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“Garbage” is the theme of the current issue of Eye to the Telescope, a quarterly online journal of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association. I’m a member, and as such, I’m pleased to invite you to enjoy the July 2017 issue.

It offers 19 speculative poems dealing with such refuse as socks, landfills, trashy novels, and star dust.

Read it here:

— Sue Burke
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Voting for the Hugo Awards ends on Saturday, July 15, and the winners will be announced at Worldcon 75 on August 11 in Helsinki. Here are my thoughts on the short fiction finalists. Half of the 18 stories were also nominated for Nebulas, which I wrote about in earlier posts. On the whole, I think the nominees present a good overview of short speculative fiction, despite a couple of works that came from over the horizon and aren’t really appropriate for the Hugos.


“This Census-Taker,” by China Miéville
A young boy living in an eerie post-war small town believes his father killed his mother, but he can’t prove it. Miéville is one of my favorite writers, but I don’t think this is his best work. While the writing is beautiful at the sentence level, the plot moves slowly and ends with loose ends all over the place. Still, there are moments of slow, pure terror to savor.

“Penrick and the Shaman,” by Lois McMaster Bujold
If you like Bujold, you’ll like this. Penrick, a demon-ridden young man (this is nicer than it sounds), must help solve a murder, and things take a strange turn. It’s set in a medieval-like world of five gods who periodically meddle in human affairs. Much of the story explores the world and the people in it, and if it’s not always fascinating, it’s always fun. As you would expect from Bujold, it all unfolds masterfully. That said, I’m not a big Bujold fan, although many people are, and I can’t fault them. This story is just too gentle for my tastes, but I don’t regret the time I spent reading it. While it won’t rank high on my ballot, I will vote for it and won’t mind if it wins.

In fact, all the novella nominees deserve to win. Three were also on the Nebula ballot: “The Ballad of Black Tom,” by Victor LaValle; “The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe,” by Kij Johnson; “Every Heart a Doorway,” by Seanan McGuire (which won the Nebula); and “A Taste of Honey,” by Kai Ashante Wilson, which won the Nebula. You can read my comments on those three here.


“Touring With the Alien,” by Carolyn Ives Gilman
A newly arrived alien takes a secret bus tour of the United States. During the trip, the driver sorts through her own problems as she bonds with the alien’s caretaker and eventually the alien itself. It’s a quiet story exploring how people at the fringes of alien contact get caught up in the intrigue, and it reaches a satisfying conclusion, but perhaps not as big a twist as the author had hoped.

“Alien Stripper Boned From Behind by the T-Rex,” by Stix Hiscock
This is yet another Sad Puppy nomination meant to dishonor the Hugo Awards, although it reflects more on the Puppies than it does of the author. An alien with three boobs falls for a customer who is sort of a half-human half-Tyrannosaurus rex. They both have exceptionally long tongues and enjoy each other thoroughly. I won’t be voting for it, but it’s not the worst thing on the Hugo ballot.

“The Tomato Thief,” by Ursula Vernon
An old lady living in the desert catches the shapeshifter stealing her tomatoes and decides to help free the unfortunate young woman from a malevolent spirit. And that’s what happens, pretty much as you might expect. The worldbuilding is impressive, but I don’t think the story ever rises above a harmless young adult tale. By “harmless” I mean that it will not make the reader feel any doubt or unease about the world, fear for the safety or integrity of the protagonist, or wonder whether good and evil might be complicated and complex concepts.

“The Art of Space Travel,” by Nina Allan
A woman who works at a hotel copes with a very ill mother who has never said who her father is. Astronauts are coming to the hotel before a mission to Mars, and the woman starts to think about the mystery of her father again. Essentially, this is literary fiction from the future, a fine story that explores human relationships and how both successful and failed space exploration affects the people who never set foot in a rocket.

Other stories that had also been nominated for the Nebula are: “The Jewel and Her Lapidary,” by Fran Wilde, which I didn’t like; and “You’ll Surely Drown If You Stay Here,” by Alyssa Wong, which I did. I commented further on them here.

Short story

“The City Born Great,” by N. K. Jemisin
This surreal story tells about a city that must be born – New York City, to be precise. In this tale of magic, a young man is recruited to sing it through the birthing process. But the city has enemies. While the telling gets heavy-handed in its treatment of homelessness, race, sexual orientation, and the police, the story’s energy keeps building to the end.

“That Game We Played During The War,” by Carrie Vaughn
Two former enemies had bonded over chess. Now the long, exhausting war has given way to uneasy peace. But the people on one side of the war are telepaths, and the other is not. How can they even play a game together? The way they do that shows how peace will be possible. The story stands out for its careful characterizations and its thought into what telepathy does to telepaths and the people whose thoughts they read.

“An Unimaginable Light,” by John C. Wright
In this story, a robot and human have a debate: “I do not wish my thoughts to house any inappropriate content!” “Human emotion and passion must accord with reality; the self deceptions you claim are innate to all thought and must be eschewed. We robots are meant to serve man, not to destroy them.” (Sic.) This kind of debate continues for many pages. Apparently, it’s what the Sad Puppies consider fine writing. They soil themselves with dishonor yet again. The Stix Hiscock story is genuinely better in many respects.

Other short stories on the ballot are “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers,” by Alyssa Wong, which I love but don’t think is speculative fiction; “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies,” by Brooke Bolander, which I love and think definitely falls within the genre; and “Seasons of Glass and Iron,” by Amal El-Mohtar, which I think tries too hard to set old fairy tales right – but it won the Nebula. I say a little more about these stories here.

— Sue Burke

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Seriously, don’t try to fool your boss and coworkers. You shouldn’t fight dirty at work (or elsewhere), and you would never sink so low anyway.

Still, you should know how to do it so you can recognize treachery when someone else makes an underhanded move. These tried-and-true techniques (many from the U.S. State Department) can thwart policy changes, dodge direct orders, and reverse decisions.

