2016 AWP Roundtable 3: A Place at the Table: The Art of Creating Writing Communities

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Welcome to our first Sundress Roundtable, a celebration of exceptional, not-so-lost AWP panels which did not make the AWP final cut for 2016.

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How do you move from being a writer in the corner to a writer at the table? Writing may happen in solitude, but careers are built on community. This panel will explore how to create accessible writing communities—particularly among marginalized, underserved and non-traditional writers—where members provide feedback and share information about craft, publication, and more. Panelists will discuss existing resources for developing platforms and cultivating support in real and virtual communities.

How do writers find communities for peer support, mentorship, and inspiration, especially if they face geographical, social, or cultural barriers? This panel will provide vital information about how to build such connections through virtual learning, social movements, local writing groups, and online platforms. Panelists include prose writers, poets, playwrights, and screenwriters who have made it their mission to build communities that are inclusive, dynamic, and responsive to their members.

 

Tell me briefly how you came to writing.

Shaula Evans: I was an early and voracious reader. I wrote plays that my neighbourhood friends performed on the stage my father built in our basement. My brother and I also made up horror stories and recorded them on a cassette player; we’d play them back in the dark and scare ourselves to death. I had a disheartening experience with a university creative writing class that turned me off creative writing for many years, but I came back to creative writing as the house writer for a theatre group and I’ve been writing in a range of forms and styles ever since. When I lived in Japan, I was editor-in-chief for three monthly journals (in English, Japanese, and Portuguese) and wrote non-fiction for a number of publications, which was my start in post-academic non-fiction writing and editing.

Ashley C. Ford: I’ve always loved storytelling, and for a long time I assumed I would go into acting. It wasn’t until my Sophomore year of college that I realized I could give this writing thing a shot. I was quite content once I changed my major to English, but when I took my first class for creative nonfiction, I fell in love.

Colette Sartor: I came to writing as an adult looking for a way out of an ill-chosen career as an entertainment lawyer. While I was still practicing law, I took classes at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and at USC’s MPW program. I finally realized that I wouldn’t take writing seriously until I left law altogether. Once I quit, I spent a year writing, taking classes, and applying to graduate school, and then spent two years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop completing my MFA. It was only in graduate school, though, surrounded by a community of writers who took themselves seriously and who were as in love with the written word as I was, that I started calling myself a writer.

Leigh Stein: At 19, I moved to New York City to go to acting school, and instead of getting close to the other students in my program, I spent a lot of time alone in my dorm room posting stories and poems to my LiveJournal. I had my first short story published that year and realized that I could pursue this other thing I loved (writing).

Colette Sartor
Colette Sartor

Tell me about a specific community that has been critically important to you along the way.

Shaula Evans: I am deeply indebted to Francis Ford Coppola for the Zoetrope.com website he launched in 1998, which hosted a vibrant and dynamic community of screenwriters, poets, and short story and flash fiction writers. I was an active member in the early days of the site where I had the opportunity to learn from incredibly talented people. Those years were highly prolific for me, in no small part because of the stimulation and feeling of momentum that came from being around people passionate about writing.

Ashley C. Ford: The community of writers I’ve met and made online have been essential to any success I’ve had as a writer. I met my mentor, Roxane Gay, online in 2010. Since then, I’ve been building community as authentically as I can, and trying to be as supportive as they are to me.

Colette Sartor: Both UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and The Iowa Writers’ Workshop have been essential to my development as a writer. As a student at UCLA Extension, I worked with gifted teachers who encouraged me and supported my decision to attend grad school. I also met lifelong friends with whom I formed a writers’ group that still meets today.

It was at Iowa, though, where I started thinking of myself as a writer. The beauty of being in an MFA program is that you become part of a community where people live, breathe, and talk writing. We compared ass-in-the-chair time. We read each other’s work and argued passionately over whether our characters were believable enough, real enough, driven enough by desire. Plus, many of the people I met in grad school became lifelong friends, the way my UCLA Extension friends did.

And writer friends are an essential part of being a writer. The actual act of writing may be a solitary endeavor, but on every other level, writing can be a communal experience. I rely on my community of writers—whether from UCLA Extension, Iowa, my UCLA Extension writers’ group or my writers’ group formed by women who attended my college—for advice, support, honest criticism of my writing. I can bounce ideas off these friends, read them rough drafts and cover letters, and I know I will get honest yet supportive responses based both on the work on the page and my vision for what I want that work to become.

Leigh Stein: I found a really supportive community on LiveJournal in the early aughts, and some of the people I met there are still my close friends today. More broadly, the Internet has always been the place where I go to find community: from LiveJournal to Facebook (I administrate a private group of over 30,000 women writers) to Twitter. I’m a high school drop out without an MFA. I would not have been able to write three books without the community I’ve found on the Internet over the last 11 or 12 years I’ve been pursuing writing seriously.

