Madeleine Robins

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?

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December 10, 2015

A Rule of One

Filed under: Marketing,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 10:56 PM
The Nativity of the Virgin by Paolo Uccello (1397-1475)

The Nativity of the Virgin by Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) Italian, out of copyright

Hand washing. I’ll come back to it.

I have this theory. Or maybe it’s just an idea. It’s about the advantages you give your characters. And how many advantages you can give them without distracting from the story or making them unbearable.

Advantages? Beauty is one, and very common; but there’s also intelligence, skill, charm, grace, wit, fortune, discernment, athletic ability, good birth, kind parents, a person who encourages them to follow their dreams, etc. All of these things are wonderful. But most people don’t get to have them all. And if you write a character who does get them all, it’s sort of cheating.

This is particularly important in writing historical fiction, or fantasy set in an historically inspired context (it works for SF too, but to keep things simple I’m limiting my scope). It is easy, and tempting, to create a character who is ahead of her/his time: “You fools, feudalism is doomed! Let us storm the castle and demand the birth of democracy!” A reader may want to sympathize with a character who partakes of our sensibilities more than he does of those of his time, but some writers leave out any clue as to where that vision came from. Did the character emerge from the womb with her/his political aspirations fully formed? This stuff has to come from somewhere (Mary Todd Lincoln, who would probably have run for office if she hadn’t been a well-raised Southern belle in the 1850s, and stood behind her husband all the way to the White House and the Civil War, learned to value politics–and competition–by vying for her father’s attention with her 13 siblings).

Once you’ve opened the door to a character having a different attitude from the people around her/him the temptation is to give the character skills or gifts they couldn’t possibly have–or couldn’t have for the reasons we have them. Example: in Sold for Endless Rue I have two characters–an herbalist-healer and her apprentice–who are known for their skill, particularly in midwifery. And I wanted them to have a better than average track-record with live births and deliveries, so I had them wash their hands. Simple, right? Since Ignaz Semmelweis started talking up asepsis and hand-washing in the 1840s, incidence of maternal death from childbed fever has plummeted. Only my story takes place in 1205 or so, when germ theory was not dreamt of. So why would these women wash their hands each time they change tasks, before they touch a patient and after? The older woman, the teacher, was taught by her teacher that one should never bring the dust of one task to another lest they mingle. It’s a superstition that just happens to work out in the favor of their patients. And a modern reader can read that and think, aha! Asepsis! without Crescia and Laura having to have a conversation about washing away these tiny invisible carriers of disease…

So that’s my rule of one. You can give your character one advantage that no one else in the story has–if you can make a convincing case for it. But don’t try to give her/him two or three unless you want them climbing to the top of the barricades, waving a flag and singing the Marseilleise.

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.

January 1, 2015

For God’s Sake, Put on Some Clothes (mark II*)

Filed under: Marketing,Semiotics — madeleinerobins @ 4:28 PM

StathamNote: Your Mileage May Vary.

Last night my husband and I found ourselves watching The Transporter the way you do after a major holiday: flopped on the couch, too tired to move, watching The Thing That’s On because where’s the remote?). It’s a fun-dumb movie, lighter fare than I had expected, very violent but curiously… well, light. Almost sweet. The film was made in 2002, which means it’s now moving into the realm of Elder-Statesmovie, and its star, Jason Statham, looks curiously young and blind-puppyish. And he spends a lot of time with his shirt off.

I kept being reminded of the comment Sir Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman) makes about Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen) in Galaxy Quest: “I see you’ve managed to get your shirt off.” Tim Allen on his best day is not in Statham’s league, shirtless-viewing-wise, but he clearly had been working out to put his best chest forward, as it were, and Galaxy Quest had a good time making fun of the Golly, I’m Virile trope that shirtlessness implies. (more…)

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