Last year, I attended Realm Makers for the first time. In fact, I was privileged to teach two electives there. There's a bit of a story behind our intersection. While my first two novels were published in the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association), I have for years vocally expressed concern about the lack of representation of the spec genre in Christian publishing circles. This goes WAY back. For example, in 2010 I asked Why 'Supernatural Fiction' is Under-Represented in Christian Bookstores and also conducted a Speculative Fiction Panel in which I queried about the state of the spec genre in Christian publishing and why, with the genre's prolific representation in mainstream culture, it was so poorly repped in Christian circles. After attending the ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) conference in Dallas in 2012 (that was my third or fourth writers conference), part of my "debriefing" included these thoughts:
Christian publishers have absolutely no idea what to do with speculative fiction. Or YA. Both are a very thin slice of the industry pie and often a marketing headache. A couple examples. Randy Ingermanson was one of the first authors to write speculative Christian fiction (some novels over a decade ago). He admitted he was planning to edit the books and re-introduce them into the general market. Why? Because spec-fic doesn’t sell well in the CBA. Another example: During the agent panel I attended, the question arose about YA lit and the agents’ response was sort of meh. In fact, Rachelle [my agent] mentioned that one of her teenage daughter’s all-time favorite series was Lisa Bergren’s River of Time (the first which won the 2012 Christy Award for best YA) which was later dropped by Cook… before the series ended. Her daughter was heartbroken. Bergren has since self-published the remainder of the series through CreateSpace. It’s a sad reminder of how orphaned those who write genres other than Romance or Historicals really are.
Issues had been brewing for some time between mainstream CBA / ACFW loyalists and writers of speculative fiction who continued to feel like misfits trapped in a parallel world of Romance and Amish fangirls. Even the Christy Awards, the premiere literary awards for Christian fiction, dropped their speculative fiction category saying that there simply were not enough entries. The Christys later re-introduced a “Visionary” Category which encompassed all the speculative fiction subgenres. This did not soften the continued sense that speculative fiction was an odd fit in contemporary Christian publishing circles.
In 2012, after attending the ACFW conference in Dallas, things appeared to come to a head. After a brief run-in between the spec cosplay crowd and the ACFW staff (which you can dig around elsewhere for), "the board [was] set, the pieces [were] moving," to quote a famous wizard. Of course, I did the curmudgeonly thing and challenged spec writers to get more serious. I suggested Maybe It's Time We Hung Up the Ol' Spock Ears, and my ears were roundly boxed. Sort of. Anyway, here's what I wrote:
It’s bad enough that Christian publishers are unsure what to do with speculative fiction writers. But must we compound this by acting like outsiders?
The first ever Christian writers conference I attended back in 2006 had a workshop for speculative fiction writers. Frankly, I was a little embarrassed to be in it. Why? Not only did it seem a tad cliquish and groupie-ish, next to the cerebral, visionary sci-fi and fantasy writers I’d come to love, these folks seemed liked goofballs.
And it didn’t help that some of them were wearing costumes.
Yes, I know that conventions and conferences draw out the nerds. And there’s nothing wrong with wearing a toga or brandishing a foam sword to the banquet. If dressing up like C3PO and rolling out the British accent is your thing, go for it. Also, I realize that spec writers dwell in a sort of perpetual Neverland, seeing the world through a unique prism of imagination that Historical Romance authors would run, shrieking from, with petticoat girded appropriately. Yeah, I get all that.
But being that Christian speculative fiction writers already seem out of place in the industry, it doesn’t help our cause to act so… out of place.
This kind of give-and-take, along with the angsty noodling of people who enjoy dressing up like elves and robots, finally gave way to something that had been in the works for a while. Realm Makers held its first ever conference in 2013. Including staff, roughly 90 participants attended. Pretty good for a first-time effort. The two years following has continued to see significant numerical growth (I believe that last year attendance was in the 150 range). Logging this kind of progressive growth is an important indicator of the health, vision, and relevance of a fledgling organization like RM.
According to their vision statement, Realm Makers exists,
According to their vision statement, Realm Makers exists,
To provide a faith-friendly symposium for writers and artists, focused on science fiction, fantasy, and all their sub-genres. Whether participating artists wish to gear their content for the inspirational or mainstream marketplace, they have a place at Realm Makers.
