Jilly: RWA Retrospective

Have you made a major step change recently, in your writing, or your work, or any other part of your life, big or small?

Shortly after this post is published, I’ll be packing my bags ready to fly to Orlando for my fifth RWA National conference. I’m really looking forward to it, but I’m also expecting it to be my last, at least for a little while.

Partly it’s the expense. I think the conference itself is excellent value at $500 for three full days of quality workshops, keynotes, pitch sessions, awards and so on. Likewise, hotel costs of just over $100 per night for a shared room is reasonable. The problem is that when I add on a transatlantic airfare, plus an extra night or two for recovery time, plus meals, transfers and other incidentals, I’m looking at a fairly significant investment, and I feel as though I’m now at the point where I could make better use of that kind of money.

If you’d told me four years ago that by July 2017 I’d still be unpublished and unagented, I don’t think I’d have believed you. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that publishing is a long game. I lost most of 2014 due to family emergencies, but apart from that I don’t think I’ve wasted much time. I definitely underestimated how much there was to learn and how long it would take me.

It’s been quite educational to think back to my first RWA, to see how much I’ve learned and how my perspective has changed over the last four years:

Wide-Eyed and Clueless, Atlanta 2013

Four years ago, I knew there was a romance writing community, but I had no idea what it looked like. I knew the other Ladies from our shared classes as McDaniel, but Atlanta was the first time some of us got to meet in person. I didn’t know anyone else. It was inspiring and overwhelming to see more than two thousand writers gathered in one place, including some of the legends of the genre. I was amazed by how accessible they were, and how generous with their knowledge. I didn’t feel like a writer, but I knew I wanted to be one. I didn’t feel part of the community, but I felt welcomed.

After a year of learning from Jenny Crusie and my fellow students at McDaniel, I had some idea of the basics of writing genre fiction. I knew my protagonist from my antagonist; I could tell you about conflicts, turning points and the three-act structure, but it was all still very new to me and I hadn’t fully digested my lessons. When I read the conference schedule, I felt as though I needed to attend every single craft workshop. How to write powerful love scenes, snappy dialogue, vivid description, deeper emotion—I attended as many as I could and bought the recordings so that I could listen to the rest later. I took everything at face value—I didn’t have enough experience to evaluate the information I was given.

I had completed one draft contemporary romance, writing entirely by instinct, but I didn’t know that every writer has to figure out her own process. I had no clue about plotting vs pantsing, outlining, setting daily word goals, or blocking scenes. I didn’t know that some authors write their scenes out of sequence, that some overwrite and have to cut, while others under-write and have to flesh out their work. I had no idea about self-editing, or any kind of editing. In 2013, I probably didn’t pay sufficient attention to workshops that focused on these skills, because I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Four years ago, the industry to me meant traditional publishing. I assumed that this was the path I wanted to follow, but I expected it to be difficult and I was still trying to learn how to write a publishable book, so I didn’t focus on what the market for that book might be or which publishers might be a good fit. I don’t think I attended any editor/publisher-led workshops or publisher insights. I did go to a couple of agent-led workshops because I had the idea that I should focus my efforts on getting an agent and that the agent would be my gateway to the industry.

I didn’t pitch that first year. I’d have had no idea who to choose from the list of editors and agents, and even less clue about how to pitch my story.

I wouldn’t honestly say I enjoyed my first conference. I got a lot out of it, but I was too busy trying to take it all in and make sure I didn’t miss anything to have as much fun as I should have.

That was then. This is my plan for next week:

Older and Wiser, Orlando 2017

I’m not a good networker, so I still don’t have a large community, but four years later I have become good friends with the Ladies and have made a small number of solid writer friendships. I exchange critiques regularly with Jeanne and will share a room with her at the conference. Two years ago Jeanne’s book, which I had the pleasure of critiquing, won a Golden Heart. This year, my London-based writer friend Alice Yu is a GH Finalist, and my WIP, Alexis, is a finalist for the RWA Kiss of Death chapter’s Daphne awards. I feel as though I have a clear idea of who’s who in the romance writing world. I feel like a writer, and even though I’m still not published, I feel as though I belong in the RWA family.