 

The word community implies a symbiotic relationship; there is as much give as take. While you gained a lot from community as a writer, you’ve moved on to create opportunities for others to access support, mentorship, inspiration, and connection. Tell me about that.

Shaula Evans: I have run two workshops within the Zoetrope site (in the private office area): a creative writing workshop for writers in different media to discuss craft and play writing games (for over 10 years); and a comedy workshop that explores the theory and practice of writing comedy (for over 5 years). In 2012 I launched a public forum for film, TV, and comedy sketch writers called The Black Board which ran for two years. My current website, ShaulaEvans.com, offers support and inspiration to writers—I have plans to expand it to build on some of the features of my previous projects but for the moment I’m too busy with my own writing, a good kind of problem to have. The focus of all my community-building efforts is to create safe and inclusive creative spaces.

Ashley C. Ford: Sometimes I’m simply enthusiastically supportive of the work those in my community put out, sometimes when I have to turn down work I direct it their way, and sometimes it’s just late night gchats about what’s hard, what’s good, and what we hope for our futures. Most of being a good community-member is the same as being a good friend.

Colette Sartor: I’ve benefited so much from being part of numerous writing communities: UCLA Extension, Iowa, my private writing students, the various writing groups that I’ve sought out. I wouldn’t be able to write without my community. My writer friends give me honest, brilliant feedback that bolsters me and inspires me to work harder, write better. My writer friends and students alike inspire me with their brilliance and thoughtfulness and willingness to bare themselves for the sake of their work.

I try to give back as much as possible by meeting with students and friends to discuss their options in pursuing their writing dreams: Do they go to graduate school or stay in Los Angeles and build a community of writers here? How can they meet other writers? What writing communities exists here? I’m constantly emailing students about readings to attend, new magazines to check out, podcasts to listen to, books to read. I plaster my social media accounts with links to inspirational articles and essays about craft and literary life. I’ve created a Writers’ Resources page on my website where I list links to online writing communities as well as links to posts about craft, publication, and blogging. And I’m always willing to write recommendations for friends and students whose work I know well. I wouldn’t have gone to graduate school without the encouragement and recommendations of some very generous teachers and mentors. I want to do the same for other people who are looking to expand their own writing communities and advance their own craft.

Leigh Stein: In 2014, I was so inspired by the online community of women writers of which I was a member that I had the idea to organize a conference, so we could connect face-to-face. This idea became Out of the Binders, a 501c3 dedicated to increasing the diversity of voices in the media and literary arts, and BinderCon, our semiannual, bicoastal professional development conference. I co-direct the organization with Lux Alptraum, and we oversee a team of about 30 volunteers across the country. Organizing BinderCon has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life.

Leigh Stein
Leigh Stein

What are some potential pitfalls or drawbacks of writing communities?

Shaula Evans: Some of the major pitfalls I’ve encountered include:

1. (Lack of) Moderation
Whether a writing community convenes on- or offline, it is imperative to establish a healthy culture where no one is bullied and writers feel safe to take creative risks. Good communities don’t happen by accident. It takes a great deal of work, conscious decision-making and social engineering to make a community feel welcoming—and most of that work should be invisible to the community at large.

2. Social Pressure
I’ve witnessed a number of workshop-oriented communities where there was social pressure to write in a certain way. Some specific examples:

– Pressuring writers who are not white, cis, het, male, etc., to write in a way that conforms to the expectations of members of the local dominant culture, rather than writing in their own voices and writing from their own experiences.
– Subtle encouragement or rewards for writing to please the subjective tastes of a workshop leader or workshop regulars—i.e. writing for short term peer popularity vs writing to grow or excel in one’s own voice.
– An unchecked herd instinct to mimic the style of a popular member.

The unifying theme is the problem of one or more people imposing their own writing views and preferences on other writers. Going back to #1 above, good hosting or moderation are one of the critical strategies for making sure this sort of problem doesn’t happen.

3. Gaming the (Formal) System
I have belonged to a number of writing communities that had formal review systems, where participants had to write a certain number of reviews before they could submit their work for revision. The problem with setting up formal systems is that they inherently incentivize certain behaviours; in the case of formal review systems, some writers will feel they come out “ahead” by writing the bare minimum review in order to earn their submission opportunity, which shortchanges both the reviewer and the writer whose work is being reviewed.

Good moderation can mitigate this problem, but my preferred solution is not to set up formal systems at all. (Avoiding formal review systems may run into problems of scalability for larger communities but can work well for small- and medium-sized groups.)

Ashley C. Ford: Every once in a while, there’s someone in the community who feels like competition is more satisfying than being empowering of their fellow community-members. Those are usually people who only know how to be motivated by competition, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t keep you from celebrating your community’s wins. If you can’t do that—bring yourself to be genuinely happy for someone else’s success—it’s hard to be a healthy member of that community.

