Fight to Win: Inspiration for Writers at the Washington Romance Writers Retreat

On Sunday, April 14, I gave the closing speech for the Washington DC Romance Writers annual writers’ retreat. This is a meaningful weekend for me: since I was a wee-aspiring writer, this weekend was where I learned from bestselling romance writers, mingled with industry heavyweights, and found encouragement among a sisterhood of supportive authors. To be asked to give the closing speech was a knock-me-out honor. I wanted to do a good job for them. I hope I did. - Angelina

Photo credit: Jamaila Brinkley (L), Tara Kennedy (R)

Photo credit: Jamaila Brinkley (L), Tara Kennedy (R)

I began the speech by putting on the above glasses and boa, and lip syncing (I know!!!) to the song “Fight to Win” by Goodie Mob. I did everyone a favor by miming only the first verse, then taking the glasses and boa off and promising never to do that to anyone ever again.

That song is “Fight to Win” by the Goodie Mob. You might recognize the singer as CeeLo Green. When I first heard it in 2012, I immediately thought, “That’s a song about writers.” It’s been my writing anthem ever since and I hope I can inspire you with it today.

When the Washington DC Romance Writers retreat organizer called in October to ask me to give the “inspiring” closing speech of the retreat weekend, it literally was the end of the worst week of my life. I put her off, told her that my husband and I were leaving for Kenya in a couple of days and could I call her when I got back. She agreed. But while I was away, I kept thinking, “How in the world can I give this speech?”

This Business is Hard

The first verse says:

I am fighting for the liberation
Of voices with something to say
Like many before me, for glory
You have to stand in harm's way

Well, to give this speech, where I had to stand was in Nora Roberts’s incredibly intimidating footsteps.

I joined RWA in 1998, I joined the Washington DC Romance Writers (WRW) soon after, and went to my first retreat in 2003 or 04. Back then, the retreat was in Harper’s Ferry, at this huge, historical, falling-apart hotel overlooking the joint of two rivers in West Virginia. The bugs and flooding showers were not the draw of the retreat – it was Nora Roberts. Nora Roberts was an active WRW member and would take a part in the retreat weekends, hanging out with the authors, allowing newbies like me to bug her. And Nora would give the closing speech.

Now, during her closing speech, Nora said things newbie-me did not want to hear. Among authors, among friends, she cursed like a sailor in her throaty voice and she talked honestly about that “harm’s way” that authors have to stand in. She told us about the readers who said derogatory things about her books and the media who constantly nudge, nudge, wink, winked her about the sex.

Nora did not sugarcoat things for us. What she did, in this protected space, was tell us the truth. The truth: This is a business. And this business is hard.

  • You will write a book, construct the perfect baby, and the first agent or editor or beta reader you show it to will tell you that it’s awful. You will shove it under the bed crying because your characters will never have their say in the world.

  • You will do the work and have the deal and put out the books – and you still won’t be able to quit your day job.

  • You will write the books and make the money – but because of the color of your skin or the gender of who your character loves or the truth about our world that your character stands for – you will have to fight tooth and nail for what other authors take for granted.

But this is the journey. To write, to liberate your voice and say what your voice demands that you say, you have to fight. You have to fight the demons of racism and bias. You have to fight that interior voice that tells you you’re not good enough, and that you’re not worthy. You have to fight the siren of the fourth season of Schitt’s Creek on your Netflix queue tempting you out of your writing chair.

You have to stand in harm’s way.

Imposter Syndrome

The next verse of the song is:

I’m no savior, just a soldier
Soldier with an order
So I have no choice but to trust the God
Cause it must be done

Now when Angele, the retreat organizer, first asked me to give this speech (at the end of the worst week of my life), I gave this crazy laugh and I said, “Angele, this isn’t imposter syndrome. I am an imposter.”

This ‘worst week of my life’ began with a flare up of sciatica that I thought had gone away. Sciatica is a daunting and chronic back/leg pain, it’s awful and it’s boring. Blah. But I had this flare up a week before I was going to Kenya. Where we were doing a horseback safari.

Now, I began writing as a young woman. Like, of 5. Writing was always that thing I could do and in the fifth grade – as a pragmatic little Virgo – I told my mom that I wanted to be an author but I didn’t think I could make money at it. So she recommended I become a newspaper journalist. I wrote for newspapers and magazines – a story of mine is in the Newseum – but after I had children, I decided I was going to take my long-held adoration and admiration for romance novels out of the closet and start writing them.

I have been writing romance on-and-off for 18 years. Because I was raising kids, I put more energy into writing than publishing. But I worked on plot and character development and the art of ass in chair. I went to retreats and conferences and pitched to industry professional. I made amazing author friends who let me learn from their writing and publishing journeys.

I put in my 10,000 hours and with those 10,000 hours, I wrote a book about a billionaire businesswoman and a modern-day prince with an impoverished kingdom that got me an agent. My phenomenal agent, Sara Megibow.

But when Angele asked me to give this speech, I was a once-young writer who felt old with her sciatica, who had an amazing agent and book I believed in, but no publishing deal. I was an imposter to believe I could stand here and give you this speech.

