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Mark Niemann-Ross on
writing “The Music Teacher”
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On writing “The Music Teacher”
by Mark Niemann-Ross
The July issue of Stupefying Stories includes “The Music Teacher,” my story about an unfortunate musician in possession of a maddening object. The story started as a challenge to my sci-fi peers over their use of an implausible plot device, but as I progressed, I found a deeper theme. If you haven’t read it, buy a copy of the July Stupefying Stories. Bruce Bethke, the publisher, deserves your support, and Stupefying Stories is a compelling collection—and all for the price of a latte.
It went “zip” when it moved and “bop” when it stopped. “Whirrrrr” when it stood still.
I never knew just what it was and I guess I never will.
- Tom Paxton
My initial inspiration for writing the story came from Star Trek and other space operas. It’s not uncommon for a hero to beam over to an mysterious spaceship, sit down at a control panel, and after a minute’s worth of fiddling around announce the return of main power or the download of an alien database. This is the implausible plot device that makes me crazy—this is not how it’s going to happen and it bugs me when writers fall back on this crutch. Seriously, an alien device is going to be—well, alien. If you, a real person, were to drop into the aforementioned alien space ship, you wouldn’t recognize the language used by the ship. You wouldn’t recognize the user interface icons. It’s likely you’re not going to recognize the purpose of anything on the ship. You’re certainly not going to just flip a switch and power up.
I voiced this discrepancy in “The Music Teacher” during dialog with Beth and Eric. Here's the meat...
“I’ve wondered if it’s trying to do something we don't have words for,” Beth continued. “Like if Ben Franklin somehow found a cellphone. It wouldn’t work like a phone because there wouldn’t be cell towers to support it. Then if he could figure out how to make it do anything, it would probably play Tetris, but Franklin wouldn’t understand what it was doing because he wouldn’t understand the rules. Then it would run out of batteries and he’d never know what it was really for. It makes me wonder what else is laying around that we might not truly understand.”
In the 2012 movie Prometheus, David the android flies an alien spacecraft. Unlikely—but at least the writers had the courtesy to us of having David study a massive number of foreign languages during the voyage to the planet and also provided him with a recording of the Engineers starting the craft. A mildly believable difference from the Star Trek inspired one-minute-of-fiddling to bring the main reactor back online.
This is where “The Music Teacher” started: how would we react to an alien device with no context in current society? It could simply have been a lump of inert technology with no battery power left, but to make the story interesting, it does something besides gather dust and look odd. However, I did leave its actual purpose unstated. We know it inspires music in the possessor—but in a weird sort of way that only other infected musicians understand. It isn’t clear why it inspires music; maybe it’s trying to teach a language. Or starship navigation. Or letters in an alphabet. In the end, it’s an alien device, and we simply don't know.
This was the first draft. Halfway through I knew it wasn’t the final. I knew there was another theme trying to come to the surface of the story.
I’ve had the good fortune of attending lectures by Doctor Richard Rohrbaugh. He is a true biblical scholar; one who has studied the Bible in its original languages. He’s studied the translations and interpretations, identifying both subtle and glaring inaccuracies introduced by scribes and politicians. He has a depth of understanding that shames million-dollar TV evangelists. His lectures stress that understanding the Bible requires you to understand ancient biblical society. The parables, psalms, and stories are all written in language specifically meant for an agrarian audience versus our current industrial society. Property and family have vastly different meanings in the two cultures.
This became the second, emergent theme. I don’t think we would understand alien technology because we wouldn’t understand the alien culture responsible for its creation. Honestly, we don’t understand the cultures of our own world. Expecting the Iraqis to dance in the street and greet us with flowers is only the latest instantiation of this ignorance. We use our personal experience to color and interpret events around us; an assumption that is frequently false.
The characters in “The Music Teacher” use their personal experience and make frantic attempts to give Mr. Flat Five context. They take a nameless, ethically inert device and overlay it with their own interpretations. Most of the characters experience despair and obsession. Looking back, I’m left to wonder how the story would change if they had spent time trying to understand the culture behind Mr. Flat Five. Maybe that’s another story waiting to be written.
Write what you know.
I’m an aspiring jazz bassist and struggle to keep chords and rhythm in their proper place. It takes a lot of time to become an accomplished musician—10,000 hours by some accounts. No matter how good you get, there’s always another approach, a different technique, more theory and constant practice. I know there’s madness in music—I’ve briefly touched it. In “The Music Teacher” I simply cast that madness into a physical object and present it to musicians. The story came from simply watching the resultant scenes play out. Almost any other profession might work. Maybe there’s a Mr. Flat Five for writers, doctors, or teachers.
You won’t be surprised to learn the characters are inspired by musicians I’ve met. I’m fortunate to have studied under David Friesen, an internationally-recognized jazz bassist living in Portland. Much of Josh’s dialog comes from him. Unlike Josh, David is solidly grounded in the world and inspires the rational parts of Clayton, Beth and Eric. If you’re a musician, I highly recommend seeking him out. He’ll make you have fewer bad days.
One more teacher.
Finally, a note of appreciation to Bruce Bethke, the editor of Stupefying Stories. He originally rejected this story with my all-time favorite response...
Thanks for giving us the opportunity to consider your story, “The Music Teacher.” After reading and discussing it, and then holding it for further consideration, we’ve decided to pass on it.
I must admit, I do so with considerable reluctance. We see a fair number of music-based SF/F stories come through here, and most of them are total crap, written by people who wouldn’t know the difference between E diminished-seventh and a ham sandwich. Your story starts off a bit rocky, but once it hits its stride on page 3, it is just *terrific* -- until it doesn’t so much end as disintegrate, somewhere around page 11.
If you can figure out a real ending for this one -- not a D.S. al Coda, “repeat and fade out,” but some kind of satisfying finale -- we'd love to see it again.
Editor, Stupefying Stories
Bruce was right. The original story had Josh and the narrator riding off into the sunset. It was a weak ending and honestly, a weak story. After I finished laughing about the ham sandwich, I ripped the story apart and rebuilt it, this time with a real ending. Writers: hear this. Savor every rejection letter, especially those with feedback. You’re being given a chance to grow. Take advantage of that moment.
Mark Niemann-Ross plays bass in Portland, Oregon. His work has previously appeared in Analog and he is pleased to join the Society of Authors of Stupefying Stories. His anthology and kids’ book is available at strangewolf.us.