Sex, Love, and Sisterhood: My Visit to a Romance Writers’ Conference

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.




By Bryn Donovan

Romance writer, poet, quilter, and dog cuddler.

17 replies on “Sex, Love, and Sisterhood: My Visit to a Romance Writers’ Conference”

I was just listening to the This American LIfe episode on the Romance Novel  conference in NYC today! It talked about how the industry is still perceived as a niche market, looked down upon, yet Kathleen Woodiwiss is one of the best selling authors in america, outselling stephen king. I think it says something about a market that is predominantly by women, for women and what the backlash might really mean as far as “real literature” means. I love it.

This is so motivating and a really great peek into the world of romance writers! I must confess, the only romance book I ever read was called The Savage and I read it out loud with my best friend in 8th grade! It was a horribly cliched bodice-ripper but I can still remember the plot line and we still speak fondly of the book whenever we meet up. Maybe I should give romance another go… Something more believable this time? Thanks for taking us along with you! They sound like really great people.

Some of the old-school romances are pretty funny! And some of them are just…alarming.

I never read any romance in my life until I thought maybe I would want to write them! My MFA is in poetry and I was always a literary snob. I thought I would just see what they were all about, though, and it turned out I really liked a lot of them! They deliver the big emotional highs that most literary writers won’t go for, because they fear sentimentality.

Thanks for reading and commenting! :)

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.

Uhhh… Guilty as charged, your honor. My mother has a tendency to snatch up any physical book I buy as soon as I put it down. I’m just not comfortable sharing my lusty cowboys/Scotsmen/Vikings with my mother. I don’t care if she reads the same sorts of books. Just not a hobby I want to openly share with my wonderful mom.

Wow, I’d like to know the answer to the Catholic one.  I ask that only because I tried to read an inspirational romance that was recommended to me once.  I had to stop after 7 pages when the heroine described the family’s conversion to Protestantism, despite their extended family being Sicilian and Catholic and her still-Catholic grandparents living in the house with them and being proud of them and okay with their conversion.  Being Sicilian and Catholic, that whole particular plotline was so contrived that I started laughing and couldn’t take the book seriously.  I couldn’t figure out WHY the author would take that direction.  Was it because she didn’t have any familiarity with Catholicism and therefore couldn’t write about it?  Or because publishing houses won’t do anything else?

Or because, like my boyfriend’s mother, believes Catholics are going to hell unless they accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior?  (I hope not.  Seems awfully close-minded for an author.)

Oh, wow. That book sounds horrible.

It probably varies from publisher to publisher. This editor was from Bethany House, and she said that though while they tried to be non-denominational Protestant in most of their books (churches called “Hope Community Church,” etc.), they had room in their lines for Catholic protagonists, as long as the focus was on more general rather than Catholic-specific themes.

I feel the guidelines of all the Christian publishing houses are far too conservative and narrow to really be “non-denominational Protestant” (they certainly don’t reflect United Church of Christ, for instance). On the other hand, I’ve seen some really good treatments of faith in other genres of romance, such as Alex Beecroft’s historical M/M (gay) romances.

The thing is, I think the book COULD have been good.  The character’s voice was good, the descriptions were balanced, lots of showing instead of telling, even in that first chapter.  But it just struck me as so ODD that the author felt like that particular part of the narrative was necessary.  It was so out of keeping with human nature, that two ENTIRE generations would convert without being constantly heaped with guilt by the older generation.  Interesting info, though.  Thanks!

That sounds like you had a great time at the conference! I hope something comes out of your impromptu meeting. Also I love that you attended something called “Contest Slut to Published Author;” my head is dancing with possibilities of what that could mean (I think I get what it means, but I’m enjoying the images it’s bringing up).

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