#RWAus15 & #MWF15 highlights – Hot jam doughnuts & comfy shoes

#RWAus15 & #MWF15 highlights – Hot jam doughnuts & comfy shoes

Having the Romance Writers of Australia (RWA) conference on the same weekend as the Melbourne Writers’ Festival (MWF) was great for readers, but I’m glad I wore comfy shoes.

I won’t lie: it was fantastic being able to attend the MWF while I was in Melbourne for RWA. But it was really hectic, and the trade-off was having fewer opportunities for impromptu conversations and meet-ups over the weekend. Here are some of my reflections on the events and the sessions I attended.

This will be a very long post, so if you want the short version, it’s this: While it was great to have two events going at the same time, I think it divided the audiences somewhat, especially when venues were not adjacent to each other. And although it was a great start to have romance panels and authors at MWF, the lack of understanding of genre in other panels meant that some of the more interesting topics didn’t do more the skim the surface. This is the strongest argument for including genre at mainstream festivals, and I hope MWF — as well as others — continues to explore how best to do this in coming years.

As for RWA, I noticed a lot more media this year, as well as first-time attendees who aren’t from the romance community — without exception, every one of them that I was able to chat with told me how fantastic the atmosphere at RWA was. If you want to read an account of the conference from someone who isn’t from the romance community, check out Helen Razer’s article for the Daily ReviewThese broads have no time for nonsense, and Maddison Connaughton’s piece for Vice, I Got a Lesson in Gender Equality at a Romance Writers’ ConferenceBooks+Publishing also covered the entire weekend (link further down). If I missed any press coverage, please let me know in the comments!

Dinner with Adele and Danielle

If you haven’t already heard, Adele Walsh and Danielle Binks are heading the Organising Committee for the 2017 Australian Romance Readers Convention (ARRC) in Melbourne. I caught up with them for dinner before the Rob Thomas panel and it was fantastic to be able to just chat about books and romancey things. We’re all planning to go to the Romantic Times (RT) convention next year, so already I know Vegas is gonna rock so hard.

In related news, Danielle won this year’s Romance Media Award (ROMA) for her piece in the Daily Life, Things no one tells you about romance readers. She was also part of MWF’s 30 under 30.

Rob Thomas at MWF

I attended two sessions featuring Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas. The first was a Q&A hosted by Clementine Ford, which focused on Veronica Mars and iZombie. The questions for this panel were largely sourced from the audience. There were a lot of excerpts from iZombie, which makes me want to go and see it. We also saw the pilot from Party Down that wasn’t broadcast, and that was shot at Thomas’ house using spare Veronica Mars time, crew and cast.

Afterwards, Thomas stayed back to sign merchandise. I didn’t even think to bring anything along, so I just asked for a selfie. I will say that Thomas was completely without pretension and made a point to shake every person’s hand and ask them their name. This experience was so much better than meeting some of the cast members at Comic Con, where everything had to be paid for, and the rules were ridiculously strict about what ticket holders could and couldn’t do. So my advice is if you have a choice between a fan convention and writers’ festival to meet a celebrity, always opt for the writers’ festival.

The next day, I went to the Veronica Mars pilot presentation , which was in an auditorium. It was basically like watching bonus features with the director telling us stuff in person. Surprisingly, the session went over time and Thomas had to cut off his presentation before we could even have a Q&A. That was unfortunate, but honestly, he was so lovely. Sometimes his voice would waver as he talked and I thought, Bless, I think he might be nervous! Which is really just very sweet, given that pretty much everyone in the audience was giddy to be in his presence.

Some of the random things I learned from Rob Thomas:

  • It was a balancing act to have levity without going for the punch line all the time, as you would in romcom.
  • He pitched Veronica Mars using Seinfeld as research (and it was surprisingly close to what it’s really like).
  • Typically, for a show, you can’t find the perfect actor. You have to find 5 you can live with, and the studio has to like at least 1 of them.
  • In the original pilot, Veronica got Corny to create a cock bong. This was nixed by the studio. HOLLYWOOD HAS A LOT TO ANSWER FOR.
  • Jason Dohring is a method actor. He auditioned in a scene where Logan’s dad was about to burn Logan with a cigarette. He was too intense to cast as the lead love interest, but once he and Kristen Bell were on screen together, the chemistry was obvious.
  • When you cast a pilot, the executive producer has a big say but not the final say. You might pick 5 actors you can live with. The studio picks 2 or 3, and then the network picks. If Thomas had tried to cast Dehiring as the romantic lead he never would have made it. Too much smouldering fury.
  • Australia was chosen as a destination for Duncan due to distance. They filmed in San Francisco, and they knew they could film at the beach.
  • One of the biggest battles with the studio after the pilot was Veronica’s rape. The studio got nervous and asked if they really had to have the rape? Yes. It motivates everything. The original pilot was darker. Veronica breaks into Keith’s safe and finds letters and postcards from Veronica’s mum, and they have a fight. The studio was like, She’s already been raped. She has no friends. Can’t you just give her her dad???
  • Thomas wanted the Mars’ apartment complex to be like the one in the Karate Kid with the gross pool, but the studio objected and they had to CGI the sparkling blue pool. (FWIW as soon as I saw that scene, I immediately though of Karate Kid!)
  • Thomas said ‘it’s a drag’ to write mysteries as it doesn’t come naturally to him. Left to his own devices, he would write Freaks and Geeks. No capers. ‘My head hurt.’
  • He loved Freaks and Geeks, and when it was cancelled, it felt like the death of small story television. Veronica Mars was Thomas’ Trojan horse to get a teen show on air, pitched as a detective show.
  • HBO hated the Party Down script. FX also declined.
  • During the last season of Veronica Mars, the crew had a few spare weeks and shot the script with Thomas’ own money to try and sell this thing they loved so much (Party Down).
  • Veronica Mars was the perfect Kickstarter project, but it didn’t necessarily revolutionise the business. The show had a very dedicated audience and was in that gap between an audience that was too small for a major studio but big enough for the crowd funding model.
  • If he were to launch his own TV show, he didn’t think people would buy that. They were buying a pre-existing idea. Thomas felt that the Veronica Mars Kickstarter was going to be more an anomaly than a way of life.
  • Thomas said he felt that young adult is practically running the world right now and that his career would be much better off if had started 15 years after he did.
  • ‘I’m a big fan of genre, but I will admit it would be difficult for me to go back.’
  • Thomas prefers dialogue rather than scene descriptions. ‘They pay TV writers a lot more’
  • On female heroines with male best friends. Thomas said that Peyton became Liv’s best friend in iZombie because they ran out of money.
  • On diversity: ‘There’s a lot of pressure to have a diverse cast. I welcome that. Exceptions are, like, family shows where it makes sense, but even in something like Modern Family there’s a lot of diversity.’
  • Thomas was attracted to the 90210 reboot project because of the money. He left it because of reasons to do with how TV words that I didn’t understand. :D
  • On maintaining the momentum from iZombie season 1 to season 2: Thomas flipped the dynamics on its head. S1 was mostly zombies going after humans. S2 was humans going after zombies.
  • On whether or not there will be a third Veronica Mars book: ‘If you want a third book, you need to root (sic) very hard for the cancellation of iZombie. Book 2 was completed during the filming of iZombie and it nearly killed me.’
  • The most consideration Thomas has given to the audience was in making the Veronica Mars film. ‘If I to to do another Veronica Mars film, I’d start with a great noir mystery and start from there. With crowd funding, the plot choices were driven by how to satisfy the fans. We went all-in on giving people what they want.’
  • For the Veronica Mars pilot, there was tension between Thomas’ vision for the show and the studio’s. He shot 2 version of the pilot and tried to sabotage the network version with really bad dialogue. Unfortunately, the LA Times was sent the bad voice over version. The show got a good review except for ‘inexplicably bad lines like…”my private eye antenna went up”‘.

Media Makers: Critical Matters — Popular vs Highbrow at MWF

The Friday morning session on popular vs highbrow, featuring Patrick Allington and Beth Driscoll, was a very thoughtful discussion on literary criticism, reviewing and mainstream media coverage of literary vs genre books and authors. What I loved about this panel was that Allington and Driscoll were book lovers first, and the tone of the discussion put the books first and treated readers with respect.

Driscoll spent a bit of time trying to explain reader reviewers, and I think the best summation is that reviewers on Goodreads and Amazon offer an emotional response to books, whereas professional reviewers (I’m assuming this refers mainly to those who review for mainstream media) explore the ‘why’. Reviews serve different functions for individual readers and it’s actually difficult and perhaps misleading to assume we understand the reasoning behind 1-star reviews on ‘shelves of shame’ on Goodreads. Allington offers the reasonable counterpoint that the spontaneous response isn’t necessarily the ‘purest’ response.