Colette Sartor: There’s always the danger of conformity. I don’t believe that MFA programs necessarily encourage or even demand that students produce a generic kind of writing. That’s something of a myth people like to pull out when bashing degree programs. In fact, I found that my fellow grad school colleagues produced a glorious array of writing styles and stories, each with unique, identifiable voices that they maintain to this day. It’s the same with my students, both from UCLA and in my private classes: these students come in with a spark, a viewpoint that is uniquely theirs. It’s my job to nurture and encourage that individual voice, not to conform it to my vision of what fiction should be.

The danger of conformity that I’m thinking about is more individual in nature, one that I’ve encountered and succumbed to myself. When you immerse yourself in a community of writers, particularly in a writing group, you find yourself tempted to produce writing pleasing to that particular group of people, whose opinions you so value and whose praise you grow to crave. It’s human nature, to want to please those you’re close to; however, that need to please can encroach on your writerly vision, stilt your voice in an unnatural way. When I first started writing and didn’t have a great deal of confidence in my own voice or in my ability to tell stories worth reading, I found myself trying to write pretty, flowery metaphors and similes to please my first writers’ group, or to craft happier, more uplifting endings in a story that needed to be darker simply because I knew I’d get a more positive response from my group. My writing suffered for it.

The solution is to take care in building your writing community around you. Trust your writing only with those whose goal is to help everyone in your community realize each individual’s vision of the stories that person’s trying to tell. Even more important, trust yourself to know what’s best for your own work. Listen to criticism with an open yet inquisitive mind: does the person offering critique understand and appreciate your vision? Is that person’s criticism geared toward helping you advance that vision? If so, then listen away, knowing that it’s your job to take whatever criticism you find valuable and incorporate it into your work in a meaningful way that reflects your voice and style.

Leigh Stein: Money! I’m not paid a salary by the organization, but I spend about 20 hours a week administering the Facebook group, organizing events, strategizing marketing opportunities, writing our conference program, booking speakers, etc., etc. It’s obviously a project I’m passionate about, but it’s ironic that I donate so much of my time to helping other women writers advance their careers (and get paid). So much valuable, necessary work in the literary community is being done by collectives and nonprofits, and they need our financial support, not only our high-fives and gratitude. I’m thinking of VIDA, WAM!, the Belladonna poetry collective, and Brooklyn Poets, to name just a few.

Lisa Mecham
Lisa Mecham

What are your top five community resources, especially for writers who face geographical, social, or cultural barriers to access?

Shaula Evans:
1. Twitter — a great way to connect with other writers
2. The (Submission) Grinder — a free, searchable database of submission opportunities and submission tracker
3. ManuscriptWishList.com — where literary agents and publishers share what kind of manuscripts they are looking for (in astounding detail)
4. Lit Rejections’ International Literary Agent Database — listing literary agents from around the world
5. OneLook Dictionary Search —   — one of my favourite writing tools, especially for poetry

Ashley C. Ford:
1. Twitter
2. Tumblr
3. Blogs of writers you enjoy (and the blogs THEY follow)
4. Online writing courses
5. The library

Colette Sartor: Building your own writing community can mean going to graduate school, but that isn’t your only option. You can build your own writing community wherever you live. To do so, you need to meet other writers, both in your own city and around the world. This task is made easier by the numerous online resources and communities for writers. Here are a few:

– Most cities, no matter how small, have a thriving writing culture, if you know where to look. I’m lucky enough to live in Los Angeles, where there are several great reading series (e.g., at Skylight Books, Vroman’s, the Aloud series, the Hammer Museum series), as well as writing classes and seminars. The key is figuring out where the literary “hub” of your city exists. Ploughshares did a great series of articles a while back called Literary Boroughs, which highlighted literary culture in various communities. Also look at libraries and local bookstores for readings by published authors. Writers flock to readings, both for the joy of hearing beautiful work read aloud, and to meet and congregate with other writers.
– Writers’ conferences are a great way to meet other writers and to experiment with being part of a writing community. When I was first thinking about becoming a writer, I attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Squaw Valley Community of Writers. At both conferences, I met writers and authors with whom I still stay in touch. Conferences can be pricey, but most of them offer some kind of financial assistance in the form of fellowships and/or work-study. Poets & Writers offers a great database of conferences and residencies to help you narrow down which conferences might be right for you.
PEN Center USA offers a wide variety of resources to writers, from onsite, affordable seminars with outstanding writers, to posts and interviews about craft, to programs like the PEN Center Emerging Voices Fellowship that provide new writers without access to writing communities various tools to help them launch writing careers—like mentorship by professional writers, seminars, public readings, classes, and a small stipend for eight months.
– There are vibrant writing schools/communities that have popped up all over the country such as Grub Street, Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, and The Center for Fiction. Each of them offer classes taught by outstanding professional writers as well as other community components. Some also offer fellowships to facilitate writers in need.
– There are online literary communities like Figment and Fictionaut that offer writers the support of a literary community through discussions and chats, critiquing groups, etc. Many of them are free, or at least have free components. Take care, however, to explore the sites and make sure you’re comfortable with the tone of that particular community. Sometimes the anonymity afforded by online communities can result in negativity that is more easily controlled in onsite communities. And take care about posting work there. Many journals consider your work “published” if you’ve posted it online in a group that isn’t private.

