As I go down to breakfast on the first day of the Moonlight and Magnolias romance writers’ conference, my main concern is whether hair and/or chunks of my scalp will fall out of the back of my head. I colored my hair in the hotel room the night before, but I was tired from my drive from Kansas City to Atlanta and didn’t get the dye all washed out in one spot before I went to sleep. It left a terrifying brittle mess there in the morning that I scrubbed out in a panic.
The worst that happens is that the hair there keeps sticking up. Throughout the conference, various women attempt to smooth it down for me.
That’s the thing about Moonlight and Magnolias: everyone is on one another’s side. Other than being almost all women, we’re a pretty varied bunch: a wide range of ages, fairly ethnically diverse, dressed in casual, business casual, or Serious Bizness clothes. Wannabe authors abound, and publishing schedules don’t hold many open slots, so one might expect us to snipe at one another. Women are naturally catty anyway, right? No. We all like each other by default.
At breakfast, I join a woman who’s sitting alone, and she turns out to be an editor at a major publishing house. As a painfully shy dork, I’m proud of how I converse with her, more or less like a normal human being. If I were super aggressive or an asshole – fine line, that – I could try to pitch my Victorian romance to her right there, but I figure it’s only 8 a.m. I do ask her if she acquires historicals, and she says yes, except Highland romances – “I can’t stand all that Scottish brogue” – and Medievals: “They’re too sad! Life is so hard, there’s plagues… I like things more civilized.”
You would think all the agents and editors on the industry panel (not a man among them) would simply prefer the genres that sell the best. Instead, they reveal themselves as startlingly un-mercenary lovers of stories. One agent says, “If you have American Revolutionary War or Civil War stories, send them to me. They’re a hard sell, but I adore them and I’ll work really hard to get them published!”
The romance genre encompasses both straight-up erotica and chaste Christian romance, which can lead to an interesting Q & A session. Someone asks, “What is your definition of erotica?” The next question is directed to the inspirational romance editor: “Is it okay if the couple is Catholic rather than Protestant?”
Inevitably, a writer asks about the shift to digital publishing. The panelists discuss how it widens opportunities for authors and how their publishing houses are using digital and print formats to support one another. Romance publishers were the quickest and savviest adopters of e-reader technology, immediately grasping the possibilities. Some women feel a little embarrassed about reading romance, especially if it’s sexually explicit, but when you’re reading a book on your iPhone or Kindle, no one knows if it’s lusty cowboys or Tolstoy.
The agents and editors also discuss how authors should pitch their novels. “We’re nervous, too!” one editor says. “We don’t know if someone’s going to say something really weird, or start crying, or whatever.”
Pitching your book at a conference is like speed dating. You have a couple of scheduled appointments in which you have a short time to introduce yourself to the agent or editor and tell her about your project. Unless you do particularly well or very badly, the response is, “Send me your first three chapters and a synopsis.” This is great, because it means you can write “Requested Material” on the envelope, and sometimes you can send your stuff to someone who doesn’t take unsolicited queries.
All of us wait in the hotel lobby for our turn to pitch. If the bar were open at 10 in the morning, it would do a brisk business. A woman asks her friend, “Do I look okay?” As writers come out of the room where agents and editors sit at separate tables, they tell each other, “Don’t worry, she’s really nice.”
A conference volunteer announces that one editor has a free time slot: does anyone want five minutes to pitch to her? “I do!” I say immediately, and she ushers me in. This winds up being my most successful pitch.
By the end of the conference, I have tons of ambition and energy. I’ve attended some great workshops and seminars, such as “Empowering Your Muse,” “World-building For Your Werewolf, Duke or Small-Town Doctor,” and “Contest Slut to Published Author.” More important, I’ve absorbed the positive vibes of other motivated attendees. Writing is basically lonely work, but even shy dorks like to know that, sometimes, we’re not alone.