On The MacGuffin and Exponential Growth Economies

By Derek Newman-Stille

For folks who are unfamiliar with the term, a “MacGuffin” is an object, a device, an event, or a character used in fiction as a plot device to advance the story that is unfolding. We see MacGuffins regularly in speculative fiction, whether it be the Infinity Gauntlet, the Death Star, the One Ring, or the Ark of the Covenant, and these objects serve to push the plot of the story.

However, there is a tendency, particularly in serialized stories, television shows, or movies toward a perceived need to create a bigger and bigger MacGuffin for each book/season/film. Jurassic World even self-consciously referenced this when characters commented on people needing a bigger and more advanced dinosaur to draw them to the park. The idea is that people want to see something bigger and better for the next instalment of their story. They expect characters to “level up” from one story to the next and perceive them as needing a bigger challenge.

I will use Buffy the Vampire Slayer as an example:

Season 1 “Big Bad”: A vampire

Season 2 “Big Bad”: A vampire Buffy loves

Season 3 “Big Bad”: A mayor who becomes a demon and a vampire slayer who has turned evil

Season 4 “Big Bad”: A demon/cyborg hybrid and a secret military organization

Season 5 “Big Bad”: A demon goddess

Season 6 “Big Bad”: A witch turned evil

Season 7 “Big Bad”: The First Evil

Each season requires something bigger to follow it in order to keep the audience’s attention.

This pattern isn’t coming from out of nowhere. It reflects a pattern in our society. Our economic system is one that requires constant growth. The perception is that every company needs to keep growing and expanding. Anything that maintains a pattern and doesn’t grow is perceived to be a failure. This pattern affects the way we view anything that doesn’t continue to grow and expand and we perceive anything that doesn’t expand as stagnant and failing. Even in our own lives, we are expected to constantly grow from our jobs and once we find one that doesn’t let us continue growing, we perceive it as stagnating us and we need to move to something else. This type of continual expansion isn’t feasible. Eventually we reach limits and pushing further can often cause collapse.

The problem with this bigger and bigger MacGuffin per season is that it tends to eventually end. Eventually, it is impossible to get bigger. Eventually the plot devices also become sillier and sillier and lose their impact. The weapon that can kill a person becomes the weapon that can destroy a city, becomes the weapon that can destroy a country, becomes the weapon that can destroy a planet, becomes the… you get the pattern. As the MacGuffins and the characters become more and more powerful, the story loses its human component. It becomes further separated from something the audience can identify with.

Exponential growth isn’t possible. Eventually everything starts to reach its boundaries and can’t grow further.

Is it possible for us to continue telling a story without requiring a bigger and bigger MacGuffin? Yes, but that pattern would need to be set early on and growth would have to be challenged in the series. Does the narrator need to keep becoming stronger? Or can they develop and change in different ways? Can they have life happen without getting “better”? Does the danger they face need to get stronger, or can it change? Can each threat bring out something new in the narrator?

I don’t think a bigger MacGuffin is always the way to keep a story going. It isn’t powerful writing to resort to only one aspect of the story changing. There are so many other parts of the story that can change without having one plot device grow exponentially.


Editorial by Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD

Second Speculating Canada Writing Workshop: Writing Fairy Tales

IMG_6815Sign up  for the  second of Speculating Canada’s writing workshop series taught by Trent University instructor Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD. Our workshop series allows us connect and write together and maybe to collapse some of the social distance by coming together online as a community.

This workshop is free.

Date: Thursday, May 14 at 7:00 PM EST

Location: Online on Zoom

Our first topic will be:

Writing Fairy Tales

Fairy tales are a powerful type of story and one that has continued to endure. Versions of various fairy tales have been told for centuries and continue to speak to our population. This workshop will provide you with a chance to interact with aspects of fairy tale narratives and imagine your own fairy tales, exploring current themes, social anxieties, needs, desires, and changes. Prepare to access your own Mother Goose, Brothers Grimm, or Charles Perault.

