2009 RWA (Romance Writers of Australia) Conference
by Kate Cuthbert, AAR Alumna & Guest Reporter

August 18th

The Romance Writers of Australia have converged on Brisbane, and I was there!

Brisbane is the capital city of the Australian state of Queensland. It is located in sub-tropical Australia, on the east coast, on the ocean. Known as the River City to locals, Brisbane is split into a north side and a south side by the Brisbane river. Residents and tourists can travel along the river using the CityCat, a public transportation initiative that bounces back and forth along the river, from one end of the city to the other.

Being the northern most capital city (Darwin is in a territory, and therefore not considered a capital city), Brisbane enjoys the weather Australia is famous for. The proximity to the ocean keeps the temperatures mild, even in winter, when daytime temperatures will still stay about 20 degrees. For the three days I was there – remembering that August is dead-middle of winter for those of us in the Southern Hemisphere! – the temperatures were between 26 and 29 degrees Celcius.

Brisbane has a population of just over a million people, and is a popular tourist destination due to its lovely weather, and its proximity to Steve Irwin’s zoo, the Sunshine and Gold Coasts, and as a gateway to the tropical North and the Great Barrier Reef. The conference was held at the Sebel and Citigate hotel, in the centre of Brisbane, across from King George Square, which holds Brisbane’s Town Hall and Museum of Brisbane, and a few short steps away from the major inner-city retail centre, the Queen Street Mall. Just a note (and it definitely confused me when I first moved here!), what North Americans call a mall is called a shopping centre in Australia, and a mall is a number of retail outlets located along a street. The pedestrian-only Queen Street Mall is about two city blocks long, and incorporates a number of retail stores as well as a number of shopping centres.

Part 1

The Romance Writers of Australia conference had an extra addition this year, with the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance being held in Brisbane in the two days leading up to the conference. Academics from around the world attended, presenting on topics as diverse as Georgette Heyer and Twilight. The conference also welcomed keynote Sarah Frantz, who describes herself as romance reader, academic, mother, wife, former soldier, and is a founder of Teach Me Tonight, a blog with an academic focus on romance writing.

The RWAustralia always welcomes an international guest, as well as a number of agents and editors to whom new and emerging writers are welcome to pitch. This year Mary Jo Putney risked the long flight over the Pacific to join us. The international guest always runs a Friday workshop; Mary Jo was joined by Anne Gracie in an all-day session about the nuts and bolts of writing.

Friday night: the annual costume cocktail party. This year’s theme was Hot Arabian Nights, so harem girls and genies abounded. Anne Gracie’s headwear – always the highlight of the party – included crocodiles on a gold ring: she was queen of the Nile. Erica Hayes took out the top costume prize dressed as ‘The Sheikh’s reluctant Dead Keen Virgin Bride.’ Runners up included Jafar from Aladdin and a snake charmer.

I went as Cleopatra (not technically Arabia, it’s true, but I figured desert was close enough). I’m lucky enough to work with a make-up artist, but the party was 2 states away, requiring me to fly through 3 different airports. Still, a make-up artist! I couldn’t pass up that chance. So for anyone who flew Virgin Blue between Canberra and Brisbane yesterday, with a stop of over in Sydney, the girl with the make-up? The one that accidentally held up the plane? That was me. I’m really sorry. The parking at Canberra is brutal! I had a chance to speak briefly to Mary Jo Putney, who was appropriately dressed with a lovely blue scarf. She and her husband were here, combining business with pleasure. Mary Jo said that they’d come here for a holiday 25 years earlier, and had been looking for an excuse to come back ever since. However, they did remember the long flight (crossing the Pacific from LA to Brisbane – the closest two points in North America – takes about thirteen hours), and used up a great deal of their American Express points to take business class seats instead. Having made that flight more than a few times, and having only been bumped up to business class once, I can tell you, if you have the points, it is so worth it. She was full of praise for Anne’s teaching ability, but noted that Anne did have the advantage – having been a teacher.

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Many authors that I’ve met are very introverted, and find large gatherings of people – like this cocktail party – intimidating. However, Mary Jo knew that everyone would be interested in meeting her, and made sure to circle the room as completely as she could, taking the time to have a quick word with everyone.

Some of the IASPR delegates also attended the cocktail party, so I was able to have a quick word with Sarah Frantz about reviewing romance novels, and bringing them to the academic fore. And, I really have to say, the IASPR delegates received the most fantastic delegate bags. There are a couple up for the silent auction this weekend, and I know they’ll be popular. Day one is starting now with welcomes and the first sales ribbons…more later!

First Day

Plenary sessions at writers’ conferences are always inspirational, as well-established, famous writers tell the story of their successes – and failures – and the journey to being published. Even as a freelance writer for the media, I’m inspired and desperately desirous of finding a corner and letting my muse take over. I found Mary Jo’s speech this morning one of the most inspirational, however, because she talked about the work involved. Too many authors, she said, best-selling authors come up and talk to you and tell you that writing is fun.

If that’s true, she continued, then I’m doing it wrong. She spoke about the work involved, the procrastination, the fighting for words and the sheer determination it takes to push through. Then she talked about the satisfaction of the work, and the joy of creativity. By acknowledging the lows, Mary Jo emphasised the highs, and everyone walked out talking about it.

Sessions in the morning featured different areas of ‘the craft’. I opted for the session of coffee with Elizabeth Rolls, Valerie Parv, and Jenny Brassell, all very popular Australian novelists, the first with category Historicals, the second of categories (and with over 25 million books sold), and the latter who’s double trouble as an artist and a writer.

