And the Golden Heart® Goes to . . .

In mid July my friend Jo Anne Banker and I went off to the national Romance Writers of America conference in Denver planning to see lots of friends we only meet once a year, attend a few workshops, maybe speak to an agent or editor here and there, eat a lot, and sleep not so much.

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We’ve both been involved in the Golden Heart® contest for unpublished writers several times over the past few years. Jo Anne was a finalist in 2011 (that year she won in the Contemporary Series category), 2015, and 2017, and I was a finalist in 2011, 2012, 2013, and now in 2018. Between us we know a lot of GH finalists, which has become quite a sisterhood over the years.

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But having made the finals four times, with four different manuscripts, once (in 2011) in the Historical category and three times in the Paranormal category, I was not expecting to win. I write light, humorous paranormal stories, entertaining, I hope, but not dark or angsty. And humor may be the most subjective of fields. One judge might crack up over my manuscript while another wonders what on earth I’m trying to say.

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So my expectations for the conference revolved around meeting the Persisters (the 2018 “class” of GH finalists) and reconnecting with the women (although a few men have been Persisters PinGH finalists over the years, there have been none in my classes) I’ve met through the contest in previous years. The Golden Network, the RWA chapter for GH finalists, holds a retreat every year at the beginning of the conference, a morning of inspirational pep talks, panel discussions, and socializing, always one of my favorite conference activities. And of course, we planned to attend at least a few of the enormous number of workshops going on nearly nonstop from Wednesday afternoon through Saturday morning.

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The presentation of the Golden Heart Awards came at lunch on Thursday. As a finalist I had a seat up front and a ticket for one friend, so Jo Anne and I settled in together to eat and watch the awards. (Two other members of the Houston Bay Area Chapter were also finalists: Leslie Marshman in Romantic Suspense and Sara Neiss in Short Contemporary.)

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“Do you have something written down?” Jo Anne asked me. “An acceptance speech?”

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“Of course not,” I said. “No way I’m going to win. I’ve read blurbs for the other entries. They’re all great, much more serious and inventive than mine.”

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“Eat your lunch,” Jo Anne said. “You don’t want to go up there with food in your teeth.”

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“I’m not going up there, Jo Anne,” I repeated. “Not a chance.”

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By the time Pintip Dunn, the Emcee of the program, reached the Paranormal category (after three industry awards and four GH categories), I had finished lunch and was curious to see what my selfie—I’ve never gotten around to having a professional head shot taken—would look like on the jumbotron (there were about two thousand people at the lunch, and very few of us could actually see the stage).

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Pintip read off the finalist manuscript titles and their authors as they showed on the jumbotron, and then opened an envelope and read, “And the Golden Heart goes to . . . Jinn on the Rocks by Kay Hudson.”

 

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I was stunned. I managed to stand up and make it to the stage without falling off. Someone took pictures of Pintip handing me the little jeweler’s box containing the—my—Golden Heart necklace and the envelope with the announcement—just like the Oscars!—and then I found myself at the podium, looking out at that huge crowd, many of whom were cheering, bless their hearts.

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“I Am Stunned.” I know I started out with that. I know I thanked my local friends who were there (making Gerry Bartlett temporarily famous for nagging me . . . and taking me shopping), my chapters, my GH groups. I think I went on to talk about RWA for a couple of minutes, but I honestly don’t remember that part. I’ll have to watch when RWA posts the recording of the ceremony. Apparently I did all right—at least I didn’t fall off the stage—because friends and total strangers told me so.

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I had intended to go to a workshop after lunch, but somehow I didn’t make it. I managed to get up on the stage again that evening, with the rest of the GH winners, when we were recognized during the RITA® Awards for published books, but fortunately we weren’t expected to say anything.

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The rest of the Conference was anything but a letdown. I went to workshops, met with Necklaceagents, had meals and visits with friends, and even got some sleep. I didn’t need to visit the local pot dispensary to stay high—I was floating. And playing with that necklace, half afraid someone would pop up and say, “Oops, we made a mistake, give it back.” I wore it for a week, and I’ll wear it again, often.

