A first look: RWA conference from a newbie’s perspective

One of the best times of the year for a romance writer is July and the national RWA conference. I’ve been several times myself, but this year I got the pleasure of rooming with a newbie to conference. I’d been looking forward to this quite a bit because my roommate (and close friend) has down moments in her writing (just like all of us) that she occasionally struggles with, making her doubt both herself and her abilities. (She’s brilliant, btw, and one day will put us all to shame.) But what I had not gotten to see with her before was her experiencing anything remotely like what I knew nationals could do to a person. Motivation, fangirl moments, just the wow of being a part of it all and coming home with scores of ideas and need-to-learns and need-to-reads. It’s a great experience, and I have to say that reliving the first time through my friend’s eyes was inspirational for me. It was one of the best parts of my conference this year, to know that she got to be there and have that wow (and for me to see her having it!).

Therefore, I bring her here to the Rubies and friends today so that she can share a bit of her experience. Everyone…please welcome my friend and zombie lover, Gretchen Stull!!!

Hello everyone! Thanks for having me here. And Kim, thanks for the kind words. *blushes*

Gretchen, how about we do this interview style? I’ll jump in with questions, but please, if I forget to ask something vital, just share it! There is never too much motivation to go around!

First, what was your first impression on day one? Were you overwhelmed? About what you expected? Just ready to get to it?

I arrived just ready to get started! I’ve been to academic conferences and pop culture conventions in the past, so I had an idea of what I was in for. I arrived early to attend the Leadership Seminar, so I was in the hotel before the crowds really hit. Even arriving early, though, my first impression was surprise at how excited everyone was to be there. Hugs and squealing and laughing voices were heard anywhere two or more RWA members converged. It really set the tone from the beginning.

What’s more, RWA wasn’t the only convention in the hotel. For sake of discretion, let’s call it a technical convention that shared the space. Some of those attendees seemed less than happy to be in attendance (some of them seemed less than happy with life in general). I remember riding the elevator with a friend after I first arrived, and the bell hop asked if we were there with the technical convention. When we said we were RWA members, he instantly smiled and replied, “Ah, you’re with the fun group.” Yes sir, that we are.

I hate that I missed the unhappy guys. (I was stuck in my room Tuesday and Wednesday, finishing up something for my editor.)

What was the energy like?

As a first timer, I don’t know if my conference experience is unique or standard, but I thought the energy level was extremely high and so positive. There was a blog post, I believe on the Wonkomance Blog, directly after conference (if you don’t follow Wonkomance, you should) about how people interact at conference. Of course I can’t find it now, but there’s a quote that really stood out to me. To poorly paraphrase, there are a lot of instances of people talking in groups and when someone leaves the group, the remaining people immediately start talking about the departed member. But, and this is the important part, the comments made are along the lines of “OMG, I love her!” and “Isn’t she fabulous?” and “She’s so smart!” That was my experience. There was so much genuine joy and mutual appreciation and overall affirmation. It was wonderful to be a part of it all. I got to speak with people whose books I’ve read and who I’ve admired from afar, genuinely talk to them and not just fangirl (though I’ll admit to a fair amount of fangirling as well). There’s no such thing as being alone at conference unless you want to be. Even when I went to a session alone, I left with a host of new acquaintances. I became closer with people I already knew. I learned from people who’ve walked the path before me. The energy was high and positive, and I brought some of it home with me when I left.

Was there anything specific that inspired you?

The atmosphere itself was inspiring. Seeing people living what for me is still a dream; that’s inspiring. Specifically, I was very inspired by Cathy Maxwell’s keynote speech. She talked about the crippling effects of not feeling good enough. Not only do feelings of inadequacy cause us to limit ourselves, they’re false. Yes, everyone has different abilities, but it’s passion that sets people apart. Everybody can have a seat at the table, but it’s not reserved. It’s one you have to make for yourself and then claim. You have to want it and you have to want it enough to work hard for it. Showing up, making your voice heard, trying and failing and trying again, claiming your place and KNOWING it’s where you belong – that was the message of Cathy’s speech and it resonated with me on a number of levels.

Oh yes, Cathy’s speech was terrific! I was inspired, too. How about fangirl moments? Were there any?

I may have fangirled a bit…the entire time 🙂 I don’t want to name names, just because I’m worried I’d leave someone out. If you are looking for smart, articulate, professional women to learn from and model yourself after, RWA is the place to be. I’m absolutely blown away by the truly amazing women (and men) who comprise this group. Yes, I fangirled, and I do not apologize for it.

