Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Gateway Con 2017, or, Why Should One Attend a Writers Conference

I love conferences. My mom used to bring me to schooling and curriculum conferences when I was a kid. I always felt like I was playing hooky, and I'd hang out with my friends, eat chocolate from all the vendors' tables, and if I was good, we'd get Burger King on the way home. So now that I'm older, I still love them but for more than the hooky-playing, chocolate-eating awesomeness.

This weekend was the first EVER Gateway Con, or Gateway to Publishing Conference and Convention. We (because I'm affiliated with the St. Louis Writers Guild and helped plan/advertise) called it a Conference and Convention because it was a Writers CONFERENCE but also a (FREE to the public) CONVENTION.

This made us special times ten, a very unique event because we were both. Plus, agents, authors, and speakers from around the country came to this VERY FIRST EVER event based solely on how hard the St. Louis Writers Guild worked toward making this a rockstar event.

Just to summarize Gateway Con's perks:

Writers/Agent Panels ALL weekend
Workshops ALL weekend
Master Classes ALL weekend
Cocktail Buffet Friday Night/Gala Dinner Saturday Night
Agents, Best-selling Authors, Publishers speaking about how to engage an agent with your query, first chapter dos and don'ts, and the publishing industry.

So in one weekend, writers of all levels were given the tools on how to perfect their first chapters and get feedback, edit their novels, research/query agents, get hip to how the publishing world works, meet and greet their fave authors, and peruse a Book Fair. Plus, a cocktail party with all the freaking t-ravs and spinach pies you could eat. A dinner/talk on Saturday Night with a chocolate dessert, I don't know what, but it was yummy. I don't think any of us ended up "genre table-talking" because we were too full.

And I'm not just bragging because I helped plan it. I knew there would be lectures about stuff I already knew, but let me tell you, I realized how much I need to learn. For instance, did you know that when you query to an agent, they HAVE THE POWER to submit your novel to all sorts of publishing houses, including the BIG FIVE?

Agents have He-Man power.

After a weekend of getting fired up with the help of authors in the industry who made it happen, we were gung-ho to tackle our weaknesses and pat ourselves on the back, because, well, you can plan and talk about "making it," but if you have no strategy, you're competing with a lot of talented people on the road toward sticking their books on the shelves. And yes, this is entirely possible.

  1. Do your research. And I don't mean just writing your novel. Learn which agents to pitch to. Learn what they represent. Agent Paige Turner might enjoy reading sci-fi in her spare time, but she may not enjoy selling sci-fi to a publisher. Each Agent Reps certain things and it's your job to find this out. (Actually, I learned this a long time ago, but I needed reminding).
  2. Read your pitch and first chapter (and full novel) out loud. Print it out. You have no idea how many mistakes you'll catch when it's printed in front of you.
  3. Make info-dumps exciting and funny. Most agents dislike info dumps, so if you need to explain your world/character in super-duper detail, find a way to make the info-dump so thoroughly engaging, the agent/reader has no idea you just heaped a pile of stuff on top of them. Score!
  4. Start your story when your characters' lives change forever. Courtesy of Eileen Dreyer. I have affinity with her because I was her fill-in Speaker Shepherd. In other words, start at the action. Hook them and reel them in. "Get in late, get out early." Sit your readers' into the environment ASAP. Be aware of what Eileen calls the Indiana Jones Rule: how did Raiders of the Lost Ark begin? On an adventure with Indy, of course. We didn't actually find out he was a professor of archeology (and admired by many a pupil) until 20 minutes into the film. If the movie had started in the classroom, we wouldn't have cared about him.
  5. Let agents and readers know that you are not like everyone else. You are unique. You might be writing an adventure about spy parachuters from Mars, and so could someone else. But your two stories will be different. Find a way to stand out from the crowd by using your writing voice, a new POV, or a character no one expects.

Another way you can get the most out of a writing convention is to volunteer for the organization. Help with marketing, PRing, sign up to be a speaker-shepherd. You get behind-the-scenes access, plus, you get contact with agents you wouldn't necessarily get when you just attend.

But you know what was the best thing about Gateway Con (and this isn't a plug)? How hard the St. Louis Writers Guild worked with everyone affiliated, sitting with writers I'd never met before, attending for the same reason as me. The frantic jotting down of ideas during a talk. Walking down the hall and seeing someone reading over their pitch, or scrawling over their first chapter. Anyone who goes to any kind of conference cannot help but see the passion and dedication of those around them, all striving for the same thing, but also excited to help each other out.

