Hot Time: Summer in the City

Report from the 1999 RWA National Conference

In the midst of the worst heat wave of the year, when the humidity approached 80%, and the temperatures topped the 100 degree mark, 1750 members of Romance Writers of America converged on the Sheraton Towers Hotel in Chicago for their annual conference.

Wednesday, July 28:
I arrived at the hotel late on Wednesday afternoon. The cab ride from the airport had been short, but the heat was oppressive. The first thing that met my eyes when I entered the elegant lobby was the lengthy line for registration. However, before my heart had a chance to sink, hotel employees were offering me a cooling cup of lemonade. This was my first taste of the hotel's excellent service, and it was very welcome, indeed. I later learned that President Clinton stays at this hotel whenever he visits Chicago. It will be my choice for return trips as well.

The line moved quickly, and soon I was in my room overlooking the river. But not for long, because I could feel the vibrations of hundreds of writers in the building. As soon as I'd deposited my bags, I rushed back downstairs to register for the Conference. Soon I was checked in, proudly wearing my name tag and rustling through my conference materials. A booklet listed all of the events for the weekend, including descriptions of all of the workshops and maps of the locations for conference events. I spent a bit of time planning the workshops I would attend. Every registrant also received book containing copies of the handouts for all the workshops - this is a nice time saver. Also included were a ticket to the gala on Saturday, confirmation of my editor appointment for Friday morning, and a reminder of that I was a speaker for a program Friday evening. As though I needed reminding of that!

Wednesday evening is set aside for the Literacy Signing. This is a tremendous event every year, and this year's literacy signing was the best ever. When I entered the ballroom, I was met with row after row of tables. Sitting at the tables were some 300 romance authors, arranged in alphabetical order. And stacked in front of these authors were their books, often not just the latest but their backlists as well, all donated by their publishers. I wandered through the rows, waving hello to friends, meeting writers I had previously met only on-line, and gathering the courage to approach my own very favorites. Huge crowds of romance readers and romance writers (there is a lot of overlap there!) filled the room, desperately trying to choose which books to purchase and have signed. Nora Roberts, Catherine Coulter, Debbie Macomber - these highest of the high had long lines of adoring fans waiting for that autographed copy, and stayed as long as their books held out. There were some early sellouts - Deb Stover and Anne Stuart, for example, had all their books snapped up pretty quickly.

As if this excitement were not enough, there were raffles for huge baskets donated by the local chapters of RWA. Contents of the baskets varied with the imagination of the members of the chapters, but there was one commonality. Books!

Proceeds of all books purchased at the literacy signing, as well as the from the sale of the raffle tickets, are donated every year to literacy programs. This year's grand total? More than $45,000!

Thursday, July 29:
The conference begins in earnest on Thursday, with the first of the workshops.

But first I attended an unofficial event known as the Pink Ribbon Breakfast. This was started a few years ago by Bonnie Tucker (my favorite Duets writer!) the year she had one of those pink "First Sale" ribbons. Since 1996, she has organized a breakfast for those who have made their first romance novel sale to meet each other. I didn't have one of those ribbons, but Bonnie invited me anyway to celebrate my nonfiction book sale.

This was a great opportunity for me to scope out some of the trends in romance sale. Judging by the number of these pink beribboned ladies who sold romantic comedies, we can look forward to lots of laughs with our romance. Look forward to the following romps coming out soon:

There were many more first sales - every genre was represented, historical, paranormal, long and short contemporary, Christian inspirational, western - you name it, somebody's publishing it!

Another trend that I'm sure will be getting bigger and bigger is epublishing. These are books that are published in some sort of electronic media - some are diskette in one format or another; some are CD-roms. Many will work with the electronic readers you may have heard about in Time or Newsweek - the cool ones that look like the computerized clip boards in Star Trek. There is a lot of variety of titles available now. In addition to those noted above, some of the first sales in that exciting genre are:

I wasn't quite ready to get down to business after that big breakfast, so I went to check out the goody room. The goody room is a location where writers may promote their books. Some will offer free copies, others bookmarks or other attention getting items.

Last year, I was thrilled to score five or so books out of the goody room. This year, I hit the mother load. There was box after box after box of books. I filled a whole box of books of virtually every genre, representing just about every publisher

Now, I don't want you to think I am a terrible greedy person. I did bring home a lot of books - I had to ship two boxes! But, I have already sorted them out, and I will be donating 54 books to my local chapter, Heart of Denver, for its fundraising efforts.

