My Dulcet Tones and The Litigatrix

The Short: I read Ken Liu’s The Litigatrix for PodCastle, and it’s up for you to listen to today.

The Long:

I mentioned last week how I’ve gone through a bit of a transition in how I perceive the value of my podcasting work to other people as time has passed.  I’m not going to lie – one of the big things that assured me I wasn’t just chatting to the ether was when other people started asking me for audio work.  There are roughly eleventy bajillion people who want to do voice work, so if I’m getting solicited, somebody likes what I’m doing.

And when I’m getting solicited to read for an author I really like?

Also, murder mystery?

Also, PodCastle.

It was super awesome the first time they asked me to narrate a Ken Liu story.  It was so awesome I went and got my first ever sinus infection and lost my voice, consequently blowing their deadline in a major, major way.  I hate blowing deadlines, but I was physically incapable of doing anything else.  Alas, I said to myself, they’ll never want anything to do with me again, feckless, voiceless wretch that I am.

Once in a while, on very rare occasions, when the fate of the world is a little bit in jeopardy, I am wrong.

As a cynical pessimist, I usually quite enjoy being wrong.

In summary – THIS WAS SUPER AWESOME I’M SO THRILLED YOU SHOULD GO LISTEN AND THEN TELL KEN HOW AWESOME HE IS.

Also, of squee note, the story was originally purchased by Ann Leckie and published in GigaNotoSaurus.  I woke up this morning to a notification that a tweet I was mentioned in was favorited by Ann Leckie.  My level of fangirling here is not at all creepy.

CC: The Ink Readers of Doi Saket

This month’s story through the Crucible is Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s The Ink Readers of Doi Saket.  This is a fun story with a lot going on in it, but I want to home in on a thing it does that you just don’t see a lot of in modern genre literature: Omniscient POV.  That’s the 3rd person narrator who knows everything about everything and traditionally isn’t a character in the story.  If that’s not innovative enough for Heuvelt, it’s an unreliable omniscient narrator.  Neat!

First, let’s take a look at how he goes about establishing the POV so that readers who aren’t trained to expect omniscient nevertheless follow along without getting lost.

It was during a night in the twelfth lunar month of this year when two strong hands pushed young Tangmoo down into the bed of the Mae Ping River, and by doing so, ironically, fulfilled his only wish. Tangmoo flailed his arms wildly, churning up the swirling water. The whites of his eyes reflected flashes from the fireworks as his smothered cries rose in bubbles to the surface, where they burst in silence: help, help, help, help!

This first paragraph goes a long way toward establishing the narrative voice and hinting what’s going on to the reader.  The distance inherent in opening with the date helps and also starts signaling that this is a fable-type story.  The use of “ironically” is also a big clue, because it’s commentary implying that narrator is in a position not just to report the events, but to comment on their relevance in the big-picture context.  At this point it could be a close 3rd on Tangmoo, but unless he’s suicidal, it’s going to be really hard for him to know that, ironically, his wish is getting fulfilled.  The case against a close 3rd on Tangmoo gets even stronger when we have a description of the whites of his eyes – there’s no way Tangmoo would know what the whites of his own eyes lock like while he’s being drowned in the middle of the night.  So the narrator is somebody who can observe the up close details of the scene, knows the inner thoughts of at least one of the actors and how the scenario plays in large context.  The reader doesn’t need to be consciously aware of those details about the narrator, but this is the information that makes the transition to the next paragraph smooth and easy to follow.

These filtered cries of alarm were mistaken by a pair of dragonflies fused in flight, their only wish to remain larvaless and so prolong their love dance endlessly, for the dripping of morning dew.

Here anybody paying attention and trying to determine the POV at play in the story has no choice but to accept an omniscient 3rd unless they want to generate a very specific character and explanation for this story.  Most readers won’t do that automatically, they just fall into accepting what’s going on in front of them.  So there, in less than two paragraphs, you have an atypical POV presented to the reader, the tone of the story established, the inciting incident described, and the major theme of the story introduced and reinforced.  Beginnings, man.  They’re such over-achievers.

What I like in particular about these opening paragraphs, though, is the amount of work they put into establishing the narrator as credible.  You get facts, and useful details.  You get insights.  And you get a little piece of commentary that betrays the narrator’s knowledge and understanding of the situation.  The commentary is important, because having commented once in a fashion that doesn’t at all beg the reader to question the implication (because it’s there to prove something else, not to be evaluated on its own) you’ve now believed one subjective thing from the narrator.  That primes you to believe another.

