AWP Bookfair Marketplace

What the heck is a literary conference, and why should you go to them?  If you’re a writer, this is the place for you, and I’m about to tell you why.  Often sponsored by writing organizations, literary conferences bring writers and publishing industry folks together for keynote speeches, luncheons, mixers, and a variety of workshops and panels called “breakout sessions.”  They can last a single day, or spread out over most of a week, and they take place all over the country—which means one is near you!  Many of the names read like an acrynomicon of letters—AWP, ALA, SDCC, HNS, TLA, SCBWI, etc.  (Don’t worry, I’ll translate below.)  And they do cost money (some are quite expensive, but often there is a day rate available that’s much more reasonable).  But they can be more than worth the price of admission. Why?  Read on!

7. To find your writing tribe

When I decided to “become” a “real writer,” the best advice I received was from prolific children’s author Bruce Coville.  He said, “You should join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.”  So I did.  I went to their conference that summer—they hold a big one in Los Angeles every year for all levels, and a more professionally-oriented one in New York in the winter.  I was a newcomer and the LA event was walking distance from my house, so how could I refuse?  

At that conference, I met editors, other writers, agents, and—most importantly—Mitch.  Mitch, (short for Michelle Theresa) was also a fledgling writer.  At six feet tall with long curling red hair, she stood out.  We met in a hallway, torn between two breakout sessions.  She promised to share her notes with me if I shared mine, so we each took a session, and met afterward to download.  Then she offered me a ride home in her windowless white van.  (It would be the second time I was offered a ride with a stranger in a potential murder van while “becoming a real writer.”  Apparently, it was my chariot into the underworld.)  

I took the ride.  

Instead of shackles and bone saws, I found surf boards and sand in the back.  Two important things came from this conference and this ride:  1) Mitch tried to teach me to surf later that summer… she tried really hard (it didn’t happen) and; 2) we became writing buddies.  This meant we teamed up to hold each other accountable for our daily pages.  Mitch worked in a university library.  I had quit my job at Disney and was temping at a construction site.  I was due on the job at 7 a.m.  Mitch was due at the library at the same time.  I got home at 3:30 each day, and wrote into the evening.  I would then email her my pages with an unbreakable vow:  Do Not Read.  We didn’t want eyes on our crappy first drafts—just someone knowing we were working on it.  Mitch wrote before work.  Her emails came in at 4 a.m…  They didn’t always make sense.  (She was a morning person, but I think we can all agree 4 a.m. is not morning–it’s hell.)  Still, she would write and send me pages.  Once, when she was too sick to write, her husband emailed me to let me know she would have pages the next day.  With that sort of diligence smacking me in the eyeballs each morning, you better believe I wrote every day, too.

We finished our first books this way.  By the end of those first drafts, we’d shared tips we’d learned on worldbuilding, organizing our research, and staying motivated.  I’d watched hours of surfing videos and practiced hopping into a stand on a board.  I learned I was a “goofy” footed surfer by sliding around Mitch’s kitchen.  We became friends.  And then one day we printed our revised drafts and sat side by side on her sofa, reading each other’s work.  I went on to publish my novel.  Mitch switched to screenwriting.  Life went on, I left construction to work for a comic book company.  We fell out of touch.  But I think of her every time I finish a book.  She was my first companion in this strange new world of writing.  (Bruce Coville must’ve been my wizard-mentor.)  We’d have never met without that conference.

6. For professional feedback and connection

I received my first query from an agent at a conference.  It was another SCBWI event, but much smaller, a regional one-day show.  I had entered a picture book manuscript (or what I thought might be a picture book manuscript—I had no idea) into a contest for the event—and I won an honorable mention.  After some awkward photos on stage of the winners trying to hide behind each other (writers are not camera hogs, it turns out), a woman approached and handed me her card.  As it turned out, I already had representation from someone I’d known at Disney, but I held that card and it felt like more than an honorable mention.  It felt like validation.  Who couldn’t use that? 

Since then, I’ve met many agents at conventions.  The best ones will give a talk about what they are looking for, and then allow you to “jump the line” in submissions by writing the conference name across your envelope (Okay, that was back in the dark ages of paper, but that’s how it worked).  These magic words in bold sharpie strokes would lift your manuscript out of the slush pile—the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts many editors receive to this day—and onto the desk of the agent or editor.  A get out of jail free card, for the cost of sitting attentively in a conference session and, hopefully, asking a smart enough question to be remembered when you mention it in your query letter.  That’s worth a lot.

5. Job opportunities

A few years ago, a friend asked if I would speak to her writing class.  Afterwards, she asked me if I was going to some conference or other.  I said, “What?”  I had stopped going to conferences a few years ago.  And, in truth, I had only ever gone to San Diego Comic Con—not for writing—and SCBWI (more on that later).  She gave me a funny look and said, “But that’s where we find teaching jobs.”  It was?  As it turns out, she was right.  A couple of years later, a friend asked if I would be a on a panel with her at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference (AWP).  It was in Los Angeles, so easy to get to.  I said sure.  Then someone else invited me to be on a second panel.  And then I received a panicked email asking if I could fill in for someone who couldn’t make it on third panel.  I did.  At the end of my day of paneling, a woman approached me with a business card and a compliment.  She’d liked what I had to say.  Would I like to teach for them?

