RWA Nationals and some thoughts on INCEPTION

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I’m posting from Orlando, where I am at the Romance Writers of America National Convention, along with ever-lovelier Murderati lovelies JT and Allison.

I don’t suppose it’s even much of a surprise any more that a good chunk of this Rati lineup attends one or both of the major romance conventions a year, and smaller ones on the side as well.   And it’s not just because we can’t bear to go more than a few months without seeing each other in person, although that’s part of it.

Many of us have said this here before, but it bears repeating.   ANY writer in publishing today ignores the romance market at their own peril.   Industry insiders openly admitted that romance kept the book business afloat during the bleakest times of the recession, and continues to.    And it’s no longer the case that mystery and thriller writers are just outsider guests, mere curiosities at these conferences.   Just in the last four years that I’ve been a published author, I’ve seen the huge tent that romance is take in more and more subgenres, some of which tilt darker and darker  –  and I’m talking dark like in zombie apocalypse stories – to the point that I’m not sure you can realistically call romance ANY kind of genre at all, as much as it is simply a marketing strategy.

(Okay, all right, I can hear romance purists howling out there, but I’m looking at this from a mystery/thriller perspective.).

ALL the publishers are here, some of them with dozens of reps, from divisions all over the world.    You can’t walk two steps without tripping over an editor or agent from a major company, And not to be crass, but you can tell how romance ranks with our publishers not just from that overwhelming presence, but also from the sheer amount of money the agents and publishers spend on parties, marketing, and book giveaways (staggering…).

Because of that overwhelmingly professional slant, RWA is not the free-for-all that Thrillerfest and Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime – and Romantic Times – tend to be.   (Although nothing beats that Harlequin dance party – I’m so sore this morning I can barely type…).   It’s a working conference; many, many aspiring authors come to pitch to agents and editors (and do come away with representation and book deals), and the very cool thing is that RWA chapters all over the country prep their chapter members for conferences with practice pitch sessions and conference how-to in the months before “nationals”, as they call it.

One feature I really love about RWA (besides being able to wear all my dressiest clothes and changing outfits three times a day) is the daily luncheons with keynote speakers.   Not only do they feed us (which means I actually eat, something I often forget to do at other conferences), but there’s always a fascinating keynote speaker at the lunches – yesterday Jane Ann Krentz, who has published 160 books under three different names, giving us a wry breakdown of how she has sabotaged her own career over and over and over again over the years, and always managed to reinvent herself.   You can’t help but learn – and find comfort – from a pro with that much life and career experience.  

But the greatest thing for me about this conference, as really any of the good ones, is hearing aspiring writers all around me say in a way that makes me know they mean it – “That’s it  – no more fucking around.   I’m finishing this book by   —-“    (Oh, all right, it’s Nationals, they’re not saying “fucking”.)   And they mean it.   I’ve seen it happen over and over and over again – a conference like this is what gets people past those last internal blocks and gets the book finished, repped and out there.

Something to think about.


Okay, so while I’ve been here I’ve taught two Screenwriting Tricks For Authors workshops, SRO, and because I saw INCEPTION last week I kept using that as an example, and I want to make a couple of comments without discussing in-depth until more people have seen it.

The movie is a great one to see not just because anything Christopher Nolan does is worth seeing, but also because it illustrates how useful it is to watch movies and read books with story structures specific to what you’re writing yourself.    I’m going to do a full post on it next month, and if you want to play along, there are two things especially I wanted to suggest you guys keep in mind when you see it.

First of all – the movie is about the nature of dreams and reality, sure, but while you’re watching it, ask yourself – “What KIND of story is it? (See here if you don’t know what I’m talking about).  It’s a very specific sub-genre that Nolan uses to tell this story, and all the conventions of that genre are used and laid out very -conventionally. Instead of giving you the answer, though, I think I’ll let you see it and tell me.

But it’s absolutely textbook how all the story elements I keep talking about are laid out in this movie (watch particularly for how the PLAN is articulated over and over and over again…)

Also, the movie is interesting structurally because it uses a convention we haven’t talked about yet – a Point Of View character. Even though DiCaprio is the protagonist, we maintain a certain distance from him because he is so unreliable. So there is also a character who carries the emotional investment of the audience – a character who observes DiCaprio, worries about his mental state, and steps in at a crucial moment with a plan of her own. Ooops, there, I gave it away, but it’s not really a spoiler – I just wanted to mention that Ellen Page is serving as the point of view character, and you can see how that works. (Actually I think the Ellen Page character is a very weak character, and it’s a weak performance, but the presence of that character as written still works to build suspense about DiCaprio as a dangerous character, unsuited to do the job he’s supposed to be doing.).

This is a storytelling trick used when you want to build in a whole other layer to your protagonist, and observe her or him as a character instead of simply being inside the character as a vehicle for your experience of the story. Often this character will actually BE the protagonist, the one with the biggest emotional arc.

Also, this is a great movie to watch for the outlining of the PLAN.

And oh, all right – what class MYTHS do you see working in this one? (One is too easy for words, but not ALL on the nose…)

There are some classic Point Of View characters in literature, and some not so famous – any examples for us?

And yes, I want to hear what KIND of story you think INCEPTION is!

And of course – anyone else have a take on romance conferences?

Back to the trenches, now… where are those spike heels?

