Sunday, July 24, 2016

San Diego Day 5 - Rita Day!

Sherry Thomas (image courtesy of Kristan Higgins)
My fifth day in San Diego started with a lovely, healthy breakfast while listening to featured guest speaker Sherry Thomas. Sherry was born and raised in China and moved to the US only in her early teens. Her earliest encounters with the English language were not happy ones, but luckily for her many, many devoted readers that all changed when post partum depression and romance novels came together to convince her she needed to write her own books.

The standard of speakers and workshop presenters at the RWA conference is very high. Every one of them have been highly entertaining, incredibly well spoken, and often moving - Sherry Thomas was definitely all of the above.

After breakfast I managed to slide in a Skype chat with my other daughter (the one I didn't manage to reach the day before) before Maya and I hurried to catch Michael Hauge's talk on Story Structure, with particular reference to the Will Smith movie Hitch.

I'd somehow managed to miss the fact that this was a double session, over two hours in length, which meant I had to miss another workshop I'd hoped to attend, but it was well worth it. Even if this was the only talk I attended at #RWA16, it would have been worth the trip!

Michael played us clips from the movie, using it to illustrate classic story structure with a particular focus on the internal journey of the main character. The talk was riveting, which was just as well since he had a lot of competition from the person behind me clicking away at her laptop keys, and the chatter from the people waiting to do their pitches outside. Fortunately in the second half of the session, someone figured out how to boost Michael's microphone so I no longer noticed all the background noise.

Michael Hauge's talk was something of a personal revelation for me, though his subject matter wasn't  entirely new to me. At one point I even drew a little lightbulb in my notebook as my entire current WIP shifted into sharp focus and I realised exactly what my story needs. I've heard from others who've heard him speak that he has this effect on everyone!

I've mentioned in earlier blog posts that there were queues for everything at RWA16. To illustrate my point, here's a glimpse of the queue for one of the publisher book signings (image courtesy of Patrick Haggerty) which shows just how excited everyone in this place was about BOOKS!

Image courtesy of Patrick Haggerty

Since there were again lengthy queues at every outlet offering food in the hotel, I grabbed a quick lunch of yesterday's left-overs in my hotel room, then hurried down to the main ballroom for the Awards Ceremony rehearsal.

Award ceremony rehearsal

The awards' organisers introduced us to the schedule and procedure for the evening, and gave a few tips for our acceptance speeches (such as don't drink too much alcohol in case you have to make a speech!) then I got the chance to walk up on stage and speak into the microphone. I'd barely breathed on it, and the sound echoed around the room. Terrifying! That was when I started to hope that maybe I wouldn't win an award. How the hell was I going to make a calm, rational, moving speech to a room of several thousand people with my own voice echoing back at me?!

After the rehearsal, Maya and I decided to blow off the rest of the afternoon workshops to go sightseeing. We had a lengthy wait outside our hotel for the next Old Town Trolley bus, snapping pictures of ourselves at the waterfall in front of the Marriott hotel to pass the time.

Me in front of the Marriott.

While we were waiting we also spotted what we believed had to be a good omen for the Rita awards that evening: (Hint - check the cab names!)

Whether or not it was Maya's deliberate plan to keep me too busy to get nervous about the awards ceremony that evening, it worked. The trolley bus tour of San Diego was just over an hour and a half long and gave us a glimpse of the city as well as a good insight into its history. I was so enchanted I completely forgot to take pictures.

Image courtesy of Old Town Trolley Tours

The bus took us on a tour through the Gaslamp Quarter with its art deco (and older) buildings, across the awe-inspiring Coronado bridge to the picturesque Coronado island which began life as a late Victorian resort thanks to the Hotel del Coronado (location for the film Some Like it Hot), then through Balboa Park where we ogled the magnificent organ pavilion, on to Little Italy with its tiny Victorian fishermen's houses, and finally to Old Town with its colourful markets. En route back downtown we passed the Maritime Museum where a tea clipper, replica Spanish galleon and submarines vie for attention.

At Seaport Village, close to our hotel, we hopped off the bus and went in search of gelato, which we ate, ice cream dribbling down our fingers, as we hurried back to the hotel to start getting dolled up for the big night, the climax of the entire conference, and my main reason for making the more than 16,000km journey to San Diego.

