Jennifer Schendel:
My first RWA National Conference
aka Aspiring Writer/Bookaholic Heaven

When I told everyone at work I was going on vacation this week they asked where and I said downtown. Needless to say my co-workers gave me funny looks as most sane people leave town when they go on vacation, but I went onto explain I was attending a writing conference. Well that didn’t exactly help matters as they expected me to do something like visit a national park (been there done that already), lay on a beach (not my cuppa), go shopping (well I sorta did), or at the very least sleep late and watch TV (I wish). I just smiled and informed them I plan to be a romance writer someday and attending this conference was part of that goal. And well let’s be honest the reader/fan in me wanted a chance to see my favorite authors in person. These last four days have been a constant battle of the two sides of me that attended: the aspiring writer and the book lover.

So off I traipsed Wednesday afternoon, full of giddy excitement and fortunately a few friends who kept me from giving into my natural wallflower tendencies. I was thrilled when the doors to Plaza Ballroom of the Adam’s Mark hotel opened and they there were: rows of authors sitting at tables with books, ah yes my own personal nirvana. I had printed up a list of who would be there signing and high-lighted who I wanted to meet, which turned out to be God send as my options were truly overwhelming. I started with authors whose books I brought with me: Lorraine Heath, Mary Jo Putney, and Julia Quinn (yes, I now own a complete set of signed Bridgerton books) before striking out on my own. As a reviewer there is some nervousness when you meet an author you’ve reviewed (even positively) and let them know who you are. But nerves were proved unnecessary when I received a wonderful hug from Nicole Burnham (I DIK’d her debut novel) that one moment really put me at ease for the rest of the night. So I could hob nob with the rest of my fave authors.

Since I could go on forever (and bore you to tears) I’ll try to stick to the high points and explain the accompanying photos. You see I had been lent a digital camera for the night and while I meant to take loads of pictures I was too busy buying books to take many, but I did use it. The first time was when I went up to Suzanne Brockmann’s table. It’s no secret that I adore Suzanne’s books and even though I already have a signed copy of Out of Control (the book she was signing) I had to get a copy for a friend. Since Suz was allowing each reader as much time as they needed to talk, the line was moving slower than most, but that’s okay because she’d brought her husband, Ed, and friend, Eric, along. They took time to talk to each person in line and that got those of us in line talking to each other before you knew it you were at the front. Just as I got there my friend Melissa showed up, reminded me of the camera and she suggested I get my picture with Suz, which I did and visited with her for a few minutes.

Then it was off to find Blythe, who was hitting many more authors to get the AAR Bookbags signed (for the two winners in our recent Purple Prose Parody Contest). I asked her which author did she want her photo with and she chose Julia Quinn. It took some work finding a free moment as the line for Julia always seemed to balloon just as we were about ready to take a picture and because the night was flying by Blythe had to get around to get more signatures. Eventually it all came together (and two tries and one veto later) we got a picture.

There were more books to be signed and the camera forgotten, until I’d walked away from Nora Roberts. She had sold out of the Three Fates which I was trying to get for a friend (I already had signed copies from her husband’s Turn the Page Bookstore, so I didn’t need one myself), but I never thought of the camera dangling from my hand until I was back in the Brockmann line with Blythe and it hit me: Nora (as she is referred to by one and all at the conference) is the bestselling author in the genre and has the most DIK’s at AAR. I need her photo and so back I go. One of her helpers offered to take the photo of both us, but I already have a photo from a signing the year before at the Tattered Cover and since the photo with Suz turned out I didn’t want to test the photo-karma gods again and took the photo sans moi. As usual Nora looks fabulous.

Julia Quinn and Blythe
Suzanne Brockmann and Jen
Nora Roberts

By then the signing was wrapping up and I had books to pay for (lots of books).

Thursday started much earlier, but it was worth it. First there was the workshop advising first-timers on what to see and do at the conference (see Blythe’s comments). After which I attended a workshop on voice. Unfortunately much of this is a blur as I hadn’t had my daily dose of caffeine and was running on less than 4 hours sleep, so my main goal was not to doze off and offend the speakers. Next was the luncheon; Blythe talked about this in her Day 2 Report. I will add that Teresa Medeiros’ speech ended with the moving tale of her parent’s own love story that left nary a dry eye in the house. Then it was off to the Annual General Meeting. As a member of RWA I was allowed to attend. The start was delayed quite a bit and as I’m queen of the clueless when it come to RWA politics, I left shortly after it started. Being apathetic about issues that can affect me is against my nature, but it’s also against my nature to vote on subject upon which I know absolutely nothing, so instead I went to find Blythe (who apparently was having more fun than I) to attend the Ballantine cocktail party.

