RWA 2013: Parting Thoughts

P07-17-13_08.32Almost two months after the RWA conference in Atlanta, I have finally collected my thoughts enough to offer some kind of postmortem on those intense 4-5 days. At least to compile a list of the things I am most likely to remember–from the serious to the frivolous, from the ridiculous to the sublime.

So, in no particular order:

15 Things I Discovered While in Atlanta for the Conference

1. More than 2000 people in an enclosed space, even one as large as the Marriott Marquis, generate a powerful amount of noise.

2. Atlanta natives can be the nicest, most helpful people imaginable–from the security guard who personally escorted me across the skybridge from the Hilton to the Marriott so I’d know how to get there to the woman on the street corner who gave Hopelessly Lost, Confused Me the clearest, most comprehensible directions to my intended destination. (Yes, there were some folks who were less than helpful and a few that were downright rude, but by and large, I was favorably impressed by “the kindness of strangers.”)

3. Mary Jo Putney, a historical romance author whose work I’ve long admired, is as classy and gracious in person as her books and blogs suggest. Not only did she provide a lovely quote for my soon-to-be-released book, she invited me to sit at her table during the RITA Awards ceremony on Saturday night when she received the Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award. I was delighted to accept, and met several other authors that evening, including Cara Elliott and Jo Beverley, who were also very gracious. Romance is a very welcoming community, on the whole.

4. RITA awards are heavy–yes, I got to hold Ms. Putney’s for a few seconds. The metal ones presented today are manufactured by the same company that manufactures the Oscars. (According to Eloisa James, they used to be made of chocolate.)

5. Kristan Higgins, the contemporary romance author, is a terrific public speaker, delivering a sometimes humorous, sometimes heart-wrenching talk on how romance novels comforted and sustained her during some of her most difficult times.

6. Cathy Maxwell, the historical romance author, is no slouch either: she spoke movingly of a man who’d been a brilliant artist but who lacked the confidence in himself even to sign his name to his works.

7. A hybrid career–combining traditionally published and indie-published works–has much to recommend it, at least in theory. Especially if you have a head full of stories, some of which might be too offbeat to appeal to mainstream publishers.

8. Forms of social media are more numerous and confusing than ever. (This may not be news to anyone else, but I felt obscurely comforted to know I wasn’t the only person bewildered by Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, and their ilk.)

9. There are more ways to get your work out there and in front of readers than could have been imagined just a few years ago.

10. No one understands a writer quite like another writer.

11. Book signings can be feeding frenzies, especially when the books are free.

12. The Georgia Aquarium–the world’s largest, apparently–is all kinds of awesome, especially the Cold Water gallery that houses sea otters, beluga whales, and South African penguins.

13. Don’t set foot outside in Atlanta during the summer without looking out the window first. Checking the Weather Channel beforehand is probably a good idea too.

14. The “plane train” at the intimidatingly large Atlanta airport is a great way to get from place to place. (I just wish I’d known about it before I walked the 100 miles or so from the terminal to domestic baggage claim on my arrival.)

15. Writing is the wellspring from which everything flows. A simple but fundamental truth that can too often get lost in the flurry of marketing, promotion, and social media. And yet this is something that every writer emphasized in every session in which the subject arose. Tell your stories. Tell them to the best of your ability. Protect the work. Don’t let being an author get in the way of being a writer. Nora Roberts was particularly vehement on the subject, saying that one mistake she thinks beginning writers are making is focusing too much on “market, market, market” and not enough on “story, story, story.” Words to live by, Ms. Roberts.

Well, that’s all for Atlanta, folks! Maybe a year from now, I’ll have a similar list for the San Antonio conference. Hope to see some of you there!

RWA 2013, Part 2: Baptism by Thunderstorm


Rain in Downtown Atlanta, photo by callison-burch

Contrary to the ’70s popular song, it does rain in Southern California.

But not like this.

Dumbfounded, I stood in the lobby of my nice, just-slightly-offsite hotel and stared out the sliding glass door at the rain bucketing down from the overcast Atlanta sky.  At the trees lashed by furious gusts of wind. At the bolts of lightning that occasionally flashed overhead.

It hadn’t looked like this an hour ago. I wasn’t sure it had looked like this even half an hour ago. (Memo to self: when you’re staying in a place where the weather is almost notoriously unstable, don’t go anywhere without looking out the window first.)

I was a five minute walk away from the conference hotel, where I was due to participate in a group signing within the next half-hour. In this weather, it might as well have been five miles.

An effort to raise the hotel shuttle driver and ask for a lift to the signing proved fruitless. Flustered but determined, I pulled on a plastic raincoat, grabbed my umbrella, and ventured out into the storm.