If you face a new course of action that you don’t like, act fast:

First, insist on a personal hearing and suggest reasons for reconsidering.

  • Say this is the wrong time to implement the change. Perhaps it’s the wrong time of year, the wrong time in the budget process, or the wrong time in light of public opinion as influenced by recent events. In fact, there might never be the right time.

  • Say it has unforseen implications and describe them in gory detail. Be creative and don’t confine yourself to likely events.

  • Say it merits a special task force study. By the time the task force is appointed and finishes its meetings, months will have slipped past. Remember, the more people on a committee, the longer each meeting takes, so think big.

  • Propose something different. If it’s attractive enough, you could create indecision and confusion, paralyzing the whole process.

  • Control the information your superiors receive, and distort the facts if you must. This is dirty and dangerous fighting at its most foul, but if you’ve been following the news lately about the White House, you’ve seen that it works.

If that doesn’t get you what you want, demand a meeting to discuss the change.

  • Win the support of the discussion leader before the meeting – or better yet, suggest an ally as the leader.

  • During or before the meeting, imply that your opponents will suffer negative consequences if they fight for their decision. You can do this by winning the support of their superiors or by making them feel under-informed and out of place at the meeting. They might decide a fight isn’t worth it.

  • Make sure your supporters are a majority at the meeting. If necessary, juggle the overall size of the meeting to make the numbers work.

  • Have them approve your proposal. To clinch the debate, arrange for someone else to introduce the idea so you can back it effectively and selflessly.

If all else fails, stall. Make sure no one ever implements the decision.

  • Define the issue or decision in complete, excruciating detail. You’ll run out of time before you run out of details.

  • Find a problem with the decision and show how the problem cannot be separated from related problems. That way, you can’t solve the problem or implement the decision until you first solve everything else.

  • Look for all the methods to approach the decision. If you draw this out long enough, you might never find the opportunity to approach the decision by any of those methods.

  • Advise against moving “too rapidly.” With luck, you’ll never get moving at all.

  • Redirect the issue. For example, everyone wants more efficient administrative work, but right now you especially need to get the billings out quicker, so stay focussed on the small picture.

  • Wait until some expert can be consulted. Try to pick someone far away and very busy.

  • Conclude that everyone has the same problems, so it’s just the normal way of doing business and you don’t have to change anything.

  • Focus on personalities. Suggest that the person who made the original suggestion is unhappy with her job, so if her job can be improved, the problem will be solved.

  • Start the search for the perfect answer. Since nothing will ever be perfect, you’ll never find it.

  • Search for scapegoats. You’ll find plenty. You can blame sales; sales can blame management; management can blame the lawyers; and you can all blame the daily excess of email messages that require immediate attention.

— Sue Burke
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Today is my birthday. Rather than wishing me well – enough people will do that already – wish someone in your life well and, perhaps, give them a little gift.

By way of celebration, here’s the Mindset List for my generation: I was born at the height of the Baby Boom. The Mindset List was first created in 1998 at Beloit College to reflect the experiences and world view of that year’s entering freshmen.

Students graduating in 2002 did not remember the Cold War. MTV had always existed for them, roller skates had always been in-line, and they couldn’t imagine hard contact lenses.

For this year’s freshmen, Google has always existed, The Lion King has always been playing on Broadway, and First Responders have always been heroes.

Us Boomers were the first generation to be explicitly marketed to. We survived the Cuban Missile Crisis. For us, spaceflight was thrilling rather than routine, and Ed Sullivan’s TV variety show was iconic. For me, Elizabeth II has always been Queen of the United Kingdom.

I learned to type on a manual typewriter, to drive with manual steering, and to make telephone calls by manually entering the numbers on a rotary dial. As a result, I’ve had to learn new skills, large and small, throughout my life.

When I was born, women could legally be discriminated against in the workplace and be paid less than men. Even married couples could be denied access to birth control. Women had limited access to sports and military service. African Americans could legally be required to sit in the back of the bus. They could be refused homes in any neighborhood that wished to keep them out, work in jobs where they weren’t welcome, attendance at some schools and universities, and use of Whites-only water fountains, among many other legal restrictions. Being gay was outright illegal.

For my generation, some of us haven’t always enjoyed basic freedoms. At least in a few ways, the world has improved over the years.

— Sue Burke
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I wrote this report for the Alexiad fanzine, and just finished it in time for the ‘zine’s deadline. Here it is for your enjoyment:

Wiscon 41
May 26-29 in Madison, Wisconsin, at the Concourse Hotel

Friday, May 26
Chicago to Madison

The last time I attended a Wiscon was 2008, then 2003, and before that, the 1990s. It was the first sf convention I ever attended, and it’s remained one of my favorites for its ambitious programming and friendly atmosphere.

My husband and I left Chicago on Friday morning and, after a three-hour trip with moderate construction and traffic, we arrived a little after noon, checked in, and registered.

Friday afternoon’s programming included The Gathering: a ballroom filled with welcoming activities such as lock-picking lessons, a chance to test various gadgets, a nail polish swap, hair braiding, and a clothing swap. I brought two dresses for the clothing swap and took a blouse and a little black dress – and I began to say hello to old friends and meet new ones. I tested out a Kindle Voyage at the gadgets table since I’m thinking of upgrading, spun a Fidget Spinner and was unimpressed, and then left for a panel on “What Makes a Fun Story.”

Dinner was a kielbasa at a bar on State Street with my husband. In the dealer’s room, I bought a used book, The World of Null-A by A.E. Van Vogt, and my husband was disappointed to see no tee-shirts for sale. A tour of the art show was delightful, and later in the weekend I returned for a small purchase. The opening ceremony largely dealt with logistics, announcements, and the crowning of The Tiptree Award winner, Anna-Marie McLemore. Among other honors, she received a gold and pearl tiara to wear during the weekend.

