What I learned from my first RWA Conference

Last week I attended the Romance Writers Association Conference for the first time. It was very much out of my comfort zone on many levels, and yet I learned so very much. I’m enriched for the experience and I have so much to process and assimilate now!

Obviously I can’t begin to list all the things I learned. I wish I could–it would go a long way to helping me retain and utilize all the wonderful tips and advice I received. And maybe if I get my act together, I can do some blog posts on some of the workshops I attended–though truth be told, by the end of the second day, my poor little brain was on information-overload. I’m not sure I could do justice to the seminars I attended.

So this is more of a bullet-points post about the things I experienced and what I got out of it:

  • You don’t need as many clothes as you think you do. Pack a set of clothes for each day of the conference, something for the parties, and a couple of T-shirts if you decide to be a tourist.
  • SAVE SPACE IN YOUR LUGGAGE FOR BOOKS. You will be given a crap-ton of books, and the last thing you want to do is leave them behind for lack of space!
  • COMFORTABLE SHOES ARE MANDATORY. Yes, bring something pretty for party-wear, but try to plan your outfits so one pair of heels works for all the dressy events–back to saving space in your luggage!
  • The hotel elevators often suck–so build in time to get from one session to the next. However, don’t hate on the slow transportation too much–some of my best meetings occurred on escalators and in elevators!
  • Wear your FIRST TIMER ribbon. This opens the door for people to talk to you and ask you about your con experience. I saw this advice posted on Twitter and I’m so glad I did! Everyone was really nice. 🙂
  • The Goody Room is awesome! Clever, inventive swag, free stuff–including books! Paper swag, such as bookmarks and cards, are easy to make and easy to pick up–but it’s also the easiest for someone to discard, too. I got some great ideas about things to try out next, though, including nail polish and hand-held fans! With my own swag, hardly anyone took any buttons, but ALL of my books went, as well as all of my pens. I noticed a lot of other people with pens who had no takers–but mine were really decent pens, if I do say so myself. I doubt anyone will be tossing those away!
  • Carry business cards with you at all times–it goes without saying, right? But I got a fantastic tip from Aimee Easterling (one of the speakers I met at the keynote breakfast): jot down notes on the back of the card to help you remember the conversation you had with the person or the context in which you met–terrific idea!
  • They don’t feed you at the RITA awards ceremony. I made the mistake of assuming they did, and my husband and I ended up chowing down on hard lemon candies and then bolting to the bar when it was over to grab something to eat. We were starving!
  • Most events are cash bars only. Which is puzzling to me–they can’t use a Square? But yeah, carry cash to most of your after-hours events if you want drinks. This includes non-alcoholic beverages as well–including *water* at the RITAs.

Some other useful tidbits I discovered:

  • Harlequin throws a pretty awesome party. Massages, manicures, appetizers, temporary tattoos, a prize wheel, and an open bar–all at their party to launch their new ReadBliss website.
  • The Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal Romance Writers (a chapter of RWA) throw a pretty wicked party too. We were encouraged to come in costume, and everyone had a blast. I even danced–something I don’t normally do. If you write in these genres, I highly recommend you join this chapter.
  • Being up for an award is terrific–but winning isn’t everything. I had some fantastic, interesting, and enlightening conversations hanging out with the hosts after my awards event, and it was utterly delightful. I highly recommend submitting your next romance story to the Greater Detroit Romance Writers Association Booksellers Best Award
  • I learned this from watching my husband (who didn’t have a horse in this race) chat with people: Be a conversation starter by asking questions of fellow attendees. Let other people talk about their books. Ask about their convention experience and what sessions they’ve found the most useful so far. Don’t just “wait your turn” so you can jump in with your own information.

If you’re like me and from a small town (population 15,000) then 48 hours in NYC can leave you in a meltdown from sensory overload. By the evening of the second day, I was certain I was doing everything about writing and marketing wrong, and I wanted nothing more than to hide out in my room with a pint of ice cream. Most of us writers are introverts–yet at the same time, we seldom have a set of people to talk craft with–so there’s a push-me pull-you about socializing, attending meetings, and needing time to recharge. If you find yourself getting weepy and depressed, chances are you need a break from the activities. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to take it! You’ll get more out of the rest of the conference if you do!

