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Sue Burke
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28th-Jul-2015 12:59 pm - Triangulations: Lost Voices
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Twenty-one short stories fill this anthology just released by Parsec Ink: aliens, superheroes, ghosts, polar bears, living statues, vengeful rabbits, and the lost voice in your own head.

One of the stories is my translation of “The Dragoon of the Order of Montesa, or the Proper Assessment of History” by Nilo María Fabra, from 1895. Fabra was a popular “futurist” fiction writer in Spain in the late 1800s as well as an important journalist, although very little of his work has been translated. His story describes the anthropological interpretation of the remains of a soldier who had been guarding Madrid’s Royal Palace, discovered far in the future.

Like all Triangulation anthologies, count on variety and fun.

Buy it here:

Or win a free copy at this Goodreads giveaway:

— Sue Burke

27th-Jul-2015 04:57 pm - Clarion Write-a-thon final week
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Clarion UCSD's Sixth Annual Write-a-Thon ends August 2. A long list of authors have set themselves writing goals and have been working hard since June to earn pledges to support the Clarion Writer’s Workshop.

Clarion was founded in 1968 as a training ground for aspiring writers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and established writers and editors act as instructors. I attended in 1996, and I know how much it does to expand and improve the pool of writers in the genre. The more writers there are, the more great stuff we all get to read.

I’ve donated, and so can you:

— Sue Burke

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The end of a story should correspond to its structure. If the story lacks sufficient conflict, it won’t reach an end, it will just stop. If it has too much conflict, the ending may be unbelievable. An ending can be too predictable if the story structure is too simple. If the conflict is solved by some sudden outside event or force, the story’s structure and internal logic is violated. Worst of all are stories that end with “it was all a dream,” because then the story never mattered and wasted our time.

If you want to write a story that comes to a good end, here are a few ideas:

• This is a family drama about a son who thought his parents were acting strangely because they were watching too much Fox News, but then he begins to suspect demonic possession and must devise a way to differentiate between the two.

• This is a children’s story about a little girl whose invisible friends go away, and she decides to find them.

• This is a time travel novel in which the bereaved at a funeral discover that their memories of the deceased do not match in certain significant events and chronologies, making them realize they never knew who or what their friend and relative really was.

— Sue Burke

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If the Hugo nominations can be taken as a “recommended reading/viewing list,” they succeeded this year in the category of “Best Dramatic Presentation – Long Form.” I can personally recommend all the movies on the ballot this year, although for different reasons for each one.

Guardians of the Galaxy
    Comic book science fiction fun. A collection of petty criminals become allies and save the galaxy (really, they do) with lots of fight scenes and explosions. Nothing deep, and I approached it very unsure about that racoon, but it turned out to be worth watching.

    This movie may not fully succeed, but it tries very hard. The world is dying, some astronauts fly off to search for a new home for humanity, and one of them delivers the knowledge from the future that humanity desperately needs, although with a very odd communications system. The plot mostly hangs together, and it gets some tricky physics right. If not the year’s best, it is the most ambitious.

The Lego Movie
    Recommended to me by my brother, who has young children. It tells the story of a Lego construction worker who must save the world from the evil Lord Business using the special Piece of Resistance. This movie is joyous insanity for children and adults, and in retrospect (although not as I was watching it), it even makes sense. It also makes good use of Lego’s unique fantasy possibilities. Everything is awesome!!!

The Edge of Tomorrow
    I didn’t see this, but my husband, who is also a Hugo voter, provides this summary: "Groundhog Day with war and aliens. Tom Cruz plays a cocky war reporter trying to avoid going to the front, and he ends up dying over and over again in the same battle until he learns how to fight. Well-executed with a lot of obligatory action. Not going to be a classic, but nothing’s wrong with it."

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
    Another comic-book-based movie, and I think it works successfully on the big screen. Captain America discovers ... well, no spoilers, but he has to defend freedom and protect millions of innocent people, and there’s a political undercurrent to the plot. Tense, smart, and a high body count with lots and lots and lots of well-done fight sequences.

— Sue Burke

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I think there’s a point when a writer is more-or-less good but not great, which can lead to misjudgement. A writer who isn’t winning awards may conclude something must be wrong with the awards rather than suspecting he or she simply isn’t great.

While all awards are subjective, I think literary quality is a real thing: a well-structured plot, controlled prose, originality, emotional depth, vivid scenes, and effective dialogue, for example. As a Hugo voter, I believe my job is to pick the year’s best. My vote means I can recommend that work to others. In some years, in some categories, consistent high quality has made the choice difficult. Not this year in short stories.

