waitresses there were super friendly and very Texan and I adored them, especially when they confirmed that they did have my favorite soda, Dr. Pepper. Yeah, good people these Texans.

Back to the hotel for the Harlequin forums PJ party. I met tons of people who I had only known by their online handle. I met Shirley Hailstock (fangirling again) and she shared hilarious stories and beautiful wisdom and made our table snort tea. “Queen Elizabeth was gay.” If you’re laughing, you understand this inside joke and remember how we snorted our tea all over our red velvet cupcakes. If you’re not laughing, you had to be there. Sorry.

Back to the hotel. Shower. Promise to work on pitch. Exhaustion. Sleep.

Day 3 dawns

Wake up at 6 a.m. after a series of weird dreams involving the sensation of losing my grip on a whirling metal object and flying off into a void…Is there some kind of message there I’m missing? I once again practiced curling my wild, frizzy, untamable-in-Texas-humidity hair with my flat iron (my little sister is so proud I’ve finally learned to do this!) and headed across the street where we had a buffet breakfast and presentation by Cindy Ratzlaff. I left early to get in line for the Harlequin book signing.

Totally worth it.

Here’s the thing about the authors here. They’re kind. They’re personable. They ask you questions and really are genuinely interested in your response. I collected far too many books to take home because there was no way I couldn’t stop by to gush over their work or learn about a new book or series. I’ve given up counting my fangirl moments because there are too many.

Okay, that’s a lie. One more.

I came out of the Harlequin book signing and who is standing there but Jackie Ashenden. I preorder her books religiously. If I could have a writer spirit animal, it would be her because her heroes are dark and angsty and so real it hurts to read their stories. I love them and she’s an inspiration.

After some awkward pseudo-stalking (she was so gracious and didn’t act at all creeped out by my waiting to talk to her), we had a conversation. And, unbidden, I became so emotional and so embarrassed about being emotional because I had to thank her for writing those kind of heroes. Her kindness encouraged me to ask the question I’ve been trying to find an answer to.

Here’s the deal. I’ve been told by some people (not my editors, not my trusted CPs, but others who shall remain nameless) that my heroes are too dark, they’re too broken, and that they can’t work in romance. People don’t want them.

I asked Jackie if that was true.

She made a face somewhere between amusement and disbelief, shook her head, and promised me with complete conviction that it’s not true. That we need to be completely honest to our characters. If they’re dark, let them run with it because an editor can always tone it down, but we can’t amp that part of them up. That if we give in to those voices, we aren’t being true to ourselves as writers and then what’s the point?

I believe that God doesn’t let anything happen by accident. The timing of meeting her was too perfect, her advice too poignant, and her willingness to talk to a crazy fangirl too sweet and genuine for me to ever believe that coincidence alone led me to be given that advice by one of my favorite authors. When we doubt, signs are given that we need to trust that truest spark of ourselves and breathe it back into an inferno.

I apologized for fangirling and headed to the Avon signing where…MORE BOOKS!!! MORE AUTHORS!!! MORE FANGIRLING!!!

Are you noticing a pattern yet?

Had lunch with Carol and Cheryl, discussed our pitches, and then Cheryl and I headed across the street early for our pitching appointments.

This was my least favorite part of the day. Not because of my pitch. It was incredible to meet with the agent I had an appointment with; she was professional, answered my questions fully, and didn’t remind me of how nervous I was to sit across from her and pitch a story that’s dear to my heart. No matter how my submission to her goes, I feel honored that I made it that far and appreciate the time she gave to me.

The volunteers organizing the pitch sessions were amazing. So organized and efficient and funny and making what could have easily been a dire situation involving palm sweat and nerve-induced vomiting into a peaceful experience.

Several of the fellow writers I met during this sessions were a joy to sit beside. They were passionate and dedicated.

However, as with any meat market situation, there was an element of cattiness in some of the other women waiting in the room. I realize that I was in an unusual position. I love Escape and didn’t feel the need to pitch to another publisher at this point in my career, so I only signed up for an agent appointment. However, when appointments weren’t filled, the opportunity would arise for women to jump into that open slot.

This is when I heard whispered conversations about how unfair it was that some writers jumped over others for this opportunity. The potential for tearing each other down was too great for some of the people in the room and they seemed to enjoy complaining about the situation.

Don’t get me wrong, this didn’t ruin the conference or the pitching event for me. If anything, it reminded me that even in such a tightly knit, supportive community as romance writers are, there are always people who will focus on those “what-ifs” instead of the “what-nows.” The desire for personal success is a risk of any creative art and it happened to show its stripes at this point.