Leigh Stein: The BinderCon scholarship program (we award up to 50 scholarships to each conference, and this fall we offered travel stipends to trans and GNC attendees, through a grant we received from the Esmond Harmsworth Foundation). Also, BinderCon NYC will be livestreamed (free!) for the first time ever, thanks to the Harnisch Foundation. Would also recommend checking out VONA writing workshops for writers of color, WAM! (Women, Action, and the Media) with chapters and events around the country, The OpEd Project seminars, and Hedgebrook (fee-free writing residencies in the Pacific Northwest for women writers).


Lisa Mecham (panel moderator) writes a little bit of everything and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Mid-American Review, Juked, and BOAAT, among other publications. She serves on the Advisory Board for Origins literary journal and as a Senior Editor for The Scofield. A Midwesterner at heart, Lisa lives in Los Angeles with her two daughters. Online at lisamecham.com and @lmecham.

Shaula Evans (not pictured) is a writer, editor and translator. Born and raised in Canada, and educated in Montreal, France and Japan, she currently resides in New Mexico after spending 6 ½ years traveling around North America in a Mini Cooper. You can find her online at shaulaevans.com and on Twitter at @ShaulaEvans.

Ashley C. Ford (not pictured) is an essayist and editor currently living in Brooklyn via Fort Wayne, IN.

Colette Sartor‘s stories and essays have appeared or are upcoming in Kenyon Review Online, The Chicago Tribune, Colorado Review, Carve, Printers Row Journal, Hello Giggles, The Good Men Project, Slice Magazine, and elsewhere. She teaches at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program as well as privately. Find her colettesartor.com or follow her on Twitter at @colettesartor.

Leigh Stein is the author of the novel The Fallback Plan, a collection of poetry called Dispatch from the Future, and a memoir forthcoming from Blue Rider Press in 2016 called Land of Enchantment. She co-directs the literary nonprofit Out of the Binders.

2016 AWP Roundtable 2: How to Publish Your Book Without an Agent

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Welcome to our first Sundress Roundtable, a celebration of exceptional, not-so-lost AWP panels which did not make the AWP final cut for 2016.

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How do you place your manuscript with a good publisher if you don’t have a literary agent? Writers who have successfully done so will explain the process. This discussion will identify presses that consider unsolicited manuscripts and will explain how to use online listings to find reading periods and contests. The focus will be on submitting work without paying a fee. Panelists are fiction writers and poets who have successfully placed one or more books with a reputable independent publisher.

Publishing a book is every writer’s goal. But many manuscripts of literary merit go unread or unpublished because their authors can’t connect with the right editor or publisher. This panel will provide useful information on getting your manuscript read and accepted. We will discuss our own experiences—both the hits and the misses. We will encourage writers at all stages in their careers to act as their own agent to find the best home for their books.


Briefly describe the books you placed yourself at presses. Are they books of fiction, poetry? How did you find the presses and approach them? Was it difficult to find a press?

Joanna Sit: They are two books of poetry. The first one, My Last Century, is a collection of poems. The second book, In Thailand With the Apostles, is a book-length poem separated into parts, which can be read as “freestanding” poems as well. I sent the first book to book contests, small presses as well as bigger ones. I’d say I sent queries to more than 100 places, and the actual manuscript to about 40. This process took approximately three years, until I mentioned it to Nava Renek, who I’ve known from Brooklyn College and who had recently partnered in the operation at Spuyten Duyvil Press. She said she would take a look at it, which she did, and told me she liked it. Not long after, she showed the manuscript to Tod Thilleman, the publisher, who then agreed to work with it.

About a year later, at one of Spuyten Duyvil’s book parties, Tod and I were talking about long poems, and he told me how much he liked them. The poem, “In Thailand With the Apostles,” had been written years before, but no one was interested in publishing a long poem. So when he jokingly asked if I happened to have one in the back of my drawer somewhere, I answered, “Why, yes I do.”  I sent him the manuscript, and the book was published a year later.

