Historical Polish, Organizational Savvy
The career of multi-awardwinning romance novelist Susan Wiggs proves first impressions are far from fatal. Wiggs claims she mailed her first manuscript -- a manuscript composed by hand, typed on a manual typewriter and devoid of standard formatting -- to a prospective publisher's fulfillment house. The fulfillment house considerately returned the manuscript and suggested Wiggs try their editorial offices.
Not long afterwards, Wiggs spied an ad on the back of Writers Digest and decided to take a chance on one of the first national conferences of the newly formed Romance Writers of America (RWA). Today, with books in six languages and honors ranging from the Blue Boa, RITA and two Romantic Times Career Achievement Awards, Wiggs credits RWA and the conference experience for setting her on the right writers' track -- and bringing her to the attention of the big players in the publishing industry. Wiggs discussed her growth as a writer within the RWA structure at the 2000 RWA National Conference in Washington, D.C., July 27.
Susan Wiggs: This [RWA National Conference] is actually a really good conference for me to go to, because my first one was also in Washington, D.C., in 1983 at the Mayflower Hotel. It was considerably smaller, but the atmosphere was the same.
What the National does is bring together the top people in the industry -- the editors, agents, publishers. My publisher has brought publicists and PR people. I've seen an art director walking around. National puts together, under one roof, all the key people in the industry with the writers, because we never see each other.
I live on an island in Puget Sound. Some people live in Texas, and there's somebody here from Germany. So it's the one time of year that we all get together under the same roof. We've all got our common industry. That's really what National does. It's gotten to be so huge and slick that it's big news now.
That's why we brought in the press and there's so much interest in the conference. Under one roof you can get the top writers in the business (their faces were emblazoned across the top of today's paper; I thought that was awesome!) together with all the industry professionals. It's definitely a big, professional conference.
Crescent Blues: So you started going to conventions before you were published and feel participating worked to your advantage.
Susan Wiggs: Yes, it did for me. I wasn't a very active RWA member. That was my first conference, and I had just joined in order to go to the conference. They advertised it in the back of Writers Digest, a little bitty ad saying, "Are you a romance writer? The National Conference is here [in Washington, D.C.]" That's when I heard of it, and I joined in order to attend my first conference. So I actually started writing in 1983 and I sold my first book in 1986.
Susan Wiggs: Oh, absolutely! Oh yeah. [Laughs.]
Crescent Blues: Did you make the necessary contacts to sell your book then or later?
Susan Wiggs: [still laughing]: I did not! It was a total learning experience! I was so wet behind the ears it was not funny. I made every possible faux pas and conference mistake that you could. But I was a real sponge. I looked around and absorbed what there was, and it was really cool for me to see other writers at work. I didn't even know that people had meetings like that. So that was good. Anyway, that was my first.
It's not an annual event for me. But when I have business to do, or I want to get together with editors, agents and other writers for business reasons, you'll usually find me here. At least every other year.
Crescent Blues: Does your attendance depend on location or the nature of the business you want to conduct?
Susan Wiggs: Location and business. This year, for example, I'm starting with a new publisher in addition to my usual publisher, Mira Books. So it will be my first chance to meet with my new editor and some of the writers who write for Warner -- that's my new publisher. I'm meeting with my agent. And the bonus is you get together with writers that you only see, maybe, every couple of years.
Crescent Blues: Do you find National critical for the development of your career, or do you think romance writers could get what they need from the local conferences?
Susan Wiggs: Up to a point, the local [will be enough]. But if you give presentations and workshops and so on -- which I've done, because I used to teach and I really miss it, so it kind of fills a void for me to teach and work with other writers. I started giving presentations and workshops at the little local ones. So what happens is that somebody associated with a local conference is planning a workshop or something like that, and they'll remember your name, and you get asked more and more, so it increases that way. Eventually, once you reach a point of critical mass, where you have recognition in the national organization, you get invited to be a national speaker.
It's not critical, but it's quite helpful. I'm sure I wouldn't have this level of the media attention at this conference if I wasn't able to be the luncheon speaker Saturday.
Crescent Blues: If your first convention had been this size, do you think it would've made a difference? Do you think it might be intimidating for a new author?
But the individual conference rooms have never changed. It's always a conference room in a hotel and a group of writers. Hopefully writers -- even if they can't stand a crowd scene -- are going to the smaller workshops with other writers. We still get the individual appointments [with editors and agents].
But what I found overwhelming -- and I still do -- is that I look through the schedule and I see 16 concurrent workshops, and I can't decide. It's like being at a banquet. Where do you go? Deciding that is tricky. But that's the only way to handle two thousand people every hour on the schedule.
