|Last Wednesday, I stood in line with hundreds of writers as we prepared for the 2023 AWP Conference. As the crowds swelled, so did my anticipation about what the next three days might entail and what I might learn.|
There are so many things to do at AWP, from panel presentations and strolls through the massive AWP book fair to meals with dear writer friends you rarely see IRL, and the many off-site readings that happen each evening. Everything happens in a sea of ten thousand writers, each with their own brand of creative/introverted/general-person angst. And, while we’re post COVID, we’re post COVID, so being with that many people feels equal parts terrifying and delightful.
When attending a conference like this, it’s important to arrive with goals but to lower your expectations on how you’ll meet them. That’s because so many things will compete with your attention, including your energy level. I showed up with a tentative itinerary and a healthy openness to serendipity. That allowed me to hop into last-minute sessions, schedule spontaneous lunches and dinners with friends, and keep an ear open to the fantastic advice that seemed to arrive from the very air.
Making everything on my list was impossible, especially while navigating a three-hour time difference. Since I was up between four and five most mornings, I focused on daytime events, which included seeing some of you. Next year, when the conference is closer to home, I’ll start my days later and attend some of the evening readings.
Rather than dive deeply into one or two events, I want to share a broad overview of what I learned, which I hope will serve you well and give you a sense of what it was like to be there.
Things I learned at AWP:
Update your LinkedIn account and spend a little time there. It’s a great platform that’s underutilized by authors. It can be especially helpful if you run an author-related business like speaking, editing, or coaching.
Whether you’re writing about problematic mothers, villains, or yourself, don’t pigeonhole your characters by seeing them just one way. Instead, look at the many ways you can describe them. When characters behave problematically, provide a context asking yourself the following question: Why are they like this?
Unless you have clinical training, don’t diagnose your characters. Even then, don’t diagnose them. There might be times when including a known diagnosis is helpful, but do so responsibly, and if you’re talking about real people, do so with their consent. A person’s diagnosis is their private health information. Sharing it could have ramifications far beyond the page.
Don’t tell readers how to feel about your characters. Instead, share what your characters do and then trust the reader to figure things out and come to their own conclusions. Also remember that readers are there for your story and not necessarily your antagonist’s.
When working on podcasts, you can do it your way, and learn as you go. Some writers barely edit what they produce, others meticulously curate their material. Most use tools that make the work easier to complete. A few tools that seem to have promise
include Hindenburg and Descript. When working in Descript, editing your text will also edit the audio, which sounds like absolute magic.
While talking about your story, pay attention to what people respond to by looking at their faces and listening to the questions they ask. If you’re not getting the response you’re looking for, it’s possible you need to tweak the portion of your story you’re focusing on.
There are many ways to do the same thing. Your job is to find the way that works best for you. Sometimes that means following all the rules and traditionally accepted advice; other times, it means throwing it all out and making up your own.
To write a tough topic well, you might laser in on one aspect and then make it the entire focus of your project or never mention it at all, thus making it unspeakable. Identifying varying foci and unspeakable elements, and breaking things up in new ways, can help you see the possible stories hidden within your content, some of which might be very different from what you expected.
Be a good human. Always.
There are more journals out there than you can imagine. Learn about them so you can broaden your understanding of what’s possible both in terms of form and publication. Wondering where to start? Check out the list of journals and publishers that attended this year’s conference. Editors at these journals and small publications are wonderful human beings who are hungry for great content. One way to find out what they’re looking for is to read their journal, share what you love about it, and then ask what they’re excited to work on next.
Half the fun of being at AWP is being in space with so many writers who can affirm that the way you see the world isn’t so weird after all. Having informal conversations with these people about what they’re doing, how they’re approaching an issue—whether that’s their author platform or a story—can sometimes lead to more powerful insights than going to something official.
Being with a tribe of people who value writing as much as you do affirms that what you do and who you are is wonderful.
The joy of seeing old friends, meeting new ones, and laughing about things that have nothing to do with writing or conferences is an opportunity for life to become a story that’s continually being written, and that’s the greatest gift of all.
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