Madeleine Robins

July 30, 2018

A Set of Dickens on the Whatnot

Filed under: Craft,History,Reading — madeleinerobins @ 11:06 AM
Tags: ,

I run a small museum. It’s a museum on the history of the book, and of bookbinding, and one of the things we talk about when talking about the book as object, is about its meaning as an object.

Only a couple of centuries ago, most people in Europe could go through their entire lives without seeing a book up close. Books were irrelevant to their lives. More than that, books were insanely expensive; they were investments, luxuries. Granted, after Gutenberg comes along with the press, the price of books dropped roughly 80%–which means they went from astronomically expensive to merely prohibitively expensive. As long as books were individually hand-bound, ownership was out of the reach of most people (it’s why subscription libraries flourished in England–when a 3 volume set of Sense and Sensibility cost the equivalent of $100, it was far cheaper to pay a subscription fee and have access to all the latest poetry, essays, and fiction).

After the British burned down the Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson famously sold them his library as a “starter” to rebuild on. And turned around and used the money to buy himself more books, because… well, books. Books were wealth of a sort; you could sell them to raise money (or use them as collateral for loans). Having a library–even a collection of a few books–marked you as a person of property, even if you didn’t own your house or your land.

As with so much else, the Industrial Revolution changed that. Once books became affordable to the middle class, the meaning of book ownership changed.

Beyond mere investment, ownership of a book could signal a wealth of things:

  • I’m literate
  • I have leisure to read
  • I have the money to buy a book or books
  • I have the good taste to buy work by this author
  • I have the money to buy a handsomely-bound work
  • I value knowledge
  • I (as an immigrant) have imbibed the values of my new society
  • I (as an immigrant) have learned the language of my new home
  • I (as an immigrant) am trying to figure out the customs of my new home

That’s a lot of weight to put on a stack of paper between book-board covers. And yet, that set of Dickens, or Trollope, or the Brontës, could bear the weight. Especially if they were nicely bound. Even after the industrial revolution, the wealthy could still buy hand-bound, hand-covered, hand-tooled books; but publishers cannily realized that their audience wanted books that looked high-end, even if they were less expensive. The book-cover above would have been made separate from the binding of the book, and decorated using gold foil and a heated embossing press. It would still have been an expensive volume, but it was within the means of a middle class household.

What if you didn’t have the money for a beautifully bound book? There were editions for the budget conscious, less decorated, perhaps on flimsier paper. I found an ad for a complete set of Dickens for $0.48. I am reasonably certain those books, paper covered, were not the volumes you displayed on your mantel to virtue signal. And below those cheaply bound books were dime novels, stapled and bound in paper, and magazines, and tracts, and pamphlets. Arguably, these cheaper books were more about access: to story, to culture, to language, to information. Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches narrative was promulgated through such books: hard work and virtue could change your fortune!

And if your fortune changed, perhaps you, too, could have a set of Dickens on the mantel to signify that you had arrived. And perhaps even to read.


June 19, 2017

Modulation: The Art of Reading to an Audience

Filed under: Craft,Reading,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 10:14 AM

The first reading I ever went to was by a well known writer of whose work I was a huge fan. There were three readers (I think it was in a bookstore). I found the first reader un-compelling–he read in a subdued, almost monotone voice, and I couldn’t focus on the words–let alone the story. The next participant was not much more inspiring, but I was there for reader no. 3, so I waited patiently. And then it was the third reader’s turn. And she read in the same dry, subdued way–as if she didn’t enjoy the words she’d written. It was just a little heartbreaking.

As I got more experience at these things I came to realize that this is a style. The lack of engagement and performance is deliberate. Later in the evening I heard one of the authors chatting about a reading he had been to, complaining that the writer he’d seen was “acting” the reading. I wanted to tell this guy that his reading could have benefitted from a little acting too, but tact won out.

Too much performance at a reading can be clownish, or make the audience feel talked down to–you don’t want to come off like a deranged reader at the Thursday afternoon Story Time for Tots at the local library. But too little… gives your listeners nothing to hang on to. As with all things, there’s a sweet spot in the middle.