But the thing about being an imposter…aren’t we all one? We make up people and towns and universes to trick readers into feeling good. If that doesn’t make us all frauds, I don’t know what does. And in this industry – and I would argue, in all of them – no one feels like they’ve “arrived.” The written-a-book writer wants to publish. The published author wants to earn out. The earning out author wants to make a list. The list author wants it to happen again.

None of us are saviors. We’re all soldiers with an order. And that awesome, awful, inspiring, pain-in-the-ass order is to overcome our imposter syndrome every day and say yes to the words, because it must be done.

Courage and Foolishness

The next verse of the song is:

You should be proud for the courage
The courage to think out loud
You’ll find your way it you’re foolish enough to be faithful

Is there any better way to describe a writer than someone full of courage and foolishness?

Three days after the flare up of my sciatica, I got a text from my agent. “Can I give you a call?” she asked. The events of the previous year had inured me to bad news, so I was ready and not ready when the phone rang. Sara said, “Angelina, I’m just going to say it, your three-book deal fell through.”

See, at the beginning of the worst week of my life, when the sciatica flared up, I had a three-book deal. It was my first deal, and I thought I’d squeaked under the wire to have my first publishing contract before I turned 45. Not so. The publisher decided that he no longer wanted to publish romance. Sara suggested that we both have drinks and we’d coordinate a plan of attack in the morning. I hung up, fell face first in the couch, and my two teenaged sons took amazing care of me until my husband got home.

I’ve been a member of WRW for 18 years. And because of all this knowledge I’ve gleaned from WRW authors willing and enthusiastic to bolster unpublished authors, I knew that this is what happens. Deals fall through, editors leave in the midst of your revisions, and agents sign you then drop off the map. It’s a business, and it apathetically and indiscriminately breaks your heart. But what I also learned from WRW, from going to these meeting and talking to these authors, is the foolishness to be faithful. WRW preaches the resiliency of continuing to do it. What I learned here helped me believe that no matter what happened, I could still make this career a reality.

Every writer who is struggling: Be proud that you have the courage to think out loud. You have the courage to put to paper and show to people what so many others can’t. So many people have the idea to write a book or they’re going to write a book or they’ve written half a book. You’re writing a book or you’ve written a book. You have the courage to think out loud and the foolishness to be faithful.

It's Surely Not Impossible

The final verse is:

Believe me, it won’t be easy
But it's surely not impossible
And if they won't listen
Save your breath and save yourself

Sara’s call was on the Thursday of the worst week of my life, so Friday found me at a commiseration lunch with my girlfriend, one cocktail in, plenty more planned, when my phone rings. It’s my 20-year-old son’s psychiatrist. She asks me if I can come pick him up because she’s not comfortable with him leaving alone. As my friend is driving me to the psychiatrist’s office, I say, “Can you imagine if the worst news I get this week ISN’T the loss of my 3-book deal?” It was prescient. The psychiatrist was doing some testing with my son, and she said that his feelings of hopelessness and self-harm were so high, she wasn’t comfortable with him leaving alone.

My incredibly intelligent, successful, plans-to-be-a-physicist son came home second-semester of his freshman year in college because he was suffering from social anxiety disorder that we didn’t know he had. Essentially when he has to deal with issues that trigger his disorder – for my son that’s professors and peers, classwork and emails – he is flooded with chemicals that tell him he is facing a bear. That anxiety-ridden fight-or-flight sensation then gets paired with, “Everyone else can do this. Why am I such a freak? I must just be a bad person.”

Him coming home changed the straight-and-narrow path he assumed for himself, the path my husband and I assumed for ourselves, and sent us into a journey into mental health that we are still on. There are great days and there are real bad days. And this day, at the end of the worst week of my life, was obviously the worst.

The weird thing is, once that scary word of suicide was out there, it released a pressure valve for him. He talked to a crisis counselor and his therapist, we all worked together with his therapist to come up with a plan when or if this happens again, and he changed medications. Most importantly, he didn’t feel alone anymore. And I was able to stop tip-toeing around this concern that had been making me short of breath since he’d come home, and get the language for how to deal with it.

What in the world does this have to do with writing?

All of this – handling the first real trauma of our little family, realigning what we thought our lives were going to look like, navigating our country’s fucked up mental health system to get our son the help he needed – happened while I was writing Lush Money (previously called The Billionaire’s Prince), editing Lush Money, submitting Lush Money, getting an agent for Lush Money… My professional life was shooting fireworks while my family life was tough.

I’ve been in this organization long enough to know how much trauma and disarray and heartbreak authors deal with while they’re writing happily ever-afters.

So on the Monday, after a week of constant pain, a loss of 3-book deal, and my son suggesting the worst thing a mother can imagine, Angele calls asking me to give an inspiring closing speech.

Of course, I said yes.

Because as unlikely as it was, as inappropriate as it was for me to even consider giving it, the request for me to give this speech was a ray of sun. It was the light at the end of the tunnel. It was the courage and foolishness to believe that, since this was the worst week of my life, things could only get better. Right?

I am sciatica-free, my son is taking three classes at NOVA with plans to take a full course load in the fall, and in February, I signed a three-book deal with Carina Press. My first book, Lush Money, will come out in October.

Believe me, it won’t be easy
But it's surely not impossible
And as soon as you see sunlight again
Get up and fight to win.

Thank you.

Pics from an incredible retreat weekend