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SCARDiff 2014 logo

Pitching a novel is hard. Pitching it live, in front of an audience, is even harder. I know this because I did it last Sunday.

I was one of seven aspiring authors attending SCARdiff, Cardiff’s finest (and only) horror expo, which filled the suitably imposing chambers of the city’s Masonic Hall with an array of cosplayers, artists, tattooists, models, film makers and one very large Burmese python.

The expo, only in its second year, is co-organised by Wayne Simmons, author of Plastic Jesus, Flu and Drop Dead Gorgeous and is pitched as an event for fans, by fans. There was certainly an egalitarian atmosphere to the whole thing, with attendees, special guests and organisers all rubbing shoulders beneath the baleful gaze of the All-Seeing Eye, which seemed omnipresent, if not omniscient.

The ceiling of Cardiff Masonic Hall's main temple

The Masons are watching you!

Equally refreshing was the mix of ages (varied) and genders (about even) in attendance. I’ve been to several horror-heavy conventions over the years, where it was common to hear people bemoaning the lacklustre state of the genre, often in terms more usually employed by churchgoers fretting over dwindling congregations: ‘The public just don’t understand us!’ ‘Twenty years ago, we’d have filled a hall twice this size.’ ‘We’re not doing enough to attract young people.’ And so on. SCARdiff, on the other hand, felt effortlessly confident – even festive – and if it can be taken as a snapshot of the genre’s demographic, I’d guess that horror has a rich and multi-faceted future ahead of it. Less homogeneous than the past, perhaps, and with more tattoos and cleavage on display, but thriving.

Film fans were well catered for: writer/director James Plumb led a workshop for aspiring filmmakers, going into exhaustive but fascinating detail about the process of planning, shooting and marketing a low budget movie in the UK. You can never have too much fake blood, apparently. The workshop was followed by the premiere of Kerb Crawlers, Plumb’s new found footage exploitation film, in which five friends set out to make a snuff movie but find their victim is more than she seems. I must admit, it didn’t quite win me over, but it was remarkable to see what Plumb managed with a £6000 budget and an 11 day shooting schedule.

There was a special makeup effects face-off (quite literally) in the morning, as two makeup artists and their models tried to out-gore each other. There were book signings by Tim Lebbon and Adam Nevill. There were stalls selling indie comics and henna tattoos and sugar skulls and mummified fingers. There was a chamber full of exotic spiders, scorpions, the aforementioned python and, er… tortoises. (Next year’s break-out monster, perhaps?)

Makeup artist Jenny Jackson applies fake blood to a willing victim

Jenny Jackson, making someone beautiful

But my real reason for being there was Dragon’s Pen: the novel pitching session. On paper, it was the ideal opportunity; pitch a 50 word synopsis and a page of manuscript to a panel of four industry professionals and get immediate, face-to-face feedback. In front of a hall full of people. So keen was I to secure a place that I signed up within a minute of bookings becoming available and found myself in pole position. I would be pitching first.

The potential for embarrassment was clearly high, but I needn’t have worried. The panel (Christopher Teague of indie publishing imprint Pendragon Press, author and editor Adam Nevill, screenwriter and editor Scott Harrison and editor Dan Coxon), were forthright but encouraging, highlighting the bits that worked and explaining why other bits didn’t. My pitch, for instance, focused heavily on the predicament faced by my main character, but didn’t specify which sub genre the book fell into. (The panel guessed Urban Fantasy, which is half-right. It’s actually Supernatural Crime). My page of manuscript seemed to go over well, and I got a nice round of applause from the audience, which came as a relief.

Three quarters of the Dragon's Pen panel

And going first turned out to be quite a blessing, as I’d have struggled to follow the pitches that came afterwards. Six highly capable and entertaining pitches followed mine, and most of us retired to the bar to steady our nerves and swap notes afterwards. I suspect most of us will be back next year, pitching something new. I’m already looking forward to it.

Best of all, the experience forced me to really study my novel in a new depth, deciding exactly what it was (or was supposed to be) about. It highlighted some areas where I’d strayed off course, or fallen short. The rewrite will be a lot clearer as a result.

SCARdiff aims to equip fans to engage with each other and the genre on a new level. From my experience at least, it succeeded.