“Turncoat” by Steve Rzasa
    Not bad but not great. The premise isn’t horribly original: an artificial intelligence decides to switch sides and become as human as possible during a post-human/machine vs. human war. An old idea can be made new by excellent execution, but in this case the storytelling lacks polish and doesn’t achieve the emotional depth it seeks. Too many numbers clutter the text and hide more important concerns than the exact count of each specific type of missile. Some references need anchoring, like “Benedict” – in such a far future, will everyone still know about a minor incident in US history? That detail needed to be set up first for it to work. And the title is a spoiler. This just isn’t one of the year’s best SF short stories, and I don’t believe it made it to the ballot on its own strength.

“The Parliament of Beasts and Birds” by John C. Wright
    Man (sic) has disappeared, and after a long discussion between the animals and then the appearance of two angels, some of the animals take his place. It’s a Christian allegory, and leaving aside the poor quality of the story-telling, is this story science fiction or fantasy? The Puppies have argued that “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” by Rachel Swirsky wasn’t SFF (and although I loved the story, I’ll agree on that) so her story shouldn’t even have been on last year’s ballot. The same applies here – unless you want to argue that Christianity is a fantasy, and I’m not going there. It shouldn’t be on the ballot. So it gets no vote, not even below “No Award.”

“Totalled” by Kary English
    A woman dies in an accident, and her brain is used in an experiment. Not a bad story, but weak. The plot is distracted by side issues like an arrogant research director, who is a mere stereotype and supplies false conflict, while the real conflict – life and death – receives little attention. The story fails to reach the emotional height it could for lack of focus. Not bad, but not one of the year’s best, and not worthy of a vote.

“On a Spiritual Plain” by Lou Antonelli
    On a planet where ghosts are real, a human dies, and a human pastor must conduct that ghost to its rest in keeping with the traditions of the native sentient life form. The story idea isn’t bad, but the storytelling style tells so much rather than shows that it reads at times like a chatty outline for a story rather than a story. This is another story that fails to reach its potential. Not one of the year’s best, and not worthy of a vote.

“A Single Samurai” by Steven Diamond
    The idea is awesome: a monster the size of a mountain must be stopped, and a lone samurai has to take it on. The execution, though, fails to dramatize the idea. Instead we get a lot of back story, a lot of not especially philosophical inner dialogue, and little action or gripping descriptions of this amazing monster. A promising idea goes unfulfilled: not one of the year’s top five best short stories, not by a long shot.

— Sue Burke

1st-Jul-2015 11:47 am - How they started running in Pamplona
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Every year from July 7 to 14 at 8 a.m sharp, six bulls run through the streets of Pamplona, Spain, chasing about two thousand people. This run, which usually lasts three minutes or less and ends with a report of injuries and an occasional death, has achieved worldwide fame for what some consider pure insanity, and it’s hard to argue with that. But the run is only a small part of the festivities for Saint Fermin, known in Spain as the Sanfermines: religious processions, children’s activities, music, dancing, and a fireworks contest.

It all started before the 1100s with religious activities on October 10 in Pamplona to honor Saint Fermin, one of the patron saints of the kingdom of Navarra. By the 1200s, the city was also celebrating a fair on the night of Saint John the Baptist, June 23 and 24, or sometimes on Saint Peter’s day, June 29.

Like medieval fairs depicted in movies, there was a marketplace and entertainment that attracted crowds, but even more important was the sale of livestock. And, being Spanish, the fair ended with a bullfight, although in medieval times the bull was fought with lances by men on horseback, usually knights.

In 1324, the Sanfermines lasted seven days, and in 1381, King Carlos II of Navarra granted it tax-free status. But that part of Spain is rainy in autumn, so in 1591 all the fairs were united into a single celebration that started on the seventh day of the seventh month – July 7 – to take advantage of sunny summer days. Despite the date change, it was still called the San Fermin fiesta.

The 1591 festival opened with a ceremonial proclamation, a pregón. (Fiestas in Spain still often open with a pregón.) A tournament with lances was held in the main square, and a theater presentation dramatized the “Comedy and Tragedy of the Blessed Saint Fermin.” Dancing and religious processions in the streets occurred throughout the fiesta, and goods and livestock were bought and sold. And there was a bullfight in the main square.

These medieval and Renaissance bullfights were the origin of the running with the bulls. At that time, the run was called the entrada (entrance) because the bulls entered from pastures outside of town and were herded to the corral at the main square at dawn. Just as today, the bulls were led by steers who knew the route, but in those days the bulls were followed by people on horseback or on foot, shouting and waving staffs.