In the rush to get dressed and made up my nerves returned with a rush, and stayed until after my category winner was announced! I was in such a state I didn't even think to take many pictures of the event!

The VIP guests (presenters, nominees and their plus ones) were allowed entry before the general audience so we could grab the best seats. Once we'd found places to sit, Maya and I went in search of our friends among the nominees, Maisey Blake, Heidi Rice and Scarlet Wilson.

The lovely Heidi Rice has long been an idol of mine, so having my picture taken with her on such an incredible night was a dream come true!

Me with Heidi Rice (I have no idea why
it looks as if I'm trying to walk away!)

Me, Maya Blake and Scarlet Wilson

Once we'd said our hellos and wished everyone the best of luck, we returned to our table to meet the people we were sharing it with. By this time the doors had opened, and excited writers, all dressed up in the finest of evening glamour, began to fill the room. This was when I suffered my first disappointment of the night. No dinner was to be served (not that I could have eaten anyway, in the state I was in!) only a small plateful of desserts for our table to share, and there was no alcohol (not that I could drink any), only water on the tables. I only discovered, after the awards ceremony was over, that there was a cash bar in the foyer outside! And so, sipping water and nibbling on a tiny praline chocolate square, I anxiously awaited the ceremony's start.

This year's awards emcee was Roxanne St Clair. While I think she lacked a little of last year's emcee's easy delivery, she did a great job keeping us entertained and the ceremony moving forward. I wish I'd been able to enjoy it more, but with my category up second to last there was little chance of me being relaxed enough until then to enjoy the evening!

Maisey Yates with her Rita award
(Image from Maisey's Facebook page)
The evening got off to an excellent start with my new friend Maisey Yates winning an award for her book Brokedown Cowboy. It was downhill after that, though, with neither Scarlet nor Heidi winning in their category. The ladies seated at the table with us also didn't win in their categories.

The presentation of the Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement award to Robyn Carr half way through the evening provided a welcome break. Kristan Higgin's moving introduction and Robyn's acceptance speech were both incredibly absorbing and moving.

Robyn Carr (Image courtesy of RWA)

At last we were in the second half of the awards presentations, and my category was within sight. But by now I needed the toilet and was too scared to leave the room,in case I couldn't get back before my category came up. So while half of me was praying to win, the other half was praying I'd lose so I wouldn't have to make a clumsy acceptance speech in front of so many people while urgently needing to pee!

Just two awards left to go to mine and finally my anti-stress tablets must have kicked in. My tension eased. I felt serene. I could do this. I was okay with this. I even began to enjoy myself.

My category, at last. Jill Shalvis took the podium and announced the nominees in my category. I felt a little thrill as she announced my book. Then she cracked open the envelope... I held my breath.
"And the winner for the 2016 Rita award for Contemporary Romance: Mid Length goes to..." not Romy Sommer.
[Massive congratulations to Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy for their book Him]

And I was okay with it. No shock, no regret, no anger, no sorrow, even though I'd travelled half way around the planet just for this moment. Maybe I was having a delayed reaction?

The final award was presented, the evening was over, and I made a mad dash to the toilet - surprise, surprise, there was a queue, but I didn't mind since the fabulous rock star paranormal author Nalini Singh was also in it.

Maya and I headed to the bar for a very well-earned drink. She earned hers by putting up with my tension all night, I earned mine for - hell, do I need a reason?!

We took our drinks to the hotel's Marina Bar where we joined a group of friends for celebrations, chatter, laughter and farewells, since many of us were leaving the next morning. I'd love to say we had a massive big blow-out party to end all parties, but sadly the excitement of the day (of the entire 5 days!) was finally getting to me and I was exhausted.

Maya and I returned to the sanctuary of our hotel room where she packed for her crack-of-dawn flight out of San Diego, and I completed a quick interview via email for The Times newspaper back home. Barely able to keep my eyes open a moment longer, I whispered good night to Maya and sank deep into sleep.

Update: I can happily tell you that the reaction wasn't delayed. It simply never came. Cliched as this sounds, it really was an honour to be nominated, just to be there on this amazing night, to experience this incredible conference, meet all these lovely authors, and to come away feeling energised and excited about writing again.

