Terror at Towson University Marriott: 2018 Borderlands Writers Boot Camp

The dark-haired, black-clad woman dragged her suitcase into the dimly-lit room of the three-room suite, lowered it onto the floor, and began to unpack. A creak came from somewhere behind her, and she paused, head cocked, listening. When no further sound came, she tossed a few things onto the dresser—pajamas, toiletries, a novel with a Gothic-style haunted-looking house on the cover—and walked to the bed. Something rustled, and the woman jumped, turning to find her pajamas had slid from the dresser onto the floor. She shook her head, laughing at how easily she’d been spooked, and stepped forward to turn down the covers.

Gelatinous, amber-colored bugs crawled over the crisp white sheets, antennas twitching. Exposed to the light, one made a beeline up and over the pillow. The woman screamed.

Cordelia Abrams and Angela Yuriko-Smith came running from their respective rooms. They, too, had been unpacking for their stay at the Towson Marriot for the fourteenth annual Borderlands Writers Boot Camp, and had been expecting the blood-sucking monsters to stay within the pages of their fellow grunts’ horror fiction manuscripts.

“Those are definitely bed bugs,” Yuriko-Smith observed, grimacing at one of the parasitic insects Christa Carmen had caught between the folds of a tissue. The three women changed rooms as quickly as possible, aware that the following day would bring with it long hours of writing, and the mental strain of critiquing one another’s work.

Borderlands Press has been a specialty publisher since 1989, and their online store features signed, numbered, and lettered limited editions for collectors and bibliophiles written by the likes of Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Clive Barker, and Neil Gaiman. The list of past Boot Camp instructors and graduates is a ‘who’s who’ in the horror writing community, and the workshop is a grueling test of the writers’ commitment to their craft, and to making their previously-submitted manuscripts the best they can possibly be.

Writer Rob Davies agreed that Borderlands Boot Camp was not for the faint of heart, and stated that, in order to attend, you have to, “[b]e prepared to have your writing dissected and questioned at every level. Your bad writing habits will be revealed, mocked, and lit on fire. But this is never done with malice. The instructors and grunts were all extremely kind and generous with their time. The words on the page are critiqued, never the writer. It is a form of tough love designed to make you write--and self-edit--better. It works.”

The first night of the workshop, Friday, January 26th, began at 6:30 pm, and consisted of introductions from instructors—all esteemed editors and writers in their own right—Douglas E. Winter, Ginjer Buchanan, Tom Monteleone, F. Paul Wilson, and Peter Straub, followed by several hours of reading the first two pages of grunts’ short story submissions aloud.

“How novel,” groaned Winter at one of the anonymous story openings. “A writer writing about a writer.” The other instructors snickered and grumbled their concessions.

After each reading, the instructors would take turns commenting on what didn’t work for them, what they didn’t like, and some suggestions on possible changes. One writer vocalized how it felt to have her work ripped apart:

“It sucks,” Deelona South, pseudonym Ella B. Rite, said, after coming down from the excitement of hearing Peter Straub read her piece. “I want to die.”

Dee may have been feeling the pressure of the weekend, but after thinking she didn’t have a “chance in hell” upon applying, and summing up her reaction to her acceptance as “Whaaaatt?! Am I a Jedi?”, she planned to make the best of it.

Dee started her writing journey in 2012, her favorite sub-genre is supernatural horror (“ghost, demons, cursed objects, haunted houses... I'm a sucker for cross genres. I call them Scooby-Doo Scares. Mix a kick-ass whodunit with a ghost story and I'll follow the author to his grave,” Dee said), and is currently working on a website, where she hopes to soon be able to feature her Borderlands-workshopped novel about an evil doll and a team of exorcists, Relative Evil.

Saturday in Towson could have been a beach day in January for all the boot camp participants knew. The grunts had time to do little else but gobble down a quick breakfast and make last minute photocopies at the hotel’s Business Center before embarking on the first of four two-hour sessions.

Stephanie Pendley Paul’s first session was with Ginjer Buchanan, who’d been the Editor-in-Chief at Ace Books and Roc Books, the two science fiction and fantasy imprints of Penguin Group, for thirty years, before recently retiring. In 2014, Buchanan won a Hugo Award—a set of literary awards given annually for the best science fiction or fantasy works and achievements of the previous year—for her editorial work. Buchanan’s critique session focused on general criticism and plot, and with Stephanie Pendley Paul, she was kind in her delivery and succinct with her advice.

Paul’s “A Murder of Crows” was a short story about a young girl whose misguided father was convinced he could build her a bird suit and teach her to fly. Likened in tone to Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece of dark fantasy, Pan’s Labyrinth, the piece was well-written and engaging, with a nuanced and fresh concept and a uniquely abstract writing style. Before the weekend’s end, it would end up being submitted for consideration in Borderlands Press’ annual anthology, where Borderlands editor Olivia F. Monteleone would subsequently shortlist it (along with Rob Davies’ short story, “The Machinery of Night.”

At the close of the first session, the writers seemed to be in good spirits, albeit quiet and introspective, either processing the comments received on submissions that may well have been works-in-progress for a year or more, or gearing up for the next round of potentially soul-crushing revelations.