Within two minutes, my umbrella had turned inside out, my dress was wet from the thigh down, and my stockinged feet squelched in their sandals. My glasses, streaked with rain, were all but useless for visibility purposes. Buffeted by the wind, which was driving the rain sideways, fearing I’d be knocked flat on my face any second, I took refuge in the foyer of the restaurant next door.

My mind raced furiously, trying to calculate how much time I had to arrive at the signing; whether I had time to change into dry clothes before setting out again (don’t be ridiculous, my subconscious retorted, Outfit #2 will get just as soaked as Outfit #1); whether I could just ride out the storm and show up a little later–or not show up at all, since my absence would probably not even be noticed in a room full of authors (most of them far more well-known than I) and fans.

Call it gumption, stubbornness, or insanity, but I rejected the last idea almost at once. Committed was committed. This was my first signing ever, and I wasn’t going to blow it off, no matter how bad the weather was or how obscure I was. Come hell or high water–and Atlanta was currently providing plenty of both–I was going to that signing. And as close to the scheduled time as possible.

I couldn’t tell if the rain had let up at all, maybe infinitesimally, when I braved the storm again. The wind was still gusty, the precipitation pattering steadily down, but I was already so wet I didn’t notice if I was getting any wetter. My top priority was finding the safest, dryest way to get to the conference hotel.

pedestrianbridge_0110Fortunately, I knew about the skybridges, the enclosed walkways that linked several of the main downtown hotels, including the conference hotel. But which one was closest? I squinted and squelched my way across the street to a business plaza that had a skybridge that led somewhere (the person in charge of security had been somewhat less than helpful about that when I’d asked earlier). But I figured if I took the bridge I might at least end up in a place I recognized, and I could navigate the rest of the way from there.

And so it proved. Even a little better than expected, as I’d thought I might end up in the hotel next door. Instead, I found myself on the atrium level of the conference hotel, the very place where the signing would be held. And there was time for a brief stopover in the restroom to remove my rain gear and tidy myself just enough to eliminate the half-drowned-rat look. Umbrella and raincoat hastily folded and put away in my tote, I hurried into the ballroom with minutes to spare, found and took my seat. My dress was still sopping, the skirts clinging to my legs like sheets of fresh papier-mache. But my cardigan was fairly dry, so I draped it over my knees and pulled the skirt down to cover it. At least I had a bit of insulation now.

And I’d made it. I’d arrived–and on time (barely), at the place where I was supposed to be. That was a victory in itself. And I also had one hell of a “war story” to tell, to anyone interested in listening!

Then the doors opened, the people poured in, and I proceeded to be very busy for the next two hours. Even when you’re not signing many books yourself, you end up watching those who do–what they say, how they conduct themselves, how readers react to them. In all, it was a learning experience every new author should have–though I recommend skipping the thunderstorm part, if you can! (Apropos of which, every now and then, a rumble was heard or a flash was glimpsed through the window blinds. But by the time the signing was over, the storm was a distant memory.)

Recent events have had me reflecting on this experience–not nostalgically, but perhaps philosophically. Because there will always be storms, whether literal or metaphoric. Always things you can’t control, but which affect you anyway.
And when faced with those, sometimes the best you can hope for is a quiet place where you can ride out the storm until everything calms down.

But when that’s not an option, all you can do is fulfill your individual obligations, soldier on, and try to chart your own course through the storm–until you come out the other side, to the place where you’re supposed to be.Rainbow_At_Maraetai_Beach_New_Zealand

RWA 2013: There and Back Again

P07-20-13_07.16Back from Atlanta as of last Sunday. Still processing everything I’ve heard in workshops and from various eloquent speeches given by RITA and Golden Heart honorees. And still adjusting to the three hour time difference, which can turn me into a heavy-eyed, sleep-deprived zombie on a moment’s notice.

At some point, when I’m more coherent, I’ll share some memories and anecdotes of the conference. But for now, I hope some pictures will do.

P07-20-13_12.27Groundling’s eye view of the conference hotel–the staggeringly tall Atlanta Marriott Marquis. Glancing up towards the roof, and the elevators climbing up into the stratosphere can give one vertigo! Fortunately, the sessions were held on the much lower levels.


Decor at the hotels ranged from the striking, as in this electric “sail” sculpture on the Atrium level of the Marriott . . .







To the seriously silly, as evidenced by this dolphin sculpture outside of Trader Vic’s, a Polynesian restaurant in the neighboring Hilton Atlanta.




