Heart of the Matter

FWARA Conference Report –
November 7 – 9, 1997

I spent the weekend in Fort Worth at a local RWA chapter’s yearly conference. Prodigy pal Karen Williams organized the get-together, which brought together writers from as far away as Ottawa and as close as down the block. The keynote speaker was author Victoria Alexander, whose comparisons and contrasts between reality and fiction were dead-on and hilarious. When asked why this ex-television reporter writes historicals and not contemporary romance, she answered, “I don’t have to give people professions; I just have to make them rich.” Her best advice to authors at a booksigning? Find out where the rest rooms are – you will be asked!

I spent a wicked hour with Victoria Sunday. While some of the best stuff came when the tape reporter was turned off, I’ll be bringing you our discussion soon.

Linda George, who has written and published many books of non-fiction in the young adult arena, spoke next. She is set to have her first romance published (by Harlequin Historicals in their next March Madness promotion), spoke about structuring. After her talk, when I was trying to get permission to publish here the words to her clever rendition of “Memories” (about authors and rejection), she decided I was in need of help and provided me with a diagram of my column. While to this reader untrained in writing technique such minute structuring would seem to limit creativity, it obviously works for her. Linda’s best advice? “Learn your characters’ secrets.”

Phyllis Taylor Pianka, who is currently writing the 8th edition of How to Write Romance, did a hands-on workshop analyzing all the components of a romance. While some of her comments went over this untrained writer’s head, I was impressed by her developing several stories simply by reading a newspaper to the attendees. And, I really perked up when she remarked that the phrase “gates of paradise” in reference to a woman’s private parts is no longer acceptable as it was when she was first published in 1978.

As with Victoria, I talked with Phyllis privately later during the weekend, both about the changes she’s seen in the genre since she started writing, and about a portion of her workshop that seemed particularly timely given recent attention to it here – conflict in romance.

DeWanna Pace aka Dia Hunter, who is both a published author and an agent’s reader, talked about the nuts and bolts of manuscripts. She and Phyllis both expressed the need for white space on the page; lengthy paragraphs turn readers off. Both these authors emphatically stated the need to show, don’t tell, and how simply restructuring sentences can make them work better. For example, the proper sequence of action than reaction improves “She screamed when the door flew open” when it becomes “The door flew open. She screamed.”

Both Rosalyn Alsobrook and Rachelle Nelson held workshops during the conference, but my attendance was limited due to interviews. There was an interesting discussion about political correctness during Rosalyn’s workshop. Apparently, publishers get hate mail from readers when authors include certain historically accurate but politically incorrect scenes, which encourages editors to make changes in manuscripts to pacify possibly angry readers. So, the next time you get upset about an anachronism, it may not have been the writer’s intention.

I jotted down a few quotes during the conference that I’d like to share with you. While this was a writer’s conference, I found much of what I learned was helpful to readers as well, especially in that authors sometimes worry about things that don’t necessarily bother readers. For example, there was a lengthy discussion about point-of-view (POV) and it’s negative cousin, “head-hopping”. I’ve noticed that authors are very concerned about this and that there are rules of writing governing this. But as a reader, I’ve rarely been confused by switches of POV within a scene, page, or paragraph. In fact, I would venture to say that some of my favorite authors break this rule often. Julie Garwood certainly does; it’s part of her style and it works. Readers, you’ll have to let me know if bothers you when authors switch POV by e-mailing me.

Victoria Alexander on:
Booksignings – She once drove 500 miles each way to go to a booksigning and signed a grand total of 6 books. “I couldn’t compete with the Pork & Apple Festival in Clinton, Illinois.”
On the Glamour of Writing Romance – “I’m devolving into a lower life form. One day when I had ‘real clothes’ on and some make-up, my neighbor took one look at me and gapsed, ‘Wow; you look great!’ I’ve become a slug”

Linda George – “An editor will decide on your book after reading from one to three pages. I worked on the first three pages of my books for six months to get it right.”

DeWanna Pace – “It’s not ‘write what you know’, it’s ‘write what you can make the reader believe’. An author must immediately transport the reader and create a character the reader can care about or feel for.”

There were a couple of published authors who attended the conference but were not speakers. I spent time with both of them – historical fiction author Ann Chamberlin, and historical romance author Sonya Birmingham. While I had never before bought a book for its cover, I can now say I have. Ann’s hardcover titles were exquisite Renaissance paintings (the books are set in the Ottoman Empire) and Sonya designed the cover of her most recent release. If any of you have read either of Ann’s two Ottoman Empire books or her book set in the time of King David, please let me know if you were as impressed by her as I was by e-mailing me.

I was able to ask all the conference attendees for their definition of a romance novel. I’ve added the published authors’ comments to the Authors Define Romance page and will use the other attendees’ comments to start a Readers Define Romance page.