Today was the first day of the 2006 conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP, in a curious editing of an acronym.) It’s being held in Austin, my home town, quite a break for the near-broke writers in this town who couldn’t afford to jet to Vancouver last year. (That would be me, lacking travel funds in 2005.)

This year, the mountain of paper that is part of AWP came to Mohammed, lined up in many tidy rows inside the Austin Convention center. In contrast to the daunting exhibits being assembled next door for the SXSW jamboree, few AWP bookfair spaces stood taller than a simple, six-foot long tabletop. Across the South Expo Hall, stacks of printed literary journals, short-run books and a blizzard of leaflets and flyers lay waiting to be claimed. One thick journal, published once a year, had a hand-lettered sign in front of its stack:

$2. C’mon…

It was a glorious collection of dead trees, ink of many colors, and hope for an audience. Across the hall folks like me prowled, looking for deals and discounts, then hawking our new services. One fellow was running a book review and journal link service. $95 per year for a small press logo on his Web site, plus a review staff to look over the press’s books and review them. “But we don’t do POD (Print on Demand) or self-published books,” he added. “We tried, but most of them were just so bad…” And here he looked at me, to see if the comment applied to what I was proposing.

It was a distinction also drawn by the Author’s Guild, which didn’t want your membership if your book’s publication involved any of your own money, or if your journalism was not distributed from a newsstand. Mind you, the stories of published authors hiring their own publicists are legion in this business, along with tales of books printed rather than published (which would include sales effort and after-marketing.) But to be published, whatever that means, entitles the winners of that lottery some extra regard. There’s always some gatekeeping to be done in the world of writing, it seems. Meanwhile, a self-published book like Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife sells ten times as many copies, self-published, than a gaggle of university press titles or literary journals out on that floor — selling for, c’mon, $2. Or not selling.

The Writer’s Workshop shared a table with the Texas Poetry Journal at the conference, right up near the front of the hall. I gave away flyers, self-published off a color laser copiers just yesterday. I took entries for the first book giveaway, a copy of the seminal Writing Alone and With Others.

I also learned a few things in a handful of sessions. The talks were scheduled nearly back to back, mostly in the Hilton across the street, with no break in the action to give the bookfair exhibitors their shot at attendees. One bit of wisdom:

Showy writing comes from a lack of faith in the story being told. It’s a lack of why in the story, which needs a closer examination of plot, character, theme and motivation.

And to get to better characters? You simply write anything you can think about one in your story. When you return to the character within the story, your work on this background will seep through in dialogue, motivation, even description.

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