Then it was time for a workshops. I attends a marvelous workshop given by Cheryl Anne Porter, who explained how she lets her characters write her stories for her. Cheryl has an acting background, and she acts out the scenes from her books to make sure the characters make sense and sound true. This was a truly wonderful experience. She chose people from the audience to be characters in scenes she had written, and it soon became apparent that RWA is filled with talented actors as it is with writers.

Then it was time for lunch. The keynote speaker was Catherine Coulter.

Catherine Coulter has been one of my favorites for years - I remember enjoying her Regency Romances, and when she stared writing regency set historicals, I started reading them. So like everyone else, I was quite pleased to discover a copy of her latest book, a contemporary, The Edge, on my chair.

Following lunch of salad and a chicken sandwich on focaicia, and a yummy fruit tart, Catherine spoke about the four things need to sell a romance novel: a great story, raw talent, luck and discipline. Her speech was very witty, but also very motivating. I know that I, normally a very slow writer, have written five pages every day since I came home from Chicago, and it is her speech that made me resolve to do so. Thank you, Catharine!

Following lunch it was time for regional meetings, and then the Annual General Meeting. This was not a well attended gathering - perhaps because most members are happy with the way things are? One item of note, however, were the discussion of the status of members who have published in electronic media. This is an ongoing discussion, and as the epublishing world expands, policies are likely change. For now, any member who has published a novel-length romance with an epub and has sold 500 copies is entitled to provisional PAN (Published Author Network) status; selling 1500 copies entitles the member to full PAN status. Any member who has published a novel length romance with an epub who has sold 5000 copies of any romance is also entitled to full PAN status.

Another outcome is the addition of new categories for the RITA awards. Next year, novellas and epublished books will be eligible!

A cocktail party was scheduled for Thursday evening, but I had time to join my family for a brief shopping trip. Because this year's conference was so well attended - a sell out, in fact - there wasn't enough room at the inn. As a result, many conference attendees stayed at the Marriott down the road aways. Because of this, and because this year's book fair was outside the hotel, in a local Borders, RWA provided a shuttle to connect the Sheraton, the Marriott, and Borders. A happy coincidence was the fact the Borders is located across from Chicago's famous Water Tower shopping mall. We took advantage of this shuttle, and had a fine time looking through Marshall Field and various specialty shops.

We also took the opportunity to view a charming outdoor art exhibit, Cows on Parade. These were a series of lifesize cow statues, painted and otherwise decorated in witty fashion. These are located along the famous Miracle Mile shopping district, and they also popped up in other places - on the prow of one of the cruise boats touring the river, on the side of a building, and other unexpected places. At summer's end, the cows will be auctioned for the benefit of charity.

Once back at the hotel, I quickly changed for the cocktail party - actually a Victorian Tea. Many writers showed up in period costume. There were a gorgeous set of twins in full royal medieval regalia! I also caught up with some of my Regency friends. Regina Scott was there, demure in pink. Sherri Cobb South had a lovely lace overdress, worn over satin. And Dee Hendricks floated by in an elegant gown.

There were several in Victorian bustles and a few from periods I couldn't identify, other than to say, beautiful!

I finally fell into bed, exhausted.

Friday, July 30:
This was my busiest conference day.

It started with a continental breakfast. Bagels, croissant, muffins and fruit, as well as juice, tea and coffee. While munching on the goodies, I took advantage of the opportunity to meet fellow writers from all over the country. It is an interesting experience to be in room full of hundreds of friend you have met yet. But that is the way conference feels. See an empty chair? Have a sit and chat with the others at the table. Let me tell you, I have never had that sort of welcome from other lawyers!

After breakfast, workshop time. One choice I didn't make, but rather later wished I had was the two hour "Character and Story" workshop with Robert McKee. Attendees later raved about his presentation, so he went onto my "buy the tape" list.

On the other hand, if I had gone to that workshop, I'd have missed Cathy Maxwell's terrific presentation on "Strong men, Stronger Women." Cathy talked about how to create vivid characters that stay with the readers. It was a great program, with lots of advice I hope I can apply.

That is the one thing that will drive you nuts at a conference. The choices! For just this 9:00 am time slot, there an even dozen workshops to choose from. Two of the workshops were spotlights - these are presentations by editors from specific publishers. Every spotlight is a bit different, but the idea is to explain what the editors are seeking in stories, what lines are open or opening, and so forth. Virtually every major romance publisher had a spotlight scheduled at some time during the conference.