Of course, there’s always one in the audience, and the panelists had to answer the obligatory question about the anonymous Interwebz from someone who doesn’t actually use Amazon or Goodreads. But Allington and Driscoll handled it deftly. (I wish I had been tweeting next to that audience member, though. I bet that would have annoyed her.) Allington did wonder how useful it would be to have 1000+ reviews against a book, and the improbability that anyone would read through all of them. I would argue that he totally missed the point of social media with this answer, because of course, the beauty of Goodreads is that the opinions of friends and people you follow are prioritised over the rest, and for most people these are actually the most relevant reviews.

The most fascinating discussion was around the question of ethics. According to Driscoll, different codes of ethics apply, especially in genre communities. Allington talked about debut books and said that while he doesn’t pull punches, he’s very careful with the language he uses, trying to balance honesty without discouraging first-time authors.

Allington acknowledged that it’s tricky to balance conflicts of interest within the literary world, particularly in Australia. I really wish someone had asked about The Saturday Paper policy of pseudonymous reviews but it didn’t come up and I wasn’t able to bring it up during the Q&A.

I think this is something that online communities are still grappling with. Probably we come from a place without conflicts of interest and are now realising that it’s impossible to maintain unless you shun most reader/author events and social media interactions, and do nothing but review books you buy or borrow from the library.

Afterwards, I caught up with Beth (whom I met at the F Word panel at the Wheeler Centre) over coffee, and we talked about some of the directions she’s looking at in her academic work. (She’s a co-recipient of the RWA scholarship grant, along with Kim Wilkins and Lisa Fletcher.)

Voicing Race at MWF

I really wanted to hear at least one MWF session that included someone with a Filipino background, and that worked out to be Adolfo Aranjuez at the Voicing Race panel, with Jessica Yu and Maxine Baneba Clarke (whom I knew from the F Word panel at the Wheeler Centre). They raised some very thought-provoking ideas, and explored diversity in fiction beyond the obvious conversations.

Aranjuez talked about how as a teen and an immigrant wanting to assimilate, his reading was around the canon of mainstream literature. Yu pointed out that when English is not your first language, the way you use words will be different. Both talked about the quagmire of writing about race and becoming a de facto spokesperson for race (something that Anita Heiss also touched on in her RWA keynote — see below). Migrant writers’ work are often seen as autobiographies even when they’re actually not.

The panel discussed efforts to promote diversity in fiction, and whether or not that prioritises social issues over quality fiction. I love this response from Yu:

They also talked about whether or not it’s appropriate for writers to write about people of colour. All admitted this is a tricky situation, but that this shouldn’t stop writers from doing it.

The take-home from this panel was that if we want more diverse books, we need to ask for them. If you enjoy a book by a writer of colour, email the publisher and ask if they have more. Attend festival panels featuring diverse panels and topics, and email organisers to let them know what you enjoyed and what was missing.

RWA welcome drinks

RWA officially kicked off with drinks on Friday night, this year hosted by Destiny Romance and themed ‘Fresh, Fun & Flirty’. (I wore a dress with mushrooms.) The Park Hyatt in Melbourne is probably the best hotel I’ve stayed in and the service was pretty flawless. It came at a price, of course, but RWA got a pretty great deal (in my opinion).

#RWAus15 welcome drinks at the #ParkHyatt #Melbourne. #authors #romance

A photo posted by Kat (@bookthingo) on

I didn’t really stay long, and the noise level was quite high, so it was difficult to hold in-depth conversations, but it’s always fabulous to catch up with friends and acquaintances in the book world.

RWA keynote: Graeme Simsion

For me, Graeme Simsion was the surprise keynote of the conference. I think this is because I don’t think of him as a romance writer per se. But his keynote was really funny and sincere and useful. Plus he was asked to present the First Sale Ribbons (for writers who sold their first book in the last 12 months) and he insisted on asking every author the title of their book. It was very charming, especially when you consider that this year the RWA awarded the most number of First Sale Ribbons than in any other year previously. Some highlights from Simsion’s keynote:

Perhaps because I had diversity on my mind, it didn’t seem like writers of colour are well represented in romance, looking around the room. That’s something we need to work on.