So while the tenuous history between spec authors and the CBA / ACFW may play a part, RM is less a reaction against and more a response to a much larger vision. What Christian spec authors have been saying for the longest -- that speculative fiction is a powerful and popular genre for readers and writers across the faith spectrum -- is the power source behind the RM steamship. While it is acknowledged that mainstream Christian fiction is a viable genre, with many fine authors, serving a valid purpose, we also wish to acknowledge the vast, under-represented lovers of faith and speculative fiction who often feel displaced by the consensus demographic of mainstream publishing.
Possibly the best reason I can give for considering to choose to attend Realm Makers 2016 is that developing relationships with other writers who have similar faith and fiction passions is incredibly important. Look, I am not a big conference person, I lean more to introvert than extrovert, don't do cosplay, can be socially awkward, and take stress meds. (Wow. This makes me sound like a head case!) I taught two electives at last years' conference. It was my first time in attendance. I was nervous. I sweat a lot. Yes, it helped that I knew so many people from online interaction. But that also contributed to the nerves. Nevertheless, by far my biggest takeaway was meeting and interacting with so many cool people. Yes, being yoked by our penchant for the weird played a part. It's a big relief to be able to mention Miskatonic University or a Rancor without being looked at like a loon. However, the sense of camaraderie and curiosity and friendliness is what lingered. Sure, this is probably the same spiel given by many conference reps. However, I found it to be hugely important. I know many writers are like me -- not a big people person, prefer to stay home and read or write, somewhat socially awkward. But let me encourage you -- Not only are writerly relationships important, but you may have more to offer to someone else than you think. So first I'd suggest that developing relationships with other writers who have similar faith and fiction passions is a huge thing.
Which leads to a second reason I'd suggest you consider registering for RM2016 -- Developing long-term industry connections is huge to your writing career. At this stage, RM is "small" enough to provide access to many talented and influential people. Last year, I rubbed shoulders with Robert Liparulo, Tosca Lee, Steve Laube, Kirk DouPonce, Dave Long, and others. These kinds of relationships can prove incredibly valuable to a long-term writing career. Perhaps my biggest surprise was when Donita Paul said that she'd read my blog. Gulp! There's plenty of attendees who will not fit the "celebrity" bill (sorry Ben), but can be valuable travelers along the journey (I hope this doesn't come off as me suggesting to we "use" people to climb the ladder of success, cause I'm not.) Aspiring cover artists, great editors who are just now forging a career, future beta readers and online critique partners, even indie press publishers will all be relatively accessible during the conference. In fact, one of the neat things about RM (and one reason they're able to keep their prices low) is because they utilize university campus facilities and dorms (this years' is Villanova). Because most attendees bunk in the dorms, it allows for lots of after hours discussions (something I'll be doing more of this year). All that to say, RM is a great place to meet industry folks and develop relationships with like-minded authors and editors that could prove valuable to a long-term career.
Finally, let me go out on a limb and say that the reason RM has shown continued growth over the last three years is because it has identified a genuine niche. Christian artists have long embraced the speculative genres. Whether it was George MacDonald's fairy tales, Tolkein's epic fantasy, or C.S. Lewis' space trilogy, believers have often seen the spec genres as a powerful tool of apologetic and inspirational storytelling. Which is one of the reasons why spec's under-representation in the Christian market is so troubling. You can find plenty of conferences on speculative fiction -- DragonCon, ComicCon, etc., etc. However, conferences that seek to integrate issues of faith, a biblical worldview, and theology with sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, are virtually non-existent. At the expense of sounding like an infomercial, RM may be tapping into an important growing trend in Christian art -- equipping and populating mainstream culture with "Christian" voices, ideas, representatives, and stories of the speculative, fantastical genre.
Anyway, there's a few reasons why I think you should consider attending Realm Makers 2016. Yes, I'll be teaching there again. (You can see my class descriptions HERE.) Yes, I'll definitely be bringing my stress meds and appearing socially awkward. And, no, I won't be dressing up like Robin Hood. (However, I may wear my Marvel socks.) Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to meeting new friends, seeing "old" ones, and encouraging a new breed of author to blaze new trails. You can register HERE.