Tuesday, February 17, 2009

AWP 2009

I attended the AWP conference last week. Us writers, we’re weird people. Let me say that my previous industry conferences have been run by and had as their presenters corporate trainers and marketers. These are people who know how to speak professionally and do it up right. They know how to sell their ideas. In fact, their jobs depend on it.

I think a writer's job depends on this a little, too. Yet, more than half of the sessions I attended consisted of people reading straight from an academic-like paper and making no eye contact or showing any general passion whatsoever. Maybe everyone was hung over, who knows, but at times I felt like I was at an anthropology conference. With the exception of the “Capturing the Attention of the Media” panel, where the great Chicago Tribune writer and radio host Rick Kogan was a surprise guest and pretty much made my whole day.

But, I always learn something. Some things you hear for the first time, and some things you’ve heard a million times but a refresher hits home.

A few notes:

  • The difference between point of view and narrative distance. One speaker talked about point of view being the camera and narrative distance being the zoom lens.
  • A speaker used the phrase “conventional bad marriage story.” Reminded me not to write these, which is a good reminder because I love so very much to write about love.
  • Another session tried to define the purpose of the chapter, but really just raised a lot of questions and I think expected us to stare off into the distance and philosophically ponder the purpose of the chapter. Although the speaker, Drew Johnson, had a good suggestion. Look at all your “white space” (i.e. scene breaks or chapter breaks). Did you ever use white space as a cheat to get yourself out of writing a tough scene or when you didn’t know what to do? Of course you did. Writers do it all the time. But take another look at those spots and force yourself to keep writing the scene and see what happens. A good pushing-yourself exercise.
  • When you’re on TV or the radio, tease your book, don’t give it all away. Give the listeners a taste of what your book is about so that they want to go out and read it. Don’t summarize it so much that they feel they’ve already experienced the book and know the story well enough.
  • When you get published, go to bookstores that carry your book and ask if you can sign copies. The signed copies often end up in highlighted places of the store.
  • Are you going to be on the radio talking about your book? Schedule an event (reading, sitting at a bar allowing people to buy you drinks) later that day or week for readers to meet you in person. And, you know, buy your book.
  • Someone asked a great question of when should you stop promoting your book? Rick Kogan said when it’s no more fun. Like when do you feel like you don’t want to date someone any more? You kind of just know when it’s over.
  • In case you haven't heard, you need a website. Add all sorts of neat tidbits on your author website or blog just like the extras on a DVD. Videotape yourself doing a reading, post it on You Tube, and link to your website. Get creative.
  • Donna Seaman from Booklist referred to book trailers (just like movie trailers) as “one more thing to ignore.”
  • When you’re choosing a conference to attend, consider what the goal is. Pitch to agents? Manuscript review? Writing workshops? Define that first, then narrowing down the options of which conference meets your criteria becomes so much easier.
  • One session on point of view got my vote for funniest title. "Omniscience: We Know, We Know," was another "let me read you my thoughts directly from these four pieces of paper in my hands" session. But one nugget I actually jotted down was the idea that "In the beginning you must be willing not to know." I'm pretty sure this comment related to the omniscient point of view, and that you can't really apply it until further drafts of the story after you’ve figured a few things out. But I think it's a good rule of thumb, a freeing one, for getting through those early drafts. Keep allowing yourself to not have all the answers about where your story is going or what your characters are up to. Give yourself the freedom to be, you know, creative.

And personal highlight of the conference for me was the release party (I was the bartender!) for my former teacher and all-around-great guy Scott Blackwood and his novel (the AWP Novel Award winner, mind you!) We Agreed to Meet Just Here. Beautiful book.

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