Okay, back on target with this post…agent pitch went well and I was very happy with the result. As was my family, who had been praying for me all afternoon.

After the pitching experience, I went to the session held by Maisey Yates and Jackie Ashenden about “Protecting Your Joy.” This was the ultimate pep talk for a yes-woman like me who often can’t escape that niggling doubt that my publication is a fluke. And I walked out again feeling empowered and ready to come back to my laptop and tackle my writing.

I swear, if this conference has taught me anything, it has taught me that I love writing. I cannot be happy without it in my life, regardless of fame or publication or review ratings. I bring my own baggage to the table, but as Maisey Yates said in the session, “If something doesn’t add to you more than it takes away from you, it’s not worth having it around you.”

Spent a little more time with Carol and Cheryl before I headed off to prepare for the Harlequin authors party. To put it mildly, it was a blast. I was in awe of all the great authors who were there…I mean, it couldn’t be real that I was there too. It was my Cinderella moment.

Kelly Jensen and Jenn Burke...
wicked awesome ladies!
My fellow Escape Artist Nicole Flockton introduced me to Kristina Knight, Jenn Burke, and Kelly Jensen. Jenn, Kelly, and I actually ended up migrating to one of the outdoor balconies and talking about our SFR (they just had a 5 book deal picked up by Carina and I cannot wait to read it!), video games, writing process, asshole heroes, strong heroines, magic, demons, fantasy worlds, and everything under the sun. I am so grateful I got to meet them at the party. Talking with them was effortless and I will celebrate every new book release they have.

I came back to my hotel to look over my loot and to pack since I was due to leave the next morning. And, in the spirit of complete honesty, I broke down.

I called my husband and we talked for an hour about what my next steps are as a writer. He let me sob to him about how much this has honed my vision for my future. It was a painful, cathartic release borne of complete overload and I needed it desperately.

After all my experiences in those two days, I learned where my key values lay as a writer. It’s nothing too fancy. I’m not worried about fame or money. While validation would be nice at times, I don’t crave positive reinforcement from others to remind myself that what I’m doing has merit. My characters remind me of that themselves.

Day 4...Bittersweet Symphony

By the time Day 4 dawned (far too late for someone who hadn’t gotten into bed until 2 a.m.), I felt at peace with where this conference had led me. C & C met me at Denny’s where I was too tired and nauseous to eat much, but we enjoyed the quiet and time we had to decompress. We hit up three last book signings (one was for the Harlequin 5th Avenue series and was awesome) and headed to the last two sessions. I went to “Practical Self-Defense for Writers and Their Characters,” led by K.M. Fawcett, Cathy Tully, and Rayna Vause. The women running it were not only hilarious, they ran the session as a completely interactive experience. We gave them scenarios and they talked us through it, demonstrating the moves as they went. They even read over one of my paragraphs from The Wastes and were able to give me feedback on it to ensure it read smoothly and accurately. The session definitely inspired me to get those scenes right when I’m putting them on the page, but also to take a self-defense course in my life because of how unfrightening they made it.

C & C & I met up for my last session of the day; we wanted to take one together and were all interested in this one. That’s how we ended up sitting in “How to Write Hot Sex” with Christine d’Abo, Delphine Dryden, Kate Douglas, and Shoshanna Evers. Exhaustion was creeping in, but I took a lot of notes and will be able to listen to the recordings later and take it in. It was a hilarious, honest panel and gave me some good advice about what to look for when revising those scenes.

Sadly, after that session ended, it was time to head to the airport. I wished Carol goodbye and was heading down to the lobby to meet Cheryl (who kindly offered to drive me to the airport) when I met Maisey Yates’s mother in the elevator. It was funny since I didn’t know who she was, but it was a pleasure to talk with her about the conference and share how much I enjoyed her daughter’s session. And like that, the conference was over.

Cheryl and I hugged at the airport and I headed in to begin my great northward migration. Even now, I’m typing this at my gate while waiting to head home, although I know I won’t post it until I get some good sleep.


Final Thoughts

Conference = life changing. Both on a personal level and luggage level (I ended up with over 25 pounds of books to bring home…eek!).
Le loot

The time I’ve spent here is precious.

So, dear readers (and dearest readers, if you’ve stuck around to the end of this post), here is my solemn promise to you.

I will hone my craft to improve with each book. More importantly, I will not write from a place of fear. I will put myself out there and give you the most honest book I can produce.

Thank you for helping me to achieve my dream. I will never take that for granted. Much love to you all!