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?

Conventional 2015

It probably would have been better to post this a couple weeks ago, but oh well.  Here’s my convention schedule for this year.  It’s conceivable there will be additions, but as of now I think this is it.

Potlatch – Seattle WA, Feb 6-8

Or, you know, this weekend.  I’m not on any programming because, as it turns out, I continue to be rubbish at planning ahead for cons that happen in my backyard, even with the change in back yard.

Fogcon – Walnut Creek CA, March 6-8

I am on programming here.  I’ll post my programming schedule later.  I’ll also be going out a couple days early, so it’s conceivable that I might be up for some sort of shenanigans in advance of the con. I already have many shenanigans planned, though, so no promises.

Sasquan – Spokane WA, August 19-23

I will probably be on programming.  The last WorldCon I attended was very generous about putting me on programming, and that was before I was on the masthead for a (utterly fabulous, multi-Hugo nominated) magazine.  Then again, with the way WorldCons work, previous performance is no guarantee of future result in a major way.

I will not be at WisCon this year.  It’s a “maybe” for 2016.

The War on Christmas

The War on Christmas is real, and I am its commanding general.

The move to Seattle was cover for establishing a new forward base to solidify our gains from last year’s success.  The battle has been a long one, but as we get closer to our final target at the north pole, our morale builds and our dedication remains steadfast.

Soon, not this year, but soon, I’ll have that cheery, terrifying head on a pike and display it for all the world to see, and feel safe.  No more constant surveillance, no more annual invasion, no more enforcement of a moral code formulated by the jolly, the optimistic, the naive.

I will drink Santa’s blood and rejoice.  Only then will I have the victory I crave.

“Do you ever have second thoughts?” asked my second in command, Captain-general Morse.

“Never!” I answered, my fist striking the air, my lips curling in a snarl of defiance.

“But, Christmas.  Peace on Earth, good will to men.”

“That’s the problem.  Peace bores me, and the good will thing is a lie.  Christmas is about stress, posturing, and telling other people to be cheerful or else.”

“I thought it was about American consumerism.”

“That too, and it’s spreading to infect other holidays.  It may already be too late to save my precious Halloween.”  At this I shed one, single tear out the corner of my right eye.  Halloween!  My precious, sacrosanct holiday of horror and darkness, mortality and despair.  They make inflatable lawn ornaments for you now and you, too pure and naive to defend yourself, have succumbed.

I rattled my saber, a gift from my sister on the occasion of her wedding, and issued the order for our attack.  At my command, hundreds of dog sleds bearing soldiers of the anti-yule began our charge, bearing down on an encampment of the Claus’s henchmen, his patsy scouts sent out to gather materials and supplies to support his ongoing campaign of terror and oppression.  The first moments of the engagement were bloody, with lives lost on both sides.  More on theirs.  I am a careful general, and I don’t spend my soldier’s lives frivolously.  There are so few of us left who can hold out against our pernicious foe.

Just as our victory appeared certain, reinforcements for the enemy appeared on the hill, their horns blaring across the night with the soul-chillingly mockery of triumph that is the enemy’s trademark.  A moment later I felt the searing punch of a knife sliding between my ribs.  Captain-General Morse had betrayed me.

“Why?” I gasped.

“They promised me a new iPhone.  And I really like gingerbread.”

As I lay here in the Canadian snow, my body heat leaving my body on a rush of blood, I accept that this year brings defeat.  But not final defeat.  We can never be permanently defeated.  Someday I will have the Claus man’s head, and I will free you all.

Someday.

