Friday, March 6, 2015

Navigating a Big Writer's Conference--What's Best to Do, What Do You Bring, How to Make the Most of Your Time and Money

This spring, two major writing conferences happen.  One is the annual AWP (Associated Writing Programs) conference in Minneapolis on April 8-11.  The other is the Muse and the Marketplace, the premier New England conference sponsored by Grub Street writing school, on May 1-3 in Boston. 

Mega-conferences are high opportunity and high overwhelm.  Concurrent workshops, panels, and pitch sessions with agents tempt you to multi-task or bilocate.  But the best results often come from thinking carefully ahead of time about what you want to leave with--more skills, more contacts, a sense of where you are in the publishing process, a hopeful connection with an agent? 

I interviewed writers who have been to one or both of these conferences and navigated them successfully.   

Here are their tips, techniques, and cautions for the five biggest questions that newbies ask. 

1.  How do I choose the best workshops and panels to attend?

* Get the schedules ahead of time and print them out.  Circle what interests you.  If you don't recognize the presenters, google them and find out what they write, publish, or preach.  Sign up early for sessions; they sell out.    

*   AWP's schedule and the Muse schedule both allow you to check the events you want to attend and save your results to print out; AWP's lets you tweak it as you reconsider.

*  Have some second choices.  Sometimes you'll arrive at a session and it'll either be full or not as golden as you wished.  Sit near the back so you can slip out and find your back up choice.   

*  The big-name events may not be your best choice.  Sometimes the smaller, lesser known presenters are the best.
* Several people recommended having a goal for what you want to get from the conference.  It's impossible to do it all, so think about what next step would mean the most to your writing.  
*Bring your laptop charger and phone charger, plenty of water, and snacks!  Layer clothing, wear comfortable shoes for lots of walking and standing.  A coat for evenings (Minneapolis resident advised) and after the skyways close.    

*  From a writer/mom:  If you're nursing and at AWP, don't bother trying to find the mom's rooms. They typically aren't located near enough to the bookfair to be convenient. Better luck going to the first aid station, if you can't find a bathroom or quiet nook.    

2.  Should I sign up for a pitch session with an agent or editor?

*  Pitch sessions are often the best way to meet agents in person--which often greatly increases your chances.  But most pitch sessions sell out fast.  Sign up ahead of time.
* Spend time at the book fair at AWP, talking to vendors, publishers, editors--you'll get a lot of information about the publishing industry.   
*  A regular at the Muse conference loves the Shop Talk tables at lunch, where you can sit with presenters and ask questions.  Casual, easy, informative, she says.  Again, sign up early.  (I'll be at a Shop Talk table on Friday lunch; would love to see you!)     

3.  How much networking can I do (or do I want to do)?

*  Come prepared.  Especially if you have a product (book).  Spend time with the booksellers in the fair at AWP.  See what's being published now.   

* Bring business cards!  (Many interviewees emphasized this.)  Even if you just hit the copy shop the week before and have something made quick.  If you have a book just out, this is even more vital.  

* Several presenters mentioned this important (although obvious) fact:  Try not to be obnoxious about personal promotion.  Especially during Q&A sessions--if you ask a question that's thinly disguised as self-promotion, it does not go over well.  Choose your timing.  Maybe talking to the presenters after the session is a better way to go.    

4.  How do I fit in time to see friends and colleagues?

* If you're coming in from out of town, consider renting an apartment (or airbnb) to gather your friends after hours.  One AWP attendee does this each year and loves the chance to see his friends from afar.     

* The Muse sessions are consistently wonderful, said one long-timer, but she also loves hanging out in the lobby talking with friends--equally good.  

* Make time for this.  It won't happen on its own.
5.  Do people actually spend time writing at these conferences?

*  Yes!  If you can, grab a quiet corner and write as you go.  Take notes on ideas that come to you in the sessions.  Writing time will help your brain balance and absorb the huge amount of information coming in.  It also keeps you sane during the high-stimulation!  

PS  I'll be teaching a workshop at the Muse on Friday, May 1, 9:30-11:30, and I'd love to see you there!  And be sure to stop by and see the good folks at the Loft table at AWP.

PPS  If you're interested in attending a free panel discussion on how to navigate AWP, visit the Loft Literary Center (1011 Washington Ave South in Minneapolis) on Thursday, March 26.  Check out for more information.    

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