2006 RWA (Romance Writers of Australia) Conference

by Kate Cuthbert

August 20th

The Romance Writers of Australia conference ran over a three day weekend in early August in 2006. This year sees the 15th anniversary of RWA. It was created in 1991 with only 8 members. The association now has members from all over Australia, New Zealand, Asia, the UK, and the US.

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This conference was my first, so I arrived on Friday morning not really knowing what to expect. I had only signed on late, so I had to pick up my tickets and name tag on the actual day, so even there I was given no clues.

Arriving at the Sofitel Gold Coast — a beautiful hotel with ocean views everywhere you turned — it wasn’t hard to figure out where the conference was. Almost 200 women were lined up to sign in, clustered in groups chatting, and making endless cups of tea. I nearly tripped over Jenny Brassel, the author/artist and current RWA president, on my way in. Not the most auspicious entrance, but I wasn’t wearing my name tag yet, so I hoped she’d forget.

I signed in and learned that nametags were coded. A heart sticker meant that this was your first conference. A quill meant you were published. If the tag was pink you were committee, and if you were blue you were press. I was blue. My first press pass ever. I’m keeping it for my mom. There were an astonishing amount of quills around. Australia has such poor recognition of its romance writers, you’d be forgiven assuming that only Stephanie Laurens is writing over here. Laurens, incidentally, was not at the conference.

I write the only romance column in mainstream press in Australia, so I was a bit of a celebrity myself (she says with all modesty), though only minor, as my column is only available in Brisbane. However, that didn’t stop me from being molested by Karen Schwarz, who writes as Anna Campbell, recipient of that Avon deal mentioned in Sandy Coleman’s RWA report. She was doubly excited when she found out I wrote for AAR as well, as she’d met Sandy in Atlanta and thought her lovely. Her novel, Charming the Courtesan, is out in April 2007.

Friday was devoted to workshops with the international guests, author Debbie Macomber, Harlequin Toronto editor Paula Eykelhof, and New York Agent Miriam Kriss. Debbie and Paula have a 21 year editor/author relationship, and ran one workshop, while Miriam ran the other. I sat in on the former for most of the day. Debbie is a natural speaker, though both she and Paula were fighting off jetlag. Paula told me later that day that she’d been up since 3am. It didn’t stop them both from making an appearance at the cocktail party though.

I don’t know if it’s because Harlequin was such a presence at the conference, or because single title romance just doesn’t have an outlet here in Australia, but there was a big emphasis on writing for categories, even though writers have had some success with single titles and e-books. I already mentioned Karen Schwarz, and she invited me to drink champagne with other success stories, the charming Christine Diehm (Christine Wells), winner of a Golden Heart in Atlanta — her debut novel, a European historical, is due out from Berkley in November 2007 — and Denise Rossetti, who has just signed for a series with Ellora’s Cave. Her first novel, Gift of the Goddess will be released September 27.

The highlight of Friday, though, was the Hollywood themed cocktail party. According to organizers, it was the best attended cocktail party in RWA history, and everyone got right into it. We don’t have Halloween here in Australia, so costume parties are quite popular. Almost everyone made some kind of effort to glam up, with many coming in groups. Batman and Catwoman made an appearance, as did the Pink Ladies from Grease. Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra was there, as was Annie Get Your Gun. And there were no less than three Charlie Chaplins. Paranormal writer Keri Arthur came as a witch, but miscalculated the length of her nose and ended up drinking from her champagne glass with a straw through most of the night. My favourite costume, though, goes to Anne Gracie took the conference’s “Some Like It Hot” theme to heart, dressing as “Chili Miranda”. Yes, it is possible to make a hat out of plastic peppers. I have to admit that after reading The Perfect Rake, I was absolutely desperate to meet Gracie, and was tickled pink when she told me that she liked my newspaper columns. If you haven’t read this novel, rush out and grab it. Regency historical done up right.

I was also thrilled to meet Betty Bingham, who writes historicals as Ashleigh Bingham. Her novel Wings of Hope was up for the Foster-Grant (the Foster-Grant Romantic Novel of the Year Award is one of Britain’s longest-running literary competitions). She is an absolute wonder, but didn’t know a thing about AAR, unfortunately. I told her about it, and she said she loves her computer and the internet, so hopefully she’ll check us out.

Finally, I monopolized Miriam Kriss, the New York agent, to the detriment of many a schmoozing author, I’m afraid, as we spent about half an hour trying to write a script that would incorporate Aragorn from Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones, and George Clooney (in any capacity). Alas, nothing feasible came out of our discussion, but it was a lot of fun trying.

Saturday was the “real” start of the conference, as not everyone came for the workshops.

The day started with a celebration, as the names of the 24 RWA members who made their first sale in the past year were announced.

Being press, I was not signed to any specific tutorials, and so was free to bounce between. I spent the most time in Barbara Hannay’s collage workshop. Collage as a writing tool is used by writers like Jennifer Crusie and Charlotte Hubbard. The actual workshop looked a bit like a kindergarten room, with stacks of magazines, newspapers, and flyers piled high on the tables, and grown women armed with scissors and glue scrabbling for the perfect pictures. I sat next to Betty Bingham, who’s latest novel had taken an unexpected turn to Algeria. She was thrilled about her Foster-Grant nomination, but had not been able to make it across to Britain for the ceremony.