The speeches were amazing. I don’t just mean the acceptance speeches–a high proportion of those were given by writers rendered speechless by their unexpected wins–but some came eloquently prepared. No, I mean the emcee, Sarah MacLean, and the various presenters, the nod to trailblazers in the industry, and keynote speech by Jennifer L. Armentrout, who reminded us that “I’m here to tell you, 100%, you have saved someone’s life. And for all of you…who are publishing soon–you are going to save someone’s life.” and with that profound reminder, this: “Romance books save lives. Maybe it’s not changing the world but it’s changing the individual who can then change the world. Which is why it’s so important for romance to mirror the reader.”

Along those lines, I was privileged to see history in the making. Up until this year, despite the fact the RWA was co-founded by a black woman, no black author has ever won a RITA award. This year’s RITA award winners included two black authors, as well as a South-Asian author. Kennedy Ryan won Best Long Contemporary with Long Shot. M. Malone won the Romance Novella category with Bad Blood, and My So-called Bollywood Life by Nisha Sharma won the YA Romance division. I don’t single out these winners to diminish the other winners of this year’s awards by any means. I mention them because, as Courtney Milan noted on Twitter today, they were brilliant enough to get over a bar set higher for them.

It was also an utter delight to watch J.R. Ward receive a RITA for Best Paranormal Romance with Dearest Ivie, in part because she looked amazing, but also because she herself seemed utterly astonished and delighted to have won. And I cheered when I heard them announce Susannah Nix‘s name for Best Mid-Length Contemporary Romance with Advanced Physical Chemistry–I love her science-based books! As well as Elia Winters for Three-Way Split in the Erotic Romance category–I only began following her a few days before the conference, so how cool is that?

You know what else I love? I love the fact so many of these authors were self-published. It gives me hope that one day I might be sitting in that audience as a finalist, and not just an enthusiastic guest.

So to sum it up: the RWA conference was an amazing experience that I feel lucky to have been able to attend. I have a lot of information to absorb, process, and act upon, and I hope that I’ll be able to go again in the future. Next time, I won’t be so green, and hopefully I’ll pace myself a bit better too!

 

 

We’re All a Little Bit Weird, and That’s Okay

I came very close to deleting this post. I’d gotten 3/4 of the way through it, only to have a lightning strike take out the transformer near our home. By the time the power came back, not only was it quite late (and I’d pretty much missed the #MondayBlogs window) but I also had second thoughts about the content. But then I read something online about the Us vs Them mentality, and it made me decide to finish the blog and publish it anyway.

You see, for some time now, I’ve suspected the need to categorize people into Us and Them is something deeply ingrained in human nature. When you think about it, survival pressure has probably selected for those of us who have the ability to organize ourselves in communities, since those who live in groups have increased survival rates. But the flip side of this benefit is the tendency to see everyone that is not Us as Them. It’s as though we’re constantly playing a game of “What’s Wrong with This Picture?” only the consequences of saying “You don’t belong” has gone far beyond kids sorting themselves into Jocks and Nerds. That process itself is not innocuous either: there are real consequences to bullying and being ostracized. But that’s just one end of a spectrum that includes racism, homophobia, misogyny, sports team rivalry, and more.

In the past, not being part of a tribe could get you killed–but the process of sorting you into a tribe can be an anxious one. I think J.K. Rowling got it right when she depicted the competition and tension between Houses at Hogwarts, and the concern Harry had about being sorted into the ‘right’ house.

More than ever, politics has become a polarizing issue here in the US, especially given the fact that people’s lives are at stake. It’s gone far beyond “this is what I believe” and entered into the “You want to kill me and mine” category. People are drawing lines in the sand and standing by their candidate no matter what. In fact, at a recent gathering of friends, we had to declare a ‘no politics’ rule. Not because I don’t think we could have discussed the current issues without coming to blows, but mostly because we’re all so sick of it and we were there to get away for a few days. But the subject of Us against Them came up, and it struck me that this mindset was so deeply rooted in all of us that probably the ONLY thing that would unite us as one people on this planet would be the threat of an alien invasion or the threat of another pandemic–which is a nightmare for another day.

