An Introvert’s Guide to RWA

Tomorrow I fly to Atlanta for the Romance Writers of America 2013 national conference. The last time I went to RWA was 2011. That was before I started attending my local chapter meetings, before I started hanging out on Twitter, back when I had exactly one romance-writing friend, whom I’d met before I started writing romance and before she’d ’fessed up that she did.

It was before I met my critique partners, before I “found my tribe,” as my friend Katy Cooper so wisely put it when I attended my first New England Chapter meeting. It was during that long dark time when I had a finished manuscript but wasn’t quite sure how to write a query letter, how to structure a pitch, or where to file all the agent rejection letters.

It was before my agent called me and wowed me with her faith in me, before I sold my first book (which was really my third book) and my second book (which was really my first book), before I learned how hard promo is, how overwhelming release week is, how tempting it is to crawl into a hole and hide.

I knew only one person at the 2011 conference and it was heaven. We clung to each other and attracted a few other newbies, one-by-one, until we’d made a little clump of like-minded peeps who to this day I hug fondly in my mind when I need a little conference TLC.

This conference will be as different from that conference as—

I used up all my similes in the first page of the holiday novella I just finished writing. I had to cut, like, fifty of them when I revised that baby.

Suffice it to say that this conference will be totally different. I have fifteen events in my calendar, not including a single, solitary workshop, keynote, conference meal or bathroom break. Publisher and agent lunches, dinners, meet-and-greets, cocktail parties, scheduled meetings with colleagues, you name it.

It causes some anxiety.

In general, I do not worry about shoes, nail polish, pantyhose, hair styles, makeup. It’s not in my genetic makeup. But I am worried. I am worried about whether I can walk in these ones, whether those ones are too 1998 (yes! That is when they are from! but I can’t care! I swear to you, I cannot care!), and whether I should run out right this second and buy red strappy sandals and chunky matching red beads and earrings in case I need to do something really different with that little black dress. Should I? SHOULD I? *shakes reader*

I have agreed to do karaoke. I don’t sing! I don’t stand up in public! I don’t know what I was thinking!

It is possible that the 2011 RWA conference, with my single, well-known roommate and the vast spans of time spent simple observing, was exactly in my comfort zone and that I am about to step out of that comfort zone in an epic way.

If you have the remotest idea of what I am talking about, you will love—as I did—Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. I highlighted so many passages and made so many notes that when I was done and exported my clippings, I had 28 pages.

Cain’s main point is that we live in an extrovert’s world, a world best equipped more or less since the dawn of assembly-line capitalism for the perkiest, more social, and least-solitary human beings. She notes several times that introversion is not synonymous with shyness or anxiety, defining it mainly as the need for downtime to recharge, or sometimes a preference for one-on-one or small group interactions—though she does say that many introverts are “high reactive”—meaning prone to overstimulation.

Introverts have tremendous strengths, she tells us. Here are few that you might recognize, a few that come in handy if you are going to put your butt in the chair day after day despite the vagaries and whims of the publishing world.

Introverts often work more slowly and deliberately. They like to focus on one task at a time and can have mighty powers of concentration. They’re relatively immune to the lures of wealth and fame.

On the downside, introverts have trouble with many tasks that are expected of nearly everyone these days (and expected in spades at a conference like RWA):

To advance our careers, we’re expected to promote ourselves unabashedly.

The pressure to entertain, to sell ourselves, and never to be visibly anxious keeps ratcheting up.

 …people here don’t even want to meet with you if you don’t have a PowerPoint and a ‘pitch’ for them. Even if you’re just making a recommendation to your colleague, you can’t sit down in someone’s office and tell them what you think. You have to make a presentation, with pros and cons and a ‘takeaway box.’

Cain wrote Quiet in part to encourage introverts to play to their strengths rather than always trying to be more extroverted. Because the same traits that make it challenging to maneuver your way through a conference of several thousand people make it possible to engage in the acts that won you the right to be there. Cain discusses a study that found that musicians who practiced alone, rather than in groups, were able to attain the highest mastery. If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, you’re familiar with the idea that mastery occurs at around 10,000 practice hours. I’m not sure how many words that translates to for most writers, but “serious study alone” as Cain calls it is the strongest predictor of skill in any skill-based field.

