Books, Blues and Bourbon Street:
RWA Conference 2001

Coming from winter to summer, from small town Australia to the Big Easy, from my children's school vacation to the biggest romance writer's conference I'd ever seen, filled with people whose eyes didn't glaze over when I discussed my job - what wasn't to like? But it was more - much more - than I'd expected. Overwhelming? Sure. Intense? Absolutely. But for someone sporting their pink 'first sale' ribbon and going to meet not one, but two, editors, this became the experience of a lifetime. So please forgive me if a few details are out of sequence: the week dazzled my brain so much I think I left part of it behind when I bolted for my plane Sunday morning!

Having arrived in New Orleans 36 hours early, I checked in at the Sheraton New Orleans with a great deal of anticipation. I was ready to party! The hotel was a good venue with plenty of space, right near the French Quarter and with glimpses of the Mississippi River from our room. All requests made to the front desk and housekeeping were answered quickly and courteously. Good deals on food were offered most nights, and even phone calls were free through a deal with RWA. The drinks, though, I found very expensive (especially converting to Australian dollars - $16 for one drink). Across the road, the Marriott offered similar drinks much cheaper.

Local tours were reasonably priced. We chose a day walking tour, then an evening dinner, jazz and beignets walking tour. Despite some historical inaccuracies, such as the 1794 fire in the French Quarter was started by children playing with a matchbox (never try stuff like that on a writer), it was entertaining and we saw much of the city this way. The night tour I had no quarrel with at all. Great food, wonderful jazz, nice recounting of history without waffling, and the Café Du Monde was excellent (but don't use the rest rooms). A lovely lady from Washington Romance Writers also took us on a tour, which showed us sights not offered on the other tours, like the Voodoo Queen's house, and museums with artwork dating back to the Regency period. And the ride on the streetcar through the Garden District was unforgettable. What a beautiful, beautiful city. And though I'd been warned of the heat, this born-and-bred Sydney girl was totally comfortable…it was barely any different from our own summers, and I love the heat. The laid-back atmosphere of the Big Easy suited me, too. I liked the friendly people, the buskers, the food and the constant places of interest, like the USA's first pharmacy. What a fascinating place!

Wednesday, July 18, 2001

Replete with tours of the gorgeous French Quarter, gumbo and jambalaya, café au lait and beignets with my roomies from Washington Romance Writers, I rolled up Wednesday morning to sign up for the conference. My experience was made better by the fact that they'd forgotten to put in my pink 'first sale' ribbon, and I had to ask for it - what better way to feel important? After checking the list of first sales the volunteer handed me my ribbon, with a smile. She understood.

Strolling past the ARTemis contest finalist covers near registration, of course I couldn't resist checking a few out…and there were some exquisite reasons to keep looking around both sides of the board. Some of the artwork was incredible. I could see why these covers made the finals.

Next came Wednesday morning breakfast, with such wonderful writers as Sharon Sala, Sharon Mignerey, RITA nominee Fiona Brand, Karen Anders and two new, up and coming writers, Frances Housden and Bronwyn Jameson. Most of these write for Intimate Moments, like me, and it was fabulous to meet and talk with them. Even better was to hear them talk of their writing nerves, their certainty that their editor wouldn't like their latest book - even Sharon Sala feels that way! It made me feel like I wasn't so weird after all.

The literacy signing Wednesday afternoon and evening was a great success, as the RWA executive reported later. There were so many authors generously giving their time, and publishers their books. I met Suzanne Brockmann, Stephanie Laurens, Debra Cowan and RITA winner Isolde Martyn, whose second book, The Knight and the Rose, is just coming out in the US, with a truly beautiful cover. Being a first-timer, I was nervous of approaching the big name ladies (many of whom sold out early), but couldn't resist meeting first-time signers like Bronwyn Jameson and Jennifer Wagner, both of whom are thrilled their first books, In Bed With The Boss' Daughter and Twice Upon A Time, are selling so well.

We moved on to my roommate's Beau Monde evening, in the Waterbury room on the second floor. Ladies dressed in Regency costume, gambling chips and refreshment, dancing and instruction on how to follow the steps of a country-dance of the period - it was quite an experience. My roommate and Golden Heart finalist, Diane Perkins, won second place in the Beau Monde's Royal Ascot contest with her story, The Diamond. We were suitably thrilled for her. I also met last year's RITA finalist, Anne Gracie, here - a fellow Aussie who writes for Harlequin Historicals and Duets. I thought it really nice of her to support her fellow Regency writers, published and unpublished, especially since she was unwell from her trip.