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The only disappointment at the Conference was the RWA Board’s announcement that next year will be the last Golden Heart Contest. The publishing industry is changing faster that anyone can measure, yes, but we don’t understand this decision. RWA has always been supportive of its unpublished members, and those of us who have benefited, made friends, finished manuscripts because of the Golden Heart hate to see it go.

 

Golden Heart Calling!

Wednesday, March 21, was a Big Day in the romance world, the morning calls went out to notify the finalists in Romance Writers of America’s® two big national contests, the RITA® (for published works) and the Golden Heart® (for unpublished writers). The calls go out fairly early in the morning: the RWA board members who make the calls love doing it, and the writers who have entered one of the contests are on pins and needles. (The Golden Heart takes up to 1200 entries; the RITA is capped at 2000.)

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I got very spoiled when my manuscripts made the Golden Heart finals in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Spoiled, but not sold, so I kept on entering, without success, in the following years. Last year I swore I’d never enter again, but when the time came I couldn’t resist. 2018 will be the last time, I said to myself. I’d rewritten the beginning of Jinn on the Rocks after getting some constructive criticism from the judges in the Emily contest last year. Good to go.

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By Wednesday morning, I was almost wishing I hadn’t entered, sure my poor Jinn wouldn’t final yet again. Humor is too subjective; it would never find five judges who thought it was funny. Then my phone started chiming—with text messages. My friend Leslie Marshman was a finalist in romantic suspense. Then my friend Sara Neiss got her call, a finalist in short contemporary. But no phone call for me.

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So a little after 9 I left for my Tuesday through Thursday job at the Scorekeeper, a thirty-mile commute, most of it on the freeway. Surely the calls had all gone out. Bummer. I’d never enter again. My phone kept chiming, and I pulled over into a restaurant parking lot to read the rest of the text messages, and to text Jo Anne that I was on my way in, no call, done with the Golden Heart. Loyal friend (and three-time Golden Heart finalist herself), she texted back, “Maybe later.” “Not holding my breath,” I replied, and got back on the road.

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For the next twenty minutes I ran through all the reasons I didn’t really want to be a finalist this year. Too much pressure. All those emails and Facebook posts. So many events to juggle at the National Conference in Denver in July. Finding a decent photo to send to RWA. The list went on.

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And then my purse rang.

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Congratulations balloonNormally I do not answer my cell phone while driving. Especially not while driving into Houston on I45. But this was Golden Heart day, so I pulled my phone out to look. “Restricted,” said the Caller ID. No phone number.

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I answered it anyway.

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And it was Donna Alward, an RWA Board Member, calling from Nova Scotia to tell me that Jinn on the Rocks is a finalist in the paranormal category of the Golden Heart.

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I managed to stay safely in my lane on the freeway, but it wasn’t easy. Probably a good thing the call only lasted two minutes (thanks to Donna, who knew I was driving). I broke another rule before I put the phone away, and texted “Me too” to the morning texters, confusing most of them.

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And suddenly all those reasons why I’d rather not final disappeared. I’m welcoming all the emails and Facebook posts, almost 50 new Golden Heart sisters, a giant ego boost. Golden Heart finals for all three of my Jinn stories. I am, once again, thrilled. (The balloon is from Jo Anne.)

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Contest judging is always subjective. No more than ten percent of Golden Heart entries make the finals; many excellent manuscripts don’t. I judged eight (in another category, of course), and I would have been happy to see two of them on the finalist list, but they didn’t make it. After all, ninety percent don’t final. We chalk it up to experience and move on.

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But, oh, what a thrill to make that list!

 

Routing the Cat

I went a few rounds with my work computer this morning, and in the end came up with a remarkably low tech solution (and without the help of the fellow with the thick foreign accent who called out of the blue claiming to be from the “Windows support service”—I didn’t stay on the line long enough to find out how he thought he was going to fix a problem that we didn’t have).

