Saturday, 29 July 2017

Now Teaching: Week -5

I will be coming back after a year away from teaching. There were nine weeks until the start of school (which is right after labour day) but any teacher who doesn’t come in at least once in the week prior to that (to figure out classroom setup, make photocopies, et cetera, all at no pay) is crazy. So if that’s “Week 0”, we’re at “Week -5”.
Previous INDEX Next

I’m currently on vacation. She who is my wife suggested Stratford a couple weeks ago, and as I came out of my depression I mused about returning to ConBravo, and nothing happened to mess that up. I have managed to avoid driving on the 401 thus far! Went to Stratford by coming down through Barrie, and visited my parents via Waterloo. Done 400 and 403 freeways though, and can’t avoid it tomorrow. Meanwhile, hotel key card never works on the first try, and I should get a new memory card for my camera, to stop having to delete old pictures.

Item counts run Sunday (July 23) to Saturday (July 29).

Step Count 2016: About 63,660.
STEP COUNT 2017: Over 76,700. 24 stars.
Hotel’s about 8 mins from the Con, so most stars were Stratford & running with Anne-Lise (but then +2).

-Reparation of Air Conditioner, queued comic, then went to ConBravo (solo).

School Email Count: 3 New (0 sent)
(All “spam”: Message from OTP on planning, an OCT issue no one asked for, and EFG on interest rates.)

 -Nope. Unless downloading “Processing” counts.

 -Recapped half of CanCon 2016 in 4 posts.
 -Wrote an “Epsilon Project” serial entry.
 -Did up rankings for over 100 episodes of TV’s “Andromeda”.
 -Did up to six character sketches for commission references.

 -Dinner with friends Monday.
 -Yoga Tuesday.
 -A tour, concert, play and a musical at Stratford.
 -ConBravo events.

 -Finish recap about CanCon 2016 (from Sept)
 -Recap for ConBravo 2017
 -Write a TANDQ article on Polling and Bias
 -Write a post about types of praise/encouragement
 -Organize all the paper clutter from school
 -Organize all the electronic clutter from school
 -Weed through/organize emails
 -French Citizenship project
 -Binging Anime (RWBY borrowed from Scott)
 -Read some of the books sitting at my desk
 -Complete old fusion fanfic
 -Do an entire (illustrated?) series on “Bias”

RH Stress Level: 0 (Flash Move)

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

CanCon 2016: Characters + Mental Health

Can*Con 2016, the Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts & Literature took place from September 9-11th in Ottawa, Ontario. I’m finally doing the writeup 11 months later... well, that’s how long it took me to get to it in 2015 too. I also blogged about 2014 and about 2013, if you’re a completist.

These posts are recaps, with very little colour commentary on my part. Some are near word-for-word recaps, others are a summary. This is the former, as I more or less transcribe using my secretary skills. Quotes are close to exact, but edited for flow, and errors are my own.

The 10am panel on “Character Arc and Mental Health” included a handout for Crisis Mental Health Services numbers in the area. (Might find it useful if there’s a trigger, or we can pass it along to someone, so let me know if you want details.) On the panel were Lynne MacLean (moderator), Fanny Darling, Ada Hoffmann, Susan Forest and Hayden Trenholm. After acknowledging the land is the unceded ground of the Algonquin People, the structure was given as a 30 min panel discussion, then opening to the audience.

First question being, “What brings you to this panel?
Hayden: He is a publisher and writer of SF for about 30 years. He’s always been sensitive and aware of issues surrounding mental health critically in the workplace, developing accommodation policies early in his career. He was also about 70 ft away from the shooter of Nathan Cirillo at the war memorial in 2014. PTSD. Enhanced his understanding.
Susan: She has about 20 short stories published. Was a teacher for a number of years, and for five years worked with emotionally disturbed children living in a campus setting. Most of them either abused or with conduct disorder, having autism, multiple personalities, tourettes, or a number of those. Also alcoholism in her family and children with Attention Deficit. Be aware of invisible things people don’t see, people who say “you don’t need help, you’re smart” or “you’re lazy”.
Ada: Has Asperger Syndrome and has dealt with mental issues running in her family. Won’t get carried away talking about the former except by request. Makes a point of trying to write stories with characters who have autism, and there’s AustisticBookParty on the web, who gets it wrong and right and why.
Fanny: A long history of depression runs to the family, and she’s the mother of an evil genius-level intelligent non-binary child with anxiety. High performing, so people want her to “just calm down”, that’s Fanny’s personal in.
Ada: Because people can always calm down, you just have to say it.
Fanny: “I don’t know who gets more frustrated, her or me.” Has a character misdiagnosed with biomorphic body disorder as a way of dealing. With YA writing, she’s noticed that there’s a disparity - women get eating disorders and overly emotional, boys get autism and save the world.

Lynne said that moves nicely into: What are the tropes and stereotypes about mental health?
Susan: One of you talked about the evil mad person who takes over, I was reading a story that relates to that. It’s great, if you want a horror story with mass murder, but if you just use one note of “they’re crazy!” we have no further insight into the psychology.
Ada: It’s an outside idea that people who are dangerous are therefore violent. In fact, they’re more likely to be the victims of violence, not the other way. It’s only with drugs or alcohol that you get the increased risk.
Hayden: The idea that mental illness is sociopathic is a stereotype. Statistically, sometime this weekend you will meet someone, as 1 in 200 are diagnosed on that spectrum. They’re not necessarily evil geniuses. Perhaps driven, a higher percentage are found in CEOs, but they’re fully functional. That’s an example where, in fiction, we tend to portray things as one way or another. Really they’re not necessarily the same cases, maybe the same spectrum. Also in fiction, we tend to try to turn a challenge into something special, the character has helpful qualities. But the reality is mental health issues, much like physical ones, are limitations. Barriers that can be overcome, yes, but portraying [the issue] as a gift from gods is doing a disservice.
Ada: Psychopaths is probably a [stereotypical] thing, but the way they’re diagnosed can be a problem. A woman being difficult can be a “borderline personality disorder”, which is not very helpful to the person. We try to do the best we can around the barriers, but lots feel the language of “overcoming” is not very accurate. Neurodivergence, it’s not necessarily curable. Overcoming implies training ourselves out of it, when it’s not that, it’s that they figure out how to work within it and still be successful. Sometimes different from what a doctor perceives too.

Lynne wondered about character arc and the journey, what’s the difference?
Ada: Strongly believe that we need characters where it’s about them, but also where they’re normal people. And their thing might influence how they do something, but the story’s not about it.
Susan: Agreed.
Hayden: Every character needs to have a desire, it’s about how characters fulfil desires, and how it is for that character. Honest writing won’t impose an external or secondary set of values, but make that legitimate in their own right. “One can say I’ve had a PTSD experience, now I can write about it.” Except not really, still requires thought and research. The way the writing profession treats mental illness has a lot to be desired, we’ve only recently moved beyond homosexuality being a mental illness.
Susan: On you can talk about PTSD having experienced the idea; speaking as a parent with three children who have learning disabilities - they’re all different! One experiences emotionally, the other has no trouble there but can’t get up or hold a job, and the third is highly successful in his profession because he can tell other people to create schedules. It’s like, if someone said to me, “You’re a Canadian, what films do Canadians like?” Well, I can’t represent all Canadians.
Ada: I agree with that, but by the same token, someone with the experience of being, and not just doing the research, does give you an extra edge. Research is always valuable ... there’s more I was going to say, I forgot.

Lynne: In discussions before the panel, Hayden you wanted to look at intentional versus subconscious, want to elaborate here? (pauses) You can say no.
Hayden: It’s really an individual thing, how you approach that. Sometimes, I’ll think this character is interesting because they have some issue or different view. Sometimes, a story will thrust a character forward for me. It’s a combination of both. When I advise people when teaching writing, remember this is not about you, this is about the character you’re writing about. You have to express their desires as honestly as you can. You have to separate those elements of character from your own personality. A consistent world view is needed within that character, be as honest and engaged as you can. The arc will take care of itself once you have an understanding of desire and the tools available.

