first published at All About Romance (www.allaboutromance.com)
26 August 2008
This year’s Romance Writers of Australia conference was held over the past weekend in Australia’s cultural capital, Melbourne (Sydney-siders will probably disagree, but we Melbournites know better). The beautiful Langham hotel played host to writers, presenters, and industry professionals over 3 days, all dedicated to the craft of creating memorable love stories.
Though there are professional workshops through the day on Friday, the conference only truly gets going on Friday night with the annual themed cocktail party. This year the theme was ‘An Enchanted Century’ and celebrated the hundred years that have passed since Charles Boon met Gerald Mills and formed a little eponymous publishing house. Fantastical creatures abounded, though fairies seemed to be the flavour of the day.
I went as the Goddess of Spring, in a green dress and a coronet of leaves and vines, but was asked by one author (who I think had been enjoying the champagne) if I was a tree. Errr….no. Luckily, the Wicked Witch of the West arrived just then, and there were no recognition problems there.
While some authors decline to dress up, due to time and luggage constraints, Anne Gracie always comes adorned in an amazing headdress. This year, to celebrate the theme, she had a wizard’s hat, complete with fluffy boas, and flowing wizard robes. I understand she wasn’t originally so attired, but stole the boas from Queensland University of Technology professor and romance scholar Glen Thomas, who had to make do with a genie’s turban for the rest of the night. Said turban made occasional appearances through the rest of the conference, not only as headwear, but a tasteful and versatile bracelet as well.
Marion Lennox was tall and graceful as a medieval maiden (possibly Rapunzel, I didn’t get a chance to ask), and special guest author Jo Beverley inspired as one of the Muses. The few who arrived as vampires deserve special mention – rather than a mere black outfit with some fangs, these girls went all out with jewellery, makeup, and twists on the traditional depictions.
My favourite costume, and I have to admit to a personal bias here because they come from HEART, my readers’ group here in Melbourne, were the three ladies who came dressed up as Happily, Ever, and After. With paper-maché crowns and wings made from old category titles, complete with full-colour clinch covers, they were truly the most innovative costumes of the night.
Also seen sipping champagne and catching up with old friends: double RITA finalist Anna Campbell, former Golden Heart winners Christine Wells and Bronwyn Parry (whose first book As Darkness Falls comes out next week), RITA finalist Kelly Hunter, Medical Mills&Boon author Amy Andrews, Valerie Parv, Fiona MacArthur (dressed as Princess Fiona from Shrek), and perennial favourite Stephanie Laurens.
The night ended relatively early for most of us, as the conference truly gets started on Saturday – early.
Saturday morning dawned bright and way too early for those of us who celebrated the start of another conference at the Cocktail party on Friday night. Luckily, however, it started with a breakfast buffet and some fantastic news for a local author.
Tracey O’Hara is a familiar face at Australian conferences, and she finalled in the Golden Heart contest at the RWAmerica this year. Though she didn’t win, her agent called on Saturday morning to let her know that she’d sold to Avon in a three-book deal for her dark fantasy novels. Watch for the first in September 2009.
The morning officially started with an opening address from exiting-president Anne Gracie and the keynote address of guest author Barbara Samuels. Her address, titled ‘What do you believe?’ offered advice, memories, humor and inspiration, and was a very personal and moving speech. One thing stood out for me, however, from the many points that Barbara made – and I think it stood out for others as well. At one point, Barbara stated (I’m paraphrasing here): “At conferences like these, you may be disheartened as people bombard you with the realities of publishing, how hard it is, the long road, and the low chance of success”. Every author around me immediately started shaking their heads.
I don’t have any experience with the RWAmerica conference, apart from the reports like AAR’s that I read on the Internet, but I think the Aus conference has a much different vibe. For one thing, published authors aren’t separated from unpublished, nor are unpublished authors dissuaded from running tutorials or seminars. If someone has a talent, the RWAus wants to hear about it. I’ve attended three conferences and I have never heard anything less than completely positive and uplifting support for unpublished authors – for anyone. It’s part of the reason why I love attending these conferences so much – the aura of almost diabetes-inducing positivity and pride in each other’s accomplishments and in Australia’s successes. I’m going to lay it down to the size of the conference, and the constant battle for recognition – there is no publisher in Australia that publishes romance fiction. When fighting a battle like that, why fight internal ones as well? The entire conference, from the opening welcome – when Anne Gracie announces the names of those who made their first sale this year – to the awards dinner on Saturday night, is about celebration. Barbara Samuels and other authors may have had to deal with negativity in the past from fellow authors or conference attendees, but I would very much doubt that anyone attending the Oz conferences could say the same.
