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SELF-CARE FOR HORROR WRITERS, 2024 StokerCon Virtual Panel Report

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By Lee Murray

Striking a sustainable work-life balance for the long-game in horror takes time and experience. Eric LaRocca, Christa Carmen, Ace Antonio-Hall (Nzondi), Pamela Jeffs, and EV Knight offer their insights in a panel moderated by L. E. Daniels on how to protect our bodies and minds as we navigate dark fiction.

Recently, I had the pleasure to attend the Self-Care for Horror Writers panel offered in the virtual space at StokerCon 2024. Given the close alignment of the topic to the work of the HWA Wellness Committee and our Mental Health Initiative, this panel was a must-view for me, and I wasn’t disappointed. Expertly moderated by Bram Stoker-nominee and Wellness Committee member L. E. Daniels, the discussion was wide-ranging and engaging, with speakers offering insightful gems and tried-and-true strategies for maintaining well-being. Key points are summarised in this report.   

Daniels began by asking her panellists how they have developed a sustainable work-life balance for the long game that is writing, publishing, and writers’ events.

Opening the discussion, Nzondi admitted that, despite being a former teacher with an ingrained work ethic, he had struggled to balance work, family, and writing early in his career, but discovering that it takes 66 days to create a habit was a turning point. Thereafter, he endeavoured to write every day, either a page or just a paragraph, until writing became a habit, selecting locations with minimal distractions, even turning his phone over. By carving out time, Nzondi sent a message to the people around him that he was committed to writing, and that in turn helped his mental health. 

For EV Knight, writing every day wasn’t an option. “Babies don’t care about your schedule or your plans!” the OB-GYN said. Knight would berate herself if she failed to write every day, but she learned to be okay with writing full-time on weekend days instead, treating those days like a job. Other techniques included planning while showering, plotting while driving, and using Post-it notes to record ideas. “You don’t have to work by Stephen King’s schedule,” she said. “It’s about finding what works for you.” 

As a college student and later with a demanding job in retail, Eric LaRocca said he would also set himself weekend writing days. He now writes full-time for a living, but there are times when he doesn’t feel inspired, since creativity doesn’t always come when we are strapped to our desks. Like Knight, he recommended accepting the rhythm which works best for you. 

Christa Carmen writes lists, only she concedes that her lists are entirely unrealistic. It simply isn’t possible to fit all the things she wants to do in the hours she has available, what with her supply-chain job at Pfizer, a three-year-old daughter, the dog, and the gardening. Carmen continues to write her list of tasks, but she accepts that there is no chance of getting to it all. In terms of balance, she cited a Twitter thread by Jennifer Lynn Barnes (@jenlynnbarnes; 23 January 2020) which states: 

#1 One time, I was at a Q&A with Nora Roberts, and someone asked her how to balance writing and kids, and she said that the key to juggling is to know that some of the balls you have in the air are made of plastic & some are made of glass.

#2 And if you drop a plastic ball, it bounces, no harm done. If you drop a glass ball, it shatters, so you have to know which balls are glass and which are plastic and prioritize catching the glass ones.

Carmen acknowledged that her priorities changed based on this helpful principle. 

Short story specialist Pamela Jeffs is an interior designer, her profession teaching her that projects occur in steps, beginning with an initial brief through to the final product—it’s a concept she tries to apply to her writing. Like the other panellists, when she sits down to write she treats that time as if it were a job. Outside those times, she keeps a supply of notebooks to jot down ideas and inspirations. 

Daniels wondered if the panellists’ strategies had evolved alongside changes in their responsibilities, families, and bodie

For Jeffs, key changes included children and a move to part-time work, making her focus her strategy on better communication. “I’m a better person when I write,” she said. “I have dreams.” Jeffs claimed that involving children and partners in our dreams, letting them share in our celebrations and our process, allows them to better support us. 

Carmen revealed how she sees the opportunities in constraints, explaining that although her job has become more demanding, it isn’t particularly creative, which frees up her creativity for her weekend writing sprints. 

Knight agreed with points made by Jeffs, noting that for introverts or those with social anxiety, having supporters / partners to help break the ice or bolster your confidence at events can be a game-changer when your energy is dwindling. Moving from a toxic relationship to a supportive one, where her new partner brings her snacks and comes to events, has been another positive change. These days, Knight has switched from office calls to covering hospital shifts for other doctors, which means she doesn’t have to bring work home, freeing up her time to write.  

Nzondi said (Carmen’s) plastic & glass ball analogy had resonated for him, admitting that when he started his writing journey, he lacked support. After his divorce, Nzondi gathered people around him who would support his work and learned to ‘feed’ his soul through writing. 

Daniels then asked if panellists could flag any surprises that had either hindered or supported their wellbeing. How do you resolve or access them? She led with her own example of visits to the chiropractor, those chill-out moments with her ‘face in the hole’, which had helped her overcome writing blocks, on one occasion even asking for paper to jot down an idea she had been stuck on for weeks.  

A key surprise was the kind-hearted welcome panellists had received from the horror community.

“People generous with their time, reading my work, blurbing my work—that’s been a balm for my soul. Commenting and interacting with legends.”—Eric LaRocca

“Everyone is so helpful and excited… You are not alone—there is a whole family behind you.”—EV Knight

“Horror is special.”—L.E. Daniels

“I’ve worked with musicians, artists, actors. No one is as welcoming as the horror community.”—Nzondi

Jeffs agreed that in general there was a willingness among people above you to lift you up and pull you into their circle, but she warned that not all groups are supportive, and that it is okay to be protective of yourself if a group isn’t working for you. “Don’t take it personally. Just move on,” she suggests.  