The problem we did have seemed to involve QuickBooks, the bookkeeping software we use for almost all our clients. I’d been having occasional problems with QB locking up or otherwise misbehaving lately, but I just blamed it on the ever-increasing size and complexity of the software. This morning I had entered several long, complicated deposits when the software began locking up on me and then, after I closed the program and/or rebooted the computer, coming up with one excuse after another to keep me out of the client file. QB couldn’t find the file, or I didn’t have permission to use the file, or there wasn’t enough space to record the transaction. Or there was just plain no connection to the office WiFi network and the client files stored on another computer.

After numerous rounds of frustration (and after losing the long, complicated deposit twice), I realized that all the trouble might be related to the network connection. So I went into Jo Anne’s office to see if she was having problems. She was working on the cloud-based version of QB. She hates the cloud-based version, but it was working.

Kiko playing paperweight

Kiko playing paperweight

When I looked around the office to the network connections a few feet from Jo Anne’s computer, I saw Kiko the bad-tempered calico, one of our three Scorekeeper office cats, sitting on the wireless router. She loves the tangle of cords and cables under that table, and Jo Anne and I don’t understand the mess well enough to move the router and the print server to a less feline-accessible location (assuming, of course, that such a place exists). Kiko has been suspected of disconnecting my computer from the print server by sitting on that, so I shooed her off the router, set it upright, and went back to my desk, perhaps thirty feet away. The bars on my network icon had jumped from two to four.

I tried moving the router to the top of a nearby storage carton, but Kiko sat there staring at it, clearly plotting to drag it back down as soon as I turned my back. “Put a box over it,” Jo Anne suggested.

That required laying the router back down on its side on the floor—it may be a “wireless” router, but it’s connected to the rest of the tangle by at least two cables—and covering it with a smallish cardboard carton.

I had no more connection trouble for the rest of the day.

We have no idea what draws Kiko to the router and the print server—warmth? vibrations? secret electronic messages from feline aliens headed this way in spaceships resembling empty grocery bags?—but when I left work this evening, she was sitting on the box over the router. I have a feeling my low tech solution may not be permanent.

I Am Not a Foodie, But . . .

No one would call me a foodie. I live out of my microwave oven, and when my six-year-old oven cratered last Saturday night, forty-five seconds into nuking a baking potato, I kicked it to the curb (well, actually the garage, and one of these days I will take it to the electronics recycling place), ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for supper, and went to Target for a new one the next day. My wine-conscious friends think I’m hopeless because I’m perfectly happy with grocery store whites (bottled, not boxed).

But this week I had a rare opportunity to enjoy a carefully planned six course dinner, with appropriate wines, at a wonderful restaurant, and I can’t express how amazing and wonderful it was.

My friend Jo Anne had given her brother, Ed Banker, and sister-in-law, Anne Newtown, a Chef’s Day at Brennan’s of Houston for Christmas last year, and they finally scheduled their day for August 22. Ed and Anne, who are both devoted foodies and excellent cooks, spent the day in Brennan’s kitchen, dressed in their new chef’s jackets (with their embroidered names), learning about the management of a fine restaurant kitchen and choosing their own special interests (sauces and stocks, I believe). Here they are about to eat the lunch they prepared, a giant Louisiana crab cake.

Ed & Anne at Brennan's

The package included dinner for six, and Ed and Anne were kind enough to include me, along with Jo Anne and two of their close friends, Chris and Judy. None of us knew what to expect (although all of us knew that one can always expect the very best at Brennan’s), but Ed and Anne had been told it would be a six course dinner. Jo Anne and I joined them at seven o’clock, in time for the first glass of Sauvignon Blanc. I pretty much lost track of the wines, although the sommelier came out with each bottle to tell us about it. I know there was a second Sauvignon Blanc, a Chardonnay from South Africa (delicious, and I don’t usually care for Chardonnay) at least two bottles of Petite Sirah (a favorite of Ed and Anne’s), and one of a blended white from the Willamette Valley (my favorite). Fortunately the waitstaff was adept at removing just the right glasses at the right time, but each of us had three glasses (one water and two wines) in front of us for most of the evening.

