Friday, 21 August 2020

Al Gorithm: Britain’s least wanted

There’s been trouble at'mill, recently.

For those of you who live outside these shores, our young bright things have in recent weeks been receiving academic qualifications that, in any other year, would reflect exams they would have sat in the early summer.  Covid-19, of course, carried off our exam season alongside our elderly, but the whippersnappers still deserve an envelope of letters.

So what those who know best did was put teachers' assessments through an algorithm (a word many, many more Britons now know than they did in July) that took into account factors such as teachers maybe wanting their charges to do their best and being a bit too glass half full.

Quite why baffles me, but those powers decided to then publish both the teachers' assessments and the revised (or, if you read the press, 'downgraded') markings.  Cue much wailing and gnashing of teeth, followed by embarrassed back-tracking so that teachers' grades prevailed.  (It's actually worse than that - kids get the higher of the processed grading or whatever Mister Chips thought of first).  We’ve even had the brilliant life-imitates-art-imitates-life story of a girl who wrote a story about academic grades being decided by an algorithm being upgraded after being initially downgraded by the algorithm.  

This has particularly piqued my interest, as it straddles both my professional life in human resources, where bringing consistency to performance assessment within one company, let alone one nation, is an unwinnable war, and science fiction.  I was even briefly a ministerial speechwriter during the Blair years focused on performance management in the teaching profession.

Teachers are brilliant at teaching.  If I say anything different, I'm liable to be chased by a mob and strung up from a lamppost ("The NHS is crap!  How could I possibly be making it worse?!").  But what teachers are not in a good position to judge is how their assessments compare nationally, let alone to the school down the road.  There needs to be some calibration, some standard setting, some way of adjusting for the schools who consistently over- or under-estimate.

Of course, the powers that be got the algorithm wrong.  I'm not about to defend how they did it, but it needed to be done.  Relying on teachers' assessments alone has had the effect of devaluing the nation's academic qualifications (pass rates at 16 have jumped from 70% to 79%; A-grade equivalents by a quarter), and completely shafting the higher education sector, who are obliged to take in everyone who successfully achieved the bar set for them, a bar set when pass rates were expected to be 'normal'.

I also sympathise with teachers.  If this happens again, would I want to know that little Johnny Flick-knife's grades are solely down to me rather than me being one of several arbiters in this?  Probably not.  We separate teachers and examiners for the same reason we separate out judges and juries.

But what fascinates me is how the country has reacted to the idea of an algorithm.  We may as well have called it Jimmy Saville.  And that's where the sci-fi comes in.  Because an algorithm is a sci-fi thing, a dark, malevolent, invisible force that can never mean good news.  It's Orwellian, Big Brother-y.  It's decisions being made about us, things being done to us, without us even being in the room.  It not just us not having a say, it's us not even being aware that we're being talked about.

But we shouldn't be scared of algorithms (and, if you are, you're gonna simply shit yourself inside out when you meet the T-1000-meets-Alien-meets-Freddy Krueger bitch that is the heuristic).  An algorithm is simply a set of rules.  If then.  That's all.  Yes, it can be used for ill, but it's a tool, and like any tool, you can use it to bang a nail into a wall or a nun into a coma (not sure why I grabbed hold of that image, but anyway).  

Heuristics save lives.  Take the Goldman Index.  It's an algorithm to decide on the small matter of whether you're dying.  Or you could get a doctor's opinion.  Put your money on the former if you want to maximise the chances of living.  Why?  Because doctors bring a whole lot of baggage that's inevitable with messy human thinking.  It's this messiness that we mistake for sophistication, that makes us believe that 'everything has been taken into consideration' and that can only be a good thing.  To quote Malcolm Gladwill's 'Blink', which is where I first read about it, “Extra information is more than useless; it’s harmful; it confuses the issues. What screws up doctors when they are trying to predict heart attacks is that they take too much information into account.”

You want another?  Heuristics are better at making trades on the markets than humans.  The linked article concludes, humans will be overseeing and validating what the machine is doing, but perhaps the lesson from the Goldman Index is that humans shouldn't have the right to veto if only the algorithm sees what truly matters and filters out the noise.  But would the masters of the universe allow that?  Aren't we humans made in the image of God?  We create the machines, so how could they be more powerful than us?  Go figure.

We need a bedding in period to accept the machines, even when screwed to the floor, even as equals - a deeply unsettling idea - which is what my Wall Street story 'The Thirteenth Floor' is about, published in Third Flatiron's 'Gotta Wear Eclipse Glasses'.  Go and support a small press by buying it.

And, when you've read that, here's another two dozen.

Twenty-four sci-fi, slipstream and new weird stories.
Frequently absurd, often minimifidian, occasionally heroic.

Published by William Holly and available now on,,  


Tuesday, 11 August 2020

It was a dark and stormy knight

This year, I'm not just trying to write more, but write better.  I have a sense that my skills have plateaued.  It's been over three years since I was a Writers of the Future finalist; I've had a smattering of professional short story sales, but without any sense that I've tuned in to the editors' wavelength.  The Submissions Grinder tells me I've an acceptance rate of 2.5%.  One in forty overall - one in fifty this year - even if that is skewed by a shotgun approach to submissions, spurred on by sci-fi being a broad church and many editors explicitly saying they'll know it when they see it.

