CC: Selkie Stories are for Losers

This month’s fodder for the Crucible is Sofia Samatar’s Selkie Stories are for LosersThis was originally published in Strange Horizons and was, incidentally, the very first story I podcast for them.  I recorded five versions of this story and I’m pretty certain I read it more than Sofia did in writing/revising it.  Consequently, I was very happy when lots of people liked this story, because even after a month of staring at it constantly while I put recording technique etc., through its beta phase, I wasn’t bored.

For this story I want to talk about something I’ve touched on in other essays here but which is massively important here: the negative space.  I’ve seen commentary decrying this story as not speculative because there’s no conclusive proof the mom was a selkie, she might have just walked out and the selkie thing is a coping-myth.  That is a valid reading of the story, that’s actually a less interesting story.  What isn’t talked about explicitly, what lies between the lines but exists all the same, that’s the meat of this story.

I hate selkie stories. They’re always about how you went up to the attic to look for a book, and you found a disgusting old coat and brought it downstairs between finger and thumb and said “What’s this?”, and you never saw your mom again.

First line of the story and we have everything.  We know the backstory – Mom was a selkie and has left; we have the character – sarcastic and angry; and we have a decent sense of setting and place – sounds like a modern Western teenager to me.  We have that without the narrator saying she was the one who found the coat, or that it was her mom who left.  We just know that because why else would that particularly descriptive point be her understanding of selkie stories?  This opening is deliciously assertive, in part because it refuses to make an explicit statement about what happened.  The problem is selkie stories, not her life.  It’s not even selkies, just the repeated plot arc of “they were happy and then they left.”

I work at a restaurant called Le Pacha. I got the job after my mom left, to help with the bills. On my first night at work I got yelled at twice by the head server, burnt my fingers on a hot dish, spilled lentil-parsley soup all over my apron, and left my keys in the kitchen.

Samatar could have written, “After mom revealed herself as a selkie and abandoned us, I had to get a job. My first night there sucked.” It would convey the same info and share the same tone and be a completely different character in a completely different story.  There is no explicit commentary about how that night went.  She just related a series of events and you know exactly, in your bones, how bad that first night was.  By the time she’s left her keys behind it’s no wonder – she had to be so frazzled it’s surprising she didn’t leave everything there.  But this is a story about what we don’t talk about, what we don’t say, and it wouldn’t work the same way if we didn’t have a narrator who won’t talk about things.  We the audience are getting the information we need, but she doesn’t have to tell us.

I turned, and Mona was standing there, smoke rising white from between her fingers.

She doesn’t describe Mona herself at all.  She doesn’t say anything about what she thinks of Mona then or now.  She’s just there, with a cigarette, and you know it’s all saving angel/white knight/this is love.

Do we get told they become fast friends? Nope.  Instead we get some information about Mona, we get all kinds of explicit information about Mona’s situation and Mona’s family because those are safe topics.  The closest to a description of thier current relationship we get is this.

After work Mona says, “Got the keys?”

Mona’s still taking care of her, they’re friendly, and the moment with the keys is one that’s shared and salient between them.  For Mona that might just mean our narrator is always the frazzled girl who stumbled into something she wasn’t ready for, but that means that Mona is still chronically in the rescuer/saviour mode.  That impression we got at her introduction is still relevant to the narrator because that moment is a crux of their relationship.

I tell her they’re not my selkie stories, not ever, and I’ll never tell one, which is true

This line here is important because at this point in the story, it’s true.  She’s not telling a selkie story.  Even if we get more details about that day, a more explicit acknowledgement that the theoretical girl going to the attic is our narrator, and proof that she didn’t see her mom become a seal.  And in case we didn’t know that the surface level meaning of the narrator’s words weren’t the whole picture, she immediately tells us a selkie story.  Not hers, somebody else’s.

when his wife washed the clothes, she found it.

Even when she’s telling us a selkie story, though, she doesn’t quite tell it.  She stops before the ending.  She finds the key and then…section break.  We know she unlocks the chest and leaves, but we don’t get told that.  This is a bit of a primer on how to read the story.  All the facts are here, but the narrator isn’t going to give them to us or organize them for us.  We’ve got to do that ourselves.

people who drop things, who tell all, who leave keys around, who let go

This is a really critical final line to the story.  Because we’ve had our narrator asserting who she is and what she is and isn’t doing, and we’ve got a pretty clear idea on where the truth lies in that, and then this.  “People who leave keys around,” we know is her.  “People who tell all.”  That’s….she clams she wont’ tell the story, but she did, didn’t she?  It’s pretty clear that she is the person described in this line.  Which is heartbreaking!  Because, yes, it means she’s people “who let go.”  But it also means that she’s “on the wrong side of magic” and that selkie stories are for her.  It’s her acknowledging what happened and finding the very edges of how to cope with it.  This is a coming of age story told in the subtext, and it’s gorgeous.

Next month: The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” by John Chu (Tor.com, 02-2013).  Sometime between now and then I’ll announce the next batch of stories we’re going to do.  Drop me line if you have something you’d like.

