AWP Conference Report, or the Great Philly Jawn-o-rama for Overly-Caffeinated Writers

Returned from the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Philadelphia last week with a backpack crammed with swag and my head swimming with memories. Besides the hundreds of bookmarks, pens, and notebooks I lugged home, I took away a sense of membership into a larger writing community. I joined AWP two years ago, but this was my third AWP conference. The first one was in Washington, D.C. in 2017 as a grad student and the second one was virtually in 2021. Philadelphia is practically in my back yard (New Jersey in da house!), so I was excited. 

Despite the pandemic, a war, and financial woes, I bit the bullet and signed up. 

Hello again, Philadelphia. How you doin’, you sultry metropolitan smokeshow? Hoarding all of those cheesesteaks and Ben Franklin corpses to yourself again? I’ve been absent for too long, Philly. But not even a pandemic or financial crisis can keep me away. Remember the old times?
Yeah, you do. Crazy nights on South Street. Clubbing along Spring Garden. Philly Phantatic in the streets, Gritty in the sheets.
I’m back, baby, and like Hall & Oates sang, “You Make My Dreams Come True”.

The first panel I attended, “Call Your Agent: Finding Representation For Your Writing” was a lively discussion about how your writing and query letters can attract the right agent. Panelists Michelle Brower, Annie Hwang, Dana Murphy, and Duvall Osteen addressed a standing-room only event. I should know because I was one of the ones standing. 

A packed crowd at the “Call Your Agent: Finding Representation For Your Writing”. Since I don’t have a literary agent, I attended.

The panelist’s advice: Agents are looking for something that stands out. The queries that make them pay attention are clear and professional. Including comparable titles (comps) are a strong plus and will help the agents visualize your work and sell your novel to publishers. Novels with strong voices receive more attention. Plot is important, but voice is more important when it comes to capturing an agent’s attention. 

The book fair was insanely huge. Small indie publishers, university literary magazines, MFA and writing programs, and authors offered information and hawked their books. Of everything at the AWP conference, the book fair is the main event, a celebration of the writing craft in a friendly and inclusive atmosphere. 

Vaxxed, Masked, and Ready! AWP Philly got off to a fantastic start with the book fair. A gigantic, cavernous convention hall filled with books? Yes, please!

Saw some really good writers at a reading celebrating the tenth anniversary of Rowan University’s literary magazine, Glassworks. Readers whose work was previously featured in Glassworks included Jennifer Companik, Jim Daniels, Rebecca Dimyan, and Dani Putney. Everyone was excellent, but Companik’s “Death Comes to the Office for Daniel Downer” and Putney’s “Walt Whitman is the Reason I Want to Fuck My Dad” are absolutely amazing and highly recommended. 

The MilkBoy was jamming with writers at Glassworks 10th Anniversary Reading.

I attended the “Debuting with a Small Press” panel, featuring Jenn Bouchard, Khristeena Lute, Maan Gabriel, Rachel Mans McKenny, and Joy Lanzendorfer. I figured since my novel is debuting in December, I needed tips on marketing and promotions. This panel did not disappoint. Publishing through a small, indie press may be a shorter path to publication than querying an agent and going through the submission process with large publishers, but it’s still a grueling climb. Publicizing and marketing your small press book takes effort. That includes sending your ARCs to reviewers, doing interviews, making swag to give away to potential readers at conferences, and booking readings. The potential for large monetary advances with smaller publishing houses just isn’t there, unlike publishing with the Big Five. Or is it the Big Four now? Publishing changes every damn day. 

They even spelled it correctly!

Had a good time chatting with my former professors and fellow grad students about their writing, and re-connecting with friends. You never know where life will take you, and the folks who went through the Masters of Writing program with me are getting published and writing some really engaging and intriguing short stories and poetry.

Early mornings writing sessions in the hotel bar like a hungover Ernest Hemingway. Coffee and words, let’s begin our day.

Overall, a fun experience mixing and mingling with other writerly types in a city I love. Ate some really delicious donuts at the Reading Terminal Market, lounged at the Circ Bar, and yearned for more. Living near Philly all my life, I’ve done the touristy shit. I’ve seen Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the Franklin Museum, the Art Museum. Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt from a vender shilling soft pretzels. Perhaps one day, I’ll return, and haunt the several small, independent book stores Philadelphia has to offer. For now, I’ll indulge my Philly cravings with reruns of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Wawa hoagies.

I enjoyed myself at the AWP conference, and wish it lasted longer.

Until next year in Seattle, AWP. Maybe. Damn, Covid sucks.

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