Maybe because I was always a long shot in this category, maybe because I know there will be future chances to win, maybe because I was relieved not to have to make an acceptance speech, but I'm completely fine with the fact that I didn't win, and very happy for the two women who did. Strangely, I am more upset for those of my friends who were nominated and didn't win!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

San Diego Day 4 - Friday

By Friday, I was discovering a trend in San Diego's weather - every morning would start overcast and dull until about 9-10am when the sun would burn through the cloud.  San Diego really has ideal weather - not too hot, not too cold, not too humid, mostly sunny and bright.

My room-mate Maya and I had a bit of a slow start, and before we emerged from our room I managed to get in a quick Skype with one of my daughters before she went to bed. We then had to hurry to grab some of the free breakfast on offer for conference delegates - only barely making it as the staff were clearing up. We didn't manage to get in to the featured guest speaker but at least we got free food!

In the elevator on the way back to the conference venue for the first session of the day, I met and chatted with author Kristan Higgins - though I couldn't shake her hand since I'd just painted my nails and they were still wet!

Courtney Milan & Alisha Rai
(photo from Courtney's Facebook page)
The first workshop I attended was on how to build an audience by Courtney Milan and Alisha Rai. Courtney opened the talk by saying "In a world of 7 billion people, if only 0.001% like you, you have a career!"

Alisha and Courtney were entertaining and provided a lot of useful information, and the talk was very interactive.

Unfortunately, I couldn't get an even half decent picture since I sat at the back near the door so I could skip out of the session before the end to go to my pitch to agent Laura Bradford.

The level of organisation and attention to detail at the RWA National Conference has to be seen to be believed! With more than 30 delegates pitching every ten minutes, a small army of volunteers is required to keep the pitches flowing with military precision.

For example, at 10:30 all the delegates pitching at 10:40 are lined up outside the venue, in the alphabetical order of the person they are pitching to. Everyone is ticked off against a list, and any no-shows are replaced by hopeful delegates hanging around in the waiting room. At 10:40 on the dot, the door is opened and the pitchers are sent in. The editors and agents are seated in alphabetical order, with easy to read name cards at each place, so there is no confusion, no disorder as everyone takes their seats. Five minutes into the pitch a volunteer warns the room that half the time is gone, and again at one minute to. At exactly 10:50, all pitchers are asked to leave the room via the back door, while the next thirty plus pitchers are ushered in through the front door.

My pitch to Laura Bradford was quick and painless. Since I am already multi-published and Rita-nominated, I didn't need to convince her too hard to read my submission. I pitched her the story, she asked to read it, and since I didn't have many questions we were done well before our time ran out.

Nora Roberts at the #RWA16 Literacy
Signing (photo courtesy of RWA)
From the pitch, I hurried to the chat with Nora Roberts. Wow - this woman is incredible! Not only is her career impressive, but she is a very inspiring person to hear speak. She's direct, witty, and tends to talk in exclamation points, in a deep, gravelly voice.

For an hour she took questions from the audience, on everything from her writing process ("Generally I'm a three draft girl") to what she does in her spare time, to how she researches (as she goes along "because I don't know what I need to know until I need to know it") to which book is her favourite ("My favourite book is always the one on sale right now. My least favourite is the one I'm writing right now, because it's always the hardest I've ever written.")

My crappy picture of
La Nora
I was amazed to discover that her 'In Death' series of books, published under the JD Robb pseudonym, were originally conceived as a trilogy, and were her chance to explore relationships after marriage.

For me, though, there were three things I took away from this session:

  • The first is that even Queen Nora, after 200 published books, still finds writing challenging. "Every book is its own challenge," she says. "You've never written that book before."
  • Secondly, she doesn't believe that writers should write what they know, but rather "You write what you want to find out."
  • Finally, it's all about the story. "Don't ever read the reviews!" she says. "All that stuff is bullshit." Focus on the story, and on what you want to say.

For lunch, I met fellow Harper Impulse author Sun Chara and her friend Barb Heintz in the hotel lobby, and together we headed out of the hotel. Gorgeous as the Marriott is, it was nice to get out and enjoy the San Diego sunshine. As we strolled towards Seaport Village, the woman walking along beside us asked if we knew where Roy's Restaurant was. My companions thought it was back at the hotel, but like us the woman preferred to get out of the hotel for a little while. So Sun invited her to join us for lunch. And that was when we realised who the woman was: Rita Clay Estrada - THE Rita the Rita awards are named for!