Which you get.

(There were rumors that the stone was not in fact bewitched at all, but that lustful Somchai suffered from some type of obsessive exhibitionism. Nonsense, of course.)

This is great . The explicit text is lying to you; this story is set in modern day and we find out what’s up with lusty Somchai later.  Those rumors are absolutely and unquestionably true, and every reader knows it.  Nobody would expect the readers to believe anything else.  So even though the text is an explicit lie, the narrator isn’t lying.  That’s a sarcastic “nonsense,” meant to cause a little bit of bonding between the narrator and the reader.  What it’s saying is, “I know the rumors are true.  You know the rumors are true.  But there are plenty of people who are invested in refusing to believe the rumors, and we’re too polite to shatter their beliefs on the subject.”  It’s a secret the reader and the narrator share.

But this, the same as with the dragonflies, was purely coincidental, and nothing should be read into it.

And here comes a piece of commentary that potentially is a lie.  A reader could go either way on whether they think this is meant to be believed.  Obviously it isn’t, but does the narrator know that?  Hard to say.  I’d argue that no, not really, because this motif of the benefits just being a coincidence gets repeated several times, then subverted at the end.

And maybe this was all coincidence, like so much in life.

The wording of this subversion is intensely interesting.  The “maybe” here is the word I’m latching onto because it clearly indicates that the narrator doesn’t believe it was all a coincidence.  They’re open to the possibility, but that’s not their understanding.  The wishes granted after Tangmoo dies are, as presented by the narrator, actually attributable to him.  Yet, in the same breath, the narrator specifies “Like so much in life.”  That right there is a reinforcement of the assertion that the fortuitous circumstances that followed Tangmoo in the days before he was murdered were coincidental.

The difference between whether the narrator means for the reader to assume none of the circumstances were coincidental may seem little, but it’s actually vital to understanding the scope of the story told here.  If the blessings in living Tangmoo’s wake weren’t coicidences, then this is the story of a gifted young man murdered and thereby freed to exercise his gifts more widely.  If they were coincidences, then this is the story of a good, sincere, kind boy murdered and transformed into a force of cosmic beneficence.  The second interpretation is a much bigger story, and the nature of the violence inherent in his murder changes, too.

I’m thinking the narrator was unreliable and none of the things were coincidences.  But I like the other story better.

Next month: May 15 –Selkie Stories Are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons, Jan-2013)

The Body Politik

The Framing Anecdote

Once upon a time I flopped down on a friend’s leather couch.  It was summer in Madison, and I’d misjudged just how blisteringly, unpleasantly hot the 3-mile walk to her house would be.  I get cranky when I’m too hot.  So there I am, collapsed on her couch and clutching a glass of ice water like a dead-man switch for the Apocalypse, and what does she say?

“Guess what K called you earlier.”  K, her boyfriend, was sitting in the room with us.

“What?” I asked.

“He called you a good housewife.”

K promptly explained the context for the comment.  He hadn’t actually called me a housewife, though the words “good” “house” and “wife” had appeared in incriminating order with me as the subject.

Cranky when I’m hot, remember?  “K,” I said.  “Your girlfriend is trying to get you killed.  You should probably do something about that.”

An Approach to the Subject

A ton of good stuff got published last year.  I didn’t read all of it.  Nobody did.  I read a lot, though, and I liked a lot of what I read.  My two favorite SFF novels from last year were, easily, Ancillary Sword and The Goblin Emperor.  On the one hand we have a book that plays on my weakness for Strong AI characters, politics, and of all things, tea.  On the other, we have the most adorable damn emperor ever to encounter court intrigue and not immediately die.  These books are fantastic, I love them with squeefuls of kittens.

In case I have been at all unclear, I am not rational in my love for these books.  I suspect it will be quite a while before the infatuation fades enough that I will be.  I don’t mind.  I enjoy this sort of obsession.

Both books have been nominated for a Hugo.

Along with a lot of other things.

A Flasback

My first and, so far, only WorldCon attendance was at ChiCon in 2012.  I went for a lot of reasons.  Some of them were to spend a long weekend in Chicago.  Some of them were to stalk the staff at Strange Horizons so I could demand that they start podcasting their content.  Some of them were to meet other people who love the things I love, to introduce people to things I love they might not have heard of, and to find new things to love.  I accomplished all these things.