Then, as Diane celebrated with all the Regency writers, I moved on with Karen Anders to Pat O'Brien's, a famous landmark pub in New Orleans, to meet fellow Intimate Moments writers for drinks. I met new, up and coming writers Susan Vaughan, whose book is just out, and Jenna Mills and Cathy Mann, who, like me, have their first books coming out next year. We sat with Linda Castillo, whose first novel was up for a RITA award, Vickie Taylor, Nina Bruhns, whose book, Catch Me If You Can, won a Readers' Choice National Award, and Kylie Brant. It was a fun, relaxed way to meet each other - and a great, atmospheric pub. We compared stories of publication and I personally was interested to note how many of us (including me, and Linda, with that RITA-nominated book) were picked up from contests. So if you think contests are painful and pointless, think again. They do work!

Thursday, July 19, 2001

This is the day when the real learning starts. Starting at 9am, there was a range of workshops for all interests in the genre; but having unfortunately slept in (jet lag finally having hit) I missed the first hour. My roomie went to the workshop on contests, and found this a most useful insight into which contests will work for her and how to work them correctly - not hinging all your hopes on them, but trying to work them for her as a useful tool to enhance her craft.

At 10:15, I chose to listen to the Pushing the Envelope workshop, with Christopher Keesler from Dorchester Publishing, with Julie Kenner and Susan Grant. It was a very interesting insight into a smaller publisher and the freedom a writer can find there - it also can be a savvy career move for those interested in the big guns, like Avon and St Martin's Press, as, according to Mr. Keesler, many big-name publishers keep their eye on the trends, and authors, who begin at smaller houses. He talked of the paranormal market and the more unusual stories they publish, such as Ms Kenner's The Cat's Fancy. They also accept unagented submissions - a query letter, synopsis and three chapters to start with - so this can be the way ‘in' for those having a hard time finding an agent. Dorchester is actively seeking new talent, whose storylines may be seen as a bit ‘out there' for more traditional houses.

Then came a personal high for me - meeting my new editor, Gillian Hanna. We met in the lobby of the hotel and went to the Palace Café for lunch. I remember we had a similar taste in food, but we were too busy talking to eat much. Gillian also has a similar taste in books, and I was thrilled that she wanted to work with me on my idea for a five-book series about bush pilot/spies set in Australia and the South Pacific. It's a writer's dream come true to have such an enthusiastic editor!

After this I rushed in to the Grand Ballroom to hear the end of the luncheon keynote speaker, Maggie Osborne. I could hear the laughter from inside the elevator! She talked of how she first got into writing, her experiences with rejection and first getting published. She talked about rejection letters, and how the most polite, encouraging letters seem to us to be saying, 'you poor, pathetic loser, this book sucks! This was so bad we passed it around the office for a good laugh!' She says to beware of critique groups, because one bad opinion can tear your whole self-confidence down - but I'd better not recount just how she said it. Though it was funny, it might cause a lawsuit! She also talked of when editors ask for three chapters - but hey, did they say the first three? No! So she sent scattered chapters, the best of her book, and wondered why the editor wasn't thrilled!

Ooops, almost forgot the Goody Room! It was about now I rushed down to see what I could find. Sadly when I went in there wasn't much left - only four books. But I grabbed them quick, despite knowing I couldn't carry much back to Australia. Others left with boxes full. But since my space was limited, the lovely freebies at the Harlequin meet-and-greets and the luncheons filled my bag to overflowing. I had to give some away!

I attended the Moonlight Madness Bazaar as well, filled with all sorts of wonderful stuff from little neck-bags that carried our credit cards and cash as well as our nametags for the conference (my friend Diane bought us all one) to lucky stones and visual inspirations for writing. I had fun with a bunch of friendly Memphis ladies who ‘loved my accent' (a common occurrence for us Aussies throughout the conference) and I loved theirs! I'm sad I didn't have the time to explore this thoroughly. Hopefully next year.