After that, the evening was largely beer, parties, more old and new friends – and I met and got all fan girl over Naomi Kritzer, author of “Cat Pictures, Please,” which won the 2016 Short Story Hugo. I loved that story. Now she knows I did.

Saturday, May 27
Concourse Hotel

Saturday was more friends and panels. I also wore a diadem I’d picked up the night before at the Carl Brandon Society Party. Tiaras were fashionable that weekend.

“The Future of Genetic Engineering” explained why we can’t get scorpion tails. (Damn!) I went to another panel on “Direct Payment and the Creator,” but it seemed to be going to focus on how unfairly money is distributed, which I already knew, so I went to “Stay in Your Lane.” It was billed as a discussion of power, privilege and oppression, but it really dealt more with people arguing on the internet, and despite a brief attempt to consider when listening might be more worthwhile than making noise, some panelists seemed to present themselves as awfully noisy.

I had lunch at the Tiptree Award bake sale (rhubarb is a vegetable, so a rhubarb bar counts as a salad, right?) and chatted with a librarian and a friend from my church in Chicago. The afternoon included my participation in the Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading. I read an essay about how Miguel de Cervantes remained poor despite writing one of the world’s most famous books. (He made about $3,700 in current value from Don Quixote). I attended some other panels, had dinner at a Chinese restaurant with friends, enjoyed the always-funny Tiptree Auction, and then it was party time.

At the bar, I discovered a Madison beer, Fantasy Factory, an IPA whose label features a fire-breathing unicorn being ridden by a ninja cat with a ray gun, all this against a background of a rainbow and a castle. It seemed perfect for a con. At the Haiku Earring Party, dozens of us wannabe poets were able to select earrings in exchange for writing a haiku. I chose a pair of lovely blue and black bead earrings and was assigned the title “the lotus after midnight.” After a little pondering, I wrote: black sky and bright stars / white flowers floating in a pond / these sleeping colors. Not my best work, but I tried.

Sunday, May 28
Concourse Hotel

More panels. The funniest one of my weekend was “How Lazy Writing Recreates Oppression”: for example, in J. K. Rowling’s “History of Magic in North America,” she seemed unaware that Native Americans have many tribes and nations, all with very different beliefs and customs. (In my experience, Europeans in general don’t know this.) Other examples showed even more lamentably how a lack of research led to unfortunate and easily ridiculed consequences.

Next was “Speculative Fiction in Translation” featuring Rachel S. Cordasco, Arrate Hidalgo, and me. We three had known each other for some time by internet, and I’d gotten to meet Arrate, who’s from Spain, in Chicago during the week before the convention, but this was the first chance we three had to meet in person. The audience seemed fascinated when Arrate and I talked about sticky details of translating, such as how to deal with puns, and they were delighted by the M&Ms and books that we gave away.

In the evening, right before the Guest of Honor speeches, we lined up (hundreds of us!) for the Dessert Salon. Each of us could take two desserts and enter the main ballroom. I got an excellent piece of Key Lime Pie and a slab of decadently dense chocolate espresso mousse. I also made new friends at the dining table.

Kelly Sue DeConnick, guest of honor and comic author, gave a speech touching on what had been suppressed in comics for many year. Amal El-Mohtar spoke about her sources of inspiration, including the children’s television show Steven Universe. The Tiptree Award winner, Anna-Marie McLemore, said she had been afraid to publish the winning novel, When the Moon Was Ours, a magical realism transgender romance. (It did well and received other awards.)

Then I went to a panel on “Science Fiction and the Role of Violence” where panel members expressed concerns about the sad fate of bystanders of superhero-supervillain battles. The rest of the night was parties, and at one we debated which member of the Three Stooges most closely resembled each president, and what narwhale tusks are for (sensing the water).

Monday, May 29
Madison to Chicago

On Monday, we checked out, attended a panel of “Canon vs. Fandom,” then went to The SignOut, where authors sign works for fans. I found Naomi Kritzer there. In my morning email, I’d learned that she’d been nominated for an Ignotus Award for Translated Short Story, Spain’s equivalent to a Hugo, for “Fotos de gatitos, por favor” (Cat Pictures, Please). I belong to the organization that presents the award, so I could tell her all about it. Total fangirl, as I said. I hope I didn’t annoy her.

The ride back to Chicago took less than three hours, and we encountered surprisingly light traffic. In addition to the Van Vogt book, I brought back two anthologies plucked from freebie tables: After The Apocalypse by Maureen F. McHugh and The Arbitrary Placement of Walls by Martha Soukup. I also bought issue 31 of Tales of the Unanticipated, an anthology published by SF Minnesota.

Next year’s Wiscon’s guests of honor will be Saladin Ahmed and Tananarive Due.

— Sue Burke
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A Ming Dynasty vase and an ancient Greek urn share beauty but not aesthetics. The artisans of the different styles might have appreciated each other’s work if they had known about it – and yet they might have stuck to their own ways, perhaps because they saw no reason to change or because they lacked the material and equipment to produce anything else.
Two vases
Likewise, languages have different rules for beautiful prose based both on cultural inheritance and on the possibilities and limits of each language within its grammar and vocabulary. I translate Spanish to English, and I often face the delightful task of transforming beautiful Spanish prose into beautiful English prose. To do that, I’ve had to learn to appreciate the standards of beauty for each language, which share little in common due to different historical trajectories.

Spanish emerged from a local dialect of Latin. King Alfonso X the Wise, who reigned from 1252 to 1284, made Spanish (Castilian, to be precise) the official language of his realm. To cement that decree, he assembled scholars in Toledo to translate literature from other languages into Spanish and to create new books, and he himself wrote a few. He knew that a language must have literature.

