Romancing the Author

Picture1Eight years ago, after I’d finished my first novel, I didn’t know I was a romance writer. All I knew was that I had finished my first manuscript, and could finally call myself a novelist. Unfortunately not a published one, but I hoped to remedy that by attending my very first writing conference. It promised three days of workshops and networking opportunities with top New York agents and editors.

Held at an airport hotel in a city half a day’s drive from me, the conference accommodated around six hundred attendees. Overwhelmed and anxious, I picked workshops at random because each blurb promised that workshop to be the one that would forever change my writing career. The instructors delivered their lectures with absolute authority and discouraged questions, either by declaring the session short on time, or by answering the first question with such disdain that nobody else dared raising their hand.

By the time my first pitch appointment rolled around, I was a tense bundle of nerves. In addition to the ego-deflating workshops, I had just sat through lunch in a huge cavernous ballroom where the multi-published keynote spoke eloquently about how amazing he was to sell well in the current impossible market. My table companions asked each other whether they were published, and if so, by whom. Another unpublished writer received a long soliloquy on the unlikeliness of breaking into his chosen genre. I left as soon as I could.

Back home, I had a critique group who met weekly and although we encouraged each other to keep writing, we also encouraged each other to write better. I had received harsh feedback more than once, but didn’t take critique of my writing as a reflection of who I was. At this conference though, everyone immediately judged a person’s value without having read a word of their work.

Waiting for my group pitch appointment, it was a relief when one of the other four women broke the ice by asking if we were all as anxious as she was. By the time a conference volunteer ushered us into a very beige hotel function room, we had all introduced ourselves and what we wrote. I was still nervous though and my legs got tangled in the white tablecloth as I sat down and tried to simultaneously greet the already seated editor. One of the other women let out a nervous giggle when I stumbled and the people at the other pitching tables stared in our direction. The editor grimaced as if in pain. She represented one of the then big-six houses, looked to be ten years younger than me, and dressed entirely in black. She was exactly how I’d pictured a New York editor.

At the earlier all-session editor and agent panel, she had gushed about her passion for finding and mentoring new writers. That seemed like a completely different person as she now explained that she didn’t accept unagented submissions. Her time was too valuable to “slough through substandard work.” (I found out later that the conference paid for agents’ and editors’ travel and lodging in exchange for them attending the conference.)

As the writers before me pitched their work in their allotted two minutes, the editor offered comments so vicious they stunned me. I stumbled through my own pitch and she said, “Nobody would want to read that. I don’t think writing is for you.” I kept the tears at bay only for as long as it took the last person to finish their pitch and receive an equally scathing comment. When I stood up, the table cloth had shed all over my black pants. I took some solace in knowing the evil editor would have the same problem at the end of her day of crushing writers’ souls.

After a quick crying session in the bathroom, I went in search of alcohol. The first gin and tonic in the almost empty hotel bar went down quickly. I was contemplating ordering a second when another conference attendee sat down next to me. She asked what I wrote and when I described my novel she asked if I belonged to Romance Writers of America, or RWA as she called it.

“I don’t write romance,” I answered, thinking about the thin Harlequin books on the shelves of my grocery store.

“Yes, you do,” my new writer friend countered, “come with me.”

She led me to a workshop led by a panel of multi-published romance authors that included Alexis Morgan, one of my favorite writers whose books I shelved in my fantasy collection. As I learned about how to create romance protagonists readers could relate to, I also found out that Ms. Morgan wrote paranormal romance, a genre related to fantasy but definitely within the realm of romance.

The panelists joked and laughed as they shared writing tips and taught us romance writer shorthand, such as HEA for happily ever after. They invited the audience to ask questions and each answer echoed a main message: they had once been just like us—overwhelmed and unpublished—but they made it, and so could we.

I would love to tell you that I returned home encouraged and inspired, but that’s not what happened. The editor’s words echoed loudly in my head during the long drive home and continued to do so for months. I did briefly check out the RWA website but didn’t explore further because I’d stopped writing. The words of my first novel had flowed so easily, but now my prose sucked. I was embarrassed to show my work to the critique partners.

A few months went by and I attended a local writing event I’d paid for before the conference. During lunch I happened to sit with three women from a local chapter of RWA. One of them called me a few weeks later to invite me to a meeting. This local group was as warm and welcoming as the authors on the romance panel had been. I joined RWA even though I still didn’t commit to writing romance. I considered myself a fantasy and women’s fiction writer. Buoyed by the support of my new group, my creativity slowly began to flow again. I finished another novel.

