RWA Nationals and What I Learned There

I recently had the chance to attend the annual convention of the Romance Writers of America. I’ve been a member of RWA since 2010, but this is the first time since I joined that I’ve been able to go to the convention (usually referred to as Nationals). The location changes every year, and this year, Nationals was at Walt Disney World. For me, that’s close enough to commute.

What happens at Nationals? I didn’t know before I went. I’ve been to conventions before – mostly science fiction conventions of all sizes, from tiny local conventions where everyone knows everyone else, all the way up to the big ones like Megacon, Gencon, and the World Science Fiction Convention. And I’ve been to professional development events before. Neither prepared me for what I walked in to that first day.

When you check in your first day, they give you a tote bag (remember this – it’s important later) and lanyard, your name badge and a pin for that year’s Nationals. And if it’s your first time, they give you a brightly colored ribbon that reads “First Timer.”

That ribbon is considered an open invitation for people to talk to you – to check on you, make sure you’re not getting overwhelmed, that you’re drinking and eating, that you’re just having fun. Random people will come up to you and introduce themselves and ask what you’re writing. It sounds like it would be introvert hell. But somehow, it isn’t. I’m still working out why that is. Maybe because most writers are introverts themselves, and they know how to read the signs on someone who needs a little more space? I don’t know. But not once during Nationals did anyone approach me when I needed my space to process or to just be.

Now, when you get to Nationals, if you want to get your name out there, you go put something out in the Goody Room. If you’re promoting a book, or a service, or just yourself, you get something for that room. I’ve send postcards to other Nationals, but paper very rarely gets any notice because there’s so much of it! The goodies that get noticed and talked about fall into one of four categories:

    • Useful

    • Clever

    • Whimsical

    • “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Since I didn’t want my goodies to be immediately recycled, I went for what I thought was whimsical, but which turned out to be a solid “why didn’t I think of that?!?” I brought naughty dice. They disappeared from the Goody Room in under an hour, and since I was commuting, I missed the flurry of “Who brought the sex dice???” questions that happened after the panels were over for the day. Apparently, no one ever thought of this before, and I’m wondering how many other erotica writers will be bringing sex dice to Nationals next year in Denver!

This brings me to the second thing I learned. Commuting to the conference was a mistake! Even though Nationals was only forty five minutes from my house, I should have stayed the entire time. I learned a lot during the day, but all the real networking happened after the panels were over. I missed out on a lot of meeting people because I simply wasn’t there!

There is another reason to stay on site. Remember that tote bag? By the end of four days, I had filled that tote bag twice, along with two reusable grocery bags. With what? Well, every publisher that had a presence at Nationals hosted signings with as many of their authors as were available. These signings ranged in size from good sized conference rooms to ballrooms that could hold several hundred people. And all of the books at these signings were free. All of them. Including the brand-new not released to the public until Saturday Sherrilyn Kenyon book – I had it on Thursday. I kept having to go put books in my car, because I couldn’t carry all the books!

So, so what I learned is that Nationals is all about socializing, swag and books, right?

No.

Remember how I said I’ve been to professional development conferences and to big science fiction conventions like Worldcon? At those conventions, there are definite distinctions between the “Real” writers and the “Real” fans, and everyone else. There are cliques, and there are gatekeepers – those people who determine if the newcomers are worthy to be admitted into the cabal. There can be a lot of dissension between the older fans and the new blood, and there have been conventions that have suffered because of it.

There’s none of of that at Nationals. And from what I’ve heard, there’s none of that at RT – the romance reader convention hosted by Romance Times. So I have to say that the single most important thing that I learned at Nationals is that in the romance community, the operative word is “community.” The romance community is made up of people who look at that brightly colored “First Timer” ribbon and say, “Oh, it’s your first time! Welcome home!” In the romance community, a newcomer can go to an awards luncheon, and sit next to a luminary in the romance world, a lovely woman who has been writing for thirty years, and have that luminary make sure that the newcomer is not eating anything that they shouldn’t because of their allergies (that Luminary just found out about that moment. Yes, this happened to me.) The romance community is made up of the amazing men and women who write these books, and who consider each other family, so Nationals is essentially the romance family reunion.

That is what I learned at Nationals. I think other genres can learn from us romance writers. Here, there are no puppies – sad, rabid or otherwise. There are no gatekeepers. There is no hierarchy here, no “I’ve been doing this for aeons, so you must bow down!” There is no “Us against Them.” Here, there’s teasing and laughing and just having fun with each other, because we’re all in this together. Here, there are only writers, at different stages in their careers, who are here to support and help and learn from each other, the way families do.

Next year, the romance family reunion is in Denver. I can’t wait!

Postscript:

Now, I wrote everything preceding this paragraph in the initial rosy glow of a post-Nationals haze. In the weeks after Nationals, I learned that, just like other families, there are those relatives — the ones that make the cousins groan and shake their heads. However, unlike at my other family reunions, those relatives aren’t allowed to expound their unpopular opinions because they’re older. At the RWA, when those relatives started going on about how things were better when that sort of people weren’t allowed a seat at the table, they got shut down. Hard. It was inspiring to see how many people called the bigots on their bigotry, and how little the family was willing to tolerate.

There was a a time, apparently, when it was okay in the RWA to say that that sort of people shouldn’t be allowed a seat at the table. Not anymore. We’re not only at the table, we’re being fussed over by luminaries not to eat the things that might make us sick.

Is the RWA perfect? Probably not. But, like Stitch might say, “It’s still good. Yeah, still good.”

What do you think?