Writer Steve Almond has a good post on The New Republic. The title pretty much sums up the experience–“AWP: Where Thousands of Writers Meet Their Competition.”
I’ve been to writers conferences before–Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace, and many SCBWI regional conferences, but nothing on the scale of AWP. Fortunately, the panel I organized and moderated was on the first day of the conference so while I was anxious beforehand, I was able to relax and enjoy the experience over the next two days. Disclaimers about my experience: I didn’t get to any readings; I didn’t go to parties; I stayed in a hotel the night before the conference–worried about the storm the forecasters predicted that didn’t happen–then went home Thursday night and had to get back to Boston in the early morning in the middle of the snowstorm that did. But I met some wonderful people, particularly my panelists: Jean Heilprin Diehl, Emilie Boon, Julie Hedlund and Rubin Pfeffer. I spoke to fellow graduates of the Lesley University MFA Creative Writing Program, and writers with whom I’ve taken classes at Grub and had great meals and conversations with extended family members who were also at AWP. I discovered new literary magazines–though I fear, as Steve Almond says, the only readers of some of these are other writers hoping to get published. Overall, I was impressed by the writers, agents and editors who participated on the panels I attended and I’ve got a list of new books to add to my reading pile.
For panels where writers gave prepared talks, it was easier to take notes and quote sources. In others where the discussion was more like a conversation I often didn’t note who said what. Thus my notes on the panels are very different. But here are some tidbits I gleaned from the discussions.
From the panel “Please Complete Me, Please Don’t Make Me Gag,” I learned it’s much easier to describe an unsuccessful love story than a successful one. Bad love stories “assume no other intelligence is involved, nothing else in the world is going on.” Good love stories “give us truths about humanity.” As one audience member pointed out, the most successful literary love stories cited by the panelists seem to be written by a woman named Jane Austen. Asked to give slightly more contemporary writers who write about successful or fulfilling love, the panelists were hard pressed to give examples. One offered the movie “Lost in Translation” because it was a successful story about love that wasn’t a love story.
From the panel “I Didn’t Know I had it in Me: When Fiction Writers Turn to Memoir,” I heard some interesting stories about how the panelists came to write their memoirs. One said the only way she could write about herself was to think of herself and her family, friends, etc, as characters in a novel. Regarding the kind of memoir they wrote/are writing none were what one thinks of as typical memoirs describing a family life full of dysfunction and a journey to overcome abuse/illness/pain. They wrote what they regarded as memoirs full of inside/outsider tension–the feeling of reporting on a scene, being of it, but yet not fully.
From the panel “Publishers:Big vs. Indie,” I learned how hard an editor must work to convince his/or her Board or Boss to go with a novel or non-fiction book and how passionately the editor must believe in the book. One editor described his job as finding a good book and working with an author to make that book better, then selling the book to the editorial board, and then the sales team and reviewers. “When you want a book, you have to fight for it.” If a writer has a poor track record, an editor tries to position a new book as his or her “break out” book. In an age of self-published ebooks a writer goes to a publisher for expertise in editing, marketing and distribution.
From the panel “Sea Change:Writing Remade Off the New England Coast,” (a subject dear to my heart) I learned from author Elyssa East (Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town) why the sea by its nature draws us in (quoting from Melville’s Moby Dick a passage about how the landlubbers on the island of the Manhattoes were drawn to the water). She spoke about how place shapes consciousness and people shape surroundings, but we can’t remake the sea. “It is the ocean that will overtake us.” The sea is both subject and setting and conflict. Some of her examples: man vs. nature, man vs. man, man vs. self (Ahab), Geological conflict, women left on shore and women as symbol of the sea, fortune vs. disaster, surface vs. depth, order on ship vs. cruelty. She quoted Conrad–” the way we view the sea is a reflection of our selves and our time.”
From Amy Brill (The Movement of the Stars), I learned about the history of women in coastal New England, particularly the island of Nantucket, where in the absence of men gone whaling, women had to take care of everything at home. They went to meetings, became abolitionists and later suffragists. Ports were cosmopolitan places. “The sea is a conduit for women’s evolution.”
Amber Dermot (The Starboard Sea) spoke of her longing to go beyond the sea and the danger of slipping into hyperbole when writing about the sea. She talked about Slocum’s book, Sailing Around the World, published in the 19th century and how he invented blue water sailing for families. “The sea was made for sailing.” “You are never alone at sea.”
Robin Beth Schaer discussed three poems about the sea: Frank O’Hara “To The Harbormaster,” Sylvia Plath, “Full Fathom Five” and Adrienne Rich, “Diving into the Wreck.’
Anna Solomon (“The Little Bride”) discussed the issues of class and belonging that arise in coastal towns, comparing the short stories “My Brother” by John Cheever and “The Ledge” by Lawrence Sargent Hall.
From the panel “Crossing Boundaries: Landscapes of Childhood and Adolescence,” I learned how five very different writers use place in their YA and MG fiction. Lucy Christopher discussed how she knew she wanted to set a story in The Great Sandy Desert in Australia even before she had the story that became her novel “Stolen.”
Kerry Madden talked about how much her family moved around with her dad and how football was a central theme of her life (John Madden is her father) and how her relationship to place changed as her relationship to her body changed as a young teen. Julia Green (“This Northern Sky”) discussed how liminal landscapes (coasts, islands) are like adolescence itself and how setting has now become one of the most important aspects of her stories, with the setting viewed through the eyes of the protagonist.
Lucy Christopher recommended sitting in a place for an hour and recording sensory observations–noting smells, sensations, tastes. One of the panelists recommended writers “look for quirky details your character would notice.”
From the panel “Other Worlds: Writing Between Genres for Young Adults” I learned how four different writers build the worlds of their stories, contemporary, historic and fantastic. Kelly Easton (“The Outlandish Adventures of Liberty Aimes”) talked about building her story from one tiny detail. Swati Avasthi (“Split”)talked about how writers in contemporary stories need to establish the rules that define the protagonist’s life. The resolution of the story then depends on the change in the protagonist when s/he discovers s/he can’t change the rules. The techniques for throwing the protagonist against the rules are: stranger in a strange land, stranger comes to town, protagonist grows up. ‘Perception colors the world and in realism the world doesn’t change, but the protagonist’s perception does.” Liza Ketchum (“Where the Great Hawk Flies”) discussed world building in historical fiction. She noted the most difficult thing to convey is the language and speech of a place and cited “The Astonishing Life of Octavain Nothing” as a prime example where this was done well with 18th century speech. Her advice was to read diaries from the time and place and note down phrases. She used diaries from the Mass Historical Society and also “The Treasury of New England Folklore.” Mark Hughes (“Lemonade Mouth”) discussed voice and the tension in his new book “A Crack in the Sky” between reality and the fantastic.
From the panel “The Whole Megillah:The Jewish Experience in Children’s Books” I learned about the difficulties in conveying painful themes like the Holocaust in childrens’ books–Meg Wiviott (Benno and the Night of Broken Glass). Also the challenge of depicting the religious experience without being overly instructional–Mical Ostow (“So Punk Rock and Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mohter”). One panelist observed “You read to go into the head of someone who is not you.”
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