If you’re a part of the writing world, you’ve likely heard of the mega-conference that is the AWP Annual Conference and Bookfair. For the uninitiated, AWP can be a confusing prospect. What do I do with all of these flyers? Which panels should I attend? How am I going to get all of these books home? I’m writing this article one full week after attending my first AWP conference in Los Angeles, California. Somehow I am still jetlagged, but I am also wiser than I was before I left.
So here are my top 5 tips, fresh from AWP 2016, for those ready to take the AWP plunge.
- Pack light
If you’ve done any googling on the topic of AWP, you’ve seen this piece of advice, but I’m going to go ahead and say it again: Pack light. Leave at least ten pounds in your suitcase for the books you will buy signed by the keynote speaker and other cool writers, the books you will buy the first couple of days when you see them sitting all glossy and new on the publishing house’s stands, the books you will accumulate on the last day when they’re $12 a dozen, and the books you will have thrust into your hands for free right as the book fair is closing down. Tables at the fair will also be giving away postcards, stamps, temporary tattoos, buttons, and other fun little souvenirs.
I brought back fifteen books and many small, journal-branded goodies myself, even though I waited until the last day to make a book fair purchase. Perhaps you consider yourself a minimalist and don’t see yourself buying many books. Packing light shouldn’t be a problem for you then, should it?
- Meet your favorite authors
Meeting and actually talking to the writers you most respect and admire can be daunting. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not possible! The trick is to make sure you have something to say. Walking up to your favorite poet and blurting, “Hey, I love your work,” isn’t terrible, but it’s also not a conversation starter. Think of a question you might ask them about their work: What inspired you to include this particular element in your book? How do you approach this difficult craft problem? Even better, contact them with that question before the conference via email or twitter. Then when you meet, you’ve already started a conversation. Another angle is to bring your favorite book they’ve written and ask them to sign it. Most writers will happily sign their books for you, even if they don’t set up at a table at the Bookfair or aren’t a part of an official signing. Bottom line: Famous writers are people, too. Give them something for their time with you, whether it’s the satisfaction of signing another sold copy of their book or an interesting conversation.
I know this isn’t your favorite word, dear reader, and if you’re like me, you go out of your way to avoid it whenever you can. However, I’m going to open up with the hard truths here. AWP is expensive. You have to get there, find somewhere to stay, and then come the costs you don’t expect: Your friends and professors and new writer acquaintances will want to eat out–constantly–and somehow these places all happen to charge at least $15 per plate. Alcohol, an excellent confidence booster in a crowd of unknown and potentially famous writers, is not cheap. Neither is Uber. You’ll want to explore the city, and the adventure of walking extended distances will have worn off by Day 2. Even if you’re in a city with excellent public transportation (D.C. 2017!), if you are alone and unsure of the safety of your location, an Uber ride starts to look really good. Not to mention the largest part of AWP is a Bookfair where journals and presses will have thousands of awesome books for sale that you want to read. And by “for sale” I do mean you have to exchange legal tender for their products.
I recommend creating a budget (if you don’t have one already) to save up money for AWP as well as creating another budget for spending once you’re finally at the conference. And when it comes to all those glossy books, wait for last-day sales and get them half-off or less. But be careful if you’ve got an eye on a particular book–it may already be gone!
- Pitch your work
As you roam around the book fair, you’ll meet editors and staff members of many literary journals, magazines, and publishers. You’ll recognize some, but many more you will not. If you stop and say hello, it’s likely you’ll be asked what kind of fiction/poetry/nonfiction you write. I was not prepared for this question and floundered around with phrases like “evangelicals,” “mothers and daughters,” and “novella.” I then watched my friend and hip socializer Hana woo editors with her snappy summary, “I write stories about everyday people in wartime Syria.” Editors and readers handed her their business cards and asked her to please send them her work as soon as she returned home.
Follow Hana’s example and put together a succinct phrase that summarizes your work. Not only will you be able to swiftly convey your style and connect to interested editors and publishers, but you will more easily connect with other writers you meet at workshops or off-site events.
- Have a good time
I didn’t think AWP would stress me out. It was just a bunch of writers milling around and talking about books, right? And yet by Day 3 I found that trying to engage with the representative at almost every book fair booth had zapped my usually overflowing people energy down to nothing. The zoo of book fair booths and endless choices of panels to attend are enough to overwhelm even the most extroverted of extroverts. So let me make this clear: You don’t have to go to every panel you’re interested in. You don’t even have to go to a panel every day. Pick a few events (three, tops) you can’t miss, write them into your schedule, and the rest of the time, call an audible. Enjoy the trip you paid so much money to make. Go to offsite events and get drinks with the poets reading in a loud bar. Take refuge in the quiet room and get some work (or napping) done. Go to every panels that your favorite authors are on. Voyage into the city with friends and see the sites. Become best friends with fellow writers you meet at readings and panels. It’s your conference, make it what you want it to be, and don’t forget to have a good time.
Allie Arend is a first year MFA candidate at the University of Central Florida. She received her Bachelor of Arts at the University of Arkansas (Go Hogs!), and currently works as the Graduate Editor for UCF’s Office of Prestigious Awards. If Allie’s dreams came true, she would meet Nicki Minaj and move to Iceland. More realistically, she hopes to own dogs and visit England again.