For the past three years, I’ve attended the HWA’s annual horror convention in the United States: in Las Vegas, in Long Beach, California, and more recently, at Lovecraft’s Providence, Rhode Island. A meeting place for all manner of horror creatives, from writers, artists, filmmakers, gamers, and podcasters, the StokerCon convention is also home to the prestigious Bram Stoker Awards™ for achievement in horror. But it isn’t cheap to attend, several thousand dollars for a trip stateside, for a long weekend conference which passes in the blink of an eye. So, why would you even bother? What could induce a newbie or mid-lister to take the plunge? I’ve put together a little list…
First off, the programming is simply mind-blowing. At a convention like StokerCon, all your annual professional development can be achieved in a one-stop action-packed weekend. At this year’s StokerCon there were four attendance streams: Librarians’ Day, Horror University, the Ann Radcliff academic conference, as well as the general stream of panel sessions and speakers.
- The Librarians’ Day is exactly as it sounds, offering a day of sessions for teachers and librarians about the value of horror, new voices to tempt library readerships, and how to include authors in library programming.
- The Horror University is a series of paid masterclasses by acknowledged experts in the field. This year classes included a mixture of industry and craft sessions including topics like Unleashing Your Female Characters’ Dark Sides, Goal setting for Your Writing Career, and Making the Reader Squirm. There was even a daily walking historical tour of Lovecraft’s Providence on offer. This year I attended a master class on How to Write Killer Poetry by Bram Stoker Award winner, Stephanie Wytovich, which was less scary than the title sounds. And because the class sizes are small, the instructor can cover a lot of material, allowing time for personal writing as well as an opportunity to ask more specific questions.
- The Ann Radcliff academic conference is a newer development. Run by the tireless Michele Brittany and Nicholas Diak, it comprises thirty-two fifteen-minute academic presentations on topics such as Myths and Monsters, Gothic Folklore, and 20th Century Horror Literature among others. Attendance is free to members of the convention.
- Panel programming. The Rhode Island convention offered over eighty hours of panel sessions on every subject imaginable from crowdfunding, legal issues, social media, book design, fight scenes, representation and diversity, the importance of setting, old time radio, horror films of the 70s and 80s, crossing genres, poetry, voice, tense, and narration, writing for the stage, new generation vampires, and ‘pantsing’ versus plotting. There were sessions focussing on the works of Shirley Jackson, Jack Ketchum, HP Lovecraft, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and Ray Bradbury. The problem was not finding a panel of interest to attend, it’s reconciling the fact that you can’t attend them all. And as a special bonus on Friday evening there was the Final Frame Film Competition, essentially a short horror film festival held within the framework of the convention.
By the end of the weekend, my brain was chock-a-block with inspiration, industry trends, and writing techniques. It’s not humanly possible to come away from the convention without renewed enthusiasm.
Conferences like these typically offer opportunities to pitch your projects to publishers, editors, and producers all with a keen interest in your weird, dark fiction project. Yes, that’s right, you can speak to a real human about your baby. At the 2016 event, I pitched a collaborative project, a supernatural crime-noir title called Hounds of the Underworld to Jennifer Barnes of Raw Dog Screaming Press. And she said yes! Released in 2017, the work appeared 2018 Bram Stoker Award longlist. This year, I sat on the other side of the pitching table, hearing pitches for six excellent manuscripts as an acquiring editor for Omnium Gatherum.
There is always a dealers’ room at StokerCon, or, when the convention was held on the Queen Mary, an entire promenade deck which means it’s possible to pick up books written and signed by your favourite authors, maybe even get them signed. Classic titles or new voices: it’s a bibliophile’s nirvana and dangerously seductive. I recommend assigning a strict book budget before leaving home. And even better, there is an entire reading stream, where at any hour of the day you can stop by and hear authors performing their work. That’s 24 hours of readings and nothing to stop you sitting there all weekend. It’s a fantastic opportunity to discover a new writer, or to hear one of your heroes read in person.
Mostly, attending a conference is about the people. As my New Zealand colleague, Jan Goldie once said of convention goers at our own national conference, “Who are these people?” At StokerCon, everyone there is our people. Our tribe. Over the past three years, I’ve been able to meet some literary heroes: people like William F Nolan, Nancy Holder, Jonathan Maberry, RL Stine, and the late Jack Ketchum. Last year’s guest of honour, was a fellow named George RR Martin, who commanded a signing queue which extended the length of the Queen Mary’s promenade deck and out onto the gangplank. At a small writers’ conference, you might even get to have breakfast with someone whose writing you’ve admired for years. Turns out, these giants of the industry are some of the nicest people on the planet. They haven’t forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner still crawling out of the primordial soup. Some of them might even extend a hand and help you up. Of course, even if you never meet anyone who’s graced a bestseller list, networking with other emerging writers who are struggling to make a dent in the industry is just as valuable, because these are folk who get us. They’re the people who understand our self-doubt and disillusionment, who know about poor sales and one-star reviews. They’re the people who applaud even the smallest achievements and encourage us to keep going.
The 2019 StokerCon event, chaired by my colleague Brian Matthews, will be held in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“Okay, okay,” I hear you say, “but that StokerCon thing is an ocean away. There’s no way I can afford that.” You might! Several funding opportunities exist for Horror Writer Association members (and there are several levels of membership, some of which do not require an extensive professional sales record). The HWA horror scholarships offer funds for professional development (including the cost of one convention) and there are awards which cater specifically to poets, non-fiction writers, and women, including one granted solely for attending StokerCon and the Horror University master classes. Definitely worth investigating. New Zealand writers should consider the Creative NZ/PANZ publishing grants. In 2017, New Zealander Dan Rabarts won a grant to attend the Rhode Island StokerCon event, so the funding body is already aware of the calibre of the convention and the industry opportunities it opens. Fan funds are also worth considering. Information about some of these funds can be found here.
I see you shaking your head. Even if you had the funds, attending a convention in the United States will suck up too much [holiday, work, travel] time. Surely, there’s something closer to home? Something I can attend over a weekend? Yes, there are plenty of local options providing all or some of the opportunities listed above. While few down under conventions are wholly focussed on horror fiction, there are numerous science fiction and fantasy conventions where like-minded dark souls hover in the fringes ‒ although if you are looking simply to improve your writing, then any literary festival can provide you with good writing and publishing content. For a comprehensive up-to-date list of Australian literary festivals and conventions take a look at the calendar on Jason Nahrung’s personal website. For New Zealand conventions, there is typically only one, announced two years in advance at the close of the current convention. The 40th national science fiction and fantasy convention, GeyserCon, will be held on from 1-4 June, 2019, at the Holiday Inn in Rotorua. In 2020, the New Zealand national convention will be held in conjunction with the 78th WorldCon, which looks set to be held in Wellington from 12-16 August, 2020.
So, why not make a plan to attend a convention? Make yourself known to the organising committee, propose a panel idea, get yourself on a reading slot, and spend some time getting to know your tribe.
Lee Murray is a nine-time winner of New Zealand’s prestigious Sir Julius Vogel Award for science fiction, fantasy and horror. Her titles include the bestselling military thriller Into the Mist and supernatural crime-noir Hounds of the Underworld (co-authored with Dan Rabarts). She is proud to have co-edited eight anthologies, one of which, Baby Teeth, won her an Australasian Shadows Award in 2014. She lives with her family in the Land of the Long White Cloud. Read more at leemurray.info
Lee’s Providence StokerCon report is available here.