Madeleine Robins

September 6, 2017

Finland and Estonia in Bits and Pieces

Filed under: Conventions,Travel — madeleinerobins @ 7:38 AM
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2017-08-04 17.50.32

The Helsinki rail station.

Others have written reports about the 75th World Science Fiction Convention in Helsinki. Yes, it was swell–and better attended than they expected, to the extent that you often could not get in to events you wanted to see because other people were already in the room (they take occupancy rules seriously at the Helsinki convention center). I had, as earlier noted, never had a driving interest in traveling to Northern Europe, which is why I was so delighted to find that I loved it. Herewith, a handful of reasons.

  • Auspicious beginning: let me tell you that Finnair is a pleasure to fly with: comfortable seats, flight attendants who did not look as though they were down to their last nerve, real (and tasty) food in decent quantity. The thing that pleased me most, however, was something done for another passenger. I was one row behind the bulk head, my friend Pat was directly in front of me, and also on the bulk head row was a lovely woman with a highly personable baby.  Finnair does something I’ve never seen any other airline do: it has a contraption whereby they hang a bassinet off the bulkhead, so that instead of holding your child for ten hours, you can put the baby down, sing her to sleep, and get some sleep of your own. Baby slept, mom slept, nearby people slept… brilliant.
  • The Ladies’ Room at the Helsinki airport has birdsong piped in. After a 10-hour flight it was unexpected balm to the soul.
  • We stayed in a prison our first night there: very comfortable, excellent breakfast, and you can go visit the remaining cells (one for a group, one an isolation cell, both calculated to remind you of just how fortunate your life is). Also, I saw a hare the size of a respectable beagle charging across a park when we went out to dinner.
  • Next time I go to Tallinn I will take the Tallink ferry both ways. We took Viking over, and it was like being on a sea-going version of Reno: not as flashy as Vegas, but full of smoke, drinking, and people obsessively playing casino video games. Not my scene. The cloud formations from the deck were amazing, though.
  • Living in Tallinn, even for just a few days, is like walking around in a Grimm fairy tale. It’s not just the architecture, or the great stone walls that circle the old city, or the cobblestones, or the carefully maintained shops that sell reindeer pelts and handbound books… it’s everything. And yet it’s a thoroughly modern city (WiFi everywhere–we’re not savages, you know). Suffice it to say that we had a bronze chimney sweep outside our apartment door (the apartment itself was charming and comfortable, and retained a touch of the vibe I think of as cold-war Third Man… something about the halls, the stairs, the lace curtains and deeply recessed windows). I recommend Tallinn highly.
  • If you go to Tallinn, may I suggest a farm-to-table restaurant called Farm? Here’s the front window. I had the game cutlets (basically red-deer meatballs), and we split the Spiced Baltic Char Ice Cream on a Stick with various vegetal relishes as starter. A wonderful, wonderful restaurant–I think we sent everyone at Worldcon there.
  • I also dined at Olde Hansa, which purports to be a medieval merchant’s house, serving a medieval merchant’s feast. It managed avoid being twee and Medieval Times-ish, and the music and food were unexpectedly good. On this trip I ate venison, elk, bear-and-boar sausage, moose, and reindeer. My vegan daughter is doubtless horrified, but I found them all tasty.
  • We took a day trip along the Estonian coast with a guide named Yvgeny to the city of Narva–right across the river from Russia. Seriously right across the river: the Estonian and Russian fortresses are lined up so they probably lobbed stones at each other. We visited Toolse Castle, a fortress on the Estonian coast (one of many fortresses built along the coast to protect the country from invaders by sea,of which it appears there were lots). The Estonians seem to have been in a long series of occupations for a millennium or so, the last being by the Soviets. So here is what Yvegeny characterized as “the most Soviet Monument ever.” He’s not wrong.
  • I was sad that I did not get to see the Oldest Continuously Operating Apothecary in Europe–it is closed on Sunday, which was the only day I managed to get there. We found an excellent place for breakfast in Tallinn, but did not go there on our last day because Viking Ferry cancelled our ferry and we all had to get to the terminal–and then to another terminal–and negotiate a new passage back to Helsinki on Tallink. They did not foil us! We got back and checked in to our new home and so there, Viking!
  • Our place in Helsinki was half an hour from the convention, a delightful top-floor apartment with a terrace and sauna. For the purpose of conventioning, I have to say I prefer to be closer to the con… if you have to go back to change your shoes or get dressed up, it’s awfully tempting to just stay there, have a glass of wine in the livingroom, admiring the sky (especially after a really spectacular thunder storm). The neighborhood reminded me a little of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I lived for many years, so I felt right at home.
  • The Helsinki public transportation system is clean, goes everywhere, and (thanks to the munificence of the city and the convention) we had complementary travel for the week, which was wonderful. The system does have its share of “you know this if you’re a local” issues: the Number Two tram magically turns into the Number Three tram at some point just past the harbor, which caused some merriment and confusion. But these are the adventures that make a place yours.