The welcome reception came next, in the Grand Ballroom, where all meals were during the conference. The food was good, but we barely noticed, we were all having so much fun. I mean, talking about your love to people whose eyes don't glaze over? Who's going to notice a mundane thing like eating when people are actually saying, ‘tell me more' or ‘what about putting this in your plot'? Erin Cartwright and Mira Son from Avalon Books sat at our table, and discussed what they want in their books and authors. They discussed their wide range of books published, from romance to mystery and Westerns. Sweet romances only, from 40-50,000 words. Historical up to 60,000 words, strongly sensual yet still with the bedroom door closed - think Georgette Heyer, etc. Despite Avalon's small advances and royalties, again, this can be a good way to break into the published author category, and gain the notice of larger houses. By the way, the food was good, the service excellent.

Later that evening was was a Harlequin meet-and-greet for the Blaze, Temptation and Duets lines. I tagged along with Karen Anders. Birgit Davis-Todd met everyone with a smiling introduction. She is a gracious lady who seems to have the ability to remember everyone she meets and what they say to her. I met such writers as Susan Kearney (all three lines as well as Intrigue), Julie Kenner and Jo Leigh. Many of these writers write for more than one line - an advantage of being with Harlequin, whose editors can acquire for all lines. I met Susan Pezzack, Associate Editor for Harlequin, and asked what she wants for the lines. She said all lines are open to new talent, but she is especially seeking authors for Duets and Blaze. She has strong ideas on what the lines need - and that's always the romance first. She said some people get so caught up in the comedy or the sexuality of the line, they forget the central thing is the romance between the characters. I also met Stephanie Maurer from Silhouette, who is keen to find new talent. She works with the Desire line, but is happy to find authors for all the Harlequin/Silhouette lines.

Friday, July 20, 2001

On Friday, I chose to attend some of the Pan Retreat special talks for published authors. The first I chose was about creating collages for inspiration, chatting with such authors as Anne Stuart and Sally Tyler Hayes. It was excellent. Informal and informative, I learned about surrounding myself with color and scent, a new sight, sound and scent for each new book, unique to each book, so that each book would have a new ‘feel' to it, a freshness and strength of its own. Collecting pictures of the hero and heroine, the setting, the colors and sights and scents of the settings, was something new to me. Music I had thought of - but I'd been using the same music. This is a method I intend to use in future.

The next workshop I couldn't resist was by Merline Lovelace and Maggie Price, There's Something Special About A Guy (or Gal) In Uniform. I wrote down heaps of notes about the reality of life in uniform, and why these heroes are so perennially popular - such as the strong code of honor, the tough-guy with a heart of gold taking on a darn tough job day after day (and he sure knows how to use his gun, or fly into or out of danger!). Ms Lovelace talked of the services; Ms Price the police force. I got websites (and will search for their Australian equivalent) on planes, the services, and about riding shotgun - actually getting an experience with any or all of these vital services, to get the true feel of what it's like to be a cop, a pilot, etc. I really enjoyed this talk.

After this came the Honors luncheon, where members of RWA were thanked for all their hard work. Among other things, I listened to the statistics on how RWA's Literacy Program really is helping people in America to improve their lives. Realizing just how limited someone's life can be by not knowing how to read, it inspired me to join the signing next year, if my book's out in time (so far, August 2002 is the schedule). I also developed great respect for those selfless writers who dedicate so much time and energy to making RWA work, and work well. They deserved their pats on the back, the awards, and the applause. I couldn't do it like they do, year after year, that's for sure. I sat with a bunch of fellow Aussies (all eight of us) and an agent came and sat with us. Pam Ahern is situated in New Orleans and is looking primarily for single title writers with something different to offer. She wants strong, unusual heroes and heroines, superbly done. Any era of history is fine with her; she says if the story's good enough, she'll sell it somewhere!

My next stop was the meet-and-greet for Intimate Moments and MIRA authors in the Harlequin suite. In this relaxed atmosphere, I got to meet writers who hadn't been able to make it to Pat O'Brien's, as well as editors. It still seems somehow surreal to be able to talk to editors I'd only dreamed of meeting this time last year - and to realize they're human like us, with the same pressures and worries. When they hold such power over our career for so long, it's easy to forget they are just women like us (or men - pardon me, Mr. Keesler!). But the warm friendliness of this meet-and-greet was reassuring. I really like the women whose line I write for. It's sort of funny to talk to the people whose books have, for years, transported you to another world, and chat as an equal. During this meet-and-greet I discovered my friend and fellow IM writer, Frances Housden, had her second book accepted, and was over the moon for her (and almost spilled her drink all over her). These are the moments we live for, and we love to celebrate with each other.

