Nora Does Dallas
RWA's 2004 National Conference

There had been some talk among AAR staff about this year's RWA national conference, since it was being held in Laurie's hometown of Dallas. She asked me to cover the conference as AAR's official press person, a duty I gladly assumed. Several of us ended coming to town for the event: Robin and Sandy from the DC area, and me from North Carolina. We were looking forward to seeing former AARers Megan Frampton and Marianne Stillings, both RWA members. Marianne, of course, would be coming for the launch of her first published book, The Damsel in This Dress, while Megan would be carrying out some of her duties as president of RWA's Beau Monde chapter (Regency aficionadas all).

I figured my employer (the library) would benefit from my being in Dallas, too, as RWA holds a day-long program just for librarians and booksellers the day before the actual conference gets underway. So I made my travel arrangements, made sure the cats were fed and the kids had enough Sprite to last for six days, and hopped on the plane. It's been an interesting week. Below you'll find a day-by-day breakdown of what I did, whom I met, which workshops and sessions I attended, and my general impressions of the whole sheebang.

Tuesday - Destination Dallas
I was flying in to DFW airport at noon, The New Author's flight was scheduled for an hour later, and Laurie planned to pick us both us. My flight arrived on time, and Laurie was waiting right where she'd promised, at the baggage-claim area. My eagle eye asserted itself almost immediately: as we waited for Marianne's plane to get in, I pulled Laurie aside and said, "Over there, by the baggage carousel: Susan Elizabeth Phillips." This was the first of many "celebrity" sightings we've experienced.

Marianne arrived safe and sound, and the three of us went out for a relaxing lunch before driving to the Adam's Mark hotel in downtown Dallas to get Marianne checked in. After that Laurie and I picked up our press passes and met RWA's press liaison. Next it was down to the hotel bar - in a lot of respects, the place to go when you want to see and be seen. We had a delightful time with Adele Ashworth, whom I'd met in DC four years ago; Linda Needham and Julia Quinn passed by, too, with the latter joining our little group. Laurie kept looking over her shoulder at a stunning blond sitting at a table with some other attractive women but could not place her. Finally she announced, "Well, hell, I'm a reporter...I'll just ask." Turns out the blond was Linda Francis Lee (at least as gorgeous as her author photos, and very nice, to boot), who picked Laurie's brain about reader trends and announced her admiration for AAR (which she repeated every time we ran into her throughout the conference), Rachel Gibson, Laura Lee Gurhke, and Amelia Gray (aka Gloria Dale Skinner). We got to discussing books (what a surprise, huh?) and Gurhke talked to me a little about the difficulty - and the necessity - of working through writer's block. Laurie whisked Marianne and me off to dinner at a fabulous oyster bar where she's been coming to eat ever since her college days.

Wednesday - The day the conference really began for me
I had paid my $25 and registered for the sixth annual Librarians' and Booksellers' Day, which started in the most pleasant way: with coffee and free books! As usual, RWA's Library Liaison Cathie Linz did a terrific job organizing a fun, informative day. The first presentation convinced me that my money had been well spent. Nora Roberts (sorry, for me she'll always be "The Other Nora aka TON) and Susan Elizabeth Phillips talked on the theme of "Women Who Win," about romance heroines, romance readers, and romance writers. Afterward there was a Q&A session.

News from TON is that the next In Death book (Memory in Death) will be out in hardcover, and fans will be relieved to learn that she has no finite number in mind for the series. Eve and Roarke will be around for a good long time. Nora also said that her October hardcover release, set in Alaska, is called Northern Lights. The work in progress for SEP is another Chicago Stars book - the hero is a sports agent and the heroine is a matchmaker. Since she doesn't work as fast as TON (who does?), she didn't have a date we can expect it.

Jayne Ann Krentz gave a talk called "Saving Our Genre," in which she drew eerily precise parallels between the way critics, scholars, and history treated women's romantic fiction from 1790 to 1850, and the way critics and most academics have dismissed Mills & Boon/H-S in our era. Her news is a February Amanda Quick paperback original, Wait Until Midnight, set in the late Victorian era. We heard next from Avon editor Lucia Macro and Cindy Hwang from Berkley, who assured us that editors are not insisting on certain types of stories. (After lunch, Tara Gavin of Harlequin/Silhouette stopped by; she talked about the new Luna and Bombshell lines, and the growth in H/S's inspirationals, especially the trade-size Steeple Hill Café line, AKA "Bridget Jones Goes to Church.")