I could go on and on… about the Estonian stone lion whose claim to fame is that he is said to resemble Vladimir Putin.

Or the strange “goat” than hung out in the Town Hall Square in Tallinn and would bleat a thank you if you gave him a coin.




Or–good lord, the arts center in Helsinki on the way from the rail station to our apartment, which had a giant statue of a pike–the fish, not the weapon–looming over the picnickers and joggers. Would have put me right off my rye-bread-and-butter (the rye bread–dark and molassesy–is magnificent) had I been picnicking under it, but I am not so hardy a soul as a Finn.

The convention was lovely, but really, I want to go back to Finland and Estonia again. Why did I never realize this before?


July 5, 2017

‘Ow’s that, Guv’nor?: The Art of Reading to an Audience

Filed under: Conventions,Reading,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 10:47 PM
Tags: , , ,

Do you need to read accented speech with an accent? Let’s think about it.

Dick Van Dyke is appearing in the new Mary Poppins film–not, blessedly, as Bert the Sweep, but in some other role. And according to Mr. Van Dyke, they had a dialogue coach glued to his elbow at all times. With reason. When the first Mary Poppins came out, people were a little more understanding about accents–or rather, it just didn’t seem to matter so much. But Van Dyke has taken… well, anywhere from teasing to abuse over the failures of his Cockney accent for fifty years.

Van Dyke is an absolutely wonderful performer (I’ve had a crush on him since I first saw him pitch forward over the hassock on the Dick Van Dyke Show), but he does not have a mimetic ear. Many actors don’t: far worse than Van Dyke’s Bert, in my book, was Leonardo DiCaprio playing Louis XIV and his twin in The Man in the Iron Mask, where Di Caprio, bless him, couldn’t pronounce his characters’ names. There’s no shame in not doing accents well–but you need to know that that’s the case.

So maybe, even if you hear the words you’ve written with a perfect what-ever-it-is accent, you’ll want to think carefully before giving voice to their accents. This is a time when enlisting the assistance of a friend can be useful. Read aloud to them and ask them to tell tell you if it works. If your listener says you’re more Bert than Sir Ben Kingsley, rethink.

But my dialogue is written in dialect! Okay, but you don’t have to read inflections that are not in the page. If you’ve got a character saying “I don’t know ‘ow!” you can soften the presumed “Oi” in I; if you aren’t good at the vowels, don’t hit ’em hard. And remember, it’s more important that your listeners follow the sense and meaning of the words than that they get a full theatrical performance.

You can also give the impression of an accent by varying your tempo, by changing your pitch, by adding a little vocal fry (vocal fry is when you lower your voice enough to get some gravel in it, which Wikipedia informs me is “produced through a loose glottal closure which will permit air to bubble through slowly with a popping or rattling sound of a very low frequency”). This last is a really good tool for a reader, as it gives your character voices a quality which can suggest age, gender, or social class.

Now, there may be a time when it’s important to the reading of your story that you be able to sound like Alfred P. Doolittle or Pepe LePew or Boris and Natasha–that is, that you sound like a comicstrip version of the accent you’re using. In which case, go for it.

What you want, in the end, is to read your words in such a way that the hearer is not distracted from the action, the characters, the story of your story. Even if you’re good with accents (or good with some accents…) don’t make that the focus of your reading. It’s just another tool.

April 26, 2017

Just Do It: The Art of Reading to an Audience

Filed under: Conventions,Marketing,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 8:59 PM

DixkensReadingThis weekend past I was a reader at SF in SF, the San Francisco SF reading series. I like reading to an audience–I’m a lapsed Theatre major, and while I’m not a great actor, the opportunity to ham it up still appeals. But mostly it’s fun because I get the opportunity to give expression to the voices I heard when I was writing my dialogue.