The workshops are also keyed to different tracks. The workshops directly geared to craft were mostly labeled - basic or intermediate. Marketing workshops - marketing your book and also selling that book to an editor, tended to be Pan or Pan Recommended. Info about publishers were on the "Publishing" track while "genre" related to, of course, specific genres within romance. Then there were lots of 'Extras'. I never did figure out the criteria to get into that category!

The next workshops were scheduled for 10:30, but I had an editor's appointment at the same time. This would be the time when Jennifer Crusie, one of my favorite authors, was scheduled to speak.

But, I enjoyed meeting Malle Valik, senior editor for Harlequin very much. She is moving on to Harlequin's new Internet division soon, and no, she didn't tell exactly what that will be. I asked, and she said her job will be creative! She asked me to submit one of my manuscripts, so I walked away feeling pretty good! (That request is what the unpublished come for!)

And then I caught the rest of Jennifer Crusie's talk. She is so funny! Her workshop was on "Great Beginnings." I can't swear her workshop started off great, but the finish was well worthwhile.

Next up, lunch! It is really amazing to even think that 1750 people could fit into this ballroom, but we did it over and over again. Today's lunch was a vegetarian lasagna, followed by some kind of chocolate expresso(?) crème cake. We all waddled out of there. I managed to squeeze in an all too brief nap before the afternoon workshops.

In the afternoon, I settled down for some serious work. Choices here included headliners like Judith Ivory, Kathleen Eagle, and Jo Beverley. There was also a coroner to discuss the tales dead men can tell; an agent to discuss crucial contract issues, and much more.

And then there was the next hour. I gleefully went to "Madam X Answers All. This was a question and aswer session, with some of the wildest women who write romance answering the questions: Anne Stuart, Cathy Maxwell, Jean Brashear, Susan King, Donna Kauffman, and Eileen Charbonneau. (I could have sworn Linda Howard was there, but my program says otherwise. Maybe I was hallucinating!) With hair done by Frederick's of Hollywood, they threw Smarties for good questions, sour balls, or worse, assorted boobie prizes for "bad" questions, and chocolate at random. I don't know if this was the most informative workshop - after all, there were some "bad" questions, but it was certainly up there in the enjoyment department.

Next, I had to choose between workshops on creativity, conflict, voice, promotion, themes - oh, this hour was jam packed with goodies. So I flitted from one to the next, trying to somehow absorb it all!

Another type of workshop are the chats. This is an opportunity to ask questions of some really big name authors. This year, chats were offered with Julie Garwood, Linda Howard, Anne Stuart, and Nora Roberts. Fans, this is your chance to really get to know these talented ladies. Writers, this is your chance to get the scoop on the hard work it takes to get to the top.

Time for dinner with husband and daughter. The food in the hotel's restaurant, Streeterville, was excellent. Pricey, but excellent.

But the time was fast approaching for the moment of truth for me, and my partners Caro LaFever and Sue Viders.

Friday night has traditionally been the time set aside for publishers to party with their authors. So until this year, no official events were scheduled for Friday evening. But this year, RWA decided to try out having workshops in the evening. And so at 7:30, my partners and I presented out workshop entitled "Beyond Alpha: the Eight Hero Archetypes". I confess, I feared we would have only our loyal friends sitting in the audience, all lined up in the first row. But we determined to make the best of it, whatever happened.

Since we had all three been doing our own thing, we arranged to meet at 7:00 in our room - a room that could hold 155 people! How empty we feared it would be.

But then, by the time we had all arrived in the room, we already had six or seven people in there, making sure they could get seats. When 7:30 arrived, we were thrilled to see the seats completely filled, with more coming in. Our wonderfully talented moderator, Elaine Smith, guesstimated the crowd at 175 people.

It seemed to go well. Despite the time, we were blessed with a bright, responsive audience.

But now we were exhausted and had to present a second workshop, "Beyond Cinderella: the Eight Heroine Archetypes". Some people left, more came in, and we had another large crowd for that one. Again, we had the joy of seeing nodding headings and thoughtful questions. But, oh, we were tired at the end of that hour!

The three us, with our friend Karin Story Dearborn (who was asked to submit no less than three manuscripts at conference!) lazed in our chairs in the lounge for a bit and relaxed before dragging ourselves to bed.

I heard great things about a few other workshops, too. Karin (no, she didn't stay for ours, because she has seen it before) raved about the Creative Meditation workshop offered by Reiki Maser Edna Frankel. And the songfest, filled with writing based parodies of popular songs would have been my choice if I hadn't been otherwise engaged.