“She just wrote ‘very well written’ on mine,” Matthew Brockmeyer said in response to Ginjer’s critique, “and said it was so ‘relentlessly ugly and downbeat,’ she's not sure who would read it...story of my life. Not the thrashing I was expecting from Clive Barker’s American editor. She didn’t even catch I spelled Johnny two different ways or that I gave the wife two different names.”

Bed-bug survivors Christa Carmen and Angela Yuriko Smith were with Tom Monteleone and Peter Straub for Session 2. Straub remained relatively quiet—the Bram Stoker, World Fantasy, and International Horror Guild Awards-winning author would have the stage on Saturday evening as the keynote speaker—but he took notes continuously and nodded in agreement with many of Monteleone’s insights.

Monteleone, who, along with his wife, Elizabeth, founded Borderlands Press, and is himself a five-time Bram Stoker Award-winner, was the toughest of the Boot Camp instructors. “This is a jumbled mess,” he told Carmen of the first thirty pages of her novel, “and your dialogue is fifty percent readable, fifty percent garbage.”

For all his sharp-tongued comments, Angela Yuriko Smith could acknowledge Monteleone’s eye for well-written prose, and took furious notes in the margins of her manuscript throughout the duration of the session.

Yuriko-Smith described her Borderlands submission as horror that “twists reality and morality and makes the reader question themselves.” In the past, her writing has erred more on the paranormal side, but she’s been moving in the direction of science fiction and dystopian fantasy, beginning with her short story "Vanilla Rice,” published in Where the Stars Rise anthology.

After a break for lunch, Yuriko-Smith moved to the third session with Doug Winter. Winter has had an esteemed career as a scholar and a horror critic, but Angela found the advice that Winter dispensed with to be memorable in its humor as well as its helpfulness: “Things like physical descriptions, eye color, hair color, etc., fall into the WGAS camp. Who gives a shit?”

F. Paul Wilson completed the quartet of editors. Wilson, the New York Times best-selling author of the anti-hero Repairman Jack series, focused on dialogue and narrative voice, but summed up Dee South’s submission with overall comments that would give her something to take with her into the evening’s assignment as well. In response to the ongoing critiquing, South said, “I'm dead on my feet. The instructors are Elder Gods from another dimension. THEY. WON'T. STOP. TEACHING!”

That evening’s assignment? The instructors doled out the first line of a famous novel or short story (think, “Jack Torrence though, Officious little prick.” from The Shining), and tasked the participants with writing their own shorty story, due at 9:30 am the next day. Every line handed out would be given to two different writers, so in addition to observations made into the quality of the stories, after the writers had had a solid day of the mechanics of good writing hammered into their brains, the instructors would be able to compare stories written with the same first line.

Christa Carmen went her separate way for dinner, then headed to her room, laptop in hand, to get a head start on her assignment.

Carmen’s opening line was from a novel by J.G. Ballard called Crash, in which its protagonists become sexually aroused by staging and participating in real car-crashes. Carmen figured her best bet was to take her story in a completely different direction from that of the novel, and she challenged herself to imagine a main character other than the obvious one contained in the line: “Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash.”

After a half hour of brainstorming, an idea took hold. By midnight, Carmen was done with her rough draft, and decided to get some sleep, with a plan to orchestrate any rewriting and edits in the morning.

On Sunday, the soon to be Boot Camp graduates turned in their pages with smiles of cautious optimism on their faces. The editors, along with Straub, took their place at the front of the room, and the readings commenced. After each story, one or two pieces of constructive criticism were made, but the responses of the editors to the quickly but carefully written stories were overwhelmingly positive. Carmen’s story, which she’d named “If at First You Don’t Succeed,” later retitled as “Crash,” was a modest success.

“These stories are remarkably well-crafted, perhaps more so than any other year of Boot Camp,” Monteleone said.

Winter remarked on the fact that Carmen’s plot—a woman who messes with her husband’s car until, on the fourth accident, she manages to kill him—was indeed original in that it hinged on the twist at the end, that the woman’s husband had been abusive, and thus his punishment was just.

As the editors made their closing comments, writer Mary Anne Back began to collect her belongings, preparing for the long trip back to Ohio.

Before she left, Back sidled up to the front table and shyly asked Peter Straub for a photo. As the grads dispersed, each with a different plan for their Monday morning writing routines, with different modes of attack to whip their post-critiqued submissions into place, Back said, “I will never forget Peter’s advice from last night.”

That advice? “Give your words luxury and agility.”

With luxury and agility, even writing about monstrous blood-sucking bed bugs can be elevated to literary greatness.

Interested in checking out the work of any of the writers featured in this blog? Head on over to their author websites or Facebook pages!:

Cordelia Abrams: https://www.facebook.com/cordelia.abrams

Angela Yuriko-Smith: http://angelaysmith.com/

Rob Davies: https://robertdavies.wordpress.com/

Dee South: https://www.facebook.com/dee.south.9

Matthew Brockmeyer: http://www.matthewbrockmeyer.com/

Stephanie Pendley Paul: https://www.facebook.com/stephanie.ha...

Christa Carmen: www.christacarmen.com

Mary Ann Back: https://www.facebook.com/HR-Boldwood-...
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Published on April 27, 2018 14:46
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