Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts tagged as “Dragon Writers”

[twenty twenty-four post one six one]: one more thing

centaur 0

So one thing here to remind myself to blog about it in more details - I attended a panel at the Nebulas on "Moving Beyond Milford" which was very useful. Milford, for those not steeped in writerly inside baseball, refers to the Milford Writer's Workshop, or, more generally, a critiquing model in which a group gets together, shares stories to read in advance, and everyone critiques each other.

The key element of Milford is that each person in the group gets their turn to critique - say, four minutes - during which nobody else can speak - not the other authors, not other group members, with the exception of a facilitator who can keep things on track. And most people seem to agree that the gag rule is critical to Milford in that it helps authors to learn to take criticism - and shuts up "that guy" so he doesn't dominate the critique.

But it can cause people to pile on, or for criticism to be repetitive, or even misplaced. So people were recommending different approaches - online, threaded critique, or structured critique where you had to start off with what resonated with you in the story before critiquing it, or encouraging facilitated discussion so everyone doesn't pile on with dittos.

I had "office hours" at the Nebulas, during which I advised other authors on problems - not because I'm some super experienced author or anything, but simply because I'm an editor and publisher, which means authors who are arguably equally or more experienced than me thought they might benefit from talking to an editor and publisher about specific problems. Which we did, with a couple of people.

And, when I did, I took the advice of the "Moving Beyond Milford" panel: I reformulated my critique into a five-point breakdown:

  • What did I think the story was about? Reiterating what the story is about ensured that I "got" what the author was trying to do, in an attempt to head off at the pass any misunderstandings.
  • What did I like about the story? Identifying what resonated with you about the story helps the author understand what's working about the story which they probably shouldn't change.
  • What areas of improvement did I see? This is something that can crush newbie authors - or experienced authors hit with impostor's syndrome - so it's important to formulate this in terms of suggestions.
  • What features or turns of phrase stuck with me? These might be small things, but I think highlighting key sentences, elements of description, or ideas are important to remind authors they can be effective.
  • What areas could potentially use copyediting? If there are typos, grammatical errors, or other opportunities for low-level textual improvement, highlight them here.

But even though that's what I used when I analyzed the story, that's not how I presented the above material to the author in our meetings. What I did instead was use the following script (after the meet-and-greet):

  • Here's what I think I read. I started off by briefly reiterating what I thought the story was about, so the author knew I had read their piece (and we could clear up any misconceptions).
  • What do you want help with? I then asked the author to explain what areas they needed help in. If anything about that wasn't clear, I asked them to explain in their own words the problem.
  • Let's brainstorm solutions to your problem. Before digging into my notes, we discussed their problem in greater depth and used story structure ideas to start looking for solutions.
  • Let's discuss where my notes intersect with your concerns. Then, we dug into where my notes intersected their problems, focusing on the parts where they needed help.
  • Once we have ideas about a solution, then share the other notes. Where the other notes were still relevant, I shared them, trying to build suggestions about how to make the story stronger.

Overall, I wanted to not dive in with how I thought the story could be better, but to improve the author's experience working with the story first, then focus on how my thoughts about the story could help them.

I think this is a better approach than tackling the story proper as an entity divorced from its author. Once a story is done, we can talk about the text as an entity independent of its author, but BEFORE the story is done, it's a work in process being worked on by a real human being, asking for help.

When critiquing, put helping the author first, and worry about your personal pet peeves some other time.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Some writing advice from me, from back in the day, while blog image uploading is down.

[twenty twenty-four day one five eight]: precognitively at the nebulas

centaur 0

In case the travel process goes kazoo, I'm nabbing tomorrow's post in today - looks like on June 6th I will be at the meet and greet space Thursday at 2:30pm (Meet-and-Greet Table E Anthony Francis Pasadena – Fountain Foyer), no matter what the sticky post says.

I will have books, and will sign them; hope to see you there.

Zoom zoom.

-the Centaur

Pictured: a gif way back from an old Dragon Con.

The Nebulas, Embodied AI, and Unsolved Social Navigation

centaur 0

Hey folks, another "sticky post" for my next three events: The Nebula Conference, the Embodied AI Workshop, and the Workshop on Unsolved Problems in Social Robot Navigation!

Coming up is the Nebula Conference, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's conference, where again I'll be talking about artificial intelligence and signing books!

