I’d never heard of AWP, so when two writers I know said they would be attending this year’s conference, I asked them to write about their experiences. Please welcome Amy Brown and Patricia Averbach.
Making the most of the year’s biggest literary event: AWP ‘18
By guest contributors Amy Brown and Patricia Averbach
The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) is the biggest writer’s conference in North America. Since the 2018 event was being held in Tampa, FL in March, local authors Amy Brown and Patricia Averbach took advantage of the opportunity to learn more about craft, publishing, and hear famous novelists talk about their work. Find out more about AWP here: AWP Conference Overvview
Was AWP worth your time?
Patricia: AWP is a huge convention with dozens of events led by prominent authors, editors and academics that focuses on the sort of literary writing taught in MFA programs. There are panels, readings, workshops and networking opportunities. If you aspire to see your poems, creative non-fiction and short stories published in literary journals or if you dream of writing novels that are nominated for prestigious book awards, AWP is for you. It’s not a good fit if you’re a mainstream, genre fiction or children’s writer. There are other, excellent conferences designed for you. AWP is geared toward literary writers and people running academic writing programs.
Amy: I don’t totally agree with Patricia. Yes, the AWP is primarily geared towards the types of writers she describes but as a writer of children’s and young adult fiction, I was surprised and pleased by the high number of panels devoted to the craft of writing children’s and young adult fiction. I found these published authors’ tips on dialogue, characterization, world-building, and more to be both practical and inspiring. And frankly, in my opinion, literary writing is the very best writing, in terms of rigor and craft, so it’s a good place for every writer to aim their sights.
Is AWP the place to meet your future agent or publisher?
Patricia: While AWP doesn’t offer pitch fests or the opportunity to pay for time with an agent, participants were invited to submit a query letter and ten pages of their book prior to the conference. I was one of the lucky writers given the chance to meet with an agent who asked to look at my manuscript. Whoo-hoo! However, AWP is all about networking, so if a friend of a friend knows someone who knows an agent, AWP is a great place to be introduced. There are also many informal and accidental opportunities to speak with agents. This is the place to literally try your elevator pitch in the elevator or while waiting in line at the concession stand.
As for finding a publisher, editors from some of the big New York publishing houses were in attendance, but they almost never spoke with a writer directly. However, many small independent publishers had tables at the book fair and were quite open to queries and submissions. I walked away with a number of good names in my pocket and I’m definitely going to contact them if that New York agent doesn’t call.
Amy: I agree that smaller conferences are better suited to informal or even formal pitches to agents and editors. But a friend who attended the AWP Pitchfest was delighted to find that despite the high number of attendees in the room, by patiently waiting to the end, she had an opportunity for a one-on-one pitch session with an editor who gave her an extremely helpful critique. As she has just finished her first novel and is ready to put it out in this world, this professional evaluation of her pitch (which will be the heart of her query letter to agents) was worth the price of admission.
Is AWP the place to meet and chat with famous authors?
Patricia: I was amazed at how accessible famous authors were and how generous they were with their time. Some authors sat on panels and would answer questions both during and after the event. Others writers could be approached after their readings and most were happy to chat as well as sign their books. George Saunders deserves a special mention for his wonderful talk and for his kindness in making everyone feel welcome and included.
Amy: I concur completely with Patricia on this point. I was that fan standing in every line to have a book autographed by a favorite author, and many of my favorites were there: Jeffrey Eugenides, Nathan Englander, Lauren Groff, Lorrie Moore, Janet Fitch, Richard Russo, among others. We got to hear exciting new voices on the literary scene, too.
Is an average conference day a whirlwind or ho-hum?
Patricia: It’s a whirlwind. There were approximately twenty different events scheduled at one hour and fifteen minute intervals from nine in the morning until ten o’clock at night. Thousands of writers scrambled between the Tampa Convention Center and the Marriott Waterfront Hotel to find the rooms they wanted. If they weren’t fast enough, they’d find themselves sitting on the floor or standing at the back of popular panels and events. There wasn’t even a break for meals. There were so many choices that whatever you did, you missed two other things you wanted to attend. I pooped out at 9:30 after the featured reading in the ballroom, but writers with more stamina went on to the evening reception where they enjoyed a live band and free wine or read at the late night open mic.
Amy: A total whirlwind but what a way to get a writer’s adrenalin fired up! I packed a lunch and pushed myself all day to pack in as much as I could, even those evening readings. I popped into the nightly dance party with the open bar one night. As thousands of MFA students let off steam dancing (and imbibing) wildly, I made mental notes of a party scene in a future novel and took myself to bed to dream up new stories.
How do you feel AWP’18 has helped you become better at the craft of writing?
Patricia: I learned to find the central theme in a narrative and to make sure that the theme drives the action so that the story isn’t just a random series of events. I learned that likable characters take action and aren’t victims of circumstances. I learned to think of time and place as characters with their own peculiar culture and perspective, I learned to be very mindful of the truth in an age of alternative facts and I learned how to negotiate a first book contract. But more than improving my craft, AWP improved my self confidence as I learned that virtually every writer, published and unpublished, experiences the same doubts and anguish that keep me up at night. It was simply affirming to spend three days with so many people who spoke my language and understood my passion for the written word.
Amy: Patricia’s answer says it all! I learned that writing for a younger audience has to incorporate all the same elements she mentions above, and that it’s important to be as authentic as possible to the experience of that young character. Even if my childhood and teen years are now decades behind me, I’m glad I can tap into my inner teen—her angst, her hopes, her dreams—so easily. AWP reminded me to stay close to her, and write my truth—and if I do so with my unique voice, always improving my craft, the path to getting published gets that much closer.
Patricia Averbach is the author of Painting Bridges (Bottom Dog Press), https://patriciaaverbach.com/ ; a poetry chapbook, Missing Persons (Ward Wood Publishing); and has just completed her second novel, New Moon, the contemporary story of a woman who has to lose her house before she finds her home.
Amy Brown is a contributor to the Florida Writers Association’s annual short story collections, won a FWA First Place Award in 2016 for her unpublished middle-grade novel, Mormor’s Piano, and is at work on a young adult novel set on the island of Malta.
Amy and Pat will be checking for questions in comments.