The AWP Conference: Is It For Crime Writers?

AWP conference
AWP 15 Book Fair Source: AWP Twitter

About 13,000 writers flocked to Minneapolis last week for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference.  I knew the conference catered to the literary (or as one presenter put it, “boring”) crowd, but since it included many workshops and a gigantic book fair and was being held here in town at a fairly reasonable cost, I decided to give it a go.  Plus, its 24/7 event schedule gave me a valid excuse to stay in a hotel for two nights and temporarily ditch my day-to-day responsibilities as mother and wife.  Basically, this conference had me at hello but was it a worthwhile event for a writer of crime fiction?

If you want to know more about the conference-at-large, check out Peter Mountford’s hilarious and definitive article.  Here are some tips for fellow crime writers who are considering a future AWP conference.  Note:  At some point, you’ll have to admit to the literary fiction attendees that you are a *gasp* commercial fiction writer:

  • Don’t overschedule yourself. I attended 12 workshops on craft (about 4 per day) which gave me time to walk the book fair, eat lunch (the lines were super-long at the convention center), and avoid the feeling that my head was going to explode from the knowledge dump each workshop provided.
  • Skip sessions led by magazine or book editors. You already know how to get published: write something great, research the publication and editor, and submit proofed work in the exact format requested. I just saved you about 2 to 3 hours at the conference. You’re welcome.
  • Pick workshops that will boost your areas of weakness as a writer. As a first-time mystery novelist, I went to sessions that addressed plot, time and structure, genre fiction, crime fiction, noir fiction, violence, and how to write a sex scene. There were gems to be had in all of these workshops:
    • Plot is Character: Make $h!t happen. If you have a good voice, you can fix your plot.
    • Learning and Teaching Plot: Plot that feels inevitable but surprising stems from an understanding of how particular people behave in a particular situation.
    • Sex Scenes by Women, About Women: How do people secretly relate to one another when the doors are closed and people aren’t wearing their public faces?
    • What’s Wrong with Writing Genre?: Write what you know with a twist.
    • Substance as Style: What Noir Can Teach Us: In noir, the protagonist actively participates in his own demise by the choices he makes. As someone who’s writing what I call “medium-boiled seaside noir”, I love this definition.
  • Introduce Yourself to the Panelists. They want to meet you. Really. I finally mustered up the courage to do this on Friday afternoon with fellow Sisters in Crime members, Cathlene Buchholz and Sherry Roberts. We introduced ourselves to crime fiction panelists/novelists, Michael Kardos and Lori Rader-Day, who’d been signing books the night before at Once Upon a Crime mystery bookstore with Jessie Chandler. Both Michael and Lori were very generous with their time, and we were able to snap this photo with Lori before saying goodbye.
From left: Jessica Ellis Laine, Cathlene Buchholz, Lori Rader-Day, & Sherry Roberts
From left: Jessica Ellis Laine, Cathlene Buchholz, Lori Rader-Day, & Sherry Roberts
  • Attend Author Readings. I am kicking myself for not attending readings by Shannon Olson, Cheryl Strayed, and T.C. Boyle. On Saturday afternoon, I closed out the conference with authors Ana Mendez and Dani Shapiro who were interviewed by a moderator and later read from their work. It. Was. Amazing.
  • Go To After-Hours Events.
    On Thursday night, I went to the Loft Literary Center’s Awesome AWP Party with two writerly friends, Ann Bremer and Kayla Gray, who like me have taken several writing classes at the Loft. We met Peter Mountford there, author of the aforementioned AWP conference article, events curator for the Hugo House writing center (Seattle’s version of the Loft), member of the Seattle Seven writing group which includes Erik Larson (be still, my beating heart), and taker of the photo below.
From left: Kayla Gray, Jessica Ellis Laine, & Ann Bremer
From left: Kayla Gray, Jessica Ellis Laine, & Ann Bremer

Later that evening, Ann and I attended the AWP Dance Party at the Hilton Minneapolis which was hysterical for reasons too numerous to mention here.  Remember that movie White Men Can’t Jump?  Well, they can’t dance, either.

Friday night, Ann and I switched it up and went to Think Piece Publishing’s Pints and Prose event at Kieran’s Irish Pub with fellow mystery writer, Tes Brown, and her husband, Mike.  We heard stories and music by Julie Barton, Andy Steiner, and Honeydogs frontman, Adam Levy.  Janet Burroway (author of Writing Fiction) read from her memoir, Losing Tim which recounts the suicide of her sonI was reduced to tears within seconds.  Tes came to my rescue with a handful of paper napkins.  It was a beautiful and thought-provoking night.

Long story long, crime writers: The AWP conference isn’t geared towards genre writers, but it was fun and I learned a thing or two.  I’d definitely consider attending another one if I could drive (instead of fly) there again.

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