The Cultural Gutter

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"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

It’s Fun to Go to the R.W.A

Chris Szego
Posted January 21, 2010

bittyheart.JPGThe
internet allows writers to do the impossible: write in isolation
while in company. A writer might still face off single-handedly
against blank screen, but behind the accusing blink of the cursor
there are thousands of minds ready to offer information, support and
catwaxing options.

On the other hand, it’s not as if, pre-internet, every writer was
locked in a Proustian cork-lined room. Despite the solitary nature
of their work – or possibly because of it – writers have always
sought one another out. For encouragment, professional development,
and sometimes for the sheer relief of being around other people who
get it. That’s pretty much the unofficial definition of the RWA.

Romantic fiction became popular during the Regency era, when writers like Jane
Austen were read by absolutely everyone. The genre slowly began to
coalesce through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it
kicked into high gear in the 1970’s. At the end of that decade,
several women decided to form a group to pool their knowledge and
experience, and to help one another with both the creative and
business aspects of writing romance. There were thirty-seven members
when the Romance Writers of America was formed in 1980. Today, there
are more than ten thousand from all around the world.

The RWA is a major non-profit trade organization, with ten staff, an
elected Board of Directors, dedicated committee volunteers, and many
mind-numbing pages of bylaws. Its mission statement is: “to
advance the professional interests of career-focused romance writers
through networking and advocacy”. And damn, do they follow
through.

Joining the RWA gives a writer access to an amazing amount of information
about the genre, about writing, and about the publishing industry as
a whole. Their magazine, Romance Writer’s Report, contains
interviews, writing tips, market information, sales numbers, and much
more. But that’s just the beginning. Once a writer joins the
national organization, she can also join any of its 145 chapters.
Some of the chapters have to do with subject matter, like the Kiss of
Death chapter, which focuses on romantic suspense. Others, like the
Toronto Romance Writers, are strictly based on location*. But the
highlight of the year is the annual national conference.

Known simply as “National”, the massive conference brings editors,
agents, reviewers, artists, and marketers together with thousands of
writers, then hits ‘blend’. There are workshops, pitch sessions,
lectures, spotlight hours and more parties than TIFF. Sales are
made at the conference, deals struck and careers born. It’s an
exhilarating, exhausting rush.

wordheart2.pngThe
RWA is no slouch when it comes to advocacy, either. Its members know
how the genre is perceived in popular culture: they also know what
it’s worth. In 2008, for instance, it was worth $1.37 billion
in sales alone. They attend Book Expo and other major trade shows,
operate a Speaker’s Bureau, provide libraries and booksellers with
lists and catalogues, and compile statistics for common use. Several
years ago they created a continent-wide poster campaign, similar in
function (though not style) to the ‘look who’s in our library’
campaign of the ‘90s. They maintain a solid and easily navigable
website at www.rwanational.org which, among other duties, acts as a
platform site for member websites, and provides a monthly list of
member-written new releases. They admister awards to industry
professionals, and even provide an academic grant to foster the
serious study of the romance genre as a whole.

The RWA is also dedicated to furthering literacy. Which may sound
self-serving, but they’ve accomplished a great deal at both the
community and federal levels. Since 1991, the RWA has raised over
$600K for literacy programs. The main fund-raiser is the big
Literacy Autographing session which kicks off National each year.
Open to the public in addition as well as attendees, it’s like a
candy store for the literate. Mmm, just picture it: hundreds of
writers lining row upon row of long tables heaped with books (the
lineup for Nora Roberts usually circles the auditorium). Publishers
donate the books, and all proceeds go to literacy.

Then there are the RITA awards. They’re the OSCARs of the romance
world,in that they’re voted on by industry peers, but there are
several rounds of judging. There’s a similar contest for
unpublished manuscripts, called the Golden Heart. Finalists in that
contest end up with their work in front of major editors. It’s
terrific exposure, and many a Golden Heart winner ceases to be
unpublished shortly thereafter.

Of course, no group is without blemish, and the RWA is no exception.
Several years ago the Board had a referendum to see whether a romance
should be defined as the love story between “the two main
characters” or “a man and a woman”. After voting for the
former, I cancelled my membership, not wanting to belong to a group
that even considered the latter acceptable. I was far from alone in
that action ( “two main characters” passed, by the way).

Another point of contention is that alone amoung professional writers’
groups, the RWA does not require publishing credits to join. However
to join PAN, the Published Author’s Network within the RWA, with
its separate newsgroup, own information stream, and private
conference track, one certainly has to produce those credits. And
those credits mean something. When Harlequin announced it was going
to start steering rejected manuscripts towards its newly formed
vanity press, the RWA immediately removed Harlequin from its list of
approved publishers. In other words, the world’s largest publisher
of romance will no longer be deemed an acceptable credit for PAN
membership, nor can it use RWA resources at National or elsewhere.
David spanked Goliath public, and other writers groups followed suit.

It has its faults–everyone does–but the RWA is truly an
extraordinary organization. It is a powerhouse, large enough to be a
voice the publishing industry listens to. But true to the nature of
its thirty-seven founders, it is also welcoming and co-operative, and
provides countless opportunties for personal growth and connection.

*More on the Toronto Romance Writers coming soon.

~~~

Chris Szego is thinking about rejoining.

Word Hearts image by Jeff Clark. Check out the word hearts application, here.

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