AWP, Conventions & Conferences, Education, Novel Writing, Short Story, Writing Programs

AWP 2012 | Now That’s a Novel Idea: Marketability (Gasp!) and Creative Writing Programs (Part 1)

publish #01
publish #01 (Photo credit: mediamolecule)

It’s been more than a week since I attended the 2012 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference and Book Fair in Chicago, IL. So far, I’ve only barely scratched the surface of the convention. Today I’d like to dive into my notes and talk about one session I attended, which was titled, “Now That’s a Novel Idea: Marketability (Gasp!) and Creative Writing Programs.”

This particular session was held in the Continental A ballroom on the lobby level of the Hilton Chicago. Presenters included Jessica Pitchford, Brock Clarke, Leah Stewart, Mark Winegardner, and Susan Finch. The session is described in the AWP program as follows:

In most writing programs, the emphasis is on the art, not the market’s demands. So what happens when students graduate without a publishing contract or literary agent? Best-selling authors team up with emerging writers to discuss a more professionalized approach to creative curriculum. The panelists will discuss the oft-taboo subject of marketability and provide tips for aspiring authors to achieve publishing success.

One portion of the session included a discussion of why undergraduate writing programs should put more effort into pushing students to write a novel if that’s what they seem to be heading toward. So many writing programs focus on the short story simply because that’s the easiest writing form to approach in the space of an academic semester. However, short stories typically are not as lucrative as novels. In fact, short stories tend to appear only in literary journals, which are typically read only by the people who publish in them.

It’s not unusual for students to try to squeeze a novel-length story into a short story. In such cases, it’s up to the instructor to tell the student the story he or she is attempting to tell would likely work better as a novel. But then what happens? If the professor is teaching a short story course, he or she cannot be expected to help the student turn the story into a novel. If the purpose of the course is to teach the student to write a short story, then the teacher can only help that student choose a story that will fit the required structure. So then what does that student do with the novel that is begging to be written?

APW Conference 2012 at the Hilton Chicago
APW Conference 2012 at the Hilton Chicago | Image by Amanda L. Webster (Sorry, my camera is horrible, so I don't have any good pictures to share.)

Is this where the novel writing course comes in? And do undergrad programs typically offer novel writing courses? I really can’t comment on this myself, as I got my undergrad and first master’s degree in business. Personally, I am jealous of my classmates who did their undergrad in English and have such a solid base in the field compared to what I have. I would love to have taken even a simple short story writing course as an undergrad.

The panelists also discussed how writing programs and novel writing courses often fail to spend enough time talking about what publishers, editors, and agents are looking for. They really didn’t get into specifics, but this made me begin to think about what my own writing program could do to help students in this area.

It occurred to me that we students can’t expect our professors to think of everything for us. We can expect them to teach us their individual specialties, but not every professor in any given writing program is a published author. And even if they were, they probably all write in different genres and have had very different experiences with publishers, editors, and agents in their own careers.

Moreover, we can’t expect that what worked for a professor who was first published ten years ago will also work for us today. We can’t expect our professors to spoon-feed us such valuable information in an age where the industry is changing so much with each passing year. The publishing industry probably hasn’t changed this much or this quickly since the invention of the printing press. I would think that it’s probably all the professors can do to keep up with changes for their own publishing purposes, let alone keeping up for us as well.

Since so much of this part of our education must come from our own experiences, I think the best way to deal with this is to create some sort of collaborative learning environment in which all students and faculty in the program may contribute to the publishing education of all. The best way to do this may be through the creation of a wiki in which we may all contribute to lists of publishers, editors, agents, and other information that we are finding useful so that other students may have the benefit of this information as well.

We seem to all be out here on our own, struggling to figure out where to submit our work, with little to no direction. I would be willing to bet that there are many cases in which the student’s individual experiences are more up-to-date than those of a professor who is an established writer simply because the way we gain entrance to publication today will be so very different from how those established authors first broke through with their own novels.

Anyway, my point is that if we are serious about our craft and are serious about getting published, sometimes we have to do the work ourselves rather than sitting around waiting for someone to tell us what we should do next. But if we work together and compare notes, so to speak, we may each have a better chance of breaking through than we might have on our own. I think the market is big enough for all of us. So why be so territorial with our information?

What do you think? Please comment below.

~Mandy Webster

5 thoughts on “AWP 2012 | Now That’s a Novel Idea: Marketability (Gasp!) and Creative Writing Programs (Part 1)”

  1. I love this post! Your information and positivity are what makes this such a fabulous place to be as a writer. We are all in this together and there IS enough for us all, so absolutely let’s share what we know. In the end, it will only make us all better, stronger writers. Thanks so much for the shout out. I’ll be back for more of your wit and wisdom.

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