But new writers -- especially if they're shy -- they might want to go to a one-day local conference or workshop in their area to see how it works. But I didn't do that. My first conference was National. It was quite overwhelming, but I was happy to have done it.
Crescent Blues: Do you feel going to National brings you to the attention of editors and agents that might not otherwise approach you?
Susan Wiggs: Yes. Absolutely. It doesn't always. There's no guarantee, of course. But if you've got business to do, or you've got something you're interested in getting together with an editor or agent about, this is where you're more likely to see it.
Crescent Blues: Do you write full-time now?
Susan Wiggs: Yes, I gave up the teaching in 1992 -- and I had been only teaching part-time until then. And in 1994, we moved to the Pacific Northwest from Texas. I write full-time, about two books a year.
Crescent Blues: Has moving from Texas to Washington made it harder or easier to write?
Susan Wiggs: No, writing is always hard. I keep looking for the short cut. It's always, always hard. But in Puget Sound we have really wet, dark seasons from November through March, and that's my most productive time, because I just build a fire in my little wood stove, and what else is there to do? I go bury my bulbs in November, and then I just write.
But we have incredible summers, and you want to play hooky the whole time.
Crescent Blues: And it's conference season in the summer.
Susan Wiggs: It is, so I'm not as productive in the summer. That's probably the only difference [from writing in Texas].
Susan Wiggs: With Warner I'm doing a single-title, women's fiction. It's a love story, but it's more of a woman's journey or woman's coming of age story. It's mainstream and longer, and the first one will be published in January of 2001. It's called The You I Never Knew. It's a contemporary.
My historicals are still with Mira, and I'm in the middle of a trilogy that revolves around the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Crescent Blues: Could you tell our readers something about the trilogy?
Susan Wiggs: The Hostage, The Mistress and The Firebrand. There are three young ladies. Two of them are students at a very exclusive finishing school in Chicago, and one of them is [the students'] Irish maid. On the night of the fire, they're all going to this soiree. The fire happens, and their lives get turned upside down.
The wealthy heiress finds she's penniless and gets taken hostage. The Irish maid does this role reversal thing and reinvents a whole past for herself that isn't true.
The third woman catches a baby that's thrown out of a window, and suddenly she's a single mom. She opens a bookstore -- a radical, feminist bookstore in 1876 Chicago. And not to spoil the book for you, but when the store burns down she has to have a book signing.
Crescent Blues: And you happened to write in some of your friends….
Susan Wiggs: They have a book group. They have the little old ladies who come in the store and talk about books that they've read, and people who know the members of my critique group will recognize some of the names sort of turned around a little. I've switched a couple people's names, but their titles are there. So that's fun.
And of course, we have the fussy lady who walks in and say, "Oh, these are such trash!"
Crescent Blues: Another RWA question: have you been part of the RWA organizational structure?
Susan Wiggs: Sometimes. I've always worked on a chapter level in various capacities -- usually conference planning and things. I've always given workshops. I was on the National Board in 1994-95, I think. And I was the Published Authors Network (PAN) Liaison to the Board. So yes, I've been quite active.
It's been fun, and I publish a lot of articles in the RWR [Romance Writers Report, RWA's official magazine]. I love writing for that, and I love RWR. It's one of my favorite publications.
Crescent Blues: How do you feel about the tussle that's going on between the electronic publishing and paper, and the struggle of electronically published authors to get recognized.
Susan Wiggs: In RWA? I haven't really been following any controversy or tussle. I'm not sure. Definitely, some hard choices need to be made. We need to serve the needs of all members, but I don't have my finger on the pulse right now. It's up to our elected board to figure out the best way to do that. I think they're doing a really good job.
Crescent Blues: Have you ever considered publishing electronically?
Susan Wiggs: I'm in denial. [Laughs.] I don't want to think about it. In my publishing contracts, one publisher owns my electronic rights, and the other does not. I can negotiate that at a later time. So far nothing's been done with it, and so far I'm comfortable with that. But it changes overnight.
Crescent Blues: Some paper-published authors are using electronic publishing as a way to deliver reprints.
Susan Wiggs: I've heard that, but I've not really explored it. As a reader, I don't have any interest in e-publishing. I just don't. But I suspect, if I was a student at a university, instead of buying 49 pounds of books every semester, I could see myself buying a little reader and getting the textbooks that way.
As far as the things I choose to read for pleasure, I can't imagine being without a paperback book. That's just my personal taste as a reader. But as soon as they figure out something as user-friendly as a paperback book, I'm there.
Yeah, I'm just sort of in denial, head in the sand. That's what my agent's for. [Laughs.]
Jean Marie Ward and Teri Smith (nee Dohmen)
Click here to learn more about Susan Wiggs.