StokerCon 2018 and Horror University

I didn’t deserve StokerCon 2018. Granted, I don’t deserve the oxygen in front of my face, but this particular StokerCon towered over every writing convention I’ve attended, and not just because it was both Horror-themed and writer-centric. What rocked the hardest were the four Horror University (HU) courses I took:

  • “How To Make The Reader Squirm” by Michael Arnzen
  • “Building a Better Monster” by Tim Waggoner
  • “How to Grip the Reader and Not Let Go” by Kate Jonez
  • “Saying More with Less” by Patrick Freivald

Gotta admit I was skeptical going in, fearing that the extra $100 I spent to register for HU would get me recycled writing advice. That wasn’t the case. All four workshops dripped with value, especially Michael Arnzen‘s “How To Make The Reader Squirm” course, which was the probably greatest two hours of my life (aside from Star Wars obviously).

“Squirm” was gore-writing greatness. Going into it, I hoped to improve at the gross/scary side of Horror writing (darkness is my specialty) and maybe pick up a few tips. But, whoa. Arnzen can teach. Within minutes I had to rethink everything I knew about descriptions, metaphors, and sensory details. He broke down the infamous bathtub scene from Stephen King’s book The Shining and showed why that two-page scene unsettles the reader. The key is drawing out the moment to the point where the reader goes, “STOP! STOP! ENOUGH ALREADY!” but there are so many smaller techniques jammed in there, it’s mind-shattering. This was just one segment of Arnzen’s content-loaded session, and he himself was so funny I almost laughed my way into a coma.

Tim Waggoner taught “Building a Better Monster.” A writer-friend recommended this one to me, and I’m glad he did because I thought I knew everything about monsters. Turned out, i didn’t. Waggoner schooled me on inverting tropes (How about a reverse-cannibal that feeds itself to others?), disguising famous monsters (Hannibal = Dracula of our time, Jason = modern Grim Reaper, etc.), and scare effectiveness (the zombies in It Follows, for instance, succeed even in broad daylight because of their relentlessness). 

In “Gripping the Reader,” Kate Jonez challenged us to drum up a haunted circus scenario that included a killer clown and three main characters. Once we had our main cast, she taught us to focus on using these characters to pose the “Big Question” to the reader throughout the story. She delved into the Rule of Threes in regards to not only the Big Question, but smaller riddles and character traits that keep the readers swiping pages.

 Big Questions, Riddles, and Character-specific challenges keep the readers' eyes tucked between the covers of your book.
Big Questions, Riddles, and Character-specific challenges keep the readers’ eyes tucked between the covers of your book.

Much like Waggoner’s class, Patrick Freivald‘s “Saying More with Less” workshop worried me because I thought I’d mastered the art of cutting down manuscripts. But NOPE–McNulty’s an idiot. Freivald whisked us through a series of writing samples that sounded A-OK until he drove red lines through them with the spirit of a Slasher villain. Truth is, you can always find things to hack out. On average, he cut about 22% of the word count on every sample. While trimming from 100 words to 78 doesn’t sound impressive, consider maintaining that 22% slim-down over the course of a 100K-word novel.

With over a dozen HU courses to pick from, I now find myself eager to take another four in Michigan next year. What about you guys? Any other Stoker attendees with HU opinions?

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