Weird/western/adventure/horror author from Utah David J. West talks influence, Mormonism and horror, and self vs. traditional publishing.
The uninitiated might picture a convention dedicated to H.P. Lovecraft thusly: bent, twisted Practitioners of the Weird slink and lurch down the streets of Providence, heads in hands, some nearly clipped by rushing traffic as they navigate the orange- and white-striped construction cones, bemoaning the modernity of the whole affair. Silent, frowning men loom in booths, purveying worm-riddled tomes and moldering artifacts. In dimly lit elevators that stink of low-tide at some seaside resort gone to rot, fish-faced writers in tattered overcoats pick at the sores that fester on their necks. At night, from a high room in the storied Biltmore, a solitary writer looks down upon wretched creatures in the park below as they stare up at the stars with gape-mouthed dread. He retreats to the expansive bed, head swimming with thoughts of forbidden things, sleep an unlikely prospect. He scribbles madly on hotel stationery, occasionally crying out at the terrors leaking from his pen onto the tear-mottled page.
NecronomiCon was a touch sunnier than that.
I left Northampton at around 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, bags packed, along with a box of books I hoped to have the authors sign, as well as books of my own that I hoped to sell. Behind me, I left a time of financial uncertainty and banal dread. It disappeared in the rear view mirror.
I pulled my car into the convention center garage and contacted Sam Cowan using Facebook Messenger. He was busy running around trying to get his table set up, so I took the elevator down and sat in the lobby. The air was cool, almost chilly, a relief from the powerful humidity that would wait until Saturday to break. I wandered upstairs and happened upon the registration table, where I gave my name and retrieved my badge and pin. I turned around to see Sam rushing along. He looked…well, exactly like he looks in Facebook pictures, longish hair, bright eyes. The only difference was that he wasn’t ten feet tall like I’d pictured. He was trying to find the loading dock. We introduced ourselves and I joined him in his quest. The convention center staff were baffled by the question.
“Loading dock … hmm, loading dock …,” one said, scratching his head. Eventually, someone gave us vague, decidedly non-Euclidean directions. We headed bravely into the bowels of the convention center.
By some miracle we managed to locate artist Dave Felton in a side alley standing next to a car full of books and art. He was bald, bearded, and, like us, excited to be there, despite the stultifying humidity. Back the three of us went into the center, boxes in hand and on cart, down hallways crowded with stacked chairs and giant spools and rolled-up vinyl signs and miscellaneous this-and-that. We got turned around a few times. It reminded me of that scene in This is Spinal Tap when the band is lost backstage, yelling “Rock and Roll!” as they look in vain for the entrance to the stage.
“Weird fiction!” I yelled. Dave and Sam held aloft their books and bellowed, “Literary horror!”
At some point, Sam and his wife Rachael and I found time for lunch over at Murphy’s, an Irish pub with a pastrami-heavy menu. The Cowans were kind enough to provide me lodging in their room’s second bed for my first night, before I moved over to my reserved room at the Biltmore. They are kind, gracious, genuine people, and one of the best parts of NecronomiCon for me was that we became friends.
Soon after, we met up with authors Scott Nicolay and Anya Martin and helped them carry their stuff to the table.
The next few days were a joyous blur, and I fear I would bore you to death if I continued in narrative form. I want to get the highlights down. I want to remember them. Somewhere along the way someone said that going to this con was like Facebook come to life. It was better than that: it was Weird Fiction come to life, on every corner, in lobbies and in vendor rooms and in elevators and in restaurants.
So, the highlights:
-Meeting author Scott Nicolay (Ana Kai Tangata, After) for the first time.
-Meeting Scott Thomas for the first time, and hanging out with Jeffrey Thomas again (we’d met at Readercon).
-Watching Justin Steele emerge from the darkness like a plaid-clad Shuggoth (and I mean that in the nicest possible way) in the park across from the Biltmore, having had to make backup travel arrangements when his flight was cancelled.
-Sharing meals and/or drinks with Jeffrey Thomas, Damien Angelica Walters, Dominique Lamssies, Scott Nicolay, Anya Martin, Dave Felton, Michael Cisco, Nikki Guerlain, Michael and Lena Griffin, Sam and Rachael.
