Thursday, February 15, 2018

Survival Tips for #AWP18!

Again? Already? Wasn’t it just a year ago I was trying to persuade everyone that despite recent developments, Washington, DC, was NOT a pure and total den of evil and that everyone should have fun in our city. Not so sure now that I was right about (or ever totally believed) that highly optimistic view of such developments…but, anyway, the democracy is still surviving(ish), and now it’s time to pack up our black clothing and head to Tampa for #AWP18! (I’m sure that black clothing will fit right into Florida, and damn it, I don’t care what the temperature is, I’m bringing my boots.)

I’m feeling that this crowd may be a bit smaller than the most recent AWPs, but we’re still talking 10,000 writers, at least. 12,000? When will we crash the ceiling to 20,000 (#AWP19 in Portland, I’m guessing)? However many, A LOT by any standards, but especially by introvert standards: How can you survive the madness that ensues when thousands of anxious, needy, glorious writers all pack into one place for 4 days?

Here are my tried & true & freshly updated tips for success, based on my experience at past conferences (I’ve been a regular since New Orleans!):

Wear comfortable shoes, at least most of the day. There’s lots of traipsing around long hallways and the long (sometimes uncarpeted) aisles of the book fair. It’s also inevitable that the one panel you really, really, really want to see will be in a teeny-tiny room and you’ll have to stand in the back…or sit on the floor; see the following tip:

Wear comfortable clothes, preferably taking a layer approach. Wherever you go, you will end up either in A) an incredibly stuffy room that will make you melt, or B) a room with an arctic blast directed at you. Bulk up and strip down as needed. Also, as noted above, despite their best efforts, the AWP conference staff has a knack for consistently misjudging the size of room required for a subject matter/speakers (i.e. Famous Writer in room with 30 chairs; grad student panel on Use of Dashes in Obscure Ancient Greek Poet in room with 300 chairs), so you may find yourself scrunched into a 2’x2’ square on the carpet; see the following tip:

To avoid being stuck sitting on the floor, arrive early to panels you really, really want to attend. If you are stuck on the floor, hold your ground with a big bag and/or coat. Whatever you do, do not be nice and squeeze over…those panels can seem VERY LONG when someone’s knee is wedged in your ribs. (I know this sounds mean, but I did call these “survival” tips, not “how to win friends” tips.) UPDATE FROM OFFICIAL AWP: Actually, don't sit on the floor. It creates a fire hazard and a barrier to those who have accessibility needs. [I will see if people discontinue sitting on the floor--I'm guessing unlikely!--and report back on my findings next year.]

If a panel is bad, ditch it. Yes, it’s rude. Yes, everyone does it. (Be better than the rest by at least waiting for an appropriate break, but if you must go mid-word, GO.) I can’t tell you the high caliber of presenters that I have walked out on, but think Very High. Remember that there are a thousand other options, and you have choices. The only time you have to stick it out is if A) the dull panel participant is your personal friend or B) the dull panel participant is/was your teacher or C) the dull panel participant is your editor/publisher. Those people will notice (and remember) that you abandoned them mid-drone and punish you accordingly (i.e. your glowing letters of rec will flicker and fade). Undoubtedly this is why I have never been published in Unnamed Very High Caliber Magazine, having walked out on the editor’s panel.

There are zillions of panels: When you pick up your registration badge, you’ll get a massive tome with information about all of them, and also a shorter schedule that’s easy to carry around. Be dutiful and glance through the ads in the tome since these are the funders who subsidize our conference. Then ditch the tome and carry around the smaller master schedule….unless you are an app person (I’m not). Either way, do take time NOW to go to AWP’s website and scroll through the schedule and select EVERY panel that sounds even moderately interesting, and load those into the “my schedule” feature. Keep that stored on your favorite technology (mine is a sheaf of printed paper…which may be smart since I often forget how/where to re-access “my schedule,” which requires logging in and somehow finding “my account”; I assume app people are more adept than I am).  Anyway…no point waking up early on Friday if there’s nothing you want to attend. I checkmark panels I might go to if nothing better is going on and star those that I will make a supreme effort to attend. Give yourself a couple of options at each time slot so that if a room is too crowded, you have an interesting alternative.

