Eight 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 Another unpublished writer received a long soliloquy on the unlikeliness of breaking into his chosen genre.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.