You’re telling a story. When you’re among friends telling the anecdote about that time in Marrakesh with the nun, the waffles, and the chicken, do you tell it in a monotone? Not so much. Reading in a monotone does not give your material dignity–it flattens it. So read as if you’re talking to your friends. On the other hand, unless you’re a really gifted actor, you don’t have to act it out. No, really.

And dialogue? Speak it as you hear it in your head, as if your characters were saying it. Use the emphases you hear them using. Pause when they do. (Maybe I’m overselling this, but when I write I hear the dialogue, so that’s how I read it. Your mileage may vary.)

There are many ways of “doing voices.”  I tend to go for different tones for different speakers, just so it signals a new speaker. Sometimes a character needs a higher voice or a different tone. If you’re able to find voices for your characters that work for you–and that you can replicate as needed–do it. But two cautions: 1) don’t overdo it (that’s the sweet spot principle again), and 2) don’t do so many voices that you get confused, mid-reading, as to which one you’re using.*

Regarding accents, if you use them (I often do, as I’m often writing in historical settings where accent signals a host of things, from regional origin to class), my feeling is that unless you’re really, really good at them, it’s easier and better to hint at them. You don’t need to sound like Alfred P. Doolittle in order to suggest that the chap whose dialogue you’re reading comes from the lower reaches of British society, or like Pepe le Pew to suggest a person of French extraction.

When it comes right down to it, the way you read your material offers your listeners a way into it. You want that way in to be enticing and welcoming.

Oh, and if you’re reading something funny? Try your best not to laugh at it–that’s the listeners’ job.


*when my kids were young I generally used voices when I read to them–but I confess that somewhere in the middle of The Phantom Tollbooth I started getting confused as to which voice was for the Humbug, which was for King Azaz, and which was for The Mathemagician, and by the time we reached the Senses-Taker I was hopelessly lost.

May 6, 2015

Work * Life * Balance (yes, again)

Filed under: Craft,Marketing,Working — madeleinerobins @ 8:27 AM

writerI’ve been thinking a lot about how I spend my time–not least because I was downsized out of my last job last August, and am spending a good part of each day working to find a new one. Unless you are pathologically social (I am not) or really brilliant at networking (I am not) this is hard work. Unpaid, hard work. It is disagreeable to me (and, I suspect, for many other people) for the same reason that book promotion is hard for me: I get creeped out by the notion of viewing people I come in contact with as potential buyers (or in the case of job-hunting, the source of connections to a new job). And since my skill set, while useful, is hard to categorize, and it’s hard therefore to search for a job where I could be a godsend to the company, this means that by the end of my job-seeking day I’m a little wrung out.

That’s when I start doing some writing, as a palate cleanser. Sometimes the cleansing works–I can put down the corporate research and the LinkedIn profiles and enter in to one of the projects I’m working on. Except that sometimes the irritation or frustration from the job-search work spills over into the writing, and I’m too stupid or grumpy to do actually figure out what comes next or–heaven help us–how to describe it. I have a number of tactics for dealing with this: take my notebook and write longhand, somewhere far away from everything else; give myself a writing prompt (the weirder the better–“Shrimps in Space” was fun) just to make sure that the writing muscles don’t atrophy; go a couple of pages (or chapters) in and start editing, which often lets me find stuff that isn’t working, or new words, or gets me to a pitch of enthusiasm where I can continue writing from where I last left off.

Sadly, sometimes none of these tactics avail, and I find myself wanting to throw my shoe and my book, or the dog.

That’s when the Life part of the balancing act takes over. I’ve been beading, as I said, and even started an Etsy store to handle the outflow of my neurotic beading habit. I love to bake, and have had a number of good excuses to make yummy things. I like to make stuff I’ve never made before, even if I’ll never make it again (I’m process-driven about cooking; I wouldn’t want to have to make croissants every day, but I enjoy making them once or twice a year).  This has led, in the last couple of months, to me making bacon jam (I’m still tweaking the recipe, so every batch is like a new process) and bread, and arancini (out of leftover risotto).