Sometimes, in my fear of the hatred and hostility I see out there, I forget the value of having tribes. The importance of finding *your* tribe, the place where the people get you. The people with whom you can be your real self.

Last month I had the chance to attend a big sci-fi convention. It was the first time I’ve been able to go to one of these in at least ten years. My husband had to back out for work-related reasons, which almost made me cancel the trip myself. I rarely travel, and for me, a trip to the Big City means going into Raleigh. I tend to get overwhelmed by large crowds, too. But the tickets had been purchased and I was going to meet up with friends, so I decided to go after all. Most of my friends are as introverted as I am, so if I said I needed to take a break and go to my room, everyone would likely understand.

Most of the friends I was meeting were people I’d met before, but each of them brought friends of their own. Initially, I found myself somewhat nervous about meeting so many new people. Under those circumstances, I tend to talk too much, and then later, kick myself for things I said at the time. I replay my conversations, wincing at things I said, wishing I’d just kept my mouth shut.

But as the days went on, I noticed something–all of my friends had their own individual quirks. The truth is, we’re all a little bit weird, but in a good way. I started to relax. Lest you think I was congratulating myself for being the ‘normal’ person in a room full of odd ducks, that wasn’t the case at all. I was reassured that everyone there was as weird as I was–and this was okay. It made me realize my particular brand of weirdness would be recognized and accepted by my tribe.

The convention was held at a 4 star hotel–and the contrast between convention goers and the regular guests was noticeable. At one point I got into an elevator with a woman about my age–but we couldn’t have been more different. I was dressed in jeans and a fandom T shirt, my short blonde hair tipped with temporary purple dye. In contrast, the other guest wore a conservative suit and had her hair pulled back in a no-nonsense bun. She made a point of fixing her gaze on the elevator doors, ignoring my presence until she got out.

My con badge identified me as a convention-goer, but truthfully, the badge wasn’t necessary–my whole outfit screamed “FAN!” But for other convention attendees, the badge was an open invitation to start a conversation.

I followed an older gentleman down the corridor one morning. He was using a cane and moving slowly. I didn’t want to be rude and blow past him, so I adjusted my pace accordingly. When we got in the elevator, I noticed he was wearing a con badge. He turned to me and asked if this was my first con. I smiled and told him it was the first in many years. He said he was a new fan, having only recently discovered Stargate streaming on Amazon. He then told me he’d lost his wife the year before, and his son had taken it hard. My heart plummeted at his words. But then he shared that they’d begun watching the show together, and enjoyed it so much that he decided to see if there was a sci-fi convention they could attend. There were tears in my eyes when he confided his son was having a great time, and so was he.

Another encounter occurred when I was waiting in line. A gorgeous woman struck up a conversation with me. She’d noticed me waiting in the same lines, and began telling me how she and her boyfriend (who smiled and nodded as she spoke) had met over a shared love of geeky things. She said no one else understood her passion the way he did, and neither of them had been able to talk about their fandoms until they’d met. They’d traveled a great distance to come to the convention, and despite coming from widely divergent backgrounds, their bond over sci-fi was solid gold. While we were chatting, we broke off to admire a woman passing us who’d dyed her cornrows in the colors of the rainbow.

The last day of the con, I got up early and posed some action figures in front of a little fountain in the hotel lobby so i could take photographs of them. I sensed someone behind me watching, and I looked up with an apologetic “sorry.”

I needn’t have bothered. The guy was dressed in a military uniform from one of the TV shows. He grinned. “No, that’s so cool. Do you have any others at home?”

Er, yes. From Stargate. Doctor Who. Captain America. Wonder Woman. Even Jem and the Holograms. Sometimes I stage huge scenes mixing characters from various shows and movies…

Okay, I admit, it’s a little weird. But it’s fun, and I believe that play is good for all of us, but especially those of us who create. Play fuels imagination, and imagination begets creativity. You should try it sometime. The important part of the story here is that this random stranger didn’t think I was a total freak for carrying action figures with me and taking photos of them because he recognized me on some level as being part of his tribe.