After several minutes of discussing the fact neither one of us was assertive enough to approach anyone at the party, we were approached by Victoria Malvey and Tina St. John and were eventually joined by Linda Francis Lee. We had a most enjoyable time talking with them. I especially loved Linda Francis Lee’s twist on the old method acting – that’s method writing – which led her to buying a tiara. I had such a lovely time talking to each author that I was thrilled to pick up their books at publisher organized signings the next day and now I just need to find time to sit down and read them!

Which leads us to Friday. Friday was also an early day involving less sleep than the day before, but I got an early caffeine fix and was ready to go. Book signings all morning (as if I really needed more books). It gave me a chance to meet Lisa Kleypas, whose books I’ve recently started to read and enjoy as well as getting books by several authors I keep meaning to try, but haven’t had the chance.

The luncheon had no guest speaker, but I did get to talk to a lovely woman from Arkansas by way of Minnesota, who took the time to explain the southern habit of calling a person by two names. She pointed out the flow and rhythm of the speech worked better when their were two names. Then the table broke into a discussion of regional dialects thoroughly entertained the linguistic hobbiest in me.

The afternoon was workshop time (the aspiring writer finally overcame the fan…well sorta). First up, Suz Brockmann’s ‘Tall, Dark, and Believable’ workshop. She discussed her writing technique (as always I’m awed by anyone who can outline) and how she creates her heroes. Suz has so much energy in her talks it’s infectious and you can’t help but enjoy it. Next was Julia Quinn’s workshop on dialogue. There were a lot of questions asked, which led me to two different conclusions. One – people were beating a dead horse in order to get free copies of Romancing Mr. Bridgerton (which Julia gave out to those who asked questions). And secondly, many aspiring writers are looking for “the answer/the secret” to being a published writer. There of course is no one hard or fast answer for anything in writing. Julia answered everything with straight forward no-nonsense terms and a dry wit that made me wish the workshop had run longer because it was entertaining as well as educational.

Then it was off to another cocktail party for Atria and Pocket Books. Unlike Blythe who brought another dress, I had to make due in my day clothes, that while not completely unacceptable were a bit casual for cocktail party wear, not to mention slightly frumpy after 12 hours. I admit I was tired, I was grouchy (I had to drive through LoDo, aka Lower Downtown Denver, this not something I like to do, even if I did find the perfect parking spot directly across from the restaurant in a freak bit of good luck), but hoped for the best. First we spoke with an author who just sold to Pocket Books a story set in Italy. As she and Blythe were doing most of the talking I was people watching and mentally critiquing fashion choices, when Suz Brockmann and her husband came in. I then did the unthinkable (for me) and talked to her.

To understand what a monumentally big deal this is, you must realize my track record when speaking to my favorite authors is abysmal. The first time I had the pleasure of meeting Nora Roberts at a signing was the UMBA (Upper-Midwest Booksellers Assoc.) in 1997. I don’t know what I said, but I know it involved gushing and babbling and incoherence, though Nora was gracious as always and I walked away from the deal with a signed ARC of Sea Swept. The second time I went to a signing (Nora again) I was so flustered I nearly left the book behind. I’ve gotten better when attending Nora’s booksignings, I can actually complete sentences in her presence, but their short and I believe I dash off the second I have the book back. Which has pretty much become my standard behavior when meeting any author, “Hi I like your books, thank you for signing it” and zoom I’m gone. So walking up when there was no book to be signed was completely new territory for me.

