~ By Deborah Blake
I’ve been to three RWA National conventions, each of them falling at a different point in my career, and I was particularly aware when I went this year of how different the experience was depending on my perspective at the time.
Don’t get me wrong. All the Nationals had much in common: they were loud, overwhelming, and a lot of fun. And I learned something from each and every one. But depending on where I was on my writing path, the convention took on a very different shape. Maybe you can learn a little something from my experiences, and what I figured out in hindsight.
My first RWA National convention was in Washington, DC in 2009. The only reason I was able to go was because I was granted one of the organization’s scholarships, funded by successful authors wanting to give back. I will be forever grateful. I was published in nonfiction then, but still searching for my way into the fiction world. I didn’t have an agent, and finding one was one of my major goals. I also took a number of fabulous Craft workshops, including one (Turning Points) by author Jennifer Crusie that ended up literally changing my life. I got to meet some authors I’d been talking to online, like Candace Havens and Mindy Klasky, which was really exciting. They ended up being friends and cohorts I still treasure to this day.
My main focus at this first convention was trying to find an agent, and I wound myself into knots worrying about my pitches to agents and editors. In fact, the folks I pitched to all requested partials and fulls. And I never heard from any of them ever again. It turns out that this is pretty normal, and while I still recommend pitching, I would advise people not to worry about it too much. While it isn’t unheard of to be discovered this way, it turns out to be fairly unusual. The part of the conference that ended up making the most difference was that lecture on craft, which made a huge impression on me and lifted my writing to the next level, so that the book I wrote next actually got me an agent. My suggestion to other first-timers is to try and relax, pitch if you want to, but mostly learn all you can while you have all those great authors sharing what they’ve learned from years of practicing their craft.
My next Nationals was in 2011, in NYC. By then I had signed with my agent, the lovely Elaine Spencer from The Knight Agency, but we hadn’t managed to sell a book yet. My focus that time was in trying to make all the right connections, establishing a name for myself, and again, hanging out with author friends and talking shop. I was still stalking Jenny Crusie at every workshop she gave.
That Nationals was the first time I gave a workshop (as part of one I organized with TKA authors and agents). I spent lots of time networking and finally got to meet my agent in person, which was the main reason for attending the conference. It was well worth it. Among other things, I learned that making that personal connection can move your professional relationships to the next level. Personal connections are important, and I suggest you make as many as you can. But again, try and relax and enjoy the conference. Sometimes having fun is the best way to meet an unexpected future ally.
This year was my third conference, again in NYC. This time was very different in some ways, since I finally had that book contract (my second) and got to participate for the first time in both the Literacy Signing and the Berkley signing (my publishers). I also got to meet my Berkley editor in person, hang with my author pals and compare publishing stories (the good, the bad, and the ugly), have lunch with my agent, and continue my tradition of stalking of Jenny Crusie. (I bring her chocolate every time. It has become a tradition.) I still go to every workshop she gives, because she knows more about Craft than I ever will, including her updated version of that Turning Points workshop from years before. It was still helpful.
This time around, the conference was both more relaxed and more stressful. It was a relief not to be worried about finding an agent or having to pursue a book contract. But I still spent most of my time running from place to place, meeting up with author/agent/editor friends, my own agent and editor, and giving a workshop. I discovered that while it was a lot of fun to be participating in book signings, in some ways I missed being able to run around and grab all the books for myself. (Although my groaning TBR shelf was probably relieved, and I still managed to get enough books—most of them for my cat sitters, I swear!—that I had to mail them home.)
I think that my biggest take-away from this year’s conference was the realization that there is a different kind of joy to be had from every level of the writing career. I’m enjoying my success, such as it is, of course, but there are some aspects of “pre-success” that I didn’t fully appreciate until I’d moved past them. I wish, for instance, that at my first conference I’d spent less time worrying about pitching and more time just enjoying myself.
One thing is true no matter what level you are at, whether you are a newbie still trying to learn the craft, an almost-there seeking an agent, or a multi-published author greeting your fans and networking with your peers. The people you meet at Nationals are usually kind, interesting, and can become an integral part of your writing path. It is definitely worth doing at least once. Maybe even three times. As soon as I recover from this one, I’ll consider number four. You know, as soon as I finish writing the next book.
Deborah Blake is the author of the Baba Yaga paranormal romance series, including Wickedly Magical, Wickedly Dangerous and Wickedly Wonderful (Berkley) as well as eight books on modern witchcraft from Llewellyn Worldwide. She has an ongoing column in Witches & Pagans Magazine and was featured in The Pagan Anthology of Short Fiction. She can be found at www.deborahblakeauthor.com.