“It’s only when you’re alone that you can engage in Deliberate Practice,” Cain writes:

…You identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly…

Yes. Yes. We do.

But of course we’re introverts, not hermits, and sometimes we like to, you know, say, Tweet.

Another study, of 38,000 knowledge workers across different sectors, found that the simple act of being interrupted is one of the biggest barriers to productivity.

Yeah. We do that, too.

And we do have to come out of the cave sometimes, and let other people read. That’s just fine, Cain says, as long as we keep the creative functions separate from the critical ones. It turns out that—contrary to some long-held views—in public brainstorming sessions, people came up with fewer good ideas then when they were allowed to come up with ideas on their own and share them in safe environment afterwards:

Personal space is vital to creativity… so is freedom from ‘peer pressure.’ … The fear of judgment runs much deeper and has more far-reaching implications than we ever imagined.

In effect, she’s saying what we all suspect, that you should write for yourself and not for the market, that genius is a solo endeavor.

RWA, however, is most definitely not a solo endeavor. It is all that is big, loud, overwhelming. It is all that is peer pressure and groupthink and mass exoduses from ballrooms with too few exits. And shoes. (I didn’t mean to lump all those things together. Shoes are an objective good and groupthink is an objective bad. The shoes just jumped in there because I can’t stop thinking about them.)

But RWA is also a celebration. It’s a party, from beginning to end, a party not just for those of us who might appear to have “arrived” but for every romance writer who has dared to imagine getting “the call.” The uber-confident are invited, as are those of us, like me, who talk a good game but spend some time mustering up courage in dark and private places, too.

The party is for all of us, even if it is perhaps more obvious to the extroverts how to engage it. (For more excellent thoughts and advice on this subject, check out Del’s wonko-post about how she learned to love conferences.)

If you an introvert, and if it is not immediately obvious to you how to be at the party, think of it this way: Wrapped inside the party is a reminder. It is the reminder that we are not alone, a reminder that we are a tribe engaged in this weird, solitary, hyper-public pursuit, that there are flesh and blood people behind the wild success stories, behind the teeny tiny avis, behind the ill-advised act of online self-defense, behind the golden names on the book covers.

A wise woman told me to worry not about how I might appear or be received at the party by the tribe, but about what there is to like and even love in every other member I encounter.

In other words, the invitation to RWA, to all of its many events, is an invitation not to perform but to connect.

And that, Susan Cain says, is something introverts excel at. Most love one-on-one and small group conversations. They like to ask questions, often personal questions, sometimes questions that are off-putting to extroverts, who—on balance—like to skim the surface more. They enjoy conversation that digs past the basics. They want to know other people.

So: It is possible that I suck at shoes. And I have this pair of dress pants with so many buttons and ties that I often forget to do the fly. My singing voice is out-dorked only by my attempts to imitate a pop performance.

But I am going to try to forget all of that. I have done something I am good at, and I have been rewarded for it by this overwhelming bounty of people in small groups and big groups, at parties, at formally set tables, in lobbies and hotel rooms and bathrooms. And I am going to consider them—you—exactly that. My reward.

Stand back, RWA. I’m coming to find out who you are.

About Serena Bell

Serena Bell writes stories about how sex messes with your head, why smart people do stupid things sometimes, and how love can make it all better. Read more >
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16 Responses to An Introvert’s Guide to RWA

  1. Kim (Mom on the Run) says:

    I live in Atlanta and I’m going. By myself. I’m driving in from the ‘burbs everyday. Alone. This would be a piece of cake for my salesman husband who encouraged me to just “go for it”, but I know that it will take me awhile to make that first move and just talk to somebody. My goals are relatively small…figure out if I can make something out of all these outlined ideas and maybe meet a critique partner. Move from copywriter and blogger to something more. So we’ll see what happens. I so rarely move out of my comfort zone.

    I am a kickass singer, though. Karaoke? No sweat. Cute shoes…got ‘em as long as you don’t expect heels because I’m old.

    Hope you have fun in Atlanta.

  2. Serena Bell says:

    Thanks! I hope you come sing with us–it’s an open invitation! If you do, please come say hi. Your goals are perfect and I bet you’ll meet them and more.

