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.

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