Frank Caliri is a Dallas-based Fiction writer attending AWP for the first time. He is also a former Writing Workshops Dallas student. Check in each day for a recap from Tampa until the conference is over. Read to THE END of this post for a special discount code for 10% Off any seminar, class, or editing service that we offer.
One of the most rewarding aspects about being a writer is cultivating a writing community, which brings us, as writers, out of our solitary caves and into the fold to mingle with and learn from others in the business. And no better place to do this than at the 2018 AWP Conference in Tampa, Florida, which is where I find myself, having taken a long weekend with a few thousand other writers, agents, editors of presses and journals, and teachers from high-profile writing programs. Over the years the AWP Conference has become the largest literary conference in North America with panel discussions, keynote speakers, and readings from well-known authors, as well as an extensive bookfair, which provides direct access to editors and staff of the leading literary journals.
New to writing, this is my first time attending AWP; and with spring upon us, I hoped to sprout some new understanding of the writing industry from building craft, to gaining insight into the mysterious worlds of agents and publication houses. I know being part of the larger literary community is good for me, as I build my literary network and find a way to…you know…get published, to have people read my work. Is that too much to ask? With thousands of writers, agents, and editors descending upon Tampa, across platforms—fiction, non-fiction and poetry—I figured AWP was a great place to work some magic.
A large component of the conference involves panel discussions—events where writers can learn from those who have come before them, or have alternative experiences that can help broaden their understanding. Panel discussions are the trenches where one learns to be a better writer, or learns to become a stronger advocate for one’s own work, to make positive change, one session at a time.
Sessions such as “Sound & Fury: Understanding Voice in Fiction,” to “Why We Chose It: Crazyhorse,” were both instructive and eye opening and, like most of the panel sessions, started with a general discussion amongst the panelists, led by a facilitator, and then flowed into Q&A from the audience.
For example, in “Finding the Understory: What Connects a Collection,” the panelists, all published authors, focused on how short story collections unify the individual pieces into a cohesive gathering. Dennis Johnson did this superbly in “Jesus’ Son” with his troubled character ‘Fuckhead.’ And Raymond Carver similarly delivers on this in his collection “Cathedral,” by looking at everyday experience through minimalism and realism. Throughout the discussion, the panelists agreed that understory is not something the writer consciously chooses to build across individual stories; but, rather, let’s build from the unconscious. For the panelists, understory was often shown to them after their stories were written, either by their agent or editor, or even after their work was published, and teased out by their readers.
I also wanted to learn more about how literary agencies operate, and what they look for from authors. This year, AWP brought together a fantastic group of New York agents to discuss their work and relationships with authors. In “The Gatekeepers: Behind the Scenes of Literary Agencies,” the agents spoke of long days of pounding the pavement. Many agents don’t even read new work during normal work hours but, instead, find themselves responding to emails from editors, chasing contracts, meeting with publishing or marketing departments, managing book auctions, and meeting with editors. Often, it’s not until later in the evening, over a glass of wine or a beer, that they read new manuscripts—possibly yours? Being a good agent requires operating in opposing realms—art/craft and business/publishing—simultaneously; and success requires that they move fluidly between opposing parts of self: introverted and extroverted, which is something we as writers need to do as well…you know…leave the cave sometimes, go to a workshop, build our social media platform, et cetera.
And speaking about leaving the cave, when should we as writers submit and open ourselves to other’s thoughts on revising our work? In “101 Drafts: Demystifying Revision in the Editorial Process,” the panelists, composed of editors and agents, view the revision process as collaboration with the author, and not, as some writer’s may view it, a tearing out our insides. Since the goal is publication, the agent/editors, who often have many years working the business/publishing side, know what sells and are here to help. This panel had key insights for authors: focus on writing quality work with a strong premise, and a unique voice. And finish the work before sending it to the agent. A common suggestion was to first send your work to trusted readers, or share your work at a local writing workshop. I recommend Writing Workshops Dallas if you’re in the area. Remember, the author, agent, and editor come together to strengthen already quality work and to highlight the author’s unique voice.
I wanted my day at the panels to leave me exhausted, to provide me with new insights and energy. And I wasn’t disappointed. Of course, my time at AWP wouldn’t be a true writer’s experience if I didn’t hang with the writer’s community in a local pub. Right? So, I’m off with some friends to experience the Tampa nightlife, talk shop, and drink beers until...well, who knows?
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