I have never been to a romance writing conference, or any non-work-required conference at all, for that matter. I’m not a member of RWA or RNA and never have been.
So when one of the founding members of the Romance Writers of South Africa (ROSA) asked for volunteers to help plan its first-ever national conference, of course I put up my hand!
Luckily said individual (the illustrious Romy Sommer) has been to a conference in the UK, so we had some point of reference. And although the final product may very well bear no resemblance to a super-con like RT or RWA, it’s been an absolute blast to pull together, so I thought I’d share some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.
1. Living in a history-rich city means you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to venues. Founded at the end of the 19th century by gold prospectors and developed by rich colonial businessmen who weren’t about to sacrifice European living standards, Johannesburg is just packed with beautiful old buildings. From Cecil Rhodes’s Rand Club to the late-Victorian Sunnyside Park Hotel, Romy and I spent a brilliant Sunday morning touring potential venues that offered everything from thatched-roof accommodation to yawning verandas. Although our attendee numbers this first year will be too low to justify any of the grander spots we viewed, I’m hopeful that in a few years’ time we’ll be able to fill one of these elegant old venues.
2. The devil is in the details. Just when you’re certain your 237-point checkoff list is complete, you’ll realize you forgot to include the price of the swag bags. And you also need to source chair covers for the evening meal. Oh, and did you remember to call the venue to ask what kind of cable you need to hook up the big screen? If I’ve learned one thing about conferences, it’s that they’re FULL of minutiae. Phoning around, chasing responses, circulating price quotes…all the sort of niggly admin that I not only can’t stand, but at which I also tend to be terrible. Thank goodness Romy is the real brains behind this operation and is an absolutely meticulous organizer. If you’re ever thinking of launching a conference, let me know and we’ll see what sort of cloning arrangement we can work out.
3. There’s nothing wrong with a little DIY. Because our start-up capital is pretty much zero, what we can’t beg, borrow or steal we have to do ourselves. Which in my case means presenting two talks – one on how to stand out from the slush pile (hearkening back to my days as a freelance manuscript reader for Harlequin, which is a tale all on its own) and one on self-editing (on account of my early career in publishing and dogged completion of NYU’s copyediting course, which met weekly from 6 to 9 PM). Other authors are giving talks on industry trends, characterization, plotting – subjects in which we’re at least a little expert, given we’ve managed to publish. Are we all desperate to take the podium and listen to our own voices for an hour? I’m sure as hell not! But without the clout to pull in big industry attendees, we do what we can…and we do it ourselves.
4. Romance authors are the actual best. Thanks to a click of the ‘forward e-mail’ button by our very own Jeffe Kennedy, our humble little conference can boast the opportunity to pitch to Laurie McLean from Foreword Literary! She has super generously offered to get up very early in California (which is early evening in South Africa) and take a handful of pitches from local hopefuls. I have lost track of how many wonderful authors have stepped forward with advice, offers of help, and words of enthusiasm and encouragement. The spirit of collaboration is definitely alive and well in the romance community, and I’ve been humbled by the support shown for our fledgling gathering all the way down at the end of the world.
5. South Africa is packed with amazing talent! I’m just going to take this opportunity to toot SA’s horn for a second. Although it’s small, the romance writers’ community here is not only tight-knit and familial, it’s chock-full of mega-talented authors publishing all over the world. If you don’t fancy the flight to South Africa, check out one of these brilliant ladies instead!
So we’ll see y’all in Johannesburg in October, right?