I got home a couple hours ago from this year’s Emerald City Writers Conference run by the Greater Seattle chapter of the Romance Writers of America. This year’s theme was that hot topic, diversity, which meant there were some interesting speakers. It was, like conferences are, intense.
It started Friday morning with Damon Suede’s master class on using verbs to create powerful characters. Damon’s a really great speaker and very entertaining, but he’s also very sharp, observant, and quick. (I took classes from him at the RT boot camp back in 2017). His master class focused on the idea that the traditional approach of character building by making a list of characteristics (name, height, eye color, religion, etc.) is not the right way to create vibrant and memorable characters. Since actions speak louder than words, focusing on actions (i.e. verbs) instead of other boring words to convey character attributes from the beginning leads you to deeper characterization throughout. There was a lot more to it—if you ever get a chance to do a master class or workshop with him, do it.
There were a couple of sessions Friday afternoon, but I have to guiltily admit that I skipped them because I got the results from the second of two beta reads on my most recent YA book back Thursday night and I was desperate to get started revising it. So that’s what I did Friday afternoon. I went to all four available sessions on Saturday, including one on product description (mostly back cover copy), one on neurodiversity (focusing on autism, AD(H)D, Tourette’s, and learning disabilities), one on human trafficking, and a panel on “seasoned” romance (i.e., anything with heroines/heroes over 35 (eye roll)). Sunday morning I went to a session about story structure.
All the keynotes (Damon Suede, Beverly Jenkins, and Elizabeth Hunter) praised romance as an important genre and also talked about the importance of reading and writing in the world, but especially in a country that’s as divided as ours is now. Damon talked about books that really have changed history, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as did Beverly. He said to “write books that create the world you want to live in.” He also talked about praising and bragging about other people’s books and how that usually comes back to help you in the end, and how we have to challenge ourselves to improve as writers. He riled up the room when he told us he was once asked by an interviewer how he felt about making people want what they can’t have—and he responded that that wasn’t what he was doing—he was teaching them to ask for what they deserve. Beverly told a hilarious story about an editor who told her that “on the down low” was incorrect grammar since she clearly meant “on the lower shelf” (which she did not). She pointed out that that was reason 657 that we need more diversity in publishing. She also talked about the dismissive media, with phrases like “bodice ripper,” “nasty books,” and the question, “Do you actually do all the stuff you write?” (always say yes because that’s what they’ll assume whatever you say). Beverly also talked about being a good community member—“Karma’s only a bitch if you are.” The last keynote was Elizabeth’s. She was new to me but I’m excited to read her book (they always give everyone one) because she seems interesting. She grew up white and middle-class but when she started writing wrote a very diverse cast of characters, which got her some attention and a fan base. She pointed out that “White middle class American girls haven’t been around long enough to make much impact in the immortal world” (that’s probably not a perfect quote), which is funny and very true. She also talked about the importance of empathy in writing and gave some steps to take if you want to improve diversity in romance. Overall, they were good talks.
Saturday morning, I also had the weirdest pitching experience of my life. Mine was the first pitch session of the conference, at 8:30. I went in, introduced myself to the editor and we shook hands, then I started my pitch for my first YA book, which is pretty short (the pitch). She asked a bit more about the book, then what inspired me to write it, and some comp titles. We talked a little more and everything seemed fine. She asked what else I worked on and I mentioned that I did both romance and YA but was focusing on YA while working on the MFA. I wasn’t sure if she was interested or not, but she definitely didn’t seem disengaged. Then they gave the two-minute warning and we kept talking. I was wondering if she was going to ask for pages or what, but I thought maybe she was still trying to decide while we continued to talk. Then they called time and the editor said, “Whoop,” and looked at me without expression. Like, oops, we ran out of time, nothing we can do about that. I awkwardly stood up and left. I mean, obviously she didn’t want it, but why didn’t she say so? Was she afraid? Did I look dangerous or something? Normally they tell you they’re not interested with actual words. Later, I met someone else who’d pitched to her and had a clearer negative response, but it also lacked good closure.
Anyway, that was my weekend. Back to the real world tomorrow.