Meg Tuite: The first collection I published was Domestic Apparition, and I had published over two-thirds of the stories over a few years. I sent the collection out to five different publishers and waited. I got an acceptance from two of them, but chose San Francisco Bay Press, because I liked the availability and enthusiasm from this press. I had published many of the stories without thinking of any cohesion until the editor said, “Why don’t you rework this with the same family throughout and call it a ‘novel-in-stories.’ ” I realized that it had a seam that moved through it, and it was a nice and easy transition working the collection into a novel.

I published a few chapbooks with indy presses that were also beautiful and put together with deep commitment to the craft: Monkey Puzzle Press, Deadly Chaps and Red Bird Chaps. I have had positive relationships with my publishers and have always loved the final product they have produced.

My second full collection, Bound by Blue, was published with Sententia Books. This was the first time a press was able to send out to ‘small print distribution’ and send out copies for review. And I was very much involved in every part of it. Paula Bomer, who is the publisher, loved the cover artist I chose and worked with me on every aspect of this and was an exceptional editor. She pushed me to work flash stories into short stories which was an amazing experience, considering I teach flash fiction and am always working my students to condense and hone their work. Although, I was originally writing short stories that were at least 20 pages, so she brought me back to my source, which I am grateful for.

Thaddeus Rutkowski: Each of my books has its own story. I sent the manuscript for my first book, Roughhouse, to Kaya Press, which publishes work by Asian-rooted authors writing in English. I sent it cold, though I was familiar with the press. The manuscript went onto the slush shelf, but by chance someone I’d been in a workshop with was a volunteer at Kaya. He saw my name on the envelope and passed it along to the editors, who accepted it and made a big deal about publishing their first and only unsolicited manuscript.

I sent the manuscript for my second book, Tetched, to several contests. I’d won a chapbook contest in the early ‘90s—and this new full-length book became a finalist in the Starcherone Books competition. As it turned out, I didn’t win, but Starcherone was interested in publishing the book anyway. Before that could happen, one of my adult students accepted the book for a small press, Behler Publications, where she was an editor. Tetched came out in 2005.

I kept in touch with Starcherone, which means “Start Your Own.” I even drove from New York to Buffalo to read for the publisher, Ted Pelton, who was in the English department at Medaille College. A few years later, I had put together another manuscript and offered it for the Starcherone contest. The publisher said he’d read it outside the contest and he also sent it to another reader, Lily Hoang. They both liked the book, and it came out with the support of the New York State Council on the Arts—we didn’t have to do a Kickstarter campaign.

bio photo w_ tattoo

Meg Tuite


What was the publication/marketing process like? Were you happy with the finished book, as a product? Did you promote the book (get reviews, readings) yourself? Were the publishers helpful?

JS: The process was relatively simple and low-key. I prepared my manuscript complete with table of contents, acknowledgements, and pagination. The manuscript was sent first, and later, I sent the cover art and blurbs once I had them. Since there was no editing on the publisher’s part, I had to edit and proof all the contents. Even so, there were errors in both books. Overall, though, I was happy with the finished product. I would have to say that Spuyten Duyvil, as a small press, was not very involved in promoting the book in terms of getting it reviewed. I acted as my own publisher in that way, sending out copies to book reviewers. Because of my limited experience in this area, I missed the timing of sending out the book before it came out (such as Publishers’ Weekly). The publisher did make arrangements for a book-launch party for both books, and one other reading at St. Mark’s Bookstore in Manhattan for my first book.

MT: I had a friend who wanted to write a book titled So You Published a Book. Who the Fuck Cares?

I got that from the first book. The writing of a manuscript is one thing. Getting it out there is a whole ‘nother experience. I had a damn great time with my books. My book launches were parties at a kickass pizza place in Santa Fe, Back Road Pizza, that packed the house and sold many books. But, yes, I had to do my own marketing and if you are going indy, then get ready to work it in stages. It won’t come to you. You must go and find it!

Reviews are always an excellent way to get new readers. Also, GoodReads. Look it up. You can put your book up for a FREE GoodReads giveaway and decide how many books you want to gift. This is another way to get some readers and possible reviews from unknown folk from other continents.

TR: I’ve relied on publishers during the production process. They know about art, type, printing and Web presence, while I know about the text. After the book is produced, the review/promotion process begins. The publisher has often helped me with this–my first and third books were reviewed in Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus and American Book Review. Personal contacts also helped. Now, I’m working with a publicist (my wife, Randi Hoffman) to get my latest book out to reviewers.

I enjoy traveling and setting up readings, and I’ve been lucky to read in several countries and many U.S. cities. I think that having a background as a slam poet also helps. I’m no slam champion, but I can do a little performance. That little show helps to promote the work on the page.

In one case, I was planning to go to Santa Fe with my family because my wife used to live there. I contacted many local writers, and I was led to Meg Tuite, who told me to call a bookstore, where I was able to set up a reading. I asked a poet in Taos (who I knew from New York) to read with me. She brought a number of people, and it was a great event.

