RWA Countdown: Why Packing for a Trip is like Writing–Do It with Purpose or It Can Cost You

download (5)In exactly four weeks, myself and fellow romance writers will be converging on Atlanta for Romance Writer’s of America’s (RWA) national conference and I thought I’d dedicate the remaining Writer Wednesdays to posts on prepping for it, as well as tips.

To start off, this is a recycled post from last year, my first trip to RWA, and the prepping definitely paid off! This year I won’t be flying, but I might be taking Megabus instead of driving, which also has baggage restrictions.


If you’re a romance writer, then you know that a week from now several thousand romance writers will be descending on Anaheim, CA for the annual Romance Writers of America (RWA) conference. I’m going for my first time, and it’s also the first time I’ve flown since the airlines started charging for extra baggage.

Yesterday morning I looked up the dimensions of the bags I’m allowed and the weight restrictions and started planning on how I could trim what I normally pack for a trip. That same morning, I came across Jami Gold’s post, The Ultimate #RWA12 Conference Packing List and it got me thinking–packing for a trip is a lot like writing. I love metaphors, let’s see how far I can run with this.

Know the purpose for your draft/trip

Each novel is going to go through multiple revision passes. In the early draft phase, some things are not as important and so it doesn’t pay to get worked up over it. For instance, a first draft is just getting your story basics down. The next pass will be structural, making sure you have a solid plot. It would be costly time-wise, to polish any of your prose at this stage, or to ask/pay someone else to give you line edits, since any line, paragraph or scene could change dramatically or get cut.

How is this like packing? If it’s just a quick trip to a familiar place, the stakes aren’t high, and you’re driving, you can be pretty casual about packing. You won’t be penalized for throwing anything or everything into your car and sorting it out later. You have a rough idea of what you need and go with it. Since the stakes aren’t high, it won’t matter if you forget something.

Weighing each word/item

Once we get to that final polish before submission, however, the stakes are different. Now you need to scrutinize every word and scene to make sure it serves the purpose of your story. I’m at this stage with MUST LOVE BREECHES. I’m doing a mind-numbing Find for a long list of words and phrases that could either be cut, or that could be red flags for my prose. I’m only on Chapter 8, but I’ve already cut over 800 words I did not need! I have to do it in chunks, because it is so tedious, but I know the story will be better in the end. I’m at the pre-submission stage for this WIP.

How is this like packing? It’s like my preparation now for the RWA conference. The stakes are high, it’s a costly trip, and I’ll be flying where I need to be careful about what I pack or the airline will charge me. So, I’m going through absolutely every article I’m bringing to see if it can serve several purposes, to see if I actually need it, and in the case of toiletries, if it can be poured into a smaller container. A small tube of toothpaste still gets the job done, but will be more efficient (like that shorter sentence after you trimmed out those words you didn’t need). For a normal trip, I already have a pre-packed toiletries bag I just pull out and throw in stuff I use everyday but don’t have duplicated. It’s quick, it’s efficient and I’m on the road, no agonizing. But I can’t do this for this trip. I’ll be taking everything out of that bag and evaluating it. Just like in a rough draft, it’s okay to write clichés or insert extra ‘baggage’ we don’t need, but for a final draft? No way.


At some stage, you will need to do research for your novel, especially if the stakes are high. First drafts can have placeholders, but final drafts cannot. Some things you write will come from your acquired knowledge, but the true test is recognizing your own limitations and knowledge gaps and to take steps to amend them. You can also surprise yourself in what you find when you research that can make your story stronger.

How is this like packing? For my first writer’s conference, I was driving and I was going to a city I was familiar with, so some things I knew what to pack and plan for. But there were also gaps in my knowledge that I recognized and took the steps beforehand to research, mainly the agents I’d be pitching to. So I researched them, made dossiers, and packed them.

Not researching can also lead to missed opportunities. Case in point: I was perusing some posts on the conference and saw that Saturday night is a big dress-up deal, as in folks wear ball gowns! If I hadn’t taken the time to familiarize myself with what was happening, I wouldn’t have known and wouldn’t have packed one. Fortunately for me and my limited budget, I’m a denizen of Mobile and Mardi Gras balls, so I can simply choose one from my closet and pack it. Now, I understand that one can attend in business casual, but they’re in the minority and I would’ve hated missing an opportunity to dress up like that. How often do you get to wear a ball gown?

Personality and brand is important

While there are guides to writing well, at some point you need to be skilled enough to let your unique voice shine through your writing and know when to break the rules. You will also bring your own sensibilities and mindset into your writing. You also are nurturing a brand–you.

How is this like packing? There are tons of advice out there about what to pack and what to wear for your trip, but ultimately you need to be true to yourself. You’ll pack things that show your personality, sometimes without you even realizing what it says about you. Are you someone who always packs a deck of cards, just in case?

