I was a Conference Virgin – Fiona McArthur

A Conference High

Everyone is a conference virgin – once. My recommendation – unequivocally – take a deep breath and dive right in. You’re so welcome – everyone was once where you are now – and the memory will always remain.

My first conference was in 1991, my husband read about it in the Sydney Morning Herald, and I do wonder if he regrets saying, “You should go to this.”

The amazing people I met impressed me so much I haven’t missed one since. So this year is my twentieth.

So twenty years ago I remember the rain when I parked, at Macquarie University, in a part of Sydney I’d never visited. The drive from Kempsey took nine hours in those days and felt much longer with four boys under eight to drop off on the way.

The uni, grey concrete walls, square cement quadrangles, and the lecture room was very ordinary. The people inside were the absolute opposite.

You know, I can still feel that dry mouth and jittery belly. What had I been thinking? To come all this way, waste all this money, not knowing a soul, thinking I could mix with real authors and publishers. I’d never written a book in my life, had only just joined a writers group with short stories and bush poetry, and had one lucky short story published in a magazine. I’d said I was going to write a Mills and Boon book one day with a real heroine – wasn’t I dreaming?

Well, apparently, these people had the same dream as me and here in front of me were those who’d magnificently made it.

Then came the first break in the program.

Morning tea, a half cup of coffee, a dapper, charismatic man in a suit wave a cigar as he talked to adoring supplicants. Frank dropped pearls of writing wisdom like the scattering ash while his wife, glamorously blonde and an aura like a movie star, shed diamonds of wit and bucketfuls of good sensible advice that was priceless. You just had to edge closer.

Wendy and Frank Brennan. The writing duo of Emma Darcy in 1991. Two of the brightest stars that shine in my early memories. There’s been so many more since then, so many open-hearted authors like Meredith Webber, Marion Lennox, Anne Gracie, Bronwyn Jameson, and dozens more, but memory of that first glimpse of these two fabulous authors make me smile every time.

From that first day, the excitement, motivation, and birth of a passion continued to grow every year. Now a huge part of my life, writing has introduced me to a family of awesome friends. Has provided me with amazing memories, times I can’t imagine missing out on. One day, I even realised I was a writer. I hated not writing.

That’s what conference is all about.

Following your dream and finding friends for your journey.

What I didn’t expect on that first day was to learn so much outside the conference, at morning tea, afternoon tea and especially those cigarette breaks with Emma Darcy.

I confess, I used to start smoking again every year so I could listen to ED at break time. Or chat to an editor. Or another almost published author. Or a newbie on their first conference. Those snatched conversations are treasured snapshots from every year as I slowly followed my journey to publication. I do believe that without RWA I would not have realised my dream.

To end, all I can say is conference has taught me to approach strangers, hold out my hand and say, “Hi. I’m Fiona. What do you like to write?” Because our community is extra-ordinarily friendly, generous, very knowledgeable and peopled with authors from all genres who are as passionate about writing as you are. Before RWA I didn’t know what a ‘genre’ was let alone be able to use it in a sentence.

So don’t be shy, soak in the positive vibe that will carry you well into your next manuscript, and I’ll see you in Melbourne. Please say, “Hi.”

… xx Fiona McArthur

Leave a comment


  1. Great story Fiona! My first conference was in Brisbane 2009 and the first published author I met was YOU! My big sister came with me to the cocktail party, and being the extravert she is everyone thought she was the writer, not me, until she shoved me in front you and proudly announced I’d just had my first story published that very week. I remember you shaking my hand and congratulating me and then offering me some sage advice about word counts! LOL. My other memories include sitting down with Paula Roe and talking about Star Wars Lego for over an hour between sessions, and almost wetting myself with laughter during Denise Rossetti’s Erotic Writing session when the topic of naming body parts came up. Bring on Melbourne!
    See you there,

  2. Suz Hamilton

     /  July 7, 2011

    Beautiful post, Fiona. My conference memories and the friends I have made and will continue to make, now make up a good part of my driving force to write – they help when the screen in front of me remains stubbornly blank! Looking foward to meeting you in Melbourne. Five weeks & we’ll be there. Suz

  3. What a wonderful story, Fiona, of your first time. I loved “That’s what conference is all about. Following your dream and finding friends for your journey.” That is so true. Conference and RWAus, in general.

    Thanks for sharing.

  4. Enjoyed your reminiscences, Fiona. I was a year behind you and first attended the following year’s conference in 1992, but I too remember Frank Brennan. I was nervous – that’s natural – but not too nervous to enjoy myself. My first novel ‘Persons of Rank’ a regency romance, had just been published, and I so wanted to have more books published so was eager to learn everything I could.

    Sadly, my husband and I now spend the northern summers in England every year and I can’t attend conferences, but I’m with you all in spirit. Have a ball! At least here I can attend the Romantic Novelists’ Association conferences so I’m not totally deprived of the company of fellow writers.

  5. Fiona, what gorgous memories to share with us. I came to RWAust later, much later, but I still remember Emma Darcy’s farewell speech with absolute delight. Make you laugh and make you cry, all in the space of a moment.

  6. Rosie Richards

     /  July 9, 2011

    Thanks so much, Fiona, for reminding us about what is best about conference. The feeling of being with people who “know”. The support and the inspiration. The chance to catch memories that last a lifetime and, best of all, the chance to make friends who’ll add more than you can possibly imagine to your life.

  7. That’s what conference is all about.

    Following your dream and finding friends for your journey.

    THIS!!! Sums up what conference has meant to me over the years, and each year, which has been the only time I’ve caught up with many of my friends since the last conference. Yes, the learning, the workshops, the inspiration to go home and write up a storm, are the reason we go, but the friendships forged at conference help us through to the next August’s dose of inspiration. (Funny, I always think of conf as August, even though my first couple weren’t in Aug.)

    Loved reading about your first conference experience, Fi, and the amazing lengths you went to with that long drive and four boys to sort beforehand. And to never miss a conference in those 20 years is super-amazing!!!


  8. I remember my first conference – Brissy, 1990 and who would be the first two people to welcome me, a virgin attendee, but Fi McArthur and Bron Jameson! And recognised from a shabby EDA finalist pic.

    And you made me feel so welcome and warm and comfortable and while I haven’t missed one since, I have never forgotten that wonderful first conference and how I felt I had this fabulous new family. I love our conferences, and catching up face to face with wonderful friends like Fiona McArthur and meeting new ones are a huge part of it.

    Roll on Melbourne!

  9. Fiona, I, too, remember those first conferences at Macquarie Uni and the wonderful friendship, faces and chats. In my case, before the days of cheap competitive air travel, I left country Victoria by bus and train to get down to Melbourne, got in early evening then jumped on an overnight bus Melbourne to Sydney with a friend, arriving at something like 7 in the morning. Took a taxi out to the uni and almost dozed off in the arvo sessions. Such an effort to unite with fellow romance writers but well worth it for the memories and tasting my first martini!! We had late night chats around the table, crossed the street to a restaurant/steak bar and had more fun and laughter. Great stuff. The numbers were smaller but the comraderie continues…


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