When we went in to lunch, we found the most wonderful gift bags on each chair! I ended up sitting at a table with a librarian from Tulsa, several booksellers (including the woman who is RWA's Bookseller of the Year), and three RWA executive board members. I enjoyed a lovely chat with board member Karen Fox, who told me how she came to be a writer. Our luncheon speaker was Debbie Macomber, who gave a funny and at times moving talk about her path to becoming a published writer - and how her love of stories began with regular trips to the library.

Post-lunch, it was off to hear Jennifer Crusie, who usually talks so very fast that it's hard to keep up with her. She delivered an extremely funny talk about how romance writers draw on myths and fairy tales, a presentation based in large part on her never-finished doctoral dissertation (And why should she go back? She's making way more now than she ever would have as an academic, and she seems very happy as a full-time writer). Only Crusie could turn a talk that at times drew heavily from academics into a fun experience. Her work in progress is currently titled "You Again," a book that she says is about "emotional hypothermia."

Closing out the afternoon were a pair of talks by librarians, the first on YA romance, the other on making the library a romance-reader-friendly place, and a brief give-and-take, tip-swapping session. Then it was on to the Main Event of Wednesday, and the official kickoff of the conference: The Literacy Booksigning. Every year publishers donate the books for this sale, which is free and open to the public, and all proceeds go to literacy efforts; half of the amount raised stays in the host city.

Before entering the booksigning Laurie, Robin, and Sandy and I all caught up with each other about our day's experience. Laurie had been invited to lunch by Susan Grant, and since Marianne wasn't busy, she and Laurie first listened to Grant, who, along with Toni Carrington, Sherrilyn Kenyon (aka Kinley MacGregor), and other authors, hosted a Q&A session with booksellers. Laurie and Marianne had a great time with Grant at their lunch, even though both harped on how unfair it is that some people get both beauty and brains. The only negative note of the day occurred just prior to the booksigning when a certain author gave Laurie the "cut direct" while she was enjoying a drink with Adele Ashworth, Rachel Gibson, and Chick Lit author Theresa Alan.

This year there were close to 450 authors in attendance: TON, SEP, Barbara Samuel, conference keynoter Lisa Gardner, Judith McNaught, and brand-new RWA member James Patterson (!) sat at special tables on the ends of long rows, where all the other authors were seated in alphabetical order. Laurie and I got to go in a few minutes before the general public (that "press" thing paid off, and the volunteer RWA member working the door turned out to be none other than Andrea Geist, a prior Purple Prose Parody Contest co-winner) and stopped to say hello to a few authors we'd met online. Then the doors opened and organized pandemonium ensued. Talk about sensory overload! The noise level grew as the evening progressed. I strolled up and down the aisles, stopping for a few words with: Jo Beverley (one of the classiest authors around!), Eloisa James, Jill Marie Landis, Mary Jo Putney, Laura Resnick (I thanked her for writing Fallen from Grace), Barbara Samuel, Regina Scott (whom I'd met earlier in the day at the L&B event), Nonnie St. George (funny, funny, funny!), Wendy Wax (I just love, love, love the title of her book, Leave it to Cleavage), and Cathy Yardley (who's very excited to be in trade-size books). I said Hey to some friends from home: RITA nominees Claudia Dain and Virginia Kantra, and Sabrina Jeffries and Emilie Rose. And...oh, yeah, some newbie author from the Northwest...what's her name again...Marianne Stillings! Afterward, Laurie and I retired to the spacious Gold manse and collapsed.

Thursday - The AAR Party Girls
Marianne, Robin, Laurie and I met up for breakfast, after which time Marianne joined Laurie for a cup of coffee with Lisa Kleypas (the two authors had never met before). The only official RWA event I attended on Thursday was the "chat" with James Patterson (now, I ask you: how can you call an event like this a "chat" when there are hundreds of people sitting in a huge room and the speaker's up on a dais with a microphone?) There had been some talk among RWA members speculating as to Patterson's motive for joining the organization - "he's already so big, what could he want with us?" On the other hand, some said that there must be something in the organization that attracts him, and his membership can only enhance RWA's reputation.