Derek Newman-Stille (they/them) teaches multiple courses at Trent University including continuing education courses in creative writing. Derek’s background is in classics and archaeology, and they will draw on that knowledge when exploring the mythic with you. Derek traditionally teaches feminist disability studies. They are the 9 time Aurora Award winning creator of Speculating Canada www.speculatingcanada.ca and has edited the collections We Shall Be Monsters (Renaissance Press) and Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales from the Margins (Exile).

There are limited spaces available, so sign up at

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/speculating-canada-writing-workshop-writing-fairy-tales-tickets-104917491040  

Authors in Quarantine – Karen Dudley

With this this series, I am hoping to capture how this cultural moment is affecting our speculative fiction authors and how our authors are surviving during the COVID-19 outbreak

Spec Can: What have you been up to during the COVID-19 outbreak?

Karen Dudley: The pandemic really hit at terrible time for me. My dad is quite unwell and I am currently recovering from major surgery (though naturally I tell everyone the 8-inch scar on my abdomen is from a bat’leth fight). Keeping everybody (including me) together has been tough. Combined with anxiety/fear about Covid has meant that I’ve basically been doing my best interpretation of a fruit fly: buzzing around, lighting on something for a picosecond before taking off again. I haven’t cleaned closets or made bread or learned a new language or calculated the distance to Mars in Mars bars. BUT my family is (relatively) sane, the cats are happy, everyone is getting fed, and the house isn’t too gross, so I call it a win.

At first, I spent too much time reading upsetting articles, scrolling through social media, and having an occasional cry. But I am trying to enjoy the beauty of a quieter, less smoggy world. I write messages of love in chalk on the sidewalk and put hearts and stuffies in the windows so kids out for their daily stroll can count them. We’ve also been taking advantage of the various productions that are streaming for free: operas, Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, Shakespeare plays.

The other cool thing that we’re doing—the thing that is helping most to keep my daughter happy and occupied—is having theme dinners. The first (pictured above) was, not surprisingly, an ancient Greek dinner. We researched the foods, the clothing, the makeup, and the dining rooms to recreate an ancient Greek symposion. We brought out the camp cots to make dining couches and piled them with pillows. We dressed in our finest chitons and ate sesame pancakes and shrimps in honey while we listened to lyre music (thanks, Youtube!) and gossiped about how Socrates always looks like an unmade sleeping couch. It was so much fun!!! We went Medieval after that. We were nobles in our dining hall and all my grandmother’s old silver serving dishes looked amazing (though the kitten tried to make off with one of the trenchers). This weekend we’ll be dining in an Elizabethan tavern. My husband and daughter look fantastic as lace-collared dandies about town. I, however, will be a lowly serving wench.

Spec Can: How are you adapting to social distancing?

Karen Dudley: I DESPISE IT!!! I am an unabashed hugger; I HATE not being able to hug people. My husband and daughter are both introverts and it’s getting to the point where they beat a hasty retreat as soon as they see me coming. “No, Mom! Nooooo! Not another hug!!”
Needless to say, the cats are getting a lot more cuddles.
But I go for a walk every morning, and I smile at strangers as I pass by (always from at least 2 metres away). Most people smile back and I love that brief acknowledgement. The unspoken ‘I am only avoiding you because of the virus, not because of the way you look or who you are’. It lifts my heart. But I tell you, when this pandemic is over, I’m going to hug every single person I see. Every. Single. Person.

Spec Can: How is the outbreak affecting your writing?

Karen Dudley: I have to echo Kate Story here and laugh uproariously at the question. Seriously, how could something like this NOT affect one’s writing? Most days I can’t concentrate for more than five minutes at a time. It’s driving me crazy! And then there’s the problem of what to write. Before my surgery, I was working on the second book of a fantasy trilogy, but it’s set in a society on the verge of collapse. Quite frankly, I don’t want to write that right now, I’m LIVING it! And yet, I feel as though I do need to write—if only to lose myself in work for a spell. Fortunately, my daughter, who is a budding animator, had asked me a while ago to write down a story I made up for her when she was young (she wants to animate it for her grade twelve summative project). It’s a goofy tale of how our cat, Monsieur Goobère, got his stripes. When I realized that my fantasy novel wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, I started working on the Goobère story. Not only have I been able to concentrate on it, the project has actually made me quite happy. It’s gentle and sweet and exactly what I need right now. Obviously, I hope to get back to my novel one of these days, but for now, this is enough.

