My First Writers’ Conference- NJRW Put Your Heart in a Book Conference

This past weekend, I had the good sense to attend the New Jersey Romance Writers Annual Put Your Heart In A Book Conference (click HERE for link). Two days of writerly information on the craft and the industry of romance writing! Thought I’d share a little summary.

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On Friday morning, I attended an editing workshop hosted by the famous-in-writing-circles Margie Lawson. As a psychotherapist and an editor, Margie uses “psychologically-based editing systems and deep editing techniques to create page turners” (that’s from her website). I learned a lot from this workshop, most importantly that my current Work in Progress (“WIP”) needs some deep editing and may actually suck. More on the WIP another time. The three-hour workshop flew by and I have endless notes to digest and use when I hop into my WIP.

Friday afternoon I took the following workshops: The Three Letters that Make a Career Y-E-S, with Sarah MacLeanThe Three Stages of Book Promotion, with Maria ConnorThe In-The-Know Guide to Indie Publishing, with Judi Fennell; and The Ins and Outs of Facebook for Authors, with Joanna Shupe.

Sarah’s presentation was a wonderful recounting of her writing journey. She’s a huge deal in the romance writing world, yet she had such a witty, down-to-earth style. Her talk was informative and inspirational and a great way to start off the conference–especially after attending the Margie Lawson editing workshop and acknowledging my own suckiness! Always learning, right? Sarah’s basic message was to open yourself up to the possibilities, don’t be afraid to push the limits of your writing, and to consider writing your “work” by valuing your writing time and making it a priority.

I thought Maria’s presentation on book promotion would make me twitch from fear and dread. I mean, who knows how to promote themselves? Even celebs have people who do that stuff for them. Luckily, she had chocolate for us, so I indulged and planted myself in my seat, ready to delve into the world of marketing. The session went well and I learned lots of stuff. People had questions. There were a lot of people who seemed frazzled by the idea of marketing, so it wasn’t just me. While her presentation was informative and helpful, I wish it were longer, like half a day, or at least a two session block.

Judi’s indie publishing presentation was so helpful. Conducted as a question and answer session, Judi, a successful hybrid author (that means traditionally and self-published) answered any and all of our questions. How often do writers get to sit with someone with her level of success and shoot questions at them? Not very often. We took advantage. I made notes. I panicked. I calmed down.

Next up, the dreaded Facebook. Anyone who knows me also knows how much I absolutely hate Facebook. Like HATE in all caps, hate. I think it will be the downfall of all the world (yeah, I said it). ALL THE WORLD. Which is exactly why I felt I needed to go to this talk. Did I learn stuff? Yeah. But it was way over my head. I didn’t think it appropriate to raise my hand and be like, “How do you log in again?” when people were asking questions about ads and “algorithms” and fancy things like that. So in general, it was helpful to everyone but I was in way over my head. Next year maybe I’ll try again after I slog through the Facebook for Dummies book.

After a Friday evening cocktail hour and awards ceremony, during which I mingled with agents, authors, and other writerly and creative people, I was back to it bright and early Saturday morning.

Saturday started with breakfast with Keynote Speaker Kerrelyn Sparks. I loved hearing her touching account of her writing journey and how her past experiences influenced her widely-popular vampire books. From there, I went to a special presentation on dialogue with Julia Quinn. (Note: In this paragraph, I’ve named two amazing best-selling authors, by the way.) Julia was helpful and funny, and we kept taking her off the dialogue track and asking questions about everything under the writing sun.

Next, I had agent appointments. This was interesting- sort of like speed dating for authors. A bunch of agents and editors, like maybe twenty or so, sat in a big room, each at their own little table. They had a name plate on their table for identification purposes. In ten minute intervals, a group of authors entered the room, found their preassigned editor/agent, sat at the table in front of them, and pitched their book.

Let me explain.

So I was fortunate to get two appointments. My first was at 10:15 with an agent from a well-respected agency. I was corralled into the room with the other 10:15 authors, frantically searched for my agent’s name on one of the name plates, then sat in front of her. After a quick intro, I told her about my story and fielded her questions about my characters and plot. Timekeepers told us when time was up, and we were rushed out the back doors for the next group of authors coming in the front. My next appointment was at 10:35, so basically I exited, then circled around to wait in the holding pen with the 10:35 group, and did it all over again with another agent.

For some authors waiting in the holding pen, this was the most nerve-wracking event of their lives. I get that. It was high anxiety, that’s for sure. I have to admit I kind of enjoyed it. I’m psyched for the book I wrote and was happy to talk about it. Despite the fact that the agents weren’t sold on the genre I assigned to my book, the two agents I met said they liked my concept and asked me to send them my first three chapters. I take that as a win.

In a post-agent-speed-dating coma, I next attended From Desolate Moors to Dark Alleys: The Art of Writing Romantic Suspense, with Dee Davis. Do I write romantic suspense? I didn’t think so. I thought I wrote contemporary. But after the agent meetings and genre-confusion I wasn’t exactly sure WHAT I wrote, so I thought what the heck, and gave this one a shot. I learned a ton of basics about plotting, pacing, and characters, and didn’t realize how challenging romantic suspense could be, in that both the romance and the suspense must carry equal weight throughout the book. I may give this a shot someday.

Lunch featured speaker Beth Ciotta, who shared her author journey, which was like none other I’d heard. She didn’t start writing until her 40’s and in the past fifteen to twenty years has had ups and downs like you wouldn’t believe. But the message I took from her talk was if you love it, persevere and do it. Any way you can.

I should also mention that every time we sat for a meal our chairs were covered in free books. There was free stuff (“swag”) everywhere. Fun, fun, fun!

I had plans for after lunch seminars but ended up going back to Sarah MacLean (since I’m now fangirling her) for her presentation, Mastering the Art of Great Conflict. Amazing. Love her and her insights. One of her themes was if you have a high concept idea you love but it seems totally wacky, write it anyway. She named a number of her favorite books and described their bonkers plots–yet the books ended up being best sellers. She called such high concept writing “writing from a place of fear.” Some of my other notes from her talk include “Be fearless, take risks,” “If your hero is a fireman, your heroine should be an arsonist,” and “If no conflict, what’s the point?” Mostly I just listened and absorbed like a sponge.

Finally, I attended the Anonymous Author reading. What is this? Well, prior to attending the conference, attendees had the option to email a conference coordinator the first 250 words of their book. At the AA reading event, a panel of agents and editors sits at a long table while your 250 words are read to them (and the audience) anonymously. They don’t know it’s yours. Nobody does. The reader reads your work and then the agents/editors give you their first impressions.

This was neat. While I did submit my words, they didn’t get to my entry due to time constraints. But it was helpful to hear the panel’s reaction to the other works that were read, the good and bad.

By then, I was exhausted and ready to go home. I stopped for a quick latte and headed back to real life. But my weekend was perfect. I learned a lot, I had fun, I felt like a real author for the first time. I made friends and connected with people. I talked with New York Times Bestselling authors (Julia Quinn, people!). I have a new girl crush on Sarah MacLean. I have two requests for pages from agents and about a dozen new books to read on my nightstand.

The best thing I’ve done to pursue a writing career is hook into Romance Writers of America and its New Jersey Chapter, NJRW. If any NJRW people are reading this, thank you for the amazing experience, and I can’t wait for next year!

Who’s coming with?

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