WisRWA Conference Recap

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Two weeks after returning home from RT, I once again traveled to another conference. Funny how some of the same faces kept showing up. I saw Barbara Vey of "Beyond Her Book," Christine Merrill, and Liz Kreger at all three events. This time, however, getting there meant only a quick trip up to Brookfield, which is twenty minutes west of Milwaukee.

I roomed with Molly Maka from the Milwaukee branch of WisRWA. She's a sweetie who may be the only person on the planet who loves "Band of Brothers" more than I do. It was her first ever conference, and she planned to pitch to Tessa Woodward of Avon and Natalie Fischer of the Dijkstra Agency. To say she was nervous...no, there aren't words. I did my best to calm her down with stories of my own first pitches--how I called Keven from inside a bathroom stall when I attended my first Nationals.

After the Board meeting, where I serve as the Published Author Network (PAN) Liaison, I attended the agent and author Q&A with Molly. I also met Harlequin Historicals author Kathryn Albright and a Milwaukee WisRWA member named Nan Dillman, both of whom had recently taken online classes from me. Small world! What was cool about attending a smaller conference like this one was that it had only one track of workshops. One room. One thing going on at a time. That meant attendance overall was quite high, and the sense of friendship was more intense. Smaller conferences serve as a reunion of sorts among friends who haven't seen each other in a year. The cut-throat competitiveness of Nationals was entirely absent.

The panel adjourned and we all convened for deserts and snacks. Locals members of the Order of St. Andrew had been recruited to liven the place with Scottishness. I wound up speaking to Natalie Fischer, who trained under my agent. We talked about Kevan, about Natalie's experiences since going solo, and about how this was her first romance conference. I told her that she shouldn't come away from it thinking that all of Wisconsin is quite so Scottish. Because of my recent successes with matchmaking at RT, I made a point of introducing her to Molly, hoping to take the edge off Molly's nerves. The two wound up happily talking, so I left them to join the other PAN members in the bar.

Welcome to the club.

That's what it felt like for me. I'd been able to announce my Pocket sale the day before, which meant everyone was offering their congratulations. Lori Handeland, whose westerns I read when I was in high school, gave me a big spontaneous hug. Molly eventually joined us when half the pubbed authors turned in early. She turned to me and said that she'd accidentally been invited to sit at the grown-ups table. Oddly, that's how I'd been feeling too, but her comment put it into perspective for me. I am one of the grown-ups now. How bizarre. We wound up staying up way to late. Molly turned in around midnight, but I closed the bar with Madison members Amy Knupp and her roommate Bobbi.

I was set to moderate a panel at 10:45, so my morning didn't need to start too early. I helped Molly prepare for her pitch and we had breakfast. The panel featuring Scott Eagan of Greyhaus and Victoria Curran, editor for Harlequin's SuperRomance. People who wanted to participate submitted the one-page opening to their manuscript choice, and the samples were read aloud in the order they were received. Scott and Victoria then offered their critiques. All live. All spontaneous.

I can't imagine how nervous the participants must have been, but for me it was an enlightening exercise. First, I'm pretty damn good at spotting the flaws and strengths. My critiques lined up almost exactly with those offered by the pros. Second, not every opinion matches. On two instances, Scott and Victoria differed radically on their evaluations. I thought that was the most interesting and useful part of the exercise, saying to everyone: look, not everyone's gonna agree.

We had lunch then, where I handed out some awards. Turns out that's part of my duties as PAN Liaison. Good thing I'm not freaked out by public speaking. I sat between Amy Knupp and Tessa Woodward, once again at the grown-ups table. Molly was radiant and ecstatic because Tessa requested a partial of her WWII story during their pitch session. Turns out Tessa's a huge "Band of Brothers" fan too. Fortuitous!

I spent the afternoon chilling, chatting, and coming to some conclusions about my next 18 months. Molly got another request from Natalie when they sat down together that afternoon, so that was all very cool. First successes! I was glad to be there for her.

After moderating a workshop by the very funny Cathy Maxwell, I participated in the book signing. I sat next to Chris Merrill, which is weird because I sat next to her way back at the 2008 book signing at Nationals when I filled in for Karen Mercury, a friend who'd gotten sick. Fast forward two years and Chris and I were chatting together again, but this time I was sitting in front of a stack of my own books. She's a huge fan of "Doctor Who" as well, so we always have something to talk about.

Afterward I traveled with Chris and two other Madison-area writers to The Safe House in downtown Milwaukee. It's a bizarre, world-famous restaurant housed in the Milwaukee Press Club, which was established in 1885. On the walls are all the signatures they've collected over the years, signed rectangles of slate that had been framed for safe-keeping. We're talking Teddy Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, W. H. Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Bette Davis, Liberace, Lech Walesa, and mostly recently Johnny Depp, whose signature huge just over my head. The place was the ultimate pop culture eating experience, with signed junk everywhere. So cool. I'm glad I randomly fell in with that group to have that experience.

Back at the hotel we ate fresh-baked cookies and drank brandy slushies, then headed to bed. In the morning I introduced Lori Handeland, which, again, was pretty damn incredible. Who'd have thought back when I lived in Mishawaka and checked her books out of the library that one day I'd be introducing her to a crowd of writers in Milwaukee of all places? Life is pretty unbelievable. Barbara Vey's talk on social networking was a little basic for me, but that wasn't the case for most of the attendees. Barbara has turned into a marvelous public speaker. She's very funny. When I first met her at Spring Fling back in 2008, she'd only just started "Beyond Her Blog." Now she's a staple of the romance community and obviously thriving because of it.

All good things come to an end, and this was the most purely entertaining of my three spring conferences. Experiences like this are hard to quantify as a cost-to-benefit equation. All I can think is that making personal connections with at least 40 news people I'd never met before this past weekend has got to be a good thing. For example the coordinator, Betsy Norman, asked me to speak next year...

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