  • Thursday, June 6th: 2:30pm: Anthony Francis Meet-and-Greet Table E Pasadena
  • Saturday, June 8th: 10:30am: Why AI Needs Humans Pasadena

There will also be office hours but I think you have to sign up in advance for those, and we have a scheduling snafu regarding those anyway.

After that is the Embodied AI Workshop on June 18th, hosted at CVPR, the Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition Conference, where I am the lead organizer, though you'll probably only hear me yapping for any extended length of time if you show up in the first ten minutes - I give the intro talk at 8:50am.

Finally is the Workshop on Unsolved Problems in Social Robot Navigation, held at the Robotics, Science and Systems Conference. Our paper deadline is coming up June 7th, and the workshop itself will be held July 19th at RSS in the Netherlands. I'm an organizer for this one, but I'll only be able to attend virtually due to my manager (me) telling me I'm already going to enough conferences this year, which I am.

After that .... Dragon Con!

-the Centaur

Pictured: More from the archives, until I fix the website backend.

[twenty twenty-four day one five two]: con carolinas first day after-action report

centaur 0

This is the day after day one five two, but, whatevz, I had to deal with a minor emergency yesterday, so you have to deal with a late post. Regardless, I was at Con Carolinas, at the "Hooked" panel, which went well, and if there's anything I could take away from that panel, it would be the following:

  • Your hook for your story isn't just your first line, but it encompasses everything from your genre, your prior output as a writer, the cover, the title, the subtitle or blurb, the first line, the first paragraph, the first page, the first chapter.
  • All of those can attract your reader's attention; to engage their interest, you need to raise a story question which needs answering. This can be the surface problem, the deeper story-worthy question, an exciting incident, the voice of the main character, an intriguing setup, or a mystery ... that makes people want more.
  • Most of the panelists felt that you should leave out of your hook any excess description or backstory that does not help build that story question. Those issues can be raised later, once the story is moving; only when your readers are desperate to have questions answered should you spend time answering them.

I'm sure I could say more, but I'm not, because I have a leak in a roof to deal with. BUT, since I am not going to be able to post new images for a bit, I'm going to change my strategy for my "Blogging Every Day" posts with a little Livejournal-style annotation! Lo:

Today's event? Con Carolinas, where I saw a lot of old friends and was on the "Hooked" panel. Today's exercise? Just thirty pushups and a relatively brief walk. Today's drawing? More Goldman studies: by my count, I am up to day one five three, which means I'm caught up (as this blogpost is one day behind).

That's it! Here's hoping I have enough bits left to post.

-the Centaur

Pictured: From the archives, the red editor's pen, over a redacted manuscript. Full disclosure: my normal editing pen is blue, as I am partially colorblind - while I can see red, it doesn't stand out for me the way blue does. There is no such thing for me as "fire engine red" unless I'm wearing Enchroma glasses (which do not give you true color vision, by the way, but they certainly can make certain colors stand out more). I was probably using the red pen in this case either because the blue one blew up, or I need two kinds of notes.

Con Carolinas, the Nebulas, and the Embodied AI Workshop!

centaur 0
The Centaur and His Books

Hey folks! I am appearing at several conventions in the next few weeks, so I'm creating a "sticky post" to let y'all know about my schedule - in case the problems I'm having with my blog software get worse, at least this will be up here to let y'all know I'll be talking about AI, robots and writing in the next few weeks!

First up is Con Carolinas, the Carolinas' longest running science fiction convention, where I will be on four panels and an author signing, talking about book openings, artificial intelligence, neurodivergence, and what's possible and what's not in science and science fiction!

Friday, May 31st:

Saturday, June 1:

Sunday, June 2:

Next up is the Nebula Conference, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's conference, where again I'll be talking about artificial intelligence and signing books!

  • Thursday, June 6th: 2:30pm: Anthony Francis Meet-and-Greet Table E Pasadena
  • Saturday, June 8th: 10:30am: Why AI Needs Humans Pasadena

There will also be office hours but I think you have to sign up in advance for those, and we have a scheduling snafu regarding those anyway.

Finally is the Embodied AI Workshop on June 18th, hosted at CVPR, the Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition Conference, where I am the lead organizer, though you'll probably only hear me yapping for any extended length of time if you show up in the first ten minutes - I give the intro talk at 8:50am.

Hope to see y'all there!


[twenty twenty-four day one three four]: victory condition

centaur 0

Wow, the Neurodiversiverse Kickstarter not only got funded, we reached our first stretch goal - bookmarks!