Oddly, I found myself talking about murder all day yesterday. Over coffee we discussed people who get walled up – this started with the Dauphin, son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and ended with a terrible news story from the previous day. Elizabeth Rolls is looking at moving into single titles – apparently it can be difficult to kill off characters, but she’s succeeded admirably in her latest efforts. Watch for a wasp sting, an idea courtesy of her GP.

A friend of mine, Fiona, is a pharmacist in her ‘real life’, and she was presenting for the first time on poisons and drugs – how to deal death when a character needs to die (maybe Elizabeth Rolls should have listened in?). Fi did a wonderful job, and all members of her seminar are now able to effectively spike a drink, and know which household objects are most useful in knocking someone off (without getting caught!). All purely for fictional purposes, of course.

Other little tidbits picked up during lunch and just afterwards: beware, here lies name-dropping.

  • Anne Gracie and Mary Jo Putney lining up with everyone for a fabulously diverse spread.
  • Marion Lennox (without her viking braids!) looking striking, as always.
  • Keri Arthur, who is finishing up the Riley Jenson series with book 9, is also starting a new one, and has one more dragon story to go.
  • Tracey O’Hara, whose debut novel Night’s Cold Kiss is out this month, will be on Avon Radio on 27th of August
  • Denise Rossetti, offering up The Flame and the Shadow for this year’s cover contest. (Well-deserved, says I. It’s a wonderful cover)
  • Erica Hayes, whose debut novel Shadowfae will be out in October, in day-wear, and missing her fishnets and bridal veil from the night before
  • Anna Campbell and Christine Wells, reminiscing back to the days when they were both Golden Heart Finalists
  • Sandy Curtis talking about scaring off readers with her romantic suspense novels
  • R*BY finalist Bronwyn Parry with her Hachette editor Bernadette Foley, discussing her upcoming book Dark Country
  • The fabulous Brisbane committee who have done a wonderful job

Emerald and R*BY Awards

Saturday night is always the awards dinner, in which Australia’s equivalent to the Golden Heart and RITA – the Emerald and the RuBY respectively – are awarded, along with a number of other awards for contests, and our Lynne Wilding Meritorious Service Award, for volunteers with the association who have truly gone above and beyond. This year belonged to Anne Gracie and Trish Morey – Anne won both the R*BY for Best Single Title romance and the Lynne Wilding, and Trish won the R*BY for Best Category – Sexy and was awarded a lifetime membership. The other R*BY winners included Marion Lennox, for Best Category – Sweet. Marion Lennox has been nominated 21 tims for the R*BY and this is the second time she’s won. If you ever get the chance at RWAmerica (which she attends occasionally) do go up and meet her. She’s one of the most beautiful people. Suzanne Perrazzini finished out the R*BY winners for Best Novel with Romantic Elements, and expressed her surprise and gratitude at being both an e-published author and a winner.

I brought my dad along to the dinner. He came with me to Sydney a couple of years back, and had such a great time that he’s been itching to go back ever since. The positivity and energy in the room is infectious, and he loves being surrounded by intelligent women who are sincerely supportive of each other.

Diabetes-inducing, it may be, but the RWAustralia is always an affirming, inspiring event. Egos and divisive opinions are left at the door, and support and community are the catch-cries for the weekend.

After the dinner, Harlequin was buying, and word on the street is that some authors were up very late. I can certainly tell you that there were a number who didn’t show their faces for the 8:30 sessions on Sunday morning!

Part 2

As I mentioned in my last post, Sunday is a quiet day for the conference, as delegates recover from the festivities the night before. Though I went home after the dinner and therefore managed to get some beauty sleep, even I found it difficult to pull myself out of my warm bed and face the … well, the weather in Brisbane was beautiful all weekend, so it was warm outside the bed too… let’s just say it was hard.

The conference committee were very clever this year, and had spotlights with each of the different publishing companies, agents, and editors simultaneously, instead of one after the other. This meant that writers could actively target the publishers they were interested in, and smaller groups made asking questions and interacting much easier.

Just a sidenote on the agents/publishers/editors: we may very well be looking at an Australian invasion in the next couple of years, if the number of requests for full manuscripts is anything to go by. What a pleasure to watch smiling faces come out of the pitch rooms into a crowd of squee-ing critique partners, friends, or just interested observers. For one reason or another – actually, in my opinion it’s the numbers of books published – many of Australia’s authors are category writers, or at least begin their writing lives as category writers. So though their names might not be familiar to those of us who read mostly single-titles, there exists many a romance rock star in the category world that hails from Australia.

The sessions this morning, apart from the spotlights, included one run by clinical psychologist Dr. John Barletta, who explored ‘f’ words – flight, fight, freeze, and the way our instinctual actions can (and should!) affect our characters and their relationships. There were a fair few ‘outside the box’ sessions at this year’s conference, and I can only hope we get some ‘outside the box’ romances out of them.

Sunday wound down in a leisurely fashion, with author chats, some house-keeping, and, of course, lots of networking (read: chatting) over lunch and afternoon tea. Closing the conference was good (yay sleep!) but disappointing, knowing that I won’t see many of these people again until Sydney next year. Still, it was a fantastic conference, smoothly run, with interesting and informative sessions. Further, it was the first conference to sell out in recent memory – not bad for an association that was teetering on the brink of extinction only 6 years ago!

Thanks to everyone who made my fourth RWAustralia conference so memorable, and best of luck to new president Amy Andrews for the year ahead! See you all in Sydney!