For a list of upcoming conferences, here is a handy-dandy guide courtesy of

For more info about queries and agents, here is Chuck Sambuchino's website.

And here is the bible of the writing industry, Writer's Digest. Here you will find out about agents, conferences, and lit magazines to submit your short stories.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Cleaning Out the Attic, or, A Commentary on Writing

I'm starting this new blog because, well, I believe in purging once in awhile. My last one I started almost ten years ago, and I don't want to throw away all those old posts about nothing, but sometimes attics need cleaning.

I thought hard about a new name, wanting to give it a clean sort of vibe, but without the words 'dreams,' 'musings,' or 'random,' which seem to be common words with blog names. An attic is like your mind: your mental and emotional health. It's dusty and full of curiosities: old photos, bits and bobs you can't bear to part with. And I picked cat because I like cats.

This time I'm actually going to discuss topics, so we'll dive right in.

Rosemary's Baby Review and how it influenced me as a Horror/Suspense Writer (Spoilers)

 This film is widely explored as visually creative and psychologically manipulative. 

If you're unfamiliar with the story, Rosemary's Baby chronicles the nine months of pregnancy (this shouldn't be a spoiler since the title gives it away -- yes, she gets preggers) of Rosemary Woodhouse. She wants to get preggers. She plans it. Not only that, she's at the perfect stage of life to do so: she's married to an actor, they move into a very roomy, popular New York City apartment, which even in the 60's, would be inconceivable in the budget of young twenty-somethings.

But there are a few draw-backs. Right next door live a couple of eccentric busy-bodies, nosy neighbours deluxe, and not to mention some creepy history associated with the apartment building, but Rosemary isn't too worried. She mostly likes her new neighbours, and the cushy flat weighs out any old newspaper headlines or superstitious dread.

Right away, we realize Rosemary is too good to be true. She's too trusting, and a little naive. Because this is set smack-dab in the 1960s, you can see how this young woman is a product of the mid-century idealist modern America: women were beginning to have their own ideals and goals, but Life was Good, meat was good for you, and your husband is your most trusted ally.

The movie shatters these concepts one by one. Even though poor Rosemary is frustratingly co-dependent, we remain on her side. We root for her until the very end. Which helps this concept is the direction on the film, taking great care not to show a SINGLE frame of film that is not Rosemary's perceptive. In other words, what she sees is what we see; what she experiences is our experience, so we're with her through the whole shebang. We know something is going on, but what? We do a double-take when she does a double-take. Scene by scene, we are taken through her nightmare, not sure what shenanigans are being pulled on her, same as she wonders if she's imagining things. By the time everything's over, we're still not sure what really happened.

As a horror writer, I can rattle off at least a dozen some-odd films that have influenced my style without even realizing it. I saw it as a young child (for some reason, my horror-loving 80's-era parents never saw anything wrong with this) but never understand how exactly the story unfolded, how or why this poor young woman was being used. We are the protagonist surrogates, manipulated just as she is, fighting back, ready to defend her for injustice, but of what? We bond with the heroine, ready to fight with her, guessing right and left what is around the corner only to be thwarted. And as a woman who's been controlled throughout the film, we see her grow into her badass Horror Movie Female shoes. Something is going on and we don't know what -- until that last scene.

In which we are finally cut off. We're no longer on Rosemary's side as she sings that creepy lullaby. No, we tell ourselves. If we were put in her situation, we wouldn't end up that way.

What's so visually frightening about this story-telling method is how clever the scenes unravel. You know this is a horror movie, you know there is something up with that baby, her pregnancy -- but there are only shadows of proof, little bits of evidence uncovered that could very well be -- and ARE -- explained away. Any logical person would shove away these accusations as madness. And we do, even though we KNOW there is something UP with that BABY.

With good story-telling, it is the author's job to manipulate the audience. Hitchcock did it in Vertigo and Psycho, Spielberg did it in Jaws. If we were a fly on the wall in Rosemary's Baby and we saw what was going down from the beginning, it wouldn't be nearly as scary. What you don't see is much more terrifying than when you're in-the-know. When your eyes play tricks on you, or being followed by a monster, wondering if you're descending into madness, is the ultimate scare-fest.

It's a movie that you can watch again and again, once you know the twist, and point out the subtle slight-of-hand moments you didn't catch the first time. We still root for Rosemary, hoping this time around she'll catch on quicker and get out, before she sings that lullaby.