The food was even more amazing, and one or another of the chefs came out with each course to tell us about it. I wish I could remember the details of the sauces and seasonings (I hope Ed and Anne caught them all, because I get invited to their house for dinner now and then), but the menu was so overwhelming I can’t repeat it all. But here goes:

First Course: Crab salad on a thick slice of beefsteak tomato (locally sourced, as is much of Brennan’s food), with bits of watermelon and cantaloupe and a dollop of caviar on top. The tomato was the kind we all say we remember from childhood but haven’t seen in the grocery store for forty years, the kind that reminds us that a tomato is technically a fruit.

Second Course: One large, whole (with head) barbecued shrimp and two smaller shrimp (I think they were sauteed; they certainly weren’t boiled or fried), over Texas grits made with goat cheese, all with a marvelous sauce that I can’t even describe.

Third Course: Half a quail, roasted, with cornbread dressing, served on a wedge of waffle and topped with a quail egg, sunny side up (one perfect mouthful—I don’t remember ever eating quail before, and I know I’ve never had a quail egg), and another amazing sauce.

Fourth Course: (And here I really tipped into dining paradise) One lamb chop, cooked as rare as lamb should be, served over rice and mushrooms, with asparagus. (Lamb may be my favorite meat, but it’s not particularly popular, or readily available, here in Texas.) Oh, how I wish I could describe the sauce!

Fifth Course: Three perfect pieces of cheese. One of the chefs came out and told us what order to eat them in. The first two were cheeses I’m not familiar with, and I wish I’d caught the names (maybe someone else remembers), but the third was a small, and very strong, square of bleu cheese. I wouldn’t/couldn’t eat that one in quantity, but the size on the plate (beautifully embellished with berries, nuts, and a small piece of bread) was perfect.

Sixth Course: And then came dessert. Instead of identical plates for all, as in the first five courses, a stream of waiters delivered what seemed like an endless stream of dessert plates to the table. As Catherine the Pastry Chef described each one (the word sugar was particularly frequent), our eyes expanded like children’s in a candy store. Five minutes earlier, we’d all been too full to eat again all weekend, but now we managed to pass the desserts around the table and sample every one, leading to a lively discussion of their merits (no two of us arrived at the same ranking). We tasted pecan pie with vanilla bean ice cream, peach cobbler with cream cheese ice cream (made on site), lemon meringue pie (about four inches high), white chocolate bread pudding (my personal favorite), Grand Marnier creme brulee, Mississippi Mud Pie (a towering stack of chocolate delight), dark chocolate bread pudding, strawberry shortcake, and Brennan’s classic Bananas Foster.

We were far too happy eating, drinking, and talking to take pictures of the food, but Anne did take this one of Jo Anne and me (behind all those wine glasses) before we left, about three and a half hours after we sat down to dinner. Definitely one of the most remarkable meals I have ever enjoyed.

Kay & Jo Anne at Brennan's

RWA 2014

I spent last week on the San Antonio Riverwalk at the annual Romance Writers of America Conference, and I’m still recovering. Too much fun, too little sleep. I had no special reason to go this year, but my friend Jo Anne Banker and I signed up as soon as registration opened. In fact we’d been planning to go to this one since we went to New York in 2011. San Antonio! Road trip!

RWA 2014 toteThis year I had a completely stress-free conference. I wasn’t involved in the Golden Heart contest, and I didn’t make any editor or agent appointments. I went to have fun, hang out with my long-distance friends, and learn something about independent publishing, and that’s exactly what I did.

I went to a lot of workshops on independent publishing, picking up ideas and inspiration. I have yet to decide whether I want to follow that path, but I think I’m leaning that way. Humorous paranormal stories don’t seem to be in high demand in New York these days—one respected agent I spoke to said that she sold no paranormals at all in 2013—but there are readers out there who enjoy them.

I heard inspiring—and often very funny—talks from wonderful writers. Cathy Maxwell stepped in at the last minute to give the keynote address at the Golden Network Retreat. Susan Elizabeth Phillips gave a great workshop on character development (the characters in our manuscripts, that is), and she and Jayne Anne Krentz, long-time friends, told us about their adventures as writers.