– Alex

19 thoughts on “RWA Nationals and some thoughts on INCEPTION

  1. JT Ellison

    What Alex said – I have a new appreciation for the Romance side of the fence after seeing the scope of this – and man, can they ever throw a conference. This is a really impressive con. Highly recommended.

  2. judy wirzberger

    Just finished the Book Passage Msytery Writer’s Conference in Corte Medera, CA. Know how you are feeling! It’s like a shot of energy to the writing spirit. Jacqueline Winspear asked a question I’m still pondering. If you had a pill consisting of things or experiences you needed each day for your spiritual health, what would it contain? I’m thinking the roar of the ocean, and the fog hflowing through the Livermore valley in the morning to start with.
    Our own Sophie Littlefield "Bad Day for Sorry" urges everyone who writes to include romance in their novel. She must be there roaming around soaking up knowledge.

  3. J.B. Thompson

    Alex, this is fantastic advice. JT has been pushing me for years to get involved with RWA, and now that I’m getting back in the swing of things (new pen-name, romance genre and all), your post is fuel for the fire. Thank you so much for sharing your insight. =) JB

  4. hollygee

    Jennifer Crusie and Lani Diane Rich (writing as Lucy March, in her own reinvention) have started up a weekly blog looking at romantic comedy movies to give them greater impact on romcon structure. They started with It Happened One Night and they are moving up by time periods. Unfortunately, last night was Pillow Talk — they found that the structure and craft was great and the romance nil. But next week is The Apartment. They blog here and live tweet while they watch on Friday and put the deconstruction podcast up on Saturdays.

  5. Cornelia Read

    I SO wish I were at RWA National with you guys! I keep hearing great things about it, and really want to go… And as always, your screenwriting tips are breathtakingly brilliant. Thank you!

  6. Robert Gregory Browne

    Sorry, Alex, I didn’t read the part about Inception because I don’t want to know any more about it than I already do, since I haven’t seen it yet.

    But I went to RWA a couple years ago and had a great time. And any "genre" that can boast having about 80% of the readers in America is probably one that all fiction writers should be paying close attention to.

    I certainly do.

  7. Dudley Forster

    Alex, I love the idea of analyzing INCEPTION. I just downloaded your book, “SCREENWRITERS TIPS FOR AUTHORS”, last week and I’m working through it. I’m an aspiring writer with one novel in the drawer, where it belongs. It is an urban fantasy and I wrote it as a pantser. I won’t do that again, I don’t care what Stephen King says, I am no Stephen King. I think your method will really work for me. It is not unlike taking a hundred banker’s boxes full of produced documents and arranging them into story as part of the litigation process.

    As for the RWA, color me ignorant. I assumed the RWA was for romance writers and my definition of a romance was pretty stereotypical; historical, regency, bodice rippers, Harlequin and the newer sexually explicit love stories. I’m a closeted incurable romantic and I can’t conceive of writing a novel without a strong relational story arc, but it never occurred to me that mysteries and thrillers, especially dark ones, could fall into a subgenre of romance fiction. I have already planned to join the MWA, but when I look at the requirements of RWA membership I can’t honestly say I am “seriously pursuing a romance fiction-writing career.” Although, I guess I could join as an associate member.

  8. Bryon Quertermous

    Alex, I can’t state too many times how much your work with storytelling structure has helped plot-challenged writers like myself keep my head straight. The best part is that working with your ideas doesn’t just make my plots stronger, it makes my characters stronger. Nothing tells me more about my character than thinking about what their ghost is, especially for the non-tortured characters.

    And as I watched INCEPTION I couldn’t help but notice how perfectly it laid out almost every single one of the elements you talk about. Instead of ruining the movie for me though, it gave me a special appreciation of it’s structure that the average movie-goer can’t experience.

    But as far as what kind of story it is, I don’t think it’s quite so cut and dry. There’s obviously the strong Mentor plotline but it’s also got a healthy dose of Deal With The Devil

  9. Doug Riddle

    Inception is a heist movie, and follows all the bits of that genre. . . . gathering a crew, the concern that not everyone is not what them seem, etc., etc..

  10. Allison brennan

    Dudley, yours is the traditional stereotypical view of romance (and no, I’m not bashing you!) we tend to get the short end of the stick because the media doesn’t take us seriously and always seems to find the one person at the conference who feeds their misconceptions. If you ever get a chance to hear Nora Roberts speak, do it. She’s one of the smartest, most articulate writers I’ve met, and hugely disciplined.

    I write romantic suspense. Dark, heavy on the suspense, but with a central relationship that makes the overall story and characters stronger because more is at stake. I can’t imagine writing a thriller without a strong relationship (though I do have an idea for shifting that relationship to a mother daughter or mother son, in terms of the risks and what’s at stake, but that’s way down the road.)

    Alex, it’s always great to see you, too! And I can’t wait until you blog more on Inception. I agree about Ellen Page, though I think she was intentionally bland because she served as a catalyst and didn’t have a journey of her own, at least not one worth mentioning. I really thought diCaprio was perfectly cast and amazing. I have no idea how to analyze the movie or what the movie is, I just can’t wait to see it again.

  11. D

    I’m with Doug on this one, except that it seems a bit more like a heist movie that morphs into a spy movie (since they’re not actually stealing anything, but are planting it instead).

  12. Jake Nantz

    D – I think that would make it a more general "Caper" movie than the traditional "heist", since as you say, they aren’t actually stealing anything.

    Oh, and how many times did they go "into the special world" Alex? Or…was it just once….?


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