Okay, so I like being in front of an audience. Not everyone does. And not everyone who likes it is–no, let’s reframe that: everyone, even those who like being in front of an audience, can improve. So for my next couple of posts I’m going to talk about reading to a crowd, and give my undoubtedly one-sided and entirely idiosyncratic advice on the matter. Please feel free to ignore or follow, as you list.

If you’re a first time reader–or just don’t like speaking publicly–you may be dreading giving a reading. The question arises: then why do it? “Because my publicist told me to!” “Because I was invited to it, and no one has ever invited me to do anything.” “Because it’s important to promoting my work!” “Because it’s the writerly thing to do, and all the cool kids…” None of these are necessarily reasons you MUST do something. But if you decide you want to do it, just… do it.

By which I mean… wait, I feel an anecdote coming on. When I was 12, my father gave a lecture at my school, and I was instructed to introduce him. I could probably have pitched an unholy fit and got out of it, but I wasn’t the pitch-an-unholy-fit type. But I was terrified. Being in front of people had never worked out very well for me. And this was the whole upper school, many of whom had known me since I was four. I had nightmares for a week–except for the nights when I couldn’t sleep at all. It isn’t that I had to make a speech: I had to say something like “My father has a traveling road show about visual perception, and he brought it here, and this is him.” Ten seconds, that’s it. But it made me miserable for a week.

The day came. And as I stood in the wings in the auditorium I had one of those world-changing realizations. All I had to do was do it. If I went out on stage and just stood there, that would be a disaster. If I just went out, said what I had to say, and got off the stage, no one would remember anything about it by the time the assembly was over.

So if you commit to doing a reading, do it. The audience is on your side. They have come to hear your story: tell them a story. And the next time it won’t be quite as scary–and if it is that scary, don’t commit to another one. There are lots of other ways to promote your work.

Next Up: What do I read?

August 29, 2011

We are the World(con)

Filed under: Conventions,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 12:58 AM

I am just back from Renovation, this year’s World Science Fiction Convention.  It was a perfectly excellent six days; I saw people I don’t see often enough; met people I hadn’t known before; got to do improv (at 11pm, when by rights my brain should not have been working–but panic and good improv-mates pulled me through).  I was on two panels, had a kaffeesklatch, and did a reading from The Sleeping Partner.  Also ate a lot of good food, talked about long and deep about writing, publishing, and the state of the world, slept too little, and clocked many miles just getting from one end of the convention center to the other.

The public notion of an SF convention, lovingly lampooned in Galaxy Quest, is of a bunch of people in media-tie-in themed costumes, behaving like extras on The Big Bang Theory (not that there’s anything wrong with that), obsessing over minutia of Star Trek or Star Wars.  And there is some of that.  But an SF con–especially a Worldcon–contains multitudes: many costumes are made to professional standards, and rather than being copies of Queen Amidala’s wardrobe in Star Wars Episode II, are often interpretations of literary characters or scenes.  The panel discussions range from academic tracks to scientific topics to the business of writing to appreciations and examination of the work of writers past and present.  At the same time that those of us from the book side of the Force are talking books, there are gamers gaming, anime fans watching and talking anime, costumers (the ones making those costumes) discussing technique and history; and fans discussing the history of fandom.

What’s the point of all this for a writer, specifically?  There are many upsides to going to a convention–although going to a Worldcon as your first convention is pretty much jumping into the pool at the deep end.  But conventions are a place to meet colleagues (after a couple of decades of writing and of going to conventions my interior fangirl still squees with amazement when someone whose work I admire sits down and strikes up a conversation with me) and renew friendships.  Despite all the current noise about “brand building” and “getting your name known,” I still believe that the best thing you can do at a convention is make friends, be amusing and entertaining.

Worldcon, in particular, has dozens of things going on at any given time, including readings, sewing demonstrations, anime or film viewings, filk concerts, and panels on everything from Vampire Semiotics to urban planning in world-building to the business of finding an agent.  And everything in between.  If you plan to go to a convention and want to be on a panel, contact programming well in advance and–even if you are unknown in the field–tell them what you are best suited to speak about.  Just because you haven’t written your SF novel doesn’t mean you don’t know a lot about things that people want to hear about–but remember that they may have other experts in the field, and be gracious if they can’t find a spot for you.  If you are on a panel, mention your work as part of your credentials (“I’m the author of sixteen books featuring a vampire slayer who’s also a professor of Philology…”) but don’t go on a “Well, in my book” rampage.  Even better, mention works by other authors that are germane to the subject; I always come home from a convention with a long list of new “must read” books.  Remember that you are on a panel to enlighten and entertain, not to build your brand.  Or rather (and this is important): You Build Your Brand By Being Enlightening and Entertaining.  Apparently, after seeing me on one of my two panels at Worldcon, a woman stormed the dealer’s room looking for one of my books.  That’s the kind of brand-building I want.