Since my RWA trip is about furthering my writing career, and is not just a trip to the beach with family, you better believe I’ll be packing with this in mind. Yesterday at Target, I bought a little Yoda plushie that I can attach to my conference bag to help distinguish it from the 2000 other bags, but I chose it because it’s f&*)*ing Yoda! And see, that’s part of my brand as a geek girl romance writer. Unfortunately my geek clothes are all super casual, so completely inappropriate for this conference. My funds didn’t allow me to purchase funky, dressier stuff only nice, classic clothes on clearance, but it will give a professional appearance which is vital. If I ever get successful, I’ll be able to not only afford it monetarily but flaunt convention a tad.

It can cost you

Failure to understand the nature of the writing business can cost you. The title of this post uses the phrase ‘do it with purpose’ instead of  ‘do it correctly’ for a reason, though. You need to go about writing with a clear purpose at every stage, but there is no “right” way to do it. However, if you fail to do it with purpose, it will cost you. Perhaps it’s not having patience enough to seek outside opinions and self-publishing your first novel. I just read a comment from someone who only had friends and family proof her work before she put it up. She got some pretty bad reviews, which she said stung at first. She admitted though that now that she’s going to critique groups, she’s realized her story could have been much better. The cost to her? Bad reviews and potential brand damage.

There are so many other ways it can cost you– submitting to agents/editors before the story is as polished as it can be, or not researching said agents/editors, will cost you the ability to pitch to them again for the same project, for example. Just like any stage of writing, this needs to be done with purpose as well.

How is this like packing? Used to be you could throw anything into a suitcase or more than one and check it. No longer. Money is tight for me, so it totally sucks that I have to pay $25 to check my bag, but I already know I won’t be able to take everything in a carry-on. However, I do not want to go over the 50lb limit, or check a second bag, so I’ll be going over everything to make sure I don’t incur any more costs. I’ll be packing with a firm purpose. Just like in writing, as I mentioned above, I’ll be scrutinizing every item to make sure it serves the purpose of this trip.

It can also cost you during your trip if the stakes are high. For instance, if I didn’t do any research or planning and just quickly packed for this trip willy-nilly, oh boy would it cost me professionally when I arrived. I would have been ill prepared and come across as unprofessional.

Veteran Writers/Packers

Because I’m a new writer my knowledge is pretty limited. Especially compared to the multi-published authors. There are a lot of things that are second nature to them that I have to consciously do, or strive for, or learn. I’ll make mistakes along the way. I already have, in fact. I’m learning.

How is this like packing? Veteran conference goers will have an easier time than I will packing for this trip. They know what to expect, what to bring. They’ve made mistakes in the past and learned from them, and get better and better each time they go.

How about you? Are you going to RWA? Did this metaphor make a lick of sense? Do you see other ways packing is like writing that I missed?


My Thoughts on the New Golden Heart Scoring System

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The scores for Romance Writer’s of America’s (RWA) unpublished manuscript contest, The Golden Heart, have been sent and there’s already some discussion on loops about what the scores mean and whether it’s working.

First, some background. The Golden Heart’s mission from RWA’s website is to:

…promote excellence in the romance genre by recognizing outstanding romance manuscripts

This is a coveted contest final in the Romance world. After finalists are announced, agents regularly give automatic requests for fulls to them. At the national conference, the finalists are announced and winner awarded during the final gala night in an Oscars-like setting.

This is the first year a new scoring system has been used. In the past, the judge gave one overall score based on how they viewed it. There’s been criticism in the past that this wasn’t based on any specific criteria. This year, judges were asked to break down their score into the following categories:

Romance (1-20)
Writing (1-10)
Characters (1-10)
The Story/Plot (1-10)

For a total score of 50.

On the loops I belong to, writers are asking what it means when they get a wide range. Some have said it’s as varied as 11 (as a total score!) to 48, for the same manuscript, and others are reporting the same wide range. I’ve also seen some writers say they received a 1 or a 5 for their Writing category. In the instance of one of the ones who got a 5, I actually Beta read that manuscript and their writing (which should be based on the craft, i.e. grammar, command of language, etc) was not 5, IMO.

It’s a true adage, that in contest feedback, large swings in opinion can mean that you have a strong voice and so you’re alienating some folks who just hate your voice.