We had hoped to reach postcards or even the audiobook, but this was a great achievement, and I'll take it. Not only did we take in almost $9K to help pay our authors and defray other costs in the book, but also a hundred and eighty people backed and another hundred bookmarked the campaign. Which means that over two hundred fifty people liked it ... and probably ten times as many looked at it. Mission accomplished!

Next up, finishing the ARC (the preliminary version of the book for industry and sensitivity reader review).


Pictured: Graphics from the Kickstarter, which were not only fun to do but taught me a lot, and an Old Fashioned from Select restaurant in Greer.

[twenty twenty-four day one three one]: celebration!

centaur 0

Yay! The Neurodiversiverse Kickstarter funded, with two and a half days to go! And it has been amazing, after a month of slow but steady growth, that the Kickstarter continues to now rapidly fund even as we're trying to publicize it! A shoutout to Cat Rambo, who graciously let us do that guest blogpost! Let me shout back, with the story card we came up with for Cat's story, "Scary Monsters, Super Creeps"!

Now that we've met our funding goal, we've announced our stretch goals, which include cool things like bookmarks and postcards and, if we really stretch, an audiobook of the anthology.

But we've also been posting about our process, talking about how we selected our stories for the anthology and how we organized them into our current table of contents - which required setting up a Kanban board in Airtable to help us organize it quickly, efficiently, and, most of all, understandably.

Airtable is a system that looks a lot like a spreadsheet, except it's actually a database under the hood, enabling you to build different views of the same data; a Kanban board is one such view, with rows turned into "cards" organized into "stacks" by a given field - and as you move cards about in the stacks, the field changes with it. This helps visualize the flow of, well, many things - including stories in the editing pipeline, or stories in the table of contents; I'm even using it for tracking the writing of new stories. But for now, the most important thing is that it enabled us to put together this:

We're proud of the table of contents - but also, pleased with the process that got us there, and hope other people find it as useful as we did.

So please, go check those posts out, and maybe even help spread the word so we reach our stretch goals!

-the Centaur

[twenty twenty-four day one one five]: prioritizing wordcount

centaur 0

Way behind on word count, please enjoy this picture of sushi at One Flew South in the Atlanta airport.

Lots of work to do, not much time left to do it.

-the Centaur

P.S. Oh good grief! This blogpost is having trouble uploading its images, so I'm rabbit-holing on trying to post a simple update, instead of typing words! AAA! Turns out the problem was the wi-fi in this Barnes and Noble Cafe, which allows me to download gobs and gobs of images, but chokes when uploading even relatively small files. I have seen this before at internet cafes and I can't quite tell why that is happening.

The Neurodiversiverse Kickstarter is Still Going

centaur 0

Hey folks, this is a reminder that we still have a Kickstarter going for The Neurodiversiverse: Alien Encounters! While the campaign is running, you can reach it at or by searching on Kickstarter. This hopeful, empowering anthology explores neurodiverse encounters with aliens, and we'd love your help paying our authors more money (and, if we reach stretch goals, doing an audiobook or even a sequel)!

Please check us out, like, back and share!

-the Centaur

[twenty twenty-four day one ten]: at clockwork alchemy 2024

centaur 0

So we had a great first day at Clockwork Alchemy! I got a great Guest of Honor banner for my table, and we had a delightful Tea with the Author Guest of Honor in the con's amazing Tea Room!

My co-editor for The Neurodiversiverse, Liza Olmsted (far left on the picture below), was on an #ownvoices panel, which was very informative! I particularly liked her quote:

The world is so much more beautiful with intersectionality ... everything is so much more nuanced."

Liza Olmsted

"Intersectionality" is a funky word for the simple concept that people aren't a single attribute, like "black" or "women" or "gay" but that each person is a combination of all these things - and discrimination isn't just additive, but can compound in interesting ways. In one famous court case, for example, a court ruled that a group of black women weren't discriminated against because the company had hired a lot of black men (in a factory setting) and a lot of white women (in an office setting) thus improving the percentage of blacks in the factory and women in the office - but the point was, the women were being discriminated against for being black and women at the same time, and the court was essentially arguing you couldn't be one or the other. But, if you acknowledge that people can be more than one thing, you can take their distinctive appearances into account into how you treat them, rather than sweeping it under the rug.

