Romance Writers of Australia Made Me Dream Big
Thirty years ago, in Kempsey, a small river town eight hours drive from Sydney (before the M1 and the internet), a young mum of four boys (under six) dreamt about writing romance novels with strong heroines as a possible second job. It did sound good...but how? No internet for ordinary joes in those times and nobody I knew in my country town wanted to write a silly romance.
Cue my husband holding up a Sydney Morning Herald article about an amazing group of romance writers who were staging the first Romance Writers of Australia conference at Macquarie University in Sydney. Lynne Wilding and Co. had already gathered like-minded people, and some even wrote for or knew authors with Mills and Boon in London. Romance authors LIVE! Could I possibly be a part of this dream event?
I’d never been on university grounds in my life or met a published author. But maybe I could swap shifts in my midwifery job and drive down, just to see?
‘You should go,’ my dear heart said.
‘Yes.’ I said, and continued to say ‘Yes,’ every year for twenty-nine more, while the hero held the fort at home. Funny how my family and my work came to know I was unavailable for those days in August.
At that first conference I tried to remember to close my gaping mouth. Advice from authors. Almost published writers. Unpublished writers with the same dreams as I had. And even more special, real published authors all sitting in the front row who proved it could be done. People who said, ‘Dream Big.’ I did. I swore I would sit down there in the first row one day, when I was published.
But there was so much to learn first.
Guidelines for submission. A new magazine. Networking. Forming writing groups. Sadly, all too far away for me but these incredible, generous, successful people were telling SECRETS and SPILLING them and I’d found them. Sharing their journeys and passion and enthusiasm as the ultimate role models for unpublished writers. For me and so many closet writers this was utopia. Apart from the tiny admission fee for the venue, they were doing it out of the generosity of their hearts. To SHARE! Face to face.
As keynote speakers the Emma Darcy Duo, Frank and Wendy Brennan, were so much larger than life and are my most enduring memory of that first day. Pithy, prolific, never preaching but razor-witted and author focussed. During breaks from the official program they held cups of tea and smoked cigarettes as they shared. A group of unpubbed writers standing in an awed semi-circle soaked up the Brennans’ wisdom. ‘Your editor is not your friend. Writing is business. Your hero is larger than life. Always larger than life.’
And nine years later in my writing journey, my most memorable conversation ended with, ‘For God’s sake, finish the damn book, Fiona.’
Yes, it took ten conferences and many false-start rejections to finish a book and be published. But conference was coming. Always coming. Many first three chapters that were rejected, dropped until next conference when I’d start again with new enthusiasm. I kept writing because of the inspiration from guest speakers over the years and such support from RWA and the competitions that began to create deadlines, and provide feedback, for those like me, in need. Remote but connected by conference. Eventually I volunteered as competition coordinator and the local post office couldn’t believe how many RWA packages of competition entries arrived and were sent out again to the judges.
From the early days Harlequin Mills and Boon wanted to find new romance authors and were happy to celebrate the depth of talent they found by sending editors out from England, and later from the US, to RWA conferences. Antipodean authors sold well, did you know? The Sydney office of Mills and Boon, now amalgamated into Harper Collins, took the Aussie and NZ published authors out to a fabulous lunch during conference. Dream Big. I so wanted to go to that lunch.
Other publishers began to join in. Every year at conference speakers shared, chatted, rubbed shoulders at cocktail parties. I began to recognise faces, made enduring writing friends, until 1999 when I finished my first book and the call came. Delivering Love was accepted by M&B’s Medical line, and I could sit down the front and go to the author’s lunch at the next conference.
Seriously, my friend Bronwyn Jameson also sold to Silhouette Desire that same year and we were so excited to be going to our first M&B authors’ lunch together. We didn’t even have our books out yet to sign like the other authors but that didn’t dent our excitement. I will never forget the gorgeous Helen Bianchin coming up to us as we hovered at the door to the restaurant and making a fuss about our achievement. Helen Bianchin! OMG.
Ironically, you didn’t have to be published to sit down the front of the conference room by then, but I sat there that year, and I smiled and smiled. New goal. Now I wanted to win a Ruby Award.
RWA conferences have had so many big names in writing and publishing to inspire us all. Nora Roberts, Penny Jordon, Judy Nunn, Valerie Parv, Isabel Swift, Luigi Bonomi, Kathryn Falk, Jennifer Bacia, Robyn Donald, Daphne Clair, Lynsey Stevens, Stephanie Laurens, Miranda Lee, Debbie Macomber, Sophie Weston, Donald Maas, Lucy Monroe, Jane Porter, Stephanie Bond, Leslie Wainger, Vanessa Grant, Jennifer Crusie, Anne Stuart, Jo Beverley, Barbara Samuel, Margie Lawson, Mary Jo Putney, Vicki Lewis Thompson, Debra Dixon, Nalini Singh, Susan Wiggs, Bob Mayer, Marion Lennox – and that was just the first twenty years.
Every year at the end of that August weekend, volunteer members would stand up and form the committee to plan the next year’s conference. Huge commitment, huge generosity of their time, and because of them, RWA goes on year after year with amazing people giving so much. I remember way back in the beginning, the gorgeous Claire Ikin, Waveney Lockeyear, and Meredith Webber who were personally so kind to me in the early years and made such a difference to my confidence as a future author.
When I go to conference I look for people sitting alone, and smile and sit if they look like they’d like to chat. Try it. Every year I make new friends. Learn new things. Hear wonderful stories of how they came to be here at conference.
Not so long ago I remember the buzz when I first heard Dan, from Draft2Digital. The Kobo team. The Apple i-books ladies. A whole new world again. Or the wonderful Aiki Flinthart talking about Fight Like A Girl. And what about the huge effort with last year’s on-line conference and its fabulous success. Bless volunteers. Thank one. Be one.
There is so much to learn in this ever-evolving writing game and Romance Writers Of Australia is the place to learn. My advice? Always say ‘Yes,’ to conference.
Footnote: You know that thing about thinking big? And having goals? At last year’s conference my contemporary romance, The Desert Midwife, won my first RWA RuBY award.