The Rhetoric of N.K. Jemisin’s Wiscon Guest of Honor Speech

It’s no secret that I’m a huge, giant, slobbery fan of N.K. Jemisin.  I’m such a huge fan that I usually get about two sentences in to describing how much I like everything she does and want more from her before a voice that sounds distressingly like Neil Gaiman pops up in the back of my head and goes, “Now, now.  Nora Jemisin is not your bitch.”  And then I whine at the voice and go, “But she’s so good!  Surely I’m entitled to demand more of the good stuff from her.”  The voice is so very polite, and so endearingly English that I bite my tongue and whoever I was talking to wonders why I started stuttering mid-sentence. This is a thing I share so you can guess at some of what was going on in my brain when I approached her the day after her guest of honor speech to ask whether she’d be okay with me analyzing her speech at the rhetorical level.  It was important to me that I ask since 1) Analyzing the rhetoric could be seen as being dismissive of the very important and worthy content 2) I know enough writers to know they trend toward neurosis and having somebody examine how their sausage is made could in some small way contribute to her writing or arguing less which is the opposite of what I’d want and 3) It’s polite and given that she was right there, was easy to do. Things I learned from asking her if she’d mind: 1) No, she doesn’t mind 2) It’s really hard to communicate coherently when you’re having loud arguments with phantom Neil Gaiman in your brain about where the line between gushing fangirl and creepy-entitled-fan is and 3) She probably actually has no idea that I’m the person who wrote a review of her book that consisted mostly of, “I want to eat her liver.”  I’m pretty sure I’m still going to have to answer for that someday. At any rate, I have her blessing, and the rhetoric in that speech is very cool, so here goes the analysis.  The whole speech is here, and you should go there to read it.  I’m going to quote it here extensively, but it’s better if you go read the whole thing on its own, first.

I’m tempted to just stop there, drop the mic, and walk offstage, point made. Chip’s a hard act to follow.

This is the first moment of rhetorical greatness in the speech.  One, it’s a really evocative image.  She doesn’t have to literally walk of the stage to borrow the impact of doing just that, which nicely lures the audience in.  We’re invested in listening to what she says from this point, because she didn’t just walk away, point made.  She’s taking the time to share more, and we want to hear what it is.  But it’s also very generous to the audience, crediting them with knowing and understanding exactly why should could just stop there and walk off.  It’s a signal that she’s assuming we’re peers.  The subtext is very “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” in nature.  Given where the speech goes, building this relationship with the audience is critical.

Like Chip said, this stuff has always been here. It’s just more intense, and more violent, now that the bigots feel threatened.

And it is still here. I’ve come to realize just how premature I was in calling for a reconciliation in the SFF genres last year, when I gave my Guest of Honor speech at the 9th Continuum convention in Australia.

There’s a ton going on here.  One, we’re tying the current situation back to the past, while invoking the authority of somebody external.  That gives legitimacy to the points we’re making about the current situation while bolstering the authority of the peopple we’re citing.  Then we follow that bolstering of authority up with a confession of error.  This is really neat because, set up this way, admitting the error becomes a means of reclaiming a position of strength in the rhetorical space.  You’re swapping out the current, weak position for a new one which as of this moment us unknown but untainted and therefore potentially stronger.  This is what many bad apologies try to do, and they fail becuase that’s the wrong place for this technique.  In a badass call-to-arms, however, it’s great, especially since minor admissions of error are humanizing and endearing, making the speech-giver somebody the crowd is more inclined to follow.

During the month or so that it took SFWA to figure out what it wanted to do with this guy, a SFWA officer sat on the formal complaint I’d submitted because she thought I had “sent it in anger” and that I might not be aware of the consequences of sending something like that to the Board.

The whole paragraph is a beautiful bit of summary, letting the audience know context and history in case they don’t with enough commentary that it’s not a straight-up “As you know, Bob.”  That’s important since it would undermine the assumption of peer-ness established early on and risk being patronizing.  It also does a fantastic job of drawing clear lines between the us and them.  I call out this specific sentence from the whole paragraph because it strikes me as the meatiest.  Before this sentence, the facts could be read as ones of the system working: bigot misbehaves, bigot gets punished, why are y’all upset?  This line torpedoes that possible interpretation while also drawing attention to the fact that while she’s not patronizing us, they patronized her rather ferociously.  The ironic tone taken in the whole paragraph gives “sent it in anger” an extra bite.  Of course she sent it in anger – she’s angry, and behavior like this is exactly why.  That extra bit isn’t something an audience is likely to be consciously aware of, but it gives some extra depth and stimulus for them to hang on to and keeps them engaged and listening.