I’ll be travelling to an even bigger convention in a bigger city soon:The Romance Writers Association Conference. It’s my first time attending. I’ll go, swallowing my nervousness, with the hopes of experiencing terrific conversations, meeting in person people I only know from online interactions, and soaking up knowledge and experience. I’ll exchange my Doctor Who T-shirt for my Romancelandia one, my Agent Carter tote for the one that says, “I love Mr. Darcy”, and decorate my bag with buttons that say things like “Writer’s Block: When Your Imaginary Friends Stop Talking to You.” I’ll wear the trappings of my tribe with pride because I want my tribe to recognize me.

It’s a big tribe, and I don’t imagine my presence or absence there will make much of a difference either way. I hope I don’t embarrass myself, the Country Mouse in the Big City. Either way, I’m going with the knowledge we’re all a little bit weird in our own ways, and that’s okay.

 

 

The Art of Loving Yourself

(TW for fatphobia and internalized hate)

 

I have a couple of special events coming up this summer and fall, and these days, that seems to send me into a flurry of self-evaluation and determination–once more–to lose that extra twenty pounds or so. Invariably, I decide on some program–be it keto, or Weight Watchers, or what have you, that I can manage for a few days before the reality of my chaotic life comes crashing down.

Between my recent birthday, shopping for a dress to wear to an awards banquet (in which I’m a finalist, so more pressure), and planning to go to the Romance Writer’s Association Conference for the first time at the end of this month, my drive to lose weight before X date is at an all-time high. Especially since I had a recent photo shoot, and the PT for my knee takes place in a room full of mirrors. Both left me depressed at the frumpy middle-aged woman I’ve become.

Growing up, I never had to worry about my weight. In fact, I was so underweight that I could pretty much eat whatever I wanted. My dad referred to me as “a bag of bones and a hank of hair”, which felt like a bit of a nasty gibe. It wasn’t until after he passed that I discovered these were the lyrics to an old song, and meant in affection. Though I didn’t have weight issues, I had self-esteem issues just the same. Wild masses of untamed hair rioted over my head like kudzu growing out of control. Coke-bottle thick lenses in heavy glasses since I was eight years old (and I could never successfully wear contacts). A mouth like a gargoyle with teeth jutting out in all directions. I ended up having eight teeth pulled to make room for them all, but this wasn’t done until I was an adult, so for years, I refused to smile and talked behind my hand.

But I never thought twice about my weight. I didn’t even know what cellulite looked like until I hit my forties.

I was a bright kid, too. I never had to study in high school, and graduated with honors only to discover college was a very different deal altogether. College came as a rude awakening for me when I discovered I could no longer coast my way to A’s based on a good memory and a thirst for reading. I was forced to develop good study habits in order to get my degree. But I didn’t gain the ‘freshman twenty’, nor did I have to change my eating habits. In fact, I never gained an ounce until I became my parents’ caretakers, all while working FT, and caring for my own family. All of the sudden, the increased stress and the decreased physical activity caused my weight to balloon up.  And like the high school honors student, I didn’t have the skill set to deal with the changes.

Not to mention, the information out there was often inaccurate, frequently depended on a level of exercise and deprivation no one can maintain, and completely discounted a society that demands we do more on less time. Yes, I know there are people who successfully manage busy, stressful lives while maintaining good food choices and healthy activity, but face it, many of us are forced to choose between taking care of ourselves and the other demands in our lives. And even though logic dictates you should put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others, that’s not what happens for most women. We’re running around seeing that everyone else in our lives gets their oxygen mask safely in place first before we pass out from lack of O2.

I grew up in a house with a mother who had some very odd ideas about food. She didn’t believe in seasoning, and our meals consisted of a very narrow list of ingredients. It turns out she had acne rosacea, which can be triggered by certain foods and spices. I’ve since developed it as well, which has forced me to eliminate several things from a diet that leaned toward picky in the first place.

I think changing your eating habits is one of the most difficult things anyone can do. Giving up caffeine felt as challenging as how I think giving up heroin or opioids would be–complete with the withdrawal symptoms and the sudden, intense cravings years after you’ve kicked the habit. On a hot summer day, I can walk past a vending machine and visualize putting coins in the unit, hearing the rumble and clunk of the drink hitting the bottom drawer, and picture myself opening an ice-cold Pepsi with condensation running down the side of the can. I can still taste that first sip, even though I haven’t had a Pepsi in over five years now. I have to remind myself caffeine will kill me in order to prevent me from snagging a can. I’m fully convinced one day we’ll discover the soda companies have manipulated the caffeine to make them more addictive, much like the cigarette companies did.