Patterson turned out to be a subtle yet effective self-promoter, and he does it in such a charming and disarming way that one doesn't mind being pitched to. He talked about his writing process. He wants to tell a good story, so he tries to write every chapter as if it were the first one; he does what he has to in order to hook the reader; he skips writing the parts he knows he'd skip reading. He talked about the difference between writing a good story versus writing a good sentence.

I'd love to tell you about Lisa Gardner's keynote luncheon speech, but I missed it. Laurie did manage to get in and found Gardner a wonderfully effective and humorous speaker, particularly when describing her writing avoidance techniques. Although RWA's volunteers are told not to let anyone in the room without a ticket, once Laurie promised she would simply stand in the corner and not so much as touch a glass of water, she was allowed in. The Carringtons invited her to an empty slot at their table for lunch, but until RWA staff gave the go-ahead, she didn't dare move. In the end she sat with the Carringtons (and found Tony Karayianni's Greek accent quite charming) but was too afraid to eat.

After the luncheon it was nearly time for Laurie to drag me (oh so reluctantly - not!) to a couple of publishers' parties, one for Bantam Dell, one for Ballantine. Both were outside of the hotel. Good thing Laurie knows Dallas: I'd certainly have gotten us lost.

The Bantam "tea" took place at The Mansion, a beautiful little hotel near downtown. Laurie and I met and chatted with members of the editorial staff (oh, they're so young!), several agents, and authors Karen Harbaugh, Madeline Hunter, and Wendy Wax. Hunter gave me a little insight into the evolution of her first series, the medieval By books, and Wax discussed the important role her local RWA chapter played in her road to publication. We also got to meet Marianne's agent at this party, and all of us agreed that The New Author has a wonderful future in romance. In doing her bit as a journalist, Laurie asked one editor about Elizabeth Elliott, explaining we're asked about her just about once a month (Elliott's name is occasionally mentioned at editorial meetings, apparently, as well), and also asked for a more detailed explanation of how the editor/writer/publisher relationship works. The editor gave a wonderful analogy, saying the editor is like the car salesman, who goes between prospective buyer and management with that ever-present slip of paper, trying to make a good deal for both.

Laurie had been asking various historical authors throughout the conference about Harlequin's decision to severely limit the availability of Harlequin Historicals titles. While she expected an earful from HH authors, Hunter not only had a theory as to why Harlequin made this decision, she also had a head full of steam about it. Then, as Hunter, New Author, and Deborah Simmons are all signed with the same agent, we engaged in a spirited discussion about which of the latter's books is best (Hunter goes for Simmons' DeBurgh medievals, Laurie adores The Vicar's Daughter and The Last Rogue, and my favorite is The Devil Earl).

We learned in mid-November that Harlequin has reversed that decision.

We returned downtown for the Ballantine party with our Bantam party favors (beautifully engraved thermoses inside velvet bags) in hand. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves at both events (the party favor provided by Ballantine was a tote bag made by L.L. Bean, which Laurie felt made up for the fact that the bags were empty of books). Linda Francis Lee, accompanied by Barbara Samuel, met us just inside the door at Ballantine's party at the Adolphus Hotel; both were their usual gracious selves. We crossed the room and admired Mary Jo Putney's jewelry, then lamented with her the dwindling traditional-Regency market. Jane Graves introduced us to her agent. We chatted with a Latina author whose first book, a Chick Lit novel, will be released next year; until now she'd been a reporter for the L.A. Times. Later we spoke with Jill Marie Landis and one of the waiters - a nice if somewhat unorthodox gentleman carrying a tray of wonderful but fattening desserts - began extolling the virtues of roller skating as exercise. We couldn't understand half of what he said, but he made up for it with his body language. Soon after this Laurie was ready to leave, but I pointed out that both Julie Garwood and Judith McNaught were in attendance, so Laurie stopped to say hello.

Garwood was in the midst of a sit-down conversation so Laurie was brief in her hellos, remarking that the last time they'd met was at the very same hotel when Laurie interviewed her favorite romance author in 1998. McNaught drew her into the conversation by recalling the "negotiations" involved in setting up their interview in 1999, then introduced Laurie to her son and daughter-in-law. By that time we agreed that our feet could take no more, and returned to the spacious Gold manse to crash. I wrote up my notes and Laurie did a small update for AAR.