But I suspect every person in this room who isn’t a straight white male has been on the receiving end of something like this — aggressions micro and macro. Concerted campaigns of “you don’t belong here”.

This is straight-up “my problems are your problems, and your problems are my problems.”  Peer-group building.  “Us” reinforcement.  She just co-opted everybody who isn’t a straight white male into her cause.  The “aggressions micor and macro” part is especially critical since it gives permission to everybody who hasn’t received death and rape threats to feel like they belong in that group.  Me, I was doing the, “Er, not really?” until that line.  After that line, well, all the stories I could share are fundamentally boring, but there are plenty.

(Incidentally: Mr. Various Diseases, Mr. Civility, and Misters and Misses Free Speech At All Costs, if you represent the civilization to which I’m supposed to aspire then I am all savage, and damned proud of it. You may collectively kiss my black ass.)

And here, gentlefolk, is the line where I went, “Oh hells yes, am I need to go blog the rhetoric in this speech RIGHT THIS VERy SECOND.”  This line is brilliance laced with crack.

1) It reclaims rhetoric used against her, turns it around, and makes it a bludgeon for counter-attack. Suddenly “half-savage” is so mincing and weak.  It’s a variant on the trick used with the admission of error earlier, but with an added layer of pulling the rung out from under the “them.”  Intead of switching positions from weak to strong, it recharacterizes the position she’s in.

2) You-my constructions reinforce the us-them dynamic she’s building.  Not all speeches need an us-them dynamic, but all calls-to-arms do, and the success of said call depends on how well the lines around us and them are drawn.

3) “Kiss my black ass,” is a cultural cliche.  Everybody, including Hollywood, knows that a mouthy, defiant black American is willing to whip out this particular invitation as needed.  It’s an ethnic middle finger.  Using it here reinforces the power of “all savage.”  It’s an assertion of the ethnic and racial tones, a claiming of ownership over them, and an aggressive declaration that they are, in fact, a strength.  And since she’s drawn her us-them lines very effectively up to here, everybody in the room gets to share in the power of that assertion, whether or not they’re in posession of a black ass to be kissed.

(I don’t even need to name a specific example of this; it’s happened too often, to too many people.)

Nice reinforcement of us-them.  It gives the audience permission to not know exactly what she’s talking about after she’s gone through a long list of things that anybody following closely could tie to this or that specific event.  It’s okay that you aren’t following closely – it’s ubiquitous, we all  know that, we’re a team, let’s move along.

Yeine, the protagonist of THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS, was almost a white man because I listened to some of what these people were saying.

The objective brilliance of this particular line is questionable, but it gut-punched me.  That would have ruined that book, and the thought that it nearly happened fills me with a sort of existential terror that has brain-Gaiman sighing in polite exasperation.  I suspect anybody who loves this book correctly, that is to say the way I love this book, would feel the same way.  Anybody else, this is a wasted line.  But her audience was a convention where she was Guest of Honor – it’s a pretty safe place to make a gamble like this.

For the first time in my life I was diagnosed with high blood pressure earlier this year. It’s back down to normal, now, but bigotry kills, you know.

Our second admission of weakness, a pause in the rising rhetoric of power-claiming.  We’re humanizing again, putting an intimate, tangible face on the violence and consequences of the violence referenced in summary and abstraction so far.  We’re all in this together, we’re all cheering for our speech giver, and look at the sacrifices she’s already made, the personal, specific damage already wrought.  This is critical, because it sets up the need for assistance that justifies the call to arms.

