2007 RWA (Romance Writers of Australia) Conference
by Kate Cuthbert

Part I | Part II

Part I (August 20)

This year marked the 16th annual Romance Writers of Australia conference, held at the 4 point Sheraton in the Darling Harbour suburb of Sydney, right on the water and the perfect venue for this year’s theme: A Darling Affair.

I was very much looking forward to the conference in the lead up this year. I had such a good time at last year’s conference, my first, and looked forward to renewing friendships and starting new ones. And, to my very great delight, not only did this year’s international guests include Jennifer Crusie and Anne Stuart, but I was also nominated for the Romance Media award (ROMA) again this year. So I had lots of great things to look forward to.

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Then, a week before the conference, I landed myself in the hospital for emergency abdominal surgery followed by a prescribed two weeks of bed rest. Well, there was no way I wasn’t making it to Sydney, so my doctors (and, to be honest, my mother) and I sat down to bargain. On the table: what I could and could not do. So unfortunately while I did do much, much more than I was supposed to (please don’t tell my mother), I didn’t get to do as much as I wanted. My apologies for the gaps in this report, but please be assured, I hit the important parts.

Friday was the master class with Jennifer Crusie, so I showed up to register, but didn’t attend. In a lovely parallel, again the first person I met was Jennifer Brassel (past president of RWA Australia), though I managed this year not to trip over her and greeted her much more gracefully than last year. Though I have to admit, when I leaned in to give her a kiss our glasses banged together. I’m holding out for a completely polished greeting next year in Melbourne.

Registration this year included a lovely bag full of books from some of the big names in Australian writing, including Melanie Milburn and Keri Arthur. When I found the fourth book in Arthur’s Riley Jenson series, which I hadn’t yet read, I was hard-pressed to leave my room, but the thought of not getting to wear my mask for the Venetian Carnivale cocktail party after freaking out about it in my luggage all the way to Sydney was enough to get me out the door.

The cocktail party is the traditional opening of the RWA conference, and every year it gets bigger and better. This year’s attendees were bedecked, bejewelled, and bewitching in their feathers, masks, and gowns. There were even some swordfighters and gondoliers. What with all the masks, it was a bit hard to recognize anyone, but Anne Gracie is always easy to spot, and this year was no different – last year her headwear included chilli peppers. This year it was intertwined feather boas. Here’s a secret though: she always wears the same hat under the decorations, just switches them up every year. She told me that the reason for her over-the-top costumery is two-fold. First, it encourages others to really get into the themes, and second, she’s really quite shy in social situations and the crazy hats give her confidence. She also said to expect her next novel early next year.

Marion Lennox, who missed out on her third RITA this year in Dallas, is imposingly tall to begin with, and was significantly taller when taking into account her feathered mask – even though the many pins on her lanyard should have dragged her down. Ellora’s Cave, and soon to be Berkely author, Denise Rossetti wore the most fabulous red high heel shoes – a present to herself for her new publishing contract. She did admit that her feet were killing her but the shoes were so great she didn’t care.

I also spent some time with Glen Thomas, who is running a Master’s program in creative writing – romance fiction. Attendance at the conference was mandatory for the students, and a quick chat revealed that they only had positive things to say about the course – except the reading list. Apparently Tania Modleski isn’t to everyone’s taste. I read her for my thesis research – frankly she’s light years ahead of Janice Radway.

Finally, and the highlights of my evening, I had Anna Campbell introduce me to Anne Stuart, who was inexplicably dressed in a nun’s costume, although Laurie informs me that “Sister Krissie” is often makes an appearance at such events. Campbell is a huge fan of Stuart’s and did an excellent interview for Heart’s Talk, the RWA’s publication in the month leading up to the conference. It’s available on www.romanceaustralia.com.

I also got to meet Jennifer Crusie. Against all my better judgement I gushed just a little. After telling her that I was a fan, she told me that I had excellent taste. I got to go home happy.