Saturday, July 31:
Saturday dawned bright and clear, and with some let up in the heat.

Once again, there was a continental breakfast outside the ballroom before workshops started. The morning's line-up included dozens of fun topics, but the highlight of the day came at lunch. Delicious salad and bread again accompanied the meal, this time smoked chicken with pasta. I confess, the margarita mousse did not thrill me, but hey, I am a chocolate fan.

But who cares about green desserts anyway, when author Barbara Keilor, who has written dozens of books for Harlequin, is the speaker. Her speech was truly uproariously funny. I absolutely loved it when she read from a small town newspaper police report. It went something like this:

"A woman called police to report a strange man in her bedroom. The woman later realized it was her husband."

Like Barbara said, there is story there somewhere.

One of the secrets of the conference (that I learned this year, not last year), is watching the bulletin board. I learned about a few book signings that way. Avon books offered a signing, with free copies of books, books, books! And a few hours later, Dell did the same. Drinks were served along with light refreshments. As though the books alone weren't worth wait the wait in line.

I also scored a copy of Elizabeth Bevarly's (are you noticing that I like funny writers?!) That Boss of Mine from Harlequin/silhouette's hospitality suite.

On Friday afternoon, finally the workshop I had been waiting for - "Writing Comedy: Getting the Full Monty", presented by Bonnie Tucker and Brenda Chin. Bonnie writes for Harlequin's Duets line, and Brenda is her editor. I was hostessing this event, which means I poured water, helped find seats for latecomers, and passed out and collected evaluation cards.

Those evaluation cards are pretty important, by the way. This is the way RWA can gauge the popularity and usefulness of the workshops. The cards not only ask for the participant's opinion of that workshop, but also ask for others they might like on related or similar topics. Those evaluation cards are collected and tabulated, and the results considered when planning the next conference.

Anyway, since I was working there, I ended up giving up my seat, because this was one of the SRO slots. Yep, in a room that held 155, we were shy of seats, and people lined the back walls. Using examples from Alfred Hitchcock, Bonnie showed how humor can increase suspense and keep readers turning the page. Then Brenda talked about what she'd like to see in submissions to the Duets line. (Out there, off-the-wall stuff is good!).

But as I collected the last cards, though, I breathed a sigh of relief. work was over. There was nothing left for me to do except have a good time!

So husband, daughter and I went to Chinatown for dinner!

But we came back, and then it was time for the event that many a purple ribboned attendee had been waiting for - the gala awards ceremony for the RITA's and the Golden Hearts.

Okay. You may have heard there were some technical difficulties here. A slide show presentation with movie clips and the pictures of the finalists was planned. The story I heard is that a techie spilled a glass of water into the equipment just before the show began. That led to a late start, but soon enough, the special event was underway.

But no technical screwups could possibly mar the magic of this evening in which romance writers are recognized by their peers! Mistress of Ceremonies Deb Stover remained calm, cool and collected the whole time. The winners didn't always stay calm, but those were happy tears. And the winners are: 1999 RITA Winners: (for published authors)

Rosalyn Alsobrook received the Lifetime Achievement award.

1999 Golden Heart Winners: (for unpublished authors)

  • Belinda Bass
  • Barbara Dunlop
  • Ann R. Schuessler
  • Kathleen Grace Holzapfel
  • Linda D. Castillo
  • Virginia R. Farmer
  • Stephanie A. Gillenberg
  • Carolien Julie Fyffe
  • Grace Ann Kone
  • Shannon Donnelly

After that excitement, it was on to the ballroom for a dessert buffet. Variety was the key here - There was a bit of everything (including a few appetizers disguised as desserts!) Cameras flashed the evening through, and the lights shone off everyone's glitzy sequined best! You may think of writers as the sort who toil at their computers wearing sweats and T-shirts, but let me tell you, these ladies clean up nice!

Eventually, exhaustion took over. The laughter faded, the voices grew silent, the crowd retired to bed, and the lights were turned down. As the gala ended, so ended the 1999 RWA National Conference.

(And for those who didn't have a ticket to the gala, like say my husband and daughter, the fireworks display over Lake Michigan was truly astounding.)

On Sunday, goodbyes were said, bags were packed, boxes of books were shipped!, and planes were caught. Now all are home again, reading those books, writing away, waiting for next year.

Tami Cowden

Link to Tami's articles and reviews following this article on hero archetypes