Historical romance panel at RWA

I hadn’t planned on attending any morning sessions because I wanted to rest and prepare for a session I was running with Jen later in the day, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to see Anne GracieStephanie LaurensChristina Brooke and Mary Jo Putney in the same room (moderated by Alison Stuart), so I sat it on their panel. The authors shared a lot of trivia and insights on historical romance. Some highlights:

Love at first site — Website design session with Jennifer Wu

Jen and I ran a workshop on website design. We ran out of time towards the end, but hopefully the audience found it valuable (it’s always hard to tell — it would be great if RWA had feedback for the panelists). Here are the resource notes:

Slide pack (PDF, 9mb)

Cheat Sheet: Setting up your website (Google Docs)

Design and Website Resources (Google Docs)

If you attended our session, I’d really love some feedback (good or bad — I don’t take criticism personally, I promise!) Was there something you were hoping to learn but we missed? Were there topics you wish we had covered in more depth? Did anything confuse you? What did you find valuable? I’m brainstorming ideas for next year’s RWA conference, and it probably won’t be on website design, but if there’s enough interest, I’ll consider doing something similar again, or maybe doing a series on the blog. Let me know! You can send me an email at kat@bookthingo.com.au.

ARRA author signing at RWA

The author signing always goes too quickly, and this year was no exception. The upside was that using Instagram made it so much easier to take photos. This time I started from the end of the alphabet and worked my way back. I think I got up to M before I decided to just randomly walk around as I only had 15 minutes left!

RUBY awards dinner

I already blogged about the RUBY winners, so I’ll give you some of my impressions of the night. It was much more theatrical this year, from the opening musical number, to the bare-chested butlers. The latter, in particular, concerned me at first, but they were classy (well, as much as one can be half-naked) and tying photo ops with fundraising for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation made the whole thing feel a lot less seedy than it could have been. Kudos to Graeme Simsion who decided, on the spot, to issue a Twitter challenge to raise more money for the ILC. I think all up the conference raised over $1500.

One thing I definitely noticed this year was how much tweeting was going on throughout the conference. When I attended my first RWA event — also in Melbourne — I was basically the only person tweeting (maybe with the exception of the official RWA account and maybe Helene Young, IIRC). This year, I was sitting next to Jackie from Books+Publishing, who was furiously live tweeting and taking notes — during the breaks she had to dash outside to charge her phone — and there were so many photos being posted on Twitter. I think this is great, especially for those who couldn’t make it to the conference.

The formal part of the evening ended with Anne Gracie’s traditional stand-up speech. This is the best part of the night for the writers, and I love seeing the expressions on the faces of first-time attendees (yes, including Graeme Simsion and Anita Heiss).

Escape Publishing hosted the afterparty, and even though this is a relatively new tradition, it’s hard to remember when there wasn’t an after party. There was the swing dancing lesson. And the letter lights:

And the photo booth:

You guys! I CANNOT EVEN. #awesomepeople #rwaus15 #snaphappy

A photo posted by Kat (@bookthingo) on

RWA keynote: Anita Heiss

I was up early the next day to catch the keynote speech from chicklit author Anita Heiss. I’m a convert to the Anita Heiss fan club — she’s a goddess in real life — especially when I learned that she had accepted a dare to wear a sparkly tiara all weekend. Her keynote touched a lot on the question of diversity in fiction. She was also really funny. Here are some highlights:

RWA  keynote: Mary Jo Putney

Mary Jo Putney was a bit difficult to see over the lectern, but she had some wonderful and inspirational things to say about the relationship between writers, readers, and books. Here are some highlights:

Publishing roundtable: Harlequin UK, Penguin Random House, Tule Publishing, Pantera Press & Harlequin Australia

I missed the publishing roundtable the previous day, so I was keen to see what topics would come up on Sunday. It was somewhat disappointing when I realised that the session didn’t really touch on what publishers are looking for and what they’re excited about. Maybe it was because the audience was smaller (I want to say I blame the Escape afterparty for that!) but I was puzzled that there weren’t more and better questions.

  • Digital book sales have plateaued
  • Print is not dead
  • Romance fiction has been hitting bestseller lists across Australia
  • People are reading differently
  • Short formats are finding success
  • Challenge is in exploring and finding standouts among the ‘noise’
  • Lots of serialisation projects take advantage of compulsive serial reading — this has led to more episodic stories
  • We’re seeing romance writers being included in literary festivals
  • Publishers look at authors’ long-term careers when exploring potential for collaboration
  • Emerging authors should be visible and accessible — stay connected, build an email list so you can communicate directly to your readers
  • It’s unrealistic to avoid rejection — the numbers just don’t work that way, and rejection is part of working in the arts

I won’t lie: some of these trends don’t work for me at all. I’m not a fan of serial fiction because I need instant gratification — I get bored waiting for the next book in a series, and what tends to happen is that I forget what the series is about and never actually bother with subsequent books.