I’ve learned that a writer should use social media. You should have a website, as well as Facebook and Twitter accounts. I don’t have Instagram, because I don’t have a smartphone yet.

Thaddeus Rutkowski

Thaddeus Rutkowski


Would you advise other writers to take the same path to publication? If so, how would they get started?

JS: The way I finally got published was a singular one. I’m not sure the path can always be of one’s own choosing. However, reflecting on the process, I would say that talking to other writers and trying to get the word out about the work were very important factors in finally getting my book read. My sense was that the first book was the most difficult to get published, and after that, it might get easier. Maybe not. My advice, overall, is “always be prepared.” By that, I mean, keep writing no matter what. While you’re waiting for someone to publish your book, send poems out to literary journals and magazines, put your name out there. By the time someone expresses interest, you’ll be all ready.

Joanna Sit
Joanna Sit

MT: I started by checking the list of indy presses. Believe me when I say it’s a whole ‘nother job. Get ready to spend time reading books by presses and deciding which ones are sympatico to your collection, novel, or memoir. A great way to move through this is to find those books that you LOVE and write down the name of the publisher and agent. That makes the most sense to me and you also read more books, which is always a plus. FIND THEM! They are not out looking for you. Just go to one AWP conference and find yourself surrounded by over 12,000 writers and realize how much we have in common with ants.

I am a LOVER of INDIE PRESSES! They rock it and work with the writer. They trust in the abyss!

TR: I agree with Joanna and Meg. All writing activities are related. Take classes/workshops, go to public readings, read your work aloud (this makes you write something in the first place), go to conferences (if you can afford it). And, of course, do your research. There are websites that list hundreds of literary agents and break them down by the genre they handle. Likewise, there are websites, such as ones from Poets & Writers and the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP), that list small presses, their reading periods, whether they charge a reading fee, etc.

Amid all the non-happenings, something good is bound to happen. You have to be ready for it. You can’t just talk a good game. You have to back it up with good work. Yes, this is a big job. It’s a second life.

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Thaddeus Rutkowski
is the author of the books Violent Outbursts, Haywire, Tetched and Roughhouse. Haywire won the Members’ Choice Award, given by the Asian American Writers Workshop. He teaches at Medgar Evers College and the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA in New York. He received a fiction fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He lives with his wife and daughter in Manhattan.

Joanne Sit is the author of two books of poetry: My Last Century  (2012, Spuyten Duyvil) and In Thailand with the Apostles (2014, Spuyten Duyvil). Her poems and translations have appeared in Five Willows Review, Ezra, Natural Bridge, Seneca Review and other literary publications. Her “Mickey Rourke Rondelets,”  appears in the anthology Wreckage of Reason II as “July 7” (2014, Spuyten Duyvil). She is working on a new book of poems, Track Works, and a ethnographic narrative, The Reincarnation of Red, about Chinese immigrants and Cantonese Opera.

Meg Tuite is the author of Bound by Blue, Domestic Apparition, Disparate Pathos and Reverberations. She has been nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize and is the fiction editor of the Santa Fe Literary Revew and Connotation Press. She lives in Santa Fe with her husband and many pets, and she teaches at Santa Fe Community College.

Everything Is Awesome (When You’re at AWP)

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Every other Facebook post from every journal you follow is plugging their bookfair table. You’ve been invited to more offsite readings than it would be humanly possible to attend. #BadAWPAdvice keeps popping up in your Twitter feed. Friends of friends are looking for roomies in Minneapolis.

Yup, it’s AWP season.

Expressing your world-weariness about AWP is a badge of honor in this literary community of ours. The panels are lame, the bookfair is too big, the hotel elevators are slow, and there are just. So. Many Hipsters. Everyone is going but no one wants to be there; people who are staying home this year take to social media to proclaim their relief to have avoided the chaos. People who are actually happy to be attending occasionally, apologetically, stick out their heads to say, “I know, I know, but it’s not that bad,” like the earnest kids in high school who kind of enjoyed eleventh-grade English but knew saying so would make them a target.

But wasn’t that most of us? Aren’t we those bookish, sincere kids? When did 80 percent of us turn into the too-cool-for-school crowd?

Sure, of course there’s truth in all the snark. I certainly am not above complaining. For example, it very much irks me that no one—not one time, ever—has approached me at the bookfair to offer me a substantial check in exchange for the screenplay rights to that prose poem I published in Los Angeles Review. And, my goodness, all the talk about drinking. We’re like 10,000 freshmen out of the house for the first time with newly minted fake IDs dangling on lanyards around our necks.

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The Sundress ladies out on the town at AWP Seattle.