Lynne: Can anyone think of writers or books that have handled it poorly or well?
Ada: I’m the reviewer here, so I can provide many examples, but they’re mostly from the autism side. Several recommendations: Corinne Duyvis’ “On the Edge of Gone”, an apocalypse book, with limited room in shelters. Rose Lemberg, “Birdverse” stories, well developed autistic characters is a larger setting. Mitha Khan, a couple short stories in “Strange Horizons”, very political. Not every story needs to be political. Will give the floor up to others before bad examples.
Fanny: A book “More Happy Than Not” and “why don’t have I have the authors’ name”. [Possibly Adam Silvera] Has the idea of a “cure” of depression and taking sad memories away. Good, dealing with whether you need to get fixed. Also will take a controversial stance on “Thirteen Reasons Why” (Jay Asher), with suicide tapes getting delivered to people who caused the suicide.
Ada: Especially if those people have their own mental issues.
Fanny: “I didn’t think it was powerful but rather somewhat dangerous.”
Susan: “Strangers Among Us” anthology - rats there go my notes (types) - there were some other stories from the book. Susan doesn’t know about schizophrenia for instance, but a wonderful story is “What you see (when the lights are out)” by Gemma Files. Don’t know if it’s accurate but it was convincing. Amanda Sun’s “What Harm”, the entire story is what harm can someone do, he ends up very powerful. Also a number of stories that may not be about mental illness specifically but: James A Gardner, “The dog and the sleepwalker”, who are different because everyone else is augmented and can talk to each other mentally. So the loneliness of being different. And a game called “Depression Quest”, has anyone played it? It’s a try to get through your day interactive story. Some options you click on, you can’t do.
Ada: They’re crossed out. And the later in the day it is, the more things are crossed out.
Susan: It gives you the experience.

Ada: A good story about a psychopath who isn’t killed is called “Never the Same”, a short story on the internet by Nathan Bame [?? I haven’t been able to verify spelling].
Hayden: And “American Psycho” (Bret Ellis), which is one of the most disturbing books you’ll ever read, if you can get through it. It’s written in first person. Portrays a person who is climbing the corporate ladder, a psychopath who sees people as debits or credits to him, and that’s all they are. The essence of what a sociopath is. There’s also one called “I, Sociopath” (Ian Edwards?) a woman lawyer who admits she has ruined people’s lives and careers for the fun of it.
Ada: The other question to ask in general is, is the book being written first hand, with a sympathetic experience, or for shock value.
Hayden: In the case of “American Psycho” most think the writer is a psychopath. The book was made into a movie, accurate or not accurate, I don’t know, I don’t know him. Two other books that go back to the beginnings of SF: “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley, how you create a completely normal, happy society, through use of drugs. American Medical Association gone mad, we classify people as not contributing or not normal, therefore there’s an obligation to normalize them.
Ada: If it’s about medicalization, then only some people would be getting it?
Hayden: Where Huxley was coming from is that human behaviour can be transformed, and political was also coming out of Fournier Theory, thinking he would save all, which hasn’t happened. The other one classing people who disagree and who are not willing to change their views as “mentally disturbed” was [Orwell’s] “1984”.
Ada: I don’t recall that part.
Hayden: It’s through the whole book, the main character.
Ada: ‘Thought Crime’ isn’t a disability.
Hayden: It’s about controlling mental states and removing people who are dissident from power. Approaching people who have problems as, 'we have to deal with them', is not the best. It’s a normative judgement on values, which is a dangerous theme. An element, which is a political component of the way we deal with people not in the mainstream.
Susan: Talking of an entire society gone mad, “Songbud” (??) takes place in Northern Korea, there are sub-characters who steal airplanes and lead, everyone else in the society is mad.
Ada: Mad as in mental illness, or mad as in this is ridiculous, so call it mad. The latter is a problem [damaging], don’t do that.
Hayden: As “1984”, based on a political decision.
Ada: We want to avoid keeping on doing that.
Hayden: The point of science fiction is to show the consequence of the problem. We have an American political candidate [in Trump] who keeps dismissing people as losers, dissonants, and people who need to be changed.

Lynne: I think it’s time for questions from audience.
(Someone asked about some of the intersectionalities. Depression + Anxiety too, how much of that is because of being on a spectrum.)
Susan: I’ve done a lot of research on ADD, there’s a 60% overlap with learning disabilities. Incarceration, failed marriages, does one cause the other? Maybe, don’t think that’s established, but high correlation.
Fanny: I feel it would help if, in YA, we stop making them all hero stories too. “Oh, look at the brave trans person.” Why not a normal character, happy ending. I want the stories that give hope, but it can be unrealistic to the person reading it. You don’t have to make them all these brave, trailblazing heroes.
Ada: A related issue to the question is people thinking it’s just a thing you have, and we’ll try to take it away. Some of the best treatments for autism, it’s forcibly training the person to not look autistic. When you’re subjected to this, because of how it’s being done, you end up with depression or anxiety or PTSD - because “you must not act in these ways that are normal for you”, so you end up causing other issues.

(Question, in terms of writing fiction, how realistic or desirable is it to have a character acknowledge their own issue, versus having it include behaviour?)
Ada: You mean in stories about finding out?
(Clarification, more on having the issue, don’t know how to handle it.)
Susan: That’s a great idea, go write that story.
Hayden: Not all characters need to be self aware. It adds a deepness to the character. A character who constantly fights with alcoholism, their way of dealing with it may be have a bottle of bourbon everywhere he can, to “get through the day without opening one of those bottles”. There’s limitations to solve problems; even when not drinking, he’s thinking about it, it stands in his way. Whether characters are fully aware, it’s going on, and people will even do that with physical disabilities. Hayden notes he can no longer squat, from aging, “I forget that limitation all the time”. You go with it, you move forward, people are always in a conversation with themselves all the time. People have probably said “am I normal?”, whether it was high school, or last week. Would your characters have that conversation? Am I being stupid or imagining things? Characters have to understand at some level.
Susan: One of the hallmarks of alcoholism is denial. So you could write two different stories, one where a person is aware and one where they’re not.

(Question, from earlier, about psychopaths in boardrooms. Also seen in high schools? Because teenage girls will register on spectrum if you go through the test, do you think there’s a way to address this phenomenon while still being respectful?)
Susan: To rephrase a bit, you’re saying it’s a normal stage of development. That’s a cool idea.
(Audience member agrees, it is a phase. Child psych literature.)
Fanny: They’ve made hay out of that in so many teenage movies, the old trope is the mean girl who controls everything else.
(Audience member, so how do you deal with them growing up and remaining that way, versus other people.)
Fanny: Write it!
Lynne: It would be interesting to see them diverge.

(Question, pitfalls of writers using mental health issues to deepen a character, and how they can avoid that.)
Fanny: Making it a quirk, right.
(Clarifies, or a plot device.)
Susan: If I can jump in here, it’s dealing with a situation that’s very common through all of writing. “Some disagree with me I’m sure”, but we are voice appropriators, otherwise “I can only write about a 63 yr old white woman in Calgary”. So whenever we appropriate voice - men write female characters and vice versa - we have a responsibility to do that respectfully. There’s a wonderful article (can’t recall author), a black science fiction writer from the States who said, “imagine a future in space with no black people”, that’s what it looks like. So do your research, “don’t leave us out”. In the history of advertising, there was a revolution in the 1940s (or whenever) when they realized there’s a market for black people. But at the same time, beyond research, hope you can get a beta reader for that legitimacy.
Ada: On topic of plot devices, say “does this character just exist to be useful to the non disabled people”. It happens surprisingly often. If a character has their own things, and it’s not a desire to be cured, then you’re on your way.
Hayden: It’s incumbent when you’re writing outside your experience, you need to talk to people and discover what their experiences are. Not just mental issues, but people from other cultures as well. (He mentions a Sikh character and returning to a temple.) You can’t learn by reading, I went to a bunch of them, they said depends on what branch. In some branches, you can’t, in others “welcome back”, so Hayden had to discover a legitimate path for this character. It was a turning point in the character’s life and values, returning to traditions, he had to make that authentic. To write authentic and honestly, ask yourself, is this what the character wants, or is this what I want. “I need the character to do this”, means you’re going down the wrong road. In novels you often have 20 characters you’re juggling, and it’s hard, this person only appears in 4 chapters, but you’ll get caught. (Mentions a story of when he was signing books one day.)

