When I attended my first Romantic Times (RT) Convention in Atlanta last year, I was like an innocent farm girl stepping off the Greyhound bus in Hollywood. Eyes shining with hope and possibility, ready to make it big.
But RT 2018? This time was more like I got my luggage stolen at the bus station then slipped on a puddle of vomit. Yeoch. This farm girl got a dose of Big City reality.
I’m being dramatic, it wasn’t nearly so extreme and there were more highs than lows. But it was different than my 2017 experience. Both good and bad. So, I present to you, in no particular order, some stuff about the 2018 RT Convention!
Romance readers and authors, on the whole, are awesome. They are easy to talk to, open minded, supportive, and have great senses of humor. I met some wonderful folks from around the country and got to connect with some local ladies, which was a delight. The thrill of community, of being around other people who like what you like, cannot be understated.
Sarah Wendell, creator of the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog and its podcast, is the undisputed queen of romance related podcasts. She and her team of “smart bitches” review books, interview authors, and discuss all things related to Romancelandia through a deeply feminist (and often silly) lens.
The Smart Bitches crew did a live taping of their podcast at RT and I was stoked to be in the audience. After some general discussion and drinking of wine, they played a game of “Romance Feud,” which is like Family Feud with survey answers gathered from blog readers.
Questions included, “Give me the name of a romance hero that begins with Ch” (#1 answer: Charles), “Name a place in a historical romance where characters have had sex” (#1: carriage), and “Name a type of shifter” (#1: wolf; #3: honey badger. Huh?).
A good time was had by all, and it was a fun example of how unpretentiously self-aware romance fans are. I think there’s a tendency for people to look down their noses at romance readers as naïve and deluded. As if we don’t know how ridiculous and formulaic our beloved genre can be at times. But it’s like saying to a devotee of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, “Oh, that movie is too campy!” Or telling a Bruce Campbell fan, “His acting is so over the top!”
WE KNOW. IT’S PART OF THE FUN.
Mystery fans don’t get ridiculed for “always having to know who the murderer is” and good always triumphs over evil in horror novels. So lay off the romance fans, OK? We like our trysts in the gazebo and our heroes named Chadwick.
Romance Bollywood Style
Speaking of embracing the silly side of romance, one of my favorite sessions of RT was the Romance Bollywood Style reader event. Sponsored by four prominent Indian authors, the audience had to guess what romance trope was being played out in film clips from Bollywood movies. Enemies to lovers? Secret baby? Runaway bride? It was such fun and the goody bags were amazing!
- The billionaire playboy trope has suffered a sharp decline in popularity (*cough, TRUMP, cough*) while gruff bikers (with hearts of gold!) are experiencing a surge. Khloe Wren and Kristen Ashley are your go-to gals for this trope.
- There were also far more men attending at this convention than in Atlanta. Many male attendees were over the age of 70. I have no explanation why.
- After 35 years Romantic Times founder, Kathryn Falk is closing the RT website and convention to focus on her other passion — the cannabis industry!
- There’s a new (to me) romance trope on the scene! Reverse Harem. Imagine a single, ordinary girl who has 3+ besotted hunks all vying for her affection. One’s sweet, one’s sassy, and one’s spunky! Who will she choose? Or will she settle for just one…
Here are two examples of the many, many instances where conflicting advice was dispensed.
- “You have to have an agent if you ever want to be published. Publishers won’t read anything that’s not submitted by an agent.” – Wednesday workshop panelist
- “No one needs an agent. Why pay someone when you can do it all yourself?” – Thursday workshop panelist
- “Don’t put dialogue in sex scenes. It’s cheesy and unrealistic.” – Erotica author #1
- “Sex scenes must have dialogue to be authentic.” –Erotica author #2
Who to believe? All this contradictory advice was frustrating, but it reinforced that I need to follow my own instincts.
Here’s another, more personal example of Confusing Stuff. I attended the writer’s bootcamp again and there was a special session on creating a pitch. Basically, a pitch means distilling an entire book into one compelling sentence that can be used to sell a book to publishers. And that one sentence needs to show the protagonist in a context, explain the conflict, identify the goal, and suggest stakes. It’s hard. Really hard.
After much head scratching and pen nibbling, here’s what I came up with:
I didn’t feel very confident about it. It seemed too wordy and didn’t touch on all the other elements of the story that I thought were important. But it was a start. And when the workshop instructor asked for volunteers to share, I nervously read it out. His response? Throwing up his hands while saying “Nailed it!”
OMG! REALLY? WOO HOO!
I was flying high! So then the next night during one of the social events when a prominent publisher displayed a sign that read, “Pitch to Us! Ask Us Questions!” I decided to take my shiny new pitch out for a spin. I pulled up my big girl panties, approached the booth, recited my pitch from memory, then sat back to wait for the applause.
Their response? A slightly perplexed, “Hmm. OK.”