I like to choose a variety of panels: people I know, people I’ve heard of, genres I don’t write but am curious about, topics I want to educate myself on. Stretch yourself. I also like to go to a reading in which I don’t know any of the readers, just to have a lovely sense of discovery! And don’t forget the ninety-trillion off-site events!

Someone will always ask a 20-minute question that is not so much a question but a way of showing off their own (imagined) immense knowledge of the subject and an attempt to erase the (endlessly lingering) sting of bitterness about having their panel on the same topic rejected. Don’t be that person. Keep your question succinct and relevant. If you don’t, I promise that everyone will mimic your annoying question to their friends in the bookfair aisle.

Don’t say anything gossipy on the elevator, unless you want the whole (literary) world to know it. Do listen up to the conversations of others on the elevator, and tell your friends what you’ve overheard over your offsite dinner, embellishing as necessary.

Same advice above exactly applies to the overpriced hotel bar.  Also, if you happen to get a chair at the bar, or, goodness, EVEN A REAL LIVE TABLE, hang on to it!!  People will join you if they see you’ve got a spot!  Famous people!  I mean it: the only reason to ever give up a table in the hotel bar is because the bar has shut down, you’ve consumed every bit of liquid in the clutter of glasses, and a beefy bouncer is headed your way. (Also, here’s a fun fact: AWP alcohol consumption often breaks sales records at hotels.)

Speaking of famous people or former teachers or friends…do not say something like this in one long breathless opening sentence right after hugging hello: “Great-to-see-you-can-you-write-a-blurb-letter-of-rec-piece-for-my-anthology?” Ask for favors AFTER the conference! I mean, unless you enjoy that uncomfortable moment and awkward triumph of trapping someone into saying yes.

Support the publications at the bookfair. Set a budget for yourself in advance, and spend some money on literary journals and books and subscriptions, being sure to break your budget. Do this, and then you won’t feel bad picking up the stuff that’s been heavily discounted or being given away free on the last day of the conference. But, please, definitely do spend some money! These journals and presses rely on OUR support.

Just because something is free, you don’t have to take it. Unless you drove, you’ll have to find a way to bring home all those heavy books/journals on an airplane. Or you’ll have to wait in line at the hotel’s business center or the UPS store at the convention center to ship them home. So, be as discerning as you can when you see that magic markered “free” sign on top of a pile of sad-looking journals, abandoned by the grad students with hangovers who didn’t feel like dealing with their university's bookfair table.

Try not to approach the table of each journal at the bookfair with this question:  “How can I get published in your journal?” Also, I recommend avoiding this one: “How come you didn’t publish my poem/story/essay/screed?”  Try instead: “What a beautiful journal. Please tell me more about it.” Even better: “I’m thinking about subscribing.”

It may be too late for some of you, but it’s inevitable that you will see every writer you’ve ever met in the aisle of the bookfair at one AWP or another…so I hope you were nice to all of them and never screwed anyone over. Because, yes, they will remember, and it’s not fun reliving all that drama as the editors of The Georgia Review gaze on.

Pre-arrange some get-togethers with friends/teachers/grad student buddies, but don’t over-schedule. You’ll run into people, or meet people, or be invited to a party, or find an amazing off-the-beaten-track bar.  Save some time for spontaneity! (Yes, I realize that I’m saying “plan” for spontaneity.)

Don’t laugh at this, but bring along Purell and USE IT often.  For weeks after, post-AWP Facebook status updates are filled with writers bemoaning the deathly cold/sore throat/lingering and mysterious illness they picked up at AWP.  We’re a sniffly, sneezy, wheezy, germy bunch, and the thought of 12,000 of us packed together breathing on each other, shaking hands, and giving fake hugs of glee gives what’s left of the CDC nightmares.

Along the lines of healthcare, don’t forget to drink a lot of water and pop an Advil before going to sleep if (haha…if!) you’ve been drinking a little more than usual. OR: come find me! I will be handing out small packs of Tylenol to celebrate the recent publication of my new novel SILVER GIRL, set in Chicago during the time of Tylenol murders! (Also note that AWP offers a daily 12-step meeting open to all in recovery. Please take care of yourself.)