I also ducked in on Lilian Darcy’s seminar on career planning for optimists. Most of the first time sales were in this group, looking for ideas on how to quit their day jobs and make their living as writers full time.

In the afternoon, I popped in briefly on Rebecca Williams – an e-book author for Liquid Silver – but I was really on my way to see Jane Porter, Harlequin Presents and Flirting With Forty author. I’d met her briefly on Friday, and the enthusiasm with which this woman speaks is astounding. It’s no wonder she’s so tiny – the energy that it must take to live her life with such passion has to be exhausting. Her seminar was about writing hot love scenes. She’d subtitled it “It’s Not Just About Sex” and then set about using biology, psychology, social sciences, and economics to prove it. Really, it was the most amazing seminar.

I slipped out soon after the seminars, as I wasn’t staying at the hotel and had a 35 minute drive to where I was staying, and I needed time to prepare and get back for the Awards Dinner.

I sat at a table with Karen Schwarz and a number of aspiring writers. Lucky for me I sat next to Cathy, a fellow Canadian ex-pat, so we had a great time catching up on the things that we miss – mainly ice hockey and Christmas, in case you were wondering. Cathy is also a critique partner and close friend of Rachel Robinson, who cleaned up this year with awards, so I was able to celebrate with her. Watch out for that name, because in the course of the evening, she got three requests for fulls from three different people.

The awards were handed out over the course of the evening in between the courses of dinner. The first course ended with the contest results being announced. Anyone struggling with query letters and synopses would do well to contact Paula Roe who swept first, second, and third in the Query Letter and Synopsis 2006 competition. Other winners included Christine Diehm and Sue Burgess-Thompson. If a best title competition were available, Catherine Cockburn would have won hands down with her intriguing The Cowboy, The Cheat, His Ex-wife and Her Vibrator.

The major awards of the evening were as follows:

  • The Valerie Parv Award 2006 – You Don’t Gnome Me by Rachel Robinson (open to all writers unpublished in book-length romance fiction )
  • The Lynne Wilding Meritorious Service Award 2006 – Robyn Aldridge
  • The inaugural RWA Media Award – didn’t go to me. Seriously, I was nominated. Twice. But, alas, short of calling for a recount, I’ll have to offer my gracious congratulations to Alexandra Carlton of Madison magazine who won for her Lusty Busty Housewives feature.
  • The Emerald Award for best unpublished manuscript
    • Category: Rachel Robinson The Crush
    • Single Title: Catherine Cockburn Careful What You Wish For
  • The Romantic Book of the Year
    • Category: Trish Morey The Italian Boss’s Secret Child
    • Single Title: Anna Jacobs Pride of Lancashire

Sunday morning saw the first Pink Breakfast, a fundraiser for breast cancer. It started at 7am, and, as the champagne had flowed rather freely the evening before, there were a number of bleary eyes and blurry edges, but everyone made it out for a good cause. Marion Lennox, winner of a RITA in Atlanta this year, and a number in past years, wore her fantastic “One is real, one is fake” t-shirt, and told the story of her struggle with breast cancer and her chemo Barbie.

To my great delight, Sunday started out with plenary talks, one by Miriam Kriss on urban fantasy and paranormal romances, and another by Jane Porter again. I felt the need to stand and shout “Amen!” every time the woman opened her mouth. Seriously, every romance snob needs to spend 5 minutes with this woman. We would have world wide conversion.

Sunday’s tutorials were split between sub-genres and selling. The morning saw Anne Gracie ruminating on Rakes, Keri Arthur positing about paranormals, Sarah Dickinson explaining erotica, and Kirsty Wright and Deanna Belzer speaking on suspense.

I ducked my head into the Romantic Suspense session, but ducked right back out again. I can’t help it; I’m a wimp. And while I’m sure the pictures and information the two presenters were displaying was both accurate and useful, I could live without the nightmares they were sure to induce.

As I review quite a few e-books for AAR, I decided to check out “How To Write Sizzling Sex Scenes” from Triskelian author Sarah Dickson. Though I didn’t stop for long, I did hear her little trick for telling if a particular scene has worked – she lets her husband read it. If, after finishing, he drags her off to the bedroom, the scene stays in. I wanted to spend most of my time with Anne Gracie though, after reading The Perfect Rake. Anne is a fantastic speaker, and her seven step program to irresistibility not only useful, but very funny.

The afternoon included practical sessions on what to do with your manuscript once it is written, so I spent some time looking at the covers from the cover contest, and reading the other entries for the Media award.

The whole conference was an absolutely amazing experience, and I understand why authors always come back invigorated. The positive energy and aura that surrounded the conference for the three days was tangible, and the joy of being with people that not only understood, but enjoyed the wonders of romance and romance writing was both stimulating and relaxing. I’m looking forward to seeing everyone in Sydney next year!