We had a truly delightful lunch (I had a chicken & avo salad so large it fed me for two meals!) during which Rita regaled us with stories of the early days of the RWA.

One of the reasons Rita and her friends began this organisation in the late 60s and early 70s was to fight for the right of romance authors to own their own names. Reminiscent of the control wielded over actors by Hollywood's Studio System in the 1930s and 40s, publishers controlled their authors to the extent that all authors wrote under pseudonyms given to them by the publishers, the same name often being used by several different writers in succession! We owe these pioneers a huge debt for fighting the battle which won female writers freedom from this patriarchal control.

Me with Sun Chara, Rita Clay Estrada and Barbara Heintz.

Rita also told us how the golden Rita statuette was designed, and that the statuettes are manufactured by the same company which also makes the Academy Awards!

We ended lunch by committing to give Barb the proverbial kick in the ass to start submitting her work to publishers, and Farrah Rochon (seated at the neighbouring table) took our picture.  Everywhere one turns at #RWA16 there are romance rock stars!

Me with Kristan Higgins at the Rita and
Golden Heart Finalists' Reception
In the afternoon, I attended the reception for Rita & Golden Heart nominees on the terrace at the conference venue. All glammed up, we sipped champagne, nibbled on a selection of desserts, and mingled. Each nominee was presented with a certificate by one of the RWA board members, while a professional photographer snapped our pictures. In a moment of serendipity, my certificate was presented to me by Kristan Higgins, who I'd met that morning!

Maya's Massive Margarita
The sun beat down on that terrace, and we were all soon sweltering, so as soon as the official part of the reception was done I headed to the cooler climes of the poolside Tequila Bar to meet Maya, Sun Chara and Lynn Montagano for cocktails.

Me and Maya Blake at the Tequila Bar

By this time I was pretty exhausted and hoping for an afternoon nap. Better yet, a very early night! But Maya somehow managed to twist my arm into gate-crashing the Harlequin party that evening. I won't tell you how we managed to get past security (since I would hate to be the reason more people gate crash in future years!) and I also won't share any pictures. But I will tell you that Harlequin really knows how to throw a party!

The one common theme that seems to run through most RWA conference events is dessert. At every party the two things that are guaranteed are alcohol and desserts. At the Harlequin party there was a table entirely dedicated to ice cream sandwiches, there were Smores, and a whole variety of other sugar-rich delights.

Gifts were presented to Harlequin authors who had achieved remarkable milestones - I was amazed at how many authors had written 50, 75 and even 100 books!

The Harlequin authors are all effortlessly classy, so friendly and welcoming, and these ladies know how to dance! There was so much dancing that at one stage I thought maybe San Diego was experiencing an earthquake.

Sadly, I was too exhausted to get completely into the spirit and after a couple of hours I hopped a taxi home to the Marriott and left Maya to party on. I was so tired I very nearly fell asleep in the bath and went to bed with hair still wet. I didn't even hear when my roomie eventually returned from the party.

So that was the end to a thrilling fourth day in San Diego. But the real excitement was still to come: Day 5 and the fabulous Rita Awards Ceremony.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

San Diego Day 3 - the conference is ON!

On this first day of the full-on conference, breakfast wasn't provided, so I decided to grab a quick coffee and snack at one of the stores downstairs in the Marriott - only to find the queues at least 20 people long! So I had to sit through the first session of the day uncaffeinated!

In spite of that, I really enjoyed the talk, which was historical author Julia Quinn talking about Dialogue. I love Julia Quinn's books and they introduced me to a new, fresh side of Regency romance. She's a great speaker too, amusing and gracious, and though her talk really didn't introduce me to anything new, it was well worth attending to hear her speak.

After a little break I joined the queue for the Beverly Jenkins luncheon, and Oh My Goodness! - the queue had to be seen to be believed! It wrapped around the entire conference centre! Fortunately, I bumped into the lovely ladies from the RWA's Orange County Chapter, some of whom I'd met at the pizza party the evening before, and they invited me to join them in the queue (and their table for lunch.)