Classified: Literary vs Genre at MWF

Despite the fact that I’m a bit of a fangirl for authors Krissy Kneen and Honey Brown, this panel was a bit of a disappointment. Kneen has some appreciation for genre, but really just doesn’t know enough about it (and she admits this, so it’s not a criticism of her) to speak authoritatively on the subject. Similarly, Brown is conscious of genre, but admits she doesn’t write like a genre author. Harrison Young was the third panelist, and Lisa Dempster moderated the discussion. So in reality, there was no one with enough immersion in genre fiction to represent it.

To their credit, the panelists treated genre — authors, readers, and works — with a lot of respect. But that lack of representation was a bit galling to the point where I had to ask a question. In hindsight, I would have asked a much more succinct question, but at the time I was feeling very frustrated.

I’d like to get your thoughts on the structural deficiencies that privilege literary works over works of genre. As an example, most genre readers will have read a reasonable number of books from the literary canon, but I would guess that very few literary gatekeepers would have read, for example, Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale. And even the debates about female-oriented covers seem like a distraction from the true is  — that the library establishment don’t actually understand how to read genre, like Mills and Boon, or Avon historicals, or Fifty Shades of Grey, and therefore are incapable of judging their merit despite the fact that genre has led some of the most important innovations in publishing in the last decade.

I felt bad asking the question, actually. It was the same feeling I had at the 2013 SWF romance panel that featured no romance authors, when I asked a question about Australian rural romance and got an answer about Mills and Boon. I don’t know. It wasn’t a very satisfying panel and I think it just needed a CS Pacat or Anne Gracie or Jodi McAlister to make the discussion more robust.

Here I segued into my own little tweeting monologue, because I have an issue with the notion that good writing will always rise to the top, and that genre would be on a level playing field with literary books if only we ignore that it belongs to genre. Later that day, Merrian and I had a great chat about how the absence of genre authors leads to huge gaps when discussions ideas and themes and issues in literature. I have so many thoughts on this issue, but I’ll have to leave those for another post because this is already an epic. But here’s the general gist:

Dubious Consent at MWF

I had such high hopes for this panel, featuring Krissy Kneen and SJ Watson, but as with the previous session I attended, it suffered greatly for having no one to represent genre — specifically the romance genre. As Merrian said to me later, how can you possibly have a discussion on dubious content without discussing romance novels?

The simple answer is: You can’t.

The discussion was a bit preoccupied with taboos, which is a very interesting topic for Kneen. It kept coming back to bestiality, which is the main theme in the second story in her anthology, Triptych (which I reviewed here). Kneen has a way of speaking that makes me feel like I’m sitting at the edge of my seat. She takes a lot of risks as a writer and as a speaker, and I love how intimate it feels to listen to her. She’s the kind of speaker I almost fear for, because I feel like she makes herself too vulnerable. But of course, that’s also the reason why I love her work so much.

Unfortunately, as Merrian pointed out to me later on, for audience members (like us) who have been part of the section of the romance community that preoccupies itself with just these sorts of questions, the discussion lacked the nuance we were hoping for. It didn’t, for example, touch on reader consent, which Dear Author was discussing back in 2011. There was no deep understanding of the different functions that rape fantasies might have in fiction, or questions about how gender (of characters, authors, and readers) might shape the ideas we have around consent.

In conclusion: Hot jam doughnuts

I didn’t get a chance to see any of the romance panels at all due to scheduling conflicts. But A World of Romance has an excellent round-up of some of the romance and women’s fiction panels at MWF. If you only read one recap (assuming you get to the end of this one), you should read that one.

I capped off my RWA/MWF weekend by sharing hot jam doughnuts at Flinders Street with the fabulous Alex Adsett. I’m not sure how I missed these little beauties in all my previous trips to Melbourne, but they were so delicious and just the perfect, low-key way to end a hectic but fun weekend.

The following morning, I spent an hour eating pancakes, bacon and chocolate croissants, then took a nap before noon.

The end.

3 comments

  1. Kaetrin says:

    First: I read it all! :)

    Second: Totally jealous of all the bookish things you did.

    Third: Completely agree re this:

    As Merrian said to me later, how can you possibly have a discussion on dubious content without discussing romance novels?

    The simple answer is: You can’t.

  2. Kat says:

    Kaetrin, you’ll get a chance to experience it next year and I can’t wait to catch up with you then! You’ll have to show me where the hot jam doughnuts (or equivalent) are to be found at Radelaide. :)

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