But.  It was too big for me.  I am not naturally nice, friendly, or fond of people.  I’m very good at pretending otherwise, but it gets tiring.  I like small conventions because my baseline assumptions about the people surrounding me shift in a way that makes it easier to hide my rampant misanthropy.  WorldCon was big enough that my baseline shifted the other way.

“Are you glad you went?” a friend asked me when I was explaining this after.

“Yeah.  It was a good experience.  But not one I need to do again right away.  Or maybe ever.  I dunno.  I think maybe I won’t go back until I’m nominated for a Hugo.”

“Oh,” said my friend.  “I knew you were starting to have success with the writing.  Are you that good?”

“No.  It’ll be a while before I get a Hugo nomination for writing.”  Then, because I hadn’t thought this part through until that moment, “But I may have bullied my way onto the staff for Strange Horizons.  They’re already overdue for getting a Hugo nomination.”

Strange Horizons received a Hugo nomination in 2013.  That didn’t count for me because I wasn’t yet on the staff during the time covered by that nomination.  That was absolutely fine.  I was deep in fake-it-til-you-make-it mode with the podcast, and since the fund drive had barely hit the stretch goal for the podcast, I wasn’t even sure my conviction that they absolutely, desperately needed to have a podcast wasn’t personal delusion.

They got another one in 2014.  But of course they did.  They’d been overdue for nominations long before that.  The podcast was incidental.  I’m sure nobody actually listens to it and this is just a vanity project I’m doing because it makes my name notable without requiring me to read slush.  Except.

An email here or there.  People recognizing me at cons not as the person who talks too much on all the panels, but for being part of SH.  Then tweets.  Tweets are becoming a regular thing.  I’m making people happy.  I’m making SH fans happy.

This year Strange Horizons got another nomination.  And this time?  Yeah, I feel like a piece of that is me.

I’m going to Sasquan in August.  I will be representing Strange Horizons at the Hugo ceremony.

The Complication

Everybody knows you can be an asshole without breaking any rules other than “Don’t be an asshole.”  You’re still an asshole.  And when you piss in a pool, even if you like the smell of your own urine, other people are still going to be upset because, hey, they don’t.  There are roughly 1,000 ways the good-faith puppies could have tried to accomplish their goals, and many of them would have been less annoying/upsetting/provocative than what they did.  As for the bad faith puppies, well, they win just by playing.

The problem with the “pissing in the pool” analogy is that the only reasonable response is to get out of the pool and stay out until it’s been cleaned and the culprits are gone.  That means that the people who want to do inflexible “No Award” against both puppy slates are absolutely correct and anybody who does anything else is willingly swimming in urine.  That’s obviously madness.

Except.

My two favorite books from last year are up for the award.  My favorite fiction magazine, which is now a little bit me, is up for the award.  I’ve been staring, sniffing, and running pH tests for days now.  There’s no urine there.

The Anecdote’s Payoff

My friend stares at grumpy, collapsed, overheated me.  “That is not the reaction I expected from you,” she said.

“I know.  Can’t afford to be predictable.  Otherwise, it’d be too easy for you to manipulate me into killing your boyfriend for you.  Besides, I’m hot and tired, and murder requires effort.  I win more if I just sit here.”

The Point

I’m a cat person.  I’ve never cared about dogs, even in juvenile form, and I still don’t.  The good faith puppies, who really just want to draw attention to the modern heirs of Golden Age story-driven SF don’t have a beef with me.  I read the whole spectrum, and I think the two authors who have first and second place for number of items on my shelves are Robert Heinlein and Terry Goodkind.  Good faith actors who have no beef with me clearly haven’t attacked me, so I don’t need to respond as if I’ve been attacked.  I can go about my life as I was.

As for the bad faith puppies, I said it earlier – they already won.  But just because they won doesn’t mean I have to lose.  I do not have to let their attempts to upset me constrain my actions.  I do not have to let them ruin my party.  They certainly can’t change the fact that “Yes, Fleet Captain,” is common parlance in my household, or that I ducked out of a meeting to tell my office Admin about Maia, the most adorable emperor ever in all time period.

Fandom isn’t a pool.  It’s a body.  Living.  Breathing.  Defecating.

By all means, let’s discuss our waste management.  But let’s not forget to do all the good things bodies let us do, either.