One workshop I attended focused on the challenges and benefits of being a “mature” writer. I think all of the women at that presentation were over fifty, some published, some not yet. One attendee was 83. I went to numerous talks by and for independently published authors (definitely a new alternative for us mature writers), until they all ran together in my overworked brain. In fact, by Friday afternoon everything was running together. Fortunately, most of the sessions were audiotaped, and I am awaiting my copy so I can listen to sessions I attended and sessions I had to miss.

RWA 2014 booksThere were books everywhere, and I brought home even more than I usually do, one advantage of driving rather than meeting the packing requirements of airline travel. (The FedEx store at the hotel was constantly busy, shipping boxes of books home for those who were limited to their suitcases.) The tote bags we received at registration (imagine two thousand women wandering around with the same tote bag!) were filled with books, and there were more on the chairs at the general sessions.

The Readers for Life Literacy Autographing was the only Conference event open to the public, and people began lining up at 2 PM for the 5:30 opening. The hall was filled with five hundred or so authors signing books donated by their publishers, and countless enthusiastic book buyers, filling the shopping bags handed out at the door. The book sales raised over $58,000 for literacy programs. I went in intending to say hello to women I only see once a year, but I ended up buying a few books, too. I also went to several of the publishers’ free book signings during the conference and collected more books (including some for the neighbor who looks after my cat when I travel and refers to the conference as “Kay’s Book Thing”).

On the social side, I visited with many friends I’ve made through the Golden Heart at the Golden Network retreat, shared dinner one night with the Firebirds (at Tony Roma’s) and another night with the Lucky 13s (at the revolving Chart House atop the Tower of the Americas, with a panoramic view of San Antonio), as well as smaller dinners with friends. Houston writers filled at least three tables at the awards ceremony so we could cheer together for our finalists.

Next year the RWA conference returns to New York City. I may need a Really Good Reason to make it to that one. But that’s what I said in 2011, 2012, and 2013, and the reasons turned up, so who knows? The RWA Conference is the kind of vacation that leaves you needing rest when you get home, but it’s worth every minute.

Changing Habits

Today is the first day of the rest  of my life.  All of us can (and probably should) say that every day, but this week marks real change for me.  Some months ago, Jo Anne and I started planning for change at the Scorekeeper.  In May Jo Anne gave notice to our largest client that we would be parting ways at the end of September, the close of their fiscal year.  Jo Anne and I both want more time for writing, reading, and sleeping.  The third Scorekeeper, David, has passed all four parts of the CPA exam (on the first try!) and needs to work for a year for a CPA or the IRS in order to be certified himself.  So it was time for change.

This week we spent wrapping up reports for the big client, packing up boxes of their records and a computer that belongs to them, and today is the first day on our new schedule of three 7-hour days (usually Tuesday through Thursday) a week.  Two less days I have to make the 60-mile round trip commute into Houston.  And, since we’ve decided to open at 10 AM instead of 9, no more days of getting up at 6:15 to fight the 8 AM traffic.

Flowers 100313Jo Anne has been referring to this as “semi-retirement,” but I’d rather think of it as a new phase, with more time for all the things that have been hard to pack into weekends.  I have my usual to-do lists on virtual post-it notes on my computer screen, things to do now that I’ll have a couple of weekdays free:  a couple of doctor check ups for me, the vet for Nutmeg, get the roof inspected.  The Houston area is expecting its first noticeable cold front this weekend, just in time to push Tropical Storm Karen away from us (sorry, Gulf Coast neighbors to the east), and we’ve had some decent rain lately (if the rain gauge didn’t show it, I could tell by the toad stools popping up in my lawn), so maybe I can get back to that extensive clean-up-the-overgrown-back-yard project.  The front yard needs mowing, if I’m careful to avoid the hurricane lilies.

I have plenty of writing projects:  this weekend I want to polish the first chapter of my work-in-progress to send to the West Houston RWA Emily contest.  I have an edited manuscript waiting in Scrivener to be compiled into a Word file and sent to an agent.  My critique group is back on track, with a new member.  I have Ideas waiting in line.

As for reading, the supply is endless.  I have a list here on my desk of new books I want to pick up, several by my Golden Heart friends, and Diane Kelly’s latest Tara Holloway mystery.  Not to mention the book shelves in my bedroom and all those blogs and articles waiting in my email box.