Saturday morning started out with the official opening of the conference, an introductionto the international guests: Sheila Hodgson from the London office of Harlequin Mills&Boon, Jennifer Crusie, and Anne Stuart, and a special award to Alison Stuart. Back in 2002, the RWA was struggling to stay afloat, facing issues in how to keep a country-wide organisation going and run an efficient and relevant committee. Stuart came through and revamped the association and committee and the RWA is stronger than ever, evidenced by the more than 600 members and the more than 200 conference attendees.

Business of the morning also included the presentation of the first sale ribbons, the launch of the Little Gems: Amethyst edition – a collection of short stories by Australian authors – and an announcement of the charitable aspects of the conference. The RWA supports Breast Cancer Research, and runs a number of events over the weekend, including silent auctions and the pink breakfast. The silent auction included backlists and out-of-print copies, including Anne Gracie’s categories. Three guesses what I was interested in? Three guesses also as to who’s not near rich enough to build up her library.

With all the administrative stuff out of the way, the conference could really kick it into high gear. Best person to do this? Jennifer Crusie, of course. She presented a keynote address entitled The Writer’s Journey, and I have to say, wow. Really. The speech was typical Crusie: humourous and human, with just a touch of bitterness and a hopeful ending, and it set fire to the conference. Speaking from her own experience, including her recent split from her agent, Crusie spoke of the death and rebirth that each writer has to go through, both on a small scale with every book written, but on a bigger scale as well with their own career. Rather than viewing setbacks or downfalls—like, oh say, getting fired by your agent—as the end of the line, Crusie tied them to the idea of re-invention, of finding your own space and time as a writer. Writing, she stated, needs an author to be engaged. If the writer is bored, or resting on her laurels, her books will show it. Her strongest message was simple though: every writer in the room was a great writer and they needed to believe that. Women are taught from a young age to demure, to be modest, to allow others around them to shine. When it comes to writing though, every writer needs to believe that she was Mozart, and to take credit for her talent, her abilities, and her gift. Then she made everyone stand up and shout “I am a great writer!”.

Cynically, I think she was just after a standing ovation, but here’s the truth: she would have got it. I have never seen anyone set a room on fire as thoroughly as Crusie managed. She didn’t say anything new, but the passion and power of her voice and the force of her personality crashed through barriers. This one speech infused the remaining workshops, plenary sessions, and speeches for the entire weekend. It was truly incredible.

Michelle Laforest, Managing Director of Harlequin Australia, got up afterwards for a plenary session. Her first statement: she had the most unfortunate placement in the whole conference. I agree. Following Jennifer Crusie would have been a nightmare. Luckily Laforest had some excellent news: finally, for the first time ever, Harlequin Australia is going to start accepting submissions. Up to this point, authors wanting to write categories have had to apply to Toronto or London. Now, finally, Australia will be publishing its home-grown talent, which is great news for authors and the romance industry in general.

The rest of the morning was taken up with workshops. Each workshop session had 4 choices: because I was there as press, not a writer, I got to pop in and out of each or chat with those who chose not to attend.

I popped my head in to Valerie Parv’s session, entitled ‘Romance Writing’s Brave New World’. Valerie is not only a successful author, but also the writer of the well-respected how-to manual The Art of Romance Writing. This session ran in two parts and lasted all day, and I was interested in what the ‘Brave New World’ was, so I made sure to be there for the introduction. Lucky I did, because I won a door prize just by being there, so now I have a lovely butterfly brooch on top of some very good advice. The Brave New World, incidentally, is the many many markets outside the traditional publishers. RWA here in Australia still recognize the e-market as valid publishers, so there was some emphasis on how to write for the erotic fiction market.

Swinging to the other end of the spectrum, I also popped in to Mary Hawkins’ session on writing for inspirationals. This sub-genre is not one I’ve ever really been interested in reading, but I know that it’s growing on par with erotic fiction, so I thought it would be useful to see what a writer of inspirational fiction had to say about the genre. Interestingly, it was the smallest of the morning workshops. When I walked in, they were discussing the use of scripture in the text of the novel. News to me: I really am very ignorant about these novels. The most important message Mary had was that the characters need to show faith through their actions, not just in their thoughts.

I finished up in Allison Rushby’s workshop on the Three Act Structure, a method of writing that has helped her move from doing several rewrites and drafts to planning things up front and avoiding any major changes in the final drafts. This was kind of a fun little workshop, because she demonstrated the way the acts work using the film Notting Hill which meant that everyone could take part (what romance writer or reader hasn’t seen that movie?)

