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Stoker Con 2017

You might think that a four-day Horror Writers Association  Convention (AKA StokerCon 2017), especially aboard the legendary Queen Mary (long-said to be haunted) would be a weekend of spooky stares, chilly gazes, and furtive glances. After all, among us were writers who thrill their fans with slashers, werewolves, vampires, various other monsters (some human, some not so much), and some demons that only exist in the mind in their stories, novels, and films.

As a first-time attendee at StokerCon (albeit as a nominee for my first novel, The Apothecary’s Curse), I did not quite know what to expect when I boarded the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California last Wednesday. As a new member of the HWA, I didn’t know a soul, and envisioned myself, anxiety ratcheting moment by moment, sitting alone and brooding in a corner while everyone gave me strange stares, since what I write is more dark fantasy, and not (insert air quotes) “horror.” Or so I thought.

I could not have been more wrong. The genre is defined by a very wide spectrum of works and styles: fantasy to sci-fi to murderous monsters and grey aliens; literary classics to avant garde surrealism, pulp to the most elegant of crafted fiction. One thing we all have in common as horror writers: our stories are creepy, scary, intense and often strange. They come from the deepest regions of our imaginations, worked out on the page (or on film) to send a chill down the spine.

As a writer, the Stoker weekend proved to me the immense value of attending major writers conferences. I learned a lot about what I write and found kindred spirits everywhere. I sat on panels to share my knowledge and experience, discussing the “folk horror” sub-genre, and the relative merits of using beat sheets and outlines (or a combination thereof) to structure a novel and get it to the “finish line.” I attended panels that added to my knowledge as an author: dialogue, emotional beats, sense (and sensibilities), even (or perhaps especially) performing my work.

I sat at coffee with novelists looking to sell their first work or find an agent, sharing my experiences and war stories and commiserating with theirs; I bonded over drinks with multi-award winning writers who have mind-boggling oeuvres of wonderful works, and were generous in sharing their tips and their own stories from the field. There was no discernible pecking order. I know it was there, but not in an exclusionary, clique-y way as I’ve experienced from time to time at writers conferences. The entire time proved to be validation of my own work, an affirmation that I am on the “write” path and hanging with the right people.

A few personal highlights of the weekend, and then a few tips for writers for those of you thinking of attending a conference like this for the first time.

Panels:

The panels at StokerCon were intended for active, professional writers to help hone their craft, or perhaps find a new voice or landscape to mine. I participated in a few, both as a panelist and an attendee. I was a part of a great panel on a sub-genre called folk horror, with the most excellent Frazer Lee and Denise Dumars. I never knew I wrote in that genre, but what do you know? I discovered that indeed I do.

The vast canvas of folk legends, mythologies, the fairy tales and ballads with their dark, forbidding forests provides as beautiful, rich, textured landscape to tell a cautionary tale, or simply set a scary story. For example, my novel uses the medieval British ballads of “Thomas the Rhymer” and “The Unquiet Grave,” along with the Celtic mythology surrounding the Tuatha de Dannan as the backdrop to the cautionary tale at the novel’s heart. Especially in this age of climate-change fear, with Mother Earth poised to get us back for our wanton destruction, we can reach back into the naturalistic folk legends to set a chilling, plausible stage for painting foreboding tales of our own future.

My second writing panel tackled the novelists’ ongoing debate: to outline or write by the seat of the pants. Or use the screenwriter’s technique of “Beat Sheets.” It was great fun debating the topic with Lois Gresh, Johnny Worthen, Tori Eldridge, and Karen Bovenmeyer. By the end, the only consensus was that novelists should do whatever structuring will get them to the finish line. I think we all agreed that some degree of structuring was helpful in getting past that muddled middle of the novel.

But are “beats” emotional anchors to the story, set at specific points? Or are they moments to be planned out each chapter, giving scenes the power of a beginning, middle and end–an arc? It was a great discussion, and despite the lack of resolution, I believe attendees came away with the idea that planning and structuring does not inhibit the creative process, but (hopefully) frees it.