Fortified by one glass of white wine and possibly having my normal inhibitions removed due to sleep deprivation, I somehow forgot I was a wallflower for 20 minutes and walked over. Initially I was just going to compliment Suz on her fabulous ankle length, dark blue sheath gown with scoop neckline and spaghetti straps (fashion critiquing was my secondary hobby at the conference), but I found myself talking about other things. Like, did she plan to write books that didn’t involve Navy SEALs, to which she answered yes, because she’s worried about SEAL overexposure. SEALs are everywhere nowadays, and not just in her books. Kind of like a number one song being played to death on the radio where the listeners hate it, Suz doesn’t want readers to come to hate SEALs characters and plans to try something else for variation (not until after Sam and Alyssa’s book, so no worries there) to spread out the SEALs stories. I asked if she ever worried about fans going overboard and she didn’t. She said the fans at her message board seemed to police themselves pretty well. She talked about how the fans were discussing a launch party (like what Evanovich had for Hard Eight) when Out of Bounds is released. Other things were discussed, but my memory is faulty. Sadly, never once did I think to ask the burning questions being contemplated by her fans: what’s Muldoon’s nickname? Who’s Wes’ love interest? How will Sam & Alyssa get together? Not because I don’t want to know, I just didn’t think of it (blame that on sleep deprivation as well). But on the giddy high of having a coherent (or so I thought) conversation with a fave author I gathered up Blythe and went home.

Which brings us to Saturday, the final day of the conference. At this point I’m running on fumes, aka Diet Coke, because I’ve had even less sleep than the previous nights. I start my day at a “Chat with Nora Roberts” even though I’ve heard her speak before, she touched on some new stuff, for example, how she acquired her agent, which I hadn’t heard. She reiterated many times that a writer has to write whatever way works best for her. Her secret? She just writes. It’s that simple…well she writes when not being tempted by spider solitaire (which is apparently more insidious than free-cell, which LLB is addicted to playing).

I bought tapes of several workshops, and skipped the next set in search of a handbag for the evening’s awards ceremony. I came back in time for the luncheon and Suz’s speech. She touched on September 11th and how that affected her and the role romance writers play in a post 9/11 world. That escapism, light, hope, and theme of love conquers all are what people are craving right now because it brings comfort. She gave the four things a romance writer should have:

  • Always wear comfortable shoes;
  • Don’t compare yourself to any other writer;
  • Do your personal best; and
  • Feed your creativity.

Then it was off to the final round of workshops. My last one was on how to write a page turner with Suz (see a theme here?), Adrianne Lee (who I spoke with afterwards on got some great advice on how to avoid a sagging middle of the book when writing), and Ann Josephson. The secret to a page turner: leave the audience wanting more.

Then it was a quick scurry out to the suburbs to change and back for the final act of this whole thing: the awards ceremony.

Ah yes, the Golden Heart and RITA awards, the RWA’s answer to the Oscars, and trust me – this was quite a production. (Click here for all the awards). First, virtually everyone shows up dressed to the nines. Popular colors were black, red, and dark blue. If there was an award for best dressed (out of who I saw) I’d have to say Lisa Kleypas who looked positively stunning in horizontal black and white striped floor length gown.

For the first time since the event began I sat with members of my local RWA chapter, the Heartbeat of Denver Romance Writers. We had choice seats right behind those reserved for finalists and presenters. Plus there were several large screens set up, so it was very easy to see everything. The show opened with Rita Clay Estrada narrating a skit involving an aspiring writer at the beginning choosing her characters, and then the Golden Hearts were given out. Most winners were quite moved and had large cheering sections and a few announced their first sale in their acceptance speeches. Then came part two of the skit with the writer choosing her setting and then the RITA awards. First, I must apologize to everyone for whom I was rooting as you all lost. Apparently my run of picking of the non-winners or generating bad karma by rooting for someone, that has been around since the Superbowl, is still there. Guess it’s a good thing I don’t gamble.

Those winners also had a large cheering section and my favorite thank you speech was that of Robin D. Owens (who won for best paranormal) when she referred everyone to the acknowledgement page in her book as opposed to saying a long list of people. After the last RITA was announced and Rachel Gibson declared the coolest person in Idaho by her editor at Avon, the skit was concluded with our fictional author choosing her ending, and typing “the End.” Which led to Maggie Osborne receiving her Lifetime Achievement Award, where we treated to a running gag about a publicity photo she took in 1983 involving her in a bubble bath.

That was it. The evening ended and everyone poured out of the ballroom and into the court for the dessert banquet. Since Blythe wasn’t there and I didn’t really know anyone, the wallflower side of me returned full force utilizing an embarrassing run in my hose and exhaustion as excuses to go home. And my RWA experience ended.

— Jennifer Schendel

RITA/Golden Heart Awards
Return to RWA Daily Journal Index