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shana galen

RWA National Conference: Get Off the Fence

It's conference season, and the most anticipated conference of the year is upon us. In just a few weeks, thousands of romance writers—your peers—will arrive in San Antonio, TX for the RWA National Conference. The conference is four days of workshops, luncheons, publisher spotlights and open houses, pitching and networking opportunities.

And that's only a small part of the conference!

Why Aren't You Going?

With all the cool offerings at National, why aren't you going? (And if you are going, continue reading because I'm going to quote some fabulous authors, and you'll want to read what they have to say.)

I've been to ten RWA national conferences. This year will be my eleventh. My first was Denver in 2001. I skipped the 2009 conference because I was 8 months pregnant and the doctor said no traveling, and I skipped in 2007 because of a family obligation I couldn't skip. Besides those two years, I've made it a priority to go to National. This is not to say I've always had plenty of money or time or just love to spend a week with 2000 other authors. It hasn't always been easy for me to go to National.

I'm not going to pretend that the national conference isn't a major expense. There's the conference fee itself, airfare, baggage fees, hotel, transportation, meals, and of course, if you're a published author you'll want to bring promotional materials. Conference easily costs a couple thousand dollars or more. I'm not going to give you financial advice. I am going to say that the investment is worth it. There were years I taught summer school in order to afford to go. There were years I roomed with three other women. There were years my husband and I didn't take a vacation so I could go. National is worth the sacrifice.

Time and Responsibilities
Time is another issue for many of you. You have deadlines. You have day jobs. You want to spend your writing time actually writing. Or if you have free time, you feel you should spend it with your family or catching up on housework or yard work or errands. I totally get this one. I've been to National when I had a book due the week after I returned. I've traveled with page proofs and copyedits packed in my bag. I have a 4-year-old daughter who is a serious Mommy's Girl. Leaving her is incredibly hard for me. The first year after she was born, I couldn't leave her and took her with me. I took my husband too so he could babysit—not my best idea. I'm not going to lie. You'll miss your family. Your house will be a wreck when you return. You might get behind at work. But you're also going to come back energized and excited to sit down and write. Housework will not have that effect. If it did, my house would be a lot cleaner.

Yes, I'm looking at you, introverts. You extroverts love this kind of thing, but we introverts get sweaty palms at the mention of social situations. Guess what? A whole bunch of us are introverts, and we go and we even have fun. Google relevant articles or look back at old issues of the RWR. It's easy to formulate strategies to ensure the conference is fun and not too draining.

You're Not Published or You're Already Published
Whether you just decided to become a romance writer last week or you've written over a hundred novels, National has something to offer you. There are workshops for every level of writer. Don't want to publish with a traditional publisher? There's a self-publishing track. Have absolutely no idea what POV, HEA, and WIP stand for? You will when you leave. You already sold a book? Great! Come and meet with your editor or chat with other authors to find out how to promote your work.

If you haven't registered yet, I'm sure you have your reasons. I can't tell you how to resolve your personal constraints, but I can tell you that whether you're an introvert or extrovert, published or unpublished, a new author or veteran, the national conference has something worthwhile to offer you.

But I'm Already Published

I hear from a lot of authors I know that they're not going to National because they already have an editor and an agent and don't need to pitch or learn how to write a query letter anymore. Many authors like to say that RWA just doesn't provide much value for the membership fee. I disagree. One of the biggest values RWA provides is the national conference. I attended before I sold my first book and after, and I think the conference is just as valuable to me as a published author as it was to me as a newbie.

But don't take my word for it. I can name a dozen hugely successful, multi-published authors who attend National every year. Would they keep attending if the conference wasn't valuable? I reached out to four of these authors and asked them this question: As a successful multi-published author, why do you still go to what is essentially an event for authors, not readers?

Best-selling author Susan Elizabeth Phillips (Heroes Are My Weakness) can't even remember the first RWA National conference she attended and has missed only a handful over the years. She attends "for the feeling of community. Writers speak the same language, and we tend to live in the same mental village. We understand each other. It's also one of my few chances to connect with everyone at Morrow-Avon with whom I've grown so close over the years." Writing can be a lonely occupation, even for introverts. One a year, it's nice to connect with other people who "get" you.

As published authors, we've usually attended a lot of writing workshops over the years, but everyone can use a refresher from time to time. RWA board member Cindy Kirk (Ready, Set, I Do!) has not missed a conference since her first in Dallas in 1996. She considers herself "a lifelong learner, plus I love connecting with friends I've met over the years." Author Robyn DeHart (For Her Spy Only) first attended the Anaheim conference in 1998 and has not missed one since. She goes to "continue to hone my craft, network with other writers and my editors and agent. I also love giving workshops; it enables me to give back to new writers."

I have to say that there have been years when I was lucky to make it to one workshop. And there have been workshops that just didn't speak to me, but I would hope I too am a lifelong learner and am always seeking to improve my craft or find new ways of marketing or managing time. There are so many workshops on all different topics that every author is sure to find one that will interest her. Another lovely aspect of National is that published and unpublished authors give workshops. How wonderful to give back to the romance community by sharing what you know. Surely, even if you haven't been to a national conference, someone has helped you along the way. Presenting a workshop, perhaps at next year's conference, is one way to give back.

But the best reason to go, at least the reason I go, was the answer YA author and Rita-winner Tera Lynn Childs (Sweet Venom) gave. "I always get something out of every workshop I attend. And I get on that flight home inspired, energized, and dying to write that next book." I cannot tell you how many ideas have come to me at National. I have probably written half a dozen proposals on the flight home. There's just something about spending several days talking about writing with writers that gets the creative juices flowing.