It’s easy for people not on the inside to make fun of the insiders: romance writers and readers are all swathed in pink chiffon and airy salaciousness; SF writers and readers are unsocialized geeks; technothriller writers and readers are gun-happy Libertarians; mystery writers and readers are…  You get the idea.  In fact, all of these genres contain multitudes, and any get together of genre-readers and writers will contain multitudes too.  What links all of them is a love for some aspect of the genre and its craft.  And you can’t go wrong getting more exposure to craft and the people who love it.

July 20, 2011

Conventional Wisdom

Filed under: Conventions,Craft,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 11:41 AM

I did not post on Monday because I was in Massachusetts, at Readercon, which was just splendid.  What is a Readercon, some might ask?  It’s an annual convention of readers and writers of Science Fiction and Fantasy; unlike many such, Readercon doesn’t contain programming about anything but books, which makes it a very fun place for the reader.  Generally, an SF/F convention is not just a collection of loony people in Spock ears (despite local media’s occasional “Oh, Look, the Crazy People Are In Town” tone).  They’re get togethers for both the readers and writers of SF/F to talk about the issues raised in Science Fiction and Fantasy, and about writing, and about specific books and authors.  It’s an opportunity for the audience to meet writers they admire, and for writers to talk to their actual consumers.  Sometimes business is done.  Sometimes you wind up in the bar talking with other writers, friends you may have known for years or friends you’ve just met.

Many conventions have programming about film and TV, music, costuming, and the culture of fandom itself. Readercon, as I said above, is all about the books.  I was on five (!) panels–a fit of generosity on the part of the programming committee that I attribute to my willingness to moderate panels, and to the fact that I hadn’t been there in ten years (so they were making up for lost time, or wanted to store up enough Madeleine Robins to last another 10).  My first panel was on “Writing Within Constraints,” where the panelists–all writers–talked about writing to fit genre conventions, writing within a canon (as with licensed media tie-ins and comic books), and using constraints as a way to challenge yourself as a writer.  The second panel was on Jo Walton’s lovely fantasy Among Others, and was enlivened by the fact that Jo’s husband was in the front row (although at no time did he pull a Marshall-McLuhan in-Annie Hall and announce “You Know Nothing About Her Work!”).  And in the early evening I moderated a panel called “The Quest and the Rest,” which was really about the necessity for rooting fantasy in reality (the example the program description gave was Tolkein’s assertion that Sam and Rosie’s romance was absolutely essential to the plot of Lord of the Rings, but there were certainly examples aplenty).  On Saturday (yes, that was all Friday!) I had a panel on Location as Character, a subject near and dear to my heart; one of the great things about such discussions is that you come away with a list of books you simply must read Right Now.  And on Sunday morning bright and early, I had my last panel, discussing the permeable borders between fan-fiction, parody, “referential fiction”, pastiche, and straight fiction.  That one was fun, and worth a post on its own.

In addition to all that, I did a reading from The Sleeping Partner, and a workshop called “Walking Through Mayhem,” about using stage combat techniques (among other things) to create fight scenes.  I went into the workshop thinking I had about 45 minutes of material; it seems to me I used that all up in about 20 minutes, and vamped the rest of the time, but the audience seemed pleased.  Also one of my old fight buddies, Duncan Eagleson, was there, and played Crash Test Dummy.  That was not only swell, but recalled to me that certain physical memories don’t go away, they just go dormant: with a few cues we were falling into a sort of “okay, you do this and I do that and we’ll make it look good” rhythm that was very satisfying.

After the convention I made my way down to Norwich, CT, within spitting distance of Connecticut College, my alma mater.  I’d been invited to do a reading-and-sword-demo at the Otis Library, which turned out to be great fun.  The organizer had borrowed some short swords; another friend came up and was my Crash Test Dummy, and the audience seemed entertained.  And they laughed at the right places during the reading, which is very pleasing indeed.

Then home again, jiggity-jig.  And back to writing.

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