In 1776, the first fencing was built along the route. Sometime in the 1800s, people began to run in front of the bulls, a custom that continues today in Pamplona and in many other cities and towns in Spain. In 1856, the event became known as the encierro (enclosure), which is still the word in Spanish for a running of the bulls. The first rules for the running were created by the municipality in 1867.

The first montón (pileup) was documented in 1878, one of the most feared accidents in a running of the bulls: someone in the frantic rush ahead of the bulls trips and falls. Another runner trips and falls on him. Then, in the haste and panic, more runners fall until they form a pile. If it blocks the entrance to the bullring, the result is terror: the bulls are on their way and cannot be stopped. A pileup occurred in Pamplona on July 13, 2013. Although no one died, some people were injured as the bulls and steers tried to push through until, finally, the animals were guided away behind a fence at the side of the ring. The pileup starts 2 minutes into this video.

The Sanfermines remained relatively unknown until Ernest Hemingway wrote about them in the novel The Sun Also Rises in 1926. In the 1950s the fiesta became international, and despite the other festivities, the running of the bulls has overshadowed all else, at least to outside observers. A poll by the city in 2014 found that 56% of the runners came from other countries: 24% from the United States, 11% from Australia and New Zealand, 4% from Britain, 2.5% from France, and 2.5% from South America. Only 8% were from Pamplona, 6% from Navarra Province, and 30% from other parts of Spain.

A total of 17,126 runners participated during the 2014 Sanfermines. On July 13 alone, 2,924 runners ran ahead of the bulls – but on every day of the run, most runners start so far ahead of the bulls that they are in the bullring and have leaped up into the seats, ready for the post-run entertainment, long before the bulls are halfway there.

All this has turned a what was a local medieval fair to swap livestock and say some prayers into a modern international festival. The city of Pamplona has 190,000 inhabitants, but more than a million people now come for the Sanfermines. And although it may seem hard to believe, they do a lot more than just run with the bulls.

— Sue Burke

Also posted at my professional writing web page: http://www.sue.burke.name

22nd-Jun-2015 03:40 pm - “Who Is Mr. Plutin?”
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I belong to an English-language writer’s club here in Madrid, and because there aren’t a lot of us, I sometimes critique books outside my usual preferences. That’s how I got to read the novel Who Is Mr. Plutin? by Rebecca Strong as a beta reader. I’m glad I did.

The setup sounds like it might be a Mary Sue, but it’s not: A young New York Russian-American woman named Vika wakes up one morning in St. Petersburg, Russia, and she’s someone different, someone she knows nothing about. The new Vika is blonde, beautiful, and slim, and she has a luxury apartment with a closet full of designer clothes, not to mention a wonderful, handsome, filthy rich husband. And a dog.

Who is she? Or rather, what? Nothing in her life has prepared her for this, and soon she realizes that staying alive depends on figuring it out, and she can trust no one. As she bumbles along, stumbling in her new high heels, every discovery reveals that things are worse and more dangerous than she thought – and for more people than just herself. In fact, her new life seems to involve Mr. Plutin, the president of Russia, and some sort of espionage mission or conspiracy involving advanced science, but with who and against who?

If that were not bad enough, she’s pregnant with no idea who the father is, since she can’t remember anything, and morning sickness hardly seems useful.

It’s a fast, fun, and funny story full of plot twists, smartly told. Rebecca Strong spent enough time in Russia to know the country from the inside, and has spent enough time developing a sardonic sense of humor and writing skills to tell a good story.

As I said, this book would have flown under my radar if I didn’t know her personally. It would have been my loss.

Who is Mr. Plutin? is being released today.

— Sue Burke

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Strong sentences are positive. Sometimes you need “not” or other negative expressions like “to fail to” or “never,” and at other times they might be superfluous. Long ago, when writing was more ornate, double negations in sentence (which come out to a positive) were a mark of style, but these days we strive for clarity. Consider these sentences:

I didn’t think she wouldn’t come. Versus: I thought she would come.

You don’t want your reader to fail to understand you. Versus: You want your reader to understand you.

In the course of the story, never did knights fail to respond to a challenge. Versus: In the course of the story, knights unfailingly responded to a challenge.

If you want to write a story with positive expressions, here are a few ideas:

• This is a fairy tale of sorts in which a prince is sent on a grueling quest by his evil fairy godmother, and little by little he comes to believe she did the right thing.

• This is a novel about two schoolgirls: one believes they’re best friends and the other doesn’t, and as adults, the first girl finds herself in the position to help her old best friend.

• This is a story in which a church congregation targets its prayers on specific ill or injured people, and if they recover, it sends them a bill.