But I'm Not Published (And I'm Scared)

I've probably intimidated some of you aspiring authors. You're thinking, I didn't know I was supposed to submit a workshop proposal. I don't have an editor to chat with or any friends who are going. I don't know anyone, and everyone will see me and think, what is she doing here?

I thought the same thing before I went to my first conference. It was overwhelming, terrifying, and I felt so completely unworthy. At one point I was alone in line for a luncheon, and I turned around and saw Nora Roberts, Jayne Ann Krentz, and Susan Elizabeth Phillips in line behind me. I almost swooned—I kid you not—from excitement. But you know what I've learned over the years? Published authors are just people, like you and me. Phillips admitted, "at my first few conferences, I remember being so nervous I could barely sleep. I don't miss those early days!"

Editors and agents are just people too. They're human. They have insecurities and doubts and get star-struck when they see their favorite authors. They're not going to look down their nose at you. As I said, I've been to ten national conferences, and almost everyone I have ever met was really nice and welcoming. I've made wonderful friends at conferences. I've ended up sitting at a restaurant or at the bar with authors I idolize. I've met editors and agents and booksellers because someone I exchanged small talk with in the elevator introduced me. Who will you meet at National? What will you learn? You won't know unless you go.

It's Fun

If all of this talk of giving back and lifelong learning hasn't convinced you, then maybe this will. The national conference is really fun. Think of it like high school without all the teen angst, mean girls, and detention. I always liked school because I got to see my friends. National is the one place where I can't walk through the hallways without seeing someone I know and stopping to chat, and since there's no detention if you miss a class, you can get a cup of coffee and catch up. Then there are the luncheons. I often sit at tables with people I know, but I've sat with complete strangers just as often. It's fun to meet new people. Childs says this is her favorite part of the conference: "The entire conference is full of different energies, from the starry-eyed first timers to the authors with the hard-won first sale ribbons to the seasoned pros who are living testimony that persistence pays off. It's hard not to be energized in return."

But lunch isn't all about chatting. The speakers are fabulous. I rarely attend a luncheon where I don't end up in tears. Last year I was all but sobbing during Kristan Higgins's speech. I was laughing too. Christina Dodd, Nora Roberts, Stephanie Laurens, Teresa Medeiros, Suzanne Brockmann—where else will you hear authors like this giving advice and encouragement over dessert? I highly recommend the luncheons, but you can skip them if the crush of people is wearing you out. There are plenty of opportunities to catch up with friends. That's Phillips's favorite part of the conference. "Lunch with Jayne Ann Krentz? Breakfast with Robyn Carr? Dinner with Eloisa James and Sarah MacLean? Avon events? Only accidental that all of these involve food, I swear. I also absolutely love doing workshops. Much more fun for me, I confess, than day to day writing can be."

It is nice to take a break from the daily grind, and if you're looking for a party, they're easy to find. RWA chapters host events in members' rooms or meeting areas, pals who met on Twitter throw impromptu bashes, agents host dinners for their clients, and of course, there are the publisher dinners and parties. When I asked Kirk her favorite part of National she said, "Do I sound shallow if I say dancing at the Harlequin party with friends?"

Whether fun for you involves learning the craft, partying with friends, or browsing for great books at publisher open houses, National is a blast.

It's Crucial for Your Career

There are a lot of reasons not to go to National. I addressed the most common of these above. If you're not going, I have no doubt you have a good reason to stay home, but you also have a good reason to attend. National really is crucial for your career. If you're not published, the conference is your chance to learn and make contacts. As Childs says, "As an aspiring author, I attended National with the sole focus of seeking opportunities. I pitched to agents and editors, I scooped up hot new releases in the open houses, I attended as many workshops as possible, from publisher panels to workshops on how to get an agent and what to do once you've got one." DeHart also enjoyed attending as an aspiring author. "I loved learning about the craft of writing, how others did it, having those ah-ha moments when a particular aspect of writing becomes crystal clear."

As a published author, I'm still having those ah-ha moments, but National is important to me from a business perspective as well. The conference is a tax write-off because it's work-related, and it really is work. My days are filled with appointments and meetings, both with other authors and with industry professionals. As Phillips points out, where else can you meet with all the people who make your books successful? She says, "In addition to picking their brains, I also get to say thank you."

You might chat with your agent or editor on the phone weekly, but as Kirk argues, "I always meet with my agents and my editors. Nothing beats face-to-face." Dehart points out that "having some social time with your editor or agent can make some of the more unpleasant aspects of the business much more pleasant." Childs adds, "the face-to-face meeting, usually over breakfast at an outside hotel, usually accomplishes more than an entire year if emails and phone calls." I have to agree. If you see me at National, don't ask me what my book is about because I'm absolutely the worst at impromptu pitches (now you're all going to ask me just to see me squirm, right?). Believe it or not, I have sold two three-book series to my editor at conferences just because she asked what I was thinking of doing next. Even when you stumble over your words and make a muddle of your plot, the enthusiasm and passion that comes across in a face-to-face meeting is priceless.

I probably should have asked Susan Elizabeth Phillips for pitching tips. If you have an agent or editor pitch, remember what I said about editors and agents being human. Phillips advises aspiring authors who are pitching that "it's all about the work! Not about whether you make a verbal blunder or have spinach in your teeth. Breathe and talk about the work." And you might want to brush your teeth after lunch.

The whole of the romance writing community—publishers, agents, publicists, bloggers, and authors—is going to be in San Antonio for the conference. Can you really afford to stay home?

See You There!

Are you still sitting on the fence, wondering whether you should attend the RWA National Conference? Get off the fence! Whether you're looking for fun, information, networking, or new energy, take advantage of all the national conference has to offer.

© Shana Galen

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