Break for lunch, which I spent with the always lovely Christine Wells, whose first novel, Scandal’s Daughter that won the Golden Heart last year, is out this September from Berkley. She wasn’t feeling very well this conference weekend, so I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with her, but she did give me a giant postcard of her cover, which has a lovely traditional feel to it. We were joined by Anna Campbell and her writing partner Annie West, who has the most perfect 20s bob I’ve ever seen. Annie writes about sheikhs. Lots and lots of sheikhs. Her current novel is The Sheikh’s Ransomed Bride.

Part II (August 22)

After lunch, Anne Gracie, Anna Campbell, Anne Stuart (sensing a theme here?), and Elizabeth Rolls participated in a historical panel, moderated by Christine Wells. I was really interested in this panel because if the debacle with Claiming the Courtesan was going to be discussed anywhere, it was going to be discussed here.

I wasn’t disappointed. After introductions and welcomes, the first question Christine asked dealt with political correctness in the historical context. Anne Gracie answered first; she said that she always assumes that the reader doesn’t know much about the history and is reading for the story first and foremost. Anna Campbell was sitting between Anne Gracie and Anne Stuart, next in line for answering. She didn’t get a chance though, as everyone started talking about her book and the internet furor she went through after its release.

Interestingly, the D review that AAR gave Courtesan was pinpointed as the start of the hubbub. However, not Anna nor anyone else had anything bad to say about AAR. The review wasn’t the issue; for the authors, the really hurtful comments were from those who felt free to condemn the novel, the characters, and Anna as the author without ever reading the book. This condemnation included hate mail sent to her e-mail address, something she couldn’t avoid by staying away from the message boards. Just a gentle suggestion: an informed opinion carries much more validity and weight than baseless vitriol.

After the excitement of the historical panel, I followed my doctor’s advice and took myself off home for rest before the awards dinner.

The awards dinner is always my favourite part of the weekend. Australian romance writers aren’t recognized at home, so this is really the only chance the industry has to honor its own. The first awards given out were contest winners, open only to unpublished writers. Then the first major award was given out: The Lynne Wilding Meritorious Award. I don’t know how many of you will be aware of the importance that Lynne had for the RWA or romance writing in Australia, but Lynne was the first president of the Romance Writers of Australia, and was instrumental in building the society to its current levels. Her first success as an author was a Silhouette, published in 1991, titled The Sheikh. From 1997 on, she published one popular fiction novel a year. Her titles include Sundown Crossing, Turn Left at Bindi Crossing, This Time Forever, and Outback Sunset. Lynne was known for big, thick, gutsy, meaty novels, always set against vibrant Australian backdrops, with the exception of Whispers through the Pines, set in Norfolk Island.

She died earlier this year after a long battle of cancer. What made the award even more poignant was the fact that the winner, Malvina Yock, was a close, personal friend. Nary a dry eye in the house.

The next award to be presented was the one I was nominated for: the Romance Media Award or the ROMA. I was nominated twice last year and didn’t win, and, to be honest, was completely convinced I wasn’t going to win this year either. For a detailed argument on all the reasons I wasn’t going to win, feel free to e-mail me. So it was to my great shock and delight that they called my name. To be honest, I don’t really remember a whole lot about the 20 minutes or so afterwards, but I’m assured of a lot of smiling and a lot of pictures.

The next award was the Emerald, given out each year for the best unpublished manuscript. Two Emeralds are awarded: one for category length and one for single title length. The winners this year were Melanie Scott, who won the Single Title section with A Wolf Within, and Rachel Robinson, who won the Category section with Coveting the Boss.

The evening rounded up with the presentation of Australia’s top honour for romance writers, the Romantic Book of the Year awards, or the RuBYs. This year’s nominees included first time novelists and old favorites.

In the category romance division, the 6 nominees include Carol Marinelli, for Needed: Full time Father; Adelaide writer Anne Oliver’s debut novel Behind Closed Doors; Yvonne Lindsay, from New Zealand, for The Boss’s Christmas Seduction; Fiona Lowe, in her debut year, with Her Miracle Baby; and finally, Marion Lennox with a dual nomination for her medical romance Rescue at Cradle Lake and her contemporary romance The Doctor’s Proposal.