Friday - Free Books and Workshops
The major publishers hold open houses and booksignings for conference attendees, where the authors will sign and give away their books (this is different from the Literacy Booksigning, since it's not open to the public, and you don't have to pay for the books you take). Friday morning it was Ballantine's and Avon's turn, and we hit both rooms. Don't ever tell a romance junkie that she can have free books - the scene turns into a feeding frenzy.

The Ballantine event was in a small, somewhat out-of-the-way room, and it got pretty crowded pretty fast, but I was able to stop and say hello again to MJP, and Linda Francis Lee, Jane Graves, and Laura Moore, and pick up a book from each author. From there, Laurie and I braved the chaos of the Avon signing.

This was held in a much larger room just off the main corridor of the hotel; the room was long, with a low ceiling and very dim lighting. Of course I stopped to greet The New Author, who ran out of books pretty early - a good sign that Damsel will do well, I hope. I also got books from Adele Ashworth, Laura Lee Ghurke, Teresa Medeiros, and SEP, who'd come in a little late. So now I have my very own signed, personalized copy of Lady Be Good. Cool! Laurie ran into Kasey Michaels in the hallway, who swore she hadn't parodied Laurie in her last "Maggie" book.

I'd decided Friday would be the day I'd spend sitting in on a number of workshops. The ones I picked were interesting and, from a writer's point of view, useful. The first of these was Barbara Samuel, on how to find time for writing in the course of daily life; Laurie and I sat in on that together. Samuel discussed the importance of creating rituals and routines for oneself; she explained why setting up a space, no matter how small, as one's "office" is critical; and she offered tips for writers looking to streamline their lives. It boiled down to this: you can't have/do/be everything, so choose what you want to have/do/be, and structure your life accordingly. Samuel is an engaging speaker who knew what she was talking about. The audience seemed appreciative of the talk, and I enjoyed it a lot (plus she'd told me earlier that she thinks the world of AAR's Ellen Micheletti, so I could tell right away she's a good egg).

Lunch was with Robin, Laurie, and The New Author in the hotel restaurant (another Nora Sighting - she was dining with a fellow author), and then Robin and I went to hear Lisa Gardner give a two-hour presentation on revising a novel. Gardner admitted that rewriting can be a tedious and often hair-pulling experience, but if a writer knows what she's looking to accomplish, then all the angst and hard work will pay off, in the form of a much better book than the one the writer started out with. It all comes down to putting your characters in a difficult place to begin with, and ratcheting up the tension, both plot and romance, from there. Over the course of the two hours she explained her method for accomplishing this. Gardner also told the audience that she's posted lots of writing-related articles - including the material on the revision process - at her website.

Once that was over, I went to hear an editor give a talk on Publishing 101 - the life cycle of a book from manuscript to delivery at the store. I admit, my inner librarian was interested in this, and neither she nor I was disappointed. Right off the bat, the editor (yet another too-young woman - they're all kids!) informed us that the talk was not being taped (RWA sells tapes and, this year, a CD of most conference sessions), and that she intended to give us frank and maybe inappropriate answers to our questions. Most of what she said was off the record, but I can report that it was funny and irreverent and informative.

Friday's dinner was a group experience: Laurie took Robin, Sandy, Megan, and me in her minivan (complete with Tigger as an antenna-topper) to a quiet Italian place, where we sat and talked about movies and TV and books and life. It was a wonderful evening spent in wonderful company. The New Author would have come with us, but Avon picked her and her fellow authors up in white limousines and whisked them off to their own dinner. Ah, well. I'm sure she had a great time.

Saturday - Things Wrap Up
I only attended one session on Saturday, a workshop on adapting special-operations tactics to your writing life and career, given by West Point graduate, former Special Forces officer, and author Bob Mayer, an articulate and well-organized presenter. While the session did offer some interesting and different perspectives on approaching the writer's life, it was first and foremost an exercise in self-promotion, a bare-bones presentation of a longer and more in-depth process - which is available through purchase of his book Who Dares Wins, or attendance at one of his three-day writing retreats on Hilton Head Island. Mayer did what he set out to do; I'm just not as certain that his audience got everything they thought they would in the course of the session, without having to go out and buy the book.

