A Dragon speaks on Short Stories, Worldbuilding (For Fun and Profit), and Incorporating Critique

As they say, always be yourself, unless you can be a dragon. Then, be a dragon.

Morgan, dressed as a red dragon.

I spent my Sunday as a dragon.

After lunch on Sunday, I attended the packed How To Write A Short Story panel. With Joshua Palmatier, Eric Hardenbrook, Joy Ward (moderator), Bud Sparhawk, and Martin Berman-Gorvine.


  • Skip the info-dump – avoid anything that takes the reader out of the story (but know what would be in the info-dump!)
  • Bud –
    • A short story is like a joke, it has:
      • A beginning
      • A 3 part middle
      • An epiphany
      • A denouement.
    • Each part gets one scene.
    • Decide what you’re doing in each scene:
      • humor
      • action
      • pathos
      • high point
      • etc.
    • Where to start? 1 second before the epiphany
  • Martin – A short story is not a truncated novel. Skip the character development, it’s all about the plot. Pick one thing to show. Trick endings are gooood!
  • Joy – Make sure your story isn’t too confusing. Don’t add too many elements in. It should have one point.
  • Bud – Culled a 4,000 word story to the essential 875 words. [I was impressed!]
  • All – Every word is like pickup sticks. How many can you remove without upsetting the others.

Most Powerful Short Story (in the Writing Sense):

  • Martin – “Or the Grasses Grow” Avrum Davidson
  • Bud – “Answer” Fred Brown.
  • Eric – “Magic for Sale”  Avrum Davidson
  • Josh – “Fur Fantastic” (about a hamster trying to escape)

Parting Thoughts:

  • Martin – I’m more a novelist because my character has a life of their own and I want to know what happens to them
  • Bud – Be shameless
  • Bud – I’d give my right arm to be ambidextrous
  • Eric – I get my letters from a mailbox in Schenectady.
  • Josh – Keep writing the story until it works. Wait until it’s fully fermented in your brain.

After that, I’d intended to hit “Critical Eye: Writing Traps” at 3pm, but found out, along with the packed room, that it had been moved to the other side of the Con–and back two hours, so I couldn’t attend as The Doctor wasn’t around at the time.

So, next up was Worldbuilding for Fun and Profit! With Don Sakers, Melissa Scott, Walt Boyes, and Stephanie (Flash) Burke moderating.

Why Are You On This Panel?

  • Melissa Scott – The details have to work. But really, world building is just fun!
  • Don Sakers – Some stories are about people, and some are about new worlds
  • Walt  Boyes – I work in the collective world of 1632, we keep it consistent between all the authors.

Is the World a Character?

  • Melissa Scott – I develop my worlds with lists, making maps, names that come from the same culture, foods, YES the world is a character in my stories.
  • Don Sakers – Look at Dune, Pern, or the 1632 universe, it needs to be verisimilitude of reality, you don’t need to know past the surface, (but you can) as long as you keep it internally consistent.
  • Melissa Scott – Quoting Ellen Kushner, you’ve got to have a “conservation of weirdness”.
  • Walt Boyes – You have to be consistent. So often  you have aliens and an alien culture and they have British names.

How do you overcome idiom use?

  • Stephanie Burke – An example of a bad one, futuristic, no Christianity saying “That’s my cross to bear.”
  • Melissa Scott – Be aware of the origin of the idiom before you use it. One way you can play with that is to echo it, adapted for the world. Or keep it the same, but do it for a reason.
  • Don Sakers – Remember that worlds are BIG.
  • Walt Boyes – There isn’t going to be just one religion/culture/opinion on anything.
  • Melissa Scott – There’s a caste level of language. (The polite way of saying things and the common way of saying things). If you’re using an info dump, use it to SHOW the character’s world view. It should show more about the character than the world.
  • Don Sakers – Places can have multiple names. Don’t land on a planet we dubbed something and have the natives call it that.

Best Way Not To Break Suspension of Disbelief:

  • Walt Boyes – Start off with a clear setting, demonstrate it with word choice. i.e. Heinlein’s “The door dilated.”
  • Melissa Scott – Use words with different connotations than we use it. i.e. A 1927 thesaurus.
  • Don Sakers – Give the reader something familiar to start from. It could even be a plot point (i.e. starting with a chase scene.)

Examples of Things That Broke Suspense For You:

  • Melissa Scott – The new Three Musketeers, where the lady is running around in her underwear (corset, etc) and when the King got off his throne to meet with the Duke.
  • Don Sakers – Star Trek – all the worlds with one single culture.

If You Created THIS World, how would you do it?

  • Melissa Scott – I’d go with something like 1930’s here, because it is different, to show how alien it is to modern readers.
  • Walt Boyes – Just no more vampires.
  • Don Sakers – I’d go with this world, but have things caused by a secret agency. Don’t rely on too much consistency.

Example of an a series with excellent world building – The Liaden Universe by Steve Miller and Sharon Lee. The slang, weapons, sociology, all are done well.

Any Parting Words?

  • Melissa Scott – I’m interested in experimental archeology
  • Walt Boyes – The How to Build a Meal panel was good. Only have a scene in the story if it supports the story.
  • Melissa Scott – It’s Fun! Don’t be afraid of it.

After a quick dinner, it was time for How To Incorporate Critique with Christie Meierz, Michelle Sonnier, and Joshua Bilmes.Takeaways:

  • A good critique “makes the book better.” (Joshua Bilmes)
  • A bad critique has nothing useful. Either is says everything is crap or everything is beautiful.
  • Don’t argue grammar with an editor (Christie Meierz)
  • Pay attention to the critiquer’s background when deciding how much weight to give their feedback.
  • Just because you had a reason for doing it, doesn’t mean it’s a good reason! (Joshua Bilmes)
  • Use the least amount of details to explain.
  • If stuck on a decision-point, decide one way. If you’re not comfortable with that decision after a few days, go the other way. (Michelle Sonnier)
  • Warning signs of an author who won’t last in publishing, “So-and-so does it!” when vetoing critique. (Joshua Bilmes)
  • You have to have your own voice. (Michelle Sonnier).

Summary Thoughts:

By now, I started to notice a common theme. Whatever you do, don’t break the reader’s suspension of disbelief; be it with inconsistent world building, info-dumping, poorly constructed sentences, awkward tone or tense changes–don’t distract the reader from the story.

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