A reflection on my first AWP conference

Steve Almond, a contributor to Los Angeles Review 6, has a great piece up at The Rumpus on the experience of AWP. And while I didn’t take his advice to shamelessly flirt with other married people, intervene in the life of a weeping 24-year-old named Stacey, or award a prize to George Saunders, I think it’s a fun list. And as I sit here recovering from the AWPestilence (ouch, my sinuses! Yowza, my throat!), I thought I’d make a little list of AWP advice of my own. This was my first year attending the conference, and my list will certainly grow as the years go on. But for 2010, here’s my list:

1. If you’re manning a table, be friendly. When people tell you, “gee, I really love your magazine,” it’s a nice idea to say “thank you.” Staring wall-eyed and slack-jawed at someone is not a good way to get her to stick around the table long enough to buy a book. (In fairness, I should note that I only got creepy blank stares from a couple of tables–most publications were very nice indeed. But I will likely no longer support one or two publications now that I know they’re staffed by zombies.)

2. If you’re walking around the book fair, use your head. To the woman who made fun of my outfit while standing close enough for me to read your name tag, I have a submission from you sitting in my inbox. Did you seriously think that would help your chances? Of course I will consider your work fairly, but I won’t have a great taste in my mouth about it.

3. No one wants to carry your unsolicited manuscript home on the plane. We’ve all got more than enough to haul home, and if you hand me a ream of paper, it’s likely to go straight into the recycling bin. I tried to save one poor kid from certain doom by intercepting him before he could hand my weary publisher an over-photocopied photocopy of his novel as we packed up at the end of the conference.

“Probably not a good idea to hand that to him right now.”

“Even though the publisher’s standing right here?”

Especially because he’s standing right here.” This got me an elevator pitch of the novel, as well as a strangely aggressive hand clasp on the shoulder, but at least I managed to give the guy some useful advice. Hope he takes it in the future.

4. Don’t ask editors to consider your work on the spot at the book fair table. Why did my fellow editor Tanya and I agree to inspect a guy’s poem as he held his laptop across the table? Low blood sugar and a lack of sleep, probably. I don’t think he was terribly edified by our honest (though kind) comments. Everyone left the interaction feeling awkward.

5. Try to find another conversation-starter than “you rejected me.” That kind of kills the rapport. (It’s not like I couldn’t legitimately say those exact words to plenty of editors. Tim Green of Rattle, our next-door neighbor at the book fair, has rejected me about 15 times. But I certainly didn’t introduce myself as the poly-reject!) “I really appreciated the personal notes you made on my work–they were very helpful/encouraging” is a much better way to go.

I suppose these all boil down to a core rule: remember to use manners! I’d love to hear some AWP advice–as snarky as mine or perhaps kinder than my fever-induced mini-tirades–from others in the comments, as well.

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10 thoughts on “A reflection on my first AWP conference

  1. You’re the best, Kelly 🙂 Wonderful AWP advice. I’ll be expecting some references to waitresses who dance while “shaking your martini” in a future blog, novel, or short story.

  2. Yes, I forgot to mention the importance of having moves! Make that #6! On my to-do list: write poem entitled “To the Husky Waitress Who Gyrated for Me While Pouring My Manhattan.”

  3. I love your snarky nature Kelly! And the, “advice of shamelessly flirting with other married people,” had me laughing out loud. So glad you had fun and hopefully I’ll make it to next years.

  4. Thanks so much for these links! I enjoyed reading these reflections, and really appreciate the honesty here:

    >>”aspiring-writer student Julie asks me the blood-and-guts question about whether I’d rather someone buy my books and never read them or borrow them and read them cover to cover — and although it makes my heart shrivel and screech and I really do know that this isn’t the “correct” answer — I must admit I would choose the former. I hate myself for it, but there you go. If I want to keep having my books published, I will need to keep making sure my books get sold, and then simply hope that, having made the investment, people will — someday, maybe, just maybe — read them.”

    A ballsy thing to say as a writer! But if there’s one thing we’re learning about the publishing industry right now, it’s that writing good books isn’t enough. Having the ability–and the determination–to market those good books is going to make the difference in one’s career. I say bravo for honesty, and for a career-minded approach to publishing.

  5. Kelly,

    I wasn’t at the conference but hope to go someday.
    Great advice and honestly it helps to hear it from the perspective of someone who has paid her “dues” as a writer.
    Thanks for the input.

  6. What an entertaining read. i adore conferences. I have been known to stand in the center of the sales floor and proclaim, “I love conferences.” Everyone I need to meet is there. I once generated an entire contributor’s list for an anthology simply by hitting up every writer that interested me at AWP. Big names, little names, funky names.

    One tip i can offer: Approach the bench! After the panel ends, there is usually a fraught moment where writers play the opposite of “Chicken” — no one wants to be the first up to the panel. I am always the first up to the panel. As a result, i usually get more time from the agent or editor or impressive writer. Be bold, people!

  7. alle, I guess I’ll know how to spot you at the next AWP! 😉

    That’s excellent advice to approach the bench after panels. I’ve had some really interesting discussions and made some cool connections by taking the risk of feeling like a total peon and initiating conversation.

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