-Seeing both Ross Lockhart and Scott R. Jones in person, standing proudly behind the books they’ve published … and getting my Word Horde and Martian Migraine Press books signed. Both guys sold out of the books they’d brought—not a surprise. First-rate stuff.
-Attending readings by Daniel Mills, Sean Hoade, Joe Pulver, Scott Nicolay, Simon Strantzas, Richard Gavin, Anya Martin, Michael Wehunt, Peter Rawlik, David Neilsen, Tom Lynch, Robert Waugh, Jeffrey Thomas, and Scott Thomas.
-Meeting Nick Gucker—who will be illustrating the cover of my next book, Creeping Waves—and Dave Felton, who will be doing the cover and interior illustrations for The Stay-Awake Men, the book after that. And Michael Bukowski, who did the artwork for Scott Nicolay’s excellent book after. Are all horror/weird artists this great in person? I can only assume from this representative sample that, indeed, they are.
-Listening in on Simon Strantzas and Scott Nicolay’s late-night conversation about the coming Weird Horror boom, that is, Hollywood taking an interest: is it inevitable? Will it be good or bad for the writers swept up in it?
-Meeting Daniel Mills and swapping books with him.
-Seeing my friends Tom Breen, Joe Pastula (in from Japan), and Ray Majerski for lunch on Friday. Tom and I had gone to NecronomiCon 2013 together, and we marveled at how much had happened since then.
-The Future of Weird Fiction Panel: S.J. Bagley’s expert moderation; hearing Justin Steele mention Gateways to Abomination; listening to Joe Pulver talk about the writers and stories he loves.
-Telling Ramsey Campbell I loved his work when he was behind me in line at Starbucks.
-Talking with John Langan, whose work I love.
-Signing books at the Dim Shores table and dropping by the New England Horror Writers’ table.
-My wife Katie joining me on Saturday night and meeting a lot of the people about whom I’ve been raving for months, people whose work moves and inspires me.
-Seeing paperback copies of Rangel for the first time
-listening to Joe Pulver talk about…well, about anything.
-Spending money in the vendor room. I’d saved up bonus money from work and earmarked it specifically for NecronomiCon. In 2013 I did buy a few books, but spent most of my money on shirts, memorabilia, and artwork. This time around, it was mostly books. Let’s see if I can recall my haul from memory:
At Fear’s Altar by Richard Gavin
Conference with the Dead by Terry Lamsley
Bone Idle in the Charnel House by Rhys Hughes
The Lord Came at Twilight by Daniel Mills
Revenants by Daniel Mills
Children of Light by Daniel Mills
Cthulhu Fhtagn! edited by Ross Lockhart
The Darkest Part of the Woods by Ramsey Campbell
Cassilda’s Song edited by Joe Pulver
The Doom That Came to Providence edited by Joe Pulver
The Infusorium by Jon Padgett
The Narrator by Michael Cisco
Cthulhu Attacks by Sean Hoade
The Glittering World by Robert Levy
Purge Status by Shawn Mann
When It’s Time for Dead Things to Die by Clint Smith
I (Heart-cat) Ulthar t-shirt
Resonator artwork by Nick Gucker
I didn’t get to every talk and panel I wanted to, and there were events I had to miss, but such is the nature of NecronomiCon.
It might sound disingenuous to say, but it’s the plain truth: to a person, everyone was friendly, everyone was enthusiastic, everyone was great. The writers I mention above are people whose work has excited me and inspired me. It was a kind of oasis—dream-like and beautifully strange. Maybe some of it didn’t happen. I hope it did.
I’m already looking forward to 2017.
Matthew M. Bartlett is the author of Gateways to Abomination, The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts, and several short stories in multiple anthologies. His upcoming collection, Creeping Waves, is due out in early 2016, published by Muzzleland Press.
One of my writing gigs is for UniformStories.com, where I share insights into the veteran and military experience. My latest post, “Why Write About War,” is something I think anyone can relate to. I argue for the power of writing down your experiences to make sense of them, and to help share your thoughts and perspectives with people in a way that isn’t all touchy-feely-weird-awkward.