CC: If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love

Rachel Swirsky‘s “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” started getting award buzz almost the moment it came out.  Controversy followed shortly thereafter, and the controversy blew up a little bit when the nominations came out.  I don’t know how Rachel Swirsky feels about controversy surrounding her stories, but one of my personal career goals is for people to get into bar fights over my stories, so in my head canon, she’s smug.

For anybody who missed the brouhaha, the high level (and very charitable) rendering of the argument is that the people who read the story and went “OMG, Rachel Swirsky, you just broke my heart,” got into a fight with people who looked at the story and went, “Uh, that’s not speculative.”  I have opinions about the respective camps, but they’re not pertinent here, so I’ll ignore them.  (Hint: for commenting on this purposes, you should, too.)

As with many other pieces to run through the Crucible, the element I really want to stare hard at is its structure.  The only other place I can think of off-hand that has a structure like this is a lullaby and I don’t think that’s an accident.  It’s an extremely popular lullaby, and by subconsciously triggering associations with it, Swirsky is immediately lulling her readers, as it were, and invoking a sense of deep, unwavering love.  This is handy because, as we’ve noted in other structurally interesting pieces, the story is short and having the structure do some of the work keeps that from being a handicap.

If you were a dinosaur, my love, then you would be a T-Rex. You’d be a small one, only five feet, ten inches, the same height as human-you.

This is an opening line that does a ton of heavy lifting.  It establishes the structure of the story as a series of If/then statements.  It also sneaks in exposition about what’s going on in the (completely elided) frame story.  Not to mention that it sets up the repeated motif of establishing an image with one set of preconceived notions and then immediately providing detail that undermines them.

Let’s talk about that elided frame story for a moment.  There’s an inherent distance with this story that is very important to the success of its emotional impact.  It’s in a quasi-second person, but there’s no pretense at all that the “you” addressed in the story is, in fact, the reader.  This draws attention to the fact that the story is a story, the very effect that leads to some people ragging on second person.  What it does in this case is create a relationship between the narrator and the reader.  We know the narrator is telling us a story, and we’re listening to it because it’s quirky and has a 5’10” T-Rex who is loved.

I’d stare at the two of you standing together by the altar and I’d love you even more than I do now.

This might be my polyamorous heart talking, but if you don’t love the narrator, just a little bit, by that line, I question either your reading comprehension or your capacity for human sentiment.  We’ve been hearing a story from somebody who, we now know, is a really and truly decent person to the important people in her life, and something is not right.  Because this hypothetical fantasy?  It is sad.  Tragic sad, not pathetic sad.  She’s happy, but her heart is breaking, and this is her fantasy.  This is your “Danger, Will Robinson,” moment, but you probably don’t notice on your first time through because you’re a little in love, and you’re sad, and the if/then logic of the story is relentless and carries you on even as the warning signals start.  There’s no explicit frame story, but you’re about to find out what happened anyway.  And since you come at it sideways, with the grief breaking down your fantasy instead of coming at you directly, you’re so much more vulnerable to the impact of the frame story than if there were a proper frame.

Your claws and fangs would intimidate your foes effortlessly. Whereas you—fragile, lovely, human you—must rely on wits and charm.

Here’s where we start to get the explicit explanation of what the missing frame story would tell us, and it’s done through the technique introduced in the first sentence of establishing a set of expectations and then thwarting them.  He’d have the power and ferocity of a dinosaur, not to do violence, but to avoid it.  In fact, it’s not the T-Rex who goes on, in hypothetical if/then-land, to instigate violence, but his zookeeper partner who leads him to the enemies.  And do we blame her?  No.  What we know about him is that he’s relatively short, gentle, loved by a woman we love, fragile, lovely, and in possession of wits and charm.  In other words, thoroughly likable.  Wanting to protect and defend somebody like that is admirable.  We like her for that.  We applaud her.

So, of course, Swirsky undermines us again, and chastises us for that very thing.

I’d avert my eyes from the newspapers when they showed photographs of the men’s tearful widows and fatherless children, just as they must avert their eyes from the newspapers that show my face.

Her compassion here is relentless, but it’s also a bit of her downfall, because it breaks her out of the safe space of her fantasy.  The story structure stumbles after this, breaking, for the first time, into a discussion of the real here and now instead of the implications of a world where her love is a dinosaur.

Let me say that again.  Her compassion for the families of the people who nearly killed her fiancé is so relentless that it interrupts the coping mechanism she’s using to deal with that same tragedy. Reader, Rachel Swirsky just stabbed you in the guts by breaking a pattern.  You have been shivved by a master.

