About this time of the summer eight or nine years ago, my (now) wife, Kim, and I went on a camping trip to a state park near Bartlesville, Oklahoma. It was too hot to do much except read and try to sleep, and the book I had with me was a trade paper copy of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The book, which won the Pulitzer, scared the living hell out of me. I mention it because, on this day in 1933, Cormac McCarthy was born. I’ve long admired his fiction–which tends to be stylistic, dark, and violent–but none of his other books gave me nightmares. Part of it was the way he tapped into our collective fear of the breakdown of civilization. But much of it was the way in which he handled a standard horror trope–cannibalism–and portrayed it in dismally believable world in a brilliant work of literary fiction.
Kansas Poet Laureate and Ad Astra faculty member Kevin Rabas has a new book out today, Late for Cymbal Line. He let me page through a copy and there’s one poem that seems appropriate to mention here. It’s titled “Poetry Reading Stipend,” and it talks about how writers slink into the bathroom and open the envelopes containing their pay for an evening’s performance.
“You don’t deal with money in front of hosts,” Rabas writes, although I’m mangling his line spacing here. “No, you do that in front of the urinal or the toilet, the money new and crisp…”
Why is it that writers have such a difficult time with money? We dream about being paid for our work, but when we are, it feels a bit shameful. It’s bad enough to deal with the business end with publishers, but the stipend is in some ways more difficult to deal with. You have to pretend the money doesn’t really matter, even though it always matters, and you have to deal face-to-face with people, when you’re more comfortable keeping a page between you and your audience. And, there’s only one thing worse than checking to make sure you’ve been paid the right amount — and that’s having to remind your hosts that they’ve forgotten to pay you at all.
Here’s something I hadn’t run across before: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, annotated by Mort Castle. It’s a fascinating take on a classic, from Writer’s Digest books. It’s the complete text, with Mort’s annotations in (what else?) blood red. “Observe, writer,” Mort commands early on, as Stoker builds the foundation for his timeless story, “an absolutely masterful transition.”
I’ve learned a lot about writing from a number of authors, across all genres. But some of the best advice I came across was in short pieces with a provocative title: “Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully — in Ten Minutes.” The piece is by horror master Stephen King, and it lives up to its name. If you haven’t read it, but if you aspire to write professionally, you should. My copy is in an old edition of The Writer’s Handbook, which was part market guide and part how-to. In it, King gives us 12 no-nonsense tips. Here’ one: “An agent? Forget it. For now.” Here’s a link to the full piece.
Back in 2014, the Horror Writers Association sat down with Bram Stoker Award nominee (and top horror editor) Don D’Auria for a video interview. The interview is fascinating and I urge you to take a look.
I first met Don back in the days when I was writing for Doubleday/Random House and he was my editor on my second novel, the western Sons of Fire. Later when Don moved to Leisure Books, he picked up a couple of thrillers from me, The Moon Pool and Hinterland. I remember being in airports when The Moon Pool was published–2004–and seeing the cover in nearly all of the bookstores in every terminal. The novel is still one of my favorites, and Don immediately got what I was doing with the story.
It was always a lot of fun to work with Don, and I’m thrilled that he’ll be joining us for the first Ad Astra conference in Overland Park. Don is now a freelance editor, and he draws upon twenty-five years of publishing experience. He’s modest, soft-spoken, and knows more about the publishing of horror and speculative fiction than, well, anybody. He’s also agreed to do a practice pitch session, with a limited number of seats on a first come, first serve basis. There’s no extra charge for the “Pitch Perfect” session, however; it’s included with the registration.
In the second creative writing class Mark L. Groves had in college, according to a 2015 feature by C.J. Janovy on KCUR radio, the instructor announced: “None of you will ever be professional authors.” I’m happy to say the instructor was wrong, and that Groves (and his dark fiction writing group, The Dead Horse Society) are doing fine. Mark is modest in the interview, and says that he doesn’t yet consider himself a professional writer, but you wouldn’t know it from his bibliography; he has an impressive list of books, including two anthologies. Mark, a Kansas City area horror writer, is originally from the Missouri Ozarks, and is on the faculty of this year’s Ad Astra Writers Conference. And speaking of groups named after dead animals… there are plenty of clubs dedicated to the study of Southern literature which have “Dead Mule” in the title. Go here to learn the history of “Equine Gothic.”
Author Linda Apple at an ESU Center for Great Plains Studies writing workshop (Photo by Patsy Terrell).
One of the frequent questions I’m asked by students and aspiring writers is this: What can you expect at a writers conference? In general, you should expect the faculty to be professional writers, editors, or agents. You want to learn from people who have been where you want to go, are interested in helping you learn, and who will give you frank advice. At Ad Astra, our faculty is composed of those who are nationally known, such as writers Dale Bailey and Mort Castle, or editor Don D’Auria, just to name three. You should expect not just to sit in on their presentations, but also to approach the faculty in the halls and ask questions that perhaps you didn’t have a chance to ask in the group session. You should be made to feel welcome, no matter whether you are a published writer or are just want to learn more about what it takes to write, personally or professionally. A bonus is to be able to submit a manuscript for critique, which is an option at Ad Astra; to learn how to pitch your ideas, in a safe and encouraging practice pitch session; and, if desired, to sign up for college credit (which entails some extra work). Although the theme for this year’s conference is horror, the advice given won’t be limited to that genre. The basics of writing for publication are remarkably similar across genres, and the things you’ll learn about the submission process or how to find an agent will apply across the board. The Great Plains Center has been sponsoring writing conferences for more than thirty years, and although Ad Astra is our first conference in Overland Park, we’re bringing with us our deep experience in helping writers of all backgrounds and experience. If you have specific questions about the conference, don’t hesitate to contact us. You’ll find the form on the Contact page.