Fine writing style in Spanish still echoes its scholarly roots: a bit formal and elaborated. Above all, good style rejects repetition. Vocabulary and syntax should be richly varied. Spanish grammar permits long, ornate sentences, because the verbs are fully conjugated and the nouns and adjectives are gendered, so subordinate clauses can easily be looped together like tatted lace.

English has suffered a more checkered history. After the Norman invasion in 1066, Norman French became the dominant language in Britain, and English was shattered into regional dialects. As modern English eventually began to emerge, it was shaped by two literary landmarks: Shakespeare and the King James Bible.

The Bard of Avon began writing plays in about 1592, adding lively new words and expressions we still use today. We all speak “the language of Shakespeare” – which is how Spaniards often refer to English (to avoid repeating the word English).

But even more importantly for the development of English, the King James Bible was published in 1611, and its constant use as the single major work of literature readily available to the ordinary person made it the standard and model for their language. Its translators had produced direct, unornamented prose meant for ordinary people, not scholars, and they stuck close to the syntax of the original languages, notably Hebrew in the Old Testament.

Many of those Bible verses were poetry, and Hebrew poetry does not rhyme; instead, it uses parallel, balanced structures of phrases or ideas, and repetition of words or rhythms. The second half of a parallel may paraphrase the first half, it may give a consequence, it may contradict the first half, or it may add stronger and stronger clauses or sentences that lead to an apex. Rhythm can make the prose musical.

Because of that, repetition strikes the English-language ear as beautiful. The two most famous speeches of the 20th century, “I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King Jr., and “Blood, Sweat, and Tears” by Winston Churchill, demonstrate the power and melody of repetition.

Beautiful Spanish should be ornate and enriched, avoiding repetition. Beautiful English should be direct and plain, seeking balanced repetition of words and structures.

With that in mind, I translated the novel Prodigios (Prodigies) by Angélica Gorodischer for Small Beer Press. Hers was a dense, very Spanish prose, without a doubt beautiful. I had to bring it into English. Here is an example from Chapter 15:

“...en algunas casas se cerraron púdicas las cortinas no fuera que ese sol desmesurado y lejos de lugar y medida, como despanzurrando sobre los parquets y los tapices, fuera a desteñir los tapizados y peor, a dar que de los lóbulos de las orejas a las niñas vigiladas y obedientes que cambiaban, también en esa época como el sol...”

“ some houses the curtains were chastely closed because this sun, excessive, out of place and propriety, might burst on parquet floors and tapestries, might fade the fabric, and worse, might strike the skin on forearms and behind earlobes of protected and obedient girls, inciting their thoughts, girls who also transformed in that season like the sun...”

With a little repetition, I sought to set new words to the original tune and make them sing as sweetly. The changes were slight, almost automatic, guided by some knowledge of how to make the transformation, and with it, I hope I did the original words justice.

There were alternatives, of course. One problem – or possibility, depending on how you look at it – involves the translation of the word fuera, which is the past tense third person singular subjunctive form of “to be.” Spanish subjunctive can be translated in many ways, often with difficulty because the use of subjunctive in English is much more limited than in Spanish. There are various ways to render it, and each requires other changes in the syntax. One possible way, and a more literal translation, is:

“…in some houses the chaste curtains were closed to prevent this sun, excessive and out of place and propriety, as it was bursting on parquets and tapestries, from fading fabric and worse, inciting thoughts as it was striking skin on the forearms and behind the earlobes of the protected and obedient girls who also changed in this season like the sun.”

Although this is perfectly acceptable, to my ear it sounds ordinary, unlike the original prose, which sounds extraordinary. I hear too many present participles, and while repetition of grammatical forms is good, these do not all fulfill the exact same grammatical role: they’re not parallel.

Instead, in my final version, I tried to find a way to unite as many verbs as I could under the modal might. It expresses weak probability, which at times can convey the sense imparted by Spanish subjunctive. I got might burst, might fade, might strike, and deliberately chose to repeat might to make sure the reader understood the relationship between the verbs.

The excerpt also focuses on the girls of the households, who must be kept chaste and unchanged. So rather than say who toward the end of the sentence, I found a way to repeat girls and thus place a bit more emphasis on them.

The rest, with a little tweaking, fell into place, and to me it sounds better – although matters of style are always open to debate, which is good. Dialogue strengthens literature, and literature strengthens language.


Also posted at The Tiff, Asymptote magazine’s blog, and at my professinal website.

— Sue Burke
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I was asked by an unhappy movie producer why a writer could turn in a fine script, but the next one by the same writer would be bad. Here’s my answer:

We writers ask ourselves the same thing. Why is one piece of writing successful, and the next one isn’t? We worked on it the same way, just as hard, with the same excitement and love, and no one liked it. Why?

Well, among other reasons, unless we’re rewriting the same thing over and over, or following a formula as if creative works were McDonald’s hamburgers, every story is an experiment. Sometimes experiments fail.

"You write a hit the same way you write a flop," said Alan Jay Lerner of the writing team Lerner and Loewe. Lerner won three Oscars, among many other awards, and everyone in the world has heard his hits, which include My Fair Lady, Camelot, and Gigi. He also wrote 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with none other than Leonard Bernstein as a collaborator, and it’s perhaps the worst flop in the history of Broadway.

What went wrong? Nothing. The creative process went as normal. There are no guarantees. Martin Amis called bestsellers a “ridiculous accident”.

This is why writers drink. We can, perhaps, accept the inevitability of random failure, but those around us don’t always understand.

— Sue Burke
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I’ll be on two panels and one reading this weekend at Wiscon 41, a feminist-focused SF convention:

Saturday, May 27, 1 to 2:15 p.m., Conference 4, Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading. Eight members (including me) of Broad Universe, an organization for women writers and editors of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, will read brief works. I’ll read an essay about how much money Miguel de Cervantes earned for one of the greatest novels of all time, Don Quixote de la Mancha. You’ll be horrified by how little.

