Romance is alive and well in Milwaukee.

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Bestselling romance novelist Maya Rodale stands before a room of writers at the Wisconsin Romance Writers Association “Write Touch” Conference. Behind her is a nonsense algorithm of some sort — an integral sign, a few coefficients. “I was told there’d be no math here,” a woman quips from the audience.

“We know romance gets a bad wrap for being formulaic,” Rodale says, gesturing at the screen. “But no one says that about physicists.”

The comment solicits appreciative chuckles from the diligent, note-taking conference attendees, but for me it resounds with a zing. An epiphany of sorts has been fomenting in my mind throughout the two-day conference, one I couldn’t quite articulate to myself until then.

Let me back up.

The Write Touch conference, held at the Hyatt Regency April 5-6 (and hosted biennially in Milwaukee by the Wisconsin chapter of the national RWA — on off years it’s elsewhere in Wisconsin), serves yogurt for breakfast. There are multiple attendees who have brought their knitting along to the various sessions on revising, pitching and “troubleshooting first pages.” (Even one of the panelists knits while weighing in on the genre’s diversity struggles.)

People are Instagramming about enjoying a solo bottle of hotel wine with their swag bag paperbacks at night, the introvert’s party. Many of the books for sale feature shirtless men or kilts or, most commonly, both, and the silent auction baskets incline toward candles and chocolates, bath bombs and, yes, more shirtless men. Members of the planning committee are tiara-crowned at dinner. My first session of the day begins with a rhetorical “Where’s the lone man? We usually have one.” Again, an attendee responds: “We do have one.” He appears shortly thereafter.

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Lisa Cron speaks at the WisRWA Write Touch Conference 2019

In short: the conference was powered by an ebullition of feminine energy, bottled up and spilling over once a year.

I attended Write Touch expecting only a weekend of writing craft tips. Being a reader and fiction writer myself, though not in the romance genre, I expected sessions on “uncovering emotional wounds” and “the anatomy of a scene” to be cross-generically applicable. And they were.

Headliner Lisa Cron, author of the oft-consecrated Story Genius and Wired for Story, gave a 6-hour session on “writing an irresistible novel,” where I took six pages of handwritten notes. Milwaukee novelist Amy E. Reichert broke down her revision process, which felt delightfully like something a project manager would have designed. And yes, I did uncover some “emotional wounds” in a session led by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, creators of The Emotion Thesaurus and other tools for fiction writers that seem to take their own version of Rodale’s algorithm approach, taxonomizing character traits, settings, traumatic backstories and emotional responses in their series of thesauri.

Rodale’s session on “how to write the right stories” took the analytical approach further, introducing the audience (or at least, this audience member) to the mysteries of BISAC codes, advocating for writing in series, enumerating the top-selling Romance tropes — shirtless Scots, reformed rakes, virgin widows, dukes. “Put a duke on it” is this community’s funny-because-it’s-true “Put a bird on it.” Here, the specter of 50 Shades of Grey looms large, more exemplar than punchline, “bodice ripper” is pejorative while “trope” is not, and women share in-jokes about “the stepbrothers trend” that assailed the Amazon pickings for about six months last year.

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Here’s what I didn’t expect to take from Write Touch: these women (and the perennial lone man) approach writing with the foresight of a project manager, the acuity of a physicist and the tenacity of a CMO. And they do it all without sacrificing their knitting, their shirtless Scots and dukes, their tiaras. The conference, like the romance genre itself, is culturally, if not biologically feminine, a culture born of circumstance, a culture that has built a billion-dollar industry for a genre that outsells almost all other types of fiction and boasts an eager audience of about 29 million. Romance novels are primarily written by, about and for women, produced by a publishing force that is estimated at 74 percent female. The genre is perhaps the first space that afforded women the opportunity to tell their own stories.

“Emotion translates meaning,” Cron said in an impassioned lecture on why storytelling matters. Cron’s shtick is connecting brain science with fiction writing, making the argument that humans narrativize by nature, and that fiction writers can improve their craft by understanding how the brain organizes meaning. It is feelings, she says, that make meaning significant, acknowledging the bad (gendered) reputation attached to this quintessentially human response.

Rodale writes, in an exegesis on Fabio, “Rather than suggesting a woman needs a man, or that the sexes are at war, romance novels demonstrate again and again that true happiness happens when two people find and prioritize love.”

I would add that romance as a genre, as a conference-worthy topic of inquiry, is what happens when writers embrace the culture they’ve built, entertain their readers’ expectations and kill not only their darlings but their preconceived notions about what makes fiction “good.”


Thinking of penning your own happily ever after? Join the Wisconsin chapter of the Romance Writers Association.

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