A few years ago, just after I woke up in the cold sweat of my early thirties and realized I'd better get serious about writing, I had lunch with an acquaintance of mine who works as an editor at a well-known science fiction publisher. I told her about my writing plans -- historical fiction with romantic elements -- and she immediately suggested I join the Romance Writers of America.
I cast my mind back to the romances I'd devoured in high school and college. All fun and games, I thought, until you have to write the words 'turgid manhood' with a straight face. "Well," I said doubtfully, "I'm not sure if romance is my thing."
She shook her head. "RWA has a big tent. If you've got a love story, you're in. And the resources are huge. Workshops, conferences, contests. There's no better way to plug into the publishing network."
At that point, I wasn't in any position to be ignoring advice, and a few months later I walked into the hotel lobby at the RWA National Conference in Dallas. I didn't know a single soul, and until I opened the freebie paperbacks in my registration totebag, I hadn't read a romance in 15 years. Worse, the women around me were gathering into cliques, squeeing with delight, gossiping and texting each other. High school flashbacks began to explode in my brain. My right foot poised in midair, ready to flee for the elevator and lock myself back in my hotel room.
Luckily, I didn't. I stayed, attended workshops, ate chicken lunches in cavernous ballrooms. I gathered courage and introduced myself. I saw brilliant and accomplished women like Eloisa James and Lisa Kleypas lead sessions and give speeches. I saw a soaring variety of books being promoted, from classic category romance to hardcover historical fiction. I thought, maybe I do belong here. Maybe I can join a clique. Maybe I can even start a clique.
By the end of the conference, I was inspired. I'd read a few of the books in my totebag and discovered that romance had come a long way from the early 1990s, and I'd met a few of those texting women and found them full of welcome and enthusiasm for newcomers. I came home with notebooks full of storytelling techniques, and -- though I didn't realize it at the time -- the germ of an idea that became my first novel, OVERSEAS.
More importantly, I'd found a community. Whatever these women (and a few dudes too, it must be said) are writing, from sweet Amish love stories to kick-ass urban fantasy, they encourage each other through every step of the road through publication. They cross-promote with blogs and Twitter, they whoop and cheer and share information over email loops, they critique each other constructively through local chapters and contests. This is RWA's finest legacy: the unflagging and democratic support for all our fellow writers, published and unpublished.
I don't know if I'll ever manage to produce a true genre romance novel, but I'll always be a proud member of RWA and a devoted fan of its fabulous authors.
None of whom, by the way, would ever write the phrase 'turgid manhood.'