Sunday 19 October 2014

SCARdiff - and the Dragon's Pen

So today I attended SCARdiff, the horror convention. It was the first time I attended a horror convention, and I was very impressed. Friendly, enthusiastic organisers, lots of interesting and exciting stalls, and phenomenal numbers of people who made a lot of effort to appear at their very scariest. (Not quite knowing what to expect, I was one of the few who had not bothered to dress up).

But the real reason I was there was for the Dragon’s Pen pitching event. I’d heard of it – and bought my ticket for SCARdiff - just after LonCon (WorldCon in London). LonCon had been the first big convention I attended, and it was glorious and joyful and I was still on a post-LonCon-high when I decided to try SCARdiff & take part in the Dragon’s Pen. There was, however, a flaw in my cunning plan: I had no ready-made manuscript to pitch, and horror is not actually the genre I am most at home in. (I have read the odd horror novel or two, but a look through my Goodreads shelf will quickly uncover that it’s not the branch of speculative fiction I spend most of my time with).

After LonCon, real life soon took over, and the past few months have been quite stressful. I work in a university, so the start of term is always a bit of a shock to the system. Much sooner than expected, SCARdiff Day made its high-pitched howl of an approach and at some point, it even looked frighteningly as if I would have to quote Douglas Adams (“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”) and bow out.

Inspiration struck last weekend, with the kernel of an idea. Phew! Except, of course, the kernel stubbornly remained a seed rather than turning into the rapidly flourishing Triffid I needed. I kept pondering, and pondering, and mulling, and pondering, and finally found myself with a vague outline for a story (with a still-very-wobbly ending). I wrote the ultra-short pitch (limited to fewer than 50 words: mine used only ten!) and a page of story-outline… and then I saw a fellow pitcher’s blog post casually mentioning that participants would have to read “the first page of your novel” and I could have sworn I saw the words “publishing contract” in that blog somewhere… and then I quoted Arrested Development

I’d misread the brief - I’d somehow been convinced they wanted a really short pitch, and, if the short pitch had enough hook, they’d listen to a full-page synopsis. I’d expected to be one of thirty or fifty hopefuls, mumbling my brave ten words to derisively sneering judges, in the hope that those ten words might earn me a chance to elaborate on the plot. I had not expected to have to read out an actual sample of the manuscript. And I’d just wasted most of the week trying to write a synopsis for a story that did not exist, when I should have been spending months writing and polishing a story and last week summing it up in a 50-word pitch…

Cue something I had not done since my student days: the almost-all-nighter (ending around 1am), during which I wrote segments of scenes. These segments were designed to convey two messages:

  1. I can write half-decent prose
  2. My story will have the potential to be unsettling or creepy

As it turned out, the dragons were all very positive and kind and keen not to crush hopes. They were more akin to fluffy white rabbits than to dragons, but I guess "The Rabbits' Pen Pitching Panel" does not quite have the same ring to it. However, the audience (there was a surprisingly large audience!) was apparently unable to hear anything because none of us were very brave with the microphone (turns out 30cm-50cm from mic was way too much of a distance), so I decided I’d make an exception about my "only book reviews" approach to blogging and share the thing I read out - and the feedback I remember - on this blog.

I did hand printouts to the dragons, which included the synopsis of where the story could be going. However, as it did not feature during the panel, I’ll simply say that things get a bit sinister and grim. (Besides, there are only a handful of things I am 100% sure will happen, much of the synopsis is still quite fluid, especially the Big Bad at the end, so I don't feel like sharing it with the world at this point)

A summary of the feedback I remember (I was quite nervous, so I probably did not absorb everything):

  • The dragons really liked the setting / basic premise
  • They were a bit concerned about too many faceless / quite vague people (“the men”, “the crew”, “the lad”) and wanted more clearly delineated & identified characters, very quickly
  • My syntax was a bit repetitive, with sentence structures that tended to start with a pronoun (“She”) far too often
  • Descriptive passages tended to go into too much logistical detail whenever characters were moving themselves or their limbs - more than needed to let the reader know what was happening, and therefore slowing things down
  • They felt it was a bit retro / like a 1980s horror novel
  • They asked about whether container ships take passengers; I assured them that there are dedicated travel agencies for this sort of thing.
  • But other than that, they seemed to think it showed promise

I have to admit, it’s been a worryingly long time since I last wrote anything creative. I’m trying to write a non-horror novel for an MPhil course, which I’ve been working on for almost 5 years now, but the last time I wrote a scene for it was November 2013. For personal reasons, I was largely unable to write creatively in almost a year: I have to return to it very soon. I had not quite realised how rusty I’d got (the repetitive sentence starts particularly are an embarrassing beginner’s mistake!).

Still, I think I’ll add this premise to the list of ones to tackle after I finish The Accursed MPhil Novel.

To finish, I’d just like to thank the organisers of SCARdiff for having run such a fantastic event, and the dragons for their feedback, and all the people in the audience who attended, patiently, supportive and polite even though many apparently could not hear us! (Oh, and the other writers who bravely read out their work were great, too!)

PS: My favourite vendor (aside from those selling books) was the Morbitorium... but has anyone checked whether there have been any unsolved murders around Barry lately? Those mummified fingers & dried out hands look worryingly authentic...
Mummified fingers Dried dismembered hand Two-headed duckling


Unknown said...

From the extracts it doesn't seem particularly horror yet - since the protagonist's fears and situation seem to be entirely rape-based, sounds more gritty drama.

Federhirn said...

Aaaaargh! Gritty drama?!? Oh noes! Not what I was aiming for at all. I was aiming for social anxieties and awkwardness and yes, rape-concerns, but sort of tongue in cheek (until the door handle drops).

I know what you mean about it not seeming like horror. I think that's what the panel meant when they called it "retro" and "like it's from the 80s".

I'm not very scared when I read books where monsters appear and decimate people. Even if the monsters are gory and gruesome, or ghostly, or whatever. I would prefer a book more similar to The Orphanage than to your average slasher movie - a story that is gradual and slow and starts out with authentic and believable anxieties and fears, drifts into paranoia and perhaps a Hitchcock-esque mode, and which earns its monstrousness step by believable step... Not sure I can pull it off, but that would be the aim, anyway.

I'm even tempted to have a go at writing this thing, and trying NaNoWriMo this year. My (creative) writing has gone so rusty, it's embarrassing. Even the internal monologue of thoughts in my own head is full of refrains and loops and repetition; even my thoughts seem to have forgotten how to wander creatively, instead following endless trodden paths or getting lost entirely. I really shouldn't write anything but the MPhil thing at the moment, but as rusty as I am, I just want to plan out and write something simple and easy...