Friday, July 22, 2016

Attending the national RWA conference by Cheryl Bolen

As I write this I’m just back from San Diego where I attended the national conference of the Romance Writers of America. Twenty years ago, in 1996, I went to Dallas for my first one. In between I’ve attended two in Anaheim, two in New York, one in Chicago, one in Atlanta, one in San Antonio, and two more in Dallas. I don’t go every year. There were years when I wouldn’t allow myself to go because I didn’t feel I was earning enough money to justify the steep expense. 

People ask me why I still go. It’s not like—after 35 books—I need to attend those craft workshops that teach how to write point of view, character development, or “show don’t tell.” I’m no longer hunting for an agent or editor, which was once the main focus of attending conferences. I no longer meet with my own editors or agents as I have in past conferences. I’ve never been up for a Rita, which is the Oscars for romance writers and which is always awarded at a glittering gala the last night of conference. I’ve never presented a workshop at the main conference (though I often do at the Beau Monde conference the day before nationals begin).  

I don’t go for the fun of experiencing a new destination as I rarely get out of the conference hotel. For example, I spent five days in Atlanta left the hotel one time--for a publisher's party.  

It’s hard to articulate why these grueling, expensive conferences hold their allure. I believe my number one reason for going is to reconnect with authors I only see only once a year. I’m still chums with authors I met during the 1998 conference in Anaheim—the first conference I attended after my first book sold and was published. Notice I didn’t mention authors I met that first year in Dallas. That’s because almost all of us are so intimidated and so unknown at that first conference, we just sit there like mute sponges.  

At conferences, I’ve met a few of the Precious Gems: Jo Ann Ferguson (Brown), Becky Barker, Bonnie Edwards (at the PASIC conference), Charlene Sands (this year), Holly Jacobs. I apologize if I’ve left any of you off my list. 

I’ve never been in the “popular” group of highly successful authors who have a half dozen Rita nominations and seven-figure publishing deals with one of the Big 5 New York publishing houses. These gals move through the halls of the conference with a posse like an NBA star.  

I’ve never been asked to stand on the stage and present an award and certainly never been asked to be a keynote speaker. But even though I’m not in the “popular” ranks, their success and their openness breathe energy into my writing career. I like to be in their midst. I like to surround myself with other writers. That’s why I still go to my local RWA chapter meetings even though I’ve heard no less than ten talks on deep POV. (After all, I joined RWA in 1993.) 

I like to stay abreast of the industry, and conference is a great way to do so. For instance, in a panel I saw in San Diego, one of the well-respected agents said New Adult was dead. Impossible to sell. Gosh, it didn’t even last half a decade! (Of course, even when one of my chapter members got a huge deal to write new adult about three years ago, I never had any desire to jump on that bandwagon.)  

I like to hear what industry professionals have to say. I like to meet and get business cards from industry professionals. Over the years, these have expanded to include professionals we never could have envisioned twenty years ago. This year I met (and got a card from) the author rep at Goodreads as well as from online reviewers. Through conferences, I’ve established good working relationships with reps from Create Space, ACX, Amazon.  
Here I am at the Harlequin party at Atlanta's Ritz Carlton.

Publisher parties over the years have been lots of fun. Many a year I got to be up-close but not personal with romance diva Nora Roberts at the Harlequin parties. I no longer get invited to those. I still get invited to Montlake’s parties, which are awesome, even though I don’t write for them anymore. Nook Press has on open reception every year with good eats, open bar, and an opportunity to speak with the Nook Press team.  
Lisa Mondello and I enjoy the Montlake party in San Antonio in 2014.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that just because I’ve paid almost $500 to attend all those workshops, I must allow myself to play hooky each day. Give myself time off from back-to-back workshops. I now buy a conference flash drive every year. It’s pricy too, but I find it invaluable. Doesn’t it seem the best workshops are always at the same time? This way I don’t miss one. For weeks after the conference, I hop on the treadmill and listen to the conference recordings on my iPhone and feel so proud of myself. I’m learnin’ and burnin’ at the same time! 

Each year I come home from the national conference so exhausted and so behind on my writing-related duties, I swear I’m not going again. I ask myself just what I got out of nearly an entire week and usually about $2,000 in expenses, and each year it remains hard to quantify how the conference enriched me even though I know it did. I do bring home a long to-do list for my assistant (who happens to be my recently retired “techie” husband) and another for me. I know I’ve solidified friendships with authors I see but once a year.
What’s your take-away from conferences?


  1. I am so glad to read this. I haven't attended since Chicago (1999?) and even though I loved it, I always hesitate to go back because the crowds are so big, the cost is staggering (compared to a regional conference, which I DO try to make once a year), and--now, not then==I feel a little overwhelmed by the sheer number of young writers.

    A great post, Cheryl.

    1. I miss the big RWA conference! now that we're retired and traveling I might try to make some chapter meetings in other states. That would be cool. Thanks for the memories.

    2. Liz, I think a bunch of Precious Gems authors connected at that Chicago conference. I roomed with Joan Reeves and seem to recall her going to a Kensington dinner. I hadn't sold to PG yet but had a blast at the Harlequin party that year.

    3. Yes, the Kensington party was great, plus someone had a party in her room. I remember Jo Ann being there and, of all people since I don't know her at all, Terri Brisbin (it may have been her room). Hilary Sares was there, too.

    4. I remember the Kensington party in Chicago. I felt I'd finally made it. Little did I know...ha ha!

  2. Cheryl - My last conference was Atlanta, but my first was in 1987, and I've enjoyed many others in my career! I agree that it's good to spend time with other professionals, connect with old friends and make some new ones. It sounds like San Diego was a lot of fun. :-)

    1. You were so sweet to come and introduce yourself to me at that Atlanta conference, Becky!

  3. Cheryl, I went to the 1996 conference in Dallas. That is when I had "sold" to a small press that never got off the ground. Oh, the stories I could tell. I much prefer self-publishing.

  4. Amen, Jan. By self publishing, we can finally afford to go to conferences. I've been to three conferences in the past ten months: NINC, the Indie UNconference, and RWA. Two trips to California and one to Florida.

  5. Cheryl, I had a blast at the Chicago conference. I remember you packed a lot of shoes! *LOL* Yes, I went to the Kensington party which was a lot of fun. Haven't been to another conference since. Would have gone to Dallas, but we'd had a death in the family around that time. But maybe next year? Who knows?

  6. Ha! I still pack a lot of shoes, Joan! You could have come to San Antonio in 2014. Or you could come to the local chapter meetings. Just sayin'. We miss you.

  7. Great post Cheryl. Brought back lots of memories. I think my last National was Dallas where I met Maddie and one other PG author, whose name I do not remember. Please chime in if you're here. I agree, immersing yourself in all that talent is exhausting and exhilerating. Maybe it's time to do it again.


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