Me with Nikki Price, president of RWA's Orange County Chapter

The food was alright but not amazing (except the rather delicious strawberry shortcake) - and what is it with this Californian trend of drinking their iced tea bitter?!

We were seated to one side of the ballroom so I couldn't see much of Ms Jenkins but the RWA organisers think of everything - not only was there a big screen, they also supply a transcript on the screen for the hearing impaired. (Which made hugely entertaining reading with all the inaccuracies and mis-spellings. I'm still not quite sure why the word 'manslaughter' came up so many times!)

Beverly Jenkins was every bit as incredible as I expected.  She's warm and funny and sharp, very intelligent, and very real. She's a person who calls it as she sees it. She spoke about the history of African-American stories and fiction, then a little about herself and her journey, and rounded off her talk with advice for other writers. The talk earned her a standing ovation. Keep an eye out for it on YouTube.

Photo courtesy of RWA

Some of the best ways to meet people at conference are to chat to those in queues with you (like the lunch queue or the toilet queue!) or the people around you in the elevator. Since almost every elevator was packed wall to wall with RWA delegates, and since we all wore name tags with our names, genres, achievements etc, it was easy to start up conversations.

I met a lovely group of ladies with whom I rode in the elevator to get to the post-lunch sessions. We managed to get lost trying to find a short cut to the venue, which gave us a lot of bonding time!

After lunch I attended a session on the A-Z of Contemporary Romance, led by authors RaeAnne Thayne (who I only later realised was nominated in the same Rita category as me!), Jill Shalvis and Sarah Morgan. They discussed their writing process, gave career advice, and spoke about mistakes they'd made and learned from along the way.

Amongst the great advice they gave, were such gems as "Contemporary romance is all about emotion" (Sarah), "Figure out your strengths as a writer, then amplify them" (RaeAnne), "We all have dips. Write through those low patches" (Sarah) and "Focus on your own career. Don't look around at what others are doing. You don't know what disappointments they've had which you can't see" (RaeAnne).

I also loved Jill Shalvis' story of how she printed off the NYT bestseller list, wrote her own name in place of Nora Roberts' - and within a year she had achieved that same ranking on the NYT list!

After this workshop, I met with agent Mackenzie Fraser-Bub, who recently opened her own agency, then my friend Maya Blake and I briefly popped in at the end of the Kensington book signing to catch our long time friend Jackie Ashenden. We were in luck - Jackie had just two books left which she signed for us.

Me with Jackie Ashenden and Maya Blake

In my role as ROSA chairperson (and as a member of RWA) I then sat in on the RWA's AGM to see how the big guns do it. I was impressed with how well organised and professionally the meeting was run (kind of like everything RWA organises!). The entire meeting only lasted half an hour.

AGM photo courtesy of RWA

At 6.30pm, dressed up to party, I met with four of the other HarperImpulse authors in the hotel lobby. - Nancy Holland, Lynn Montagano, Sun Chara and Katherine Garbera. After a quick photo session, we hopped in a free electric car sponsored by a local brewery and headed off the The Nolen Rooftop venue for the Avon 75th Diamond Anniversary Party.

We arrived in the gorgeous afternoon light, and snagged ourselves glasses of champagne and the best spot in the place. As the sun set over the city, we enjoyed the beautiful table decorations, little lights shining in specially engraved cups of diamonds. There was more champagne, a photo booth, lots of great conversation, networking, more champagne.

We met historical author Jennifer McQuiston, a couple of book bloggers including the famous Sara of Harlequin Junkie, and in the toilet queue (didn't I mention it was a great place to meet people?!) I met a film producer who is looking to option romance novels from Avon (yes, of course you can have mine!). Her partner is South African, so I was introduced to her too and (small world!) it since turns out we even know mutual people back in South Africa!

Lynn Montagano, Jennifer McQuiston and Sun Chara

Back at the hotel after the party, I settled into bed with cheesecake. The perfect end to a perfect day. It really couldn't get any better, could it? Yes, it could! More tomorrow...

Friday, July 15, 2016

San Diego Day 2 - Literacy Signing

Day 2 in San Diego started with a heavy grey sky and rain - this wasn’t the weather I expected in California! Happily, by the time my room-mate (the lovely Harlequin author Maya Blake) and I lazily emerged to face the world, the sun was once again shining. We made the most of this one chance for a slow start, first visiting the goodie bag & swag rooms, then wandering along the marina and enjoying a late breakfast burrito in Seaport Village.