The whole experience can be anxiety-inducing. It gets at our inner fear that everyone else has this writing thing figured out more than we do. Everyone else will seem busier than you are, with more places to go, more obligations, more connections. “Lunch? Oh, sorry, my panel’s at 1, and then I told [famous writer] we could meet for tea after her reading, and then I’m doing an offsite reading for [magazine that keeps rejecting you], and tomorrow I’m blowing off the conference and spending all day at [secret cool-sounding artsy place or distant-but-lovely nature spot] with [people you’ve heard of, though you may not know exactly what they do].”

Going to AWP will not get you published in that one journal, nor get your manuscript picked up by that other press. The odds are good that no one will come up to tell you how awesome your writing is. You’re unlikely to strike up a lifelong friendship with this super-famous writer, or that editor, or the other agent.

But, in the end, you know what? I love AWP. I look forward to it all year.

The bookfair is amazing. Just crazy awesome. The best part. I spend way too much money there every year. (All those people complaining about how poets don’t support the biz by buying books or subscribing to journals are NOT talking about me.) And yet there’s some inherent awkwardness in the whole thing. The people behind the tables want to sell their books and journals, while the people on the other side of tables are secretly (or not so secretly) hoping to be recognized and told, “Hey, I was hoping to see you. Can we publish your [novel, poem, story, 10-minute play, hybrid-lyric-language-experimental-fragment]? I have a contract right here with your name on it, just in case you came by.” (I can tell you from experience, this rarely happens.)IMG_1213

At the Sundress table at AWP Seattle.

Most of the readings are great. The audiences are generous, the readers are happy to be heard. However, it is almost inevitable that someone whose work you have long loved will turn out to be a giant douchebag. So be prepared to have at least one illusion shattered. What will make up for it is discovering someone else you didn’t know whose work is a joy and who turns out to be quite lovely in person.

It’s always fun to spot writers who wouldn’t be celebrities in basically any other context, but walking past them at AWP is like walking past Brad Pitt: “Did you see that guy? That’s Kevin Prufer!” “And look, over there, it’s Allison Joseph!”

(A bit of advice: If you do happen to walk by someone whose work you admire, stop and say so. It’ll make their day. Unless they’re the one fated to be your giant douchebag for the year.)

Some of the panels can be underwhelming, or overly specific. (“A Biomedical Science Approach to Teaching the Lyric Essay to the Students in the Third Row of an Introductory Multi-Genre Classroom at a Regional Teaching University in One of the Dakotas” got accepted and my brilliant panel proposal was rejected? Who’s in charge of this thing?) Other panels sound great, but when you get there, it quickly becomes clear no one has prepared a thing, and everyone’s just going to talk off the top of their head about whatever until the 75 minutes are up. But you pick and choose your spots, and find some good moments all over the place. Plus, as I tell my students, you’ll learn more if you go in looking for what you can learn rather than what you can make fun of on Twitter (#AWP15) or in next year’s blog post. Attitude matters.

Every year I leave AWP knowing I learned something—something that will help my writing, something that will help my teaching. I come home with new books and journals and having discovered new authors whose work I want to swim around in. I feel like I am part of a community, and like there are others out there who value what I value, who are working at the same things I’m working at.

And this: I come home eager to write. For me, that is exactly enough.

hueyAmorak Huey, a former newspaper editor and reporter, teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. His chapbook, The Insomniac Circus, (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2014) and Ha Ha Ha Thump, forthcoming from Sundress Publications in 2015. His poems appear in the anthologies The Best American Poetry 2012, The Poetry of Sex, and Poetry in Michigan/Michigan in Poetry, as well as journals such as Rattle, The Collagist, The Southern Review, Poet Lore, Menacing Hedge, and others.

Getting the AWPer Hand at AWP (A Newbie’s Guide)

By Scott “C” Fynboe, Host and Coordinator of the SAFTAcast

The Association of Writers & Writing Programs. The AWP. Each year, hundreds – if not thousands – of students, writers, editors, and publishers learn of its existence. I don’t know how, either. The AWP doesn’t camp out in college student unions, its members wearing matching shirts, holding clipboards and asking every passerby: “Have you heard about us?”

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Somehow, though, people do hear about them. Or they hear about the convention, rather. While AWP is the name of the organization, the letters are synonymous with their annual conference and bookfair. I’ve never heard anyone ask “Are you a member of The AWP?” No, it’s always “Are you going to AWP this year?”

Maybe you are going this year. And maybe you’re going for the first time. And maybe you have no idea what to expect. Enter this guide.

In short, the convention is an interesting mix of an academic conference, a college homecoming and a drunken bacchanal.

In long, it’s best to break the convention down into parts:

1. A-Lister Readings are public readings by well-known writers. Only go to these if you really like a particular author – as in “this is my favorite living author and I’ll die if I don’t get to be within a hundred yards of their personal space” – or it’s a special event (and you like the writer).

For example, I went to Anne Carson’s 2013 reading. Given her reputation as a recluse, to do a public reading at a large conference meant it was kind of a big deal.