The luncheon speaker was Barbara Samuel; I missed the event through bad timing on my part, but Robin later reported that it was a funny talk. In the lobby, I ran into another North Carolina friend, Cindy Holby, who introduced me to Dorchester editor Chris Keeslar. Shortly afterward, I left the Adam's Mark for the last time and drove back to the spacious Gold manse; I didn't have a ticket for the RITAs, and there was nothing else of any interest to me going on. For me, Conference 2004 was over. But Laurie had one last "event," a party hosted by Nora Roberts, and though she'd been sick most of the day, there was no way in hell she was going to miss that! She's glad she didn't, as she had the chance to talk with Ruth Langan, TON herself, Patricia Potter, Jill Marie Landis (and swore she wasn't stalking her as the two had met up several times over the past few days), Donna Kauffman, Julie Garwood, Jennifer Greene, Shirley Hailstock, Cathy Linz, and TON's UK publisher.

General Impressions
Over the course of the five days I was at the conference, I noticed some things, and what follows are some of my observations.

Ribbons, Ribbons Everywhere!
RWA shared hotel space with the big Mary Kay convention, and it was easy to spot the Mary Kay ladies: they had ribbons and sashes, and big buttons with ribbons attached that were fastened to their fronts, backs, and arms...some women were so covered with ribbons, many of the sun-burst variety, that Laurie was reminded of nothing so much as a dog show. But believe me, RWA members are no slouches when it comes to Badges of Distinction!

All conference-goers wear badges; each badge gives the person's name and affiliation, usually the name of the chapter to which she belongs.. A colored strip at the bottom of the badge denotes outside affiliation (red for agents, blue for publishing professionals, and yellow for members of the press). RWA members with special distinctions or duties are given little ribbons to attach to the bottom of their plastic badge cases, with a word or phrase stamped on to explain the purpose of each one. Lots of people have more than one ribbon, and it seems there's a ribbon for everything, each in its own distinctive color. There's a ribbon for a first sale, one for RITA and Golden Heart (manuscripts by unpublished wirters) finalists, and one for RWA PRO members (PRO status is conferred on a member who can prove that she's completed a manuscript and submitted it, to either an agent or a publisher). If you volunteer to work at the conference, you get a ribbon. If you belong to PAN (the Published Authors' Network), you get a ribbon. Conference speakers and contest judges get ribbons. RWA Hall of Famers get a ribbon. It's not unusual to see somebody with ribbons dangling down her front, practically from breast to belly button, to denote her involvement with the organization.

Then, as if that weren't enough, there are the pins. Each year conference attendees get a pin with that year's logo; veterans wear the pins from ALL the conferences they've attended on their badges. RITA and Golden Heart finalists get a pin, so multiple finalists wear all those pins, and so do the winners of those contests (finalists' pins are silver while winners' pins are gold and a winner obviously receives both). Some chapters have their own pins, and there's the PRO pin, too (I've heard it referred to as the "You Suck" pin, since wearing it implies that somebody somewhere in publishing had rejected your work).

The proliferation of official ribbons was confusing at first, but I quickly learned to read colors and not words. And someone with a sense of humor had even made up bogus ribbons; I remember seeing one that read, "Synopsis Challenged." Somehow I don't think that's an official RWA designation, but it was pretty funny.

Miscellaneous Observations
All About Romance is surprisingly well-known, and surprisingly appreciated by many in attendance (it's generally not hard to tell which authors are "faking it" when they talk about the site). Although a few authors were less than effusive upon meeting an AAR representative, most "get" the point of the site, think it's professional, interesting, and engaging, and, as one author said point-blank, also find it "good theater." They understand the difficulty of that last for those of us working at AAR, but think it's been a good thing for romance, even if our readership isn't necessarily representative of most readers.

There were a (to me) surprising number of men in attendance. Some were husbands accompanying their wives (indeed, The New Author's husband went with her to New York last year). Some were those publishing professionals and agents with the colored stripes below their nametags. Several were members, like James Patterson and the husband half of the Tori Carrington writing team. Nothing earth-shaking or important here - just my observation.