I love it! Never apologize for fangirling! Anything happen that you didn’t expect?

I didn’t expect it to be so easy. I expected conference to be overwhelming. I expected to be lost in a sea of people, mostly strangers. Because I’m very much an introvert, I expected to spend a fair amount of time either attempting to make awkward conversation with people, or deeply wishing I was in the privacy of my own space decompressing from the constant crush of bodies and chatter. That wasn’t my experience at all. Conference was overwhelming, but in all the right ways. And it was so easy, surprisingly easy, how a simple hello could lead to an hour conversation on the most random topic, or a professional connection, or a new friend. I’ve never been good at networking, because I don’t like the idea of communicating with someone solely to serve the end goal of “what can this person do for me?” None of the connections I made at conference felt like networking, although from a professional standpoint I guess that’s what they were. Instead, I was happy to talk with people who shared the same interests and passions as me. If those connections turn out to be professionally fortuitous down the road, fine, but that they were made at all in enough for me. Because regardless of whether I chatted with an editor or big name author or another lowly noob like myself, I had FUN. So much fun. That’s what I didn’t expect; that this huge professional event I’d been psyching myself out for would be so much fun, and that’s what made it easy, and that’s what made me love it so much.

What did you think of the awards ceremony?

Two thoughts crossed my mind at the awards ceremony in quick succession. First, “Oh everyone looks so beautiful, I can’t believe I’m here, I’m going to get my picture taken with everyone and Instagram it IMMEDIATELY!” Which I did, leading quickly to thought two, “OMG why didn’t ANYBODY tell me that’s what’s going on with the front of my dress?!”

There’s cleavage, my friends, and then there’s public indecently. I committed the latter, and I’m sorry. (I was able to correct this between the awards ceremony and the Samhain party, so let’s hear it for camisoles!)

Oh, you mean what did I think of the actual awards ceremony and not my own idiotic clothing blunders? My mistake :-p The awards ceremony was wonderful. I had a great time cheering on my friends (like Kim) who were nominees. I was absolutely moved by the speeches made (Mary Jo Putney, especially, rocked it!). It was everything I hoped it would be. And really, who doesn’t enjoy getting all dolled up and celebrating once in a while?

That was a kick-ass dress. And cleavage! 😉 Any best moments of the conference?

My favorite part of the conference was Montlake’s publisher dinner for RITA finalists. Kim was one of the guests of honor and took me as her date. After a tense few minutes of feeling like I DID NOT belong there, I relaxed (with the help of a cocktail or five) and had the absolute best time. I got to meet some of the editors and publishing team members of Montlake, and I got a feel for the vibe of Amazon Publishing (it’s great, if you’re wondering, and I would love the opportunity to work with them). It was a rare, unique opportunity that I am so grateful I got to experience, and I had a blast just chatting with these folks who are normally only thought of in terms of their title. Seriously, when you spend an evening talking Sharknado and Amish traffic jams, you realize how much more than just a title these people are, and how much fun they are on a personal level.

Oh yes…Montlake is THE BEST!!! I’m so glad you went with me that night. You were a terrific date! Ok…last question…what did you take away from it all?

Besides tons of books and even more contacts? 🙂 Motivation. So much motivation. I left knowing that the next time I’m fortunate enough to attend Nationals, I want to do so as a PAN member. I’m not saying this is the right path for everyone, because there are many ways to scale the mountain, but it’s the path I want to take. The conference changed the way I’ve been thinking about writing as a career, and gave me the boot in the pants (er, sundress?) I desperately needed. I came home motivated, focused, and ready to work!

I’m so happy for you, Gretchen, that you got to go this year and had such a terrific experience. And like I told the Rubies on our loop, I wanted a chance to share your enthusiasm with others. It’s kind of infectious 😉 Thanks for being here and showing us conference through your eyes!!

Gretchen Stull - BAM Signing publicity stillGretchen Stull wrote her Master’s thesis on zombies, making her, technically, a professional zombologist. Remarkably, there isn’t much work out there for a zombologist (yet!), so in the meantime, she writes. And writes. And writes. Sometimes, she even gets to write about zombies, so it all works out in the end. A NY Times bestselling author of children’s nonfiction, she is working towards publication in speculative romantic fiction and Steampunk.