Saturday, May 27, 4 to 5:15 p.m., Conference 5, Women of Atheism. Four of us will speak on not believing in the existence of deities and how that affects our perspectives and lived experiences. Come and talk about what you believe and don’t believe.

Sunday, May 28, 1 to 2:15 p.m., University C, Speculative Fiction in Translation. Rachel S. Cordasco, Arrate Hidalgo, and I will talk about who gets translated, why, and what you might enjoy reading. If you come, you’ll receive a reading list, maybe some M&Ms, and even a free book (supplies are limited).

— Sue Burke
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Back in the Middle Ages, tales about King Arthur reached Europe from Wales, and soon everyone was telling them – and they also told spinoff stories. In Spain, one spinoff dealt with Amadis of Gaul, a knight who lived (supposedly) after “the passion of our lord Jesus Christ” but before King Arthur. In his day, Amadis was the greatest knight in the world.

That story came down to us in the form of a fat novel called Amadis of Gaul. I just finished translating it from medieval Spanish into English as a blog. The final post went up today. You can read it here.

Amadis of Gaul became Europe’s first best-seller and created a genre that persists to this day in such works as Game of Thrones.

I began translating it eight and a half years ago, posting a chapter or partial chapter weekly, and I had fun. The story offers adventure, love, and magic. It’s also very medieval, with a huge cast of characters and intertwining stories. While women had a set place in society, that place might be commanding a realm or dispensing sorcery. There’s humor, but at times laughing at the suffering of others or telling jokes whose punch line we’ve forgotten. And there’s romance and sex. Amadis was born out of formal wedlock, as was his son.

The story teaches a lot about a society long ago and far away, both different and similar to our own in unexpected ways. Knights sometimes felt troubled by the violence of their duties, and the burdens of office weighed heavily on those who directed and defended realms: it has always been known that governing is complicated.

The blog will remain up for all to read and savor. I’m now working on getting the four-book novel out in paper and ebook format.

For years, I’ve spent my Fridays working on Amadis of Gaul as a seemingly never-ending challenge. I’m glad I did, and I hope you enjoy the fruits of my labor.

— Sue Burke
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I’m a writer, and after you write a story, you send it to publishers. Often they send it back, saying no. Rejection remains one of the most disappointing aspects of writing life, an ongoing source of sadness and even despair.

Rejections and fun clearly don’t mix – except this one time.

I wrote a horror story about vampires and started sending it out. The story made the second cut in an anthology, but not the final one. Oh, well. I sent it out again right away and got a response of “close, very close” from the editor. Not bad!

Then … the very next magazine rejected it with a note saying it was “cruel and evil.” Evil? A vampire horror story? Isn’t that the point? I laughed about it with my writer friends, and for a while I was known as “evil Sue Burke.”

The next magazine rejected it with (this was by snailmail) a preprinted note saying: “We CELEBRATE your achievement!” Although the editors couldn’t take the story, the note said, they wanted me to know how proud they were of me for having written it and taken part in the furtherance of literature. Or something like that. I think they meant it because they dropped a sprinkle of confetti into the envelope – really cool confetti. I used it to decorate my desk lamp.

I kept sending the story out, got rejections both bland and encouraging, and on the 21st try, I found a magazine that loved it and took it. A few years later the story was even reprinted in an anthology. All’s well that ends well.

I learned four things from this adventure:

1. Confetti should accompany all rejections. Or, now that we send most manuscripts out via internet, a picture of a cute kitten. How hard would that be?

2. Rejections are about the story, not about the writer, which is too bad because I really enjoyed being evil.

3. As we all know, rejections are a necessary step toward publication. We can even make a game out of them. I wish I could remember who I learned this from so I could give her credit: Try to see if you can achieve a certain number of rejections in a single day. She suggested five, so I made that my goal. The most I’ve ever gotten is three.

4. I need more rejections if I’m going to win the rejection game, which means I have to get more submissions out there – so if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go write something. As a parting gift, here’s a picture of a cute kitten. Celebrate your next rejection with it. We all deserve a little fun.

Also posted at the Red Sofa Literary blog.

— Sue Burke
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April 23 was El día del idioma, the day to celebrate the Spanish language (because Miguel de Cervantes was interred on that date in 1616). If you forgot to celebrate, here’s another chance.

If you studied Spanish, the first thing you learned is that nouns have gender. “The moon” is la luna (feminine) and “the sun” is el sol (masculine). Some words change their ending to accomodate gender: “the boy” is el niño and “the girl” is la niña. There’s not always a lot of logic behind this – why is “speed” feminine, la rápidez, and “waste” mascuine, el derroche? – so you simply have to memorize the gender.

But wait! There’s (always) more to learn.

Some nouns are epicene. That means they have the same article (el or la) and the same word for both sexes. For example, “the goat” is la cabra. If you want to specify the sex, you say la cabra macho, “the male goat,” or la cabra hembra, “the female goat.” A number of animals are epicene, such as “the squirrel,” la ardilla, and “the vulture,” el buitre. There’s no logic, so rote memorization is your only recourse.

Some nouns are gender common. That means the word stays the same, but the article changes to show if the person being referred to is male or female. Quite a few words fall into this category. “The artist” is la artista or el artista, “the soldier” is la soldado or el soldado, and “the martyr” is la mártir or el mártir. When you memorize the word, you have to memorize how to use it.

A smaller list of words are gender ambiguous. “The sea” can be masculine or feminine, la mar or el mar, as can “the sugar,” la azúcar or el azúcar. If you have any free brain cells left, memorize these details, too.

(Some words change their meaning completely depending on whether they are feminine or masculine. El cometa is “the comet” and la cometa is “the kite.” Memorize these if your brain hasn’t exploded yet.)

Finally, Spanish has no neutral nouns, but it has some neutral pronouns: esto, eso, aquello, ello, lo. But now we’re getting into grammar, and I’m not going there today. Mercifully.

