Wednesday, May 14, 2014

RWA Chicago-North Spring Fling 2014 Conference, Day One

Long ago and far away (by which I mean here in my living room back in January), Long-Suffering Husband and I were talking about the progress of my writing career. He's a project manager out in the real world and, since I don't have a project manager of my own, sometimes I pick his brain about such things. One of the things I mentioned that I'd like to start taking on is focusing more on the professional development side of things.

The most important thing a writer can do to forward their career, of course, is to write. Write more. Write again. Rewrite. Finish what you start, then start something new. Practice makes perfect, and all that jazz.

But I was interested in what I could do in addition to that. There's only so much I can learn from hanging out inside my own head, after all. I wanted to take a class or do a workshop or go to a conference or something. But I didn't want to just sign up for anything. The options are somewhat limited for me, both financially and schedule-wise.

Long-Suffering Husband agreed with me and we decided that if I could find something worthwhile that was relatively close and wouldn't cost us an arm and a leg, we could use a little of our tax refund for it. A bit of research later, I settled on the RWA Chicago-North's Spring Fling Conference.

It might seem like an odd choice. I mean, I'm not working on anything romantic right now. My current WIP doesn't even have a romantic subplot. I don't belong to RWA and probably won't be joining this year. And I didn't have anything ready to pitch to any of the agents or editors who would be at the conference.*

But I looked at the slate of potential workshops and the speakers they had lined up and it looked like a good deal. A romance focus, sure, but plenty of general industry and craft information to be had as well. It was also only two days, which struck me as more than long enough for someone just getting back into the game. Plus, the price was within my budget and hotel was about ten minutes from our house. It just doesn't get more convenient than that.

So I signed up and prepared to put on my professional face and mix and mingle with my fellow writerly types for a couple of days. And then I spent a few months wavering back and forth between excited and terrified. Mostly excited.

Okay, fine, mostly terrified.

What if it was weirdly cliquey and I spent the whole weekend feeling awkward and uncomfortable? What if I had an anxiety attack in front of everyone and had to run away and hide for the rest of the weekend? (Or possibly the rest of my life, depending on the number of witnesses?) What if I was bored? What if my brain shut off while my mouth was still running and I ended up shoving my foot down my throat? What if I met my dream agent at lunch one day and we had a great conversation and then I had to confess by telling him/her that I had absolutely nothing to show them? What if I did something ridiculous like walk out of the bathroom with my skirt tucked into my pantyhose?

Happily, none of those things happened. I had so much fun! I chatted (probably too much if I'm being honest) with total strangers about too many different things for me to list. I got to meet a few of my favorite authors and found a few new ones who I'm sure will become favorites soon enough. And I went to interesting panels and workshops and took pages and pages of notes.

Which, let's face it, is what I was there for. And, more to the point, what I started writing this post to share with all of you. Wanna hear all about every single thing that every single person said?

No? Good. I didn't write all of it down and none of us has that kind of time. How about some highlights?

The first session I attended was "Honing a Voice that Sells", presented by agent Nicole Resciniti and authors Julie Ann Walker and Kate Meader. This was one that I could have submitted pages for discussion beforehand, but I didn't want to be distracted. I know me. If my words were potentially up for discussion, I would have been a bundle of jangling nerves, ragged breathing, and a racing heartbeat, and that's all I would have been able to hear.

There was some great information in this workshop about making your voice work for you. My main takeaway was that voice isn't really about the dialogue or the sentence structure. That stuff has to be able to adapt across genres and characters and time periods. Voice is really more about the types of details you choose to include (or not) and the emotions you evoke. They went through quite a few examples and broke it down really well.

There may be a blog post on this topic in the future. I'm still mulling it over.

The second session was "Romance Reviews: How to Get Reviewed, and How to Put a Review in Your Rearview Mirror", presented by Sarah Wendell. This is one that I went to more as a fan than as a writer, since I probably won't be dealing with reviews for a long time and by the time I am, things will be different. But Sarah Wendell is so freaking hilarious online that I couldn't pass up the chance to hear her talk in person. I started taking notes of all the funny things she said, but then that quickly turned into dictation and got distracting. Bottom line: that woman is funny and smart and I kinda want to be her when I grow up.

