First You Must Find A Shrubbery


July 11th, I heard back from the Beta Reader that had volunteered to work with me at Balticon.

My newest Beta Reader gave me a lot of feedback–and a lot of encouragement. They also mentioned that I used hedge words. A Lot.

What’s a hedge word? It’s “a mitigating word or sound used to lessen the impact of an utterance. Typically, they are adjectives or adverbs, but can also consist of clauses.”*

Hedge words are the writing equivalent of “up speak” where you raise your voice at the end of the sentence to make it sound like a question.

There were over 350 instances of “a bit” that were completely unnecessary.

“As the hall led further underground, my stride loosened a bit.” 
“Pushing myself up, I winced a bit.”

The phrase ‘a bit’ adds nothing to either sentence. They each make sense and have more impact without it.

That wasn’t the only way I was hedging.

I jerked my head back to stare at my crappy sketch I was just making worse with every line.

The cave air seemed just as cool and musty to me as usual.

Greeting me was the scent of my dad’s amazing meatballs, probably baking in the oven with noodles, three cheeses, and the sweet and savory sauce drenching everything.

I didn’t want to know too much about the cleansing process that happens to those of us who are actually marked.

Seemed can be replaced with ‘was’. But all the rest can easily be removed. I left some hedge words in, typically in dialogue, but most could be left behind with no remorse.

I removed:
Word  Original   Removed   Left
a bit       350            307            43
just        470            305          165
really     105             75             30
seem       61             44             17
probably 57           28              29
a little      78            49              19
much     108           40               68

Just removing the hedge words cut 848 words from my novel. Once I cleaned up the sentences around them? I was down over 1,250 words.

My novel is getting tidier.


The last panel* for me at Balticon was Editor’s Pet Peeves with Trisha Wooldridge, Sue Baiman, Keith DeCandido, and with Hildy Silverman moderating. Here are the takeaways from that panel.

What’s Your Top Advice?

  • Look at the first chapter really, really hard. Figure out where the story starts. – Keith DeCandido
  • Read your work out loud. – Sue Baiman
  • Do your research-> Don’t assume you know. Please don’t hinge your plot on bad data. Try reading your manuscript, sentence by sentence, BACKWARDS. – Trisha Wooldridge
  • Put your contact information ON the manuscript –
  • Follow the guidelines. Sue Baiman

What’s Your Top Peeve?

  • RESEARCH. Google at least a little. Mythbusters is great. – Trish Wooldridge
  • Descriptions that don’t fit the genre. – Sue Baiman
  • No Primadonnas. Accept edits.
  • No primadonnas. Accept edits, don’t take it personally. – Keith DeCandido
  • People who don’t proof-read themselves. – Hildy Silverman
  • Go and never darken my towels again!” (Marx Brothers) – Keither DeCandido

What Do Writers Do to Peeve You?

  • If I give you a form rejection, don’t ask for more feedback. – Trish Wooldridge
    • Don’t argue using logic.
    • Don’t complain that I’m destroying your voice.
  • Not listening to grammar feedback. – Sue Baiman
  • You charge HOW much to edit?!” You get what you pay for. – Trish Wooldridge
  • Follow the actual theme when submitting to theme anthologies. Don’t waste my time. – Keith DeCandido

What Crazy Responses Do You Get?

  • When told of bad habits, STOP. – Keith DeCandido
  • Don’t Post Rejection Letters! – Hildy Silverman

What’s the Worst Formatted Submission You’ve Seen?

  • 8 page cover letter. Claimed to be published in journals I cannot find proof exist. Barely under the maximum word count. In multiple colors, fonts, and styles. The submission read like it came through Google Translate. – Trish Wooldridge
  • I heard about The Littlest Brownshirt (fascist fiction). Submitted in person by a man wearing loin cloth and carrying a sword. – Keith DeCandido
  • The submission was 2 years late for the anthology, 1/4 the requested length, on the wrong size paper, hard to read due to an old ribbon on a dot matrix printer. With no margins. – Keith DeCandido
  • I received a submission via mail (when we only accept e-submissions), that was not speculative fiction (we only work with speculative fiction), to the wrong editor (not even the right house). – Hildy Silverman

Why do you not give any positive feedback? That’s the empty space where I had no corrections! – Sue Baiman

Make sure you have the right editor for your genre. Hildy Silverman told a story of a lovely author at a literary workshop, paired with an editor that hated genre fiction, tore the decent story to shreds and the author was crushed and disheartened and has not been heard of since.

Warning: Your editor is your advocate at the publishing house. If they leave, your story is often orphaned. – Keith DeCandido

Who Is The Worst Novelist You’ve Edited?