Morning tea – not necessarily noteworthy, but I really have to throw a compliment in the direction of the Langham Hotel here in Melbourne. The food for the whole conference was fantastic. Mmm…raspberry muffins….
There are four sets of tutorials over the course of the weekend. Normally, I pop in and out of them quickly, then wander into the lobby to see who else is playing hookie and if they want to talk books (it’s a conference – everyone wants to talk books). I started in Anna Campbell’s Deep Point of View talk, then was completely sucked into a panel discussion titled ‘Make Mine Hot’. Featuring Stephanie Laurens, Keri Arthur, HM&B author Carol Marinelli, Black Lace author Cathleen Ross, and moderated by Lilian Darcy the panel focused on love scenes from four very different perspectives. Sex, especially when dealing in romance novels, tends to get attention, and these women were completely frank, brave, and open about their writing, their opinions, and how writing hot books has affected their lives. Stephanie was adamant about writing to your comfort level, while Cathleen preferred to push her own boundaries, see what she could do with situations she was unfamiliar with.
The panel was also universally united that, if the scene makes you feel uncomfortable and odd, then it will read uncomfortable and odd. This doesn’t have to apply to kinks or, indeed, any sexual acts. Carol Marinelli talked about a scene in her current Work in Progress where her main couple had an intimate scene on the beach. She as the author fretted and fussed about the sand – and where it might end up. In the end, it didn’t work, because, if Carol couldn’t stop thinking about the sand, she just knew her readers were going to have the same problem. The fantasy wasn’t enough to overcome the (decidedly painful) reality.
The porn versus romance debate was brought up as well, with Stephanie sharing her (rather scientific, as befitting her background) method for proving to herself that romance is not porn. Years ago, she went out and bought 20 pornographic books, (I can’t remember how many now but around the same number of) Erotic books, and … well, she didn’t need to buy romance. She found that, in terms of emotional contact, porn brought up negative emotions, erotica was emotion-neutral, while romance required the presence of positive emotions.
They also talked about the way their sex scenes have affected their lives. Carol shared some personal stories, including the fact that her mom won’t read her books, and how she felt about that. Keri has had reverends send her pages from the Bible letting her know that her soul can still be saved. Cathleen would never have published under anything but a pseudonym. Only Stephanie seemed to have entirely positive experiences from those around her.
There were definitely light moments too – Marion Lennox’s daughter shared a story about how, on seeing her two growing daughters, Marion decided to start inserting (pardon the pun) the use of condoms into her sex scenes. Stephanie Laurens talked about how she used to be one of the hottest writers in romance, but recently got a ‘mild’ rating from Romantic Times magazine. And the above-mentioned sand discussion got a lot of laughs. I think there’s something about being Australian – it’s just something that everyone has thought about at one time or another. Sure Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr can make it look sexy, but would you want sand…well….there?
As I mentioned, sometimes playing hookie from the tutorials can be the best part of the conference. The love scenes tutorial in the morning was the exception that proves the rule, but during Saturday afternoon, I still found myself on a comfortable couch, with a book in case no one came along (His Captive Lady by Anne Gracie, in case you’re interested) and a cup of tea (ginger lemon, also in case you’re interested ). Luckily – or unluckily, depending on how you look at it – someone did come along. She’s asked to remain anonymous, for reasons I’ll disclose a little later.
We had a lovely conversation about healing in romance novels. This has actually come up a few times for me in the last little while – how forgiveness can be given, but healing still requires time. And how, even if characters can get over major obstacles, there are still ramifications – and they can have life long effects. The happy-ever-after ending can take time, and authors shouldn’t be afraid to take that time.
Then we started talking about love scenes and – here’s the reason for anonymity – she confessed that occasionally while conducting ‘research’ with her husband – and only very occasionally, she hastened to add – she thinks up synonyms for the actions and emotions that she might use if she were writing the scene instead of participating.