Right now I have a partner in culinary crime: my younger daughter is home from college. She’s the sort of kid who watches Chopped and Master Chef Junior obsessively–how did I get through college without Netflix?) and keeps sending me cool new recipes we should really try. It’s going to be a fattening summer.

The only problem with all of this that when I’m job seeking I want to be writing. When I’m writing I know I should be job hunting. And when I’m doing anything else–baking, beading, what have you–I am totally sure that I really ought to be cleaning the house. Or exercising. Or walking the dog.

March 12, 2015

Balancing Act

Filed under: Craft,Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 2:28 PM
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Greguss_János_Sátoros_cigányokSo I’m writing this book, set in England in 1812. And somehow a group of the people sometimes referred to as Gypsies, or Travelers, or Tinkers, has appeared and is playing a role in the story. And the research, and the ramifications, and the competing needs to be accurate in both my depiction of these people, and my depiction of the attitudes of the society around them, is making me a little crazy.

Let me just say: I am one of those people who gets a little testy when I encounter historical fiction where the attitudes of the past are retconned to accommodate our current, more enlightened (we hope) viewpoints. Many of people in the Olden Days™ held views regarding women, people of color, people of classes other than their own, etc. which are downright abhorrent to the modern reader. Pretending this is not so, or softening those views so that they seem less awful, or attributing those views only to the Bad People, is false in a way that no amount of carefully researched set-dressing can disguise. As a writer I find the opportunity to put an awful comment in the mouth of an otherwise sympathetic character (one for whom the comment would be in character) to be almost irresistible. It’s what she would have said, given her upbringing and the mores of the society she lived in, so–say it, right?  Show how widespread the attitude was.

And yet. (more…)

November 16, 2014

Fight Scenes: Time Dilation

Filed under: Craft,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 2:08 PM
Tags: , , , , ,

Sabre Fight from The Duellists

I saw Interstellar last week, a hugely ambitious, very heady film about…oh, kind of everything.  The future of the human race. Striving. Time. Love. Space. Loneliness. Duplicity. Ecology. Parenthood. It’s beautiful to look at (well, Christopher Nolan) and well acted, and curiously soggy in places when Nolan attempts to be genuinely affecting.  And the dialogue is mixed so low in places that I swear I missed some important plot points (when you’re married to a sound engineer you learn to notice these things). Overall I enjoyed it, but I don’t think it warrants the kind of ecstasy that greeted Inception (or even the Batman films).  I give Nolan points for trying, and it’s useful to know that even a smart smart person can make a film that is a mixed success.

But it got me thinking about time, and how time acts in certain circumstances.  Or rather, how we perceive time in certain circumstances. Which, of course led me to thinking about writing fight scenes.

No, stay with me.  There’s a link.  The photo above is from The Duellists, one of the most beautifully fight-choreographed movies ever. It’s about two soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars who, over a period of fifteen years, fight in an ongoing duel (using pretty much every form of weapon available to them).  It was Ridley Scott’s first film, and the choreography is by William Hobbs, who also did the choreography for the Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet, and for Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers and Four Musketeers (and Ladyhawke and Shakespeare in Love, and… Hobbs is really good. If you’re interested in sword play at all, seek his work out). One of the things I love about Hobbs’s work is that he uses the setting.  If there’s mud, or uneven ground, it’s going to feature in the fight (that magnificent farce of a fight on the ice in Four Musketeers, for example).  And unlike a lot of fight choreographers and directors these days, Hobbs’s fights are generally measured enough, and shot with enough distance, that you can see who’s doing what to whom. One of my chiefest irritations, in watching scenes of choreographed violence, is when the camera gets right in there and you can’t parse the action. Drives me nuts.

Except.  There’s always an except.  At the same time that what I think of as the churning-metal school of fight choreography and filming irritates me, it does represent, much more than the full-screen shots, the furious insanity of physical crisis, the way that time breaks into two pathways.