I’ve always thought of myself as a strong person, but recently a torn meniscus has greatly curtailed my ability to do the things I used to do. I feel fragile. Useless. Old.

Worse, I’m pissed with my body for letting me down. I never used to have to think about it. I took it for granted. And now I can’t anymore. I’ve absolutely hated my body for the last five or so years now, and let me tell you, no one should have to live with that toxic energy aimed at them all the time. Not to mention all that hate has been focused on a body still giving me nearly everything I ask of it. I’m embarrassed that I’ve been so ungrateful for so long.

I’m embarrassed that I’ve been just as demanding, unforgiving, and toxic as some of my former bosses and family members when my body has done its best no matter what. I realize that just being able to say I never gave a thought to my weight or health before means I started at a privileged position at the beginning of the race. I’m ashamed I’ve been so angry at so little for so long.

I’ve tried positive affirmations in the past, but always, with each attempt, a snarky inner voice sneered at the things I told myself because I knew they weren’t true. My husband frequently calls me “beautiful” and “gorgeous” and I roll my eyes at him, or snap, “I don’t feel beautiful.”

But all that’s changed now.

A couple of revelations came one by one over the last few weeks, which led to my little epiphany.

  1. I can look at other people who have much higher BMIs than I do, and think how beautiful they are, or how great that cute outfit looks on them. Why can’t I do that with myself? Why am I so unforgiving and unkind to myself?
  2. I wouldn’t treat anyone or anything I care about with the level of animosity I routinely aim at myself. I’d intervene if I saw someone being treated the way I treat myself each and every day. I would not tolerate this level of abuse from anyone I knew, either. It must stop.
  3. The demand for perfection has never helped me achieve any of my goals. I’ve been punishing myself for not being “enough” my entire life and it hasn’t made my life better, either. If anything, it’s held me back. This applies to so much more than meeting society’s rigid (and impossible) standards of beauty. The desire for perfection in everything has hamstrung me from attempting so many things in life. It’s sucked the joy out of the things I have accomplished. Last summer I hiked up into the Cascade Canyon in the Grand Tetons. The scenery was breath-taking. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip for me. But what I remember most about that day was the photo someone took of me and my husband with the majestic mountains as a backdrop. I was wearing a blue top and shorts and I recall thinking when I saw the photo that I looked like a Giant Blueberry. It came close to spoiling not only the day but the entire trip for me. And yet that body that I disrespect so much carried me up that canyon trail. You’d think I’d give it a little credit for that.
  4. It’s hard for me to view a meal that is packed with veggies, nuts, cheese, and an egg as “bad” or “wrong” because it’s the wrong point count or contains too much fat, or it’s not what my caveman ancestors would have eaten. You should see what I usually eat for lunch! A snack pack such as I’ve described above beats the hell out of a hot dog and a packet of chips. With all my dietary restrictions, I’m going to have to find my own path to a healthier diet. And that’s okay. I might not lose 20 pounds in 2 weeks. I might not lose any weight at all. But if I’m healthier for cutting back on the sugar and carbs, or feel better because I’m not eating the foods that disagree with me or trigger reactions, that’s good enough.
  5. This thread on Courtney Milan’s Twitter account. It made me rethink the whole sneering-as-I-attempt-affirmations thing. Go read it, and take it to heart. So much truth there, including the myth of being ‘lazy’ and the risk of over-exercising, and how changes don’t always lead to weight loss but they lead to better mental health, and that is the best reason for making them. 

So while I’m still stressed about what I’m going to wear to the RWA conference, I’m not going to stress about losing ‘enough weight’ before I go shopping. There isn’t time anyway, and in the end, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is I go and have a great time, hopefully making some new friends and meeting in person friends I know online.

I’ve started thanking my body for giving me its best despite my neglect and abuse, and promising to do better by it.

And this morning, when my husband said, “Hey, Gorgeous”, instead of rolling my eyes, I gave him a hug and said,”Thank you.”

I think I’m finally understanding it when people say one of the great things about getting older is letting go of so many negative thoughts and feelings you believed to be true in the past. It’s very liberating.