After this I rushed down to the second half of the workshop by Don Clark on the FBI's high-profile cases. It was fascinating. He talked about the World Trade Center incident, the Timothy McVeigh case, and the Rail Line Killer, the use of profilers and co-operation with local officials (not as portrayed by Hollywood, Mr. Clark said with a grin, after saying they enrolled in Arrogance 101 straight after joining the FBI) to bring down the criminals. Talking of the race-hate murder of James Byrd, I had to wipe tears away, learning just how horrific his death was. But the FBI found the killers. I also learned about how cases are conducted internationally and the right terms to use for this, who must be contacted, what permission given. I truly wish I could have heard the whole workshop. My only gripe with this conference is that the two workshops I really wanted on tape - this one and the one on Embassies and the CIA, which I couldn't get to - aren't available.

Then I tried to go with my mate from Australia, Bronwyn Jameson, to see her first book on the shelves at Waldenbooks (a natural, burning desire for us all!), and in the number 4 position - but alas, the New Orleans weather defeated us, drenched after 3 blocks! We returned, soaked but unbowed. She was still number 4 on the Waldenbooks list whether we'd seen it or not. I'm so proud of her!

Then it was time to get ready for the Harlequin Party at Muriel's, on Jackson Square. This was a hot, hot evenin' on the Bayou, even for this Aussie gal. Muriel's is a gorgeous place, classy and elegant - it looks like an old bordello (and possibly is). I was led up the Haunted Staircase to the party, where beautifully clad people partied. Free drinks, ultra-rich desserts and great people determined to have fun - what wasn't to like? Harlequin really knows how to put on a party! Unfortunately, lack of air conditioning in the upper area of the restaurant made it ultra-hot. But the band played great jazz, and any dehydration could be quenched quickly. After meeting other newbies and hearing how they'd been contracted (as I said, contests can be incredibly useful) I sat in an atmospheric candle-lit corner with Susan Pezzack, my Duets editor, between a Ouija board and a crystal ball, on a big, fat red chaise covered in cushions, and chatted. Stephanie Maurer from Silhouette joined us, and entertained us greatly with her genius for accents and mimicry. The Isabel Swift gave awards to those who'd written fifty novels - Miranda Lee from Australia, who writes for Presents, among others (sorry for the ethnocentricity - it's the only name I can remember!). After talking some more about what the lines expect, and asking questions, exhaustion hit and Karen and I decided to walk home. My first editor, Gail Chasan, came with us, and we all ended up talking in the hotel lobby for the next hour or more. My roomie had gone to the Plot-storming Workshop and was ready to write her latest idea for Blaze - after she pitched it to Brenda Chin the next morning.

Saturday, July 21, 2001

My day started early, as I had an appointment to meet Cait London, who writes for Silhouette Desire and Avon. Ms London I found to be friendly and gracious, offering good advice to a new author and open to any questions I had for an interview for Romance Writers of Australia. She talked of finding a balance between creativity and using the ‘rules' of romance writing. Of course, the basic principles must be followed, but following all rules (real or perceived) can turn a talented new writer into a ‘cookie cutter' writer. In Ms London's opinion (and it certainly made sense to me), slavishly following ‘rules' makes you miss the ‘basement' of any good writer: a unique idea. Ditching the unique premise for the usual bride, baby or cowboy story. Though there's nothing wrong with these stories, so many talented authors do them well, it's hard to break in. Her best advice is to follow your heart and not others' advice, to start your unique idea and write it with all the passion and love you have, and an editor will notice. For someone whose first contracted book concerns a bigamous heroine and a twice-‘dead' Australian Aboriginal hero, this made perfect sense. My editor was willing to work with me to make my unusual story work. So ignore the cookie-cutter, stick to what tools are useful (such as formatting and contest rules), write the book of your heart without fear, and see where it leads you! According to Ms London, a ‘trial by fire' is a great way to work towards publication. Make your mistakes with courage and learn from them. If it gets an editor's attention, you're on your way.

Another Aussie writer asked her if she'd be interested in coming to our next conference in Melbourne in 2002, and she's quite keen if her schedule allows. She loves balancing her writing, doing both Desire and longer books for Avon. I'd thought myself strange, writing for Intimate Moments and Duets, but I discovered during this week that it's a common phenomenon among authors: writing something totally different balances the imagination and keeps you on your toes. Ms London plans to remain doing this as long as possible, as she loves both lines.

