My First RWA National Conference Memories

by Fae Rowen

My first RWA National Conference was the last time it was held in Anaheim. It was a long time ago, maybe 1997.

I had just joined OCC and RWA in February of the same year. I’d finished two books–a fantasy medieval and a futuristic romance. The fantasy medieval was written with no writing classes or craft information, let alone critique partners. I’d never heard of POV. Yes, to this day, that wonderful first book lies amidst the cobwebs under my bed.

The second book was completed after reading a couple of books about writing, attending SDSU’s Writing Conference and taking two writing classes. I loved the book. I was in a critique group and my critique partners helped me plug the weaknesses in my writing and the book finaled in a contest.

I was so excited about conference. I carefully picked my agent and editor appointments. I thought. More about that later.

There were so many people at conference. I attended the “For First Time” session, even though my critique partners explained a little about the conference set-up. I went to every craft session. The Goody Room astounded me. My chair backed into Nora Roberts’s at the luncheon. I just knew I was meant to be there and sell my first book.

I wrote several pitches–on scraps of paper that would fit in my palm. (I hadn’t heard about writing a pitch until I attended a session on it the day before my appointments!) I took a special outfit to change into for my afternoon appointments. I practiced calming breaths. I went to the ballroom for my back-to-back appointments to sell my futuristic.

Apparently my pitch wasn’t all that. (I could have used Laura Drake’s pitch information!) My first appointment, with an agent whose name I don’t remember–honestly!–got no request for anything. If I remember correctly, and that’s a stretch because I have a very selective memory with respect to negative events, I think she didn’t represent futuristic. So much for research.

Shaken, I tried to memorize that scrap of paper in my shaking hand before my name was called again. I was not used to being nervous talking with anyone. Heck, I played the piano competitively. And I’d sung on stage in front of over a thousand people.

I was a wreck following the RWA volunteer to the little table.

The editor I met with was so young. I read my three line pitch and looked up. He smiled and asked, “So tell me about your book.” What? I rambled on, answering his interjected questions, for the ten minute appointment. He was a nice kid. The bell rang and I got up to leave, thanking him. He stood, shook my hand, and gave me his card. “Please send me the first three chapters and synopsis.”

I almost kissed him. I know bells rang. I didn’t know that more people get asked to send chapters than don’t. I sent my chapters. Two weeks later I got a letter asking for the whole manuscript. Three months after that I got a letter asking for three detailed revisions and eighty-five less pages.

I still have a soft spot for this editor. When I saw him at the RWA Washington D.C. conference three years ago he didn’t look much older.

Here’s the “My First Time At Conference” laugh: I took two copies of the complete manuscript (all 435 pages), in little cardboard boxes to the conference. I thought that if the editor and agent wanted to see my wonderful book, I would just give it to them right then. I found out at one of the sessions that you never give your manuscript to an agent or editor at conference. And I lamented the waste of paper and ink from my dot matrix printer.

I had logged well over a hundred thousand flight miles for work in the previous five years. Did I think about luggage for those poor agents and editors? Nope. Obviously I wasn’t lucky enough to have read Jenny Hansen’s post about conference.

Did I go to the bar to celebrate after his request? Nope, I went back to my room, changed out of my “nice” clothes and went to the last craft workshop of the day. That night was the RITA ceremony, with chocolate RITAs wrapped in gold foil. I knew nothing about them before, but I decided that night that I would win one someday.

Even though just about the only thing I did right was take advantage of much-needed craft lectures, I still smile fondly at the memories of my first conference.

Do you have conference memories that can help someone this year or make us smile? Come on. I never owned up to those printed-out manuscripts until now.

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25 Responses to My First RWA National Conference Memories

  1. Joan Leacott says:

    Amazing how tense those pitches can be! My first conference pitch was to the late Kate Duffy. I sat down, spouted my pitch, and she said, “Sounds like you got it all covered. Send me the full.” The appointment was over long before the allotted time! Alas, she had passed away before I could send it to her. Sigh. The meeting is still a highlight for me.

    • Kate was a sweetheart. I’m sorry she didn’t get to read your manuscript. Have you pitched or queried anyone since then? Sounds like you’ve got a winner!
      -Fae

      • Joan Leacott says:

        I didn’t pitch/query that book around too much. I’ve got my second in circulation, and am working on my third. It takes so long to hear back from some folks that I forget I’d queried them. Sigh.

  2. Elaine Stock says:

    Fae, I appreciated your sharing your memories about the first conference you attended. I was at that RWA conference too!! Though I’m no longer a RWA member, I will say that attending a handful of RWA conferences has helped me to relax a bit more at other conferences, like ACFW. With conferences, I’ve learned that you must have high hopes while simultaneously being level-headed, all while wearing a belt of steeled nerves.

    I had to smile at the Nora Roberts comment: I still think about the time that I sat directly behind her (and her tribe of companions) during the RWA Award Ceremonies. I was hoping for some of her fairy-dust to brush off of her and flow my way but… Now I’m just putting it all in God’s hands🙂

    My best wishes to you.

