Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Tips from RWA 2009!

By Debby Giusti

This year’s Romance Writers of America National Conference, held in Washington, DC, offered more than 150 workshops. Here are some of the tips I picked up as I enjoyed three days focused on writing.

Janet Evanovich opened the conference and talked about her ten-year journey to publication. Before the "Call," Janet analyzed romance novels and made lists of how the authors told their stories. Now she’s at her desk by 5:15 AM. Janet calls herself a “reduction sauce writer” because she reduces descriptions into three or four sentences that are easy for the reader to ingest.

Analyze your writing, Janet suggested. What works? What do readers like? Asked about stumbling blocks, she said transitions are hard, but when well written, they make the book a page turner.

Toward the end of her talk, she provided a tidbit that hit home with me. She said an editor once told her, “Never save anything.” When as idea floats into her brain, she uses it for the work in progress. New ideas will come when needed so Janet says, “Don’t hold anything back!”
(Debby chats with Janet Evanovich above left.)

Best-selling author Brenda Novak talked about Emotion as the Heart of the Novel. Her tips? Keep the reader in the action. Start in the present and move forward in real time. Show don’t tell. Don’t repeat the obvious. Use specific details that create a picture.

Brenda suggested layering conversations with subtext to add richness. Blend the narrative with the dialogue. Show the reverse side to the extreme to make interesting characters, especially villains.

Sharon Sala, in her workshop From the Basement to the Penthouse: the ABCs of Building Suspense, said internal conflict is the character’s Achilles heel. The hero has to face his personal conflict and grow because of it. Sharon suggests having a story come full circle so it ends where it began. (Remember the opening beach scene in the movie Sweet Home Alabama? The movie ended with a concluding scene on that same beach years later.)

Sharon Page and Jessica Faust created an excellent handout for their workshop, The 15 Minute Synopsis: How to Create a Selling Synopsis Fast. Their advice is to start with conflict. What’s keeping the hero and heroine apart? Make the problem clear and specific. Detail how they grow, and why they fall in love. Start with a sentence, expand it into a paragraph and finally a one-page synopsis.

As a guide for developing a quick synopsis, Sharon and Jessica suggested focusing on the set up of the hero and heroine and their conflict, the black moment and climax and what the characters have learned as well as their declaration of love.

Another keeper from Sharon: The synopsis is to sell the book, not summarize the story. Just as in your actual manuscript, use plot points to build romance. Open with a story question and end with a rich emotional conclusion that will stand out in the editor’s mind.

Donald Maass, the author of WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL and THE FIRE IN FICTION, told writers to pull their heroes down to earth. What’s the hero's weakness? Give him a funny quirk or a flaw he can’t correct.

Once again, Maass challenged writers to make the villain multi-dimensional. Allow him to get what he wants in the beginning, but later, he confronts the protagonist and should lose but not easily. A Maass tip: Have the villain on the page interacting with the protagonist at least five times within the story.

Revitalize dead scenes by increasing the emotion. Up the character’s anger to fury, delight to euphoria, loneliness to desolation. Weave your own personal experiences into the story to make them ring true. (Darlene Buchholz, Donald Maass, Debby and Missy Tippens pose for the camera.)

Best-selling suspense author Andrew Gross was up bright and early on Saturday morning for an 8:30 AM, “He Said, She Said” workshop with Carla Neggers. He empowers his heroines and creates smart women who are pretty, but not beautiful. They overcome serious life obstacles, which make them stronger. Think iron fist inside a velvet glove for the gutsy heroine Gross does so well. He also gives the gals a hidden talent and lets them outcompete the male character. He added, while the female protagonist beats the guy, she never shows him up. (Debby with Andrew Gross.)

The last workshop I attended was given by Grammar Divas Darlene Buchholz and Annie Oortman. Sporting neon pink hardhats, the Divas talked about the nuts and bolts of constructing a story with emphasis on grammar and word choice. These girls know their stuff, provide excellent handouts and are getting ready to launch a website. Visit them soon at

The best part of the conference was visiting with friends old and new. Thanks to everyone who made the conference so special. (L to R: Missy Tippens, Janet Dean and Debby at the Harlequin party. Janet and Debby at the Literacy Book Signing. Debby, Janet, Golden Heart finalist and newly contracted author Cara Slaughter, and Missy before the Awards Ceremony.)
Please leave a comment and share any new writing tip you’ve recently learned. When we pool our resources, we all benefit.

Happy writing!

Wishing you abundant blessings,
Debby Giusti


  1. Debby -- this is a phenomenal post, filled with exactly the types of tips I've needed (lighthearted and easy to digest). Thanks for sharing these experiences; your insight is appreciated.

    Have a great week!