Escape! Whether it’s offsite dinners/drinks/museums/walks through park/mindless shopping or whatever, do leave at some point. You will implode if you don’t. Also, the food on the convention floor is consistently overpriced and icky…you will starve if this is your entire diet.

Bring your cellphone charger and maybe even a portable charger. Or maybe you like huddling around electrical outlets?

I can’t believe I’m writing this: the Dance Party is FUN! I mean it! You don’t even have to go with anyone or be a great dancer (call me Exhibit A). It’s how to work off stress and reenergize after a long, sometimes daunting day after too many snubs, imagined and real. I mean, I’m sure there are all kinds of interesting undercurrents and nuances out there in the depths of that packed dance floor…but also, on the surface, it can just be FUN.

This is a super-secret tip that I never share, but I’ll share it as a reward for those who have read this far:  there will be a bathroom that’s off the beaten track and therefore is never crowded. Scope out this bathroom early on. Don’t tell anyone except your closest friends the location of this bathroom.

Finally, take a deep breath.  You’re just as much of a writer as the other 11,999 people around you.  Don’t let them get to you.


If you're interested, I will be signing SILVER GIRL at two different times. Come say hi!

Thursday, March 8, 11:30 am-12:00 pm

Friday, March 9, 11:00 am-12:00 pm


Friday, February 9, 2018

How to Get SILVER GIRL Right NOW! (well, almost)

The Chicago Review of Books has named SILVER GIRL one of the best books of February: 

If you order directly from Unnamed Press, you won’t have to wait until February 27 to get your copy! They will send it out to you right away. Just a thought…. 

Here’s the link to order:

Monday, January 29, 2018

Why Do I Need an MFA? THIS....exactly this

With permission, I’m posting the pre-reading remarks offered by Katie Sherman, who graduated in January 2018. from the Converse low-res MFA program with a degree in fiction writing  (Disclosure: I was her very, very proud thesis advisor, all teary in the audience!)

I thought Katie’s sentiments go a long way to answer that age-old question, “Do I need an MFA?” The answer is embedded here: only if you want to find a community like this, only if you’re open to a life-shaping experience like this, only if you long to find that place where your writing self is both revered and challenged, every single day of the program.

And, to be more specific, I suppose that if what you truly want is THIS sort of experience, please join our program. Our application deadline is February 15, so there’s still time…and if you sent in “all” your apps for December deadlines, well, we welcome hearing from you now. Maybe you’re rethinking your strategy? Maybe you might want to be part of our rigorous but nurturing community? Maybe, just maybe, what you need is exactly five semesters of this:

Remarks Prior to Graduation Reading
By Katie Sherman

There are a great many people I need to thank for their help in completing this program. Let me begin with my mentors — Bob, Cary, Bart, and Leslie. You have become the voices in my head asking for “more agency”, “more rising conflict”, for “fewer clich├ęs”, “longer sentences”, “more showing — less telling.” Thank you for helping me become better. Thank you for your patience and your honesty. The students in this room are your legacy, alongside the work you create of course. We carry your words, you can’t be silenced, despite our best efforts. Thank you for the time and care and the extraordinary thoughtfulness you placed in our stories.

I want to thank MFA Director Rick Mulkey: Thank you for seeing something in my work, for accepting me into this group. The people in this program, even those not in my genre, have become my community, and you were the gatekeeper to them.

To the students who came before me, particularly Kay and Angela; I thank you for opening your arms and accepting me at my best and my worst. To those who came after me, I hope I was able to show you one ounce of their generosity of spirit. And, to three special people — those who traveled through this program with me in my genre— I want to extend individual love, attention, and thanks.

Mackinley was the first person I met in the program. He is shy, witty, and brilliant. All of these qualities were imminently apparent. Thank you for bringing your insightful wisdom to each workshop. Linda has taught me grace under pressure. She displays graciousness, creativity, and a willingness to bear her soul that is always inspiring. And, last but certainly not least, Gwen. Thank you for talking me through so many works in progress, for loving elephants, for having eye rolls and sage wisdom and kind words to share.