  • Comic book writers. They’re used to using ‘!’s because ‘.’s often get lost in hand lettered comics. They have issues maintaining a consistent point of view. – Keith DeCandido
  • An author followed several round of edits to the letter, but somehow managed to miss the point. Then, was upset about how long it was taking for her work to finish editing.

* Not counting the prose workshop which was just work-shopping with 2 other writers

Handling the Unavoidable Info-dump!

Monday of Balticon, the sun shone bright and early, yet the Con continued and I unyieldingly kept attending panels.

At the crack of 10 am, to a packed audience, Gail Martin, Joshua Palmatier, and Tim Dodge paneled: Handling the Unavoidable Info-Dump*

I wonder how much of my first draft is full of info dumps?I wonder how much of my first draft is full of info-dumps?

The panel was neatly moderated with Q/As and this is what they taught us.

Why Do We Hate Info-dumps?

  • They’re dry and boring after about 2 sentences. They stop the action. – Joshua Palmatier
  • Plus, getting the story moving again is hard. – Gail Martin
  • They take you out of the story. – Tim Dodge
  • They’re like red lights on a car trip. – Joshua Palmatier

Why Do We Use Them?

  • To give background. – Tim Dodge
  • In a series, you can use them to remind/let readers know what happened previously. – Gail Martin
  • We think it’s the shortest/easiest way to convey the info. Most times, just work harder. – Joshua Palmatier

Are They Evil? (If not, at what size do they become evil)

  • I think it’s a cop-out, but they can be useful. Make them as short as possible. – Joshua Palmatier
  • I agree. It should be 1 sentence to 1 short paragraph if absolutely needed. – Gail Martin
  • I try not to say never (except bypassing punctuation altogether. DON’T.) But, if you use them, do them more as a trickle. No more than 3-4 sentences max. – Tim Dodge
  • Remember the iceberg analogy. You only need to show 10% of the story background. – Gail Martin

What Are Better Ways To Convey The Information?

  • Avoid, “Well, as you know Bob…” recaps! – Gail Martin
  • Hint. Slowly reveal bits in the dialogue. – Tim Dodge
  • Avoid narrative paragraphs or expo-dialogue. – Gail Martin.
  • Agreed. Turn to dialogue first. Interact with the world. Use that to world build. – Joshua Palmatier (i.e. KISS- keep it simple, they don’t need to know everything.)
  • i.e. “Sorry, we don’t have <cinnamon>, the war last year cut off our supply.”
  • Don’t explain more than you would if we were from that place/time. i.e. A modern taxi. You wouldn’t explain how it worked or all the details, just the ones that make it unique. – Gail Martin
  • Show the character doing research or have them pulled aside and shown a picture/video. – Tim Dodge
  • Ask yourself if the information is even needed. – Joshua Palmatier
  • Can we use human instinct to fill in the gaps? But, also a good tool to use by going a different way than the reader would expect. (Hard to do in epic fantasy/sf/historical fiction).- Gail Martin
  • Tolkien’s strength was in his world building. Tolkien’s weakness was in his world building.
  • Mention 1-2 details that are different about your inn versus other fantasy ones. Feel free to write to figure out the world, but EDIT IT OUT! – Joshua Palmatier.
  • Inns are fun if you put a twist where it doesn’t meet expectations. – Gail Martin
  • Tell about the story, NOT the world. – Joshua Palmatier
  • Some authors, as they become more successful, editors stop editing and the works get more bloated. – Gail Martin
  • Stephen King switched publishing houses because they stopped editing his work. – Joshua Palmatier

Should You Info-dump Previous Books (In a Series)

  • I just try to nudge. When reading, I like it separate so I can just skip it. I blame myself if I’ve forgotten details.
  • I like the nudge. Just like in real life, “Remember So-and-So? We met her a couple years ago at X’s party.

Avoid Starting with Info-dumps!

Random Notes:

  • Don’t reminisce in bed. Too cliche.
  • Hunt for Red October – The author wrote it for the navy and it was used as a textbook in the Naval Academy. His audience needed the high tech info-dumps.
  • In children’s literature, they like the info-dumps. Adults usually don’t.
  • Terry Pratchett has a strong narrative style and does info-dumps that people enjoy.

*No, really, more than 20 people attended a 10 am Monday morning panel.

Gargoyles and Sins

My Sunday wasn’t over yet. 1 workshop and 3 panels down, 3 to go. It was a packed weekend and it wasn’t even Monday, yet.


Next up was Point of View and Narrator Swapping, moderated by Maria Snyder, with Meriah Crawford, Sunny Moraine, and Christie Meierz.

How do you pick your point of view or tense?

  • Meriah Crawford – My first characters were alone a lot, so I did first person, obviously. After that, it because habit.
  • Sunny Moraine – I decide if a point of view (PoV) is necessary for the story.
  • Christie Meierz – I started off with just hero, heroine, and villain and ended up with 10 point of view characters.