Carmen had expected that having a child would preclude her from writing circles and writing. However, the surprise was discovering how her daughter had enriched her writing life, allowing Carmen to explore the world through her eyes. “It helps that she adores spooky shit,” Carmen added. Regarding social media, a troll review following the release of The Daughters of Block Island had sent her reeling. To stop the downward emotional spiral, Carmen wrote a letter to the spirit of her dead dog promising never to check the reviews. It worked. So far, she’s holding firm. 

Nzondi and LaRocca take a similar approach to reviews and social media, where people who don’t know you are able to comment in relative anonymity. They recommend scrolling by or withdrawing. Jeffs says that people can have their say, but she isn’t required to absorb it. Instead, she suggests maintaining a professional distance. 

“Shrug it off. Keep Moving. Write good stories. Hone my craft.”—Nzondi

Daniels steered the discussion towards navigating disappointment.

Nzondi described the time a literary agent appeared to take an interest in signing him, but after several months it became clear she had not read his work. Nzondi was demoralised and depressed but took heart when a friend said, “That wasn’t your home. That’s okay.” 

For her final question, Daniels noted that sometimes our work triggers readers. She asked: how do you handle reader disclosures of trauma or mental health issues by email/social media/in person at events? 

Daniels explained that she had expected that people might want to share their own stories of PTSD during the book tour for her novel Serpent’s Wake in 2018, and as a result she prepared some statements to use when approached. 

Jeffs said that with no background in mental health counselling, her own approach might be to acknowledge the readers’ feelings and hold space for them, a comment that Daniels endorsed. “People want to be heard; not given advice,” Daniels said. Giving out love, care, and attention was Nzondi’s recommendation. Carmen claimed that in these cases the writer has written what they have to say on the subject (for example, sexual assault, adoption, substance abuse), so all they need to do is be gracious and listen. And if the conversation becomes intrusive, she suggests taking the opportunity to step away. 

Knight gave examples of words and phrases that she has used in response to reader reactions to her novella Three Days in the Pink Tower, a story based on her lived experience of sexual assault and kidnapping as a teen: “We’re here though; we survived. Thank you for sharing. I give you the power to control what you want to do with it.” Knight notes that the book’s foreword explains what she hoped to achieve—including fashioning an ending which allowed her to take back control of her story. 

Finally, Nzondi described an occasion when a member of his writing group was triggered by something he’d written that was outside his experience, and it had been a helpful lesson. Nzondi suggests that if something isn’t part of your lived experience, particularly with regards to mental health, then either don’t write it, or support your work with deep research to ensure any representations are authentic. 

The panel ended with a round-up of the panellists’ upcoming projects and events. 

Key Learnings:

  • There are no rules!
  • Be kind to yourself. Go with the flow. 
  • Accept that you can’t do everything. Find what works for you.
  • Develop a habit of writing. Keep notes / be prepared for the eureka moments. 
  • Choose venues without distractions. 
  • Weekend sprints for the win! A resounding yes to partners bearing snacks.
  • Creativity and craft can occur when we are not sitting at our desks. 
  • Express your creativity needs to family and friends. Involve them in your writing dream. 
  • Nurture your team of supporters. Protect yourself where groups don’t work for you.
  • Reviews are for readers; you don’t have to read them. 
  • Social media is for scrolling; you don’t have to engage.
  • When writing trauma, be prepared to hold space for others.

[*It is a fact universally acknowledged that Eric La Rocca’s mom is the superstar of social media and one of his best supporters.]

  1. E. Danielspoet, author, editor; Aurealis Award winner and finalist as an editor, Australian Shadows Award finalist, and won first poetry prize in 1987. My novel, Serpent’s Wake: A Tale for the Bitten is a Notable Workwith the HWA’s Mental Health Initiative (PTSD). “Silk” is my first Bram Stoker Awards® nomination. 

Eric LaRocca is the Bram Stoker Award®-nominated and Splatterpunk Award-winning author of several works of horror and dark fiction, including the viral sensation, Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke. You can visit ericlarocca.com for more details.

Ace Antonio-Hall was born Acemandese Nzondi Hall. His work, Oware Mosaic, won the Bram Stoker Award® in 2019, making him the first African-American to win the novel category. Nzondi is also a two-time Honorable Mention winner of the Writers and Illustrators of the Future Award. View his website at nzondi (dot) com to see other works, like his recent novel, Lipstick Asylum (Omnium Gatherum Media) and hear his music, now playing on over 300 radio stations worldwide.

Christa Carmen is the two-time Bram Stoker Award-nominated author of The Daughters of Block Island, Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked, and the forthcoming Beneath the Poet’s House. Additional work can be found in Orphans of Bliss, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, and the Stoker-nominated anthologies, Not All Monsters and The Streaming of Hill House

EV Knight is a Bram Stoker award winning horror author who has published several novels, novellas, and short stories. Her writing often focuses on modern, relatable female characters both as protagonists and villains. She is a full-time practicing OB/GYN which she attributes to her ability to understand the female psyche beyond her own personal experiences.

Pamela Jeffs is an Australian horror author of six collections and 90+ short stories featured in various national and international publications. Her work has shortlisted for numerous awards including twelve Australian Aurealis Awards (including 3 current nominations) and three Ditmar awards. 

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