There are always new skills to learn, choices to make, weaknesses to work on, but after receiving four years’ worth of crtitiques and contest feedback I feel as though I have a clearer idea of my strengths and weaknesses, and the characteristics of my core story. I’ve learned that different voices are better suited to different sub-genres. I think my penchant for action scenes, my off-beat imagination, British-sounding voice and eclectic vocabulary are better suited to epic romantic fantasy, so that’s what I’m writing now. I plan to attend some craft workshops in Orlando, but I’ll choose them either because it’s a must-see presenter (Michael Hauge on writing a killer first scene) or because it’s important to my sub-genre (Maria V Snyder on map-making for fantasy authors).

At least now I have one 😉 . I know I’m a pantser, not a plotter, and I write sequentially, which means the story grows in a coherent fashion. I’m slow, but I usually end up with about 90k words of reasonably structured story, and at least I don’t have to face massive rewrites. I like to bounce ideas off a critique partner, once a week if I can (thanks, Jeanne!). Outlines work best for me as an editing tool. I need to revise for place and time, for stronger description, and more specific vocabulary, as well as the usual checklist items. When I’m considering which workshops to attend this year, I’ll be interested to hear about other writers’ processes. I’d like to learn to write faster, and to find new ways to break through when I’m stuck. I’d love to find some new self-editing tips and tricks. I feel confident that I can choose which ideas might suit my process.

After the first year I started to pay attention to the publisher presentations and spotlights. I also started reading industry blogs like Jane Friedman and The Passive Voice and a couple of years ago I became aware of the Author Earnings Report. I gradually got a much clearer picture of the whole landscape and the way Amazon and indie publishing is changing the business, and started to compare the pros and cons of traditional and indie publishing. Given my age, my ambitions for my writing and my personal definition of success, I have decided that I’m more suited to the indie route. That means another steep learning curve, and my workshop choices in Orlando will reflect this. I definitely plan to attend Mark Dawson’s presentation on marketing for authors, and the Amazon publisher spotlight.

Having decided to take the indie route, I have not booked any pitch sessions this year. I am in the market for an editor, though, and am hoping perhaps I’ll make some progress in finding the right one.

This year I intend to make the most of every moment in a very different way. I’m going to enjoy sightseeing and brainstorming with the Ladies. I’m looking forward to the Kiss of Death chapter’s Death By Chocolate party, which precedes the Daphne awards. I’m going to have an author photograph taken, and if they airbrush it enough, I might even buy it. And I’m going to add to my skillset, mindfully and selectively.

What’s on your personal agenda at the moment? Are you wrestling with a new challenge, spinning your wheels, making steady progress or heading for a step change?

2 thoughts on “Jilly: RWA Retrospective

  1. Jilly, I know just what you mean about being unagented and unpublished four years later. At my first RWA conference in New York, when the woman sitting next to me went up to accept her Golden Heart, I optimistically (or rather unrealistically) thought to myself, “next year that will be me.” Ah well, live and learn.

    In my business life, when we work on projects, we eventually reach a go / no-go decision point. Basically, a point where you decide whether it makes sense to continue on with the project or to stop and cut your losses. For me, this RWA Conference is that decision point. I’m hoping that the time spent with the Ladies, the workshops, and the general conference atmosphere will rekindle the passion and help me get to “Go.”

    I just went through the conference schedule and got my choices all set up in the conference app. I’m focusing on some research workshops (that are covering things I have questions on in my current WIPs), some social media workshops (because I want to get more exposure there), and a few workshops that are being presented by either writers, agents, or editors that I am interested in. As always, there are more workshops on my schedule than I can physically attend – unless I figure out how to be in two places at one time – so I’ll be making some decisions on the fly throughout the conference.

    We’ll see how it all goes.

  2. I think you’ve done a great job of combining the hard work of writing with the educational support of conferences and classes. The Daphne nomination is proof-positive that you’ve been walking the walk and getting noticed in the community.

    I hope you and all the ladies who are going have a great time in Orlando, and several “a-ha!” moments each.

    Me, I’m thinking about putting myself through a three-day self-organized summer writing camp, probably consisting of exactly one writer. I’ve going to take a few days off for the summer holidays, so it’s possible. (-: It’s just that it’s summer! There are a million other things that are going on. But I recently stumbled upon a camp itinerary for kids that looks extremely adaptable. I think I’ll talk about it on my post next Saturday.

    I’m quite ready for a revolution.

Let Us Know What You Think

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s