The single title division also saw a dual nominee, with Anna Jacobs, who won last year’s single title RuBY, taking up two finalist spots with her novels The Corrigan Legacy and Bright Day Dawning. Brisbane author and long time favourite Margaret Way was also nominated this year for her novel The Horseman, as was Helen Kirkman for A Fragile Trust. New Zealand author Karina Bliss’s (yes, that is her real name) Mr. Imperfect and Western Australia’s Fran Cusworth’s The Love Child rounded out the nominees.

Big congratulations to Anne Oliver and Karina Bliss, the winners!

After a round of congratulations and kisses and hugs, many of the attendees retired to the hotel bar to keep celebrating. This girl, however, went to bed.

Sunday morning always starts with the biggest Breast Cancer Research fundraiser of the conference – The Pink Breakfast. It’s a true sign of commitment to the program that the authors (who often party into the wee hours the night before) get up for a 7am start. I didn’t. Blame my surgeons. The Pink Breakfast was definitely on my ‘not allowed to’ list. But from what I hear, everyone had a lovely time. And, in the end, the conference raised over $5000 for Breast Cancer Research – almost doubling the total from last year!

Sunday started off with a session from Mills&Boon Senior editor Sheila Hodgson, including an unveiling of the new cover style. Then it was off to the author chats. I was actually meeting Jennifer Crusie and Anne Stuart for an interview during this time, but I popped into Keri Arthur’s long enough to learn this little fact she brought back from Dallas: vampires are out, demons are in.

Then, lucky me, I skipped off to the hotel restaurant to have coffee and a chat with Jennifer and Anne, who explained to me that her real name is Anne Kristine Stuart, but that she goes by Krissie because Anne Stuart reminds her of being in school and Krissie is friendlier than Kristine. I was interviewing Anne and Jenny for my newspaper column, so I stuck pretty close to the topic at hand: namely The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes. But here’s a couple of little tidbits of trivia about the collaborative novel:

  • The idea came from Eileen Dreyer after a couple of glasses of champagne back stage at what Anne Stuart termed a ‘disastrous’ RITA ceremony. I’m not going into which one it was…
  • Anne said that she’d do it if Jenny did it. Jenny said she’d do it if Anne did it. The rest is history.
  • The original idea was for a series of novellas, but Jenny was of the mind that there were a lot of novella anthologies out there, and another wasn’t needed. So the idea of a collaborative novel started then.
  • Anne wrote the story for Dee, Eileen wrote the story for Lizzie, and Jenny wrote Mare’s story.
  • Even though she’s a notorious ‘by the seat of my pants’ writer, Jenny did most of the organization.
  • Only one person wrote the sections from Xan’s point of view, but it’s a secret. Can you guess?
  • Each author had complete control over the scenes from their character’s point of view, even if that scene included other characters. But the other authors were allowed to intervene if they thought their character was being misused. Apparently Eileen intervened a lot – “Lizzie’s not a flake, guys.”
  • No current plans for another collaboration with these three, but Anne and Jenny are writing Dogs and Goddesses with Lani Diane Rich. And Anne really likes writing from a dog’s point of view.

On a more personal note, I asked them for something quotable about Australia I could put in my column, and Jenny said “a beautiful country, but – and this is nauseating – the people are more beautiful.” And Anne’s thinking of moving here. Go Oz!

Incidentally, Jenny’s working on a new novel that’s her version of The Taming of the Shrew and Anne is working on another Ice novel with a Japanese punk hero (Laurie informs me that would be Reno). I begged and pleaded with her to write a new historical because, and I’ll be honest here, I can’t read her suspense novels. I’m sure they’re fantastic, but the covers are enough to give me nightmares. The reviews are enough to give me nightmares. I’m just a bone-deep wimp. So to those, like me, who love Anne’s historicals, there is hope. Not only did she tell me she had an idea for a medieval, she signed my copy of Devil’s Waltz: To Kate, I promise more historicals! Anne Stuart.