Interviewed by Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD

Interview with Marie Bilodeau and Kerri Elizabeth Gerow about Wishstamp

By Derek Newman-Stille

Spec Can: What inspired you to begin Wishstamp?

KEG: It was all her idea.

MB: I stayed up too late one night and drafted a business plan for no reason except it sounded like fun!

KEG: And then she realized she needed an artist.

MB: She’s easy to win over with chocolate.

WishStamp

Spec Can: Okay, wait, can you tell us a little bit about Wishstamp?

KEG: Well it has nothing to do with chocolate, turns out.

MB: It is a treat though!

KEG: Basically it’s a subscription service for a full year of greeting cards – one each month. We currently have seven lines – each with unique artwork and stories.

MB: People can personalize cards as well, which is really popular. When someone buys a subscription, they have the opportunity to add their own personalized notes that will go out in the month they’ve specified. It’s still from you, but you don’t have to think about it every month.

KEG: So, for example, if you love unicorns (and who doesn’t?), you can order Series 1 of Beyond the Rainbow, for yourself or a friend. Each month, you or your friend gets a card in the mail, with “field notes” from the expedition that went beyond the rainbow, as well as whatever message you added in when you bought your line.

MB: We tried to make each line memorable in its own right. Candy Kids is like sugar and sorcery – adventures with magic in Bonbon Valley. It’s a lot of fun to write, and so is every line. We try to have something for everyone.

Wishstamp’s Beyond the Rainbow Series

Spec Can: What got you interested in cards?

MB: I was discussing subscription services with a friend, and it occurred to me that a lot of them lead to a lot of waste, and don’t really give anything except stuff to the receiver. Which is great, mind you, but I thought maybe stories, art, and a personal message, the chance to remind someone that they’re being thought about, might be an interesting subscription. Heck, it’s something I’d like to get! Since Kerri can art and I can writing, cards seemed a fun solution to meet all of those criteria.

WishStamp’s Candy Kids Series

Spec Can: Marie, you are a speculative fiction writer. How does Wishstamp relate to other forms of writing that you do?

MB: Writing for cards is a whole other challenge, but one that I quite love. Wishstamp gives me a chance to stretch my writer brain in a different way. I have to think about the 12-card arc, if there is one, and what each line and card represents. Not to mention that I’m used to writing novels. Cards are, well, way shorter. Way. So much way.

Writing succinctly and to the point makes every word important, every action golden.  And with a bit of magic in every card line, the writing ties back nicely to my speculative fiction roots. I get giddy just thinking about writing the next batch of cards! 

WishStamp’s Wednesday Afternoon Series

Spec Can: Kerri, most of your art tends to be 3 dimensional. What was it like to create art for cards?

KEG: Like many visual artists, I began by drawing. I’ve always loved drawing and painting, but in the past several years I’ve moved more into 3-dimensional art. Creating the cards for Wishstamp gives me the opportunity to return to drawing and painting. In some ways it’s easier to draw something for Wishstamp than it is to just sit down and create in something of a vacuum. With the card lines I have a clear direction, if not always a clear specific idea when I sit down to start drawing, and so it’s freeing in a way.

WishStamp’s The Adorables Series

Spec Can: Cards are often isolated statements, but by having a subscription of 12 cards, you participate in an ongoing narrative. It is an interesting form of sequential storytelling. What is the potential for telling a story or creating a narrative this way?

KEG: from the art point of view, it’s interesting because I’ll have an idea in my head, but when Marie starts writing them, sometimes she has a completely different idea, and then we give each other looks from across the desk.

MB: But we always come to a common vision. The art inspires stories that are sometimes sequential, or sometimes not completely linked. Some card lines are linked to specific months, while others just start with the first of 12 cards and go from there. It makes it interesting, knowing that, narratively speaking, for some card lines they’ll be starting in June instead of January, but they’ll still get the same story. Most of our lines are written so they can be read in any order.

