Getting the AWPer Hand at AWP (A Newbie’s Guide)

By Scott “C” Fynboe, Host and Coordinator of the SAFTAcast

The Association of Writers & Writing Programs. The AWP. Each year, hundreds – if not thousands – of students, writers, editors, and publishers learn of its existence. I don’t know how, either. The AWP doesn’t camp out in college student unions, its members wearing matching shirts, holding clipboards and asking every passerby: “Have you heard about us?”

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Somehow, though, people do hear about them. Or they hear about the convention, rather. While AWP is the name of the organization, the letters are synonymous with their annual conference and bookfair. I’ve never heard anyone ask “Are you a member of The AWP?” No, it’s always “Are you going to AWP this year?”

Maybe you are going this year. And maybe you’re going for the first time. And maybe you have no idea what to expect. Enter this guide.

In short, the convention is an interesting mix of an academic conference, a college homecoming and a drunken bacchanal.

In long, it’s best to break the convention down into parts:

1. A-Lister Readings are public readings by well-known writers. Only go to these if you really like a particular author – as in “this is my favorite living author and I’ll die if I don’t get to be within a hundred yards of their personal space” – or it’s a special event (and you like the writer).

For example, I went to Anne Carson’s 2013 reading. Given her reputation as a recluse, to do a public reading at a large conference meant it was kind of a big deal.

2. Keynote Events Skip ‘em. The only people who go to these are the AWP’s head honchos.
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3. Panels There’re many panels to choose from. Go through the program a month or even a couple weeks in advance, pick out a few that are relevant to your interests and think about going. I try to make it to one or two a year so I feel like I’m at the convention for some kind of professional development and not simply to “hang out with a bunch of writers and friends.”

4. The Bookfair This is where you’ll end up spending most of your time. Seriously. I’m not kidding. It’s the largest of its kind and I can try to describe the size, but nothing can prepare you for the scale. Row after row, room after room of big name presses, university presses, small press publishers, companies hawking things related to writing but aren’t necessarily books, and even more. The only thing it lacks is literary cosplay.

4a. The Bookfair – Your Wallet Because most of the vendors are publishers, there are many books up for sale. No matter what you set as a budget, you’ll go over it.

The best time to buy is toward the end of the convention. Many publishers don’t want to be going through the airport with multiple bags of unsold books, so they’re likely to slash prices and/or cut a deal.

Some dealers leave the convention early – usually bigger presses – but a lot of the tables are independents and smaller presses who are there for the whole time. Attending this thing is expensive for any vendor. When you buy from a small press, you’re helping keep them afloat. So, if you see a book that catches your eye, buy it and give ‘em your support.

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4b. The Bookfair – Friends and Well-wishers This is the homecoming aspect of AWP. A lot of writers and publishers travel in various circles and use AWP as a way to either re-connect with old friends or connect with internet-only friends.

If you’ve never been, though, don’t feel that AWP is completely incestuous or that you won’t enjoy the Bookfair. It’s a great place to network, to discover new presses, and to make friends. If you see a press or book that you like, chat up the booth a little. Get to know them. Who knows who you’ll discover?

4c. The Bookfair – Don’t be “That Writer” If you’re a writer, the Bookfair is a good way to find out about contests and/or publishing opportunities. However, don’t be one of those attendees that walks from booth to booth, asking each vendor if they can publish your work. This is like a young actor who bothers a famous one because they “have an idea for a script.”

If the press has an upcoming contest or call for submissions, there is usually some quarter- or half-sheet of information. Pick it up and if you have questions – or if they tell you about it directly – then engage in conversation.

I’m not dumping on any person’s work or potential work, but unsolicited authors can be annoying at the con, especially if the vendor is tired and/or a bit hungover.

4d. The Bookfair – Celebrity Sightings Occasionally, big-name writers wander the Bookfair. They’re there for the same reasons everyone else is: to visit with someone they haven’t seen in a while, to peruse the current literature landscape, etc. If you see someone famous, be cool; don’t be a fanboy/girl.

5. Off-site Readings The longer you walk through the Bookfair, the more off-site readings you’ll get invited to. These are public readings, often in bars, and there are many. And they’re often made up of multiple presses doing a joint event. And there are only a few hours per night that they happen.

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In other words, you won’t go to every off-site reading. Not by a long shot. You might do one or two a night and your choice often comes down to “who do I know at this reading” or “this is a really cool venue.” If you have friends reading at two different events at the same time, you have to make a choice who you’re going to piss off.

6. AWP is No Different It may be about writing, teaching, and publishing, but AWP is just like any other pop culture con. (But without the cosplay. Seriously, this needs to start happening.) If you’ve ever done a big one like SDCC or NYCC, or even a small, regional one about anime or Rocky Horror, you can expect the same things:

Drinking/hungover people

Sleep deprivation

Eating whenever you have a chance

Sore feet and legs

Bright lights

Quick drop-offs in personal hygiene levels

Interpersonal drama

Frayed nerves

Fighting to find a Wi-Fi signal or a wall outlet in the lobby

And

7. Con Crud No rundown of AWP is complete without mentioning the “AWPlague.” After it’s all over, invariably you or one of your crew will get sick as a dog. Use this time to read the stuff you picked up, watch old episodes of Cheers (that’s what I did after Boston), and curse the convention.

Until six months later, when you look at the calendar and start wondering if you’re going to have the money to go next year because, dammit, it’s worth it.

 

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Things Scott “C” has done:

– DJed at WHRW-Binghamton for seven years, hosting a variety of music, game, and talk shows
– Mobile DJed weddings, proms, reunions, karaoke nights, and at least one bar mitzvah
– Performed improv comedy as a member of The Pappy Parker Players
– Acted in both musical and not-musical theater
– Written and published some poems
– Shopped for a futon
– Taught English at a Florida college

Things Scott C has not done:

– Visited Europe
– Worn denim to a black-tie event
– Owned a hammock or a gazebo
– Studied dentistry
– Vomited on a retired postal worker
– Woken up before he go-go’d
– Some other stuff

Photos taken from awpwriter.org and rantlifestyle.com

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