And, just so I can relive the pleasure, Jenny signed my copy of Faking It: To Kate, my new best friend. Best Wishes, Jenny Crusie. Of course, I did ask her to sign it that way, but that’s beside the point. <g>

After the interview, more workshops. I attended Alex May and Allison Tait’s Making Freelance Writing Pay. Hey, I can learn too. I won a copy of Planning Your Perfect Home Renovation by Alex, for having the ..errr… second best idea in the room. Nothing wrong with being runner-up, people, nothing wrong. It was an honour just to be nominated. This was a really well done session, and timely, I think, for the attendees. These people are writers. Sure, their first love is romance, but only very very lucky people get to work in a job where they only get to do what they love. Ask me someday about flat-planning. But for writers, the most important thing is to be able to write. To be paid for writing? Well that’s just a step in the right direction.

Break for lunch, which I spent with some of Glen Thomas’s students, chatting about how the classes were run. Apparently, like a big critique group. They served the most exquisite cherry squares, and Sandra Barletta (destined to be the next Jenny Crusie, according to her classmates) and I spent the vast majority of our lunch eyeing Marion Lennox, who had just such a square on her plate, but didn’t look like she was going to eat it. Luckily, before we leapt on her like ravenous wolves, the waiters brought out another tray. Which is good, because Amy Andrews, author of 12 Mills&Boon Medical romances, knew exactly what we were doing, and I’m pretty sure we scared her.

Feeling guilty for completely ignoring the many promises I made to my doctors (and my mother), I skipped the afternoon workshops to rest and find a quiet corner and read Elizabeth Rolls’ A Compromised Lady, a lovely little Regency from Harlequin. I wasn’t the only one. Lucy, proprietor of Ever After, a bookseller out of Wollongong that specializes in romance novels, was there, and – by this time – selling books at a discount price. Lots of buying and lots of reading was going on.

After the workshops in the afternoon and afternoon tea (which didn’t include any more of those cherry squares, but did have that most Australian of snack foods – the lamington. Think sponge cake, covered in chocolate icing and rolled in coconut. One very compelling reason for me not to move back to Canada.), we had our final plenary session, from Anne Stuart, who started out her speech by telling us that she had no idea what a plenary session was, let alone how to give one until Anne Gracie explained it to her. She talked about her ten rules of writing. I’m not going to type them out right now, because I’m lazy, but if enough people complain on the potpourri board, I promise to add an addendum. Also, because I’m lazy, here are the best parts of Anne Stuart’s speech in a bullet point list (hey! Writing all these details out is tiring!)

  • She has a ritual for writing, and an altar to her gift. The altar includes, among other things, a candle and a tea box she found in Japan. The ritual includes lighting the candle and kissing her poster of a Japanese musician and actor who claims to be over 400 years old named Gackt.
  • She and her husband have, on at least one occasion, done research for a sex scene for Jenny. She’s also perfectly willing to do research for anyone else, if you want to e-mail her and ask.
  • She finds the RWA conference in America stressful, and will skip it if she doesn’t think she can handle it.
  • She doesn’t update her blog as often as she should. She also doesn’t apologize for that.
  • She was first published in a children’s magazine when she was just six years old.
  • She is still contracted to write one more historical for MIRA. They haven’t mentioned it for awhile. Her agent wishes she’d stop mentioning it. Me, I’m planning on shouting it from the hill tops. Historicals are not dead! I mean, sure she’s and MIRA have had issues in the past (anyone else remember the Miss Snark blog and the furor that followed, all based on Stuart’s interview with Laurie last year?) but this isn’t about her. It’s about me. <g>
  • She loves pushing boundaries, alpha heroes, and beautiful androgynous men.
  • She’s going to write ‘till she dies.

The best part about both Jenny and Anne’s speeches was how unashamedly honest and fearless they are about their work, their careers, and themselves. How inspiring to see two women embracing their own merit.

After a quick question and answer session, Anne Stuart sat down and was replaced by Jenny Brassel who thanked her conference committee and Anne Gracie who officially closed the conference. Next year: Melbourne for Spellbound on Southbank. Looking forward to seeing everyone there!

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