The Long List Anthology

UPDATE: Kickstarter has been postponed pending getting the long list and contacting authors to be solicited.  You can read David’s update here.

You know what the cool kids do when people try to ruin their party?  They party anyway.  David Steffen is a cool kid.

David’s the guy you might know from Diabolical Plots, The Submissions Grinder, or one of his stories floating around.  His latest act of neat is the Long List Anthology.  It’s an anthology that will collect the stories that received a lot of nominations for the Hugo ballot but didn’t manage to appear on it.  Given nonsense with this year, and the fact that the last few years have seen small short fiction ballots because the nominations were too scattered for a full set of stories to get the minimum 5% nomination, this is an idea that is the paragon of sheer elegance in its “Yes now, please,”ity.

There is, of course, a Kickstarter.  It went live this morning. So early this morning it was about half an hour after I went to bed.  I was going to tout how I’d donated a critique as a backer reward and you should rush over there to get it.  I was going to privately be nervous about whether anybody would think that a critique from me was worth $150.  I had a whole neurotic afternoon scheduled for tomorrow on that subject alone.

It, uhm.  It was gone before I woke up.  It was gone in three hours.  I hope whoever that was is in Europe because otherwise I am so sad for their sleep.  Also, now I have some extra time for tomorrow afternoon!

Go give David money so he can do this cool thing.  The thing’s barely eight hours old and it’s already a significant way to meeting its base funding, so I don’t think this is a risky proposition for you.

Also, if it does something impressive like, say, hitting its upper stretch goal by the end of the week, maybe I’ll offer David another critique to throw in.  Because, frankly, I’m feeling really sorry for the late birds right now.

The Grace of Kings and a Feline Terrorist

Back at the beginning of the month, a very cool book came out for your reading pleasure.  It’s this one.

Technically, I haven’t read it.  I read an early draft wherein my most notable contribution was to cuss at Ken Liu about pigeons.  This is, I’m not at all ashamed to say, probably the greatest of my literary achievements to date.  Someday I’ll be sitting in a job interview and when they ask me why they should give me the job I’ll say, “I once cussed at Ken Liu about pigeons.”  There will be a long moment of awed silence, and then they’ll ask me to write my own job description and employment contract.  This is a true thing that cannot be denied.

What else is a true thing that cannot be denied is that this book is really cool.  There’s not anything new in it, but some of the things he does are so old-school you might not have seen them before, and he mashes them together in a way that’s definitely new to you, and if you’re even a little bit bored of the same-old, same-old, this’ll be a breath of fresh air.  And even if you aren’t, it’s fun, which is enough reason to read anything right there on its own.  I can tell you all of this with authority, even though I haven’t read this version, because it was true of an earlier version.  Also, to make sure the fun and neat and general spiffy that was in the book didn’t vanish during subsequent revisions, I did science.

It is a well known fact of modern science that cats are the source of all things good, and also all knowledge, and also the center of the universe.  I just so happen to have had a cat nearby with whom I could perform a test on the copy of The Grace of Kings Ken sent me and which arrived over the weekend.  (Important takeaway: I have a signed copy of The Grace of Kings.  Do you have a signed copy of The Grace of Kings? No? Aren’t you just a sad panda.)  This cat’s name is Zoey.  She’s ancient, cranky, loud, smelly, clingy, demanding, and made of fur she sheds liberally absolutely everywhere.  She moonlights as a tiny dinosaur and hires herself out as a domestic terrorist.  In summary: yeah. She’s a cat.

Because I am a wise and sensitive human, I decided to interrupt her very important settee-nap (as opposed to her futon nap, her foot-of-the-bed nap, her head-of-the-bed nap or her Rolling-on-rug-to-embed-fur play session) in order to conduct my terribly important experiment.  Would Zoey certify that all good things remained in this book? Or, more importantly, would she consent to be photographed with the book so I could shamelessly manipulate people into associating it with internet-crazed-feline-obsession?

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Early trials were inconclusive.

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Zoey, it seems, expected that if I was going to disrupt her, I would be petting her, or playing with her, not trying to get her to pose with a book.  She’s a cat, not a marketing prop, her agitated pacing and squeaks seemed to indicate.  Or possibly they were saying, “Oooh, the boring human came out of her office to acknowledge me. I must vex and frustrate her to make sure this will happen again.”  The day I claim to understand the inner workings of a cat’s mind is that day I’ve started my cult.

Eventually, things began to settle.

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This is clearly a case of “This object is not offensive enough to drive me from the sunny settee. Now scritch me, human!”  See how her paw consents to brush the corner of the book.  That’s a mild endorsement of its contents if ever I saw one.

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And that?  That is treating the book as if it were part of her current environment, i.e. the sunny, comfy settee where she plans to lounge for the next hour because it is the most perfect place in all the universe.  Hear that, Ken?  Your book is part of the most perfect place in all the universe: my couch.

That, good people, is how to scientifically obtain an endorsement from your local feline.

So when you see this book in the store you need think only one thing: The Grace of Kings – Anaea tested, cat approved.

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)

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.

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?