Things I Learned at RWA

(From Murderati August 6, 2010)

Last week I ventured down to Orlando for the RWA conference. For those of you unfamiliar with the acronym, RWA is Romance Writers of America. RWA is to romance writers what ITW eventually could be for thriller writers, and I say eventually because RWA has 10,000 writers on its rolls, 145 chapters, and a conference that quite simply smokes everything I’ve ever been to. That’s not a knock on ITW – I adore the organization, have bled, sweated and cried for them, and thought this year’s Thrillerfest was the best yet. Pretty impressive considering they’re only 5 years old.

But RWA is… different.

After the event was moved to Orlando from Nashville after the Flood, I had my doubts about attending. A – I was terribly upset that they’d pulled out (*more on that later). I felt like if they’d given us a chance, we could have worked out the conference, and the hotels, etc. But I was doing a workshop with Allison, and didn’t want to shirk my obligations there. B – it was my husband’s birthday. Birthdays are a big deal in the Ellison household. We’d planned around RWA, with so many of our friends coming to town, we were going to have a lovely little party. Suddenly, all that went up in smoke. C – it’s been a BIG travel year. Another plane, another hotel, another five days away from work, just rang my bell (and my wallet. This is a pricey con, the most expensive out there. BUT ALL INCLUSIVE – so it really saves you money.)

If it had been anywhere but Orlando, I would have bailed. But we’ve got family in the central Florida region, so I planned to go ahead. Big mistake. One I won’t make again in the future. Traffic, driving unfamiliar roads, and being walloping sick with some sort of plague we caught in New York that necessitated two rounds of antibiotics (which I’m still on) made it a real pain in the ass. And I couldn’t do any of the big events, because driving 90 minutes at midnight seemed like a bad idea.

So I stuck to the days, and attended the lunches, and some workshops.

And found out that all my preconceived notions about RWA were wrong, wrong, wrong.

I'm honestly not sure where to begin.

Let’s start with the Literacy Signing. 600 authors. Lines of people that numbered in the thousands. $60,000+ raised for literacy. Holy Smokes, right?

I went in planning to watch and learn, and was shocked and surprised to find that several people knew me, came to see me, and were sharing me with their friends. Those are the finest, most uplifting words an author can hear – “I loved it so much I had to tell all my friends to read it.” Sharing is good. It makes us happy.

Or the Harlequin signing, where I signed for 90 minutes without a break (granted, I was next to Heather Graham) and came out just rocked with excitement - that's a lot of new readers to touch in one sitting.

Revelation number one: Alex and Allison and Toni have been preaching it for a while now, but the literacy and HQN events proved it. Romance readers READ, and not just romance. They read everything. Ignore them at your own peril, I’ll tell you that. I think it sometimes takes seeing something with your own eyes for it to register fully. Well, if you have any trust in me whatsoever, listen to what I’m saying. If you’re a writer,  published or not, you should go to RWA at least once. It’s a magnificent display of publishing – still in its glorious hey dey, still reaching millions of people, still the coolest, craziest and most uplifting job in the world. Anyone who thinks books are dead needs to go to this conference.

And the girl power was unmistakable. Alex and I met a sweet girl from Germany who has the soul of a poet (you can read it in people’s eyes, truly) and when she asked how we knew each other, and Alex said we were probably burned together at the stake for being witches in a past life SHE GOT IT. Hoo-rah! Sometimes the boys look at us, well, strangely is the best term. It was fun to swim in the estrogen ocean for once.

Revelation number two: I learned that the umbrella of “romantic suspense” is much, much broader than I’d originally thought. I have an ongoing love story. It’s not predominant, and I’ve always heard that for RS the rule is the romance must predominate and the suspense must come second. Well, I figured out this weekend that that’s all a matter of very subjective taste. I’m a thriller writer, no doubt, but I’m probably just one orgasm away from being solid romantic suspense.