Lynne: What has been your greatest challenge in terms of writing or editing or publishing?
Fanny: A problem was, it turns out my character is NOT mentally ill, then she’s very angry at people who let her believe that she was. It’s trying to be respectful to the process of treating an illness that it turns out she doesn’t have. Idea of, am I crazy or am I not, didn’t want it to be, “oh good I’m not crazy”, it’s still a process of making that real.
Ada: Something I’ve noticed in autistic characters. From your own experience you might think it’s easier, but two things that can happen, that don’t happen the other way. You start second guessing yourself. You’re so close to the issue, so involved, you’re reviewing, and you think we need more of this and this and politics, and then with your own experience you wonder “what if I’m not the type of autistic person who needs to do this”. It’s the second guessing you’re taught to do when you’re marginalized. The flip side of that is, sometimes you have no problem, you know exactly how this works, yet think “nobody but me is going to understand this”. And sometimes they don’t. You send it to editors and they ask to explain it more, and you try. They’re not used to thinking on that wavelength, they still don’t get it.
Hayden: I think that’s a true generalization for all writers, struggling to transcend our own experience. We as individuals develop a shorthand for our own thoughts, to try and remove yourself, embody someone who’s not us. “For years people were convinced I kept bottles of bourbon around my house.”
Ada: That other person who’s not me is always somehow an able bodied white man.
Susan: Writing is a communication, how do you get your ideas across. Ask, is this the primary focus of the story, or an element that informs the story but is not central. Years ago, “Writers to the Sea” was an Irish play that she directed. “I decided I wanted all my actors from Calgary to use Irish accents.” Got an Irish university professor to give a session on that, and the prof watched the rehearsal and said, you got a good “stage Irish accent”. And it was convincing to the audience, but it wasn’t about access, it was about other themes. As another anecdote, a woman wanted a child integrated into other classrooms, to have her kid next to the one who’s going to be a doctor. For them to see and experience what isn’t normally seen in classrooms now. There’s nothing wrong with diversifying your cast, even if it’s not the prime focus of the story, because it shows a more complete world.
Ada: I don’t disagree at all, did I say something [related]?
Susan: About a character only there to inform the audience?
Ada: No, not to informing them difference exists, it’s only if they’re there for other characters, and once they solve the problem we never see them again.
Lynne: There’s time for one more question.

(Question, getting a narrow divergent situation past an editor, to the readers who can relate, it seems an unsolvable problem?)
Ada: Some editors are more clueful than others. If you can’t find one, there is also self publishing.
Susan: There are calls for stories with more diverse characters.
Ada: There is more of that. Problem is I’ll write that, send it to the diversity call and they say “I don’t get it, that’s weird”. They can’t live up to what they say. But it is still a good sign they do it.
Hayden: (something I missed, due to the door) Not every story is for every editor. If you bring something new, ultimately you will get published - but rejected way more often.
Ada: Not saying every story should be, saying if your goal is two write a story that will resonate, and there aren’t editors taking that type, it’s an extra hurdle.
Lynne: Going to call it here.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to comment if you have particular thoughts on mental health or something else.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

CanCon 2016: Story Structure

Can*Con 2016, the Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts & Literature took place from September 9-11th in Ottawa, Ontario. I’m finally doing the writeup 11 months later... well, that’s how long it took me to get to it in 2015 too. I also blogged about 2014 and about 2013, if you’re a completist.

These posts are recaps, with very little colour commentary on my part. Some are near word-for-word recaps, others are a summary. This is the former, as I pulled in my secretary skills to transcribe Friday night's 8pm "Story Structure" panel to the best of my abilities. Quotes are close to exact, but edited for flow, and errors are my own.

We began with panelist introductions, while answering the question: “What is Story?”
Leah Bobet: Editor, writer, bookseller. Story is the natural result of our tendency to pattern match.
Ranylt Richildis: Editor spec fiction, publish unusual pro styles or structures. “You had a great answer.” For her, story is momentum, a rollicking, rhythmic prose. Some need plot.
Sheila Williams: Editor Asimov’s, a huge range from traditional to innovative. Biggest thing is story takes her attention and holds it all the way through. “I feel satisfaction”, not necessarily happy but satisfaction.
Sam Morgan: Agent, which came from doing data entry for literary agency, talked with boss about story structure. “I hate going last on such a weird question, you’ve all said such wonderful things.” A story is an idea, with a start and an end.
Nina Munteanu, panel moderator, teaches writing at UofT and George Brown. Story is something her students constantly play around with, she gives them this in the first class. Story vs Something Else. It’s something with consequence, as opposed to an anecdote, which might take you somewhere but doesn’t have meaning.

This panel is about “narrative structure”. So what is THAT, and why does a story need or not need it?
Sam: From his perspective as an agent, he’s hoping for commercial stories he can take to a publisher and get paid for it. (Something that will appeal to a lot of people.) Lots of people have found patterns in previously successful stories, can apply such structure to your story to make it commercial.
Sheila: What’s the secret?
Nina (mod): You’re from all sorts of industries. What are we looking at? So much is involved there.
Leah: The way she looks at structure, if we’re going to go into something as broad as what is it, would be that every element of “story” is one of the tools in your toolset. The frame upon which you hang your building. Which may be a barn or the CN Tower, but it’s one of the things you use to achieve the effect you want to achieve.
Ranylt: It’s a skeleton that you hang the character on, the theme on, the metaphor on.

Sheila: A couple years ago, someone reviewing “Asimov’s”, one thing said was “everything’s in third person”. There’s so many things to consider when laying out an issue, and didn’t think about having “first person” to balance stories. Third person is the traditional narrative structure in stories. It is great to change things up (not in every story), but to bring things up that are different from the normal structure.
She recently published a story by someone which is a set of lists that tells a story. Also “Final Exam”, which is a multiple choice test, but you get this Lovecraftian story as you read. Sheila went through as an editor to make sure the key matched; a fun, different use of structure. A few years ago, one was impossible to read the way it was written: Some mediocre grad student split the universe, so two stories run simultaneously. The characters know what’s happening, but your brain can’t do that in parallel. So if someone died in one universe, you have to read StoryA before you get to it in StoryB. These things can be very rewarding, but cannot fill an entire issue with it.
Ranylt: You have to give the reader a break when you’re putting together a collection. Have chewy stories with more traditional ones.

Leah: Something different, with printed HyperFiction, managed to stage a live reading. Gave readers a voice, it was choral, it was beautiful. The interesting thing with non-traditional format and structure is, it’s hard to find work that’s up to the same narrative quality. Basically it’s hard to do both those things at the same time very well. Can lean on one as a bit of a crutch.
Audience Member: There’s need for structure underneath to tell the story. I’ll want first act, second act...
Sheila: Can have a really good story delivered differently from usual. Like going to play, but you’re walking through a play. In this room is a certain scene, in that room another one. It’s a different experience but can be the same story, might be Macbeth.

Nina: Structure and format. “That’s why I asked, what is story.” Comes back to a story being told.
Leah: At the end of the day, you still have to have a satisfying answer to “why did this happen”.
Ranylt: It’s good when going crazy with structure, to use it reinforce the theme of the story. As an example, if stuck in a house, questing, have narrative shaped as a house, as walls, it’s self-reinforcing.
Leah: Consider stuff that has that resonance, every single element of craft resonates with every other one. David Mitchell, he’s an obvious author for structure, and while his stuff doesn’t always work for her, “Cloud Atlas” does. It’s about iterative cycles, it’s not just a pretty hat you’re putting on, it’s integral to the story.

Nina: What about Theme and Metaphor, how do they inform structure, if they do.
Sam: College level essay questions!
Nina: Perhaps pick a weird structure, say why it works. We want different stuff.
Sheila: Back to that two universe story, by Will Macintosh. Doing a double slit experiment, you can have waves or particles. (You don’t know what’s going on until you kill the cat or whatever.) The metaphor is physics, using that to tell the story in this parallel tale. It’s confusing, you have to read one and then the other, yet the whole story is life and death and a tragic love story, while the entire structure is a metaphor for science. That’s one reason it works (aside from he’s a good writer).

Nina: Are we doing more of that now than ever before? Is “Hero’s Journey” a crutch for a lot of stuff that’s commercial?
Sam: The smartest media consumers have the Hero’s Journey ingrained, so we can play with it more now. Which is why you can have split stories or stories in reverse. Since everyone knows what’s going to happen, we can interrupt it.
Nina: Suggesting readers are more sophisticated.
Sheila: It’s that they’re in on the joke. Someone watching original “Star Trek” today might wonder about the lack of a continuing storyline, as in “Doctor Who”. They expect a narrative arc.
Ranylt: It’s short stories on TV instead of novels on TV.
Sheila: Which adjusts how one watches the episodes. It was not hard to unlearn the idea of storytelling on television to watch stand alones.
Ranylt: We can give early novelists more credit too. “Blank Page” in the middle of a book with doodles, a sophisticated novel for a rudimentary audience... it was a huge hit.
Sheila: Look at Alice in Wonderland.