For no particular reason, I would like to hereby publicly state that while nobody I love is a dinosaur, I have no compassion for anybody else’s family, and I do an uncanny impression of a wrathful god.

FogCon 2015 Schedule

This weekend I shall be at FogCon and, as is my tradition, I shall be on many panels.  Not quite all the panels, but all the best panels, certainly.  I know this, because I got teamed up with all the best panelists.  Take a look at the schedule and you’ll see what I mean.

And Then My Underwear Went OverboardFri, 9:30–10:45 pm Salon C 

Tales of traveling drama! What are some of the crazy adventures you’ve had while traveling around the world? Our panelists will tell their best stories, and talk about how to handle travel adventures that may not be what they intended.

M: Sunil Patel. Marty Halpern, Anaea Lay, Effie Seiberg

How to Intervene The Right Way: The Culture, the Federation, and the Future – Sat, 3:00–4:15 pm Salon C

If there’s intelligent life out there, and if we humans ever end up more advanced than others, we will probably need to figure out our morals and ethics for intervention in alien cultures. Our history provides us many examples of how not to do it, and our fiction presents us with many other examples, both good, and bad, and also brings up the question, “can this be done ethically at all?

M: Steven Schwartz. Darrin Barnett, Jed Hartman, Anaea Lay, Nancy Jane Moore

Embracing “The Other” – Sat, 4:30–5:45 pm Salon A/B 

Fantasy and Science Fiction have a long history of asking us to empathize with the Other — the alien, the fae, the one who Isn’t Like Us. Sometimes that “not like us”ness is done really well, and other times it’s easy to see the human culture under the rubber “alien” suit. How can we present cultures we are not part of with depth and respect? How can we avoid writing yet another *Fill In The Blank Human Culture Not the Author’s* With Purple Scales story?

M: Debbie Notkin. Nabil Hijazi, Anaea Lay, Bradford Lyau, Juliette Wade

Job Interviews

I just had what is, without question, the single most humiliating job interview of my life.  It was awful.  I am shamed, so very shamed.  I’m so shamed I never want to talk about it again, which is usually a prelude to telling the whole world.  (Nobody else can shame me if I beat them to it!)

First, a preface: I love job interviews.  A lot.  I get to talk about me, and it’s not only “okay” but I’m actually doing it wrong if I don’t.  I like talking about me, but I also like not being a grandstanding asshole, and these two things frequently conflict.  Not so in job interview land!  Also, they ask me challenging questions, interesting hypotheticals, want me to tell them stories off the cuff, and all the while I pretend I’m a civilized, friendly human being, not a self-absorbed, misanthropic wrath-monster.  Also, at the end, I win!  No really.  Either they give me the job (fooled you into thinking you want me, ha!) or they don’t (oh thank god I have so many jobs why did I think this was a good idea?).  In summary, job interviews are the best.  (Note: I submit for publication because I like rejection letters.  I acknowledge my strangeness.)

This particular job was for tutoring.  I like teaching things.  Teaching things is a chance for me to talk about something I like (I like most teachable things) and then twist the brains of whoever’s listening until they get it.  It’s manipulating people into a new state, FOR GOOD.  Or, at least, for a minor net reduction in global ignorance.  The point is, it’s more of me talking, and meeting spontaneous challenges, with added on messing with peoples’ heads.  It’s awesome.  It’s also something I have functionally no outlet to do since moving, which has led to some pouting, and some thoughts of, “Why was it I decided not to get a masters? Am I sure that was the right idea?” (YES. YES IT WAS)  I have long since learned that when I start flirting with ideas of going back to school, it’s time to get a new job.

Fortunately, I’m also a frequent Craigslist browser (don’t ask why, because I don’t know) and there just happened to be a tutoring company advertising there.  And I just happened to apply because, hey, reasons.  And they asked me for the subjects I want to tutor.

ALL THE SUBJECTS.  I WILL TUTOR EVERYTHING.  I WILL SHAPE THE WORLD INTO MY SPECIAL IMAGE AND IT WILL BE GLORIOUS.  Or, you know, Literature, Writing, Beginning and Intermediate Spanish, maybe a bit of math (no, not arithmetic, numbers don’t combine properly when I use them.  And nothing where you learn trig first.  Let’s stick to subjects I’ve tutored before, not things where I needed OMG all the tutors.  Those middle sections with the fun variables and whatnot though?  I’m on that.)

