AWP is a wonderful time! Everyone you know is going! And you might see your favorite writers! It's great! This is what you might think, and some of this is absolutely true, but if you are going to AWP, I wanted to give you a few things to expect and tips on how I make the conference meaningful.
Size: Writers, by nature, tend to enjoy seclusion. We write alone, often; we read alone, often. AWP is huge. I cannot overstate the ginormity, a word that needs to be added to the dictionary above the description: writers moving in an AWP convention space. Expect big crowds and loud noises, and expect packed reading rooms and tight after-conference special events at bars and restaurants. If you need a break from the crowd, take it. But also challenge yourself to attend at least one off-site reading. They can be a lot of fun.
Opportunities to learn: My main hope at AWP is to learn something new. Seek the panels and discussions that appeal to your interest and arrive early with a pen and paper. While readings are nice, they often lack the teaching moments I'm hoping to find at a panel. I seek out one or two readings while packing my schedule with panels. And bring snacks! You will get cranky. Eat a banana between panels and watch your world change.
Network without feeling gross: I hate networking, just like you and everyone else. Do not worry about meeting X number of people a day. Instead, allow mutual interests to lead to natural conversation. Don't force a hello, and don't blather on about your credentials. Be a good human first and connect with someone person to person. This is how real relationships are built. You might only meet one new person; you might meet none. To me, this is far preferable than printing 100 business cards and just slinging them to anyone who passes near the bathroom.
Reconnect with old friends: My favorite thing about AWP is catching up with an old friend for a few days. Splitting the cost of a hotel room and grabbing a few meals and drinks with someone you haven't seen in months or years is beautiful.
Buy books: The book fair is awesome. Block out two hours one day and make your rounds. Let the journals you read know you read them, and let the presses you admire know you admire them by buying their books. Learn about contests, submission windows, and grab some swag along the way. Avoid overly long stays at booths, too. These people are happy to speak to you, to a point. The worst thing you can do is overstay your welcome. Say hello, offer appreciation, and say goodbye.