Ok, so let’s ask Gretchen some questions. She loves talking zombies. Anybody got a zombie question for her? And btw, she took her four-month-old (I believe he was at the time) on a Zombie walk last year. *sigh* Poor kid, he doesn’t stand a chance. Or we could stick to the subject at hand. Anything about conference as a newbie you can think to ask that I forgot? Or something you might just want to know? Or just say hi! 🙂

64 responses to “A first look: RWA conference from a newbie’s perspective”

  1. Vivi Andrews says:

    Gretchen, I LOVED reading this. It made me sad I missed conference this year (and meeting you!!), and now I’m looking forward to San Antonio more than ever! Truly, the energy at conference is everything positive. Thanks for the great post.

  2. Kali says:

    This was fantastic to read! I’ve been putting off having my first conference experience partly because I’m not a crowd person and “networking” gives me hives. But hearing about it from a fellow first-timer and introvert really makes me feel more comfortable with the whole idea. Thank you!!

    • Hi Kali! I hear you loud and clear! The thought of networking just makes me sick in the pit of my stomach. But the connections I made there were nothing like networking. It was relaxed and fun. I’m so much of an introvert that typing up the questions for this interview stressed me out, LOL, but I truly loved conference. I hope someday you’ll give it a go…and that your experience is even more fantastic!

      • Kim Law says:

        I can attest to her anxiety over this interview. She’s a wee bit insane 😉 But then, you have to be to do this!

        Thanks for stopping by Kali!

        • Just a wee bit, not so much you’d notice 😉

          • Kali says:

            A wee bit insane is a good thing!
            I’m hoping to make it this year but that’s going to depend on finances. We have to go to Hawaii in July because my husband is the Best Man in a wedding (Hawaii is such a hardship…torture really.) so it’s going to depend on how I can work the flights for the best prices 😀

  3. Welcome, Gretchen! Fun interview, Kim! I wonder what a zombie conference would be like…

    I missed out on Nationals for the first time since 2008, and I loved reading about your Atlanta experience, Gretchen. I’m an introvert, too, and normally huge professional conferences scare me to pieces. But I find our fellow romance writers are so fun and welcoming, and then I forget all about being shy.

    • Hi Vanessa! Oh, I can’t even imagine how amazing a zombie conference would be… I’m heading to Dragon*Con at the end of this week, and there are enough zombies in attendance to give me an idea. But a full zombie conference? *swoons*

      Romance writers are the best!

    • Kim Law says:

      I missed you this year Vanessa!!! But I also know that you were off having loads of fun 🙂

      And I, for one, will bow out of a zombie conference. I’ll let you and Gretchen have that one all to yourselves!

  4. Jean Willett says:

    Wonderful interview! I was motivated just reading the enthusiasm you expressed on the page. I agree that the conference this year was a happy place to be. The upbeat attitudes were contagious 🙂 Good luck. Zombie thesis? In what field? Because I can just imagine your professors shaking their heads over that topic.
    So glad you shared your enthusiasm. Thanks, Kim and Gretchen!

    • Kim Law says:

      Oh,conference this year was totally a happy place to be, wasn’t it? The last couple of years have just been more and more fun! Can’t wait until next year!

    • Hi Jean! My MA is in Communication. The focus of the research was zombie media, specifically film, as a metaphor for and representation of societal ideological struggles involving gender, race, and class. *yawn* More fun to focus on the brain-munching aspects by far 😉 I think, after so many uber-serious, extremely academic communication projects, my committee was actually happy to have something a little different to focus on. And by that point, they were used to my projects being slightly left of center. I spent grad school coming up with the most interesting (for me, at least) projects I could. Zombies. M*A*S*H reruns (for Org Comm). I even did a long-term study in a strip club at one point; “The nonverbal communicative habits of exotic dancers.” I miss school… 🙂

  5. Hello everyone! *waves* Thanks for having me on the blog today, it’s a pleasure to be in such wonderful company!

    I have limited Internet availability through the day, but I will hop on just as often as I can to answer questions and join the conversation. 🙂

  6. June Love says:

    Gretchen! Hi and welcome to the Ruby blog. The only zombies I’m familiar with are the Plants vs Zombies app on my iPad. 🙂

    After I got back from Atlanta this summer, someone asked me what attending a romance conference was like. I thought about it for a second and then said, it was like a week long Girl’s Night Out. Not because of the alcohol consumption, but because it’s visiting with old friends and making new friends. It’s about having dinner and talking craft with people who “get” you. And, that’s only a small part of it.