KEG: It’s fun knowing that everyone gets to look at the same art at the same time each month, for most card lines. It’s like a monthly reveal.

Spec Can: What were some of your favourite card lines you did?

KEG: For me, unicorns (obviously), but also Candy Kids, because it picks up on the character design and storytelling that we grew up with as kids in the 1980s. Early on in the Wishstamp process, I woke up one morning with the idea for the first Candy Kids art pretty solidly developed in my head, and by the end of the weekend the art was complete for series one.

MB: I love writing for both those lines – Candy Kids goes from weird adventure to mythical origins, all full of mystery, which keeps things fresh. Beyond the Rainbow has selections from field notes, and I love getting into the heads of the expedition.

WishStamp’s Peculiar Pets Series

Spec Can: What card lines are coming up? Are there any sneak peaks you can give us?

KEG: We just launched Sadie and her Dragon, which is one of our sequential lines, meaning the cards have to be read in a specific order. I channeled my love of details in this line, and each picture tells the story.

MB: We also have a new spectacular artist/writer joining our team, with a line that’s their very own. We don’t want to spoil too much, but if you’re familiar with Derek Newman-Stille, you will be super happy. If you’re not familiar with them, we recommend you google them today!

It’s a great line, and we can spoil it a bit by saying it’s grim. But not. 

KEG: I’m shaking my head at you. We’ve also got some lines that are still in the very preliminary stages, but that we think our subscribers will be really excited about when they come out. Stay tuned!

To find out more about WishStamp, check out their website at https://wishstamp.com

No More Magical Cures

No More Magical Cures

A Review of Jamieson Wolf’s “The Descent” in Nothing Without Us edited by Cait Gordon and Talia C. Johnson (Renaissance Press, 2019)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Jamieson Wolf’s “The Descent” explores a trope of disability that is often apparent in fantasy literature – the Magical Cure. Frequently, this trope is used because abled authors can’t imagine the possibility of someone being disabled and still being able to live a happy life, so the author writes away the disability in one pen stroke. The Magical Cure trope isn’t limited to actual magic. It is also used for the instant scientific inventions or the writer has the character conquer their disability with willpower (both incredibly offensive tropes). Wolf takes on this constant representation of the Magical Cure trope by having his narrator  Jefferson deal with magic and his own magical abilities.

Jefferson learns magic to try to gain the ability to get rid of his disability. Instead, he separates his disability into a separate individual, and personifies it under the name Max Shadow. When Jefferson has to descent down a flight of stairs (Jefferson’s real arch nemesis) to an oracle that is supposed to be able to give him the tools to erase his disability, Jefferson ends up not fighting Max Shadow, but instead fights his own internalized ableism that has resulted in his desire for a Magical Cure.

“The Descent” is a powerful story that involves the intersection of disability and queer identity and Wolf is able to weave his story with a bodily experience that is shaped from his own queer, disabled identity. His story is about ideas of desire and desiring, an idea that frequently arises in queer literature, but rarely in Disabled literature, and Wolf is able to examine the critical question of what it means to desire disability – to not just reject it or seek to erase it, but instead to embrace disability.

To find out more about the Magical Cure Trope, check out my Disability Tropes 101 post on Dis(Abled) Embodiment https://disabledembodiment.wordpress.com/2019/10/22/disability-tropes-101-the-magical-cure/

To find out more about Jamieson Wolf, go to https://jamiesonwolf.com

To discover more about Nothing Without Us, visit https://nothingwithoutusanthology.wordpress.com and to buy your own copy, go to Renaissance Press’ website at https://renaissance-107765.square.site/product/nothing-without-us/117?cp=true&sbp=false

A Fantasy Trans Memoir

A Fantasy Trans Memoir

A review of Kai Cheng Thom’s Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir (Metonymy Press, 2016).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Kai Cheng Thom decided to include the word “Memoir” in the title of her book Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, yet she also cleverly weaves fantasy elements into her text, telling stories about the death of the last of the mermaids, the mythic First Femme, ghosts, and a magical Trans woman who casts spells on her sisters. She weaves fairy tales into her “memoir”, revealing the problems of Cinderella narratives for Trans women, discussing doctors who are so unlike fairy godmothers (always wanting something in return for their transformations), telling tales of goddesses, escapees from towers that trap them, and the magic of the everyday.