Quite a number of decorated dolphin statues could be found in downtown Atlanta. An obliging passerby offered to take a picture of me next to one (painted with aquatic life) outside the Regency Hyatt. P07-20-13_19.14








Personally, I think this guy (from my visit to the Georgia Aquarium) made a slightly better photographic subject, if only because he knew how to stay perfectly still.




Visiting the Georgia Aquarium was one of the highlights of the trip. Where else can you see creatures as diverse as …


Sea otters…






Beluga whales…Belugas&seals












And albino alligators.

I have to confess the last guy kind of gave me the creeps, even though he appeared to be sound asleep when I visited. Nonetheless, I was relieved that there was a thick pane of glass between him and me!

The humans I met on this trip were a great deal less alarming. But more on them in a later post.

Until then!

RWA 2013: Atlanta Bound!

Hello, everyone! Just a short entry to announce I’m off to the RWA National Convention, being held this year in Atlanta, from July 17-July 20. Last year in Anaheim–practically my back yard–was my first experience at RWA, and I very much enjoyed the chance to meet other romance writers at every stage of their career. Back then, I was in the process of transitioning between being a writer and being an author, having signed my first contract but still awaiting publication, scheduled for six months down the road. I knew I had a lot to learn, and I was eager to learn it.

This year, I am attending as an official author, with one book out as of last December and another forthcoming in October. I will be participating in two signings–the Literacy Autographing held on July 17, 5:30-7:30 pm and the Sourcebooks signing on July 20, 3:00-4:30 pm. I still have a lot to learn, however, and maybe even a few things to pass on.

Like a few conference tips, perhaps. Several writers have posted columns full of useful advice to those coming to their first RWA. This one, by Vicky Drelling, is especially helpful, and so is this one, describing the weather and various sights in Atlanta. I can heartily concur with all these suggestions–especially regarding comfortable shoes and bringing enough business casual outfits to compensate for surprise stains or wardrobe malfunctions.  And here are a couple more:

1. Get plenty of rest. It’s more tiring than you’d think to sit still and have people talk at you for an hour or two. So if you find yourself needing to slip up to your room for a nap, go for it. Your body and mind will thank you for it.

2. Be pleasant, polite, friendly, and discreet. You never know whom you might meet in the elevator or even the line to the women’s restroom!

3. Asking another attendee what she writes is a pretty reliable ice-breaker. And it could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

4. Hydrate. The air in the hotels can be very dry, especially at night, so drink plenty of water.

5. Bring business cards to pass out. And promotional bookmarks to give away if you have a book out or forthcoming. (I just received some beautiful promotional bookmarks for A Song at Twilight, my October release at Sourcebooks, which I’m looking forward to sharing).

6. Familiarize yourself with the conference hotel and surrounding environs. Getting the lay of the land can help you get to sessions and other appointments on time.

7. Keep a weather eye on the weather! Atlanta in July is hot, but it’s also having a very wet summer this year, so if you’re staying off-site, or planning on going off-site, you might want to pack an umbrella or a light raincoat or rain poncho.

8. Enjoy yourself–whether that means attending lots of sessions/workshops, making friends with other writers, sampling works by authors new to you, or even holing up in your room should sudden inspiration strike (a tendency every writer will understand–and most likely forgive!)

Hope to see some of you there!

Much Ado about Much Ado

As you can probably guess by the title of this post, I’m about to rhapsodize about my favorite Shakespeare play (among the comedies, anyway. Hamlet may hold that spot among the tragedies).

I think one hallmark of a favorite play is how many times you can see it performed/adapted without growing tired of it. And as I sat in the movie theater last weekend, getting ready to watch Joss Whedon’s new film version of Much Ado about Nothing, I reflected on the reasons for the play’s lasting appeal for me. Wit, wordplay, a romance between equals, absurd or potentially absurd situations, and a delicious happy ending are among them, of course. But there are also dark elements to Much Ado: shame, slander, jealousy, deceit, malice, guilt, sorrow, painful choices, and a not wholly painless redemption. But those elements make the happiness at the end seem sweeter because it’s more hard-won.

"There is no staff more reverend than one tipped with horn."
“There is no staff more reverend than one tipped with horn.”

Looking back, I’ve seen about seven or eight different versions of Much Ado About Nothing, counting both stage and screen productions.  The first was a much-praised version starring RSC actors Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack as Benedick and Beatrice, the primary couple, held as part of the Olympic Arts festival in 1984. Jacobi was elegant and polished, perhaps more the courtier than the soldier (the costumes showed a Cavalier influence, all lace and ribbons) but still effective, while Cusack was a moody, almost solitary Beatrice, hovering at the periphery of her family and still carrying a torch for Benedick, which she appeared to resent. (There is indeed a hint in the play itself that B&B had a previous involvement that ended badly.)