Leah: In the 1500s, people were working on the revenge angle. When something gets ingrained, people start to pick at it and see what they can do with it. It’s a cycle.
Sam: The difference may be far smaller than the difference in what people are doing now. Especially in YouTube TV shows, which aren’t really the “standard shows” any more. Watching people play video games, or do character creations (or unboxings). What we’re experiencing has happened, but now to a far greater extent.
Leah: Wasn’t sure about bringing up Interactive Fiction. How many played Zoe Quinn’s “Depression Quest”? Not as a game per say, a clickable story. The reason it got so much press is, it’s a “Day in a Life” of a person dealing with depression. Some options are crossed out. See what she did there? Using that format (and you couldn’t tell the story in another format) she’s created an empathy machine. That visceral understanding. There’s things we can do with technology to tell stories that are so much more impactful.
Sheila: We’re learning how to use the “new media”, which is the best part. First games and interactive fiction was very basic, their storyline wasn’t compelling. Artists hadn’t figured out how to take advantage. What’s exhilarating now is being able to take styles and use art to it’s fullest, that level of sophistication had to take time.
Leah: There’s more giant’s shoulders to sit on now.
Sheila: Exactly.

Sam: Author “Ryan North”, two recent books. “To Be or Not To Be”, choose your own adventure version of Hamlet, also Romeo & Juliet. We have those monsters of English Lit that everybody knows. Sometimes for “Romeo & Juliet” you get them as dinosaurs, and go “oh that makes sense.”
Leah: Not to stray too far, but changing the structure can change the relationship the reader has with the text.
Sam: Like the short story [of two universes] where you can interact differently.
Sheila: And you can choose to read either book first, but there’s moments where a different reader will say they have to go back.
Sam: Would you have taken it on if you’d read StoryB first?
Sheila: Oh yeah. It’s interesting. [Considers] As an internet site, websites were not sophisticated enough yet to run both down one page. And doing a podcast of every story, we can’t do simultaneous podcasts either.

Ranylt: Sometimes gets stories where she can format it with InDesign but not WordPress. “You literally have to reject stories because of the formatting.”
Leah: A poem running down the page.
Ranylt: Couldn’t publish that, WordPress would spit on it.
Sam: “And I couldn’t sell it.”
Sheila: There’s a story making use of modern technology and multimedia, reporting an avalanche and skiers killed. The story of the avalanche is visual, to the skier coming down the page. Could try to do that in print but it wouldn’t have the same impact. But it took a team to put that together, moving away from the individual author. So much more can be done with tech, we don’t even know yet what it is. That’s the fun and joys of being an editor.
Sheila: One funny story from Asimov’s. The day we opened to digital submissions, the 4th submission, the author was trying to do this story that had computer cards. He was philosophically opposed to a magazine that didn’t take digital, yet this work had to be published in a print magazine, because of the images.

Nina: We’re sort of halfway, so any questions for the panel?
Audience/Susan: Piggyback from earlier on people who, over lifetimes, learn structure. There’s cultural differences in structure. Kids who like anime, “Last Airbender” with a very North American sensibility versus “Princess Mononoke”.
Leah: Seen the Ghibli documentary? He’s pantsing later things as they’re animating the earlier stuff.
(Clarification offered, akin to vending machine.)
Leah: There’s definitely a cultural foundational idea of a story built into the back of our heads. Anime is a good visual example, trying to think of a good text example.
Sheila: “I should have my younger daughter here.”
Ranylt: You can tell Canadian from Norwegian for some reason.
(Audience: We use rising action, they have an equivalent but it’s fundamentally different. What makes good writing?)
(Audience: Some studies showing language and grammar can structure stories. English and Turkish.)
Sheila: We get used to our way as the inevitable way.
Leah: With international and diverse authors, one of the things that comes up is recognizing what they produce as story.

Audience: What of nonlinear time-wise structure? When customs officers suspect people are lying, they’ll ask about things in a different order. It feels more true if you can tell it in a different order versus you’ve memorized things a certain way.
Sheila: “When it works I love it.” The author knows the big picture, and eventually we’re going to know it, even if it’s in a roundabout way. Having a very different experience.
Nina: Something an author needs to do for that?
Sheila: Be really clever.
Sam: Structurally, you have to look at the subtext of what’s happening, and what you learn from each piece of information. If you do that, you’ll still have the same graph of rising and falling action. Where it fails, is if you’re jumbling timelines just to look cool. Be flashing back to get a piece you’ll need for what’s next, to follow an underlying arc.
Leah: Seed things well, but also consider Hal Duncan’s novel “Vellum”. It makes you swim your way out of confusion, after great prose at the start to get you in. Putting down this piece next (instead of another) means your picture changes now; it’s the process of all the pictures on the way to the big one. IF you can make that emotional arc integrate with the concerns of the novel, then you’re done like dinner. It’s fantastic. But it’s really hard.

Audience: Given our ingrained sense of “Hero’s Journey”, why is it so difficult to be sold in traditional, versus commercial?
Ranylt: Some editors would glom onto traditional, but now we have to define what traditional IS. For instance, 18th century literature, the frame of a story is tradition. We’ve moved away from it. Start-Middle-Ending, First Person POV, past tense... “I couldn’t read every single narrative in that way, I’d lose it”, but it’s comforting.
Sheila: It would be hard to sell to keep subscribers happy if every story was in Second Person, say. Or what’s refreshing is stories different from the other stories, contrasting them. It evolves.
Ranylt: It’s our pattern seeking.
Sam: And from a business perspective, the traditional stuff sells. Not everyone is going to come to a literary convention.
Ranylt: Lots won’t like other stuff.
Sheila: (Gives a parable about categories.) So it’s not that readers are adverse, but the most experimental pieces aren’t very long. Long short story? Short novelette? Makes it easier for the reader, as the author has to keep it up in the air, and sustain the reader all the way through. Experimental works don’t tend to be the ones that win readers. Readers like both, but enjoy the meat and potatoes of the traditional.
Leah: From a book sellers perspective, how many here are writers? (hands) There’s your answer. Something realized with knitting: yarn, fibre, colour, seams, there’s so much going on here, so much to know and to play with. But people outside look and see sticks and string. When you’re inside, you’re interested in the nuances of form. As a book seller, it’s important to know that, with convention conversations, the vast majority of readers are NOT SF or fantasy readers necessarily. The vast number who read for pleasure is very high. It is important when one is looking at valid pieces of art: Why is it difficult to move them commercially? Remember to whom they go, perspective and scale. Every approach to come to a story is valid, but as someone who loves this stuff, my values might be different.

Audience: Is structure primarily about movement? Is it a challenge for the non-linear to maintain pace of movement?
Sheila: Stories can be different. If the writing is good enough, you can stop and have writing be about electrical engineering. It can make you tense, as you want to know how this guy gets out of Hitler’s bunker, but it doesn’t always have to be movement forward. There is a lot that can be done, even in a traditional story. But yes, eventually the whole story has to keep moving.
Audience: I didn’t mean you always have to move forward.
Leah: I think there are different ways to do movement. The mystery of a nonlinear story is what’s happening. If you move forward on that axis, who is this person, then yes. But it is something to keep in mind.
Sheila: Cue the reader.
Ranylt: Put in little signposts.
Sheila: And keep the reader entertained. Even if it’s tragic, you’re still entertaining, don’t let it become dull.
Ranylt: Peril, peril, peril, peril, can also get boring.
Leah: One can also build up tension by doing the electrical engineering in the middle.

Audience: On Non-Traditional structures, how much weight to put on the mental burden of the reader? More of an appetite for somewhat complex?
Sam: Depends on what the author’s trying to do, and if they’re doing it well or not. First book he took on was non-linear across two different timelines, then there’s even a third one. “I didn’t think for a second about changing it.” But there is a book he took on from another author, where he didn’t think it needed that style, it was one of the bigger complaints about that book. On a maxi scale, at 330,000 words long, it’s too BIG.
Sheila: “Is anyone besides me going to relate to it?” She’ll watch, sometimes they’re successful, but now she talks herself out of it more often than not.
Ranylt: Or they’ll be successful in 70 years, when we’re all dead.
Sheila: If you feel you’re getting really bored, readers will be bored. Come up with things that work because readers are still really involved, and want to know what happens.
Ranylt: Are there changes, in the short fiction there are more experimental type stories.
Leah: If you’re going to buy one book on this, recommend “Illumnae” by Kristoff, told entirely in text message records. Space battles, where words are like contrails of ships. It’s rare.
Sheila: One of the saddest author stories is Neil Barack Jr.(sp?). Was nominated for nebula, they wanted more. He sent them a novel, same kind of story, was told “No, can’t publish this in book length.” (The ZZ Gang?)
Nina: I’m sorry, we’ve run out of time, but they’ll be here the rest of the Convention.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to comment if you have thoughts about various story structures, or anything else on your mind as it relates.

