Wednesday, 2 August 2017

CanCon 2016: Day 2 Complete

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.

I blogged a previous post about Day 1 into midday on Day 2, when I had to go. I returned to the Con around 3:45pm, just missing “How to be Alive and Dead and Entangled and Confused: Quantum Mechanics for Beginners”. I’ve checked Peter Watson’s website but haven’t been able to find that lecture, if anyone’s got information, let me know.

That brings us to the 4pm session “Want to Dominate the World But Don’t Have a Writers’ Group?”. On the panel, James K. Moran, Maaja Wentz, Mike Rimar, Su Sokal and moderator Ryan McFadden. I was a bit late, so missed introductions and Su’s writing group experience.

James said six people for his group is quorum, so 5 sets of feedback. Recommends “track changes” in a document which you can send back and forth, with different colours. There’s a hard deadline, a week or two to critique then meet face-to-face for more in depth discussion. Maaja has been with different people at different points. Online is nice for an international perspective (what is blackcurrent jam), but also live in Toronto. Notes “It’s a lot of reading”.

Mike was in on the ground floor (but not founder) of Stopwatch Gang. It dissolved, developed into a new group. Simple rules based on “Clarian”: We won’t tell you what’s good, you know that; five minutes to tell you what we feel is wrong with rebuttal afterwards (short stories). He notes he has to eat chips to not talk back pre-rebuttal. Within five people, you’ll know what’s wrong (“what we said”). If you get “This is when I stopped reading”, maybe that’s where you need to start.

Ryan mentioned “Turkey City Lexicon”. Maaja said written comments AND live comments are good, the brain works wider in groups. Mike added that in an email, you don’t get emotions, people talk differently face-to-face. Su said two groups is good, an all genres for general, then specific. Be kind and honest. Use paper for the grammar and spelling. With questions back after the critique, ask how do to what I was trying to do.

Ryan said it’s important to have people that are like minded, including towards squeamishness, etc (sex or beheadings). Mike concurred about strengths being similar (for instance, his group’s is not poetry), and you can weigh the feedback. Such as based on a person liking horror, or not liking a brand of humour, you’ll know them almost like a family. Ryan noting it’s good to have writers with the same goals, and around the same skill level. “Greatest thing I ever read” to someone inexperienced may be to a publisher “1,000 words of don’t waste my time”.

The worst problem? Someone joins who doesn’t have a helpful turn of mind, they’re there for themselves. See a sample of writing to vet before admission. Where to find? Could create out of a workshop, flyers in libraries. Noted personalities of people can be a problem beyond the writing (a lunatic type).

I’ve written “Wattpad: Good COVER”. Join a group that will make you want to get published? Write and get reads but not in print is contradictory. Want to be read, print method of blog. “After a time, you find you write for your critique group”, so you shouldn’t be in a group for more than two years.

Question of “hobbyist or not”. There’s some people who don’t want to get better, they want to put it in a drawer for their grandkids. That’s a different type of person. There’s also those who just want to get out of the house and talk to people.

Not looking at short works but novels, those are difficult. You can submit as you write, or the finished product, but that’s a huge commitment on time. Also may be wise to write a first draft start to END, before people mess with your mind. You know what to take with a grain of salt. At the same time, it does allow edits on a schedule, and if at Chapter 15 you realize Chapter 1 is unnecessary, you haven’t spent 2 months perfecting something useless.


I went next to “Funny HaHa or Funny Fail?” at 5pm. On the panel were Sam Morgan, Marie Milodeau and Jay Odjick. Sam began by noting that “We’ve become so familiar with everything that it’s harder to be funny today. ‘Who’s on First’ has been deconstructed so much.”

The hardest thing is a joke in print. Even transcription of joke is different, have to think in their voice. Marie said she started with dark writings, nobody laughed, it’s easier when people cry. Jay added that being funny in person and in writing is different, you can establish a pattern. When you get in trouble, go back to an earlier joke, keep touching base. Marie added that breaking such patterns can also be humourous.