On rejoining the attendees for afternoon tea, I was completely surrounded by writers singing the praises of Margie Lawson . For tips and tricks on self-editing, apparently, there is no one better. One attendee declared the session the best one she’d ever attended. I popped over to Margie’s website and looked up some of her techniques, and aspiring writers take note. It’s some truly fascinating stuff.
We piled back into the main conference room for Stephanie Lauren’s plenary session entitled Read Romance or Perish, a modified version of a speech she gave at the RWA. Think it sounds dramatic? It is. It’s also breath-taking. Stephanie has a background as a scientist and she uses her biological studies to cement the importance of romance novels in today’s societies. She’s asked that we not post her speech in its entirety, but it’s available here on her website. Go, read, be inspired. I’ll be here when you get back.
Heady stuff, huh?
Jo Beverley was up next – and she didn’t disappoint. Talking music and mating dances, she too delivered a talk with a scientific bent – specifically voles. Yep. Rodents. Some of which mate for life. Jo has a fantastic speaking style – all that dry English humour comes out and builds on itself to the point of uncontrollable giggling.
Oh, and cocaine. Did I mention the cocaine? Being in love, physiologically speaking, is not that different from being on cocaine. Love really is a drug.
Last session of the day: the AGM where Anne Gracie handed over the presidential crown after two very successful years to the lovely Kelly Hunter.
Home to get changed for the dinner! Another piece of Kate-trivia: I bought a new dress and spent way too much money on it. But it was beautiful. Also the name of the dress was Kate. Who am I to ignore serendipity like that?
I absolutely adore the awards dinner – everyone looks fantastic, they’re all in great moods, there’s a level of anticipation in the air. I was up for the ROMA but, as I won last year, was not expecting to win this year, so I was able to relax and have a good time. (I didn’t win, by the way – Martin King from A Current Affair won for his interview with Ally Blake).
Looking for an Australian romance? Direct from the Romance Writers of Australia: the finalists and winner of this year’s Romantic Book of the Year (the R*BY):
RWA is delighted to announce the winners for the 2008 Romantic Book of the Year (R*BY) Award:
|Winner: Long||Duet||Kimberley Freeman|
|Winner: Short||One Night Before Marriage||Anne Oliver|
Sunday is always a quiet day at the conference, as the celebrating after the awards dinner often goes to the wee hours of the morning. Those of us who dragged our tired little selves out of bed, though, were treated to a lovely morning plenary speech.
Though she was the talk of the conference, Sunday morning was the first time I had the chance to hear Margie Lawson speak. It was worth the wait. Titled Here be Monsters – Writers Beware, her speech conveyed a very personal message including what she referred to as “her life glitch” – a horrifying experience she recounted with grace and humor that provided inspiration and a message of hope. She also presented the RWA with a dancing teddy bear – a reminder to have fun.
The Harlequin Mills&Boon presentation directly afterwards offered a century of covers, and, I must say, though we complain about the covers now, we have come a long way, baby. The 70s were truly terrifying.
A couple of tutorial sessions later, that I spent browsing the book selection provided by the lovely people at Dymocks Melbourne, lunch, tutorials again (in conversation with some lovely as-yet-unpublished writers who sang each other’s praises and offered a humorous portrayal of the path to publication) and then it was close of conference, with five of the stars of the show: a plenary session entitled Keeping the Magic in our Writing Alive with Anne Gracie , Jo Beverley , Marion Lennox, Stephanie Laurens , and Barbara Samuel. The subject matter was no doubt important and useful to the writers in the room, but it was a pleasure watching these writers interact with each other.
Finally, Amy Andrews presented the details of next year’s conference, to be held in Brisbane, and Anne Gracie, in her last act as president, closed the conference.
Thanks to everyone who stopped by to chat, offer some gossip, tell me their news, and generally make my conference so terribly much fun! Looking forward to seeing everyone next year in the Sunshine State.
Just before I go, this month I also launched my latest project: The Australian Romance Reader. Designed, basically, because I wanted something like it, the Australian Romance Reader is designed to be the go-to resource for readers in Australia. It will list events, book releases, author information, past columns from my romance column in the Brisbane Courier-Mail and more. If you get a chance – especially if you’re in Australia – take a look!