I started off the first day of the main conference with the PRO Retreat. The first part, about book contracts, was pretty useful - and a smart topic to target at PROs, all of whom have finished a manuscript and started their search for an agent/publisher, most of whom haven't reached the contract stage. By the time we hit PAN, the next step up, it's too late. After that came an editor panel, featuring May Chen from Avon, Debra Dixon from Belle Bridge, Lindsey Faber from Samhain, and a fourth I'm blanking on. The mix alone was a sign of the changing times - one e-first pub editor, an indie pub editor, and two Big 6 editors.
They were charming and forthcoming, but after attending regular local chapter meetings for the past couple of years, the questions trod familiar ground...How much promo is an author expected to do (as much as they can stomach), do they look at the slush pile differently after recent self-pub successes (not really), etc. Great questions and really interesting the first ten or twelve times you hear them answered.
Verdict: won't be going to the PRO retreat again. It was fine, but not nearly good enough to compete with the nine other workshops going on at the same time.
Stephanie Laurens gave the luncheon keynote, and it was ballsy. Debra Mullins pointed out to me afterwards that Laurens has a background in science (a peek at her about page tells me that Laurens has a PhD in Biochemistry which...wow), and she set about analyzing the massive upheavals rocking publishing right now with a scientist's eye.
I live tweeted this whole thing, so I'm mostly going to pull those tweets out and place them in context.
Laurens described "offline" publishing as a chain that starts with the author, but then passes through the publisher, the distributor, and the bookseller before reaching the reader. She described "online" publishing as a process with only two essential elements: author and reader, rendering the intermediaries (publisher, distributor, bookseller) non-essential.
She said "publishing is not our business" to all the authors in the room - that publishing is just transmission, moving a book from one place to another, a small part of the whole. And she recommended that publishers learn to make themselves essential to authors, if they want to survive.
Part of the problem, for publishers, is that they "never see the reader right down at the end of the chain, because they don't need to in offline publishing," while online publishing has reminded everyone of something that has been true all along: "readers rule, always."
By the time she got to the end of her speech -- by the time she said "readers rule, always" -- I'd teared up. Her speech started a little slow but by the middle, when I realized that she was throwing down a gauntlet, I started to worry that we'd all be struck by lightning. Yes, anyone who's been following the conversation around self-pub has heard most of what she said before, but in that venue? With every major romance publisher in attendance? Wow.
But her conclusion was inspiring, empowering, and emotional. Write good books, choose the best method of transmission for you at that moment...and let the readers decide. If I smoked, I'd have grabbed a lighter and started waving it around.
Instead I joined in the standing ovation. Good speech.
[Edited to add: Stephanie Laurens posted a transcript of her speech on her website, here.]
After lunch I headed to Julia Quinn's workshop: Dialogue: It's More Than What You Say
First of all: Julia Quinn is gorgeous.
Second of all: Julia Quinn is hilarious. She spent at least half of her hour-long talk on dialogue tags and had her audience laughing regularly. Dialogue tags are not naturally humorous at all, so I think all the credit there goes to the speaker.
I went to a talk on grammar particulars at a local chapter recently where the speaker insisted that dialogue tags must come at the beginning or the end of a sentence. Since I like to put them in the middle, more often than not, I've since spent a lot of time agonizing about dialogue tag placement and feeling very, very wrong. So it was liberating to hear Julia Quinn say that it's perfectly fine to put tags anywhere you please.
I really loved the way she talked about the tags as a form of punctuation - this was an absolute revelation to me, crystallizing something that I've felt for a long time but never with such clarity. Dialogue tags, she said (i.e.: he said, she said, he muttered, she squeaked, etc.) are like commas, while action tags (he smiled, she fiddled with her hair, he stroked her arm, etc.) are more like periods.
A few other tidbits...Ms. Quinn noted that being funny in a book probably requires being funny in person, and described herself as "naturally goofy". I can say from personal experience that the humor that shows well in my books is the kind of humor I do well in person, too; understated and wry, not so obvious.
Not new but still interesting was: vary speech patterns between characters, vary sentence structure to keep pacing up.
The final event of the day for me was The Romance of the Cocktail Seminar run by Van Gogh Vodka.
I went with a couple of friends (Alison Diem and Mary K. Norris...actually, Mary was a stranger at the doorway and a friend by the time we actually sat down). Tara Lynn Childs was already sitting at a mostly-empty table with her agent so we snagged some seats and then, over the next fifteen minutes, Miranda Neville, Kate Noble, Shana Galen, and Sophie Jordan all sat down next to us.
Unfortunately (or fortunately?) over those same fifteen minutes a bevy of waiters also handed out several rounds of some sort of sweet, pomegranate-flavored vodka drink. And then several rounds of a creamy, milkshake-flavored vodka drink. And then just a great big ol' glass of peach-flavored vodka, in case we hadn't had enough.
Sitting down amongst a bevy of wonderful, established authors who all write in my genre at a vodka-based event is what I'd call a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I'd never choose to meet any of those people while three drinks distant from perfect decorum. On the other hand, it was very fun and friendly.
There was a mixologist giving a talk, but the sound system was horrible and none of us could hear a word he said. So instead we snagged free drinks, laughed and chatted...we all contributed to the sea of empty glasses that clogged the middle of the table. By the end of the event, it looked like the alcoholic version of a fairground ring toss game.
On the way out, I ran into chapter-mate and, as of last Saturday, RITA-winner Tessa Dare at the bar...and she introduced me to Vivian Arend, who turns out to be easy to recognize because she was the only one to wear a cowboy hat every day. I admit, I felt pretty lucky and starstruck by the end of the evening. And tired. Very, very tired.