Sam said he’s perhaps the only literary agent who says he’s looking for humour. Trouble is, you have to seem effortless, can’t be trying for the humour. It takes practice. “Surface level comedy” (like a funny name, being hit in the face, a guy in a dress) doesn’t present us with anything. Comedy also has an underlying truth to it, with us seeing something different. “This is slightly off, should be a pattern, it’s off.”

Jay said “this might be hypocritical”, but people who overly rely on being dirty, you can tell they’re using it as a cheap out. “Being dirty and perverted must be from the heart”, not a crutch, rethink if that’s all you’ve done. Sam added that it should come naturally to the story, and referenced something with an evil wizard inside a teddy bear teaming up with an 8 year old girl who’s more evil than he is.

Marie said don’t over describe, repeating a joke and beating it dead. And Sam said puns don’t work, because you’ll want your book translated, and putting English puns into German will tank. “If you’re writing a joke you have to explain it to yourself to make sure it works.” The movie ‘Superbad’ was written when Seth Rogen (and friend) were 13 years old, they did rewrites over 17 years and only one joke from the original made it in. “Write drunk, edit sober.”

Jay recommended showing the funny to people you trust, and to gauge their reaction visually rather than sending it electronically. Sam said trust your instincts, and others if you trust their instincts. “Comedy is the only thing that’s dependent upon the reactions of others to work.” Something can be subjectively not funny, though objectively it is (or other way around). Jay reminded that this panel will be online, there’s 27 watching the stream.

Jay: “Never build something up and then not deliver!” He also mentions a scene from the first episode in the TV adaptation of his work, something in the HA HA FAIL category. A kid who inherits superhero powers, meets an older figure who acts as the ObiWan mentor. The kid also has a crush on his math tutor, asking “Anyone special in your life?”. Which is played for laughs when we see the ObiWan character looking in the window behind them. Except the animators didn’t play it as a joke, this 70 year old guy in the window. Oh no.

Marie: Also funny on a fail side is when there’s too much darkness in a world. If all you have is darkness, with no release valve, a bit of dark becomes funny. (Sam jumps in with “Of COURSE there’s cancer [too]”.) You need to have someone people can laugh with, or the dark gets funny, “this is too much, it’s too far”. Sam remarked on how with dark and dark and dark, readers can’t really take it. Release with a joke, THEN go deeper and add more cancer.

To write humour, you can watch other people, read funny books, but the only way to do it is to do it. Develop your style, and humour develops with it. An audience member asked about the funny in SciFi. Sam said “Mechanical failure” by Joe Zieja. “Waypoint Kangaroo” by Curtis C. Chen. “Stealing the Sky.” Don’t go to a humour section in a bookstore, those are comedian memoirs or joke books. An audience member said “Strange Horizons” has a humour category.

There’s also the “multiple layer humour approach”. Jay said it’s text for the parents and pictures for the kids, like in animated CGI films. Sam said humour is like standup comedy, you practice it, changing one word in a joke can make it funnier like “vomit” instead of “puke”. Jay warned there is a time you have to stop writing (esp at night) when everything is so hilarious. He wrote two pages, went back the next day and thought “this was funny at 3am?”.

Sam said you can test stuff out to an audience with social media. Jay noted in your online presence, try to represent the flavour of your work. Marie said, with people who would follow her on social media and then pick up a book, and they’d be all “Everybody dies!”, which is different from her media vibe. “Dramatic buttons are so much easier to find” and she’s very filtered on social media.

Sam said “It’s a crime that no comedic actors are nominated for best actor.” A comedy director can direct a drama more easier than the other way around. Jay agreed it’s hard to tell someone how to be funny. You can study people who are good at it but need your own voice. Marie added that, when editing your work, being unfocussed will rob the comedy of power, comedy needs to flow. Harder to return if you lose the audience. Easier to be pinned in with a drama.