Neurodiversiverse author Clara Ward dropped by and left us a few of her new book, "Be the Sea", which is (as I gathered from discussions) a climatepunk story featuring neurodiverse and nonbinary characters. I worked with Clara before on Doorways to Extra Time and we're excited to have her back for this one!

We hope to see you tomorrow at the con! Next up, Steampunk Vehicles, Bringing Anthologies to Life, and the world premiere reading of "Jeremiah Willstone and the Choir of Demons"!

-the Centaur

[twenty twenty-four day one oh eight]: entitle me, bro

centaur 0

Not much time to post today - flying out to Clockwork Alchemy, where I am the Author Guest of Honor. But, it's still Camp Nanowrimo, and I had wordcount to get in on Jeremiah Willstone #2, THE CITADEL OF GLASS. And, yes, I do count it as word count if I'm futzing around in the appendix reviewing the characters and revisiting ideas for the title, but the bulk of today's word count was in the climax, which I had sketched out earlier (almost a decade ago!) and am now adjusting to fit the new ideas in the fleshed out plot ... so I can in turn reverse-engineer how that plot shall proceed to reach that climax. Very ouroboros.

-the Centaur

Pictured: A title brainstorming session for CITADEL OF GLASS.

[twenty twenty-four day one oh seven]: departure angle on viewer

centaur 0

"Off we go towards Clockwork Alchemy ... there we'll have tea with all of our fans." I'd say "sung to the theme of 'Wild Blue Yonder'" but I actually don't remember the words to that other than the first line - and it's relatively hard to parody something you don't know all that well.

Regardless, we'll have books, and panels, and the debut of Jeremiah Willstone and the Choir of Demons!

-the Centaur

Pictured: an accidentally blurred shot of my book stock, and a fortuitous super closeup of the books that I had taken pictures of at the Kickstarter.

[twenty twenty-four day one oh five]: going back to victoriana

centaur 0

Hey folks! I've got just a quick post for you now, because I need to go heads down on Jeremiah Willstone #2, CITADEL OF GLASS, for Camp Nanowrimo. Prepping to be Guest of Honor at Clockwork Alchemy next week - and creating the Kickstarter campaign for The Neurodiversiverse, which we want to go live before CA - has put me behind on my word count for the month ... so I need to make a few changes.

In "normal" circumstances, I have a pretty simple day: take care of food, cats and laundry, work for several hours on the project of the day, and then break - on Mondays and Wednesdays, a late break for dinner where I catch up on reading, on Tuesdays and and some Thursdays, an early dinner break before writing group and the church board meeting, and on Fridays and Saturdays, an early break for coffee and drawing / writing before a late dinner and more reading (with date nites with my wife thrown in). This structure makes sure I'm both making progress on life and work projects during the day, and creative projects at night.

But you can't do that during Camp Nanowrimo or regular National Novel Writing Month - at least, not if you get behind, because if you do, you will fall farther and farther behind. Writing in Nanowrimo actually makes it easier to write more in Nanowrimo - generally, you can raise more questions for yourself than you can answer in a writing session, creating the fuel for future sessions. But once behind, that can jam up - stuck in "writer's block" where you haven't raised enough interesting questions for creative mind to answer, or not thought through the answers enough when you get to the point of writing the outcome of a confrontation.

When I'm behind on Nano, I have to drop my normal "read and eat" strategy in favor of "crack open the laptop at every available opportunity". And I won't limit myself to "write and eat" during meals and "laptop in the coffeehouse" sessions: at the very end of the day I'll set up the laptop in the kitchen , sitting down to bang out the day's wordcount before I let myself crash for the night, where both I and the laptop recharge.

"Autistic inertia" is the way many autistic people describe their inability to start or stop tasks, and some feel it is one of the most disabling aspects of autism. I don't have a formal diagnosis of autism, but informal tests put me on the spectrum - and being aware of your own neurodivergence and the experiences that other people have with the same neurodivergence can help you find strategies that work for you to cope.

For me, I can work on tasks for hours and hours on end - but if I don't have a long enough block to do a task, I tend not to start a task. Now that I understand that I may be struggling with autistic inertia, that helps me understand what may be going on. The feeling that I won't be able to get anything done if I don't have time to get everything done is just that, a feeling. In reality, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step towards it ... and the journey towards 50,000 words in a month begins with one word on the page.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Normally, there should be an open book or sketchbook next to those delicious fish tacos.

DON'T FORGET: Please sign up for our Kickstarter at - my understanding is that the more people who sign up to be notified when it goes live, the better the campaign will go on launch day! And if you're in the Bay Area, please come see me at Clockwork Alchemy where I'm the Author GOH!

