March 12, 2012

AWP: From an attendee's perspective. Written by David

This week I'm going to give you two unique perspectives on the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Professionals) conference. For those of you who have never heard of the AWP, it is a national conference which happens once a year in a major city in the U.S. Last year the conference was in Washington D.C., and this year it was in Chicago. Next year the conference will be in Boston, and from there I won't bore you with a list of cities.

But what is the AWP conference? Is it worth going to if you are an up and coming writer trying to figure out how to get published and how to market a book? Who is this conference for?

That's what I'm here for, to tell you what I've seen in my two visits to the conference. I'll start out by letting you know what I saw as a regular conference attendee last year when the conference was in D.C. and on Wednesday I'll let you know what I saw this year while promoting Obsession Literary Magazine.

Going into the D.C. conference I didn't know what to expect. The only reason I was going in the first place was because my friend and fellow editor Steve was stationed in D.C. while attending American university, and had been encouraged to attend by his M.F.A. program.

The conference in D.C. was held at the Marriott Wardman Park & Omni Shoreham Hotels, both of which are hotels that I will probably never be able to afford a night's stay at, unless my goals of becoming a famous poet take flight and I decide to start blowing money on overpriced hotels. If there's one thing the conference did not have to boast about, it was location.

The conference is divided into a few different activities, all of which your registration covers you for. These include hour and a half panels which discuss various topics regarding the writing world. These can include talks by publishers, writers, teachers, or students, and to try to summarize what topics are available would be similar to trying to summarize the different categories of writer that populate the world. I tended to focus on more practical panels that seemed to discuss either writing in high school environments or technique.

In addition to the panels, there is a book fair, which is not so much a fair as it is a smorgasbord of literary journals, small and private presses, and schools promoting M.F.A. programs. More on that later.

So for panels, my friends and I decided to cram our days full of panels, minus lunch time, and try to get the most bang for our student priced buck. The panels begin at 9 A.m. and the last panel finishes at six. What I learned from the panels was the following. 

First, just because a panel sounds interesting, does not mean that it will be. You have to pay close attention to who is presenting, and try to read between the lines of the panel description. The more vague the description, the more you may have to worry. This doesn't mean to avoid panels, however. Keep in mind that you can always leave and find a new panel if one turns out to not be your fancy (and even if you decide to stay, don't be surprised by people coming and going as they feel like it.)

Second, attend a reading or two. The reading panels are by far the most competitive spots on the AWP list, as far as being asked to do them, so the people who are there to read are not random authors who have one book they published themselves. These are people who are your literary competition if you ever want to make it big. Sit in and listen to what's being published, and take the time to relax and not worry about learning anything.

Third, and most importantly, do not try to attend nothing but panels for three days. You will be exhausted, disillusioned, and probably bored. Take some time to enjoy the city you're visiting, sample some local cuisine. Keep in mind that as a writer, it is the experiences that we have that ultimately help us as writers, not pedagogy and philosophy.

Now, the book fair is open for the entire time the conference is open and represents a good opportunity to get a lot of swag. This is the mecca of literary magazines, so if you have short works that you want to get published, this is the place to find the magazines to submit to. If you're looking to get a book published that isn't quite mainstream, publishers abound and will often have advice on how to get your manuscript read and published.

And did I mention swag? A lot of these presses will have back issues available for free or very cheap. Those booths who are selling products often sell for well below their actual retail price, so if you know of a small press that publishes an author you like, you can generally find good books for half their cost. And by the end of the third day, the amount of free swag increases, as many of the literary journals don't want to spend the money to ship back their back issues.

It's not all free stuff though. A lot of literary competitions pop up around the time of AWP (coincidence?) so if you're looking to compete, this is the place to learn about where to go. But be warned, and I cannot stress this enough. Competitions cost money, and every magazine claims that they publish everything. This is a lie, and if you're like me, by the fourth time you hear it, you'll be sick of it. The most important thing I learned at this conference was that everyone claims to want everything, but if you read their journals you'll find that each magazine has an aesthetic and odds are they will stick to it.

But if you can sift through the endless M.F.A. offers and wait it out for the best end of the fair deals, you can walk away with more swag than you can carry and a great step up in knowing where to submit your work.

So is it worth it? As an attendee I would definitely attend if the conference were anywhere close enough to make getting their easy. I wouldn't fly, and unless I had a friend to stay with, probably wouldn't worry about a hotel room. For myself it's just not worth the hundreds of dollars in travel fees that come with three days of hotels and travel.

But, of course, I didn't experience everything. There are a lot of events for those who go to the conference solely for the conference, including opportunities to meet people, the potential for connections unavailable at home, and the chance to find a publisher. I definitely recommend checking out the conference at least once, if nothing else to see what's up in the literary world.

David is one of the co-founders and editors of Obsession Literary Magazine, as well as the head writer for the Obsession blog. His work has been featured in Marathon Literary magazine, and he has a forthcoming publication in Apiary magazine, both of which are based in the Philadelphia area.

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