This year’s Romance Writers of Australia Conference was held 7-10 August in Sydney, and was a buzzing success. It offered workshops and pitching sessions for writers, as well as great food and company.
Welcome to my monthly blog chat with writing guru Sydney Smith and best-selling author Jennifer Scoullar. This month we address different aspects of the RWA conference. I give a brief wrap-up of my own experience, Jenny takes a look at self-publishing, and Sydney describes how she helped one of her students prepare for the pitching sessions. Despite the name of the event, writers across the genre spectrum attended. The only requirement for those attending the pitching sessions was that their manuscripts contained “romantic elements”. That is a broad catch-all that writers of all genres took full advantage of.
It’s A Wrap
Apart from 350-ish women, 3 wise men attended this year’s Romance Writers of Australia conference in Sydney. Why were the three men wise? Because the annual RWA conference is the biggest and most professional conference for writers in Australia. Because it attracts best-selling authors and top presenters from Canada, America and the UK. Because they had the opportunity to sit before editors and agents―both local and international―and pitch their novels. Because the learning and networking opportunities at this conference are second to none. And perhaps simply because these men are not limited by preconceived ideas about women’s fiction, in particular, romance. All of the above and more are the reasons these men, like their female counterparts, are so wise. Anyway, if they acquired even a few of the insights I took from the conference, they’ll be better writers for it.
For me, the conference kicked off on Thursday morning at Professional Development Day, which offers brilliant networking opportunities and learning around managing the business of being an author. American Jim Azevedo from Smashwords gave us the lowdown on (or rather, the magnificent up-rising of) self-publishing (see Jen’s bit for more on self-publishing). Scientist* Sara Donovan led a session called the Creative Writer’s Brain, helping us discover which “side” we lean towards (left or right) and how to manage that in our creativity. In another session I learned exercises for writers―simple techniques to soothe an aching back and tired eyes. At high tea, New York Times best-selling author, Cherry Adair, entertained us with hilarious anecdotes and advice. In the evening, Penguin hosted a wonderful dinner for their attending authors―more than twenty. I collapsed into my hotel bed, having been up since 3:30 that morning for a 7am flight.
Friday was workshop day―Writing the Knockout Novel―led by American author and plotting guru, James Scott Bell. A whole day was devoted to learning various plotting and structure techniques for improving our work. It amazes me that there is always something new to learn (no matter how vehemently a certain writing mentor tries to get the message through) and that plotting techniques such as Bell’s (and Sydney’s) can be applied across all genres.
On Saturday morning, the core conference started. I missed the first session so I could rehearse and then attend my planned pitch to an American agent. Then, like Jen, I was keen to hear more from Jim Azevedo on self-publishing. There were sessions on managing social media, revising and self-editing, and various craft workshops for all skill levels. The most frustrating aspect of the RWA conference is choosing which session to attend. Between sessions I met with other authors who shared ideas and knowledge.
On Sunday, following my pitch to a UK publisher, I attended a fascinating presentation by award-winning crime writer, Kathryn Fox, on Pixar’s secret to success. Analysing the elements of a break-out movie makes good sense for a writer who hopes to produce a break-out novel. After lunch I listened carefully as Kate Belle instructed her class on writing believable, emotive and, most importantly, red-hot sex scenes. After that, I needed to lie down.
And that’s a very brief wrap on my experience at the 2014 Romance Writers of Australia conference. Next year’s will be held in Melbourne at the Park Hyatt hotel from 21 to 23 August, and is open to non-RWA members also. For further details, keep an eye on RWA’s website: http://www.romanceaustralia.com/p/1
*Just by the by, for those who aren’t aware, romance writers are generally not dissatisfied housewives with slobby, unromantic husbands. They are professional people―mostly women―and this past weekend I chatted with a vet, two former lawyers, a former scientist, former IT specialist, teacher, farmer, business owners, mother of many children... More often than not these women leave behind their careers to pursue romance writing full-time because it’s just so damned lucrative. And terrifically fun.
The Rise and Rise of Self-Publishing
At last year’s RWA conference there was a real buzz about self-publishing. An energetic debate about its future was in full swing. My, how things have changed. This year, the debate was over. Self-publishing has come of age, a force to be reckoned with that offers marvellous opportunities for all writers. I attended four packed sessions on the subject.
The first was 10 Trends Impacting the Future of Book Publishing, byJim Azevedo, marketing director of the wildly successful Smashwords. For those who don’t know, Smashwords is the world's largest distributor of indie ebooks. It makes it fast, free and easy for authors to publish and distribute ebooks to all of the major retailers, except for Amazon.