To my mom and dad —Even when you didn’t understand the program, you listened to my complaints and my successes. Thank you for loving me enough to believe my dreams of publishing aren’t foolish and for teaching me anything is possible. Without the foundation you built, I couldn’t possible stand here.

To my sister, Angela. Thank you for babysitting. For loving my girls like you love your own children. Some people are lucky in life. They are born with someone who knows their entire story, who cheers from the sidelines, who takes care of them and protects them from … everything and everyone. Some people have a built-in soul mate. I’m one such person. Angela, thank you for being my best friend.

To my girls, Ella and Addie, thank you for being good nappers and for inspiring me daily. I write about you, because of you, and for you.

Lastly, to my husband, Ben. You deserve the biggest thanks of all. You helped with the girls, listened to every story, provided comfort when I needed it and encouragement when I longed for it. Every writer needs a good critique group. I get that from the people in this program. But, we also need someone who loves what we write. You always love my work. And, for the time you have given me to write, I am forever indebted to you.

More information about the Converse low-res MFA program:


Katie Sherman is a freelance journalist who covers fine food and parenting—two things rarely related—in Charlotte, NC. As an undergraduate studying news editorial journalism, she was mentored by Pulitzer Prize nominee George Esper at WVU. She recently received her MFA degree in Fiction from Converse College.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

How to Help Your Writer Friend

Let’s say you have a friend who is a Famous Writer or a Published Writer or a Writer. (If she calls herself a Writer, you should too; don’t think a Writer has to have published a book. Also, if she is writing and taking writing classes, start calling her a Writer even if she doesn’t refer to herself in this way.) And let’s say you want to be a good friend to her, the kind of friend that—maybe! Let’s just say!—might see her name in the Acknowledgments page of a book, or even—oh, wow! –the Dedication Page. Or, we could just say that you want to support her work and be a good friend. What are some of the things you could do?

1.     BUY her newly published book. Don’t worry so much about the “right” way to buy her book, unless she’s a Writer who rails against giant corporate behemoths (you know who I’m talking about). Just BUY her book somewhere, off some shelf or some site. DON’T expect her to give you a free copy. DON’T borrow a copy from your book club friend. DON’T check it out of the library. True angels will pre-order it from the giant corporate behemoth so the publisher will feel impressed by sales OR will buy one (or more) copies at the bookstore hosting her reading. You’re thinking that all this feels obvious, but there’s a reason it’s number one. The rest are in random order. Oh, and if there are financial concerns, OF COURSE it’s okay to check out your friend’s book from the library because number 2 is….

2.     READ her book or work. Buying a book is good, but giving a book your time and attention is the truest compliment. Maybe your friend doesn’t have a book yet, but she posted a link on Facebook to an essay she wrote. Yes, it’s easiest to click “LIKE” (which you will do, of course) but also, click on the link and read what she wrote. Maybe you don’t have to do this every time if she’s posting a lot of links or if you are the kind of person who is so important and so busy with your own highly important life…but read her work from time to time.

3.     COMPLIMENT her work after you read it. You know how you never tell someone they look fat in that dress they’re already wearing at the cocktail party? Never tell your Writer friend that her prose is a little “flaccid” or that her characters are “meh.” Try this instead: “I loved reading your story/poem/essay/book.” If you can, find something specific you liked—or throw out some of this phrasing: “it was powerful when….” or “it was masterful how you….” or just the words “powerful” or “masterful.” Or, return to “I loved reading your story/poem/essay/book.” She’s not going to quiz you!

4.     SHARE her with the world. Give her work five stars on Goodreads and Amazon. Write a review that doesn’t give away the ending. Or simply click on 5 stars…no one’s going to quiz you! Invite her to your book club, if your book club is friendly and not the kind of club that “hates everything,” and thank her with a gift card to somewhere good for giving up an evening writing to spend with your book club. Ask your library to buy her book. Repost/retweet her writing news that you see on Facebook/Twitter/etc. Read her book, cover held high, when you ride an airplane or take public transportation. Tell your other friends about your Writer friend and her great book/great book-in-progress. Buy your friend’s book to give as a gift; don’t lend your copy. Offer to host a book party when her book comes out.