2. Keynote Events Skip ‘em. The only people who go to these are the AWP’s head honchos.
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3. Panels There’re many panels to choose from. Go through the program a month or even a couple weeks in advance, pick out a few that are relevant to your interests and think about going. I try to make it to one or two a year so I feel like I’m at the convention for some kind of professional development and not simply to “hang out with a bunch of writers and friends.”

4. The Bookfair This is where you’ll end up spending most of your time. Seriously. I’m not kidding. It’s the largest of its kind and I can try to describe the size, but nothing can prepare you for the scale. Row after row, room after room of big name presses, university presses, small press publishers, companies hawking things related to writing but aren’t necessarily books, and even more. The only thing it lacks is literary cosplay.

4a. The Bookfair – Your Wallet Because most of the vendors are publishers, there are many books up for sale. No matter what you set as a budget, you’ll go over it.

The best time to buy is toward the end of the convention. Many publishers don’t want to be going through the airport with multiple bags of unsold books, so they’re likely to slash prices and/or cut a deal.

Some dealers leave the convention early – usually bigger presses – but a lot of the tables are independents and smaller presses who are there for the whole time. Attending this thing is expensive for any vendor. When you buy from a small press, you’re helping keep them afloat. So, if you see a book that catches your eye, buy it and give ‘em your support.

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4b. The Bookfair – Friends and Well-wishers This is the homecoming aspect of AWP. A lot of writers and publishers travel in various circles and use AWP as a way to either re-connect with old friends or connect with internet-only friends.

If you’ve never been, though, don’t feel that AWP is completely incestuous or that you won’t enjoy the Bookfair. It’s a great place to network, to discover new presses, and to make friends. If you see a press or book that you like, chat up the booth a little. Get to know them. Who knows who you’ll discover?

4c. The Bookfair – Don’t be “That Writer” If you’re a writer, the Bookfair is a good way to find out about contests and/or publishing opportunities. However, don’t be one of those attendees that walks from booth to booth, asking each vendor if they can publish your work. This is like a young actor who bothers a famous one because they “have an idea for a script.”

If the press has an upcoming contest or call for submissions, there is usually some quarter- or half-sheet of information. Pick it up and if you have questions – or if they tell you about it directly – then engage in conversation.

I’m not dumping on any person’s work or potential work, but unsolicited authors can be annoying at the con, especially if the vendor is tired and/or a bit hungover.

4d. The Bookfair – Celebrity Sightings Occasionally, big-name writers wander the Bookfair. They’re there for the same reasons everyone else is: to visit with someone they haven’t seen in a while, to peruse the current literature landscape, etc. If you see someone famous, be cool; don’t be a fanboy/girl.

5. Off-site Readings The longer you walk through the Bookfair, the more off-site readings you’ll get invited to. These are public readings, often in bars, and there are many. And they’re often made up of multiple presses doing a joint event. And there are only a few hours per night that they happen.

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In other words, you won’t go to every off-site reading. Not by a long shot. You might do one or two a night and your choice often comes down to “who do I know at this reading” or “this is a really cool venue.” If you have friends reading at two different events at the same time, you have to make a choice who you’re going to piss off.

6. AWP is No Different It may be about writing, teaching, and publishing, but AWP is just like any other pop culture con. (But without the cosplay. Seriously, this needs to start happening.) If you’ve ever done a big one like SDCC or NYCC, or even a small, regional one about anime or Rocky Horror, you can expect the same things:

Drinking/hungover people

Sleep deprivation

Eating whenever you have a chance

Sore feet and legs

Bright lights

Quick drop-offs in personal hygiene levels

Interpersonal drama

Frayed nerves

Fighting to find a Wi-Fi signal or a wall outlet in the lobby

And

7. Con Crud No rundown of AWP is complete without mentioning the “AWPlague.” After it’s all over, invariably you or one of your crew will get sick as a dog. Use this time to read the stuff you picked up, watch old episodes of Cheers (that’s what I did after Boston), and curse the convention.

Until six months later, when you look at the calendar and start wondering if you’re going to have the money to go next year because, dammit, it’s worth it.

 

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Things Scott “C” has done:

– DJed at WHRW-Binghamton for seven years, hosting a variety of music, game, and talk shows
– Mobile DJed weddings, proms, reunions, karaoke nights, and at least one bar mitzvah
– Performed improv comedy as a member of The Pappy Parker Players
– Acted in both musical and not-musical theater
– Written and published some poems
– Shopped for a futon
– Taught English at a Florida college

Things Scott C has not done:

– Visited Europe
– Worn denim to a black-tie event
– Owned a hammock or a gazebo
– Studied dentistry
– Vomited on a retired postal worker
– Woken up before he go-go’d
– Some other stuff

Photos taken from awpwriter.org and rantlifestyle.com