    I should add that my GNO description wasn’t intended to exclude the men in attendance, who I actually saw more of this year, but it was the first thing that came to my mind.

    I’m glad you were able to attend and that it was a positive experience for you. Hope to meet you in San Antonio!

    Kim, thanks for inviting Gretchen to share her experience with. Great interview!

    • Kim Law says:

      Thanks June! Gretchen’s enthusiasm has motivated me too!

      And I think you have it right. Totally like a girl’s night out. Both with the drinking and the hanging around and chatting 😉 And dinners, old friends, new friends. *sigh* Now I miss it!

    • Hi June! You know, I LOVE Plants vs. Zombies. It’s a fun game (and perfect more my attention span these days).

      “Week long Girl’s Night Out” is the perfect descriptor! That’s exactly what it was like. I hope I get to attend again (and meet you!) soon.

  7. Jenn! says:

    Great interview, ladies! Gretchen, I so thrilled conference was such a positive experience for you. I love going to the RWA conference. Each time I go, there is something more to learn, something more to take away, and, of course, more friends and contacts made. It’s all so tangible on many levels. And, boy oh boy, after coming home, I’m physically and mentally exhausted!!

    As for the other group sharing the hotel with us, not all of them were downers. One in particular was quite friendly with me. So much so, he called my room at 1 in the morning! (No…I did not give him my room #) HAHA!

    Oh…and I wouldn’t rule out a career in zombology just yet. Crazy world we live in, ya know? Anything could happen. 😉

    • Kim Law says:

      Jenn! You got called in the middle of the night??? Well, you do make quite the impression 😉 So wish I could have been down there making impressions of my own! Next time.

      And I agree with you on the exhaustion. It took me two full days to recover this time. That was a record for me. The husband got quite the chuckle over it, too :-/

      • Jenn! says:

        Yup, Kim, I sure did get a call in the middle of the night. My roomies were howling with laughter and word got around pretty quickly that I got a booty call from a computer geek. Pretty sure I will never live it down.

        Two days recovery? Wow, Kim! That is a record time! It always takes me several days to get back into the swing of things.

        • Kim Law says:

          Well, it probably took me longer to “get back in the swing of things” but I was pretty much worthless for two full days. I mean…worthless!!! Good thing I have no kids at home!

    • Hi Jenn! You got a late night call? Ha! I stand corrected. I guess some of them did know how to let loose 😉

      I never count out the possibility of a zombie apocalypse. I just hope it doesn’t ever happen in the days immediately following conference. While I didn’t need 2 days to recover (hereafter known as The Kim Recovery Period ;)), I needed some alone time to sleep and regather my senses. I have a toddler, so I think that was a stolen 15 minutes of time while I barricaded myself in the bathroom, but still. Better than nothing 🙂

  8. Cate Rowan says:

    That was so much fun to read, Gretchen and Kim!

    My first RWA Conference was in 1998. I hadn’t even been to a chapter meeting yet, so I was fresh off the turnip truck, confused, and thrilled by the whole experience. And also so shy that I didn’t go to the Awards Ceremony–just drove back home, my head whirling with story ideas.

    I must have gone to another seven or eight conferences over the years, but I haven’t been since 2009. This post is making me want to go again, so maybe next year. After all, that’ll be the fifth anniversary of the Ruby year, so why not?

    Thank again for making us all nostalgic and grinny. 🙂

  9. Terri Osburn says:

    What a fun interview, and congrats on your first conference. I keep thinking the more of these I attend, the better I’ll get at managing my time. Sadly, that’s not the case. This was my 5th Nationals and I think I missed more friends this time than any time before.

    But you’re so right about the energy and generosity that seems to seep from every corner. And yeah, I’ll second that Montlake rocks. 🙂

    • Kim Law says:

      I couldn’t believe how many people I couldn’t find. Or I only saw them once from a distance, but never found them again. I hope that doesn’t mean that I now know too many people.

      We should start a chant…Montlake rocks! Montlake rocks! 😉

      Thanks for coming by Terri 🙂

    • Hi Terri! Thanks 🙂 I had a wonderful time. What a great group of people. RWA is hands down one of the BEST writer’s organizations, if not the best.

      And yes, Montlake blew me away completely.

  10. Tamara Hogan says:

    I’m so glad you enjoyed the conference, Gretchen – and thanks so much, Kim, for the interview! I love the RWA National description June used above: it’s like a week-long Girls’ Night Out.