Monday, 24 July 2017

CanCon 2016: Days 1 to 2

Can*Con 2016, the Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts & Literature took place from September 9-11th in Ottawa, Ontario. I’m finally doing the writeup 11 months later... well, that’s how long it took me to get to it in 2015 too. I also blogged about 2014 and about 2013, if you’re a completist.

These posts are recaps, with very little colour commentary on my part. Some are near word-for-word recaps, others are a summary. This is the latter, as I go through my written notes, though some more detailed accounts will be split off from here into their own posts. As was the initial workshop “Get Plot! which happened before the start of the Con.

After that workshop ended, I went away for a bit, then came back, and was there for the Opening Ceremonies at 7pm. Pretty sure that somewhere in there, I rolled up my “stats” on my Con Badge, and for the record: Strength 13, Intelligence 20+1, Wisdom 12, Dexterity 15, Constitution 18+1, Charisma 8. Which results in Health 23 and Defence 19. I guess that’s reasonably accurate (if a bit overpowered), I just keep barrelling along, thinking I’m clever but really it’s more I know things, while not being charismatic enough to hold people’s interest.

At the Ceremonies, the head of programming, Derek Kunsken, said a few words. Including about the history (founded in 1991, with a vision of bringing fans together, has been running continuously since 2010). He notes, “we’re a particular size and place”, picking two things and doing them really well. Come here for the Literary and Science side of conventions, many other places do anime and costuming.

He then introduced the Special Guests. Tanya Huff (Author Guest of Honour), Eric Choi (Science Guest of Honour), Sheila Williams (Editor Guest of Honour), and Sam Morgan (Agent Guest of Honour). There’s also attendees from BC, Montreal, New York, etc. Incidentally, this con has been nominated for an Aurora Award twice. It’s on the ballot with this year with Ad Astra.

He asked the guests why they said YES to coming here, seeing as they could do anything with their weekend.
-Tanya: Last time, she got an Aurora award, so she has good memories. And if we don’t take our genre literature seriously, as Canadians, we can’t expect the world to. So given CanCon’s concentration, she wants to hook into that energy. Looks forward to conversations. Works alone, scary when the cats answer back.
-Eric: Considers ‘no’ is not an option. He’s been on the other side of the table for several CanCon in the past, and they do his two favourite things. As someone new to Ottawa (it’s way friendlier than Toronto), it truly is an honour to be at this table, and be amongst one of his favourite cons with some of his favourite people. Looks forward to conversations and learning. Then, referring to his rolled stats: “I’ve got Wisdom 6 here, how threatening can I be.”
-Sheila: It worked out well for her schedule this year, she keeps the number of cons she attends down, having a job and kids. But she likes to go to places that are in different areas, meet new people, new writers, new readers, to hear different things, and reach new audiences. This was a great opportunity and she was very honoured to be asked. Her last Con in Ottawa was World Fantasy Con in 1984, thought it was time to come back. Looking forward to meeting people, “I am really friendly”.
-Sam: The joke he prepared was that you paid me. In sincerity, he loves Canada, it’s full of super nice people, and when going to conventions he meets the nice people of that area. It’s been wonderful, people have manner, some of his favourite actors are Canadian, he resonates. Also, poutine.

Derek then handed things over to Marie Bilodeau, who went into the layout of the hotel, and how in the programme, 50% of the rooms marked are correct. (Sunset is actually Aurora. Related, the guild hall and tavern programming are reversed, except when it comes to the parties at night.) Using the stairs is also encouraged, since there’s only the one elevator in this particular tower, please save it for those who need it.

There was also mention of how some volunteers are boss monsters, who can be challenged, and thanks was given to sponsors. At 7:25pm, things were officially open for business, campaigning, and whatever.


I poked my head into “So This is Your First Con!” (even though it wasn’t) with Lisa Toohey, Ryan McFadden, and Matt Moore, moderated by Brandon Crilly. They were talking about pitch sessions (that’d be new for me, I stayed). Lead with a strong pitch, and they’ll ask for more info. As it’s their livelihood, they’re likely looking for reasons to reject you, but it’s not about the work, it’s about what can be sold. Pitches like hard SciFi, lead with the genre AND sub-genre.

If you’re meeting the person at a bar (rather than a formal session), you can lead with small talk. Do not EVER pitch at a Dealer’s Table. Matt Moore added, don’t be an ass, because while there’s not a blacklist, word will spread - Canada’s a small community. And don’t think a different person is better, he politely rebuffed someone once telling them not to do that, only to see them ask a colleague later, to which he figured, they’re in trouble now. Don’t lie, you’ll get caught. If you say you "like their work", the natural response is what’s your favourite book of ours.

There’s no dress code for pitching, but the people are in business and looking for someone they can work with. Express your true self, in a professional way.

I also have written hashtag #OttSpecLit, if you like what happens in panels made a note of things not to forget, and if you don’t like parties, hang around the restaurant or approach people at panels. Or Mike go to parties anyway, the bell curve for “cool kids” is shifted here.

I ended up at the Story Structure panel at 8pm. That’s one I recapped secretary style on my laptop, so it will be in a separate post. At 9pm, I dropped by “Batman vs Superman: Cataloguing the Badness of it”. On the panel, Erik Scott de Bie, Jack Briglio (who saw the “Ultimate Edition”), and Tim Carter.

What was seen as the biggest problem? Jack said motivation was weak. The Batman/Superman fight in particular was more a “get this over with” so we can fight the real villain at the end deal. Tim said it was the universe building. (He compared it with Amazing Spiderman 2.) Erik said it came down to Zack Snyder, the Director. With the portrayal of woman, and plotting like SuckerPunch (another movie Snyder directed).

Conversely, what was done well? Jack said “The Doomsday Battle”. Tim said having real world consequences for superheroes. Erik said Wonder Woman. They then delved into an analysis of individual scenes and how they ranked.

I left 15 minutes in or so, figuring time to head home, though did end up popping into a few places on the way. The “Non-Verbal Communication in Prose” room seemed to be locked. The “Mechanics of Sex” panel room provided the following, though I didn’t get the introduction of who was who there:
-Sex is one of the biggest character reveals. Consider a Wizard doesn’t want to say the wrong thing and set the bedroom on fire, literally. Vocals isn’t only moans.
-Sex isn’t nice and pretty, it’s messy and fun and concussions.
-There’s history and location to consider as well. For trans people re-evaluating sexuality, please do your research!!
-Someone with a physical injury may have full sensation but not full control. Penetration being some magical end goal is perpetuated out there, why?

I also peeked into the ConSuite, where there was a discussion about “Young Adult” books, how the audience is made up of two groups: Those who ARE NOW young adults (late teens), and those who WERE young adults 10 years ago. There is the “New Adult” category, seen as for older, but that’s a box made for those who WERE, and top down categorizing never works. The biggest thing now is colouring books, and picture books, for parents who have kids or have friends with kids. It’s all demographics. Wait another 8 years, we’ll be back to 14 year old protagonists again.

I headed out to get home. End Friday. Begin Saturday.

My first panel at 10am was “Character Arc and Mental Health”, another recap for a separate, more in-depth post. I then went to “Why Doesn’t Epic Fantasy Get Any Critical Respect - Or Does It?” at 11am.


Panelists were Evan May, Sonya (S.M. Carriere), Ed Willett (the moderator), Ranylt Richildis, and Peter Halasz. After introductions, the natural question was how to define Epic Fantasy.
Not that...

Evan: Big scale, lots of people, high stakes. An entire continent.
S.M.: Agreed, large cast, high stakes.
Ranylt: Echoed completely, but also politics. And a heroic element. Doesn’t matter if there’s magic or point of view changes.
Peter: Can’t disagree, he also adds how it’s the oldest form of storytelling. The epic of Gilgamesh echoes today. But these used to be poetry, it’s only prose the last 100-150 years. Why the change? Dunno.

Ed went from there to where “epic” came from, and whether that relates to the possible lack of critical respect. S.M. thinks is depends on the literary circles. Ranylt remarked on “click bait”, infuriating fans. Evan says the epic story hasn’t always been told really well, plus there’s Tolkein fatigue after being saturated with the movies. Peter built on that, saying after the Tolkein imitators that came out of the early 60s, there were hack imitators.