— Sue Burke
mount_oregano: and let me translate (translate)
When you’re translating, the little words can be big problems, especially “you.” It’s one of the hardest words to translate. In Spanish, the word “you” can be tú, usted, ustedes, vosotros, vosotras, os, ti, vos, se, te, lo, le, la, uno, una, los, las, les. I know how to translate “you” by the context, although at times I need a fair amount of context, and expressing the precise meaning in English can be another challenge.

In under four minutes, this TED video explains why there are so many possibilities. Who knew it was so complicated?

— Sue Burke
mount_oregano: Let me see (ImFeelingBlue)
I’ve read the new Terms of Service for LiveJournal, and they aren’t encouraging. They will also never affect me directly in all likelihood. Three thousand user accesses in 24 hours, which is what it takes to trip the most odious provisions? I’m not that popular. They also may not apply to someone with a paid account, which I have.

In any case, I doubt the rules will be enforced on anyone in the United States. Russians restricting the free speech of Americans in America? Not a good way to win friends and influence people. (Facebook is still diputed territory, though.)

Still, LiveJournal is now under Russian law, which bans “gay propaganda” and political solicitation, among other things. (Such as depicting Putin as a gay clown.*) Again, this has more to do with Russian politics than anything else. At the same time, American politics don’t fill me with confidence right now, and American-Russian relations could move in any direction without notice due to as little as a witness testifying at a US Congressional committee.

For that reason, I’ve created a Dreamwidth account: I haven’t done much there yet. It takes time to set up an account, and I have paying work to do and fiction to write. Still, I’ll be cross-posting. I want to be prepared for whatever might happen. I like LiveJournal and don’t want to give it up, so I’ll be here as long as I can.

But we live in troubled times.

— Sue Burke


mount_oregano: Let me see (Let me see..)
Writers often fear being edited – actually, we fear bad editors. Every writer needs an editor. Our work can always be improved by a good editor, but it can also be damaged by a bad editor. What’s the difference between good and bad?

I was once asked my opinion of another editor on a team project who had become enraged by the same repeated error in the text. I said, “He must be inexperienced, because experience teaches humility.” I only need to think about how often and how stupidly I have erred to know how humble I need to be. I learn new things about writing every day. Humility matters, but how can we make humility operational?

One way to understand humility is to understand that writing is a test with many right answers. An editor who wants to make things “sound” right without a thorough, humble justification for those changes may have marked a right answer as wrong – unjustifiably. Probably, that editor wants to make the text’s style sound more like he or she wrote it: some editors unhumbly and perhaps unconsciously impose their own style. But writers have the right to their own style, which is created by seemingly minor word and punctuation choices.

The first thing, I think, is to fix only those things that are objectively wrong. For example, something might be misspelled or incorrect according to an authority like the Chicago Manual of Style, or it might cause problems for reader comprehension.

To identify what’s objectively wrong, an editor needs to know what’s objectively right – and there’s the rub. I can illustrate this on the sentence level. Consider this opening sentence from a newspaper report from a war:

It was a lovely false spring day when we started for the front this morning.

Is “lovely false” too flowery for the news? I have some doubts about that, but I’m going to hold them in abeyance for now. I can always come back.

Then the article describes a war plane overhead, which doesn’t try to kill our reporter. Instead, it flies on.

But, as we watched, came a sudden egg-dropping explosion of bombs, and, ahead, Reus, silhouetted against hills a half mile away, disappeared in a brick-dust-colored cloud of smoke.”

First, isn’t it wrong to begin a sentence with a conjuction? No, it isn’t. In Modern English Usage, H. W. Fowler calls that “rule” a superstition and fetish, and he adds, “to let oneself be so far possessed by blindly accepted conventions as to take a hand in enforcing them on other people is to lose the independence of judgement that would enable one to solve the numerous problems for which there are no rules of thumb.” So in an effort to protect my independent problem-solving judgement, I’ll approve that “but.”

I’m a little unconvinced by “egg-dropping.” I think it sounds better to say, “explosion of bombs like dropped eggs,” but I’m not the writer here and “egg-dropping” is not objectively wrong nor does it confuse the reader, so on that standard I’ll let it pass unchanged.

The comma between “and, ahead” is optional, although the strictest rules do call for it. If this were my own sentence, I’d leave it out due to the proliferation of commas in that sentence. But I’m not the writer, and the writer has the right to opt his own way. No violence has been done here to the English language.

Beyond a doubt, the sentence contains inverted word order and other complexities. If this piece were intended for people whose grasp of English is weak, such as language learners, I might want to untangle those words, but the audience here (via the North American Newspaper Alliance) contains high-level readers. Instead, I’ll admire the way the sentence moves chronologically through a series of events and describes them succinctly.

Soon, our writer reports that the road overflows with refugees.

There was no panic at all, only a steady movement, and many of the people seemed cheerful. But perhaps it was the day. The day was so lovely that it seemed ridiculous that anyone should ever die.

Ah, now I see why it was a lovely false spring day. Irony! It’s so often wasted on editors.

I also see “...the day. The day...” The two sentences could easily be joined, “But perhaps it was the day, which was so lovely...” Still, there’s nothing objectively wrong here. In fact, putting “lovely” in its own sentence serves to emphasize the idea. So, again, I’ll let the writer indulge in a little stylistic flair. It’s his byline, and I know he’s not going to get to review my edits.

Finally, the crowds of refugees and retreating soldiers become so dense that the reporter’s car must turn back.

“People looked up at the sky as they retreated. But they were very weary now. The planes had not yet come, but there was still time for them and they were overdue.”

Omigod, missing punctuation! “... there was still time and they were overdue.” There should be a comma between “time and” to be perfectly correct, shouldn’t there?