— Sue Burke

Let me see..
These weren’t the nominations I was hoping for, but they’re what I got, so I read them carefully, bearing in mind my idea of what a Hugo award means: the year’s best, a must-read, not just among the nominees but among the entire range of the genre. Many people, especially in non-English-speaking countries, use “Hugo award-winner” as a criteria for a reading list. With my vote, I’m saying: “Read this, and I promise you’ll be glad you did.”

I’m sorry to say I can’t recommend these novelettes.

“The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale” by Rajnar Vajra
Some wisecracking space cadets solve a problem in communicating with a species on a distant planet. This is an attempted homage to Golden Age science fiction, the sort of thing the Puppies say we disdain these days. But I have a copy of Adventures of Time and Space in my hand, a Golden Age anthology: Robert A. Heinlein, Lester Del Rey, A.E. Van Vogt, Alfred Bester, Anthony Boucher, Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague de Camp, Frederc Brown.... The Golden Age was true gold, and we still stand in awe. This story is gilt, cute but not beautiful.

“The Day the World Turned Upside down” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Lia Belt translator
In this absurdist story, gravity suddenly reverses itself on the day after a guy is dumped by his girlfriend. Despite the calamity, he fixates on returning her pet goldfish with hopes she will love him again. The story contains some good ideas, but mostly whining about how much he loved her and how badly he hurts – again and again childishly. I think it might be trying to be funny, but not successfully. It never moves beyond shallow.

“Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium” by Gray Rinehart
Humans land on a planet and the Peshari come and take over, slowly becoming more oppressive. Then a man finds an unexpected way to fight back, taking advantage of the Peshari’s own cultural proscriptions. While the basic idea might be sound, the execution felt appropriate to a juvenile problem-solving story: unrealistically simple with none of the raw hatred that oppression generates and that might shock young readers. A desperate situation gets reduced to tranquil intellectual puzzle.

“The Journeyman: In the Stone House” by Michael F. Flynn
Two unalike companions in a post-Apocalypse are on a mission, but they get captured, are forced to join the army and face old rivals, but in the end, not a lot happens. It’s apparently an installment of a longer series of stories, but it stands on its own. Not bad, kind of fun, but can I recommend it as the year’s best, especially to someone new to the genre? No, not original enough and not exciting enough.

“Championship B’tok” by Edward M. Lerner
Aliens commonly known as Snakes or Hunters have established a colony on a moon of Uranus, and they have expansionist goals. A United Planets liaison tries to find out what’s going on in a story with lots of spies and action in a complicated scheme that reminds the liaison of a complex Snake game called B’tok. But this story is part of a longer series, so not everything makes sense and not everything is resolved. It doesn’t stand alone. I can’t recommend it for that reason. It’s not a real novelette.

— Sue Burke

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Recently I was reading a fantasy novel set three thousand years ago, and one character remarked sympathetically to another, “You’ve suffered a calvary”: that is, she’d suffered a great ordeal. The word comes from the hill called Calvary where Christ was crucified, but the Messiah hadn’t come yet, so no one could suffer a “calvary.”

In another book, set in medieval Europe, a friend found a remark that someone “had his bases covered”: that is, he was prepared. This is a baseball expression, and baseball originated in the United States in the mid-1800s, so people weren’t covering their bases centuries earlier on a distant continent.

Speaking of medieval expressions, we all know kings back then could shout: “Off with his head!” Actually, they probably didn’t, not even Richard III (1452-1483), because that exclamation comes from the play Richard III written by Shakespeare in 1592, and it was made popular in Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll in 1865.

Speaking of the Bard, the expression “lie low” also comes from one of his plays, as did “green-eyed monster” and “break the ice.” Lewis Carroll did not invent the “Cheshire cat” or “March hare,” however: these expressions originated a century or more before his book.

This is the label from a brand of peanut butter available here in Spain. Peanuts are a New World vegetable, and peanut butter was patented in 1884.

I say all this because as a writer or translator, when I’m working with historical material, I must bear in mind that all words and expressions originate at a specific point in time and space, and they need to be congruent with the origin and setting of the work.

For help, besides google-fu, there’s the Historical Thesarus of English:
It contains almost 800,000 words from Old English to the present day, primarily based on the Oxford English Dictionary.

There, I learned that “home run” only dates back to 1953. Additional research told me that home runs became more common around that year, so apparently athletes and sports writers finally needed to give a four-bagger a name.

The lesson, I suppose, is to write only and always about things that occur here and now. Or to be sensitive, alert, do research – and expect surprises. The past is another country. They spoke differently there, because reasons.

— Sue Burke

Also posted at my professional website, http://www.sue.burke.name

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