  2. I brought one of those big beautiful silver coffee makers that they use in classy hotels. Not just silver and shiny but curved like a tureen with ornate fixtures. In honor of the conference posts this week.

    That pretty much calls for those little round Danish and mini yogurts too.

    Thanks, Debby. With your great summaries and my lack of sleep I feel like I am right there. Rubbing shoulders and bully tote bags with other attendees (at a great price).

    You summarized some valuable "take home" messages!

  3. Weronika,
    Thanks for stopping by early...ah, I mean late last night! :) I always search for nuggets of info to take home from conferences. Reviewing my notes this year for the blog helped solidify the bits and pieces I plan to incorporate into my work. Hope you can use them as well.

  4. Hi Walt! Great hearing from you bright and early. Have a wonderful day!

  5. Deb,
    You mentioned lack of sleep. No doubt, you noticed the bags under my eyes in the photos. I run on adrenalin during conferences and come home happy but exhausted.

    It took me over a week to regroup this year. But during that time, I worked on two new books proposals. The story ideas had been circulating in my brain, yet I couldn't pull the pieces together.

    Met with my cps yesterday and talked my way through the ideas. A little brainstorming helped. Now I'm ready to start writing.

    Janet E's comment about not saving anything gave me "permission" to use some of the plot points I had planned to work into future books. Her words were pure inspiration. Janet also added, if the current story doesn't sell, there might not be a next book so don't hold back. Just what I needed to hear.

    Anyone else caught in that save-it-for-later trap?

  6. Oh this is wonderful stuff, Deb. Best of the best from RWA. Good job, my friend.

    And Deb #2, thank you for the full coffee urn!!!!! Oh mylanta, I needed that this morning.

    And the Danish and mini-yogurts are nummy. Kudos to you.

    Deb #1, have you noticed that no matter how often you attend a conference, you learn something to help deepen your writing, plot structure, timing, etc.? Ideas get tweaked, take form?

    And a chance to see people who've been an online presence in your life between conferences?

    We are blessed.


  7. Deb,
    Thanks for taking care of the coffee this morning. Your silver urn is gorgeous, and the coffee's great. Love the Danish and yogurt.

    I've added bagels, cream cheese and jelly and a bowl of fruit. Cheese grits are for the Southern gals and guys or anyone else whose heart is in the South.

  8. You're right, Ruth. I always learn so much, and the time outside the workshops is equally as important. Reconnecting with friends is always the highlight of every conference.

    So many folks stopped by my table at the book signing and mentioned following the Seeker blog. Cyber hugs to all of you!

  9. Wow, Deb, this really wasn't just a boondoggle, was it?? Talk about workin', girl -- you cranked, apparently! Great stuff, and Ruthy's right -- it's amazing how much we can learn from other authors ... uh, and amazing how much we DON'T know!!

    LOVE the post ... except, sniff, it makes me wish I'd been there ...

    Oh well, at least there's Denver!


  10. Conference was fun, wasn't it? I learned so much from multi-pubbed and really experienced writers who generously shared their tips. And it's especially fun to see friends. I can't wait for ACFW!

  11. Can't wait to order the conference workshops on MP3, thanks for the great preview, Debby. Almost...almost like being there.

  12. Thanks, Debby! Fun and informative post!

  13. Thanks for the great insight into the conference, Debby. It helps for those of us who weren't able to go this year to get a taste and feel for the real thing. I can't wait until I can go to my first conference. Maybe next year!


  14. Great pictures, Debbie. I bet Janet Evanovich is all tingly that you took the time to have your picture taken with her.


    And Darlene is a grammar diva? Your friend Darlene that I talk to every year at ACFW?

    Why didn't I know this?

  15. Hey, Debby! I'm usually too tired to concentrate on workshops, but I'm going to try harder this year!

  16. Good job boiling that down!

    I knew something was missing from breakfast this morning -- we had biscuits and gravy, tater tots, bacon and eggs -- we were missing grits!

    Appearances by the villain -- that's a good point and suggests some updates to scenes.

  17. Ann, are you suggesting grits are villains? I'm with you there, dude.

  18. Hi Debby, What fun to see the photos and hear the highlights of the conference. Brought to mind when I saw you all in san Francisco last year. Thanks for sharing the helpful hints. I really needed the reminder to move on to the next wip.

    Love the coffee and food. Always a treat early in the morning. (which it is on the west coast-smile)

  19. Awesome post! Your summaries were chock full of useful info - I'm taking notes.

    It made such a BIG difference when I forced myself to find ONE thing to like about my villianous and to justify her actions. It totally revolutionized how I created my 'bad' guys.

    Thanks so much for sharing these tips.

  20. Tina, tsk tsk - grits are not villians. They are just a 'think outside the box' food :-)

  21. Missed you at RWA, Julie! Missed all the Seekers who couldn't be there. Can't wait until ACFW so we can all be together.