Kai Cheng Thom’s Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir is meant to complicate the idea of memoir itself, and especially the tropes of the “Trans Girl Memoir”, which is so often about a person discovering that they are Trans, leaving her home and ending up suffering on the street, becoming the victim of abuse. Thom’s Trans memoir is one filled with magic, but it is also about fighting back – about never being a victim and about coming together as a community to protect each other. Her tale evokes the magic of connections with other Femmes.

She tells her tale through prose and poetry, through letters and dramatic scripts, and through sharing the histories of other Trans women on the street (often narrated by someone else). Her narrator is someone who hungers for their stories like we do as the reader, but she also filters those stories through her own knowledge, her own craving for a place to belong and a people to belong with. Yet, despite her craving for belonging, we are told that the narrator is an escape artist, and, perhaps she even escapes from the text in a way, leaping from the simple veracity of the mundane world and into a space where fantasy is a more powerful truth than Truth.

This is not a Trans woman’s memoir. This is a story about stories… about our need for stories. Its a story about the fact that there are stories behind the stories that are told. It is a collection of myths from the street, urban myths. It is a collection of truths. Kai Cheng Thom complicates the idea of Truth in Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, teaching us that some fictions speak greater truths than works that claim to be collections of truth. She teaches us that in the act of storytelling, we transform ourselves, and in the act of hearing, we create community. She shares her love of storytelling with us as readers, reminding us that the veracity of a story doesn’t matter so long as it shares and tells us truths about ourselves through the act of reading.

Kai Cheng Thom uses the word “Memoir” in her title to complicate memoirs – to illustrate to us that there are no simple truths and that truths are always shifting, changing, and transforming. She illustrates that life is a fantasy made up of our collective stories interweaving with each other and creating magic.

Thom’s narrator tells us “Someday, I’m going to gather up all of the stories in my head. All the things that happened to me and all the things I wish had happened. I’m going to write them all down one after the other, and I’ll publish a famous best-selling book and let history decide what’s real and what’s not.” This is a tale that invites the reader into the process of truth-making, using the term “memoir” to invite questions about what is true and to whom.

To discover more about Kai Cheng Thom, visit her website at https://kaichengthom.wordpress.com

To discover more about Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, visit https://metonymypress.com/product/fierce-femmes-notorious-liars-dangerous-trans-girls-confabulous-memoir/

Mute Power

Mute Power

A review of Savannah Houston-McIntyre and Andrew Hewitt’s Amya Vol 1 (2014)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Amya Vol 1 is a fantasy tale of mystery and suspense, filled with secrets and magic. It is about two kingdoms on the brink of war and the possibility of the return of a divinity who may be able to save everything. This is a tale of a secret, sacred history that is revealed in pieces.

Houston-McIntyre and Hewitt tell a story of a mute noblewoman who has incredible magical potential, the power to create illusions… but there are hints of something more about her personality. Amya touches the lives of those around her, changing them through her contact, but she begins to draw together a group of adventurers who are interested in supporting her. Though Amya is mute, she is not portrayed as defenceless and she is not someone who is seeking a “cure” for her mutism. She is a complex and powerful character.

Amya vol 1 is a tale of political power plays in a world of change, where there is a fight for half-elf rights, where patsies are set up as regicides, where young noblemen escape from family lands, and where myth and reality intersect in forging a new future.

To discover more about Amya and the creators of the comic Savannah Houston-McIntyre and Andrew Hewitt, visit http://www.amyachronicles.com/about/the-amya-team

Who Said Unicorns Were Majestic?

Who Said Unicorns Were Majestic?