Jay suggested see who to pair up to get funny results. Pick apart purpose of each character, what role does he play in the dynamic of the group, who’s good to put in a room together (like Brian and Stewie from “Family Guy”). Marie said characters play off each other but also how they perceive their world/surroundings. Double layer, meta perception. Jay notes people are different, if we’re all on the same page, what’s funny.

Pop culture references was the last thing raised, Sam saying it’s hard in print to be topical, things won’t be there for a couple years. He tries to avoid time focal points, like “Geiko commercials”, no one today would get that. Thing is, you can’t be too timeless, because that wouldn’t be funny... apparently Charles Dickens and Shakespeare were funny back in the day. Jay added sensibilities are funny, Marie noting references can be region specific too. In the end, some things are outside of your control, what are you going to do?


I then hit up the double panel/workshop about the “National Novel Writing Month”, because for the first time ever, I would be free to write in November, versus doing report cards and things that make it the 4th worst month of the whole year for productivity outside my teaching job.

The first panel was actually called “50 Days to NaNoWriMo”, hosted by the four Ottawa Municipal Liaisons (MLs): Angela S. Stone, Kaitlin Caul, Kim McCarthy and Helena Verdier. After a quick history lesson (started by Chris Baty in July 1999, a way to meet girls), the regional details were highlighted.

Tendency is for write-ins to be used for writing more than socializing, but mix/balance. On average 1.3 write-ins per day during the month, all over, one of the most active chapters. We rival LA and work with GatineauWriMos. For plot ideas, a “plot rescue kit” to look at when stuck, only open if needed. (This was actually done, I still have the card, having selected Math as the setting.)

Kickoff party the week before. (Needs space to host that is large enough, isn’t $45 a plate.) See then go to Ottawa, also there’s a Facebook group. NaNo likes us to use the forums, we tend to crosspost. Also, there’s a Twitter, OttawaNaNoIst. (NaNoWriMo is a trademarked name.) Goal is 50,000 words from Nov 1 to 30. Don’t edit or change, just write write write... one Nanoist writes 100,000 - she’s crazy.

Angela has been doing NaNo for 15 years and only started winning (twice) when becoming an ML. She uses the work as a jumping point to write for her novels, from 7-9:30 every night. (Or could use from 6am to 7:30am. Establish habits, make things work for you.) The focus is on winning, but that’s not all there is to it, you can write 5,000 words and be happy. It’s a good way to connect, have met people across the world, good general resource too.

Noted it’s especially useful for people who work well under deadlines or under social pressure, as everyone else taking part also wants you to succeed. We can compare regions to others but not directly (they’ve taken that away, it made some people frustrated or upset, also takes lots of database memory). Goal is 1,667 per day, some don’t write at the same pace daily.

Warning: If you write your novel on the website you will lose it all. There’s a place you can input so it can count, activates towards the end, DELETES it. Don’t save there. (MLs see the back end of problems.) That site is to connect with users, count progress, find events, also fun badges.

If competitive is how you write, write-ins include word sprints - in 15 mins you write as many words as you can. Prizes, stickers... theme this year is “space and moon” so maybe moon magnet rocks. There’s always candy, via CostCo, it’s after Halloween. Helena adds that those writing at a similar pace can challenge themselves. Don’t compare until the end. Loser buys supper. (Can also compete via AIM/Skype.)

Warning: Good to write a novel, getting into the zone, do not announce to a publisher. Anglea James has a filter set up to auto answer. Gets on average 50,000 submissions, Dec 1 through Jan 15th. They assume you haven’t had time to edit or give second looks. Need bad words before you can get good words. Get peer reviews and critiques! Also, 50,000 isn’t novel length. Average is 65,000 and can go higher. (A novella is 40,000 words.)

Average chapter length is 2,000 words, implying 26 chapters or more, but Scott notes Terry Pratchett writes longer. Reminder: Everybody writes at a different pace, in a different way. George RR Martin is a great storyteller and a terrible writer. He breaks all the rules (eg. very long chapters). Noted he did start out years ago with short stories and magazine publications, need a long time of following the rules to break the rules.

NaNoWriMo isn’t about rules it’s about getting the words out. Don’t necessarily care about quality of writing. Don’t get hung up on what would be the best way to explain something or little details. One writer (Elizabeth) types out “hundred bottles of beer on the wall” song to not stop typing until an idea hits.

Gatherings is peer support. “Someone give me a male character name” “I’m stuck on this with zombies and wizards” Getting together and you are awesome, MidMonth halfway party, and End Party. You will hear really random things. Many events downtown, many from university, good bus access, generally speaking coffee places don’t mind us. The problem in far out places is no one comes. “We try to be visible.” Kaitlin: And this year we have hats.

Some question of if ScriptFrenzy is still a thing? It was a challenge to write 50 pages (100?) of a script, it was like Nanowrimo for scriptwriting. Stopped 3 or 4 years ago, didn’t have the success of NaNoWriMo. It takes a lot of resources, NaNo raise a couple million dollars, it’s charity, money excess to younger writers programs. Avatar halos.

“NaNo Rebels” can write anthology of short stories or nonfiction or memoirs, it’s writing related, about equal quantity as a novel. Have figured out how to convert what they’re doing into words. Do introduce self to MLs (as they get writing, sometimes forget to say hi), want to facilitate talking. Connections. Volunteer position, not paid, do rely on donations that go back.

To be an ML, go to all the write ins, meet people, wait until a spot opens. Don’t be mean to anyone in the room. Some say they want, but they don’t continue, don’t step up. If in a region where there isn’t an ML, join and do it for a year, then apply to be an ML. (They like wins on the application.) “Ontario Elsewhere”. Never know who is in your community that you could write with. (A Hamilton ML was also in the audience.)


After all the questioning, things transitioned at 7pm into the “Writing a Novel in 30 Days Workshop”. It was organized into sections.

SECTION ONE: (1a) This outline. (1b) What kind of writer are you? Angela identifies as a “pantser” (has start point, where to be at end), Kim and Kaitlin identified as plotters, and Helena started as a pantser, tried plotting and liked it. A plotter must start much earlier so they don’t feel out of control. Pantsers don’t need that, but may need inspiration and little jumping off points. For hybrids it’s kind of in between. Ask “What’s the goal of my novel?”

(1c) What is PLOT? (I also blogged about this at that workshop earlier.) It’s conflict, characters who want something, antagonist preventing it. Beginning-middle-end. Something with consequences. What drives your story. Kaitlin: There’s a difference between plot and premise! A person who goes to kill a bear but falls in love is a premise. When do they meet, what happens is plot. Having a world also needs a plot.

Where does synopsis fit in? A very short form of your entire story. Doesn’t leave anything out, if you want to submit to a publisher. Sometimes it’s a sentence. “Outlander”, her condensed version of everything is “a lengthy historical fiction with fantasy and scifi elements”. Kim: Synopsis is usually the last thing you write. Once you know what ARE the important parts, versus what you THINK the story is going to be about. If you think you have a synopsis before your novel, no, it’s actually your plot.

SECTION TWO: This involved some brainstorming. (2a) Character. Can be a person, an animal (“Moby Dick”), nature (“Old man of sea”), an inanimate object (“Wilson” the volleyball). A mathematical equation. A place (house in Amityville, castle) or a ship (Serenity). The computer voice in Star Trek. Can also be yourself, mental health stories, battling self, or a collective group (zombies or some collective oppression, the Borg).

Some brainstormed ideas.
Focus on people, that’s where people struggle. Giving them jobs, name, age, motivation. (More brainstorming here. See fa’afafine for gender.) “Race” as a cultural identity. Diversity; you’re not limited by what characters you can write. There’s a thousand other things you can write. That’s what you start with.