Sure, says their application process.  That looks great, says their application process.  We’d love to talk to you, says their application process.  But first, how about you take a math assessment just, you know, to check that you know what you’re talking about.

I hadn’t flunked a math test since Calc went 3-d and started moving on me.  Until yesterday. Hooboy, did I flunk that test.  “Look,” I explained to the test, “I know how to use the formulas we need to use.  And I know how to ask Google what the formula for the thing is.  Clearly that’s good enough, right?”  The test was unsympathetic.  “Come on. I haven’t done any of this math since high school.  I think my retention here is actually really impressive.”  Flunkety flunk flunk, fail.

I was bummed, but also empowered.  This company is serious.  They are not, no way, no how, going to let me teach a thing I’m too rusty on.  So let’s go back to plan A.  TUTOR ALL THE SUBJECTS.  If I had ever, at any point, tutored anybody in a given subject, I put it on the list.

“So, you’ve got quite the list of subjects here,” the interviewer said at the beginning of the interview.  I nodded proudly.  I am pan-tutor, teacher of all the things.  “You understand that just because you’ve taken a class doesn’t mean you’re a good fit for teaching it, yes?”

“I was the smart kid growing up.  If I took it, I tutored it,” I did not say, because that’s not how you get a job.  “I trust your assessments,” I say instead.

“Why did you think you could teach math?” my sister asked me when I talked to her immediately after the interview.

“I taught you pre-algebra.  I don’t remember any complaints.”

I still have no idea what the first question they wanted me to break down was actually asking.  I’m sure it’s just a change in vocabulary thing.  I haven’t looked at that material in the better part of two decades, and the curriculum I was being taught from was at least ten years old, but still.  Also, my tablet is a terrible virtual conference device, a thing I should have anticipated (it’s a terrible everything) but had never actually tested until job interview time.  Normally I virtual conference, when needed, on my webcamless desktop, but they wanted to see my cheery smile.  Or something.  Everything was terrible.

Let’s move on to biology!  “Define the pertinent vocabulary in the question, then answer it, please.”  I got this!  I mean, come on, I write SF.  I’m messing with biology all the time for fun.  I can explain to you what an organelle is.  And I can talk to you all day about what chromosomes are and how they work and also are you up to date on epigenetic marking?  I didn’t think so, but it’s neat.  Right, topic at hand.  Cytoplasm, I got that.  I’m a little sad you didn’t ask me about mitochondria since they’ve been a favorite topic of mine since forever, but hey.  As for the answer to this question I….

I…

What is this blank space and why is it in my brain?  You know, the part of my brain where sixth grade biology belongs.  Can we pay attention to the clear demonstration of knowledge I just gave you and pretend this moment isn’t happening?  Please? Oh god please, I have so much shame already from the math.  (The answer, I realized when sharing this story with Uni, was “nucleus” which I would have realized if they’d specified eukaryotic cells, which was sorta implied based on the context of the question but really, I’m a dumbass.)

So that Spanish evaluation.  I know me some Spanish.  I have done a ton of tutoring people in Spanish.  I have also got a very long history of not knowing Spanish as well as I think I do, and not realizing the error until I’ve made an ass of myself.  I was insecure about my Spanish performance before I was mid-interview that consisted entirely of me failing at everything.  I’m used to being a rock star made of awesome during an interview.  Blatantly sucking like this, not so much my thing.  And now we’re at a subject which I’ve actually used in the last three years and I am certain I’m going to screw it up, too.

But!  This assessment is filling in worksheets.  This is what my first 5 years of Spanish training consisted entirely of.  I can fill in a Spanish worksheet like nobody’s business.  I can also butt in to conversations strangers are having about how distressingly sunburned I am on a bus on Buenos Aires, but nobody wants tutoring in being a brash tourist.  I am set, so long as they don’t ask me for future conditional or subjunctive.  I might be able to brass my way through future conditional, but I am sunk, so very sunk, if their Spanish level markers aren’t where I think they are, and subjunctive is part of the intermediate curriculum.  And, frankly, my ego is not going to handle much more fail before I actually wilt into a tiny ball of thwarted egomania and the video conferencing interviewer just hears a cat yowling for cuddles in the background because the work-at-home human has ceased to exist.