Jim talked about how the simultaneous rise of ebooks, self-publishing and democratic access to retailers has transformed the publishing landscape. The power centre is shifting from publishers to writers, as self-published authors realise they have access to the tools to compete with the big publishing houses. The former stigma of self-publishing is being replaced by growing pride as self-published authors scale all the international bestseller lists. It was a fascinating insight into the future.
The next session provided a fine example of what Jim was talking about. Self-Publishing 101 by New York Times-bestselling author, Marie Force. She has self-published more than twenty titles and sold more than 1.5 million copies. Marie shared tips and techniques for getting books in front of readers. Topics included cover design, retail challenges and marketing strategies to aid discoverability in an increasingly crowded field.
The most practical, nuts-and-bolts session was presented by Australian authors Cathleen Ross and Kandy Shepherd. Five Main Things You Need To Know About Self-Publishing. A strong message was that traditionally published authors can become ‘hybrids’, successfully self- publishing as well to gain maximum exposure and income. They reviewed different global platforms and generously shared personal knowledge on great cover designers and formatting tips. Help on how to gain premium status on Smashwords, for example. Save files as doc not docx. Strip all your tabs. Read from roughly p. 10 - 34 of the Smashwords how-to guide. That’s where the good stuff is, apparently, and it will save wading through more than eighty pages. They gave advice on US tax numbers, suggested not buying ISBNs because the free ones will do. They generously shared their mistakes so we could learn from them.
I was so enthused by this time that I attended a second session by Smashwords’ Jim Azevedo entitled, Secrets of the Best-Selling Self-Published Ebook Authors. Jim used real-life examples of how authors broke out to become bestsellers. He advised on best practice for cover design (including examples and an intriguing case study). Other topics included pricing, platform-building and distribution.
I’m a traditionally-published author who is very happy with my wonderful team at Penguin Books Aust. Still, the sands of publishing are shifting. Knowing how to self-publish might soon become an essential part of every modern author’s tool-kit.
The Importance of Preparing Your Pitch
This year, I helped my student, Silk Chen, prepare for three pitching sessions, one with an agent, two with editors. She had worked hard over several years to write her historical novel, SAIGON BELLE. It is based in part on her mother’s life and follows the efforts of Jewel Tse to climb out of grinding poverty and give her ailing mother a decent life in her final years. Once Silk decided to attend this year’s conference, she put all her energies into completing it.
Silk understood the importance of making a good impression in her pitching sessions. She had to compress the story into a few sentences that would accurately reflect the conflict and characters in the novel. She also had to hook the interest of her listeners with her first sentence. Plus, she had to point to her market and the themes of the novel: it’s historical fiction, it’s aimed at women, and the central conflict for Jewel is desire versus duty.
Silk did her research. She read up on what a successful pitch looks like. The Romance Writers of Australia newsletter was helpful in this respect. So was Jenny’s blog last month on pitching Brumby’s Run.
She had business cards made up with an elegant image of a woman dressed in a cheongsam and the elevator pitch for SAIGON BELLE, the brief outline of the novel that she could deliver in an elevator, if she happened to bump into an editor.
Also, and this is an important point, though it wasn’t stressed in the research she did―she chose outfits to wear to the conference that reflected her personality and the kind of fiction she writes. She knew she had made the right decision when more than one editor commented favourably on her appearance. These days, an author has to sell herself, not just her fiction. Her clothes provide vital clues to her character and marketability.
Then the two of us got down to the business of writing the pitch itself. Silk wrote her first draft and sent it to me. We worked on the wording. She wanted to sell her characters, not just her plot. She wanted the agent and editors to be engaged by the people in her story and the central conflict Jewel struggles with. Silk recognised that a plot can be cold if the characters don’t come to life. And she wanted to build tension and suspense into the pitch.
The point to note here is that she aimed to persuade the agent and editors to ask for her sample chapters or the whole manuscript. It doesn’t matter how good the actual manuscript is if the pitch doesn’t communicate the characters and convey tension and suspense.
She needed to hook the listener with her first sentence: “Jewel Tse is desperate to get out of poverty in 1970s Saigon.”
And she had to do all that in a pitch that took her three or four minutes to deliver.
Silk had been booked for three pitching sessions, but after she arrived at the conference, she learned that a number of writers had to bail out because they hadn’t prepared their pitches. Silk booked herself into a fourth session and was lucky enough to be given the nod by all three editors and the agent. And her business card with the elegant image was snapped up by other writers!
Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She is currently writing The Architecture of Narrative, a book about how to plot and structure fiction. She offers writing tips at www.threekookaburras.com. If you have a question on any aspect of writing, please visit her blog.
Jennifer is the author of Wasp Season (Sid Harta), and romances Brumby’s Run, Currawong Creek and Billabong Bend (Penguin). Jennifer’s novels are built around themes of nature and the environment. Check out her website at www.jenniferscoullar.com.