I also attended panels, and at StokerCon, there were far too many to take in in just four days! My favorite (and most immediately useful) panel was a session on giving public readings–whether they’re short stories or novel excerpts. For me, the timing was fortuitous. I was slated to read an excerpt of my novel at Shades and Shadows, a wonderful project of the Pasadena Arts Council. I had been unbelievably fortunate to have been chosen among the debut novel nominees to read from The Apothecary’s Curse before a large audience, and among such luminaries as Elizabeth Hand, Chuck Wendig, Tananarive Due, and Stephen Graham Jones.

But–how to choose a the right selection? And how to slam it into seven minutes?

Select action (dialogue is great, but I didn’t follow that rule) rather than exposition. Perform it! Give it energy and drama! But also edit the work (yes, even if it’s from a published novel!) For me, that was the  best advice, and follow it, I did. I ended up excising several paragraphs of unnecessary detail not relevant to the small slice of novel I read. Then I tweaked a word here and there to make it more powerful on the tongue… Stuff like that. The reading (in front of peers, colleagues and lots of very established voices in the genre) went exceptionally well!

Another fantastic session I attended presented an overview of rights and other legal issues in publishing these days. Do you need a lawyer if you have an agent? Do you need an agent or a lawyer at all? (Yes!) How does it work and how much does it cost? Not as complicated as one might think–and not as costly (as in it won’t cost your entire advance usually–a percentage, just like your agent, most likely!) Again, great advice for working (and even aspiring) authors.

One very big highlight was attending an interview with George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones), who talked at length about his career. I really related to his disdain at learning to read with “Dick and Jane,” eschewing those classic “readers” in favor of Batman and The X-Men! It was a real pleasure to hear from a person at the very pinnacle of his success speak of the very things that confront every reader. His insistence on scientific authenticity in his writing no matter how fantastical the subject really resonated with me, and reminded me of my personal philosophy as a genre writer: magic is simply science we don’t yet understand.

There were also pitch clinics, pitch sessions, and plenty of opportunity for aspiring authors to meet up close and personal with people who could be great advocates for your work and offer their help–colleague to colleague. To me, that is the mark of a great conference. I made many new friends: NYT bestselling authors and those aspiring to their first sale, professionals all!

The Bram Stoker Awards

I would be remiss if I did not mention the Bram Stoker Awards–in a very specific context. I was thrilled, shocked and amazed that The Apothecary’s Curse made the final ballot at all, and attending as a nominee was a thrill impossible to put into words. I did not expect to win, which I did not. However, it was clear that The Apothecary’s Curse had been extremely well received by my peers, and I cannot count the number of nice things people had to say about it. A lot of people were pulling for it, but Tom Deady’s excellent novel Haven won, and I congratulate him.

In the end, it really did not matter (so much) that I didn’t win the trophy. (Although, I have to say that it’s a pretty awesome haunted house statuette, and would look quite nice on the mantelpiece, so perhaps next time!) Being a “Bram Stoker Award nominee” will be (and already has been) a huge calling card when meeting people, talking about potential collaborations and future projects!

So– a few bits of advice for newbie writing conference attendees:

  1. Go. Just go. Bite the financial bullet (hey, it’s tax deductible) and go. Stay at the hotel (even if it’s in your hometown). I commuted to another big conference, and it wasn’t the same, by a long stretch. Early morning coffees, late night drinks and parties–or just hanging out after the night’s festivities have ended are some of the best (and very low-key) ways of meeting people.
  2. Start a conversation with someone you don’t know. Could be someone famous or someone unknown. Doesn’t matter. You could find a friend, someone would could help your career, a future collaborator, or just someone to hang out with. We writers are a shy bunch when left to our own devices. So this is really important–do not be a wallflower.
  3. Figure out which panels might be most beneficial. Where are you in career? What do you want to get out of the programming? Then go to the panels, record them (or take great notes), take names and ask questions (but don’t dominate the discussion). If you’re an experienced pro (or a not-so-experienced pro, like me), offer to serve on a panel that addresses something about which you’re knowledgable.
  4. Do not be afraid to talk about your project. You never know when you might be talking to someone who knows someone who knows someone who’s looking for what you’ve got to sell (or promote). But don’t come on too strong. (Leave that to your agent and publicist ? )
  5. Friend everyone you’ve connected with on Facebook or Twitter and stay in touch. It’s all about contacts! contacts! contacts!

Barbara Barnett

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