Ever been in a car accident?  Time speeds up so fast that you can’t tell what’s going on.  It’s like being on the inside of a blender, watching as the world whirls around you.  At the same time, time slows to a crawl, and you find yourself thinking about what’s going on.  At least, that’s my experience, and it works for fight scenes and scenes of physical danger, too.  The best film representation I’ve seen of this is in the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes films, where time shifts between the furious chaos of a fist fight and Holmes’s mathematical plotting out of how he’s going to bring his opponent down.  Two timelines, intimately intertwined.

Don’t believe it?  I’ve had it work in my own life.  Mumbledy years ago I was going to a friend’s house for dinner.  As I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the time and it was November, it was dark.  As the friend I was going to visit was interested in costuming, and I had been given a beautiful, very sharp knife to wear with a costume, I had the knife in my pocket to show my friend.  So: dark street, me trotting along, when I am mugged.  Faster than I could realize what was happening, I was rolling on the asphalt of the street with my assailant, tussling per who was going home with my purse, while my mugger’s buddy was keeping a lookout and instructing his friend to “hurry up, man.”  The physical part of the confrontation probably took less than a minute, at the end of which he ran off with my bag.

During that maybe-60 seconds, as I was rolling around on the ground with this guy, I was also thinking. Clearly.  With a weird sort of cool rationality that I only seem to attain in a crisis:

  • I have a knife.
  • I could pull the knife.
  • I don’t want to kill this guy unless my life is at stake
  • I don’t think my life is at stake, just my purse
  • If I pull the knife and don’t use it, this guy might take it away from me
  • And he might not have my scruples about using it
  • Okay, then, no knife
  • Is there anything in my bag I cannot immediately replace?
  • Not really
  • Okay, then.  Let him take the bag

At which point I released my hold on the bag and he ran away.  Deeply shaken, but not hurt, I went to my friend’s house, called the cops, and had half an hour of shaking horrors.  But the moment I let go of my bag and the mugger ran away, time returned to its normal flow.

Writing a fight scene should include all of this stuff: the breathless chaos, the weirdly clear thinking, choreography that lets you, the writer, know where all the body parts of all the players are at any moment, without the characters necessarily being aware of it.  A fight is a physical event, and a mental event.  And sometimes, as the phrase goes, time stands still, even if your characters don’t.

May 7, 2014


Filed under: Craft,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 10:24 PM
Hoppery is perhaps a word that would not be legal in Scrabble (although the NY Times crossword puzzle might permit it). Through the kind offices of the talented and astonishingly busy Jennifer Stevenson, writer, roller-derbyist, fellow Book View Café member (and a powerhouse, I might add), I’m part of this blog hop.  (I love living in the Future: I can be on tour and still be sitting cross-legged on my couch in my bathrobe.)  If you’re here, you’re quite likely from Jen’s blog, or from Katherine Eliska Kimbriel’s before that, or Laura Anne Gilman’s before that…  The point of this exercise is that each of us, and the writers we tag, will answer four questions, each in her/his own way.  If what I’ve seen so far is any indication, I’m in good, and really interesting, company.
1) What am I working on?
I’m polishing a fantasy short story involving magic, gender identity, and a hermaphroditic river deity (I got into a bind about half way through the story, and the only way to fix things was to introduce a river deity.  It works that way sometimes).  I am about seven chapters in on a fourth Sarah Tolerance novel.  If you don’t know the series, they’re noir mysteries set in an alternate version of the English Regency, with a swashbuckling Fallen Woman as the protagonist.  The current book involves a scam victimizing elderly women; Travelers; syphilis; and swordplay.  I’m also working on a book that hijacked me: an urban fantasy set in San Francisco (which is where I live) involving a woman who suddenly finds that she is very much a part of a system of magical politics she had never imagined existed.  As with everything else I write, I find myself unable to quite conform to the conventions of urban fantasy as she is practiced today, but it’s magic, it’s in a city, it’s contemporary, and I cannot imagine what else to call it, so urban fantasy it is.