They gave me a little bit of advice, but mostly I felt as if I most certainly did not nail it. To be fair, I had already made it clear that I wasn’t finished with my manuscript so it wasn’t like they were going to offer me a contract on the spot. And although they were very nice, I walked away feeling silly and dumb.
The good news for an aspiring romance author: there is a huge market for romance. Readers are voracious and publishers know the genre means $$$!
The bad news for an aspiring romance author: there is a huge market for romance. Good luck standing out among the thousands of established authors with loyal fan bases. Or doing anything that’s fresh and original.
Although I’ve had plenty of “what the hell am I doing?” moments related to my new life as a writer, that anxiety felt especially sharp at RT. There are just SO many people doing the same thing I want to do. Ones with so much more interesting ideas, marketing concepts, and plans for future books than I have. People with full time jobs, kids, and lots of responsibilities who still manage to crank out 6 books a year.
And even though I can sometimes divert a stroll down Pity Party Lane with a pep talk like, “If there’s so many authors out there, why not one more?” it just didn’t ring true during this trip. Perserverance ain’t easy.
Dark Romance is… Dark
One thing I love about romance is that there’s something for everyone. The fantasies of readers are treated with dignity and respect. Are you into hunky gay firefighters? Read Hot Head by Damon Suede. Prefer your supernatural romance to lean more to sweet than steamy? The Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs has got you covered.
I have a weakness for misunderstood monsters and bad guys. So when I read the description for a workshop on “Dark Romance” my little villain-loving heart skipped a beat.
So imagine my surprise when the authors on the panel explained that Dark Romance was not about couples with skewed power dynamics like Sarah and Jareth from Labyrinth.
Dark romance is code for rape fantasies.
So. This is a thing.
I was trying VERY, VERY hard to not be judgmental but after years of working with sexual assault service providers, terms like “no con” and “dub con” (no consent and dubious consent) used to describe plotlines didn’t sit well with me.
The authors were quick to defend their work as feminist (the reader gives consent by choosing to read about their forbidden fantasy) and offered anecdotes about sexual assault survivors who used their books to heal. But it still felt very icky to me, which the authors said was normal.
And so, in an attempt to not judge a book by its rapey content, I bought one of the panelist’s books. And I can say with 100% certainty that the hero rapes the heroine. They are both drunk and it happens after some consensual making out, but it’s rape. The heroine says no repeatedly and acknowledges it as rape after the fact. There are no blurred lines.
But… although I was fully prepared to hate the book, I didn’t. There is a hero with power and control issues that changes and grows. There is a heroine that comes into herself and finds her power. The book never implies that rape is OK or romantic. There is a happily ever after.
I know. I can feel you cringing, dear reader, but this is my truth.
I don’t want to spend a whole post on this topic so I’ll just say it left me feeling complicated. And I like my romance to leave me feeling hopeful and satisfied, so I probably won’t read another one. If you are curious about how this is a thing that rational people enjoy, please read one and tell me what you think. I’d love to process it with someone.
Let’s step away from the dark side for a moment and embrace the light, shall we? Folks in the writing world talk a lot about “plotters” and “pantsers.” A plotter is a writer who outlines and plots out every little detail before sitting down to write their story. A pantser, as the name suggests, flies by the seat of their pants. They don’t know where the story is going until they start writing. It unfolds along the way.
I have always felt like a hybrid of both — a plotser? I know a bit about where I’m going with my story but some of it doesn’t come out until I’m writing. So when a workshop panelist shared this quote by George R.R. Martin, it really resonated with me.
In my personal life I’m definitely an architect. But my writing self? Team Gardener. I’ve planted my seed, I’m watering it, but I really don’t know what it’s going to turn out to be. And that has bugged me for a while, but now I’m starting to feel better about it.
THE SECRET TO BEING A WRITER!
I will close out this post with a quote I wrote down by celebrated author and RT Bootcamp instructor, Damon Suede.
“Do you want to know the secret to being a writer? Ass glue. Getting your butt in the seat, keeping it there, and writing. That’s it.”
He’s right. Sometimes I have a tendency to look outside myself for the answer to all of my problems. I think that the right book, writing class, or fancy writing conference will be the spark that changes everything. The inspiration, the push, the ANSWER. And in some ways the 2017 RT was that.
But now that I’ve done the hard part of making the dive into the deep end of writing life, I have to remind myself to keep swimming. Keep putting in the work each day, even when it feels sluggish and pointless. It’s not easy, but it was helpful to have the slow and steady approach reinforced.
When I was complaining to another Bootcamp instructor about how confused and overwhelmed I felt she gave me this advice, “Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing. Just focus on writing the best book you can.”
So that’s what I’m doing. Putting down some ass glue and writing the best book I can.
RT 2018 was a mix of highs and lows. But at the end of each day I got to admire these thighs as they stared up at me from a floor graphic on the path to my hotel room. And now I want to share them with you.