You can find the article here.
In other site news, we’re happily moving through the submissions and book design process of High Strange Horror, prepping for Doctor Gaines’ new work The Shot, and gearing up for con season, with our first outing at MiniCon in Minneapolis on April 2nd.
My first novel, Flight of the Blue Falcon, will see release in July, and I plan publishing my horror novel The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre in the months following that.
In the meantime, we’ll have a review of the short story collection Nightmare Carnival sometime next week.
The inability to put words to page – whether through pen and paper, a word processor, or, if you’re a weirdo iconoclast like Doctor Gaines, a typewriter – is an existential crisis of the first order. If you’re a writer, you write. It’s self-evident. It’s what you do. In many cases, it helps define you in a professional, artistic, or even personal sense. It’s a sacred act. Literally. God’s a writer, after a fashion. He created the world with words.
So what is a writer – maybe someone like you – to do when afflicted with the dreaded disease of writer’s block?
To be frank, writer’s block isn’t a problem.
Writer’s block doesn’t even exist.
You can hide behind the excuses of schedule, work, family commitments, gruesome industrial accidents – but when it comes right down to it, nothing is restricting your ability to write.
Motivation is another animal altogether. Sure, you can wait until the muse strikes. You can also wait until the muse strikes before you go back to work. That’s how you go to your job, right? When you feel like it? When you feel inspired to sell grease-slimed hot dogs and chicken fingers to sticky-fingered children at the Big Box Store food café? If you didn’t feel inspired, you wouldn’t show up, obviously.
I’m being glib, but the analogy stands. Writing is fun and personally fulfilling – at times. But mostly it’s work. Hard work. Hard work that requires time, energy, and patience. Human beings are naturally lazy animals – the invention of the television remote is evidence of that – and it takes a lot of motivation to get our butts out of the warm cave to go slay a wooly mammoth. But if your drive to write is akin to hunger, you’ll do just that. If you don’t show up to work, you don’t get paid. If you don’t go out to hunt the big hairy elephant tusk-monster, you don’t eat. If you don’t sit down to write, you’ll never get the euphoria that comes with knowing someone read your work and liked it.
Don’t have the time to write, you say? Sure, neither do I. As a writer, I also don’t have the time to sit on my hairy butt and watch Netflix for 20 minutes every night. And yet, one of these two things will happen, no matter how busy I am. You always have time to write. You might be tired. You might be covered in industrial sludge. You might be recovering from animal wounds. But you have time – five minutes, ten minutes, twenty minutes – to write something. A few sentences. A couple of paragraphs. A couple of pages. It doesn’t matter how much you write at one time, it matters that you write the same amount (or more) consistently.
Now that we’ve poked some holes in your excuses, let’s examine the real culprit behind your self-imposed self-pity.
Self-doubt. It is your greatest adversary – but also your greatest ally.
Every writer worth his or her salt steps back and, taking in the breadth of his or her work – a single story, a long-form project, a career – wonders: Is this all crap?
That questioning can be very, very empowering. It moves you to strive for perfection, to hold your work to high standards, to be humble, to appreciate the successes that come. But it can also be restrictive – driving you to stare at a half-finished story, an aborted novel outline, a collection of swears written in ALL CAPS filling up your alcohol-fueled Twitter or Facebook timeline.
I’m an artist! you scream at an uncaring, gibbous moon. What I’m writing isn’t art! It sucks! I’m paralyzed!
Believe it or not, you’re on the right track. You just gotta get that train moving again.
Recognizing that your current project (or all of your ideas) sucks is the first step toward liberation from your self-imposed literary exile.
If you’re writing crap, keep writing crap. Embrace your crap.
No, seriously. Keep churning it out. Muddle through, and figure out how to fix it later. Editing and perfection are not your concern when you’re writing. Editing should be a separate process that comes later. Otherwise you keep re-writing the same paragraph, over and over again, until the words have lost all meaning and you start to fail all your sanity checks.