Peter said he couldn’t get past the first few paragraphs of the “Wheel of Time” series, S.M. backing him up on that. Granted, after James Rigney Jr. (pen name of Robert Jordan) died, and it was taken up someone else from book twelve, it apparently got somewhat better. Ranylt noted how, after the 90s, Tolkein (and Stephen King) seemed “back on the syllabus” too. The moderator (Ed) remarked that Tolkein definitely came from an academic place, no matter what you think of his writing - but now perhaps we should define “respect”?

Peter said it’s not financial respect, like “Wheel of Time” gets. S.M. added you can enjoy something without respecting it - Pern (Anne McCaffrey’s planet) gets zero respect but is enjoyed by millions. Ranylt said there’s a disconnect with those not familiar with SpecFic, noting Sturgeon’s Law, “Ninety percent of everything is crud.” Peter said someone who’s not a hack is Canadian Steven Erikson, whose “Malazan Book of the Fallen” (essentially 10 books in 10 years) is remarkable and politically valid for the world. S.M. added there’s incredible characters and arcs in that.

Ranylt said she loves multiple book things, mentioning Scott Barker and Scott Lynch (who is a “Master of Understatement”). Peter tossed in four names, Ian Cameron from Toronto, Guy Gavriel Kay from Saskatchewan, Joe Abercrombie from the UK, and George R.R. Martin, with the caveat that “Game of Thrones” goes downhill from the first book. Peter thinks the TV Series is better (a rare case where the media version’s superior).

Ed asked, is it possible to have a SHORT epic fantasy? S.M. said what matters is the scope, that stakes are the entire world. “Coming of Age” was referenced, and is it more women now than men? Ranylt mentioned Kameron Hurley, her “The God’s War” trilogy, and that it’s hard to build a world in a short time. You need to imply that it’s there, which is a real skill.

Someone was brought up (Susan F? My handwriting’s bad here), which segued into the idea of “sausages taint the steak” for things that are badly written. Fantasy does go into the human condition and can be insightful. So, what does it take to get respect? S.M. says write well, Evan adds take politically correct issues into account, and Ranylt includes be a critical thinker who understands nuance. To clarify, it’s not “good versus evil” now, it’s shades and “the tragic backstory” with the Big Bad being offscreen (like Sauron, Vader).

Final question, why is respect for epic fantasy important? S.M. said it’s an explanation of the human condition that is less technologically done than in SciFi, and it’s just nice to be respected. Peter said it used to get huge respect when it was poetry, it’s stories about us, our journey through life. Jungian not Freudian. Ranylt said the 20th century model of what we see as “literature” needs variety, that the old model is starting to die. Ed noted how Shakespeare is grandfathered into respect, and wondered if there were any last comments.

I don’t have anything written down for that.


What I have next is the panel “Getting Your Work Noticed” with Laurie Cooper, Marissa Caldwell, Beverly Bambury and moderator Lisa Toohey. Starting off, what’s the #1 Tip to Get Heard?

Laurie said believe in yourself. Start a newsletter, your brand, what you want to do. Marissa agreed, decide what kind of image to put out there. Background, graphics, dark red versus bright pink - write 50 words that describe you and the way you write for branding. Beverly agreed, noting quality is more important for her. Work on the craft first, then branding.

There needs to be either a lowering of ego or an increase in humility. You can still be yourself, even if that self is you hate people. (Chuck Wendig was mentioned.) It may not have the broadest appeal but you just need to get the right people. Lisa added that who you’re selling to, versus who your audience is, might not be the same. For instance, you market to parents, not young kids.

So, some people are more genre focussed, others have a broad range, how do you brand cohesively? Lisa suggested the brand is you. When selling books, you’re selling yourself, embrace that. Beverly said you can have different parts to a website or different websites, it’s whatever brings together those parts. Laurie said consistency is key across all platforms, your tagline/bio should represent that self.

When should you get a publicist? Laurie said, if you’re generating income, you’re a business. Start a virtual assistant, consider percentages. Beverly added publicists need a nurturing aspect, so it never hurts to send an email. On platforms, Laurie likes Facebook but it does curtail your reach, and Marissa says you can “target ads” but NOT “boost posts” since that last gives no control over who sees it.

You can get scary good at targeting ads by looking at demographics. A giveaway may be worth it, depending. Romance as a genre tends to be more visual, as is Instagram. Twitter upside is powerful searching and more solid connections, downside is it’s slower to grow and targeting sucks in Canada. Do have a business page. Goodreads was brought up - but that’s when I had to go.

I left somewhere around 12:30pm, to get to my niece’s birthday, returning around 4pm, which is a good enough point to break this post up. The rest of Day 2 is now at this post.

Hopefully you found some of this to be interesting, informative and/or helpful. Feel free to drop a comment if you have an opinion or a question. The interim panel posts are now up and linked too.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

CanCon 2016: Get Plot

Can*Con 2016, the Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts & Literature took place from September 9-11th in Ottawa, Ontario. I’m finally doing the writeup 11 months later... well, that’s how long it took me to get to it in 2015 too. I also blogged about 2014 and about 2013, if you’re a completist.

These posts are recaps, with very little colour commentary on my part. Some are near word-for-word recaps, others are a summary. We begin with the latter, though at some points I managed detailed notes, largely because the CanCon tale begins on Sept 9th with a Workshop.

Normally I can’t get to these, because I’m still teaching in the afternoon, but not for the 2016-2017 school year! The workshop was called “Get Plot!” and was led by Julie E. Czerneda. After a set of introductions (there were about 20 of us, four tables with five at each), Julie began.

Plot and plot problems all share the same sort of things: No time, too many ideas, not enough ideas, ideas at the wrong time, a great idea after you’ve already finished. How are we to control our plot and what we’re doing?
Plot and plot, what is plot?


A thought experiment was devised, every table was given a scenario: A large construction crane in an unusual place. A parrot and an elevator. A room with no escape. Three fashion models on the freeway. From these we were to asked to ADD PLOT IDEAS. By going around the table, every person would add on to whatever came before. As I was the scribe for our group, I have that first “Get Plot” in it’s entirety:

The large construction crane would be on an iceberg. (I’d briefly mused on a castle courtyard, implying unusual based on an anachronism, not geography, which likely tells you something about me.) It’s painted in carnival colours. The iceberg’s starting to melt. The penguin crane operator is concerned. To stop the melting, it shoots a beam into the sky like the bat signal. The Penguin God responds. It sends down a second iceberg with a weather control machine. Crane work continues, penguin finds a sunken ship.

There’s clues about the Penguin God there. In an Old Shrine in a room. Being guarded by a Ghost Seal. Who gives an ominous warning. Penguins disregard the warning. The floor opens up, they get swallowed. Penguin activates a remote to use the crane. Darkness falls, suddenly. Our initial penguin prays to God for guidance, repenting. It’s struck by lightning. Ghost Seal asks have you have enough yet (“are we still doing this”). Penguin says yes, and light returns. Having learned humility, the penguin can enter the shrine. It waddles in and opens the chest. Discovering a way to become a Penguin God. (“It’s just a funny hat.”)

Is that an ending? “It’s a matter of interpretation.” (We’d been given a warning to conclude.) Julie remarked that, like high school students, you need to take the pages from their hands or they’ll keep going. At the end of the day, the ideas are leading you down that rabbit hole, with no idea of where you’re going.

Every group read their entries. With ours, Julie remarked that one of the keys to controlling plot is to have a strong sense of character. Notice how we almost immediately went from the crane scenario to WHO, a penguin protagonist. That let us know “what’s going on”. Here were the other stories, abbreviated by my typing speed:

2) Parrot and Elevator. Parrot flies into the elevator, asking next passenger to push the button. Wants floor 13, but it goes 12 to 14, so guy pushes 14 and hits stop button. The parrot yells to open the door, it’s a floor under construction. Parrot and man exit into an ornithological research lab. Parrot is scared and upset, wants to leave. Man grabs him, admits he’s a scientist. Parrot gets back to elevator, but it’s now under construction. Then it goes to a perch, and says he’s really in charge, the man is the experiment. The construction people are also the lab workers.

Julie’s thoughts: Big ideas, you don’t know where they’re going to take you. The small ideas tell you where to go, and the actions of a character moving through a scenario is part of the plot, but it is in service of the plot. The parrot being the one doing the experiment, that changes the story. It’s getting big ideas like that which tell you you’re on the right track.

3) Room with No Escape. A one way door into the room, person enters. There are cameras. Water begins filling the room. The person can’t swim, climbs walls, running out of air. Hyperventilating. Close to reaching the ceiling, passes out. Sinks into the water without struggling. Spontaneously develops gills and fins. Awakens, gasps, struggling, realizing. Tries their new parts out. Feels hungry. Then water begins to descend.