Eighteen months after the disastrous pitch appointment, I attended a romance writing conference in that same city. A group of new writer friends invited me to join them in the bar and I ended up sitting next to Alexis Morgan. I had a bad case of fangirl stutter, but she paid no attention and chatted with me as if we were equals. As if we were just two people discussing what we both loved, reading and writing. In that moment, I decided that I was a romance writer.

I still am.

I write novels that fit RWA’s definition of the genre. My stories are about characters who grapple with big stakes and have to overcome major obstacles before they find someone who understands them, someone with whom they belong. They are of course always rewarded for their struggles with a HEA ending.

14 Comments

  • Melissa says:

    In spite of the terrible experience this was for you in the moment, this is such a great origin story of you as a professional writer. We have to find our tribe, right? And it’s such a great reminder that there’s no reason to be snotty about genres beyond what’s in our own perceived wheelhouse. Loved this line: “I took some solace in knowing the evil editor would have the same problem at the end of her day of crushing writers’ souls.”

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    What the opposite of HEA? DEA? Dead Ever After? Despondent Ever After?

    • Dead Ever After is the title of a Sookie Stackhouse novel, which are kind of defined as romance novels, so that won’t work.

      I like Despondent Ever After, or maybe DI (Dead Inside) would be a good designation for people who prefer a non-HEA. ;-)

      My other favorite barometer of characters, plots, and endings comes straight from one of your classes, Sam. Fucked Up (FU), which we applied both as good and bad. :-)

  • Jaime R. Wood says:

    Great piece, Asa. Your story of those horrid editors and publishers made me cringe. I’ve always wondered what people get out of being so cruel in these types of situations. I mean, writing well is so complex. Telling someone that writing isn’t for them is really just mean and short sighted, especially because she’d never actually read your work. Even if she had, that comment wouldn’t have been warranted, because writers are constantly evolving. We’ve all written shit, even the best writers, and writing something that’s bad is no guarantee that the next piece will be the same. I know for me that often writing badly leads to something good. I’m glad you didn’t give up writing!

    • I think/hope I just caught that editor on a bad day, but it took a while to get over the encounter. I’ve never encountered that editor again, so maybe she left the industry. Maybe she figured out that job was not for her. Hopefully she didn’t crush too many writer souls before she figured that out. :-)

  • Jere says:

    I was remembering when we went to that other fancy writing conference and I had paid extra to sit in a session with snooty tools and you were drinking wine and laughing at your session. I am still bitter. I wanted wine and fun! So then I tossed my stuff aside and went along with you and had a blast. Also cemented our friendship, for which I am forever grateful.

    • LOL!
      I don’t think it’s possible to not have fun in a Cherry Adair workshop, no matter what she teaches. And yes, that guy was a total tool. I still remember him being put in his place by the editor from CA.

  • I have been a member of RWA for ten years now. I heard shortly after I joined that some unfortunate contest judge wrote across the front page of one of Debbie Macomber’s (yes, that Debbie Macomber) entries “Just stop writing now.” In other words, you are already a huge success, too.

    I am so thankful that you met people who told you to ignore what that editor said. It’s not CONSTRUCTIVE, it’s not TRUE, and above all, she is WRONG. And don’t give her one more minute of your time. She’s not worth it.

    Go get ’em. ;-)

  • Virginia says:

    Wow. How come I’ve known you all these years and never heard this story? Every time you stick your neck out-creatively, or just by trying to connect with another human being-you run the risk of this kind of crap. So often in the form of some pathetic jackass making a snarky comment in an attempt to make him/herself look witty and superior. ‘Don’t let it get to you’ is so easy to say and so hard to do. But you must have succeeded at that. Otherwise I would have heard this story many, many times over martinis or more gin and tonics. I’m not exactly sure what the term is for someone who can weather that kind of flat-out meanness and still keep going. I guess it’s Published Author :)

    • Virginia, Gin & Tonics or Martinis always help in situations like this. I really do think though that finding RWA is why I kept writing. I also don’t know whether I consciously back then connected my insecurities about my words directly with what the editor had said. Looking back it’s so very obvious.

  • I’ve never heard this story, either! Wow! I can’t believe you went through all of that. I’m so glad you kept writing. :)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *