Can*Con 2017 Approaches – This is Where I’ll Be!

Gobble gobble, fellow writers!

The title of this post should probably read: “This is Where I’ll Be When I’m Not Running Around Helping with Con Business, or Grabbing a Drink in the Bar.” Obviously that blows brevity right out of the water, regardless of how true it is. After months of planning by Can*Con’s planning committee, the event is less than a week away, and once again I find myself both excited and exhausted now that we’ve made it to this point. But mostly the former. Can*Con started for me as a place to learn and become a professional writer, and now it’s a place where I still get to learn, but also hang out and catch up with some of my favorite people. Hopefully you all feel the same way!

Below is my official schedule for this year’s Can*Con:

Saturday:

  • 11 am: Black Gate Interviews Steven Erikson – I’m still a little giddy about this, but I have the honor of sitting down for a live interview with GoH Steven Erikson, in my role as a reviewer for BlackGate.com. His Malazan Book of the Fallen series was a favorite of mine in university and one of my early inspirations when I was breaking in as an author, so it’s difficult to really articulate how excited I am to be doing this. We’ll be exploring some deep and critical aspects of Mr. Erikson’s work – you don’t want to miss it!
  • 3 pm: 49th Parallels Signing Session – Several contributors to Bundoran’s newest anthology will be in the dealer’s room to sign copies. If you’re a fan of Canadian alternate history, please come and say hi!
  • 5 pm: On Spec Magazine: 25 Years of Canadian SFF – In addition to managing editor Diane Walton, this panel features authors whose first or second short story sale was to On Spec, specifically Leah Bobet, Chadwick Ginther, Susan Forest and myself, moderated by fellow contibutor Hayden Trenholm. We’ll also be giving away back issues of the magazine featuring our work!
  • 7 pm: Play Reading of DINKS by Hayden Trenholm – What happens when a desperate young guy rents his neighbor’s baby to survive a surprise visit from his mom? Find out in our table read of DINKS, featuring myself, Alexandra Renwick, Agnes Cadieux, Liz-Westbrook Trenholm, Matt Moore, and Hayden Trenholm.
  • 9 pm: Launch of 49th Parallels – Join editor Hayden Trenholm and a bunch of contributors (including me!) as we celebrate the launch of Bundoran’s latest anthology, 49th Parallels: Canadian Alternate Histories and Futures.

Sunday:

  • 1 pm: Interested in Being on Programming Next Year? – Fellow programming wizard Evan May and I will be around all weekend, but if you don’t get a chance to talk to us earlier, we’ll be at our table in the dealer’s room specifically to discuss programming for 2018. If you’re interested in being a panelist or have a panel to suggest, please drop by and introduce yourself!

Somehow even though I help create the schedule, I ended up with a packed Saturday… But it’ll be fun! To anyone else who’s attending Can*Con this year, I hope you’re as excited as I am. See you in a few days!

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When Should I Post, Anyway?

One of my writer friends was saying to me the other day how much he enjoys reading my posts here, and commended me on keeping at them. By the “other day,” I mean last week … or maybe two weeks ago. I hadn’t posted that week, and haven’t posted since, despite proclaiming that I was going to get back into regular posting. Not just because people actually read my nonsense, apparently, but because I enjoy my website as my own personal den of rambling, where I don’t have to worry about passive voice and edit a bunch of times like in everything I else I do as a writer.

Part of the problem is being busier than I’ve ever been before – new school year, Can*Con on the horizon, and with multiple short story publications to promote and writing projects on my plate – but you know what the real challenge is? What day I should be posting on. I’m not kidding – I’ve come home and thought, “Great, Monday is a perfect day for regular posting. Let’s start today and stick with it.” And then I remember a bunch of other things I need to do, and I forget to write a post. “Wednesday is just as good, right? Middle of the week, hump day, and I’m not usually doing much so I’ll regularly have time to write up a quick post.” Except that didn’t happen either, clearly.

So is there one day in the week where I will definitely be able to draft a post, at least 85% of the time? Does that even matter? I could commit to writing a post every week and just see where I have time, but odds are posting would always be one of the last things I do each week, after time-sensitive stuff takes precedence. So maybe Saturday morning should involve a blog post? Except that here I am Thursday night, clearly with the time and energy to ramble. And one thing I’ve learned is that setting a consistent writing schedule is one of the best ways to be productive; not having a consistent day lately has led to almost no regular posting.

If anyone is reading this thinking, Christ, stop overthinking it and just write your god-damned posts, you’re totally justified. But this is what writers think about, when we’re procrastinating and trying to avoid committing something to page, since we’re worried that when it comes out it’s going to be absolute shit. And when you’re busy, nailing down one specific time can be a difficult task.

But don’t worry, those of you who read this blog and miss getting a weekly look into the chaos that is my mind. I’ll figure out a schedule that works and get back into consistent blogging. In the meantime, here’s what I’ve been up to and will be up to in the near future:

  • Tomorrow morning at 7:15 am I’ll be a guest on The Friday Special Blend on CKCU 93.1, with my Can*Con programming teammate Evan May! You can listen live here, as we discuss writing and pretend like we know what we’re talking about: https://www.ckcufm.com/
  • Can*Con itself is only two weeks away! It’s going to be an absolute blast this year, with a ton of great guests and amazing programming. I’ll post my schedule soon, but in the meantime you can find details here: http://can-con.org/cc/
  • My newest publication is a short story titled “Clearing Out Nests,” which was released in issue 16 of PULP Literature on September 15. And I got my contributor copy today! If the “ghoulish side of gentrification” interests you, I hope you give the issue a read, and give me a shout if you do.

First Time at Toronto Fan Expo

You know how some people are into spa days? Specifically those ones were you spend an exorbitant amount of money (to some) for a day of mud baths and face scrubs and a bunch of other things that sound totally unnatural (to some) to be doing to your body? Clearly that sort of thing isn’t my cup of tea. But what is my cup of tea is conventions, and I realized after coming back from my first ever foray to Toronto Fan Expo that events like this do for me what spa days do for people who partake in them: they almost recenter me, giving me a chance to breathe and forget about the world, while I soak in the comfort of my happy place.

There’s an energy about conventions that’s unlike anything else, where people come together to celebrate geekdom. Fan Expo takes that energy and kicks it into overdrive, almost like what I imagine taking speed or LSD might feel like (but not cocaine – do less cocaine, kids). I was only there for two days but could easily have gone for the complete four; there’s that much to see, and I feel like I just scratched the surface. But I managed to scope out almost everything I really wanted to do. Here’s the highlight reel:

  1. Bucket list achieved in seeing a live Q&A with Nathan Fillion, who is as delightful as you might imagine. That man is good to his fans, and seems to really appreciate them.
  2. Second bucket list item achieved: I saw Anthony Daniels in person. Though admittedly from afar, as he was leaving his autograph table. But I’ll take it. (The same goes for Meat Loaf, whose line was capped every time I went past, I think because it looked like he was having long conversations with everyone who lined up. He’s a treasure.)
  3. I’m still getting used to the fact that I can go to an event like this and bump into writers and other creative people I know (some day I’ll be at one of those tables, maybe!). I had the great fortune of catching up with Dominik Parisien, Kelsi Morris, Rebecca Diem, Jack Briglio, Benoit Chartier, Sandra Kasturi, and Brett Savory, and I’m sure there were other people floating around that I missed.
  4. The whole reason I was even at Fan Expo was to be part of a DC Universe cosplay organized by my friend, artist Lana Kamarić. I’m new to the whole cosplaying thing, so I went as John Constantine, since that didn’t require me to make or build any elaborate costume. What surprised me the most was that our group (see below) getting stopped for photos was actually really awesome, and the few times I was recognized on my own and someone wanted a photo of me were bizarrely cool.
  5. As well, part of our DC crew pictured below is my new friend “Hamilton Batman,” who is trying to build a following back home that will lead into some charity work. If you’re in the area, follow him and stay tuned!

All in all, it was an amazing trip, and Fan Expo is on my list of conventions to hit up every year, if I can. Below are a few photos from my two-day sojourn. While I scope them out, I’ll be spinning new stories in my head.

Benoit Chartier

Dominik and Kelsi

Jack Briglio

Our DC Expo crew

 

And all hell breaking loose…

 

 

Brandon Discovers Discovery Writing – Episode I

I decided that for the next little while, with the exception of upcoming anthologies I want to pitch to, my focus is going to be on novel writing. The problem is that I have a few potential novel projects to work on. A space opera that’s at draft 2 and needs work. A fantasy novel at draft 1 that needs considerable work (read: rewrite). And about a half-dozen other ideas for novels that are just notes in my Moleskines.

Deciding which one to work on was proving difficult. My main issue, I realized, is that the projects really speaking to me aren’t the ones in my trunk; I wanted to write something new, but that would mean most of August would be spent outlining, and I don’t want to lose the bulk of my break. Yes, I can see you rolling your eyes, non-teachers, but trust me – as much as the summer break is a gift (or a necessary siesta because of how gruelling the school year is, but that’s a separate topic) it can actually be stressful, as you look at everything you want to get done and you’re not sure if you have enough time to do it. So that was the quandary I found myself in.

The solution? I’m doffing my outliner hat, and trying out life as a pantser.

For any Muggles out there, “pantser” is the term for someone who discovery writes (or writes by the seat of their pants) instead of working from an outline. Every pantser is a little different, but the ones I’ve spoken to will have a few notes on character, setting and an overall plot, but not much beyond that, and certainly not a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. The idea is that you just start writing and see what happens, focusing on the skeleton of the narrative with the understanding that you’ll fill in the gaps and correct things as you complete later drafts. I’ve written short stories this way before, but never a novel, and so the prospect made me nervous; I’ve also heard it’s easy to hit roadblocks, write yourself into a corner, etc, because you haven’t planned. However, you could also spend months outlining a novel, start writing it, and realize two chapters in that the whole thing doesn’t work or you simply hate it (I’ve been there).

One thing that I had in my favor was I had an already-developed idea that would be perfect for discovery writing: a series of short stories and a subsequent novel that had been intended as a different project, but needed to be changed (sorry to be vague there, but there are reasons). With the bit of development I had already done for that, I decided to focus on a core idea structure taught to me by my colleague Anatoly Belilovsky. In order, I came up with the following:

  • Heart
  • Voice
  • Character
  • Setting
  • Plot

But the key is that my development was much more minimal than what I’ve done with previous novels. I have my two primary protagonists and my primary antagonist, but any other characters in my head I left as just one-line descriptions. I have the building blocks of my setting and the key rules of my world (it’s second-world fantasy), but the worldbuilding I left vague on purpose, to be built as I write. With an understanding of the key plot points I would need my characters to move toward, I started to write.

And damn if I’m not having a shitload of fun.

In all seriousness, discovery writing this novel has been liberating so far. My focus is on my characters and my dialogue, specifically on figuring out how they would respond to other characters’ lines or various external stimuli. This means that I’m really getting into their heads, and in some cases figuring out ways that I can screw with them. I’m also creating characters on the fly. I came to a scene where one of my protagonists is standing on the front stoop of a friend’s residence, barring the city guard from entering and demanding to see their commander (who replaced her when she retired). I had already spent a few paragraphs figuring her out, since up until starting that chapter she was only a one-line description in my notes, and then did the same with the first guard she speaks to, and then the commander. These people came alive as I was writing, in a way that never happens when I’m outlining. Part of this is because I started asking myself a crucial question: what’s the last kind of person you would expect to see right now? When I outline, since I’m trying to come up with a whole cast of characters without actually writing them, I find in my first draft that some of them are too generic or cliche. But with this method, I’m managing to avoid it.

The long and short of it, basically, is that I think discovery writing might be the way I should be writing my novels. I suppose I should be grateful I’m figuring it out now, at 27, as opposed to later in my career. I’m currently at the start of Chapter 8 (they’re short chapters right now, which may change in later drafts) and trying to manage 2000-3000 words per day at minimum, which so far has been do-able. The adventure now is to see if I can keep up this pace and maintain my excitement – there have always been moments before where I start hating a lengthy project and want to switch to something else – and I’ll be updating you as I go. The lesson here, folks: when in doubt, try something new.

Long Ma, Kumo and Alternative Storytelling Through Monsters

This weekend marked the true beginning of my summer, what with the end of summer school, which means spending considerably more time writing (more on that later) but also more time catching up on things and taking time to relax until the next school year. It’s a good thing, too, because I’d forgotten that Ottawa was about to be overrun by giant monsters duking it out across the downtown.

No, I’m not kidding. This weekend Ottawa hosted La Machine, a four-day mobile and evolving storytelling show involving two giant mechanical constructs each operated by a team of trained performers. One is Long Ma, the spirit of the Dragon-Horse, who is hunting the city for wings stolen by the nefarious giant spider Kumo. The story, which is described in full on the Ottawa 2017 website, is that Kumo snuck into Long Ma’s temple and robbed it before seeking refuge in Ottawa, the “mother-city of all spiders” (if I knew that, I might not have moved here). Having been awakened by the intense construction happening in Ottawa (nice tie-in there, by the way) Kumo spent the weekend fleeing and laying traps for Long Ma, until the two faced each other in an epic closing battle on Sunday night.

 

 

 

 

 

I didn’t catch that ultimate finale, but I did wander into the Byward Market on Saturday to catch a glimpse of these two constructs, figuring I’d glimpse them from afar and continue with my day. But instead of being discouraged by the massive crowds in the market, I decided to make it a challenge and go monster hunting. Weaving between people and looking for shortcuts between or through buildings to avoid the main streets (which isn’t easy) while I listened for overheard comments of “I heard the spider is on Dalhousie” and “The dragon is going to turn down Sussex,” I got caught up in the energy of this event. The fun became imagining Long Ma and Kumo as actual creatures, as opposed to marionettes moving on wheels and operated by real people, and not just buying into the narrative, but imagining myself a part of it. Lo and behold, I glimpsed Kumo for a moment and gave chase (which should make certain friends of mine proud, since I’m actually terrified of spiders) only to find myself turning a corner and approaching Long Ma, with Kumo nowhere to be seen. As I moved to catch up to the Dragon-Horse (who moved surprisingly fast), myself and the crowd around me turned a corner and, sure enough, found the Giant Spider heading our way.

Which is how I found myself at ground zero of a fight between the two monsters.

In retrospect, it’s a testament to the creators of these constructs and their operators that it was so easily to lose myself in the story. I marvelled as Long Ma tried to stare down Kumo, only to flee from the spider because he wasn’t at full strength without his wings. Or at least that’s the narrative I imagined, as the constructs moved and music played in the background. That’s the special quality to this kind of storytelling: since the medium is entirely music and physical performance, you as the audience have to fill in the rest, leaving room for interpretation and imagination. When Kumo’s operators sprayed water at passersby from the spider’s spinnerets, I imagined webs being lain across the market, ensnaring hapless people until Long Ma arrived to free them. When Long Ma shot actual fire into the air (seriously, the fire was real) or emitted a roar from his loudspeakers, I felt for the grief and frustration of the mighty beast, wingless and homeless and alone in a strange city.

La Machine was storytelling at its finest, and serves as a reminder about how much fun can be had by being creative and thinking outside the box to deliver a narrative. For four days, our city was enraptured by the magic of Long Ma and Kumo, and for me at least, it’s a magic that will take a long time to fade.

The World is Obviously (Probably) Not Totally Fucked

Last week, I had the pleasure of reappearing on Literary Landscapes, a local radio show on 93.1 CKCU out of Carleton University, to chat with host Kate Hunt about my forthcoming publication in Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation. I’m an improviser at heart, so I went in with no specifics about what we might talk about, besides my story and the anthology and a couple other vague things. The result was that we dove very quickly into discussing exactly what “solarpunk” is, since it’s a relatively new genre that is just starting to get attention.

Solarpunk is a fascinating concept for me because it’s essentially optimistic, examining a world where technology or human activities don’t destroy everything, but often prove to be the solution to things. If you’ve ever read the anthology Hieroglyph that Kathryn Cramer and Ed Finn edited, the tone of solarpunk today is very much the same. But it’s not always optimistic; there’s a story in Sunvault where humanity has already ruined multiple Earths, and is moving to another one filled with the realization that we can’t botch it again because we’ll only get so many chances. Or sometimes solarpunk can be vague, like my story “Pop and the CFT,” which posits a carbon footprint tax that’s calculated on someone’s estate but never explains whether that system is actually doing any good with regard to how people treat the environment. So describing solarpunk as inherently optimistic is maybe a little inaccurate, since it’s difficult to write an interesting story where everything is sunshine and rainbows. Maybe it’s just a genre that opens up the possibility of things working out large-scale, presuming that

climate change or rampant economic disparity or North Korea or Cheeto Jesus or whatever the hell us doesn’t bring it all crashing down.

The thing I’ve always found so fascinating about science fiction and fantasy in general is that “what if” mentality that seems to pervade all of it. Lately that “what if” tends to focus on how things can go wrong; the question is about what particular thing will make the world worse, and how we’ll all deal with it. So I like the fact that subgenres like solarpunk are trying to take a slightly different tack. And that it’s new enough that nobody really understands what it is, and can have great conversations about it.

One of my favorite things to do is talk shop or society with other creative types, and I really enjoyed my conversation on Literary Landscapes. If you’d like to hear Kate and I discuss solarpunk and other things in more detail, you can follow the link above or via the CKCU website. And if solarpunk is something that interests you, there’s a Goodreads giveaway for Sunvault – but holy shit, it ends today! So go check it out right now!

Open Letter to the 2016/2017 School Year

The end of a school year always brings mixed emotions for me. It didn’t really dawn on me until recently that I’m no different than other people my age who are still stuck doing contract work and experiencing periodic uncertainty about their employment. I’m an LTO, and while I have enough experience (and possibly the reputation) that I consistently get teaching positions each year, I spend the summer not knowing where I’ll be in September. I’ve been exceptionally lucky in that I’ve almost never been without work, but five years feels like a long time of hopping from school to school, especially when I’m lucky enough to find myself at a school that I genuinely love working at.

“Bittersweet” is probably the best way to describe my feelings over the past couple of weeks. I tend not to talk about my teaching in too much detail here, but I’m going to break that unspoken rule, because my experience at Merivale High School this year was possibly the best of my entire career so far. I taught some truly exceptional students, and got to watch a bunch of them collect their diplomas, proud to have gotten a chance to work with them and (apparently) actually have an impact. I coached a team for the first time, and I kid you not that team won the friggin’ city championship for girls soccer (I played a very small part in that). I worked with some incredible admin and a department and staff that were amazingly supportive and encouraging, and endearingly dysfunctional. And at the end of the semester, the outpouring of goodwill from students and colleagues as I said my goodbyes made me, I’m not ashamed to say, a little emotional. (But no tears).

So I’ve said this to a bunch of people, but I want to repeat it here before I mentally transition fully into summer vacation: it was an absolute privilege teaching at Merivale this year. I’m taking memories (and some really heartwarming gifts) that I hope I’ll hold onto until I’m senile, and connections that hopefully will not fade with time. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that I have the opportunity to return there someday.

And to my students (who will always be my students, cuz that’s just the way I am) who apparently sometimes read this rambling blog, a wise man once said, “Everything ends, and it’s always sad. But everything begins again, too, and that’s always happy. Be happy. I’ll look after everything else.”