Julie’s thoughts: The action required to make the plot happen is another piece. “Cool to have this happen, but needs to fall in the water” [for that]. People are following the lead of the others very nicely. (We can feed off each other.)

4) Three fashion models on the freeway. Because they were carjacked. One of them tries to flag someone down. Succeeds, but it’s her worst enemy. A shapeshifter. Who tries to kill her. One of the others saves her, causing a distraction. The shapeshifter becomes an animal. So they steal his car. The shapeshifter regains hands, calls police, reports the models. Cop chase ensues. Cop becomes a bear, was also a shifter. The models head into the woods. Find an old cabin. They break in, where they find the initial carjacker. Which is when he reveals the secret reason why.

Julie’s thoughts: Often what happens with this activity is that you can be down the rabbit hole, chasing an idea, chasing, chasing, then ask, why don’t I know where I’m going? (That circles back to the notion of a big idea.)


A new exercise, each table was given three ideas, and asked to develop a plot from them. Our ideas were: “Lovely Above, Dead Below”. “Identical Coordinates”. “Bricks and Mortar.” There was also an Added idea which could be used: “TV may speed up puberty.”

The thought we gravitated to was parallel worlds, overlapping, one lovely, one dying and dead. We tried to come up with an elevator pitch. The one world is using the other dying world to grow and thrive - unwittingly. Industry is the difference (“bricks and mortar”). Our protagonist will try to bridge that gap and return the growth and energy down to the dying world. Using their television signals to enable the kids, the next generation, to join his cause (subliminally?).

At this point, we were allowed to Trade Off with another table. We gave up our “Bricks and Mortar”, receiving “Invisible Genocide” in it’s place. Which seemed to fit well enough with our dying world. It’s a parasitic relationship, but the benefiting world has no way to see the other world, it’s invisible to them. Our protagonist wants to right the wrong, redistribute the life. Can he swap with himself? What happens to the other world?

Julie then dropped a new Plot Idea at our table: “Stone age art”. This could be the key for how our protagonist figured it all out: palaeontology. It’s a mirror image, the art indicating something, to stop the genocide. Because the two worlds were once able to work together? But one world “tied off a limb”, and the limb starts to die. Lack of energy.

New Plot Idea drops: “Gaining weight by dieting”. So, over the course of years since that event in the past, humans have stopped needing to eat, they can survive on air no matter how little they eat. On the lovely world. Meanwhile the others are dying. Cutting calories is really working.

New Plot Idea drops: “Moon tunes”. The moon is the thing sucking up the energy of one universe and sending it to the other. As the moon is the conduit, we must “Retune the Moon”. Use the TV rays our protagonist had been using to recruit kids to “retune”. What title then? Mirrored Moon? Moon Rising? Lunacy? Lunar-cy? “It’s a working title. That’s what editors are for.” Settled on “Above and Below”.

With time elapsed, we all shared our story concepts. Here’s how our group presented all of that in an “elevator pitch” style. “Above and Below”: An archaeologist finds stone age art. There’s a connection between his world, a wonderful thriving society and another. The horrible truth is, the other world is being destroyed because the energy is being sucked into his world. He’s determined to stop this. It’s related to the moon, his people have stopped eating since they eat the rays of the moon. The moon isn’t properly dispersing energy. By feeding young people energy through their televisions in the other world, helping them to grow faster through puberty, balance is restored.

2) “Wine Makers of Labrador.” A tale of how global warming has affected all crops. All middle/equator parts of the earth are bad. Joe’s got a winery in Labrador, everything’s getting worse and worse, pests and ravens attacking crops, he’s facing bankruptcy. Dropping toxins everywhere, new wineries are encroaching on his spinach farm. Surprise delivery: Nanotech. Joe injects himself, now he can commune with ravens. Even think like them. “Doesn’t sound like an advantage” but with this perspective, he can see how everything comes together, to be more environmentally conscious. He develops a safe spinach-grape hybrid. The only downside is that to help it grow, it needs to be in a greenhouse full of bagpipe songs.

3) “Amazing Space.” There’s a space mission, probing the martian crust, a scientist hears bagpipes. Might be close or far, due to atmosphere. Boy scientist who is small goes down a geological formation. Finds a tablet, they can see it, but gets stuck on his third time. Only a parrot can read the greek on the tablet, keeps saying it’s “Welcome to Atlantis”. The boy gives up on rescue and goes sideways through tunnels, a cave is really slimy, the bagpipes keep calling him. He comes to an abandoned city with monkey statues and carvings, decides to stay there, he’s a surprise delivery.

4) “No More Resilience.” Release the Bees. A younger sibling falls into (something I didn’t catch), releases a virus which spreads through meat eating bees. There’s a school trip, a science teacher finds a lab, the key is brazil nuts. But one student is allergic. They race back with EpiPens. (My fingers were getting tired here, I missed some of the subplots.)

Then Julie dropped the bombshell: She never said we had to use all the ideas she was giving us. “It’s a trick I played with you because we tend to think all our ideas are important and equivalent.” We hate to get rid of one, but we have to choose which points are moving the plot forward.

The flip side is sometimes you stall, you need more ideas, more things to happen. All these ideas were from newspapers or science articles - sub headers, or the first line of a paragraph. Julie keeps them, and if ever doesn’t know what she’s doing or needs to add something, she’ll look through them. “Aha, I’ll do that. They do it upside-down.”

Ideas can be such a help. The trouble is sorting the good ones from the not so good ones. If you could have tossed some ideas, it might have streamlined the stories. But at the same time, it’s good creative work, having all of them.


Julie pointed out that the story conclusions were on the soft side, because of course we were only dealing with ideas. Plot is nothing by itself, you only need it to get where you’re going. An overall story must also consider TONE and CONSEQUENCE. That’s the destination.

What do you want readers to feel at the end? What should they taste in their mind? That’s the TONE. Should it be tragic? Humourous? (“The Little Mermaid” originally had a tragic end, not so for Ariel in the Disney version. Unless you look at it in another way?) As to consequence - that was fairly well done already, but know that when a lot is happening in a plot, there needs to be a consequence to the protagonist.

We were invited to redo our stories to fit the TONE that was dropped on our table. “The workshop is working when I can’t stop you working.”

TONE: Satisfying. Our group decided this meant everything was tied up with no loose ends.

We need a clear solution. Both worlds work together to shift the moon, to accomplish their goals. And don’t kill things off, statistically an average reader wouldn’t be happy and satisfied if we killed them all off. (Also, “You’re a god and you’re a god” isn’t good but the single Penguin God was satisfying.) So perhaps the worlds merge? And as they merge, they balance?

CONSEQUENCE was then dropped at our table: Societal triumph.

Implication, both societies have to win. We need to bring them both up, not bring one down to match the other. By working together, they can create a lens to magnify and disperse the moon rays equally. Don’t want to be the 1%, everyone wants their dream, inspires a movement.

Decided POV Archaeologist Character could be a martyr, he needs development. And a name. Archy, for Archaeologist? (Or use Yhcra? Or Veronica, go female?) By the end of the story, the other world has to know what she/Veronica did, we can find out that the dying world was also communicating the one on top. Wanting to find a solution. Visual, sketching done.

Perhaps moon rays affect body and mind. Creating sense of entitlement. The light world is sent into rehab, get off the moon drugs. Veronica needs to find allies for that on her world. This could be a trilogy as she recruits. Does she motivate people’s morals? Or is everyone getting fat, lethargic, not productive, not doing art? A call to “the way it was supposed to be”, balancing. Regaining lost things. We have the Utopian Moon Ray version of TV junkies?

Julie said our plot needed the unexpected element (or I’m pretty sure this was said for us, my notes get a bit jumbled here). There’s cool combinations there, but where is the surprise that we’ll latch onto as our hope? And is it REALLY our hope, as it may be more interesting if Veronica finds the cause, instead of how to save them. Or something with uncertainty. For a short story, stop it there, that works.

Here’s a revisit of the others. (Presented to match the above order, including titles, it’s not how they were originally presented.)

2) “Wine Makers of Labrador”.
The lead is a Scottish Spinach Farmer. The morning of his father’s wake, he inherits the farm, under threat from the wine makers, who are moving north due to the global warming. In his father’s will, NanoTech. The middle part is the same, he finds strategies by communing with ravens. Now, slowly his mind is taken over by the ravens, his daughter trying to pull him back from the brink. Alas, he leaps off a cliff to his death thinking he can fly. But daughter receives a message at his own wake, allowing her to save the farm. And the ravens are now listening to the bagpipes the same way her father had.
TONE: Uplifting.
CONSEQUENCE: Personal loss.