Maybe. Punctuation is fairly fixed because it relates to the grammar of a sentence, so it is something easily parsed, and there should be a comma between two independent clauses before the conjunction. Still, that rule operates with leeway. British English tends to eschew commas to an extreme that I think sometimes interferes with understandability, but I’m not British so take that opinion for what it’s worth. Ernest Hemingway often left them out for effect: to show how closely some ideas followed each other. I don’t fully approve, but I see his point.

In fact, this report is by Hemingway, “The Flight of Refugees,” filed on April 3, 1938, from Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. I can see lots of nit-picky ways to alter his words, but he won a Nobel Prize in Literature, and I haven’t. For all I know, the people I edit will someday win a Nobel. Except for a humble, justifiable reason, I ought to let them sound like their Nobel-worthy selves.

Another thing editors should be aware of: “correct” English varies from place to place, so remember your place and your author’s place. A Texan might say, “I’ve not had the pleasure of meeting you” instead of “I haven’t had…” Except for a humble, justifiable reason, don’t mess with Texas. You’ve been warned.

Know where you are in the process. The enraged fellow editor mentioned earlier thought the writer was seeing his corrections and stupidly failing to apply them as she continued her work. In fact, she had turned in the completed piece some time earlier. The editor’s part in the process was to correct errors for publication, not to educate the writer, who had (lucky her) exited the process by then.

And read a lot! Study good writing to understand its breadth and see how much is “correct.” There’s no one right way – in fact, there are an amazing number of right ways, including some I don’t approve of, but it’s my job to know that they’re still correct.

If you want to read more masterful wartime reporting, I recommend this: a dispatch from the World War II D-Day beachhead, “The Horrible Waste of War ,” by Ernie Pyle, who won a Pulitzer for his work. Note how he uses “you” to bring the reader to the beach, but he only needs to use that word a couple of times. I know some editors who would object to “you” in a news report, but Pyle died in combat and there is still time for those editors.

— Sue Burke

Also posted at my professional website,

mount_oregano: Let me see (Seedlings3)
I’ve read all the novellas nominated for the 2016 Nebula Awards (just in time: the deadline is tomorrow). Now I have a problem: I like them all. Incidentally, it seems worth noting that all but one of them were published by Tor, and two were inspired by H.P. Lovecraft.

“The Liar,” by John P. Murphy (F&SF)
A man in a small New England town with a supernatural gift for lying discovers a series of deaths that can’t be coincidental, and he must prevent the next one. A simple story, it rises to remarkable by the telling: the matter-of-fact humility and humor of the narrator. The Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine introduction describes it as Garrison Keillor writing a Stephen King story. Yes, it’s that good – and worthy of a Nebula.

“Runtime,” by S. B. Divya (Tor)
A woman hopes to win a race and use the prize money to improve the lives of herself and her family. But the race involves high-tech, body-enhancing equipment, and what she has is second-hand and second-rate. Will her determination help her win? Will ethics get in the way? This is a traditional, well-told science fiction adventure story. Also worthy of a win.

“The Ballad of Black Tom,” by Victor LaValle (Tor)
Charles Thomas Tester, a young man in Harlem in 1924, is a small-time hustler who finds himself invited to participate in a much larger and much less licit venture. The result is a traditional, well-told (can I say that again?) horror story. I guessed fairly early on what this larger venture entailed, and I was right, which only added to the suspense because I knew how badly things were likely to go for Tommy and a lot of other people. Yet another story worthy of a win.

“Every Heart a Doorway,” by Seanan McGuire (Tor)
What happens to children who travel through a magical door or mirror or painting and spend time – maybe years – in a fairyland or underworld or another other-worldly world? When they return, they often adjust to this world poorly, and their parents understand nothing and want their old child back. But there is hope: Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. However, things don’t go well. This nominee, with its constant clash between ordinary and outlandish, deserves to win, too.

“A Taste of Honey,” by Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor)
This is a love story with no real happy ending, despite having more than one ending. The writing is lush and sensual, although the scenes jump from storyline to storyline in a way that sometimes left me confused. This is not quite my favorite because I’m not fond of fantasies where the pieces fit together too well: to me they seem to show the author’s hand. That said, the quality of the work, the writing, and the imagination behind it can’t be denied, and this could also deserve a vote.

“The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe,” by Kij Johnson (Tor)
Vellitt Boe, a university professor, must travel from the dream lands to the waking world to find a missing student. The trip is long and slow and fascinating at every step due both to the strange, awe-instilling landscape, and to the amazing personality of Vellitt Boe, who infuses the trip with meaning and longing for her youth and for adventure. This is a quest story, and can I say “well-told” one more time?

I love every one of the novellas. Since I can only vote for one, I’m going with "Dream Quest" because of its deep characterization of Vellitt Boe, but I’ll cheer for the winning novella, whichever one it is. They’re all good.

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (Seedlings1)
I’ve read the nominees for SFWA’s Nebula Awards in the Novelette category. I think most of them merit an award because they tell stories worth telling. Even the two I didn’t like were worth my time to read. The writing was more than competent, and clearly some people saw them very differently than I did. Overall, I think the stories cover a range of styles and subjects and create a good snapshot of the best that’s out there.

“The Long Fall Up,” by William Ledbetter (Fantasy & Science Fiction)
A straight-up, old-fashioned story about spaceships and orbits and technology — with a baby! What’s not to like? Great pacing, too. I didn’t want to put my Kindle down until I reached The End. If you don’t like this, you just don’t like science fiction.

“You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay,” by Alyssa Wong (Uncanny)
A chilling story — a ghost story, sort of — set in a dying western town. Superbly told, although pretty soon it becomes predictable. The suffering, troubled kid is going to save the day.