The goodie room (courtesy of Pam Jaffee on Twitter)

Then we stopped at the Cheesecake Factory for a take-away slice of the most mouth wateringly amazing cheesecake anyone can imagine! Maya chose the lemon meringue and I had carrot cake cheesecake and they were both delicious. Even the cream topping was delicious, light and fluffy and sweet. The slices are enormous – enough for 2-3 meals!

By this time we were hot and a little tired out from our long walk so we headed back to our room for an afternoon nap. I’m still blaming the jet lag for this – it has nothing to do with my advancing age!

Rejuvenated by the nap, we headed downstairs to the Literacy Signing, a charity event for which readers come from all over to get books signed by the 400 authors present. Some readers began queuing in the late morning already!

The view of the room behind me - and this is just half the room!

The RWA is so super organized. Our places were already laid out ready for us, with books on display, and I even had a ‘Rita nominee’ flag at my place. I was terribly nervous that as a mostly unknown author no-one would ask me to sign books for them, but that little Rita flag, as well as being seated at the end of a row next to a popular author, really helped. I am so incredibly grateful to everyone who stopped to chat or get one of my books signed! It was also wonderful to be able to introduce my books to new readers and to meet an author I really respect who’d read and loved my books. (Thanks Robin Bielman!)

Photo courtesy of Maya Blake

The signing lasted two hours, after which Harper Impulse author Lynn Montagano and I went to unwind with cocktails and wonderful conversation at the Tequila Bar beside the pool.

Needing some food to soak up the cocktail, I gatecrashed Harlequin Presents author Sharon Kendrick’s pizza party where I met some amazing authors (Hi Nikki and Sabrina). It was completely surreal to end the day in a conversation about Boris Johnson and writing for Presents with such luminaries as Sharon Kendrick, Susan Stephens, Jane Porter, Caitlin Crews, Maisey Yates, and Lynn Raye Harris! I may have died and gone to heaven.

At midnight I fell into bed and set my alarm for Day 3.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

San Diego Day 1 - Acclimatising

From my front door to arriving in our hotel room in San Diego took about 33 hours. Since I can never sleep terribly well on a plane, I was pretty shattered but determined to push through until night-time - and the day was too beautiful to waste!

San Diego reminds me of the idyllic Durban of my youth - though cleaner, less humid and with fewer Art Deco buildings than Durban! It's sunny, friendly and there are palms and bottle brush trees everywhere.

Marriott Marquis & Marina Hotel, the conference venue

The Marriott Marquis & Marina hotel, the venue of the RWA2016 conference, has to be seen to be believed. It makes our biggest South African hotels look boutique! With numerous restaurants, bars (and a Starbucks), swimming pools, 38 conference rooms (including 4 ballrooms), plus more than 20 floors of rooms, it's pretty impressive.

Lobby at the conference centre

The RWA conference has completely taken over the hotel. There are romance writers and romance novels everywhere - even on the room key cards and elevator doors!

Marriott Elevator Doors

Romance on the front of the Marriott hotel

I've had a lot of "OMG!" moments since I arrived, but probably the most surreal was when I was standing at Starbucks and in walked two officers in CHiPS uniforms. If you're old enough, you'll know what I'm talking about. They weren't as good looking as Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox, but I'm pretty sure my jaw still dropped!

I took a long walk along the waterfront, to the picturesque but touristy Seaport Village, ogled the massive warship USS Midway which is now open to the public, ate very tasty tacos from a street kitchen overlooking the bay and generally soaked up the sights and sounds.  San Diego is a lovely place, and I'd highly recommend it as a destination.

Seaport Village

Seaport Village

USS Midway

Seaport Village
Taco street kitchen
A big thank you to my fellow HI author Lynn Montagano for meeting me for coffee, even though by that stage I was in a zombie state and not entirely coherent. Thanks to the Harlequin authors who let me tag along to dinner. I feel so honoured to be surrounded by so many 'real' authors - I hope one day I'll grow up to be like them!

Today the conference gets underway with the Literacy book signing. After a few hours sleep at least I now know what day of the week it is. More on that tomorrow...