Wednesday, May 21, 2014

RWA Chicago-North Spring Fling 2014 Conference, Day Two

Welcome to part two of my review of Spring Fling 2014! (For part one, click here.) Last week I talked about my reasons for going to the conference and all the things I learned and saw and loved about day one. Now it's time to break down day two.

I will confess that I very seriously considered not going to the first workshop of the day on Saturday morning. It started at 8:15, which meant I had to get up early after having stayed up late the night before. Learning about the publication process sounded way less interesting when my alarm went off before sunrise than it had when I originally went through the schedule book.

But I hauled myself out of bed and drank a very large cup of coffee and managed to muddle my way back over to the conference hotel just in time. And I'm really glad I did. The session I attended that morning was "From Query to Shelf: A Publisher’s Perspective", presented by Liz Pelletier, and it was really interesting.

I've learned quite a bit about what happens to a book after a successful query from the perspective of writers and editors, but this was really the first time I'd heard someone spend a good deal of time explaining the process of acquiring and placing a book from the publisher's side of things. I think most of the time folks assume that writers don't need to worry their fragile little creative minds about the business stuff. But the world is changing and I don't think the old model of "you just commune with your Muse, dearie, and let me take care of the business" holds up anymore.

Anyway, Ms. Pelletier took us through the whole process, from what happens when the editor brings it to the acquisition meeting to meeting with the national buyers and all the way to the book showing up on the shelf at B&N or Target or wherever. She talked about the importance of the high concept, and why it's so important, how decisions like which books are key titles and which books will get co-ops and such are made, and who really has the final say regarding covers. It was very illuminating.

After that session it was time for the big book signing. I wasn't sure I was really going to spend any time there. I mean, I don't buy print books anymore and I read all my ebooks on my phone. It's not like I had anything for anyone to sign or any plans to pick up copies of anything. Plus, to be totally honest, I hadn't heard of most of the authors present. I guess I'm not as widely read in the romance genre as I thought I was.

But there were a few folks there who I was interested in meeting, so I dug out an old sketchbook and turned it into an autograph notebook. (After carefully removing all my badly drawn maps of the various lands from the Epic Fantasy Trilogy of Doom. Because of course I had maps.) I worked myself up into a good frenzy beforehand, putting all kinds of pressure on myself to be witty and articulate when I got the chance to talk to these people. And then I think I gushed about sixteen disconnected sentences in one breath at Courtney Milan and Sarah Wendell before my brain short circuited and I had to find a corner to hide in and slow my thoughts down a bit.

Next up was "Unraveling Romantic Suspense" presented by Mary Burton. I don't actually write romantic suspense, but my urban fantasy sometimes runs toward that direction. And she focused a lot on crafting the suspense part of the story, (I suppose at an RWA conference, your audience likely already knows how to, or has at least already attended a couple of sessions focused on, working in the romance bits) which was perfect for me. Plus she gave out these really great bookmarks about her drafting process with tips for revisions and stuff. Yay for visual aids and swag!

Then it was time for lunch, and Mary Balogh gave her keynote address. She was positively charming. Smart and down-to-earth and funny. She talked a lot about the importance of what we do and the bravery it takes to put yourself out there as a storyteller. There was some good stuff too about choosing love and hope and life for our focal points as romance writers. I got one of her books, of course, but I'm kind of afraid to read it. She's written something like 75 or 1,000,000 novels and if I enjoy this one half as much as I did listening to her talk, I'm just know I'm going to have to read them all.

I next went to a workshop called "I Like It, Don’t Love It: Or, What to Do When Good Isn’t Good Enough", presented by Jennifer Greene, Lindsay Longford, and Margaret Watson. I sort of thought this was going to be a craft-oriented session about how to improve a manuscript that's close but not quite there. Instead it was more about the mindset of the writer in those situations. The three authors presenting gave examples of times in their careers when they were getting passed over and what they learned from those experiences. Their advice was practical and supportive and I really enjoyed hearing them speak.

After that, I attended "Building A Sticky Readership", presented by Courtney Milan. If you ever see this workshop listed in a program guide for a conference you're at, go there. I don't care what else is programmed against it. Courtney Milan is freaking brilliant. When she talks about how to succeed in this business, listen. As I said in last week's post, I'm not anywhere near this aspect of my career yet and things will likely have changed in the industry by the time I do get there. I still took several pages of good notes during her presentation and downloaded the PowerPoint when I got home.

Let's talk about sex! The next session was "Using It All: Writing Sex That Not Only Steams Up the Pages, But Uses the Emotional Magnitude of Intimacy To Drive the Heart of Your Novel", presented by Lauren Dane (with a surprise guest appearance by Megan Hart). This session was a pretty relaxed Q&A session rather than a formal presentation and I thought it was great. The conversation flowed in a couple of directions I wouldn't necessarily have expected. They talked about the potential sex has in terms of character development and plot, the importance of being comfortable with what you're writing, and ways to use sexual tension to great effect--sometimes to greater effect than sex itself.

The last workshop I went to was "Write Tight", presented by Ashlyn Macnamara. She had some great tips for us about how to trim the fat from a manuscript. She also had what I felt was a very good grasp of when to trim the fat. One of the issues I have with most writing advice on this topic is that people seem to have an all-or-nothing mentality with it. Let's not use any dialogue tags, strip out the passive voice, and eliminate ALL THE ADVERBS! Ms. Macnamara had no such notions. The usual junk words can be useful to give a story voice, to bring realism to the dialogue, or to smooth out the rhythm of the read. The trick is to only use them when you need them.

Also, my netbook totally saved the day during that session. So I can now I can say I helped present at a writing conference, right? Or at least that I've done some voluntary technical support or something?

No, probably not. But at least I have proof now that carrying absolutely everything around in my giant purse can come in handy.

Last up was the big semi-formal dinner and awards ceremony. Adam Grabowski performed during dinner, which I thought was a little. . . odd. I mean, he was funny and there we all were with our mouths full, wanting to laugh but at the same time trying not to laugh, on account of the full mouths and all. Or maybe that was just my particular brand of overthinking it. I've never really gotten the lure of dinner theater either. Anyway, he was really funny and when my kids wanted to watch The Little Mermaid the next day (because of course they did) I just about died laughing.

If you're ever looking for a gift for me, I wouldn't say no to one of those "I've got whosits and whatsits galore!" t-shirts. Just throwing that out there. . .

One of the women sitting at my dinner table won his "best euphemism" contest and he closed off his act by posing for a proper romance novel cover photo with her. Vest with no shirt, flowers in the teeth, giant sword, wig artfully blowing back thanks to a strategically placed fan. It was perfect.

Kristan Higgins was the keynote speaker after dinner and she was fantastic. She spoke about ups and downs in her writing career and told a couple of cute and funny stories. She also talked about how writing had gotten her through some really awful times and she read some letters she's gotten from fans telling her about how her books have gotten them through their own hard times. It is possible I looked at some points as though I might be crying. But I was wearing eyeliner and mascara and stuff, and so of course I would never indulge in such foolishness.

There was music and dancing afterward, but I was totally drained by that point and in danger of putting my head down on the table and falling asleep. So I called it a night and headed home early.

That sums up my latest conference adventure. I had a great time and I learned a bunch and I'm so glad I decided to go. Spring Fling is a biennial conference, so I won't be going back next year, obviously. I'm introverted, but I'm not so far gone that I want to sit in the hotel all by myself pretending to attend workshops and talk to people and stuff. But I am looking forward to attending in 2016.

Will I be pitching by then? Under contract? Self-published?

Who knows? But I know I'll have a great time. :-)

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