So. If they think we are a threat? Let’s give them a threat. They want to call us savages? Let’s show them exactly what that means.

And from here on we’re in a tumbling, climactic, super-empowering call-to-arms.  There’s no weakness here.  It’s all assertion and instruction. It’s a claim of ability supported by concrete guidelines for how to execute it.  This is where she cashes in on the setup of the earlier speech.  This is where she closes the loops she openened earlier, ties up her loose ends, justifies staying on the stage even though she could have just dropped the mic and walked away.

Fucking fight.

Short, sweet, to the point.  Yes, ma’am.

Strange Horizons Podcast Contest: You Can Win

Today I announced a new contest on the Strange Horizons podcast.  The gist is this: I want more people commenting on and interacting with the podcast.  I’m offering bribes to make it happen.  There are two ways to win:

1) Comment on the story or podcast, starting with today’s, and going until July 9.  I’ll randomly choose one commenter from that time.  It’s raffle-style, so every (quality, as judged by me) comment gets you an entry.

2) Tell people about the contest.  The person judged by me to have most effectively spread the word about the contest will also win.

What do you win?  I’m so glad you asked!  You’ll get a free copy of audio book for The End is Nigh.  This is the first part of John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey’s Apocalypse Triptych.  This is an awesome prize, and you yearn for it.  You yearn for it so much, you’re going to go start commenting right now.

The Hands Down Best Part of Writers of the Future

There are two sides to the “of the Future” contest, the Writers and the Illustrators.  Before going out for the workshop I’d paid exactly 0 attention to the Illustrators side.  I know a bunch of artists, have massive appreciation for visual arts, but don’t actually know all that much about how that side of the industry works.  Then I got there and there were twelve artists and this whole other parallel thing going on and I was immediately fascinated.  I knew, intellectually, that one of the artists had done an illustration of my story, but I hadn’t really put any thought into it.  I’ve had stories illustrated before (the artwork Waylines has paired with A Long Fuse to A Slow Detonation is nice) and there were about hundred thousand other things that were taking up my brain space.

Then they did the reveal on Thursday.

This was both the simplest moment of spectacle Author Services aka ASI (the people who run the contest) arranged and, for me, the most effective.  They put framed prints of all of the artwork up in a semi circle, then sent the authors off to go find their piece.  I started at the left side of the circle and worked my way around methodically, determined to not embarrass or shame my artist by picking the wrong piece or failing to recognize mine.  Thirteen pieces of artwork.

Did I mention that the artists, as a whole, are much younger than the writers?  They are.  The why of that was one of the things I spent the week trying to figure out while digging into how the other side of the contest works.

I got to piece four or five and there was a world inside a bubble.  My story is set in a bubble universe.  It could have been mine, if the artist didn’t read the story very carefully.  It was a lovely piece, but the atmosphere was wrong, and the details didn’t have much to do with anything.  Probably not mine, move along.

When I say young, I mean that the night the artists arrived, a group of us writers pounced on them by the hotel pool.  Everybody was enthusiastic and friendly, but some of the artists seemed a little nervous and shy.  It felt a little like we’d loudly barged into freshman orientation – they were happy to have us there, but we didn’t fit and they weren’t sure what to do with us.

Piece eight had somebody on a bicycle leaving town.  My story has somebody who leaves town on a journey.  It’s possible that could be a badly rendered scene from my story.  Maybe?  I’m getting low on artwork.  Was it the one with the bubble after all?

Unlike the writers, the illustrator winners each quarter don’t get ranked.  They just have three winners per quarter, and all twelve winners go against each other for the grand prize.  Winning one of the illustrator quarters is basically just winning entry into the real competition, which is who does the best illustration for their story.  The artists get their assigned story, then have to deliver three thumbnail ideas.  One of those ideas gets greenlit, and they do the full workup of that one.