  3. Liz Flaherty says:

    LOL. I took printed-out mss. to my first conference, too! Then a bunch of “press kits.” to the first one after I was published. I haven’t been to one in years–though I keep thinking I’ll go!–but I’d be like the oldest newbie in the world if I went now!

    I enjoyed your post.

  4. Stacy Green says:

    I can’t imagine pitching face to face. I’m much less confident in person, lol. Congrats to you on the success of your first conference, and lol at the printed ms. That’s a newbie mistake I’d probably make if I went.

    Thanks for sharing your story!

    • I’ve only been to two Nationals, Stacy, and I found the agents and editors very understanding of nervousness. After all, not only are you trying to “sell” someone on your writing and story, but you’re having to do it in a “cattle chute” approach that’s unnerving. I suspect that as long as you don’t fall out of your chair it’s okay. I just take my confident mask with me and put it on while I wait!
      -Fae

  5. Sharla Rae says:

    My first conference was in Chicago many moons ago. The pace was near frantic and as a born and bred midwesterner, I found it scary as … I’ll get out. I didn’t pitch. At the time I was just too shy and decided just to listen and learn. At the time I had a writing partner and we’d already published a book but I think that was by the grace of God. We were so clueless. Though currently, my friends wouldn’t exactly call me tongue tied, I still dread pitching. Usually I don’t. I don’t like feeling like a dope.🙂 So I listen and learn and pitch with query. When I must pitch face to face, I want it to happen on my terms–no last minute shoving from friends and being very prepared. And … yeah I still usually come away still feeling like a dope, even when they ask for the book.🙂 I guess the lesson is if I’m going to be all shaky-voiced anyway, I might as well do the prepared part and pitch any way.

    • I think the pace is still frantic and the crush of the crowd doesn’t help. But it sure is exciting, isn’t it?
      Now, Sharla, I can’t imagine you ever acting like a “dope.” We’ll practice our pitches with Laura until we can say them in our sleep.
      -Fae

  6. This will be my first National confrence. I’ve been to two regionals. One in NJ last October and the other in Chicago. But by the time Chicago came around I had an agent. I am so looking forward to this.

  7. Carrie says:

    I’m attending my first writer’s conference this fall and I’m excited and terrified🙂 Thankfully it is local so I won’t get lost getting there!
    I haven’t really bothered with the pitch session since i don’t have anything complete enough to pitch but I’m looking forward to an informal chat with a children’s book author that will be attending.

  8. Susan S says:

    Great post Fae! My first writers’ conference was back in 2004. it was the Maui Writers’ Conference and my (then beloved) first manuscript placed in the finals of their writing contest too. I almost passed out when my name was read out loud in the auditorium and they asked the ten of us to stand (they announced finalists on the first night of the conference, with no advance warning to the finalists themselves – talk about scary!). I had two requests for fulls on that manuscript – one of which led to an hour-long telephone conversation with a fantastic agent who didn’t offer representation but did give me incredible advice.

    Seven years and five manuscripts later, I have an agent, a publisher and a novel slated for publication next spring. It’s been a long road but that first conference was absolutely instrumental in setting me on the road. Before that, I’d never let anyone read my work (yep, I too was a critique novice at that point!) and it was that first conference that changed me from starry-eyed hopeful to determined writer on the road to publication.

    Thanks so much for sharing your experiences!!

  9. marsharwest says:

    Loved your post, Fae. I’ve been to two nationals, the first in Dallas before I’d joined my local chapter or taken classes. I hadn’t finished my first book yet. I’d read one book–Romance Writing for Dummies–LOL–actually quite good. Still I was pretty clueless about craft. I sat in classes all day long. I was like the perverbial sponge soaking up everything. It was all so new and was almost too much.
    However, my best memory is of how very kind and supportive everyone was. I went to that conference alone, no knowing a soul, but left realizing romance writers are the best people in the world.
    I pitched in Orlando and have many times at smaller conferences. I’m a speech/theatre teacher in a former life and a retired elementary principal. If anyone should be able to handle this, I should. But dang if it doesn’t eat my lunch everytime. Generally, they ask to see pages, so I’ll keep on doing them until I get the books up to snuff enough someone says, hey, I like this. I’m not going this year, but y’all have fun at conferenc. 🙂 Great blog, Sharla.

    • Yes, Marsha, before that conference I’d heard about how nice romance writers were, but I hadn’t experienced it. I’m sure when your book is ready, you’ll be able to call on your experience (I think that “former life” experience just gets us ready for the real deal later!) and deliver the selling pitch.
      -Fae

  10. Great post! My first national was in Dallas. I went alone and I knew no one. At the first timer meeting, they had said to not be shy and mingle with other writers. Still, it was hard for me.

    I was in the bar one late afternoon, after the sessions ended and there were almost no seats left. A nice, tall, pretty woman offered me the empty seat beside her. She was engaging and vivacious. She made me feel welcome and part of the RWA world. It was Lori Wilde and I was thankful to her.

    • Yes, romance authors are kind and generous. My friends here at Writers in the Storm have to drag my into the crowd to mingle, so your going into the bar alone, to me, is a real act of courage.
      -Fae

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