I've just survived my first literary conference: AWP 2016. AWP ( Association of Writers and Writing Programs) hosts the largest literary conference in North America. They switch venues every year, alternating between coasts, and I was fortunate that this year, AWP was held at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Nightmare traffic aside, I'm not far from downtown and I was able to swing it without needing a hotel.
AWP was an amazing experience, but it was also completely overwhelming. Here are things that I learned and tips for writers thinking of attending future AWP conferences.
1. Plan. Time management is key. There are so many wonderful panel discussions, but you won't be able to attend most of them. The panel discussions are broken into hour and fifteen minute sessions, with fifteen minutes of break time in between. The panels run from 9:00am- 5:45pm, with no breaks in the middle for lunch. You can do panels all day, but if you want time for the bookfair or lunch, you'll need to skip something.
2. Use the Website. The AWP website has a great tool for planning in advance. Months ahead of the conference, they post all of the panel discussion and with the tool, you can mark the ones that you want to attend. I spent hours making my game plan and a few days before the conference, I printed my final list. This was a huge time saver, because rather than looking at the booklet with all of the panels, I just looked at what I had picked and stuck to it. A quick look at my personal program, told me where to go next and kept me on track. There simply isn't enough time at the conference to plan it on the fly. You'll miss out. Even if you plan, the panels are first come/ first serve and the popular ones do fill up. I never had a problem getting a seat, but I also always arrived with time to spare.
3. Wear comfy shoes, there is a lot of walking. I got two blisters.
4. Bring lunch/snacks. I planned time for lunch breaks, but the food venues around/in the Los Angeles Convention Center were both extremely crowded and over-priced. The Starbucks actually completely ran out of all food items. Not even a cake pop.
5. Attend the Panels- The panels were the highlight of my experience. I attended thirteen panels on a range of topics: self-promotion, using social media, west vs east coast agents, adapting books to screenplays, diversity, et... I met literary agents, movie producers, publicists, writers ( mostly writers actually), publishers, et...everyone sharing valuable information and perspectives. I gained so much from the panels, that I had a "fear of missing out" stress moment, regarding all of the panels that I didn't attend. To repeat an earlier comment, you can't do it all...and it's frustrating.
6. Bookfair- The bookfair runs the same time as the panels. You should budget time for the bookfair. It's massive. I think this year they had over eight hundred vendors. HUGE! I ate lunch fast and used the other half of my allotted lunch time to explore the bookfair. I split my visits over three days, systematically hitting a third of the fair on each day. The bookfair is a great opportunity to network and learn about various publications, small house presses, MFA programs and really anything else writing related that you can imagine. The deals are fabulous, be prepared to shop. I ended up with about twenty-five books and fifteen lit magazines, many of which were free. If they weren't free, they were heavily discounted. I was in paradise. My shoulder still hurts from hauling around a messenger bag with so many books.
7. If you want to meet a specific author, check for their signings. I got to meet Jennine Capo Crucet and Rick Bursky ( who was my poetry professor last fall, but the class was online). Although I didn't physically meet them, I attended panel discussions with Cheryl Strayed, Bret Easton Ellis, Roxane Gay, Jess Walter, and Cari Luna. As a fan, this was all thrilling.
8. Business cards seem to be a totally outdated concept, everyone seems to connect on Twitter.
9. If you're introverted, you'll be among your people. I was terrified to go up and introduce myself. To break the ice, I hit the bookfair and approached booths where the people looked equally nervous. Of course, this meant that I bought a lot of books and literary magazines that didn't truly interest me, but I did meet some nice people and over my nerves. A smile goes a long way and talking to strangers is easier the more you do it. After the first day, I was golden. Ice smashed.
I highly recommend AWP. There is truly value for writers at all levels of their careers. I'm already trying to figure out how I can save up to attend next year's AWP in Washington DC. AWP has left me flooded with ideas and energized. My writing life is now on a completely different trajectory based on what I learned from AWP. Exciting times!