Over the course of the week, I saw women of every age, size, shape, and color: from still-almost-girls just out of their teens to women well past seventy, from teeny-tiny to..well, not so teeny-tiny, Asian, African-American, Native American, Indian, you name it. But I do have to say that for the most part, the crowd was mostly middle-class, mostly white, mostly careful in their appearance and behavior. The loudest thing about these ladies was their voices, and that was only because the acoustics of the place demanded it.

Here's an interesting piece of news: RWA is sponsoring a research grant competition for folks doing academic research devoted to genre romance novels, writers, and readers; grants are for up to $5,000. For more information, e-mail Allison Kelley. Come on, all you librarian and academic readers out there - here's your chance to write that seminal article on the state of romance fiction, and have someone underwrite some, if not all, of the expense.

Snippets of conversations overheard:
"I tell you, I'm exhausted!"
"Her speech was good - I wasn't too wild about the food, though."
"Yeah, my chapter's just great - everybody's so helpful!"
"No, I'm sure I blew it...she acted so bored...#$%@!"

The Lessons Learned
The week taught me that for a successful conference experience, you need to have a couple of qualities: you have to either be a natural extrovert, or force yourself to act like one, and you've got to have stamina, both mental and physical.

First, you've got to be willing to reach outside yourself. Some people do this naturally. Others, like me, have to either learn how to do it, or give an Oscar-winning performance. It's a requirement for everybody at the conference - published and unpublished writers, the book professionals, the press.

Published authors are going to meet with their agents and/or editors, and engage in general schmoozing. If you're introduced or run into an editor at another publishing house, put your best foot forward: the romance industry is a tight community, and who's to say that someday you won't find yourself working for (or wanting to work for) that editor? Cardinal rule: do not, do not get drunk and make a fool of yourself in front of an editor or agent. Remember, it's a small world after all and one author we heard about no doubt feels horribly embarrassed in regards to her behavior with an editor.

Unpublished authors may have formal appointments set up with editors and/or agents, where they'll pitch their materials in the hopes of landing that first sale. They also take part in the general schmooze-fest. You never know - that woman who asks for a paper towel in the restroom this morning may be the editor you're pitching to after lunch.

My experience as a member of the press has taught me that it's just as important to seem approachable as it is to have intelligent questions you're asking folks. And if you're timid in your manner, you'll never work up the nerve to ask the questions in the first place!

From the moment you step out of your hotel room, until the second you return at the end of what can be a very long day, you're on. You can't get drunk, you can't be obnoxious, you can't curse anyone out. You're using company manners the whole time. You have to watch what you say to almost everyone, all of which can is draining and exhausting.

Which leads to the necessity of stamina.

You have to have staying power to make it through the end of the conference. It's like running a marathon. Conference is an assault on your senses and a test of your physical stamina. This year, sessions and events were held on several different levels, and in different wings of the hotel, so there was a lot of walking involved. For those staying in different hotels, there's the getting to and from the conference site. The noise can reach unbelievable and unbearable levels. You encounter so many of your favorite authors that it becomes impossible to keep track of them all. And - let's face it, AAR isn't the most popular site in some quarters - you do spend some time avoiding a chance meeting with an author whose work might not have gotten the grade she thought it deserved.

Everybody crashes at a different time. Laurie's voice was hoarse by Thursday after chatting up nearly every author who'd received a good AAR review at the booksigning the night before (and hiding from those who had not) and crashed Friday evening; for me it was Saturday afternoon. I was done. I'd seen everybody and heard the talks I wanted to, and I was ready to go. I think by then that was a pretty universal sentiment. On Saturday, as I sat in the lobby, I noticed a couple of things. People were walking more slowly that they had all week; they seemed a little more relaxed; they were in their comfortable clothes and shoes, not the business attire of the previous days. For most of them, they'd accomplished (or, in some unfortunate cases, blown) what they'd come to Dallas to do - meet with an agent, pitch to an editor, give a presentation, attend a specific session. The only nervous folks left were the poor souls whose talks were scheduled for that afternoon, and the RITA nominees. For the rest of us, the Dallas conference was already a memory. All that was left was the ride to the airport and the flight home.

Now if I could just get all those free books to fit in my suitcases...

Click here for winners of the 2004 RITAs and Golden Heart Awards.

-- Nora Armstrong

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