After this, I bolted upstairs to the Using Other Arts to Inspire Us round-table author talk, headed by Anne Stuart. I only got the last half-hour, but it was excellent, especially as a back-up to the collage workshop the day before. Using one soundtrack per book as its ‘signal' sound; finding the one scent to remind us of that one story; using books we love, with either the action, suspense, comedy or prose to move us; the videos, like ‘LA Confidential', ‘The Long Hot Summer', etc. There was so much I knew yet didn't - there's nothing like these round-table discussions to crystallize the idea for me.

Next I moved into the discussion on Planning For the Next Step in Your Career. I needed to hear much of this - the difficulties I'd been experiencing since being contracted with writing, coping with family and wondering where to go next with my work, was something many of these authors had experienced as well, and they were willing to share their expertise and experience to give people like me a smoother time. I must say that published romance authors are very generous ladies and gentlemen, sharing their wisdom to help others.

Next came the RWA Awards luncheon. Patricia Gaffney was the keynote speaker, and, like Maggie Osborne, incredibly witty and honest. She had us in stitches with her recounting of her first conference, her insecurities, her (wine-induced) rebellion against the ‘published author' title beneath the names of authors, and wrote ‘unpublished nobody' on hers, in thick black marker! Since I've been a confirmed fan of her writing for quite a while, I was thrilled to get a copy of The Saving Graces and Sweet Everlasting. I've started The Saving Graces, and, as usual, it's superb. I had to run out during this to help my friend with her pitch to an editor, but got back before the end. I didn't want to miss a minute! I heard here, by the way, that Brenda Chin asked my Aussie roommate for the full manuscript of her Blaze, and my friend Diane had been asked the same by several editors with her Golden Heart finalist, Unmasked. My friend came back from her pitch, laughing with the editor, who asked to see as much of her Duets as she'd written! So we were really in the mood to celebrate after all this. Roll on, Awards night!

My friend Leisa and I, knowing this was our last day, decided to take a streetcar to the Garden District. What a gorgeous place! I'm so glad I did this. I'd have regretted not seeing its beauty. Lovely, stately old homes and glorious gardens. We bought champagne on the way back to celebrate everyone's success and toast Diane on her night. Then we had to rush into our finery and run down to the shuttles (perfectly organized and coordinated) to the Saenger Theater for the Awards.

After lining up for some great food and drinks, we moved into the stately old theater for the Awards. This year, RWA made the unusual but deserved move to thank the readers for their loyalty to our genre. They played videos of some devoted readers (including one totally adorable woman in red) who told of their funny or moving experiences with romance helping them through some terrible times in their lives. I don't think many of us had dry eyes by the time it ended.

Then came the Awards themselves. As reported here Saturday night, they were:

2001 RITA Winners

2001 Golden Heart Winners

  • Mary Strand
  • Joanne Rock
  • Cynthia Dees
  • Susan Squires
  • Debra Holland
  • Gay Thornton
  • Beth Cornelison
  • Jacqueline Floyd
  • Shirley Karr

Before announcing the achievements of this year's Lifetime Achievement Award, there was a celebration of past winners, from 1983 through last year, with such famous names as Victoria Holt, Kathleen Woodiwiss, Elizabeth Peters and Nora Roberts. When Robin Lee Hatcher was announced as the current winner, she spoke spoke movingly of her life as a single mother, and her lovely tribute to her mama left most of us in tears. What a lovely, gracious lady.

Then, to the music of Faith Hill, we all reluctantly left the theater, knowing that the conference was over. After champagne back at the hotel to congratulate Diane on making the finals with a very unusual book, and everyone else toasted on their successes, I had to pack for a 4:15am departure, back to my normal life on the other side of the world with my husband and three kids, but knowing I'd had this time.

What an experience of a lifetime. I won't forget it easily. Not only did I have a marvelous experience at the conference, but also my roommates made our private time like a big slumber party. We're already planning to be in Denver, Colorado, for next year's adventure! I wouldn't miss it!

-- Melissa James

Melissa James writes for Silhouette Intimate Moments and Harlequin Duets. Her first release, Dark Knight, an inter-racial romantic suspense with an Aboriginal hero, should be released in August 2002, and her first Duets, Winning Lucy, should also be released in 2002. Both books are set in Australia.

Link to Melissa James at AAR following our AAR Review of Dangerous Illusions

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