I get to artwork piece number eleven.  Nope, not mine.  And I’m getting worried.  Did I mention that the artists are adorable and I’d really rather not dash somebody’s dreams and ambitions?  Obviously one of the pieces I picked out as maybes were mine, and I’ll have to study the remaining two pieces as carefully as I have everything else so far, then beeline to one of them and claim I knew it the whole time, but wanted to take in all the artwork before announcing my discovery.  Which one, though?  Also, oh god, I am going to have to lie through my teeth about loving it and it being awesome and my tact wells are, at that point, completely drained.  But no way am I going to be the snotty writer who crushed the poor illustrator by huffily not appreciating the work that went into making a visual rendering of their vision so I just have to guess the right one and summon the resources I don’t have…

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Then I see piece number twelve.  Glance a thirteen.  Look at twelve.  Glance at eleven.  Nope, twelve is still there.  Not going anywhere.  Not a hallucination.  Not a cruel prank designed to guarantee I make an ass of myself.  It’s really there.

HOLY FUCK MY ILLUSTRATION LOOKS LIKE THE COVER OF AN N.K. JEMISON NOVEL

“Uhm,” I say, looking around the room at the other people mistakenly milling around at other pieces when they clearly ought to be drooling right here, “If this isn’t the artwork for my story, I have a serious beef with the author of whatever story it is.”

Understatement of the year.

“Hi.  I’m Bernardo.  Do you like it?”

Bernardo is eighteen.  He was seventeen when he won.  He’s still in high school.  He is the best artist on the planet.

He was also adorably nervous about whether I’d like it.  The prints weren’t true to the digital colors and this bothered him so much he pulled out his tablet to show me what the colors should look like.  “I don’t know why they assigned me your story.  I’ve never done anything like that before,” Bernardo said.

It doesn’t show. I was obnoxiously enthusiastic about my art, and Bernardo, for the whole rest of everything.  I’m not sorry.  I’m still obnoxiously enthusiastic.  The print of the artwork is getting shipped to me and I am not being particularly patient as I wait for it. Want. The pretty. Now.

Bernardo has put up with my undignified gushing remarkably well given that I’ve got a decade of “Knows how to behave better,” on him.  I may have interrupted a dinner conversation to give him my card and demand that he send me everything ever immediately.  It’s possible he’s afraid I’d fly to Portugal and hunt him down if he didn’t comply.  If so, he’s perceptive as well as talented.

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But how could you not be enthusiastic?  He made a clay model for reference.  And he sent me his sketch sheet where he was working through ideas, just like the neat extras you get at the back of comic book collections sometimes, except this is about my story.

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And the thumbnails that didn’t get selected as the piece for him to finish were full of good ideas.

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I was in fantastically good hands with Bernardo, and had no idea until the reveal.That smile is fantastic, and a great detail for him to have picked up from the story to highlight.

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What I really like is that so much of the this story was about the aesthetic, the atmosphere, and he captured it throughout.  He got it.  This is awesome, because I totally am the writer who’d look at the art, pout, and then whine about how they didn’t get it. Hopefully, not where the artist can hear me do it, but yeah.  That was the day where I got to melt with genuine squee instead of pretending to.

Somebody give Bernardo a job.  He’s about to graduate from high school and I don’t want him to do something sensible like go into banking.

Your Cities to be Reprinted in Fantasyscroll

Hey, hey, guess what!  My little story about cities rescuing us all from the horrors of suburban life has sold for the third time.  Fantasy Scroll is going to reprint it in either their second or third issue.  They’ve paid me already, so it must be real.

I’m rather delighted by this since I spent a little time in the story take extra care to take shots at L.A.  And I’m about to spend a week in L.A.  I haven’t been back to southern California since before the first time Your Cities was published, so any and all wildfires or earthquakes that come for me shall be taken as evidence that I have caused offense.  Lack of natural disaster will be taken as evidence that I was right, and L.A. isn’t a real place.

That’s how reality works, right?