Saturday, February 5, 2011

Surviving the Writing Conference - AWP 2011

Have you attended a writing conference? Have you experienced the bug-eyed wonder of a room filled with over a thousand students and writers and writing teachers clumped around the islands of agent booths and presentation tables? Or maybe you've had the choice between six or seven panels you really want to see...except they're all in the same time slot, and you haven't eaten since breakfast, and breakfast was nearly eight hours ago...and it wasn't what you'd call a large bagel...

AWP 2011 - The Rousing Success of Organized Chaos
I don't know how many people were actually there, but this year's Association of Writers and Writing Programs was huge: the rumors I heard gauged attendance at anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 people. It was so big that they had not one but two big-name conference centers, plus a half-dozen conference-affiliated hotels (all of which filled up in advance).  Moving through the hallways, getting from one panel discussion to the next, was like swimming through a dense fog of humanity.  Or maybe it was more like hurtling through a asteroid belt, ducking and dodging dozens of a people at a time, each one laden down with books and laptops and those ubiquitous AWP swag-bags.  (They were very nice bags, by the way - thick, sturdy, and canvas.  I used mine as a personal flotation device.)

Awash in this massive cluster of humanity, it's easy to become lost.  Unlike for North Carolina Writers' Network (NCWN) Conferences, AWP does not arrange continental breakfast with a buffet lunch and sit-down dinner - you're not told when to eat, though the conference centers always have food available at the sufficiently-marked-up conference center prices.  Instead - partly to keep attendance fees low, partly so they can cram in all the presentations and panels - you're on your own.  And freedom, though beautiful, is stressful.  My first AWP - in 2009 - I skipped lunch and walked into the brick wall of sudden-migraine-overload.  I missed Art Spiegelman (author of Maus), the headache was so bad.  Later that night, I had to nurse myself back to coherence with bread-bowl soup and a fruit cup from Panera.  At downtown-Chicago prices.

Was it worth it?  Oh yeah, definitely.  I can't list everything I learned.  If you can go to an AWP, definitely go.  Especially if you're a student - it's only forty bucks to register, and the experience of rubbing shoulders with that many interesting people - that many writers - is something you wouldn't believe.  To make the most of it, though, follow these tips:

Rule 1: Don't Panic!  (it's okay not to go to everything...or even ten percent of everything...)
Yes, writing conferences can be intense. Especially when you're there to network so you can market your next book, find an agent to represent you, and make connections with magazine editors so you can feature a few short stories...

Yes, it's intense.  Many of my friends have reported being overwhelmed.  I've definitely felt it myself.  And the canvas bag flotation device doesn't actually help you float - it's really designed as more of a boat-anchor to be filled with business cards and lit-mags.  But panic is counterproductive.  Instead, remember that it is physically (and emotionally) impossible to talk with every individual attending the conference.  But that's okay.  You don't need to talk with everyone.  Honestly, all you need to do is learn something new.  And you just need to meet at few people.  And they aren't necessarily the people you thought you needed to meet.  Instead, you should...

Go With the Flow
Take breaks.  Skip a few panels.  Hang out at the bar/cafe/lobby.  If you have friends there, join them for lunch.  If you don't know anyone there, don't worry: you're not alone.  Turn to the person next to you, start up a conversation.  Smile.  After all, what's the worst that can happen?  You miss out on the one opportunity to publish your novel?  As if.  Writing is a lifetime deal - yes, it's great to meet the right people at the right conference, but the writing you do the rest of the year is far more important than a couple days at a conference.  The point of the conference isn't just to advance some small goal in your writing - it's to discover perspective and direction for your life as a writer.

You don't know who's going to be at the conference.  To paraphrase a previous Secretary of Defense, you won't even know what you don't know.  This conference, I attended a panel on Ph.D. programs and learned about two Low-Residency Ph.D. Programs that welcome genre fiction.  For a writer like me, programs like this would be an excellent back-up plan for my Ph.D. applications - if not for attending a panel and then asking questions afterward, I wouldn't have even thought to wonder about them.

Your enjoyment of the intense writing conference depends on such serendipity.  You learn things you didn't know you needed to know from people you weren't looking to meet.  To make this work for you, though, you should...

Attend the Panels with Topics that Interest You
I know, it seems obvious, but many people don't do this.  Instead they rush from reading to reading, hoping to meet (and shake hands with!) their personal literary heroes.

Yes, it's good to have heroes.  It's even better to meet them.  But better even than that is to join them.  So go through conference guide, pick out the panels that will help you become a better writer, and enjoy them.  And as you contemplate the minefield of the bookfair...

Consider the Writer You Want to Be
This goes back to the human limits we suffer - it's impossible to take in the entire conference.  And when you're wandering a bookfair which features well over a hundred different booths representing universities, publishers, and agents, it's too easy to become sidetracked.

Instead, take some time to walk around before you talk with anyone.  Get an idea of which magazines you'd like to submit to.  For myself, I focused on the universities I'm applying to for next year.  It isn't that I don't care for literary magazines - I need to submit to more of them, actually.  But I haven't had a real chance to meet people attending the schools I'm considering - the conference was a wonderful opportunity to change that.  And my questions weren't exactly focused - I just asked people what they thought of the schools.  They told me what parts of the programs they liked, and body language told me just how much they enjoyed their experiences.  All told, I visited maybe twenty booths at the fair.  And yes, I went with the flow, stopping at random booths that had interesting titles, or even if the person smiled back as I walked past.  I'll be honest - I like nice people, and there were dozens and dozens I didn't have the time to meet.  But that's okay.  I enjoyed my time.

Focus on the Interactions You Do Have
They heck with making every moment perfect.  If you focus on getting to know the people you meet without swamping them for autographs, you'll find some amazing stories all around you.  And who knows?  The quiet person sitting next to you in a panel might be a publisher looking for a writer like you.  Or - more likely and possibly better still - it may be a writer facing the same challenges and desiring the same goals.  In other words, a lifelong friend just waiting for you to take the first step.

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