What I thought was a fair for MFA programs is also a job fair.  Who knew?  IF you’re looking for a teaching gig, why not attend AWP?  These shows thrive on panels and workshops.  Why not create and submit a panel yourself?  The guidelines are on the website.  Start early—they plan months and months in advance.  But you might find a panel is as good as a query letter for an interview.  And you’ll get to know the lay of the land, see what’s out there in academia.  Plus you get to attend the other panels and fill your own tool kit with ideas.  

4. Panels and Workshops

Yallwest book festival panel with Kiersten White, MT Anderson, Erin Bowman, Greg Neri, Sherri L. Smith, Jessica Spotswood, and Brodi Ashton
Kiersten White, MT Anderson, Erin Bowman, Greg Neri, Sherri L. Smith, Jessica Spotswood, and Brodi Ashton

I’ll be attending my very first Historical Novel Society Conference in Maryland this June as both a panelist and a moderator.  In addition to my awesome panel discussions (Beyond Rosie the Riveter:  How Female Heroines are Revolutionizing WWII Fiction”  and “Must We Always Sing the Blues:  Missing Chapters in African-American History”), there are sessions on dancing in a kilt, the state of historical fiction in the marketplace today, how the #MeToo movement has affected historical fiction, and more.  They promise to be stimulating conversations.

But the workshops… oh the workshops!  These are much more hands-on.  Here’s a taste of what’s on offer:

  • 10 Minute Agent/Editor Pitch Sessions
  • Hooch Through History Tasting
  • Fighting Writers – how to write historically believable fights (with actual swordplay in the session!)
  • Historical Costume Ball

Come on.  If you’re a history buff and a writer, all of the above is like catnip.  If you’re a historical fiction reader, likewise.  There are also sessions on branding yourself, using Scrivener to write your novel, and an editing mentorship you can sign up for with a published author called the Blue Pencil Café.  While most of these workshops cost extra—above and beyond the cost of the conference—some of them are surely worth it, and not like anything you’ll find elsewhere

3. Free Swag

If someone had told me when I was a kid that I could get free books as part of my day job, I wouldn’t have believed them.  Believe it, kid.  The American Library Association convention comes to towns across America.  If it’s in your town, get a day pass, even if it’s just the one to walk the convention floor.  Publishers are there with booths like market day at a medieval fair—and they are literally shoving books at you.  Some even give you cute tote bags to carry them in.  Big titles might require a raffle or a line to stand in. 

And there are authors—all those wonderful authors—chained to desks and signing just for you.  Go worship them.  As them your question.  Get your Christmas shopping done for the price of admission.  If you’re a teacher, the swag makes good bribes for students.  If you’re a reader, you’ll roll home like Templeton the Rat after a fair.  

I went to the Texas Teen Book Festival a few years ago in Austin.  A girl approached me with a rolling suitcase behind her.  In it were two types of books—the ones she already owned and was bringing to get signed, and the ones she was collecting at the show.  She told me she used to use a backpack, but it was getting to hard to carry.  I saw several other suitcases that day.  At the Texas Library Association event, I watched kids leave with cardboard boxes full of books.  Some are full books, some are sample books with excerpts from new releases.  All of them have that new story smell.  Go get some!

2. To meet your idols

Susan Cooper.  Katherine Paterson.  Nichelle Nichols.  Jim Butcher.  China Miéville. Stan Lee.  George R.R. Martin.  Robin Hobb, and more.  I only wept openly in front of one of them.  One, I did not have the chance to speak to.  One tweeted me a happy anniversary wish.  One was a jerk.  The rest—I spoke to as equals.  As authors.  And it was awesome.

1. To take yourself more seriously as a writer

This residency at Goddard, the theme was, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Craft.”  Conferences are a way to build your skill with craft.  Especially once you are outside the intellectual arms of an MFA program, where else will you find a group of people who want to talk about Scrivener, or marketing a book, or kilt dancing?  You might find one or two.  But this is where we go to find the input of our community, a community of writers.  And yes, conferences can be expensive, travel is expensive, it’s not always within reach.  But say you do have a community of writers at home, and they can’t all afford to go.  What riches might you bring back to your circle?  Be the Marco Polo of your writing group.  Introduce them to what you’ve learned.  It will expand and deepen your conversations because it will reflect an international input.  Plunking down the hundreds of dollars a conference might cost is daunting.  But see it as an investment.  Plan for it the way you would a trip of a lifetime.  And make sure you eat the peach once you get there.  You can sleep on the flight home.

I promised to explain some of the acronyms above.  While there are many more conferences to check out—several devoted to a single genre—here are the few mentioned above:

If you’re ready to hit the conference trail, do your research.  Plenty of bloggers will give you tips on how to make the most of the event, what to bring, how to carry it all, and how to stay hydrated while doing it.  As for me, I’ll be at AWP, HNS, and SDCC this year.  (See how easy those roll off the tongue now?) I hope to see you there!

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Sherri L. Smith is the author of seven award-winning young adult novels, including the 2009 California Book Awards Gold Medalist, Flygirl, and the historical fantasy, The Toymaker’s Apprentice. Her books appear on multiple state lists and have been named Amelia Bloomer and American Library Association Best Books for Young People selections. She teaches in the MFA Writing program at Goddard College in Vermont. Her newest novel is The Blossom and the Firefly. Learn more at
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