Tips for the RWA Nationals First-timer



So perhaps you’ve registered for #RWA17 in Orlando, or you’re still thinking about it. Maybe you aren’t sure if you should make this your #RWA1st. Well, let me tell you, there’s no better time to be a first-timer! RWA Nationals will be held at the Walt Disney World Resort, and in addition to this awesome conference, you have all that Disney has to offer. There are so many great things to do that I’ve even created a guide to help you plan. Go check it out!

There are so many wonderful events and opportunities that await you at the Romance Writers of America® (RWA) Annual Conference. No matter if you have yet to type your first words, have a polished manuscript (or two or three), or are already published, you’ll return home with new ideas/inspiration, connections, and a suitcase full of free books, pens, candy, pins, and bookmarks.

I asked my fellow Dragonfly sisters (Golden Heart finalists of ’15 – many of whom are award finalists again this year) for tips. Along with some of my own tips, here’s what we have to share:

  • Wear your badge with pride. As a first-timer, you’ll receive a ribbon to attach to your badge letting others know you’re an RWA conference newbie [dare I say virgin?]. Don’t be embarrassed by this status. Embrace it. And if you are feeling a little alone among the sea of 2k other conferees, then seek out others with these ribbons. It’s a great way to strike up a conversation with other people.

RWA Nationals Badge

  • From Pamela Kopfler: Buy some blister protection. There is a tremendous amount of walking and even flats can rub blisters on your feet. I use Foot Petals. Also, relax. You’ve found your tribe. Don’t worry that you aren’t published. Every bestseller started where you are.
  • You will not be able to do everything. Repeat after me: You will not be able to do everything. I know as a first-timer there might be the urge to do as much as you can. I get it, you want to get your money’s worth. You think this could be the only time you’ll ever go. Yes, attend what you can, but don’t run yourself ragged. (These are the same tips I give to people visiting Walt Disney World! I will have to remember this for a similar post come next year when Nationals are held at the land of Mickey.) Chances are you will return to Nationals one day. I suggest a mixture of workshops, scoping out other conference events at the hotel, attending signings, and a visit to the bar (more on that later).
  • From Kelly Siskind: Be sure to sit next to people in workshops you don’t know and say hi. Make conversation. Everyone is super friendly and wants to meet fellow romance writers.
  • Last year, I pitched to an editor for the first time. I had an index card and started referencing my bullet points to get my pitch across. The best thing the editor asked me to do was put down the card. “Talk to me like you would your friend. How would you describe your book to a friend?” she asked. Once I ditched the index card, my words came out more naturally. I felt more human. Don’t focus too much on memorizing your pitch. Remember the key points you want to convey and talk to that agent/editor as you would a friend.
  • From Sharon Wray: Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to sit with people you don’t know at lunch and breakfast. Don’t be afraid to sit in the pitch room and jump on those last minute openings. Don’t be afraid to sit in the bar and talk to strangers—you might just meet your future editor or agent.
  • Sharon mentioned last minute openings for agent/editor pitches. They definitely happen. So if you’d like to pitch to more than one person, hang out in the check-in area. Schedules are posted on the wall, and you’ll see gaps of open timed you can snag. Also, some people don’t show up to their appointments (tsk tsk), so organizers will announce if there’s an unexpected opening.
  • From ’16 RITA Finalist, Marnee Blake: Drink lots of water!! I get dehydrated every year and end up with a headache! So don’t forget to hydrate! I’m taking my own refillable bottle this year. Also, don’t be afraid to skip a workshop to hang out with new friends. Friendships made at a conference can last forever.
  • Marnee mentioned drinking. I’m now thinking about libations. Like any conference/convention, the hotel bar is the epicenter of all the action. Even if you don’t drink, order yourself a soda and spend some time by the bar. There, you’ll find lots of key people in the field, and as Sharon said above, you just might meet the right person who will kickstart your career. 
  • From Susan Bickford : Pre-conference – Get packing cubes. I don’t know how I packed before. And roll your clothes instead of folding. Almost no wrinkles. At the conference – I found I got a lot out of the Spotlights on the different publishers. It really gives you a sense of whether your writing might be a fit or not. And hang with friends! Those are the things I remember most from last year, not what I learned in a workshop!
  • If you get invited to a party, go go go. They’re a great opportunity to make those all important connections. If you don’t have a party to go to, I’d recommend attending Passionate Ink’s Masquerade Ball on July 15th. Passionate Ink is the online RWA Erotic Romance chapter, so you know the party will be a little wild. And if you don’t have a party to go to one night, go out and explore San Diego. Take a cab to the Hotel del Coronado (that ought to inspire a book idea) or have some awesome Mexican Food in Old Town San Diego. San Diego is a great city to explore.