“I’m going to scroll through a page that covers several topics on it,” the interviewer says.  Imperfect particples, no sweat.  Conditional, I’m fuzzy but I can swing it.  Subjunctive.  SHIT.  Future Subjunctive. ON A STICK.  Don’t get me wrong, you put those things in front of me, I know what they are and how to interpret them.  But I cannot produce them on my own without a resource.  I have never produced them on my own without a resource.  It’s some grand compromise my brain made for not flinching when a whole new mood got introduced – I can handle the concept, but it will not remember the endings and rules for generating it.  And now it’s two sections, on the first bit of the interview that has gone at all well.  “Tell me,” the interviewer continues as I weep inside, “Which of these would be the hardest for an English speaker to learn.”  Choking noises escaped my throat.  “And why,” she concludes.

Ego. Saved.  For some reason, I managed astonishing eloquence on this point.

“So, teaching reading,” she says.  “Explain to me Jargon Jargon Jargon thing.”

“Uhm,” I say.  “Look, I’ve taught reading.  I TA’d an elementary school class my first year in college and the remedial reading groups were mine.  I did well.  But I have no formal training and I have no idea what you just asked me.  Maybe we should skip this section?”

“Phonics then.  Explain to me RULE.”

Funny thing about me and phonics.  I learned it.  I did the smart kid in class thing and taught my peers.  And I haven’t touched it since.  “Er, it’s been over twenty years since I taught phonics,” I say.  Also, I’ve gotten a degree in Linguistics in the mean time.  Want me to explain the phonotactics of the thing you’re asking me about?  How about a generalized survey of similar rules across language families?  There’s a neat cognitive ling study on how visual data can interfere with brain processing of those particular phonemes I could talk to you about!

No?  You want the answer from how it gets taught as English phonics?  Are you sure?  Because the visuals with the study are really neat and once you can read you don’t really need any of the jargon they teach you in phonics…

We moved on to writing and Literature from there.  It got better.  Much better.  I didn’t notice at the time because, well.  I’m in chronic need of humbling, but I can’t really say I’m a fan of the experience.  At all.  Even a little.

I got the job, though.  I’m all official and greenlit to teach Spanish (up to intermediate), Language Arts, Literature and Writing.  I’m a little surprised she didn’t hang up and put us both out of our misery when I couldn’t summon NUCLEUS as the obvious answer to a question, but I’m guessing she took a look at my resume and knew exactly what was going to happen.  Good for her.

Also, all you people who talk about how much you dread job interviews and I usually stare blankly and don’t understand?  I GET IT NOW.

Return of the Craft Crucible

This has been on hiatus for a long time, but no more!  I really liked doing this, and based on responses here and via email I think others liked it too.  I’m revamping it a little bit to make it more sustainable and hopefully improve the interactivity.  I’m always a fan of my own ramblings, and emails are nice, but by gods, I want a crafty party on my blog!

For those of you who don’t remember or never knew, here’s what we’re doing: Once a month we’re going to take a story and figure out why it’s good.  Obviously we’ll be filtering for good stories.  Preference will be given to stories available for free online.  Then, on Craft Crucible Day, I’ll put up an essay where I tease apart one or another aspect of the craft of the story, how it’s used, and why it works.  There’s a whole category here for previous CC posts.  Future ones will be like that, too.

Everybody else is encouraged to argue with me in comments, propose their own theories, or even do their own analysis elsewhere and drop a link here to let me know about it.

For me, I don’t see these as a “How to” so much as a “How did.”  In other words, this isn’t an instruction manual for writers, but an extended notes section for readers.  Writers are cool, but I’m a mercenary creature and ultimately need readers more.  So this is for you, lovely reading folk.  Let’s stare at how the sausage gets made.

Here’s our upcoming schedule:

March 16 – If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” by Rachel Swirsky (Apex Magazine, Mar-2013)

April 13 –The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Tor.com, 04-2013)

May 15 –Selkie Stories Are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons, Jan-2013)

June 12 –The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” by John Chu (Tor.com, 02-2013)

If that lineup looks familiar to you, that’s probably because I stole the short story Hugo ballot for 2014.  What can I say, all the nominees were published in online markets.  It made my life easy.

Let me know if there’s a story you’re dying to dissect or dig into, and we’ll add it to the lineup.  Also, feel free to let me know you’ve melted into squishy glee at the prospect of this coming back.  Just, you know, don’t get so squishy that you ruin your keyboard, k?