October 3, 2011

Why Can’t You Just Watch the Movie?

Filed under: Craft,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 12:23 AM

There are two kinds of people in the world: the people who divide the world into two kinds of people, and the people who don’t. (**Rimshot**)  Among the many binary categorizations of humans, one that I run into a lot is: people who want to figure out why a story works, and people who don’t.  And these two kinds of people can really get up each other’s nose.  From my perspective, there I am, having a swell discussion about why the film we just saw worked (or didn’t), when someone says “Why do you have to ruin it by chewing it to death?”

Ruin it?  But that’s half the fun.  For me.  Because I’m one of those people.


August 15, 2011

Goodwill, The Story Needs It

Filed under: Craft,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 12:47 AM

There are all sorts of promises a storyteller can make to her audience, but one of the cardinal ones is, I think, “I won’t come between you and the entertainment.”  By which I mean, during a dramatic moment I won’t break the tension with silliness; I won’t ask you to believe six impossible things before you know who the characters are; I won’t present my story as intelligent and undercut it with dumb; I won’t drag you through fascinating-to-me-alone arcana and forget where I was going in telling the tale. Coming between the audience and the story is guaranteed to lose you the audience’s goodwill, and sooner or later in the course of your story you’re going to need that goodwill. (more…)

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.

July 4, 2011

600 Miles Through Rough Country

Filed under: Craft,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 9:20 AM

Some days I swear that, writing-wise, I’m like Bart Simpson* muttering “can’t sleep clowns will eat me.”  Except, of course, I substitute write for sleep.  Why will the clowns eat me?  The temptation to be really really glib here is almost overpowering, but I’m going to try to play this one straight.

I’m trying to finish three short stories and start a new book.  I know what all four works are about; what I don’t exactly have a handle on is some of the events in those stories. This is what happens when you write by discovery rather than plan.  The metaphor I usually use to describe the process is that I have a topographical map of the story’s terrain, but I don’t have the road map.  I know who the characters are, I know where they’ll wind up (emotionally, if not physically), but I don’t know whether they’re taking the train or walking 600 miles through rough country.  Sometimes I know something about rest stops they’ll be making (to pull this poor, weary metaphor out to its last thread) or people they’ll encounter on the way.  Sometimes I find myself fetched up somewhere, blinking and wondering where the Hell my character’s got to, only to find that it is, indeed, somewhere useful, probably necessary, to the story.

This can be disconcerting.  For a life-imitates art metaphor: I went to a friend’s birthday party on Friday last, held at a restaurant somewhere in the East Bay.  I had printed out directions, got under way, and it was only when I scanned the directions as I was crossing the Bay Bridge that I realized that my computer had, for some reason, not printed the instructions after “cross the Bay Bridge.”  I called my daughter, asked her to look up the restaurant, get directions on MapQuest and text them to me (I love living in the Future).  She did.  Unfortunately, shortly after she texted the directions to me but just before I pulled over to look at them my cell phone battery died.  So there I was, wandering in a place that might have been anywhere, looking for a very specific somewhere, with directions I could not access, no way of calling for specifics, and with a birthday cake sitting in the front seat.  I finally found the place by following the BART tracks (because I knew where the place was relative to the BART station).  Once I got there it all made sense.  Also, it was a lovely party.

But while I was wandering in the wilderness of San Leandro I felt something very much like the way I’ve been feeling lately when I sit down to write.  I can try this turn here, I think it’s in the right direc–oh, Hell, it’s a dead end.  Okay, U-turn, back on that road.  I’m going east, but don’t I need to go north?  Except that I see something over there that’s what I’m looking for and…  Yes, that works.  Okay, let’s go on in this direction for a little while longer and see…yes.  Okay.  Good.  Feeling a little better about this now…

I’ve been doing this long enough to have a reasonable certainty that I will find my way to where each of these stories needs to go.  I’m pretty sure that the clowns won’t eat me–but it may be a close thing sometimes.

*thanks to Deb G for setting me straight on who was saying this.

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