Golden Heart this year has taken care of some of the unfairness in these large swings by dropping the lowest AND the highest score, but I’m wondering if there’s more to it than this. I judged entries this year and here’s my thoughts:

There was no grading scale given to help orientate the judge on what a 1 as opposed to a 5 or a 10 means (other than that 1 was on the low end, and 10 was a perfect score). Lacking this, I made one up for myself by taking the grading scales used in local chapter contests. So when I judged the entries, this was the criteria I used by taking the 1-5 scale used in local contests and extrapolating it out to:

9-10 Ready to Publish, no changes needed.
7-8 Almost there.
5-6 Several minor problems.
3-4 This area could be strengthened with some significant rework.
1-2 Major problems in this area.

And for the Romance category, I used this:

17-20 Ready to Publish, no changes needed.
13-16 Almost there.
9-12 Several minor problems.
5-8 This area could be strengthened with some significant rework.
1-4 Major problems in this area.

And so I gave my scores accordingly. But do you see the problem here? I did this on my own. Who knows whether this is what the coordinators had in mind? Who knows what other judges used to assign their numbers?

In many local contests that use a scale, they give what the judge should look for in each category. Perhaps a way to improve this would be to give some kind of scale guideline for each category in order to take out this part of the subjective equation. Because yes, every judges opinion is subjective, but how to use the numbering system shouldn’t be subjective.

Also, some folks had high scores in all categories except romance, with their romance number being 7s and 8s, consistent with what they were getting in the other categories. So, it makes one wonder if the judge didn’t realize the scale went up to 20?

I also had an interesting phenomenon happen. I had one entry I judged that I thought was so great, I gave it a perfect score (the only one I gave). The writing was great–sharp writing, sizzling sexual tension (I was literally squirming) and the synopsis was well done in that the plot was crystal clear, plausible and the character’s goals and motivations were all clear and made sense (it was the only one that did). I was surprised it didn’t final and then I saw that it was published, so it must’ve been disqualified. Anyway, I bought it, so I could read it, and the story completely did NOT hold up. The prose was still technically flawless, but man, for the Black moment/final climax, it totally hinged on the character doing something completely out of character as it was written (but which in the synopsis made it sound like it was totally their character) and also the characters never really got fleshed out past cardboard cutouts to serve the plot. Just goes to show how only reading first 50 and a synopsis truly do not help pick the best. Jami Gold’s post yesterday touches on this in her post “Why Is Storytelling Ability So Important?” based on judging a recent contest.

So here’s some thoughts I have on how the contest could be improved for the future:

  • Give a scale on what each number means for each category
  • If Romance will still count double, perhaps double the score after the scores are turned in. I’m sorry, but there’s some people who just don’t pay attention. How many folks missed out on finaling because they were unlucky enough to get more than one judge who didn’t look close enough to see the scores went to 20 in this one category only?
  • Unfortunately, I think asking to read a full will be too much work, so fixing the instance I found where the problems exploded only once the full was read probably can’t be addressed. RWA had a hard enough time getting enough judges this past year

What do you think? I see this as a place to discuss the new scoring system and whether it worked or didn’t. Is it an improvement on the old system? Do you have some suggestions on how it could be improved for next year?

Yay, MLB is a finalist in the SARA Merritt contest!

For those that are already published, this would be no big deal, but this is my first foray into the writing world and so I’m super excited!

Just got the email today that informed me that MUST LOVE BREECHES is a finalist (one of three) for the San Antonio Romance Writer’s Merritt Contest in the paranormal category. I got super-great feedback from the judges, and the cool thing about this contest is that I can take that feedback and resubmit my entry before the final round judging starts. This contest judged the first 25 pages and a 5 page synopsis.

Judge #1 said:

Lovely story, refreshing take on the time travel. I loved that Isabelle will stay ‘modern’ and have to learn to incorporate into her new time. And that Phineas is a flawed and ostracized hero – always a promising situation 🙂

Another said:

The intrigue [the hero] brings to the table is impossible to resist. He remains a mystery even when we’re in his head, which gives him a surprising amount of depth that I wasn’t expecting. His past is well fleshed out, his goals are commendable, and it’s hard not to dig a guy who can light a woman just by kissing her knuckles.

Isabel is a character that is likable and relatable. Her sense of humor wins me over just as much as her flaws and lack of self-confidence. As a reader, I look forward to seeing her grow into the kind of woman who goes after what she wants and knows what she doesn’t.

There are really two conflicts taking place in this story. First is Isabelle discovering what she really wants, and then there is Lord [Montagu] getting what he wants. Both goals intermingle with each other, while still developing on their own terms. That makes this novel uniquely fascinating. I’m not just watching one really fleshed-out story unfold, I’m watching two.

In other contest news:

In March, I entered the first 250 words in Miss Snark’s First Victim Secret Agent contest. Out of 50, I was one of two chosen by the secret agent.

Thank you

for letting me indulge in celebrating! This business can give you some really hard knocks (hello, rejections!) and so I’m all for getting excited when I get good news 🙂