A review of Katie Shanahan and Steven Shanahan’s Silly Kingdom: A New Steed Indeed (www.sillykingdom.com , 2105)

People frequently portray unicorns as majestic, gentle, caring creatures… but not the Shanahans. In their comic Silly Kingdom: A New Steed Indeed, The Prince becomes obsessed with the fact that a neighbouring prince, Peatrid, manages to have a pet unicorn where The Prince only has the traditional steed of his kingdom… the llama. Obsessed with beating his rival, The Prince heads out with Markus The Kingdom Jester in search of a rare Nocturnal Black Unicorn.

He quickly discovers that his prey is far less gentle than he had assumed… and far more of a trickster herself. In a set of Wiley Coyote and the Roadrunner-like attempts to catch the unicorn, The Prince and Markus end up realizing that the unicorn they are searching for has a wicked sense of humour and a lot of attitude.

Like their first Silly Kingdom comic, Katie and Steven Shanahan combine the magical with the hilarious, bringing the reader on a ridiculous adventure into a world of mishaps and magic. In this second comic, the Shanahans focus even more on the visual than they had in their first comic, stepping away from the conversion from radio play to graphic medium and instead getting into the storytelling power of images. They allow the images on the page to tell their own stories, relying on the power of expressive faces to reveal their own internal narrative and set the tone for dialogue that is used.

To find out more about Silly Kingdom: A New Steed Indeed and the work of Katie and Steven Shanahan, visit http://sillykingdom.tumblr.com/about

Wiley, Weird, and Wizardly

Wiley, Weird, and Wizardly

A review of Katie Shanahan and Steven Shanahan’s Silly Kingdom: Alengrimrickshaw’s 211th Birthday (www.sillykingdom.com, 2011)

By Derek Newman-Stille

I just got back from the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) and one of the first things that caught my attention was a short comic by Katie and Sreven Shanahan called Silly Kingdom.

As adorable as it is hilarious, Silly Kingdom: Alengrimrickshaw’s 211th Birthday is a tale of the magical in the mundane. It is a story of magical mishaps and jealousy by a 211 year old wizard who is jealous of a jester who performs magic tricks as part of his act. Katie and Steven Shanahan’s playfulness suffuses every page of this short comic involving an overly optimistic princess and a prince who enters far too easily into existential crises. This is a cute, fast paced, and exciting comic that brings humour and the fantastic together.

Silly Kingdom: Alengrimrickshaw’s 211th Birthday was originally a radio play that was adapted into graphic form, providing a fascinating view on the process of converting a tale from one format to another. One would think this would create a text-heavy comic, but the Shanahans have been able to adapt the story effectively to graphic novel pacing. The story is as much told by the hyper-expressive facial features and exuberance of movement by the characters as it is by the dialogue.

To discover more about Silly Kingdom: Alengrimrickshaw’s 211th Birthday and about the ongoing work of Katie and Steven Shanahan, go to http://sillykingdom.tumblr.com/about

Planets Contaminated

A review of Crystal Yates’ “Earthsong” (Overmorrow Media)
By Derek Newman-Stille

“Earthsong” is an incredibly beautiful and chilling fantasy graphic narrative. Crystal Yates plays with light and images of fabric to create a comic that, while dealing with serious issues, also feels like a warm blanket wrapped around the reader. 

Crystal Yates’ “Earthsong” is an interplanetary fantasy where the planets themselves take on life and consciousness. Some of these planetary spirits interact with their creations, their children, but most have been content to sleep. Many of them have slept right through a crisis that has been happening throughout space and on their own surfaces. A contamination has leaked onto the surface of planets that attaches itself to various of the planet’s sentient children and, if unchecked, will destroy the lifeforce of the planet itself.

The planets got together to deal with what was occurring and decided that the best way to solve the issue of contamination is to remove contaminated people from their planet and place them on a new planet and the planet who named herself Earthsong has become a host for all of this misplaced travellers. These planet children end up on Earthsong without their memories, dropped into a complex battle they know nothing about.

Yates explores ideas of quarantine, contamination, the loss of selfhood, and the desire to learn about oneself in “Earthsong”, creating a narrative about planetary contamination that isn’t about pollution but reminds us of the fragility of our place on our planet nonetheless.

To find out more about Earthsong and read some of the online comic, visit http://www.earthsongsaga.com