    I DO take occasional breaks alone in my room to decompress – there comes a point where it feels like I’m trying to drink from a firehose – but there’s nothing quite like the book-loving awesomeness that we create at RWA National.

    So, Gretchen, did you put zombie makeup on your baby? 😉

    • Kim Law says:

      Tamara, I suspect the reason it took me longer to recover this year was because I pretty much had NO down time in my room. I had two roommates this year, and that made it a bit difficult to find quiet time. Though I think Sat afternoon, both Gretchen and I napped. I did nap (passed out), and one of the roommates snuck in and did the same. I was too foggy to know which one. 🙂

    • Hi Tamara! I snuck back to the room for a couple decompression naps. I couldn’t help it. It was fun, and tiring, and when I knew I hit my limit…well, I’d rather miss an hour worth of the festivities for a necessary recharge, than be an unintentional member of the walking dead for the rest of the evening!

      I didn’t put makeup on the boy (we call him The Littlest Kraken because the noises that came through the baby monitor in those early days? ZOMG! Mythical sea creatures would be JEALOUS). He was too little then for there not to be a worry about side effects. But, I did make a sign (“blood” covered, of course) for his stroller. It said “My baby has more BRAINS than your honor student.” It was a hit, LOL.

  11. The fun group! Awesome! Thanks for this interview, Gretchen, and welcome to the Ruby Blog! I’m so glad you got to experience all that is RWA National. It is truly my favorite convention of the year. I look forward to it like no other.

  12. “You’re with the fun group.” – that makes me smile. 🙂 Thanks so much for the post today…I missed RWA this year, but hope to make the next few years. Thank you so much for your infectious enthusiasm! (And glad it’s not infectious zombieism…or whatever the term is. LOL)

  13. Rita Henuber says:

    Thank you ladies. So fun to hear about your experiences. Too bad you couldn’t release some zombie mojo on those ‘other’ conference attendees.

    • Hi Rita! Zombie mojo is best used in small doses. The gentlemen I ran into didn’t seem too happy with their surroundings. It may have caused a riot if I’d bitten one 😉

  14. Gwyn says:

    I hate to admit it, but after so much time isolated with Hubble, even I found conference overwhelming this year, and this was my fifth time at the ball! The noise, the constant press of people, the noise (yes, I believe that is the true culprit) sent me hieing to my room numerous times, so you weren’t alone, Gretchen. Still, there’s nothing quite like the wealth of energy the conference generates. In many ways, it’s like a family reunion; you may not know everyone’s name, but you know they’re all related somehow! 😉

  15. Thank you, Gretchen, for sharing with us! I became excited about the conference all over again. I wasn’t able to go this year because sadly ; ) I was touring Britain. But your enthusiasm and your views about the RWA conference make me want to go next year.
    Kim – thanks for having your friend on. She seems incredibly positive and fun! I can’t wait to read her published work in the future.

  16. Kate Parker says:

    I’m laughing about the wardrobe malfunction. This conference had everything! And I’m so glad you got to experience it, Gretchen. Hope you come back next year in San Antonio.

    • Hi Kate! It wasn’t so much a malfunction as it was a top intended for someone a bit more endowed that I am 😉 I was so preoccupied putting blue streaks in my hair (you know, for reasons) I wasn’t paying attention to how far the neckline plunged. A mistake I WON’T make again. 😀

  17. Nan Dixon says:

    This is so wonderful!
    You’ve made me re-live the wonder of RWA. There is something magical about the conference and you and Kim have helped remind me now that I’m wallowing in the guts of a really messy revision.
    Thank you!

  18. Elisa Beatty says:

    So adorable! Thanks for sharing this. And, yes, RWA is definitely the fun group!

  19. Liz Talley says:

    Sorry I’m so late to the par-tay, but I won’t to thank you for sharing your experiences at RWA. I love going, mostly because of all that positive ju-ju and to see my friends. BUT I do go to workshops and spend time networking, keeping my ears open for ways I can better my writing and my chance at moving up in the publishing world.

    Loved this post 🙂

  20. Kathy Crouch says:

    This was my first conference too and my fun thing was meeting all my online friends in person. I made a ton of friends and all at once on Saturday night after it was over I was sad thinking wow the week flew by already! I live right up the road from San Antonio near Fort Hood, TX and I am so excited about Nationals being right in my home state next year. I loved Kristin Higgins keynote speech and Christie Craig had me laughing until tears ell out of my eyes.


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