  22. Hi Cara,
    You looked elegant at the awards ceremony. Did you hear the cheers when your photo appeared on the big screens? We're so proud of your Golden Heart final ... we're proud of all our GH gals. How many now? Pam, Julie, Janet, Myra, Cara, Missy. Did I miss anyone?

  23. Tina, thanks for mentioning that workshops are available on MP3. Go to to make your selection.

  24. Hi Glynna. Love your photo! Looking forward to Denver!

  25. Hi Jen,
    I never felt I could rationalize the cost of the RWA National Conference until I was close to publication, especially since I had the Moonlight and Magnolias and other regional conferences that were so good and less expensive.

    My first RWA was in 2005, and I was blown away with the information I learned as well as the wonderful people I met, networking opportunities and interaction with editors and agents. I promised myself I'd make RWA a top priority each year. So far I haven't regretted that decision.

    Although by that time, I should add, my children were older and I was no longer working at my day job, which made that promise to myself easier to keep.

  26. Hey Mary,
    Should I send Janet E a jpg of the photo? Surely, she'd want it for her website or blogspot! :)

    Yes, my dear friend Darlene Buchholz is a grammar diva! She knows her stuff, and her workshops are so creative and entertaining. She makes grammar fun.

    Her website isn't up yet. But tuck the URL into your files for later. I understand she and Annie will answer grammar questions online. What a resourse for those of us less savvy!

  27. Melanie, drink more caffeine! You want to be awake for all those fantastic workshops.

    I like to poll others before conferences about which speakers they'd recommend. Of course, ACFW lets us make our workshop selections when we register.

    I'm always afraid I'll miss someone really insightful. I pray for help in directing my steps when I'm at an event, knowing the Lord will get me where I need to be.

  28. Ann,
    Thanks for mentioning Don Maass' tip on having the villain and hero interact at least five times prior to the climax. I need to go back and check my stories. Wonder how many times I'll find them together?

  29. Hi Sandra,
    San Fran was fun, wasn't it? Wish I'd gone in early to see some of the sights before the conference, which I did this year.

    I'll add that as another tip. Take advantage of the travel opportunity and pad the conference with a day or two of sightseeing. Having that free time prior to the conference this year helped me detune and relax.

  30. Hi Pepper,
    We've all heard about giving the villain a positive trait, but when I kept hearing it over and over again at the various workshops this year, I knew I had to dig a little deeper. My "new" villain seems like a much stronger character, better developed and hopefully more compelling.

    BTW, Donald Maass, who mentioned villains, did a fantastic job of taking me outside the box. With just a few short phrases, he had me understanding how I could change the direction of my story and make it better. The guy is a genius.

  31. Anyone ready for lunch?

    It's fix-your-own-sub day. Cold cuts, cheese, rolls, lettuce, sliced tomatoes, onions and pickles are on the buffet table. Help yourself to the chips and potato salad as well.

    Colas are in the fridge.


  32. well I am not a writter but have read enought of your books and post to feel like one, LOL

    glad everone had a good time at the work shops


  33. Great recap, Debby! And wow, I didn't realize Darlene was a Grammar Diva! Give her a big hug for me, will ya? Years ago I earned the title Grammar Queen from my crit partners. I mean, how many of us really enjoy digging through the Chicago Manual of Style for obscure comma rules? Me, me, me!!!!!

  34. Sounds like you all had a great time!

    Great tips, as always.


  35. Hi Edna -- you're our honorary writer! Thanks for stopping by today.

  36. Myra -- Grammar Queen!!! I'm impressed! You and Darlene need to compare notes at ACFW.

    Missed you at RWA this year. Kept thinking, where's Myra?

  37. Hi Cheryl,
    Thanks for stopping by today. I keep thinking of the story outline/chart you do for every book. Wish I'd made a copy. Especially now that I need to write a synopsis for my new story. I love anything that makes the writing job easier!

  38. Wonderful post, Debby! It was fun reliving the conference through your workshop tips and photos.

    Though I've heard it before, my favorite writing tip: Character's strength is his/her weakness. Example: a character's strength is self reliant, but that is also her weakness/flaw when she can't rely on anyone. The villain takes advantage of the protagonist's flaw.

    Debby, add Tina's name to the list of Golden Heart finalists!


  39. Janet, thanks for sharing your great tip about a character's strength turning into a weakness. I need to think about how I can use that in my next story.

    So sorry I left Tina out of the Golden Heart Seeker lineup!!! Yay, Tina! Yay, all the Seeker GH gals!

  40. Great post, Debby! I'm sorry I'm late reading it.

    I loved the photos! You had some better shots than I had, so I swiped a copy! :)

    It was great to see you at National.