[drawing every day 2024 post one oh four]: all my berks cards

centaur 0

Alright, one more not-drawing drawing while I am scrambling to get ready for Clockwork Alchemy. If you're not using the Internet in its most basic form, it resembles a countryside where roads to infrequently-visited towns frequently get torn up and you have to either reroute - or build your own.

Case in point, link shorteners. Google used to have one called "" - used to have, before Larry Page took over at Google and led it through the Google Plus debacle, where Google really started to get the reputation for killing products that ultimately led to it being called the Google Graveyard.

But, before they killed it, I used it on the book cards that I hand out at conventions! I had been using that shortlink to point to my Amazon "Anthony Francis" author page, but I don't trust link shorteners anymore. So I created a new link,, which has all my books on it (now in the top menu):

But, that means my book cards needed to be updated. I of course updated the link, but also took the time when I was in there to enhance the contrast on the top title so it was more legible. Hopefully these cards will arrive in time for the Clockwork Alchemy convention next week, where I will be Author Guest of Honor.

Drawing (or graphic design) every day.

-the Centaur

Pictured: the back of the "book cards", and the "book page" which also shows the book card fronts.

[twenty twenty-four day fifty-eight]: the seven-part story test

centaur 0

So I’ve developed a new tool for story analysis that my co-editor on The Neurodiversiverse, Liza Olmsted, called “your seven-part story test,” and it fits in one long sentence: “Who wants what, why can’t they get it, what do they do about it, how does it turn out, why does that matter to them, and what does that mean for the reader?”

This six-part test is an adaptation of Dwight Swain’s story question “Who wants what and why can’t they get it?” as well as Vorwald and Wolff’s pithier but less useful “What happens?”, called the Major Dramatic Question (MDQ) in their book “How to Tell a Story.”

Now, V&Q unpack their MDQ into the broader questions “What does my character want? What action do they take to get it? What keeps them from getting it? Who succeeds or fails?”. Like many writing coaches who have their own language for similar ideas, I think both Swain and V&W are tackling the “Major Dramatic Question”, just from different angles - but “how it turns out” is a key question not encapsulated in Swain’s version, and I think it helps us understand what is going on - or should be going on - in a story.

Ultimately, I think a story is an engaging and surprising case, in the case-based reasoning (CBR) sense. For those not familiar with CBR, it’s a reasoning technique back from the days of symbolic artificial intelligence (AI), pioneered by Janet Kolodner, the leader of the AI lab where I was trained (and my original thesis advisor). A case, in the traditional sense, is a labeled experience, which is marked by what problem is being solved, what solution was applied, how it turned out, what lesson it taught, and how we might remember it.

Well, in the age of content-addressable memories and vector databases, we worry less about labeling cases so we can remember them, as the content itself can help us find relevant cases. However, it remains important to analyze our experiences so we can better understand what happened, what we did, how it turned out, and what lessons that taught (or should have taught) us. And the last two are related, but different: what happened are the bare facts, but the same bare facts can have different meanings to different people that experience them - or to different observers, watching from the outside.

Think of a woman in an abusive marriage. What she wants is a peaceful life; why she can’t get it is a husband who’s a Navy SEAL with PTSD. Let’s say what she does about it is try to kill him, and how it turns out is that she gets away with it. But what does that matter to her, and what does that mean for us (the writer, the editor, the publisher, and the author)?

Well, that same outcome could matter in different ways. Perhaps our heroine gets to build a new happy life away from a man who abused her - or perhaps our heroine is now living a life of regret, with a child that resents her and feelings of guilt about killing a man who couldn’t cope with his wartime trauma and needed her help. Because the truth of it is, no-one should have to put up with domestic violence - but a small percentage of people who struggle with PTSD end up acting out, and need help to deal with their trauma.

There’s no right answer here - a skilled author could present a spectrum of situations in which most of us would say either “get them help” or “girl, get out”. But if the author shows our heroine murdering their husband and getting away with it, the story is implicitly endorsing murder as a solution for domestic problems. Conversely, if the author shows the heroine forgiving violence in an attempt to get the husband help, the story is implicitly endorsing women enduring domestic abuse. Not only is there no right answer here, there’s no good answer here - which might lead you as an author to question the whole setup.