Therein lies the rub – the boy books have sex, and no one’s calling them romances. John Sandford has Lucas Davenport get it on with his wife (and in previous books, an indiscriminant amount of women) and no one would ever think to call him RS. So why does a woman writer have to be labeled that way? Because women won’t pick up a Sandford book knowing they’re going to get some hot sex? What about Barry Eisler? Lee Child? Vince Flynn?

Revelation number three: I guess it’s safe to say that though I read and enjoy romantic suspense and straight romance, I’ve always avoided the label so I could maintain a base of male readers. Which is kind of stupid thinking, but you know, I’m new, and I’m going to make mistakes. Coming out of RWA, I’m not even sure that the genre labels matter. I’m realizing we get ourselves pretty twerped out over exactly where we fit into the pie, and that’s just not as vital to know anymore, because the genres are melding anyway. Write the best damn story you can possibly come up with, and you'll attract readers. Their gender doesn't matter.

Revelation number four: What’s important is branding. I think the brand is the key. After a great deal of thinking, here’s what I came up with (with a major nod to Alex Kava for planting this thought…)

People know that if they pick up a novel by JT Ellison, they’ll get a strong female lead, a fast-paced story centering on a crime, and a glimpse into Nashville, Tennessee. Three little things that are very brand specific, and none have anything to do with genre labels.

I’ll tell you something else. I started reading JD Robb’s SEDUCTION IN DEATH on my way home. That book is as dark and nasty – possibly even more so – than any of mine. I’d always thought it was romance heavy, and boy was I wrong. I see how a master makes this work – you can have sex, and violence, and ruminations on love and relationships, all against the backdrop of a futuristic world, without it having to have a label. It’s simply a great story.

Lightbulb. Over. Head.

Revelation number five: RWA is what this is all about. There are so many different kinds of writers there. I walked away inspired, scared, confused and eventually inspired again. I am already making plans to go to #RWA11 in New York next June. And this time, I’m going to take in every little bit this conference has to offer, whether I’m feeling up for it or not.

I realize I haven’t even scratched the surface of what I took away from RWA. But I’ve detained you long enough. So next post, I’m going to talk about one of the workshops I attended, given by Donald Mass, and the bizarre revelation I had about what voice really is.

So let’s talk about labels today. I’d love to hear from some of our industry professionals on just how much they should matter to the writer as he/she are writing, or whether it’s a marketing tool for the publishers more than anything else. And for the readers: is there a genre you won’t pick up and read because you have a preconceived notion of what will lie therein? Any revelations you’ve had about different writers or genres?

Wine of the Week: Villa Pozzi Nero D'Avola - this wine was truly spectacular. Dark, jammy, smoky - one of the finest nero d'avolas I've ever had, and ridiculously inexpensive.

*A note about the RWA move from Nashville to Orlando. After seeing the massive scale that this conference covers, from all the attendees to incredible organizers and goodies and workshops and dinners and lunches and parties and awards and even the incredible conference program, I now completely understand WHY they had to move. And had to move they did – to be honest, that the conference ran as smoothly as it did was a feat of Herculean proportions, and my hat is off to RWA for pulling it off. I rescind any previous snark about pulling out of Nashville. But I do hope y’all will think about coming back. We have a lot to offer.

RWA 2010 Schedule

Just a quick reminder, I'll be signing a couple of times at RWA, and teaching a workshop on Saturday afternoon with Allison Brennan and editor Shauna Summers. Here's the schedule:

Wednesday, July 27  5:30 p.m. - 7:30 p.m. "Readers for Life" Literacy Autographing (The literacy event is open to the public: Swan & Dolphin, 1500 Epcort Resorts Blvd, Orlando, Florida)

Friday, July 29  9:45 a.m.  - 10:30 a.m.     Harlequin Signing

Saturday, July 30 3:15 p.m. - 4:30 p.m.     Workshop: Breaking Rules to Break In or Break Out                     

Are there rules in writing or merely guidelines? Join an editor and best-selling authors to chat about how so-called rules can stifle creativity, kill your voice, and prevent you from being a great storyteller.
Hope to see you there!