Last night when I went to bed at my usual midnight I turned off my alarm clock.  This morning I slept until almost 8 AM (no thanks to Nutmeg, who climbed on and off my chest, purring and washing my face and generally suggesting it might be time to get up).  I’ve already received five work-related emails this morning, but I’m thirty miles from the Scorekeeper and my work computer; the work will keep until Tuesday.

I haven’t decided yet what to do with this first day.  Go shopping, maybe with that book list, and have lunch out?  Work in the yard, starting with collecting all those mushrooms?  Read a book?  Catch up with a couple of TV shows I missed last week?  Two extra days a week, and the possibilities seem endless.

Weekend With Writers

I’m afraid I’ve been neglecting my blog lately.  We’ve been very busy at the Scorekeeper, and I’ve been judging Golden Heart entries and keeping up with Gwen Hernandez’ excellent Scrivener class.  I don’t seem to have much time or energy left over.

I didn’t catch up on much this weekend–my grocery shopping and laundry remain undone, I’m behind on email and the rest of my Internet activity–because Jo Anne and I drove to Shreveport on Friday to attend the NOLA Stars RWA chapter’s Written in the Stars Conference.  We went because Jo Anne’s manuscript was a finalist in their annual Suzannah contest, and because we have friends in the Shreveport chapter.  RWA is a close-knit world.

The weather was beautiful, cool and sunny, and the roads were clear.  The only problem we had with the trip to Shreveport came when we got off Interstate 20 on the west side of the city to discover that Google maps is behind on updating street names.  The left turn on our driving instructions simply didn’t exist.  We had to call the hotel to ask for directions.  “What can you see?” the desk clerk asked.  “Wendy’s on the right and an Exxon station on the left,” I replied.  “Turn left at the Exxon station and keep driving until you see our sign,” she said, and that worked just fine.

The conference opened Friday evening with a panel of editors and one agent, a Q&A session on industry trends, the editors’ individual interests, and some funny (and valuable) advice on what doesn’t work for them.  Electronic publishing, whether through an established New York publisher, a smaller/newer press, or done independently on line continues to be a topic of major interest to both writers and editors.  After the panel, the members of the North Louisiana chapter really outdid themselves with a buffet supper, featuring local recipes from their own kitchens.  The crawfish pasta was to die for.

Saturday was a mix of workshops, editor/agent appointments, and visiting with fellow writers.  I missed some workshops I would have loved to see because of appointments, but I did enjoy Sarah Hamer’s presentation, “Intimacy: Not Just Sex,” Liliana Hart on “The Indie Revolution,” and the full-time hard work that has gone into her publishing success, Liz Talley on “New Twists on Old Plots,” and Christa Allan on social media (more on that topic another evening).

One of the best aspects of an intimate writers’ conference like this one is the opportunity to see old friends and make new ones.  The conference attracted writers, most but not all of them women, from Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, as well as Louisiana.  I was delighted to find fellow Firebird Pamela Kopfler there–she and a friend drove up from New Orleans via a computer generated route she described as “the theme from Deliverance played Zydeco style.”   A charming expatriate Englishwoman named Mavis, who decided it was time to write a novel when she turned 80, wasn’t the only lady there who reminded me that it’s never too late to try something new.

I also met the wonderfully witty Barbara Vey, an out-spoken and often hilarious lover of books in general and romance in particular, who blogs on the Publisher’s Weekly site.  I had a ball visiting with her, and I’ll be following her blog, Beyond Her Book.

It was about 40 degrees in when we left Shreveport at 11 AM this morning, and about 70 when we rolled into Houston this afternoon.  This is Texas: if you don’t like the weather, wait an hour or drive fifty miles.  It was a lovely day and a fun road trip (especially the stop at the Catfish King restaurant in Livingston), but now I have Friday’s Scrivener lesson to do so I don’t fall behind, and one more contest entry to judge.  I stopped for milk and produce (and one more box of Girl Scout cookies–those little sales women are hard to resist) on the way home, but there’s no telling when the laundry will get done.

 

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