Julie’s thoughts: That became a character driven story. Plot will take you there, even if you don’t think it will, if you find the right character choice. Someone who is personally invested, with a personal history of investment, and suddenly it’s easier for the story to make an impact. We can feel for a teacher saving a boy, but we could all relate right away to this person. Who should have had a name.

What’s key is, plot and character can’t be separated. If the plot you have isn’t working, maybe it’s that the character isn’t right. Or you must switch up the ending (due to that character choice).

3) “Amazing Space”
A space mission. The son of an older scientist, unhappy he’s at a permanent take your kid to work day, acts out. Called irresponsible. He keeps hearing faint bagpipes, he follows it to the rock chimney. Third attempt, he’s stuck, has to keep going in. Finds an abandoned city. (Did we keep the statues of monkeys?) Realizing his air is going to run out, he’s going to do something with his life, explores this city as much as he can, a camera recording sends it up to the scientists. He is remembered as the explorer who discovered the lost martian civilization.
TONE: Sombre.
CONSEQUENCE: Unforeseen loss.

(I gave my fingers a rest during the discussion here. This was a two hour workshop.)

4) “No More Resilience”
A science teacher, leading the high school trip, is mountain climbing in the desert. One student falls/becomes ill. A rescue mission ensued, and a virus allowed to spread. The zombielike virus spreads, related to brazil nuts. Upon returning from the trip, seeing the effects of their action, it’s spread beyond the community, affecting the larger world. One goal, brings people together to fix the damage in a more environmentally aware way. Second goal, internal goal of the teacher.
1st tone: Sobering. 1st consequence: Salvaged opportunity.
2nd tone: Shock. 2nd consequence: Personal triumph.

If I'm interpreting this right, Julie gave them two sets because in a sense they had two plots? (The teacher saving student plot, which was referenced above with the wine makers, and the virus plot.) In a sense, with the rescue, the plot ended. If writing horror, it would be a mistake to take the child out, the child who can doom everyone. But internal filters don’t always kick in to say, “I’m doing a SciFi special”. There’s patterns in there, almost not enough ideas, one might have to ramp it up to “found the Penguin God” levels.


“While this is fresh in our minds”:
-When you have an ending, it’s easier to control what idea pieces you’re using.
-Short fiction is really hard, so much needs to be accomplished in few words. Sprawling is easier in novels and fantasy.
-A really well plotted story, with twists and things in it is fine, but it still needs beginning-middle-end. You need to know the end at SOME point when you’re writing.
-If you’re having a struggle, maybe your writing is not the right tone. Maybe you’re trying to channel your inner Pratchett, it’s not dark, it’s meant to be funny. Or vice versa, twist it darker.

Julie finds she always knows the TONE she’s going for when she starts. That colours all choices as you’re going along. One may say, “I hate her but in a good way”. One thing takes me there, another doesn’t. Don’t fool the reader, but always be sure of where you’re going. Tone is for the reader.

In terms of the CONSEQUENCE, what kind of things do you want to happen to the protagonist. Julie doesn’t always know when writing for the consequence. But you get down to one logical outcome, and that’s the sweet spot. If you have tons of plots heading off into the sunset, something’s wrong. Plot narrows down to a point, it’s where you’re going to go.

For one story, Julie didn’t know until the last 30 pages if everyone was going to die or not. She let the story take her there. She did know the tone wouldn’t be particularly happy, only “satisfying”, a cautionary tale. It becomes inevitable. You just know where it’s going to know.

Granted, sometimes you don’t know from the start, and that’s fine, but it should narrow as you’re writing. Once about 2/3rds of the way through, Julie checks that in her own writing. The graph of tension level. She’d better be ramping everything up: the action and tension and getting everyone there at the 2/3rds mark.

Also check the emotion level. You should see that going up just before the climax, an emotional investment. And if tragedy drops it down, better have something at the finish to take you higher. Or else the reader will say “this is where the book stopped for me”.

At some point here, things transitioned into more of a Question & Answer.

On beginning-middle-end, the first act is setup, the second is escalation, the third is climax and resolution. It works because that’s how we tell stories, it’s natural, though not a rule. It’s one way to tell a story.

The “35k Hell”, the struggle to connect the start to the end (while keeping the middle interesting) is a true thing. Because the first third (or a bit less) is when everything is new to you and to the reader. It’s annoying, you have to keep checking your world building and inventing names, but the story is opening up like a flower.

The middle SHOULD be where it starts to really kick. Everything’s settled, major events occur, but unless you’ve thought it through, you’re left languishing. (Julie says once she’s past the 35k, her family can walk back into her office again.) Even throw your intended ending out, organically write through to something new. Or maybe it’s a short story, maybe you don’t need that.

The one third to establish, it varies. Murder mysteries start with the murder, perhaps not much action, but that’s the setup. We know to expect more. Push it, push harder. James Bond starts by jumping into the action. What if it isn’t good enough? “Better is the next book.” If you ever think you’ve written your best story, quit and do something else. You’re always adding to your skills.

If you have a particular thing, like structure or connecting scenes, we move through a space. If characters are moving seamlessly, scenes will probably flow. Jumping too much is the problem. Have structure. Don’t fuss about “better” structure (avoiding cliches, etc), tell a story such that when you read it again you say, “yeah, I like that”. The only way to test it is to have a reader read it. Then you go back to the craft. Most of the time, it’s not as complex as you perceive it should be. When you have enough extra bits, it comes from you too. Have to wake up the brain.

Writing without structure is like driving from Ottawa to Vancouver via Halifax. Certain books require it. Certain authors require it. Julie’s written a book with every scene on a post-it, she could change where they were, to make sure she had the plot points covered (it was book 3 of 8). “I never thought I could enjoy outlining it to that level, and then write it.” But she found it was “different parts of the brain”.

Each spread: 10,000 words. An outline journal allowed going back to say where she said various things. A synopsis of each chapter covered all the points. It was helpful with a complicated project, but whatever works for you. The blissful part is when you’ve written something and read it later. Who wrote it, fairies in the computer? And why can’t the next part look like that?
Players = Characters...

What about when a character takes control of the plot and veers off somewhere else. One one hand, gotta get it done on deadline, can’t let things go off plot. On the other hand, some writer friends take vacations with characters to listen to them. Then save that draft, open a new one, and start out fresh. (I spoke up at this point, mentioning that you can also look towards your villain, seeing what they do if the characters aren’t paying attention.)

Another problem is if it’s the secondary character. “This character wouldn’t die” when they were supposed to. He ended up spawning another book all by himself, and THEN died. Perhaps the secondary character is the main character? Write from their point of view? Or maybe take the qualities and give them to someone else.

Cautionary tale: There’s a guy who came to Julie with a box and said “I’m ready to write my novel”. He had been world building for 30 years. Topographical maps, economic structure, the works. “Do you not know a gamer? They will take and use it.” Possible he doesn’t really want to write, just world build.

Remember, every once in a while you’ll have to say “I don’t need that plot point.”

This was a long winded description of a very small thing Julie does; she provided her email, referencing an anthology. There was also a handout with some advice. Twitter: @julieczerneda


I have some final point form items which may have been in discussions following the workshop, I’m not certain.

-Names are an interesting thing, even though they can be the last thing you think of. Someone choosing the middle names of her parents as an author name gives “Alex Gordon” who is also a baseball player.
-One of the most important things is stepping back for the tone. We’re in the adventure and writing viscerally, so we don’t see where we’re going.

Pros and Cons of shifting point of view, between characters, or picking 1st/3rd person? (I suspect I asked this...) It’s hard to pull off leaping from head to head, because the reader invests in a character, so they’ll need to invest equally in the next one - or it’s off putting. Or if you go into the mind of the villain, do we want to be there? Acting against our protagonist?

If it’s done right, if you keep things going properly, it’s fine. An aside (by Death) outside of a first person narrative could work. But make sure scenes fall in the particular order and at the right time. Don’t do scene breaks with first/third person, break those by chapter. The benefit is third person can have characters look at your protagonist, and maybe we don’t want to be in his head thinking “I’ll be kingly now”.

In terms of plotting, chapters are a good way to tell if plot is big enough. Even if some are shorter in length.

And that’s all I have from this! At that point, it was 2pm, and I headed back off, to return for the Opening Ceremonies at 7pm. That will be in the next post. Thanks for reading, feel free to comment if you have particular thoughts.