RWA Passionate Ink Party

  • From Laurie Benson: Wear shoes with low heels because you’ll be doing a lot of walking. And bring a cozy sweater. Those session rooms can get cold! 
  • From Tara Sheets: Take a picture of your business card and make that your phone’s lock screen. That way if you lose your phone, the finder or “lost and found” will know who to contact.
  • From TL Sumner: Consider shipping books and other swag home if you don’t have an extra bag. Get a flat rate box from USPS or usually FedEx has a conference special on shipping.
RWA Annual Conference 2016 Bag

RWA Annual Conference 2016 Bag – Photo by Priscilla Oliveras


  • From RWA Board Member (PRO Liaison) Priscilla Oliveras: Pitching– the agent/editor wants you to do well. Think of it like you’re telling a friend/mom/brother (whomever you’re comfortable with) about your book. At the hotel, there’s lots of space to congregate and chat with friends old and new. Take advantage of networking opportunities. Those more experienced, please reach out to those wearing a first-timer ribbon. [Pris is already at the conference and says the Marriott has a great gym.]
  • If you’re on Twitter/Facebook, use the official conference hashtag, #RWA17, when posting. First-timers can also use the tag, #RWA1st.  People who aren’t there this year (such as me) love hearing about the conference and seeing pictures. It’s also a great way to earn some new followers, too. 
  • From Caroline Bradley: If the workshop hands out water, take it. And if they hand out cookies or chocolate, it goes without saying. Hit the goodie room early and often.
  • From Sara Portman: My tip (and goal for this year) is don’t be afraid to talk to people. Everyone is there to meet new people! Get out of your shell.
  • From Kimberly MacCarron: WEAR COMFORTABLE SHOES!!! Speaking from past mistake. Blisters will ruin your conference experience. Also, if your eyes tend to be dry, pack eye drops.
  • From Tracy Brody: Don’t be afraid to talk to big name authors. They are people. Bring a jacket or wrap. Bring white chocolate to share with Tracy Brody and be her friend. Bring external charger. Don’t be nervous or stress about pitches. You don’t need to go to every session. You may need to chill.
  • Finally, keep the spirit of the conference alive. If you’re not a member of a local (or online) RWA Chapter, join. Many host conferences of their own, and they’re a great way to make friends with fellow (and local) writers.

Hope you find these tips helpful. Feel free to share this post with others who might find this useful as well (share buttons are down below). There’s a lot to digest here, but know this—you will have a blast and you’ll want to attend future RWA conferences over and over again!

Thanks to The Dragonflies for contributing to this post.


This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Just thought of another one. While I adore conference tote bags, bring your own (maybe from a difference conference or a different year). There’s going to be hundreds of those same bags circulating through the hotel and workshops over the next 5 days, and it’s easy to switch them by accident. (I sat next to a board member at breakfast, and she put her Board documentation in my bag by mistake.) Save yourself the stress and confusion, and use a unique bag.

  2. That’s a great point! What I did last year was tie a loud/bright yellow bow to the handle. I was able to spot mine out of the crowd. In fact, it’s the same ribbon I used to tie to my daughter’s stroller to notice it at Walt Disney World. Funny how some of the same tips apply…hydrate, comfie shoes. 😉

  3. This was such a great idea for a post, Elle. I really liked Tara’s idea of taking a photo of your business card and keeping it as the locked screen image on your phone. Even though I won’t be attending the conference this year, it’s a great tip for everyday life. And reminding people they don’t need to do everything is a great tip. I remember my first time at Nationals. I went to a session each time one was scheduled. By the end of the conference my head was stuffed with so much information I could barely remember my name. It’s worth having down time.

  4. Thanks, Laurie, and I appreciate you helping out with tips as well! Hopefully, we will both be at Nationals next year!

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