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Sue Burke
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26th-Apr-2017 10:28 am - Spanish has five genders, almost six
Escudo de España
April 23 was El día del idioma, the day to celebrate the Spanish language (because Miguel de Cervantes was interred on that date in 1616). If you forgot to celebrate, here’s another chance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Sue Burke

25th-Apr-2017 09:49 am - LJ 18th anniversary
Let me see..

Ten years is a long time. A lot has changed here and with me, often but not always for the better. But you know that.

Still, we've had fun and learned things along the way. That won't ever change. Thanks for reading -- and for my LiveJournal friends, letting me read you.

-- Sue Burke

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

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


— Sue Burke

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

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

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

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

But we live in troubled times.

— Sue Burke


4th-Apr-2017 09:28 am - How to edit – humbly
Let me see..
Writers often fear being edited – actually, we fear bad editors. Every writer needs an editor. Our work can always be improved by a good editor, but it can also be damaged by a bad editor. What’s the difference between good and bad?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Sue Burke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Sue Burke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Sue Burke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Sue Burke

6th-Mar-2017 08:19 am - Celebrate Casimir Pulaski Day!
Chicago flag

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

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

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

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

— Sue Burke

Keep Calm

During his childhood in Murcia, Spain, Sergio Llanes spent more time with his head in the clouds than in the real world, he says. Then a teacher recommended The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein, The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, and Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.

“That was the beginning of my romance with reading, but soon I realized it wasn’t enough, and I began to write my own stories. I was thirteen years old.”

Eventually, with the support of his friends, wife, and editors, he published books that told the story of the world he’d imagined, an alternate history of sorts where an empire much like Rome has never fallen, but now it’s rotting from the inside. The Sforza dynasty, which has held the throne for millennia, is betrayed as greater powers vie for control, and the Emperor’s own Normidon Guard faces destruction.

I’ve translated the first book in the saga, The Twilight of the Normidons, a tale of action and adventure with interrelated characters from the breadth of the Empire and beyond. I’m honored and delighted to bring Sergio to English-language readers:

You’ve written a long saga full of intertwining stories. What specific tricks do you use to conceive and write something so complex?

Sergio Llanes: We might say I have a natural advantage. I spend most of my time in the world I’ve created for the saga of The Tears of Gea. From time to time my mind comes back to reality, although I really enjoy roaming through the lands of the Sforza and chatting with my characters even when I’m awake. (Smiles.) It’s easier to develop my novel’s plots knowing every corner of that world inside and out along with the four thousand years of history that precede the saga, and the mythologies of Auria and its neighboring realms.

Do you use a spreadsheet like J.K. Rowling, or an outline or notebook?

SLl: While its true I’ve made outlines and summaries about everything surrounding my world and the plots I develop in the saga, I almost never use them. These notes are the written reflection of everything in my mind.

Even more important both for writers and readers, how do you maintain the tension and excitement in a book so that it invites readers to keep turning pages?

SLl: The key is to know how to get inside the skins of the characters. It might seem crazy, but often I close my eyes and imagine the scene I’m going to narrate through the eyes of the protagonists. If I’m on board a ship in the middle of a storm, I feel the onslaught of the wind and the rain drumming on the deck, see the crew rushing from port to stern to secure the rigging, hear the voice of the captain shouting orders.…

If I’m in the middle of a battle, I imagine a soldier’s viewpoint when he dodges a cavalry charge or raises his shield to protect hismelf from a rain of arrows, or the sound of the dying cries of the victims of a raid..…

In a scene in a tavern in a port town, I can note the tang of homemade brew, the disagreeable odor of the tavern keeper’s sweat, or the lascivious glance from one of the barmaids as she leans over the bar provocatively, and the laughter and joking of the merchants at the next table.… Definitely, each and every detail within the scene from the perspective of the characters.

As to whether I’ve created one of those kinds of works that hooks the readers and keeps them reading, I have a very cinematographic vision of everything, which I bring to life in words, but I’m not the one to say if it works. It’s true, though, that the critiques have been really good, and my readers tell me it’s addictive reading. One of the things that’s thrilled me the most since I began writing have been the comments by parents thanking me because their children have finally become enthusiastic readers due to my books. In any case, I invite all enthusiastic readers to come inside the world of The Tears of Gea.

Finally, can you offer any advice to other authors?

SLl: The first piece of advice that I always give, besides writing, is reading a lot of other authors from a variety of genres. Reading opens up your mind and enriches you so much that it makes your own writing more agile and appealing.

The second piece of advice would be to use all the tools available to create the right atmosphere and become immersed in the scene: music, acting out the characters, choosing the right environment, etc.…

Third and most important is not to view writing as an obligation but as essential pleasure. Every facet of creativity loses its power when it becomes an imposition. This doesn’t mean that writers shouldn’t become accustomed to creativity as a daily habit, which I recommend, but that they shouldn’t feel upset if they hit a spell when things don’t go as well as they’d hoped. They should never stop believing in themselves. They should never stop dreaming.

— Sue Burke

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

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