That’s why it’s really important to step back and think about what you as an author are endorsing in your story - and whether you’re comfortable with that message. Despite what some writing teachers will tell you, you’re not the god of your story: you’re playing in a playground of your own making, but the materials from which that playground is fashioned - people, places, events, actions, reactions, and emotions - are all drawn from the very real world in which we live, and stories by their nature communicate messages about that real world to those who read them, even if the events in the story are purely fictional.

(This principle of authorial endorsement extends to the editor, publisher, and even the reader as well. There were many good stories submitted to The Neurodiversiverse that we chose to reject because of their implicit message - for example, we wanted our anthology to be empowering, so we didn’t select some powerful stories in which the character’s neurodiversity helped them communicate with aliens, but didn’t help the horrible situation that they were in; these stories might be a great choice for a horror anthology, however). 

But the point can get lost if you start asking a lot of unconnected questions about your story. That’s why I like the idea of the unified MDQ, and I like the expression of that in Dwight Swain’s three-part question “Who wants what, and why can’t they get it?” But that three-part version is not enough, and expanding that question into a single phrase that incorporates the important elements of action, outcome, impact and meaning turns it into my seven-part test: “Who wants what, why can’t they get it, what do they do about it, how does it turn out, why does that matter to them, and what does that mean for the reader?” 

The rewards for thinking through these questions are great. Thinking about how the story turns out matters to the protagonist creates options for tweaking the ending (or the material leading up to it) for greater resonance; and thinking about what meaning the story delivers for the reader creates opportunities to weave that message through the whole story. The seven-part story test can help us create stronger, more impactful, and more meaningful stories that make more sense and feel more satisfying.

So, to unpack the seven-part test further:

  • Who? Who is the protagonist of your story?
  • Wants what? What’s their goal, and why are they motivated to seek it?
  • Why can’t they get it? What’s the conflict in the story? Is it derived from a classical antagonist, or is the conflict based on internal or environmental factors?
  • What do they do about it? What action does the character take (or fail to take, as Hamlet fails to take action for much of his story)? Ultimately, most good stories are about what people do when facing conflict, so they should not be wholly passive - they should have some agency which affects how the story turns out.
  • How does it turn out? With the exception of vignettes that are all atmosphere, we want to know the outcome of the protagonists’ action. Did they succeed? Did they fail? Are we left with a situation that’s definitively not resolved (as in the ambiguous endings of Inception, Cast/Away, The Sopranos, or John Carpenter’s The Thing)? Any of these are acceptable endings (though a definitive lack of resolution is the hardest trick to pull off) but you as the author need to pick one.
  • Why does that matter to them? The ending of Cast/Away is a great example, in that our uncertainty about what the main character does next is actually symbolic of the main character’s situation. It matters to the main character that they are in a state of indecision, because that indecision represents what they lacked when cast away on that island: freedom of choice.
  • What does that mean for the reader? Regardless of what you choose to the previous questions, you should think through the implications of what that means for the reader, and whether that’s the image you want to present for your story. While you aren’t the god of your story, you are the playwright and stage director, and if the message of your story isn’t what you want, you can just change it. 

Overall, I’ve already got a lot of good mileage out of these questions in the new series of stories that I’m writing (which I’m variously calling “The Porsche Xenobiology Stories” or “Tales of Failaka” depending on which planet I’m writing on this week). By asking these questions, I’ve been able to reformulate my endings to focus not just on the outcomes of the character’s actions, but how it matters to them, which makes the endings more satisfying; and also to focus on what it means, which has enabled me to make the stories more cohesive, as well as inspiring ideas for new stories.

“Who wants what, why can’t they get it, what do they do about it, how does it turn out, why does it matter to them, and what does that mean for the reader?” It’s a short, seven-part story test, easily compressible into a sentence that can be used to interrogate your story, and it’s been very useful for me; I hope it is useful for you too.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Loki, and in the background, the reading "pile" for a writing book that I'm working on called "The Rules Disease." Yes, it has filled most of a bookshelf by this point - there's a lot of writing on writing.

[twenty twenty-four day thirty-seven]: editors have superpowers …

centaur 0

Editors have superpowers, but you can't save everybody.

One of Ayn Rand's most useful distinctions for writers is between abstractions and the concretes that realize them. She's obviously not the only person to employ such a distinction, but if you think of abstractions as representations of a set of concretes, it helps you realize that you cannot portray pure abstractions like justice or injustice: you need to show the abstraction in concrete actions to communicate it. For example, the theme of your story may be "the mind on strike" but it must be realized using a set of concrete characters and events that (hopefully) illustrate that theme.