In striving to improve my craft, I've absorbed the various 'Over the Transom' editorials on AEscifi, which is, after all, exactly where I'm trying to pitch my submissions.  Using that, and the T Gene Davis pieces cited earlier, I've distilled a set of structural criteria that a story should (normally) have.  These are the marks that editors say a story should hit - or be very clear why it doesn't.

(I've said structural criteria, so I'm not including the old threesome of a great title, opening line, and paragraph, as they're not really structural.  You could have a story that fails miserably on all three and, with a few dozen very bon mots, tick them off.  Like 'It was a Dark and Stormy Knight' as a title.  You can have that one for free).

So, let me share them with you, together with an as-objective-as-I-can-be assessment of my shorts, thirty published and thirty-eight still homeless. 

Low passives & reading age
One from T Gene Davis, and the only one that can be objectively measured, in that Word spits out a variety of analytics.  For this, I've simply multiplied reading grade by the percentage of passive sentences.  So, a piece at fifth grade level, with five percent passive sentences will score a decent 25.  Looking at thirty published stories, they score 29.7; thirty-eight unpublished ones, most edited since reading that T Gene Davis piece, score 24.3.  It looks like I'm on top of that one, albeit with potential to make my writing more active and accessible.

Stakes - something to win or lose
This is one that I’ve already said I have an issue with.  On the one hand, I can see the point entirely.  If your hero doesn’t have skin in the game, then neither will your audience.  But I’m British, a nation that prefers a life of quiet desperation, hence I’m more likely to write about the frustration of lending your newspaper to a fellow traveller, hearing the snapping, rustling and tearing, and wondering about the state it’ll be returned in, than saving a planet from a black hole.   But look at Nineteen Eighty-Four: within a dystopian world, the story itself is about small personal victories and defeats, not saving the universe.  Stakes don’t need to be big to be meaningful.

For that reason, I’ve tried to be generous in deciding whether my characters have something to win or lose, with that being true for 83% of my published and 92% of my unpublished tales.  Perhaps the surprising thing is not that more than nine in ten of those searching for a home qualify - I have been writing and rewriting with this rule in mind for some months now - but that 17% of stories editors like enough to pay for don’t have much if anything at stake.

Main character has a real choice to make
In looking at my stories through this lens, I found myself making the same notation over and over: helter-skelter cliff-hanger.  Characters are tipped out of equilibrium, only to suffer a series of indignities before finally discovering their fate.  At no point in their descent into their personal hells do they get to make plans, engage in counter-strategies, or even spot a tuft of grass to hang on to.  Only at the end, when I leave them dumped on their arses, are they in a position to start their fight back.

About half of my published, and a quarter of my unpublished stories suffer from this failing, although many of my published stories are really flashes, where a lack of agency is less surprising.  In many cases, what's missing is to bring the choice front and centre, or give the story some travel time as the decision is made.  Some of them need more fundamental work, of course.

Main character changes
Another one I struggle with, and, arguably, another symptom of a single syndrome.  Fifty-seven percent of my published stories see the character or world change; only about two-thirds of the tales doing the rounds tick the box.  Again, if all I do is throw my characters in a mixer and see what happens, they haven't been given a chance to put their lives back together and emerge triumphant.

Main character has a setback
Even when I do write a three act story, all too often there's something a bit too linear about it all, a lack of twists on the road.  Problem, plan, implementation, pat on back or, more typically, banging from the inside of a coffin that's already been nailed shut.  Or else they end on the setback, needing one last rise from the ropes to knock the monster down.  Or possibly an entire third act - yes, I've spotted at least one story which qualifies as two acts in search of a third.  I've left it just when that last switchback is needed.  Maybe I don't see life as being about rising from the ropes?  Where's Freud when you need his opinion?

Even so, about four in five of my stories have something that could be described as a setback, however lame.  A decent analysis, but I do have a worry about the quality of the setbacks.  Note to self: be more cruel.

Is this a complete story?
This to me is the big one.  I recently received a very nice rejection email from Jeff Georgeson at Penumbric Speculative Fiction where he concluded, "I wanted ... more, somehow."  And that's the thing.  Essentially, I have a habit of writing act ones.  I turn characters' lives upside down, and leave them on the ceiling, without ever bothering how to get them back on the floor.  I have four 1000 to 1500 word vignettes, each of which I now see need another two acts and 3000 to 5000 words to make proper stories.  I should be pleased.  A handful of strong openings, foundations to build on.

I've scored myself 77% for published and 68% for unpublished stories.  Despite all their strengths, I think this explains why they don't fly.

Put through that mill, of my thirty-eight stories, only twenty are fit to be set loose, of which two or three are only being allowed to roam on the basis that they've been rejected by so many editors that it's only the penny-a-word merchants left, and I'd rather prioritise my time elsewhere.  Of the rest, it's mainly polishing, emphasising choices or decision points.  But there are four which require an additional two acts, one that needs a third, several where the third act needs to be rethought to make it emotionally satisfying.  A few with 'total rewrite' next to them.

Get it all right and who knows when I'll have a second one of these available?

Twenty-four sci-fi, slipstream and new weird stories.
Frequently absurd, often minimifidian, occasionally heroic.

Published by William Holly and available now on,, .de, .fr, .es, .it, .nl, .jp,, .ca, .mx, .au, and .in.