I had an orange ribbon on the bottom on my name tag at RWA that pronounced me a First Timer. Apart from earning me the chance to tell total strangers how my conference was going, being a First Timer was pretty meaningless. (I met a fellow newby, Carla, who complained these ribbons should have labeled us as "Virgins" although she could see there might be a problem with "truth in advertising.")
I've been to conferences before, though, so I knew what to expect. Essentially it was like four days of combined Continuing Legal Education and job interviews, with the occasional reception thrown in for good measure. Most of the lessons I got, though, were outside of the workshops.
Here's what I learned:
Genius comes in all shapes and sizes. I doubt many people see Susan Elizabeth Phillips on the street and think, "Now that's a woman who's written several superb romance novels." She looks like the friendliest hostess and grandma on the block, lively and funny all in one. Which in no way precludes her awesome talent; it just doesn't telegraph it.
There's a corollary to this principle, namely that authors don't much look like their publicity photos. The photos might look better, or younger, or even glossier. But every writer I met looked a lot more human in real life, and I mean that as a compliment.
The author-reader barrier is still in place -- for me at least. I had a very short list of authors I wanted to meet, mostly at the literacy event on Wednesday night. I really could have skipped them all -- while I'm certain writers are lovely people in their real lives, at RWA they are working in an artificial environment and not (I presume) looking to make new friends. If introducing oneself to a working author is a sign of respect and acknowledgment, then I'm glad I did it. But much nicer was . . .
. . . The chance to meet fellow-bloggers and online contacts at the blogger bashes. (Some authors also attended, I hasten to note, including some I didn't know before. That was a much nicer venue for getting to know everyone, writer and reader alike.) Thanks to Wendy (aka Super Librarian) and Elizabeth (aka Anime June), there were two bashes at which bloggers, reviewers, authors and readers all gathered to mix and mingle. Those events were nearly perfect because we all came together with approximately the same degree of prior social interaction. Now I have names & faces to go with the online personae; without exception people are so much more interesting in person.
One workshop presenter suggested "never be negative" as a general rule for a writer's online interactions. I can see her point; within hours of arriving in Orlando, I was introduced to B.K., the real-life nickname of an author whose pen name sounded familiar. I had to come back here to Promantica to find it: a post I did explaining why a certain book of hers wasn't to my liking. Ooops.
I have no reason to suppose B.K., who's a friend of a friend, knows me from Adam. But as one author explained, most writers have "Google Alerts" set up to see every mention of their names. So maybe B.K. saw or was linked to my post, read it, didn't like it and (this is the part I find hard to envision) remembered it had been written by someone named Magdalen. As my name turns out not to be indelibly memorable, it seems unlikely that B.K. had been walking around with it in her head just in case I materialized in front of her. However, it is true that when our mutual friend introduced us, B.K. shook my hand, turned around and walked out of the room.
I've reread my post about her book and I stand by it. I don't think I was unduly harsh or unkind. I don't subscribe to the theory that books are writers' "babies" and thus deserve the same level of blind oohing and ahhing by commenters that we accord newborns. Nonetheless, I got the conference's "don't be negative" message.
I'll work out the appropriate compromise for Promantica. Romances still fascinate me, as a genre and as a source of reading pleasure. I should be able to find insights to share without being negative about authors.
But RWA didn't appear to have a workshop that covered that trick.