I went to my first “proper” convention a few weeks ago: Continuum 12.
Continuum is a longstanding genre fiction convention in my hometown of Melbourne held over a long weekend. Three and a half days of geeking out over genre fiction with other fans. and my friend Madeleine D’Este was on one of the Friday night panels on “Magical Melbourne”, as part of her launch celebrations for her first publication, Evangeline and the Alchemist!
I got a lot of value out of it and it’s taken me a long time to digest all of the material I absorbed over the weekend.
“Maslow the shit out of it”
I went to an excellent panel on world building and one of my key takeaways from the whole weekend came from Laura E. Goodin who described her approach to world building as: “Maslow the shit out of what your characters need”.
This blew my mind. It was such a simple idea but so incredibly effective for building a plot out of a world or really getting to grips with a plot in a world. “World must serve the story” is an idea I heard a lot on this panel. It’s not an end in itself.
I asked Laura for a bit more information on how she uses this approach as a tool and she explained:
“Have characters in a world and destroy it. Work through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. What happens when it floods? If they lose light? If they face a famine? War? Knock the poles out from under that.”
By “Maslowing the shit out of it” you expose how a society copes during a crisis, and different types of crises expose different things – weaknesses and strengths. You can poke holes in your world and societies really easy by flinging big problems at them! Doing this you instantly crack open all sorts of interesting questions about how a society is structured, who runs things, how they make things, how they move to help (or hinder!) in certain scenarios, what their reactions and superstitions are, what they do when the chips are down. Force your world and people to show their underbelly and you find out what’s interesting about them (and where the stories are).
Parents in spec-fic
I went to an excellent panel on parents in spec-fic, which unpacked the trope of dead/absent/useless parents in YA and MG fiction.
Removing the parents from YA/MG stories is an easy way to give your young protagonists agency and isn’t necessarily bad, but it is pretty lazy. Having active parents makes it harder for the protagonists to achieve their goals – it’s a challenge to their agency. Honestly, YA can be all about this – that teen experience of increasingly wanting to be your own person and do things on your terms, while having this hand brake of parents and authority and the conflict that creates. Removing the authority figures removes the possibility of that conflict in your story.
There’s an appeal in it, too, it’s why dystopias where all the adults die are so appealing to YA audiences, because it’s teens having to figure themselves out, getting to be autonomous in the way they want to be and deal with real world problems without being interfered with or prevented from engaging with the world and its problems by adults.
It’s also really nice to create a world for kids and young people to have adventures and do things in which includes adults not just as carers or hindrances on what they’re trying to do, but people in the world with their own goals and motivations and things that they’re doing outside their children. I’m not a parent, but this struck me as incredibly important in terms of how we depict adults in fiction for children and what expectations we’re setting for children about adults and adulthood. How often are we shown the parents not on the kids’ side? Or who has no agency of their own other than looking after, caring for, or being an annoyance to the children? And then you look at something like Harry Potter which has an excellent array of adult characters alongside an excellent array of younger characters and the possibilities there for inter-generational friendships and understandings. It also helps to flesh out your world a bit more.
The panel also covered mentors (a la the Hero’s Journey) and how removing parents allows space for the mentor or substitute parent to appear who is often plot relevant.
Surprisingly excellent panel! I’d never thought so much about villains but the amount of quality information I got out of this hour could be a blog post on its own!
The key point was this: we like villains with strong goals and a strong focus on their goals. This helps with their motivations and their presence.
They need to be obsessive and driven towards their goals in order to be compelling and really push against the protagonist. We love watching villains who have zero responsibility or “give no fucks”, go off the rails and break all the rules. It’s the extreme lengths they are willing to go to in order to achieve their goals which makes them compelling. Often the villain will pull the protagonist into the story because they’re going so far to achieve their goals that they upset enough apples and cause enough ripples that it impacts on the protagonist and gets their attention.
We also like our villains to be/have:
- Smart: It’s no fun watching the good guy beat a dumb opponent, there’s no challenge. The fun is in the feeling of the hero being outmatched and wondering how the hell they’re going to win.
If the villain is smart enough to subvert a situation and change it up, it makes the reader work and question, you drag them into the story because they want to know how it plays out.
Audiences live for moments where they run into scenes where everything becomes clear:
“Oh, I get it!”
“This is what the whole story is about”
“Oh no, he’s going to–“
- Shades of grey/complexity: Moustache-twirling villains are boring, they’re too easy to demonise and hate and, as characters, they’re not real. We’re much more interested in the person behind the villainy than we are in a human who is the avatar of wickedness for no reason other than the protagonist needs something to fight. Explore the villain’s humanity – what do they want/need? What do they love/hate? What hurts them?
- Competent: The villain defines the rules and playing space of a story, if they’re not competent they can’t do this effectively, they can’t put obstacles in the protagonist’s path or control the game.
- Personal tragedy: Doomed villains or villains with tragic pasts help them to be sympathetic. It makes them harder to outright hate which makes them more interesting as an antagonist. The complex relationship between “I hate what they’re doing” with “I feel so sorry for them” is an emotional gold mine.
- Hint of redemption: The idea that maybe the villain could act differently, make different choices, be different to who they are keeps us glued to the conflict. When we know the villain is never going to change or be redeemed it’s boring, but if there’s a hint that how they are now is not static? That’s compelling. We want to see where they end up and why.
- Understandable motivations: Knowing why they’re doing what they’re doing is key to a compelling villain. If we don’t understand their motivations and goals we can’t invest in them, same as protagonists. Villains also have to be internally consistent – make their argument logical. If they can tempt the reader with their worldview, the temptation and conflict they can convincingly create for the protagonists is that much stronger.
The panel also covered the role the villain plays in controlling the narrative with the key idea that villains drive the plot (The villains act; the hero reacts) and whether villains need to be in control the whole time or at all. They concluded that the longer the villain is calling the shots the more compelling they are. If they lose control too early you lose tension. The threat they present is diminished and, therefore, you should keep the villain at the height of their power pretty much the whole way through.
Writing and Doubt
This is one of my favourite topics. I never, ever get tired of hearing different writers talk about their doubts and how they cope and keep writing. A lot of the advice on this panel was familiar to me, such as:
- Knowing there’s always someone ahead of you
- The importance of positive feedback to break the isolation/doubt spiral that can happen if you’re too insular
- The importance of support networks
- Self and process acceptance
- Setting practical goals
- “Just continue”.
But what was new to me was the Yerkes-Dodson law, which charts anxiety (or “emotional arousal”) and performance on a bell curve.
Too much anxiety and you’re paralysed and can’t do the task, too little and you’re not motivated to do it. Writing and doubt is like this, you need to find the sweet spot between caring enough to keep going, and not caring so much that you can’t write at all.
It’s not the magic bullet for how to achieve that, but it’s nice to have science around these phenomena!
Grab-bag of ideas and thoughts from other panels
- Problematic fandoms
- What are authors allowed to comment on?
- How is “the other” portrayed in fiction?
- Is having all white characters inherently problematic?
- How does cultural appropriation show up and why is it problematic?
- What’s the difference between surface and deep culture?
- “Space” in media for realistic portrayals. Can only people from a minority write material dealing with it/should minority writers be expected to only write that?
- Avoid the cheap shots! Go for the interesting bits: politics, religion, city size, trade, building techniques, geography, climate, clothes etc.
- Who’s in charge/responsible for what?
- The whole point of worldbuilding is to make it real and allow space for real emotional responses.
- Bad worldbuilding:
- surprise elements thrown in when required;
- misrepresenting animal behaviour;
- bad historical research;
- lack of diversity/homogeneity across a world/country – you need “noise” like in sets or models;
- author opinions/preaching;
- lazy rip-offs of existing subculture/cultural appropriation.
- Stop when you have enough for the story; don’t overwhelm the reader!
- Worldbuilding is a place where you can subvert expectations (you can define the rules, or make it absurd!)
- Commit to the horror and the aftermath of it, otherwise it’s gratuitous;
- Apocalypses make the world smaller – you don’t have to care about the rest of the world because it isn’t there!
- The importance of fiction as something with which to start conversations and confront people with ideas, shock them into thinking about and talking about things we’d all rather not. It’s a strangely safe place to explore these ideas in, because it’s not “real”. It’s hypothetical.
Spending time with people > going to a scheduled panel
There is a common piece of advice given to people going to Clarion that if you’re given the option to spend time with people or write, spend time with people.
While I haven’t been to Clarion I found that this advice is pretty solid for life and held really true for my experience at Continuum. I met so many different fans and writers across the whole spectrum at this convention: people who published with TOR, or who read for the Aurealis awards, or who write for Marvel, Clarion grads, self-published authors, and people like me who love fiction but who haven’t published anything (yet).
The first evening I got into a great conversation with people that I broke off to go and see a panel. The panel was average and by the time I got back out the conversation was wrapping up and I felt like I’d missed lots of amazing tips and ideas that had been generated there, much more than I had gotten out of the panel!
I’m not saying every conversation trumps a great panel, but I think there is wisdom in keeping going with what’s working for you at the time rather than arbitrarily following your schedule of things you “should” be doing. Fear of missing out is a thing, but if you’re on a good thing you should be more worried about not getting more of that than being concerned that the thing you could also do might be better.
Take your time
I went to the Friday night, Saturday and Sunday days this year and skipped the Monday. I was wrecked by the end of it. I was falling asleep in my Sunday afternoon panels. I got terribly sick the week after the con. I didn’t feel like I was running myself ragged but I totally underestimated the energy required in going to something like this. I can’t even imagine what it’d be like to be on panels as well! And this con is small compared to some in the US. I’ve got a lot more respect for authors doing big promotional gigs with signings and panels at some of the bigger conventions.
I did find myself with big chunks of down time, usually around lunch time, which I’d use by grabbing as pot of tea, a window seat, and my journal. It was necessary “exhale” time, but it wasn’t enough. I don’t yet have a complete strategy for how I’m going to handle next year, but I suspect it’ll involve later starts, more coffee, and days off work on either side.
The good panels can’t be predicted
This is pretty self-explanatory, but I was surprised about how often a panel I walked into because it was in the same room as the one I had just done was and I couldn’t be bothered moving, ended up being fantastic and things I had pegged as the most important thing for me on the schedule were lacklustre.
None of this is a reflection on the panel programming or the panel members – this is all subjective and I did get value out of each panel I went to! – but I did find it interesting that there was some variability in the medium. I’ve never really been to panels before and it seemed to vary a lot based on panellists’ personalities, the moderator’s preparedness and, in some cases, whether the theme “had legs” as a discussion topic.
A quick Google search of “what makes a good panel” shows me that this is a super variable area and one I find pretty fascinating. It has to do with group dynamics and presenting skills I think, but probably also just luck and timing.
Honestly, the variability of the panels helped make the convention for me. I liked that it was a varied experience!
I got a lot of value out of this weekend and I’m really looking forward to next year (which I won early tickets to!). The theme is Triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13) and the guest of honour is Seanan McGuire – excitement!
 Steampunk novella set in historic Melbourne. There’s fake gold, spring-heeled shoes and kung fu! You can check it out here.
 Sometimes the villain and hero mirror each other. Sometimes you need to figure out what the story isn’t. Knowing who a character’s opposite number is tells you a lot about them. It’s their negative image.
 Henry Rollins: http://www.beat.com.au/music/henry-rollins