I say that a lot, don't I? I want to be quite a few people when I grow up apparently. So what? I can totally be all of them.

And no, now is not the time to point out the fact that I'm already a grown up.

Lauren Dane was the keynote speaker for the official kickoff event. She was fabulous and adorable and I already have a whole blog post in the works about some of the things she said. She focused a lot on the connections we make as writers and the importance of not isolating yourself. It was good stuff. After she spoke, there was a nice Q&A panel with Ms. Dane and the other two spotlighted authors, Mary Balogh and Kristan Higgins.

There was a little bit of a gap in the schedule at that point and I got a good bit or writing done on my netbook in the hotel lobby. This was one of those times when super-introverted me would have liked to have been staying in the hotel so I could have had some quiet time in my room. I suspect extroverted people used the time to mix and mingle, maybe catch up with friends and such. I didn't know anyone attending the conference and I didn't have it in me to go around introducing myself to people. So I sat next to the fountain, typing away like mad and trying to use the water sounds and keyboard clacking to convince myself I was alone.

Because I am a social butterfly. Oh yes.

The next event on the schedule was dinner.** I confess I felt a little bit like the first day at a new school when I first walked into the ballroom. Here were all these tables set for ten or so, and about 300 people I'd never met. I walked around for a while before I finally realized the ground was not going to open up and swallow me whole, and I wasn't going to find the one random table-for-one hiding in plain sight either. You wouldn't think the phrase "is anyone sitting here?" would be so hard, but apparently it's right up there with "I was wrong." I did manage to get over myself eventually and I probably spent too much of the meal yapping once I convinced myself doing so wasn't going to hurt me.

The next two events were Q&A panels with the agents and then editors in attendance. If I had been smarter, I probably should have skipped these and found a quiet corner or an empty room to decrompress in. It's not that they weren't interesting panels, but since I'm not anywhere near ready to be talking to agents and editors yet, they weren't as useful for me. By the time I'm ready to pitch in a year or two, everything about the industry will likely have changed again. That said, the agents and editors were all fun and interesting and I liked hearing their take on things.

The last thing on Friday night was the Hot Night Critiques breakout sessions. People were encouraged to bring up to three pages of a love scene for review. We broke out into groups, based on heat level, to read and offer feedback. I don't have anything with a love scene in it at the moment***, so I just attended as a voyeur.

(I thought I was so damn clever the first time I described it that way, but everyone was using that phrase to describe the folks who didn't bring pages to read, so apparently I'm not as clever as I thought. Or at least I'm only equally as clever as everyone else.)

I had a blast. I haven't been part of a critique group in a few years and I'd forgotten how much I really enjoy picking out things that don't work and trying to figure out why and highlighting all the little bits that really do work. I'm pretty sure I had something to offer on every single piece that was read. The Inner Editor must have thought it was Christmas, Hanukkah, and her birthday all at the same time.

And then I went home, exhausted and happy and eager to see what the next day would bring.

I was going to wrap up the whole weekend in one post, but this has already gotten really long. So I'll spare you all for now and break down day two next week. But even if this was it, wouldn't that have been wonderful? Look at all the fun I had and all the things I learned! So worth it.

*I suppose I could have bluffed my way through it and pitched anyway. Plenty of people do that. But I went down that road once back in the day. Trust me; it's no good when your worst case scenario is "what if the agent likes it and wants to see more?" The agent asking for pages is the goal, so that should be the best case scenario, after all.

**Dinner was yummy, by the way. Just, you know, in case you were curious.

***I didn't realize until I got the email about signing up for this event that Guardian has no sex. I think it's the first book I've written, except for that one I wrote back when I was twelve, that hasn't had any sex scenes at all. I'm pretty sure there isn't even going to be flirting, which is something even that pre-teen attempt fumbled its way through. It's. . .  weird.

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