So You've Decided To Attend A Professional Conference: An On-The-Ground Report Of Stokercon 2023 (Part 1)


Photos via the author

For me, Stokercon 2023 kicks off with a severe case of FOMO on Wednesday night, the day before the conference actually begins, and ends with me singing “Happy Birthday” with thirty-plus other people at Brian Keene’s Bram Stoker Awards afterparty on Saturday night to Cynthia Pelayo’s child.

Fan conventions being one thing, I’d never attended an event built around the actual members of the industry, and I pitched this article to LitReactor as a survival guide for people like me whose work life, home life, financial concerns, or a fuck-tacular combination of all three has previously kept them from making anything but the bare minimum of appearances. 

Going in, I had one rule—“Always Say Yes (Safely)”—and followed it throughout those three days, scribbling notes, observations, and random quotes into my notepad. I came out the other side with six total suggestions/tips. 

Buckle in—here are the first three. 

1. We’re All Introverts Here

On Thursday morning, the first actual day of Stokercon, I walk into the bustling lobby of the Station Square Sheraton in Pittsburgh, and immediately, I’m terrified. Already, clutches of people are glomming together, either because they’d met up the night before, or they had deeper friendships than any I could name off the top of my head at that moment.

I circle the room, very cocktail party correct externally, but internally wondering if my little notepad is going to be my only interaction, and if I’ll drift through the entire weekend like the Ghost Of The Unknown Writer. This will happen to you, too. You’re never alone as long as you have your crippling anxiety. 

Conferences are built around schedules of things one can be an audience to, sure, but conferences are made by the various people you encounter, wherever you are.

As I’m completing my circuit, however, Aaron Dries, the writer of Cuts To Care and an old friend from the Scares That Care days, shouts “Paul!” in his Australian burr from across the lobby. 

I learn that he and writers Paul Tremblay and Jonathan Lees are planning on visiting Monroeville Mall, setting for the original Dawn of the Dead and where I hung out as a teenager, chain-smoking Newports between dishes of cheap Chinese food. Relaying this to everyone gets me drafted as navigator. Ten minutes after arriving at Stokercon, I leave Stokercon, squished with Dries and Lees into the backseat of an Uber (Tremblay, being two inches taller than me, gets the front seat).

Here’s the point—being writers (and I’m assuming this is true in any profession where the majority of the work is done solo), most of our connections occur through social media. In actual meatspace, we scan a person’s face, then their badge, as we try to square memories of avatar pics with the folks in front of us. I didn’t notice this at first, but once I do, I see it constantly.    

If you can recognize it for what it is—a Nat Geo Special of introverts trying to be social—you can start to relax. You’ll find your connections.

2. The Con Does Happen At The Bar (And Everywhere Else)

The con does happen there—tropes are tropes for a reason, apparently—but it also happens everywhere else. 

Stokercon had their entire weekend on Scribd, an app that detailed all the readings, panels, and presentations. In the weeks leading up to the conference, I’d loaded up a schedule that would’ve kept me running if I’d actually followed it (spoiler alert: I didn’t), but I kept one mental eye on the idea of the bar, and what might happen there.

It was at the bar that I hung out with writer Jess McHugh (Hares In the Hedgerow) and met Sarah Read (The Bone Weaver’s Orchard), Gemma Amor (Six Rooms), and C.W. Briar (Sticks and Stones), among others. It’s where I finally met and had lunch with editor Michael Bailey, who I’ve worked with on, among many other things, my first book, Bones Are Made To Be Broken.  It’s where I discussed the glory of Tubi’s schlocky horror section with Patrick Barb.

But the con also happened at a restaurant called Tupelo Honey, when Dries, Lees, Tremblay, and I compared handwriting (Lees has the best).  It was at a hole-in-the-wall sushi bar with Bailey, Patrick Frievald, and others, where we discussed A.I. writing. It occurred in the hallways, helping writers craft their pitches for meetings with editors and agents, and outside, smoking cigarettes with writer Evelyn Freeling during the Bram Stoker Awards on Saturday night. 

Conferences are built around schedules of things one can be an audience to, sure, but conferences are made by the various people you encounter, wherever you are. It’s all going to depend on what you want to actually do as each moment arises.

3. FOMO Doesn’t Exist

In my head, FOMO (“fear of missing out”) is one part alienation and one part imposter syndrome—of course those pictures you see on social media, or anecdotes you hear, are not going to include you; you’re not cool enough. 

I arrived in Pittsburgh on Wednesday night, staying with family, and already my socials were bursting with photos chockablock with people I knew. But I wasn’t in them. I was exhausted from the drive, I had dogs to calm, I had family to visit because they were doing me the solid of watching my dogs over the weekend, but, still—I wasn’t in those photos and, honestly, a part of me thought, “Of course you’re not; why would you think you deserve to be?”

But: you’re never missing out if you allow yourself to go where you want instead of where you think you should be.  Example: I had planned to attend two panels on Thursday night but instead chose to spend six hours at the bar with McHugh and a rotating cadre of writers and readers, eating trail mix and drinking Coke after Coke because I wanted to. 

I blew off my entire Friday schedule to wander with this person or that person, and while I was better at keeping to Scribd on Saturday (actually being on a panel at nine in the morning probably helped), I gave myself the freedom to wander. 

I still missed out on things—including two brothers fistfighting in a bar down the street, complete with over-the-pool-table tosses—but I didn’t mind at all. I’ll get into this mindset more in part two, but the key here is that you can’t have FOMO or alienation when you’re actually where you want to be.

What about that imposter syndrome, though? Here’s a reminder you may or may not need—every professional, especially creative professional, feels imposter syndrome, no matter how well known they might be. At Keene’s afterparty, someone told me how much he loved Standalone.  Writer Jenny Kiefer (This Wretched Valley) gave me an enamel pin of my book, Everything Will Be All Right In the End, before I even properly met her. At a lunch I wandered into on Saturday, Keene looked at me while discussing that awkward place-the-face-game and said, “Paul, people know who you are,” before moving on to discussing concerts and old Marvel comics.

None of these rushed anecdotes cured my imposter syndrome, but they let me shove it to the back of my mind and remember I am where I wanted to be.

Until now, anyway, where it’s currently roaring, “Ohhhh, having lunch with Brian Keene, are ya? Ya fancy dickhead!”

Give me a minute to tamp down on that, and I’ll be back with my final three tips and suggestions in part two of this article.

Get Standalone at Bookshop or Amazon

Get Everything Will Be Alright in the End at Amazon

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