Once you've decided on an abstract theme, it can help you ruthlessly cull unnecessary concretes from your story, or to flesh the theme out to fit the concretes that you do have, or both. The same is true for editing anthologies, only with a little less flexibility as we don't completely control the submitted stories. For example, the Neurodiversiverse's theme is "neurodivergent folks encountering aliens", and if we get a story that does not feature neurodivergent folks, aliens, or encounters, we are not in the position of a writer who can tweak the themes or their realization until they both fit: we have to just reject off-topic stories.

But, as my coeditor and I like to say, editors have superpowers. There's more than one story in the anthology where we've been able to suggest edits - based on the theory of conflict, or the major dramatic question ("who wants what, why can't they get it, what do they do about it, and how does it turn out"), or even just line edits - that would resolve the problems in the story to the point that we'd go from a reject to an accept - or would resolve them, if the author goes along with the changes, that is.

But sometimes we can't even do that. There have been several stories where we applied our editing superpowers and drafted a way to fix the story to fit our theme - but where we, reluctantly, declined to pass on the story anyway, because we were no longer convinced that the edited story would be what the author intended. If a story was way off the anthology's theme, but the story's theme was really integral to the story's implementation, then changing the text to fit the anthology may not have suited the story.

In the end, despite our editorial superpowers, we can't "save" all stories, because not all stories NEED saving: some of them may not be right for this particular project ... and that's OK.

-the Centaur

Pictured: A nice heritage indoor mall in Asheville, which is a great writing town.

[twenty twenty-four day thirty]: the questions i now ask

centaur 0

As a writer, it's important to have humility - no matter how enthusiastic you are about your work, there's no guarantee that it will land the way that you want it to with your readers. So I share my stories with "beta readers" who are, presumably, the kind of people who like to read what I want to write, and I use comments from beta readers to help me edit my stories before submitting them to editors or publishers.

I used to ask almost no questions of the beta readers BEFORE they read it, as I neither wanted to prejudice them about the story nor wanted to draw their attention to features that they might not have noticed. But, over time, I have started adding questions - perhaps in part because my research in social robot navigation exposed me to better ways to ask questions of people, and perhaps just through my own experience.

I settled on the following questions that I ask beta readers:

  • Is this the kind of story you like to read?
  • What did you like about it?
  • How could it be improved?
  • Would you like to read more stories in the same universe?
  • Is there anything that could be clarified to make it stand better alone?
  • Are there any questions that it raised that you'd love to see answered in another story?

The first three I think are generic to all stories, and are the ones that I started with:

  • First, if your story isn't the kind of story that your reader wants to read, their comments might not be about your story per se, but may actually be a subconscious critique of its genre, which can be actively misleading if you try to apply them to a story in that genre. I found this out the hard way when I gave The Clockwork Time Machine to someone who didn't like steampunk - many of their comments were just dissing the entire genre, and were useless for figuring out how to improve my particular story.
  • Second, it's important to know what people like about a story, so that you don't accidentally break those things in your edits. If one person dislikes something, but two others like it, you might be better off leaving that alone or gently tweaking it rather than just taking it out.
  • Third, no matter how big your ego is, you cannot see all the things that might be wrong with your story. (Unless you've won the Nobel Prize in literature or are a New York Times bestselling author, in which case, I especially mean you, because you've probably become uneditable). Fresh eyes can help you see what's wrong and where you could make it better.

But these questions weren't enough for someone who writes series fiction: my stories refer to a lot of background information, and set up ideas for other stories, yet should stand alone as individual stories:

  • Do you have a good vehicle? Have you set up a framework for telling stories that people are interested in? This goes beyond whether an individual story is satisfying, and to whether the setting and storytelling method itself are interesting.
  • Does your story stand alone? Are you pulling in backstory which is not adequately explained? This is information that should either be taken out, or woven into the story so it is load-bearing.
  • Does your story pull people in? Even if the story stands alone, you want it to either hint at questions to be answered in other stories or to answer questions from previous stories.

So far, these questions have worked well for me and my science fiction serial stories. Your mileage may vary, but I think that if you avoid asking anything specific about your story, and focus on the general functions that your story should fulfill, then you can get a lot of profit by asking beta readers ahead of the read.

-the Centaur

Pictured: A gryphon made of books in a store window in Asheville.