Have you had any false starts?

  • Meriah Crawford – Once had to go back and change tense 65,000 words in!!
  • Sunny Moraine – Nope.
  • Christie Meierz – No, but she has had to go back and write the beginning.

Head hopping can be good, IF the author does it well.

Omniscient 3rd person can be good, IF the author does it well.

Either technique – introduce early in the writing so it doesn’t throw the reader out of the story later on.

What do you write in?

  • Marie Snyder – Writes in 1st person, like the intimacy.
  • Meriah Crawford – Her style needs 1st person or omniscient 3rd person.
  • Christie Meierz – Genre fiction has conventions. Space opera gets disoriented with multiple heads.
  • Sunny Moraine – Uses 3rd person for space opera. She uses 2nd person for short stories, or when angry or talking to an audience.

What about Narrator Swapping and showing the same scenes?

  • Maria Snyder – “To rewrite my first novel would be too boring! I already know what happened!” Doesn’t want to tell the story from a different characters point of view.
  • Christie Meierz – You have to be very careful when retelling with the timeline.

Do you have techniques to keep different narrator voices distinct?

  • It’s hard. Use personality and feel free to go back after you finish the story and rewrite to get the voices more divergent.

Examples of things discussed:

  • Yellow Raft on Blue Water – Too much overlap, but a good example of multiple people telling the same story.
  • Terry Pratchett is a good example of 3rd person omniscient with a strong ‘narrator’ voice.


I’d been looking forward to the next panel, it sounded fun. Knowing That I Know That You Know: Xanatos Gambits and Chessmasters. Originally subtitled: Staying 10 steps ahead of your reader. Only Grig Larson and the moderator Steven Southard showed up.

The title is a reference to the TV show: Gargoyles and the one of the main antagonists. It’s when you arrange things such that no matter how things work out, you still proceed on the path you wanted. Here’s TV Trope’s definition, don’t forget to come back!

Now that you’ve read that, I’ll tell you about the few takeaways I got from the panel.

  • Using cliches makes things predictable. THEN you can play with them.
  • Use red herrings.
  • Comedy is the art of the unexpected
    • i.e. The Princess Bride -the Battle of Wits
    • i.e. Phule’s Company by Robert Asprin
  • January 16th by Ayn Rand. It’s a play where the audience is the jurors and is written in such a way that there is a near 50/50 chance of the audience voting either way. Then, the play progresses based on the audience’s decision.

(Side note: I love crime capers and was recommended Ruthless People)

The final panel I attended was Confess Your Writer’s Sins. I walked in and there was a great long table. We were all a bit wary, but it ended up mostly being a panel, not a round table, to my great relief. Sunny Moraine was the moderator. James D Ross, Sue Bailman, and Alex White were the panelists.

Why are you on this Panel?

  • “Because I’m a bad writer” – Alex White joked
  • If it weren’t for my editor, I wouldn’t be here. – Sue gave her writer credentials credit to her editor.
  • Advertising for my novels. – James D Ross confessed.
  • I like to share! – Sunny Moraine

Where Did You Start Sinning?

  • Confessed his worst was killing a woman to further the plot for the main character – he fridged her. – Alex White
  • Sucked at fiction, but good at erotica. – Sunny Moraine
  • Wrote many Mary Sues (Gary Stu) in high school who gazelled their way through conflict. – James D Ross

Tips on hurting characters?

  • “I hate people, I make them up to destroy them!” (Maybe Alex White? Bad notes!)
  • Quoting Chuck Wendig – Keep making issues, keep breaking things – Sunny Moraine
  • Quoting Deborah Gibson – Give them the choice between sucky and suckier – Alex White

What do you hate in other people’s writing…. that you do yourself?

  • Directing scenes very visually. “Gun fucking” with ten page descriptions of the gun. – Alex White
  • Not trusting the reader to fill in the gaps. – Sue Bailman

I Can’t Quit You : What mistakes do you keep making?

  • New pet words. –
  • Azure. Setting the character aside and having them just talk, in between action. Never use the phrase “Start to”, just do it! – Alex White
  • Passive voice. Long winded. Don’t hesitate to kill things that don’t serve the plot. – James D Ross
  • Remember that the reader needs to breath between action scenes.

What Tropes Do You Keep Repeating?

  • Doomed Heroes. – James D Ross
  • I like to subvert tropes. Sexist tropes. – Alex White
  • Characters with chronic illnesses. Desert settings. – Sunny Moraine

What Are Your Regrets That You’d Hide

  • Sorta fridging that character. But it was her choice. – Alex White
  • The erotica I had published. – Sue Bailman
  • While on medication, wrote his own back text for his first book. It got through editing saying “Britches” not “Breeches” for a battle… – James D Ross
  • White savior trope with some noble savages – Sunny Moraine

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.