writer's life

Dispatch from AWP: write your passion, tastemakers will follow

April 3, 2016
Courtesy of AWPwriter.org
Courtesy of awpwriter.org

On Saturday, I attended most of a day of the three-day Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference at the L.A. Convention Center. I reconfirmed my belief that it is essential to write what you are passionate about.

Though the bookfair was earsplittingly loud, overwhelmingly large, and (at least to my mind) chaotically organized, I was able to connect with writing friends and acquaintances and make a couple of new contacts, thanks to the brilliantly wonderful Brantinghams (hi, Ann and John!). OK, I admit this paragraph has had far too many modifiers modifying things and people. So I will quit full-stop with the paragraph…. now.

Succeed Better

The first morning panel I attended was titled “Succeed Better: The Many Ways Our Words Can Bear Fruit.” Though sales and marketing are part of the business of writing, there are other metrics we writers can use to define success. By creating a  connection with a reader of our work, we are successful. In pursuing a passion project that feeds our soul, we are successful. When we take the time to revise a piece until it shines for our readers, we are successful. And it’s good to remember not to try to race ahead of our peers, but rather keep our integrity intact (even if it means our peers publish sooner or more than we do).

The moderator of the panel, Professor David Ebenbach, teaches creative writing at my alma mater, Georgetown University. My school is lucky to have such a talented, thoughtful teacher.

A Matter of Taste

An afternoon panel called “A Matter of Taste” was a conversation among two agents, Sarah Bowman of Henry Holt and Michelle Brower of Folio Literary Management, and two editors, Steph Optiz, book reviewer for Marie Claire magazine, and Karolina Waclawiak, deputy culture editor at BuzzFeed. They first defined what went into their own sensibilities when evaluating a manuscript or book and how those templates fed their choices. Sarah Bowman commented that she reads about 400 manuscripts a year, trying to weed out the next great thing among all the copycats of the last great thing.

At one point, Sarah Bowman commented she reads about 400 manuscripts a year, trying to weed out the next great thing among all the copycats of the last great thing. Michelle Brower’s ideal project would be something that takes her completely by surprise.

Steph Optiz and Karolina Waclawiak both use book blurbs in their weeding-out work, yet they lamented the overused blurbers and the tedious blurbs that say nothing about the book before them. A person in the audience asked whether publishers should do away with blurbs altogether. The panel members paused, then gently explained that doing away with blurbs would be risky. Seemed to me they felt book blurbs were like a security blanket, even if mismatched or generic.

My Confessions

OK, now I must confess my dislike of one panel, billed as various ways people got their debut novel professionally published. By the end of the introductions, in which all the younger-than-I-am perky women briefly alluded to how they got their young adult (YA) book manuscripts to agents and to print, I realized I had made a mistake in my choice of panel. So I walked.

The time not spent at the panel gave me the opportunity to wander about the Bookfair, taking in all things books, writing, MFA writing programs, and presses. It was quite too much to take in at one time. If I’d been at AWP16 for more than one day, I might have made better use of my Bookfair explorations, including hitting up a lit agent taking short pitches during the lunch hour right on the Bookfair floor, if you can believe it. By the time I remembered about the pitching opportunity, it had come and gone. Oh well. Not meant to be.

I may write a bit on friends, acquaintances, and connections made during AWP16 in another post.

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