"What, my dear lady Disdain, are you yet living?"
“What, my dear lady Disdain, are you yet living?”

Soon after, I saw a grimmer, more serious, more traditionally staged BBC adaptation, with a dour Benedick (Robert Lindsay) and a brittle Beatrice (Cherie Lunghi). They nailed the church scene, though, so I forgave them the grimness.

In subsequent years, I saw some open air productions of Much Ado About Nothing, one set in mid-nineteenth century America, another in a more modern era, reminiscent of the 1920s and 1930s (the actress playing Beatrice seemed to be channeling Katharine Hepburn at her most mannered). And while in graduate school, I attended a minimalist version performed in modern dress by five British actors visiting the U.S. Despite the skeleton cast, which performed multiple roles between them, the production worked very well.

"Serve God, love me, and mend."
Serve God, love me, and mend.”

The best-known adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing would have to be Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film, a bold, colorful, rambunctious romp set and shot in sun-drenched Tuscany, featuring a properly witty if somewhat manic lead couple in Branagh and then-wife Emma Thompson, and performances that run the gamut from serviceable to splendid to just plain . . . strange (Hello there, Michael Keaton as Dogberry!). While somewhat lacking in subtlety, this version is still loads of fun, especially when one is in a “summertime” mood.

"Man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion."
“Man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion.”

And just a few years ago, thanks to the magic of video, I saw the acclaimed 1972 television production of Much Ado, directed by Joseph Papp as part of his Shakespeare in Central Park project. Kathleen Widdoes and Sam Waterston, both startlingly young and gorgeous, played Beatrice and Benedick against the backdrop of turn-of-the-century America. You can imagine all the soldiers returning in triumph from a short action like the Spanish-American War, high on their victory and ready for romantic diversion that the ladies are no less willing to provide. Outdoors are gardens, gazebos, porch swings, and even a dainty miniature carousel. Benedick and his friends gather at the town barber shop, Beatrice and her friends sneak out into the garden to share a cigarette between them, and Dogberry and his minions engage in a Keystone Kops-like chase of the villains all around the stage, complete with flashing strobe lights. It’s a charming, off-beat staging that proves Americans can perform Shakespeare just as adeptly as their British counterparts.

So how does this new version compare? Quite well, I’m happy to say. I didn’t know what to expect, especially after hearing that the director shot this movie in black-and-white film in 12 days, essentially in his back yard (albeit a very spacious, even luxurious-looking back yard), with a small cast of actors he’s previously worked with on other projects, many of whom are unfamiliar to me.

An intimate moment between Beatrice and Benedick
“I do love nothing in the world so well as you. Is not that strange?”

Vanity project? It could have been, but fortunately, I found myself charmed, rather than irritated. The setting was contemporary–the men wore business suits and traveled by limo–but the black and white cinematography gave the film a timeless feeling, and the small cast and confined staging gave the production a special intimacy. It really did feel like “a family affair.” The text of the play was cut by about a third, some roles were eliminated and others pared down, but the story didn’t suffer for it overall.  Because I didn’t know the actors well, I could focus more intently on the characters they were portraying. So Amy Acker played a clever, coltish Beatrice–a trifle klutzy at times, but not too broad or slapsticky–while Alexis Denisof was a witty but slightly curmudgeonly Benedick. The setting gave a new resonance to the couple’s skittishness: who dares to be emotionally vulnerable, to wear their hearts on their sleeves, in this slick, superficial modern age? Whedon also makes explicit what is only implied in the text: that Beatrice and Benedick were romantically involved in the past, and it didn’t end well. But while they fight whenever they meet, they also can’t seem to stay away from each other. Their exchanges have an almost private quality to them, as if, even in a room full of people, they’re not really paying attention to anyone else. And once each is convinced the other still cares, their defenses crumble like wet sand.

There are other nice touches too: one minor character gets a gender reassignment that works surprisingly well in context, another minor character adds a subtext to his actions that I’ve never seen or even considered before, modern technology is used to entertaining effect at several points in the story, and nearly everyone is seen with a glass in hand, suggesting that alcohol fuels some of the play’s more absurd situations. And for all its seeming slickness, the film delivers a sweet closing image that will satisfy even the most diehard romantics.

So, do I recommend it? Absolutely. If you love the play and are intrigued by the possibilities of a modern reimagining, you’ll find it worth your while. I’m even thinking of seeing it again–especially since it’s opening in more theaters next week. See you at the movies!