“The Jewel and Her Lapidary,” by Fran Wilde (Tor)
A lapidary protects their Jewel. A lapidary who betrays their Jewel will be shattered. A lapidary obeys her Jewel. These rules and others like it were stated again and again (way too many times) until it became clear in this repetitive, slow-moving story that lapidaries are willing, toiling slaves to their Jewels, who are exploitive aristocrats, or, in U.S. State Department terms, MREs: morally repugnant elites. Soon I also began to believe this story takes place in what the Turkey City Lexicon calls a Second Order Idiot Plot, “A plot involving an entire invented SF society which functions only because every single person in it is necessarily an idiot. (Attributed to Damon Knight.)” Although the mythology of the jewels is carefully worked out, it amounts to a shabby justification for an idiotic, repugnant society that deserves to be destroyed, although that poor slave woman (the lapidary in the title) has to suffer unconscionably for her owners’ sins. As you can guess, I didn’t like this one for a couple of reasons.

“Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea,” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed)
Deep personal loss is explored in this snapshot at the edge of dystopia. I found the switches in point of view and pseudo-flashbacks a bit confusing, but in the end the story rings true. A contender.

“The Orangery,” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
A woman guards a walled garden/forest from intruders, including Greek gods, but of course they break in, and the trees aren’t what they seem. In this pseudo-mythological and inhumane milieu, the conflict amounts to jousting between stereotypes and leads to a moment of conventional illumination. The story-telling was competent, but did this story need to be told?

“Blood Grains Speak Through Memories,” by Jason Sanford (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
This story does what science fiction does best: take an idea and run with it to its most distant but still plausible consequences. What would happen if technology to protect the environment turned against humanity? It wouldn’t be pretty, and humanity would try to fight back as best it could. I’m impressed by the complexity of the ideas in this one, so it gets my vote, but I’ll be just as satisfied if the story by Sarah Pinsker or William Ledbetter wins.

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (Salamanca)
As a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, I get the honor and duty to vote for the 51st annual Nebula Awards. I’m impressed with the variety this year in both the subject matter and the manner of telling. The stories take risks, and I’m glad to see that. But which is the best story? That’s a matter of opinion, and here’s mine (feel free to tell me why I’m wrong):

“Seasons of Glass and Iron,” by Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit World)
A wife who must wear down iron shoes meets a princess who must sit on a throne on a glass mountain. This story combines two fairy tales and attempts to make right the traditional violence against women often contained in them. Although well told, for me it tries just a little too hard to set things right. Still, I appreciate the attempt.

“Sabath Wine,” by Barbara Krasnoff (Clockwork Phoenix 5)
A boy and girl become friends, and their fathers love them despite everything. To say more would give away the plot. Krasnoff conjures up a strong setting for the story, New York a century ago, and he peoples it with characters effectively drawn with spare strokes. I wanted the story to go on for a couple of more paragraphs even though it reaches an effective and satisfying conclusion. While it’s a worthy contender, it’s not quite my favorite, but I’ll be fine if it wins a Nebula.

Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station | Hours Since the Last Patient Death: 0,” by Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed)
In this choose-your-own-adventure story, you contract an illness and try to get it cared for. None of the choices work, and you die. The story is a long joke, and to my tastes, only some of the punch lines work. The rest were predictable, although I thought the continuation of one of the early choices could have led to something profound about the nature of fictional narrative. For me, this was one of the weaker stories, a lost opportunity.

“A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers,” by Alyssa Wong (
This breathtaking metaphorical tale of grief, guilt, and anger deserves an award. But I don’t think it’s speculative fiction, so I don’t think it deserves a Nebula. Sorry.

“Things With Beards,” by Sam J. Miller (Clarksworld)
A man with a beard begins to realize he’s not what he thinks he is, and he might not be the only one. This is a horror story, and a creepy one at that. Definitely a contender, but again, not quite my favorite.

“This Is Not a Wardrobe Door,” by A. Merc Rustad (Fireside Magazine)
This is a story about children in fairyland (or some realm like it) and the “real” world attempting to reunite. It might be suitable for children, but I think it’s a bit simplistic and predictable for adults.

“Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies,” by Brook Bolander (Uncanny)
A man rapes and kills a woman who is actually a goddess. This is the woman/goddess’s story, an angry story: a revenge story — with bullet points. Although skillfully written, it might resuscitate debate over whether it deserves nomination, not because it isn’t speculative fiction, since it is, but because it has little of a traditional story arc, and perhaps also for its content. The story reminds me of an early ancient Greek play, the kind told by choruses and actors in masks that are too weird for our time but which were praised in their day as a catharsis, and this story will be a catharsis for some readers. I think awards like the Nebula ought to expand the genre by offering some “politically incorrect” stories (incorrect to traditionalists, who seem to be sensitive types). But is it the best of the nominees? For me, that’s the only question, and I think this story’s raw emotion pushes it a little higher than a couple of others I also liked. It gets my vote.

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (Chicago flag)

Today, being the first Monday in March, Chicago is celebrating Casimir Pulaski Day. Some government offices, libraries, and schools (but not public schools) may close. Call ahead.

It’s a patriotic day, and there will be a tribute in honor of Pulaski this morning at Chicago’s Polish Museum of America. Here’s more information from NPR about why you should celebrate. Short version: Pulaski came to help in the American Revolutionary War, founded the cavalry, saved George Washington’s life, became a general, and died of wounds suffered in battle. He’s an American hero.

Nationwide, General Pulaski Memorial Day is celebrated on the anniversary of his death, October 9, 1779. Because the holiday is only commemorative, no one has to close shop. In Wisconsin, Casimir Pulaski Day is held on March 4, and schools must observe it “appropriately” according to state statute. I don’t know what that means because I left Wisconsin public schools 14 years before that law was created. A few other places also celebrate Pulaski’s heroism at some point during the year.

Given the present legal situation for immigrants, it’s good to know that Pulaski has been made an honorary American citizen by a joint resolution of the US Senate and House of Representatives, which was signed by President Barack Obama in 2009. His ghost can celebrate with no danger of arrest. I hope you can, too.

— Sue Burke

July 2017

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