Top Ten Lessons Learned from RWA 2017

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Last week, Ivy Quinn attended the Romance Writers of America’s 37th annual conference in Orlando. Over the very jam-packed week, she learned quite a bit. You can read a break down of her day-by-day experiences at her journal, but she’s also boiled down her top ten tips below!

Hello all. I will say that my first time at RWA was pretty overwhelming. It’s pretty scheduled for four days with everything you can imagine from book signings by authors to awards events like the Golden Hearts and the RITAs (think the Oscars of romance) to a ton of great and informative workshops and panels. I tried to go to everything I could, which maybe wore me out a bit as I’m now recovering from a cold. However, I learned quite a bit, and I wanted to boil down what I learned as a top ten list, which contains a mix of information about craft, about marketing, and about going to the actual conference itself.

So, below, is my list of most important things I learned at RWA 2017 with ten in this case being the most important:

1. You will hear “no” a lot in this business and, that’s normal, just keep going. In Susan Wiggs and Sherrilyn Kenyon’s keynotes as well as Christie Craig’s workshop, it was emphasized that in this business people are going to pass on your ideas no matter how well selling you already are. For example, it took years before her editors and publishing house wanted to sign off on Kenyon’s Dark Hunters idea. Ms. Craig was more direct by showing her first 100 (still saved) rejection letters to everyone at the end of her session. You’re going to hear “no” so just stay determined and keep working.

2. This is also related, but, as Ms. Wiggs pointed out, if you stay in the business long enough everything will happen to you. You’ll have good luck and bad luck, you’ll make list and have sales and fans, but you’ll also go through the downs as publishing keeps evovling and changing. Sometimes you’re entire publisher will fold or close the line you work for. You can’t control what happens but only your response to it and how you choose to evolve.

3. You never know what a conversation just casually with someone sitting at a table with you at a luncheon or a cocktail hour can bring. For example, my friend ended up sitting due to a lack of seats and being late to the RITA ceremony with three editors and a marketing director from Harlequin so she was able to talk with them and learn more about how to submit to them, garner interest from them in her work all spontaneously. In my case, that meant I sat next to the secretary of the Rainbow Romance Writers chapter and joined with them to help get more support in my f/f and m/m writing.

4. The first day, some of the board held a session for the newbies/conference neophytes called about how to make the most of the week. They all emphasized not just getting out of your introvert shell, which I think we can all agree is hard for writers, but also writing thank you notes and working to keep in touch with people you met. I’ve been fighting a bad cold since I got back from Orlando, but I’m going to be taking that advice to heart as a nice thank you note, in my opinion, can really go a long way.

5. This one might sound like a joke but it’s very important. Even if you’re going somewhere hot in July (the annual conferences are in the summer), think about layers and even small blankets you can take with you in your bags during the day. The temperature inside the Disney hotel was super, super cold, probably at Arctic levels. By the second day, people had blankets and sweatshirts and were still cold. I call it the movie theater principle. Even if it’s hot as blazes outside, it can be freezing inside so have some extra options in case.

6. Additional things outside of the main RWA events can be worth going to. For example, I went to the annual YARWA (young adult romance writers) meeting on Wednesday morning. That session was invaluable. I learned so much about character development from Damon Suede’s presentation, and I can’t share all of it, but I will say that thinking of my characters in terms of the verbs that describe them and what their actions are really helps. I also loved Jennifer L. Armentrout’s speech because she really told us that you’re allowed to enjoy your success, that sometimes you have to take a break and let yourself be content. It’s a hamster wheel otherwise because no matter how successful you are, you still need to acknowledge what you’ve done. Finally, I enjoyed the agents and editors panel where they read the first page of submitted sample manuscripts. Seriously, if you ever get a chance to go to the YARWA annual meeting, you need to go!

7. Hearing from the horses’ mouths or, in this case, the agents and editors themselves really mattered and crystalized what publishing houses are looking for. I went to about three panels that taught me so much about publishing as a business. First, the agent and editor panel at the YARWA had me rethinking how I start novels. You have 30-60 seconds to grab attention before they move onto the next book in the pile. You have to make sure you start in medias res, in the middle of things, get the conflict out there fast, and worry about the backstory or reflections or worldbuilding a bit later. You need to get them to fall in love with your lead character and be invested in the conflict immediately from page one and, similarly, just say no to prologues. In a second panel, I listened to a different set of agents an editors talk about cliches they hated to see/automatic turn offs in manuscripts. This basically boiled down in romance to a) thinking more deeply about your characters’ psychology and not going for the easy answers about why they are the way they are and b) don’t do anything racist, sexist, homophobic. The panel was very sick of reading subtley misogynistic tropes like “not like other girls,” “the bitchy ex,” or “the frigid mother.” Basically, if your book basically painted every woman but the heroine as a horrible shrew, then you needed to rethink your manuscript. Finally, the lead editor from Entangled really revealed to me how much of a business mainstream publishing is. I think it’s good to know and I was grateful for her honesty. She said that “No matter how good the writing, if I can’t sell the concept of your book in one sentence, then I’m not interested.” There’s definitely an entertainment industry aspect to publishing the same as in music or in movies and if you can’t find a way to generate word of mouth and easy, sellable comparisons, it will be an uphill battle.

8. It’s okay to say no. I spoke in the airport while waiting for my plane with Karen Carlyle, a writer for Harlequin. She told me that you can get overwhelmed at RWA and you had to pick which activities you were going to attend. I had been feeling guilty for skipping the RITAs, but I’d wanted to get rest before pitching early that morning (to be fair it worked as I got asked for a full submission to that company). However, Ms. Carlyle explained that everyone had to pace themselves at an RWA event because you couldn’t please everyone or see everything. Similarly, Dr. Emily Nagoski aka Emily Foster’s talk about burnout was invaluable. I have to learn to say “no” more and allow myself to get sleep and rest because there’s nothing that can keep you alert and focused if you’re consistently getting only 5-6 hours a night, which I have a habit of doing, especially during the school year.

9. Pitching an agent or editor is a communal process. I was so glad I went to two different panels to help me prepare. My mother helped get me to focus more on how the plot of my pitch was emotionally affecting my heroine. The second session with mentors from Brenda Drake’s Pitch Wars also was invaluable because they really refined and trimmed the fat out of my 6-sentence blurb and gave me perspective on how to bring out my own voice beyond the plot. Also, I feel like I made connections and learned about opportunities I might not have if I’d tried to pitch all alone.

10. Finally and also related, pitching an editor or an agent isn’t the process you think it would be at RWA. In general, you have to sign up for a slot in April for the conference in July. However, a ton of people either cancel or are no-shows. On pitch day, if you go and spend the whole day waiting in the wings, you can get a chance to slide in when others haven’t shown up or, even, when a pitch finishes early and there’s a spare 5-6 minutes to see the editor or agent. In other words, even if you couldn’t get a formal appointment, just go and wait and try and slide in. I knew one woman who was able to get three editor and agent appointments that day even though she hadn’t signed up in advance. This finally brings me to my last point, the RWA is working to be more diverse and inclusive and they had editors from Bold Strokes Books and Riptide Publishing there, but very few writers took the slots. If you want to get face time with editors from LGBT publishers, then you can definitely get it at RWA as they have tons of slots still available the day of. Basically, even if you think you can’t get a slot to see and agent or editor, if you’re flexible and patient, you probably can and it’s worth trying.

So, that’s what I learned at RWA 2017. I’ll be working on my thesis next summer and retaking the darn GREs. However, I’m looking forward to RWA 2019 in New York (I have a phobia of flying so getting to Florida was hard), and I definitely recommend people go and check it out!

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