5.     ASK questions if you don’t understand her writing. Don’t be afraid of her poetry if you think you’re not a “poetry person.” Say something like, “What a beautiful image.” Or say something like, “I want to understand your poetry better, but I’m not a ‘poetry person.’ What a beautiful image in the second stanza. Can you tell me a little bit more about how it works in the poem?” (Note: I’m not a poet. Maybe this is an incredibly offensive statement. But she is your friend, and I bet she’s doing something brilliant with that image in the second stanza.)

6.     SHOW UP to her readings and book parties if this is not a physical hardship (you only have to attend one event per book!). Raise your hand and ask a question at her reading if no one else does. If she doesn’t have a book (and even if she does), and she’s reading at an event, maybe bring a friend or relative to build the audience. (Don’t skip out right after your friend reads.) If the event has been organized by a literary journal, buy a copy of the journal and ask her to sign the page where her story/poem/essay appears. Save this journal in a special place on your bookshelf. Tell her she looked fabulous! Tell her she did a great job! And if you are this kind of friend, later, much later, tell her that she read too fast and that you know the audience would love if next time she could read a little slower.

7.     STEAL her children if you are this kind of friend. Not forever, but for an hour or an afternoon or a weekend. Give her some time to write. (I’m using “her” in a general sense, but it seems that right now, for whatever cultural reason, I do have to add that “her” also means “his.” Just take those kids somewhere fun and let the Writer parent get some work done.)

8.     LEND your lovely beach house/mountain cabin/city pied a terre to your Writer friend so she can finish her novel/collection.

9.      SHARE all your best stories from childhood and young adulthood and adulthood. Understand if she writes about these things in her fiction. Understand if she doesn’t.

10.  TELL your Writer that writing is important, that writing matters, that she shouldn’t give up now, that one day will come the “yes” she’s waiting for. Tell her that you are proud to “know her when,” that the world needs her unique vision, that she is an artist. These are not lies, by the way. Tell her this over and over, if she is a Writer, a Published Writer, or a Famous Writer. Tell her right now.

Note: I fear this might feel written in self-interest since I have a book coming out! But, really, I wrote it because this morning I woke up thinking about the many, many friends this Writer has had along the way who have helped support the work in a multitude of ways. THANK YOU, everyone!

Monday, January 22, 2018

Tumblr! seems I now have a Tumblr. Look me up if you're a Tumblr-er!

(goodness, I don't even know if this is the right way to pass on my details!)

I think it's going to be pretty me-me-me book-intensive, so consider yourself warned. Maybe find someone with cute cat pictures instead....

Friday, January 19, 2018

Upcoming Classes with Moi!

Two upcoming classes…maybe your resolution for 2018 was to reach more deeply into your creative self? HERE YOU GO!  

Wednesday, January 31
6:30 to 9 p.m.
Politics & Prose Bookstore
Washington, DC
Class: Right Brain Writing: Relationships
Explore your creative side in this session, one of a series of stand-alone classes with prompts designed to get your subconscious flowing. Through guided exercises, we’ll focus on writing about the variety of relationships we have in our lives, significant people, people who are still with us, people who are lost, even relationships with people we don’t know. No writing experience necessary! This is a great class for beginners and also for those fiction writers and/or memoirists with more experience who might be stuck in their current projects and are looking for a jolt of inspiration. Our goal is to have fun in a supportive, nurturing environment and to go home with several promising pieces to work on further. Please bring lots of paper and pen/pencil or a fully charged computer. Note: new exercises!


Thursday, February 1
1 to 4 p.m.
Politics & Prose Bookstore
Washington, DC
Class: Elements of Writing: Mastering Effective Dialogue
Dialogue is tricky. It’s not simply recorded speech; conversation must sound natural—while also creating a sense of a character and advancing the action. How does the writer learn that balance, knowing when characters should talk and when maybe they should keep quiet? How can your conversations build layers of meaning? This hands-on, interactive class will focus on helping you learn the tricks needed to get your characters to talk the talk! This class is appropriate for fiction writers, memoirists and anyone looking to sharpen their dialogue skills. All levels of experience are welcome. Please bring a notebook/pen or charged computer for writing exercises.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.