  3. Ruthie Knox says:

    I have never been able to decide if I’m an introvert or an extrovert, but I do know that when I think of RWA, I think of all the people I’ll get to talk to, first and foremost. It’s one big lovefest for me. So feel free to come talk to me, and I’ll love on you.

    • I’d think that everybody felt awkward walking into a large function as a stranger if I wasn’t married to my husband because it just makes sense. However, in small groups, once I’m comfortable….well, I never shut up. But I’m more likely to be sitting on the edges, watching and trying not seem awkard and out of place. Hard to imagine that I was in advertising sales for many years, but the truth of the matter is I hated every minute of it. But people think that if you have a “bubbly” personality, you must be good at sales and enjoy talking to perfect strangers. Not so much.

  4. Jessi Gage says:

    I wish I were going! I would so cheer you on in karaoke and then chicken out when it’s my turn!
    Nice rousing speech for the introverts. Well done!

  5. Sarah Wynde says:

    I swear, you wonkomance people make me want to go to conferences. Which, considering I don’t even like to leave my house, is nothing short of amazing. Enjoy RWA!

  6. Cara McKenna says:

    Awesome post, Serena! I want every one of my fellow wallflowers to read it and take heart.

    I think I’m 80% introverted. I don’t shrink into corners, but I do tend to go quiet in large spaces full of strangers, sipping a drink and people-watching with a weird little smile on my face (because drinking alone in the background, watching people and scowling is unnerving, but if you smile faintly people will think you’re knowing and deep and a little mysterious. She tells herself.) There’s a certain capacity that flips my toggle from Chatty to Observant. I remove myself from the crush, mentally, when I hit that capacity. It’s not lonely, though—I like people-watching, and somebody always floats into my orbit and hits the override button.

    In small groups full of friends, though, I’m a different story. Not rowdy, but definitely not shy. In the privacy of the suite, for instance, I will very likely tell eight of my closest friends the undignified story of exactly how I got this huge scab on my elbow. This is why I do well in bars; intimate groups, a touch of lubrication to widen the gauge on the social filters, ready activities to occupy the mouth and hands while others are driving the conversation.

    Aside: this is also probably why I follow a relatively few people on Twitter, even though I know it may be perceived as rude…or at the very least, bad networking. But put too many unfamiliar faces in my stream and I’ll shut down, not say the things I would when I’ve fooled myself into believing I’m in a group of friends. And the things I’d say among friends are genuine, and sometimes disgusting, and sometimes funny, and far more human and honest than those I’d say if I were filtering for the masses. And as you and Cain pointed out, introverts like to talk below the surface of things, and that’s much easier to do if you can trick yourself into believing you’re planted firmly among trusted friends.

    • Serena Bell says:

      How *did* you get that scab on your elbow? ;-)

      What was most interesting to me now that I’ve actually attended is how big a role NOISE played in my ability to interact comfortably. At the parties where the volume was really high, I had a hard time with conversation, no matter what the configuration. When I could sit or stand near someone and hear them easily, I had a pretty good time almost no matter what else was going on ….

      Twitter’s interesting. I do trick myself into thinking I’m talking to a much smaller group of people than I am. I figure that the ones who aren’t interested can ignore or unfollow, which makes me feel pretty free to say whatever I want …

  7. Shelley says:

    This has been fascinating to read, both post and comments. I work with librarians, a famously introverted bunch– though I’d argue that public librarians really have to LOVE people to do our jobs well. My colleagues pretty often describe me as “outgoing” or “outspoken” or sometimes even (and I think this might not always be a compliment) “bubbly.”

    It’ll be interesting to see where I fall on the spectrum among romance writers. Generally, I consider myself a people-person, but after working all day long with the public with absolutely no respite (I’ve had patrons follow me into the bathroom and knock on the stall door for help), I’m usually completely and utterly spent. Sit-on-my-couch, stare-at-the-wall, communicate-in-grunts spent.

    I guess there’s no way one knows until one is there, so… see you all at RWA and hopefully I’ll be my chatty normal and not my post-work-couch-slump cranky!

  8. Serena, I think I love you. Hope to meet someday at some romance do (quietly in a corner)