(2b) World/Settings. Also need where is story happening, including specifics, individual locations that we see in the story. Have to establish both, can’t have individual settings without understanding what the world is like. (Starship Enterprise is setting, world is Federation) What rules do characters have to abide by? Physics, FTL? If there’s magic, how does it work? Plant life, land masses, ethnic relations, technology, economics (paying), politics. Even if something’s contemporary, still have to build the world. What rules of this school/hospital make it the same/different from others/ours?

A lot of things you come up with for World may not make it into the novel, it’s so you don’t have to stop and think why a character is doing this. Angela notes sometimes you figure it out as you go; “Star Trek” did that a lot, but they also consulted scientists. As a plotter, figure out world globally as much as possible in advance. Consistency is super important, if main character’s love interest is “downtown”, don’t have them in a big, beautiful penthouse later. And you will act different in your home than in a haunted forest.

(2c) Antagonists. NOT the opposite of protagonist, that’s a lie, they’re simply the opposing force(s) to the protagonist. Not necessarily working against them, not necessarily the source of the conflict. “Civil War”: Tony Stark & Cpt America, Tony is the antagonist. Acts as a foil, a counter to the morals or better qualities of the protagonist. Also makes protagonist human when the antagonist holds up something to say you have flaws here. Can be a person, doesn’t need to be. “Moriarty”, “Zombies”, “Mr. Hyde”. Weather is NOT an antagonist, spatial distortion can be. Also anxiety, grief, disease. “There’s some really good diseases out there.”

(2d) Conflict. This is what drives the story. Without the conflict, no story. Prince saves the princess, it’s wonderful, no one wants to read that. Kim: “No one’s interested in happy people.” Want prince blown far away, he meets a kid, and they help each other. (Careful to not get into plot, conflict is the force driving the plot. Trying to overcome grief?) Man vs Man ; Man vs Himself ; Man vs Society ; Man vs Nature. Kaitlin: “Doesn’t need to be a goal you’re achieving, it can be a wall that’s in your way.”

(2e) Subplots. And underplots. If main is man saves girl, subplot can be a romance between them. Or man goes off on a starship, also a romance. It’s plots existing inside the novel.

SECTION THREE: Surviving NaNoWriMo. Getting through month without dying or breaking up. For story, do particular a exercise on building a story (not an outline, just the basics), wanted to do it here but losing time. For life, prepare, tell people you’re not going to see them for a while. Plan for responsibilities.

Not everyone can do it, but work on carving out time that works for you to write. An hour, five minutes, whatever - the more you plan, the easier it is to make it. Maybe drop off a few other things you would do, you don’t binge watch your shows, you only do half the team things. Still, do healthy things, and eat right! And what works for me versus what works for you. (Stay later at work, type in my office, it’s quiet. Others could do on bus.) What doesn’t work is NOT carving out that time, or I won’t do it.

November is a launching point to success. This is how you get there. Most successful writers write every day. Kim’s success is going to almost every write-in. Frustration? Skip it and move on. Or keep writing the song. Or walk away for five minutes. Or talk to someone else. Or write about what’s frustrating you about the scene. Sign up, here’s a postcard, follow on Twitter and Facebook.

When that wrapped up at 8pm, I went to forage for dinner. I might have peeked into the ConSuite, but don’t have anything written. At 9pm, “Witchcraft, Druids and the Occult” was a panel with an extensive recap, it’ll be in this separate post.

At 10pm, I saw some gamers playing “forbidden island” with tiles, then dropped by the ConSuites; the Guildhall looked very busy and the Tavern had a Chizine reception. I wasn’t feeling it, left at 10:20pm. (I heard they closed the hotel bar at 1:30am, when the bartender walked away.)

That concludes Saturday, September 10th. Sunday will be in another 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.

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