Can’t figure out that turn of phrase, that plot point, that character arc? Write a bunch of poopywork, add a big fat sticky note that says FIX THIS GARBAGE LATER and keep on moving. You’ll get into a rhythm, your writing will improve, and, most likely, when you return to those troublesome passages, chapters, or first half of your opus DOCTOR ACULA’S HOUSE OF BLOODY TERROR, those writer brain-gears will start turning again. Don’t stress on getting it right the first time. You rarely will.
Still not working for you? Out of ideas? Copy someone else’s style.
Hunter S. Thompson claimed to have re-typed, word for word, The Great Gatsby. He said it gave his mind and body a sense of the flow of words – a way to channel and understand Fitzgerald’s greatness. Now, I’m not suggesting you do something that extreme. Perhaps, however, you could simply write a pastiche – a tribute piece – to a particular author or style. Ever read someone’s prose and then find your own writing influenced by it? Embrace that. Put yourself in the chair of a great writer. Write a story they would write, as cheesy and derivative as it may be. You may not want to show anyone the work, but it’ll get your brain cells dancing.
I better slow down before this rant turns into a book. The last thing this world needs is another book about writing written by someone who doesn’t know a lot about writing. But I do know this:
Writer’s block isn’t real. Your excuses aren’t sufficient. Sometimes you’ll produce nothing but crap.
And your self-doubt is never going away. If you want to be a good writer, you’ll deal with it. You’ll embrace it.
Now go get sober for a couple of days, sit down in that writing spot of yours, pour a gallon of coffee, and put some words to the page. And stop telling people that you’re a writer.
Go be a writer. And don’t ever tell me you have writer’s block. I’ll start ranting at you, and make you re-type The Great Gatsby.
There’s a term for incoming submissions at a publishing house – the slush pile.
This is not a term of endearment. “Slush” conjures up images of dirty snow or water, runoff that gets in your way and can send you spinning out of control.
Muzzleland Press is, make no mistake, an independent operation. It basically consists of three of us – one senior editor and two other editors – who have to sort through a barrage of novel, novella, and short story submissions. Most of what we get is not very interesting, or not very good. That’s just the plain, simple truth.
Sometimes, when we refuse a submission (I don’t write form letters – I actually read everything that comes in), I give some feedback. Typically, I don’t get past the pitch letter – if there’s even a pitch letter in the body of the email. Sometimes, we just get attachments, or blank emails.
A good pitch letter should adhere to our submission guidelines, or at the very least, have a modicum of form, presentation, and professionalism. I’ve gotten some nasty responses from people when I told them why I didn’t read their submission – for reasons like using emoticons, not following our guidelines, or being generally obtuse or unpleasant – and such responses confirm my decision not to go into business with them.
Make no mistake – indie or no, we are a business, and we want to have good business and professional relationships with our writers. Your pitch letter is a good indication of how you view yourself as a professional, and how you view us.
Most submissions are impersonal. I can usually tell when they just copy and pasted our name into the “to” space on their email form. Customizing a new letter for us is not necessary, but a line or two about our site or our work goes a long way with us. Show us that you know who we are, and that you didn’t just skim Dark Markets and spam a ton of letters out.
If we do get past the pitch letter, we read the synopsis, then examine the writing. We might reject your work for errors in both, unpolished work, or for a disinterest in either subject matter or writing style.
Do not take this personally. I’ve had a few good submissions come in recently, and I had to say “No” because the concept just didn’t really grab my attention. If I wouldn’t pick up your book at a store or online, I’m certainly not going to spend my own personal money (I’m in education and publishing, and fund this press out of my own pocket – that doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room!) to develop, publish, market, and sell your work.
So how do you get published here? The same way you get published anywhere: a combination of professionalism, interesting subject matter, and talent. This is subjective – but we can’t afford to not be picky. If you are professional, your work is interesting, and your writing polished, you will find success with your work.
It’s just that simple. You may not end up at an outfit like ours – we have to be picky and particular – but we’ll at least tell you why.
So get out there, get writing, and most importantly – respect both yourself and your target markets as professionals.