Madeleine Robins

July 22, 2017

Crickets: The Art of Reading to an Audience

Filed under: Writing,Reading — madeleinerobins @ 8:56 AM
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Absent-AudienceOne last thing about reading to an audience: bring a big box of graceful resignation. Because sometimes, no matter how wonderful your work is, no one shows up. Or, perhaps worse, three people show up and you’re reading to a room set up with chairs for thirty, and you can’t say “I’m sorry, this is below my threshold of audience numbers, so I’m not reading today,” because that’s unfair to the three people who did show up. Even if two of them are your parents.

Look: this happens to everyone. Odds are that even the Gods of Successful Writing, early in their careers, had author appearances where the author outnumbered the audience. Don’t despair. (more…)

July 5, 2017

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

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

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 18, 2017

Decisions, Decisions: The Art of Reading to an Audience

Filed under: Publishing,Reading,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 6:16 PM

declaiming-poetry.jpgOnce you’ve gotten past your jitters, or at least bundled up your jitters and put them in a small box on a high shelf, it’s probably time to think about what you want to read.

There are a number of different considerations. To begin with, are you reading in support of a work that’s about to be published? Then maybe you should be reading from that work. Ditto a work that’s been published within the last few months. Particularly if you’re on an author trip being paid for by a publisher (I never have been, but I hear it’s a thing). In all these cases, you’re reading to support a specific work, and that specific work ought to be part of the presentation. (more…)

June 25, 2016

In Praise of Fanny Price

Filed under: Being a Woman,Reading,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 9:05 AM
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Fanny PriceI have been doing one of my semi-regular Jane Austen re-reads. Every time I find new things: This time I was chagrinned to realize the extent to which certain film versions had overwritten Miss Austen’s original text in my mind–not necessarily to their detriment, but I was looking for a scene in Sense and Sensibility that turned out to be a clever Emma Thompson way of compacting a good deal of information. But the original Austen is still there on the page, and still smart and incisive and funny.

So far I have gone through Pride and PrejudiceSense and SensibilityEmma, and Persuasion, and I’m almost through Mansfield Park (I skip Northanger Abbey, because Catherine Morland annoys the hell out of me). I started out, as one does, loving Pride and Prejudice; then for a long time Sense and Sensibility was my favorite; then, for almost as long, Persuasion. Now it’s quite possible that I am going over to Team Mansfield Park.

This is, apparently, unusual.

The Paris Review stated that Mansfield Park was Austen’s least popular book:

Austen’s own mother reportedly found Fanny “insipid”; the critic Reginald Farrer described her as “repulsive in her cast-iron self-righteousness and steely rigidity of prejudice.” Even C.?S. Lewis—in the voice of his demon Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters—let loose a vitriolic rant about Austen’s most priggish heroine, calling her “not only a Christian, but such a Christian—a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouselike, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss … A two-faced little cheat (I know the sort) who looks as if she’d faint at the sight of blood, and then dies with a smile … Filthy, insipid little prude!”

Wow, that’s a little over the top, don’t you think, Clive?

Okay, I get it. Fanny is physically delicate, shy, easily overwhelmed. She doesn’t have her cousins’ robust physical health, and she certainly doesn’t have their robust egos. She’s meek and self-effacing (though I don’t think she simpers once, thank you very much). But do you blame her? Here’s a child who, at the age of ten, is sent to live with her very privileged cousins. Her aunt Norris (and to a lesser extent her uncle Sir Thomas) are determined to make the distinction between Maria and Julia and Tom and Edmund (the cousins) and Fanny’s charity-case self. She’s constantly reminded of it, and of the fact that she can’t (and shouldn’t) expect to be treated the same way. She’s physically slight and easily overwhelmed (I suspect nutritional issues and an anxiety disorder, but can’t find any textual evidence to prove it), and initially she’s academically and socially way behind her cousins. It might be satisfying to see the worm turn, the mouse face down the cat, and so forth. That’s bread and butter in a 21st century YA novel. but in Austen-land, where class suffuses everything so deeply that it’s hardly necessary to mention it, it would be hard to make it believable.

Like the Bertram girls, Fanny studies with a governess. But her real teacher, the one who informs her tastes and her heart, is her cousin Edmund. And Edmund, destined for the Church, is a prig. He’s kind to Fanny; he’s really the only one who sees, and values, Fanny for who she is. Everyone else sees only her utility, the perfect poor-relation who can be counted upon to fetch a shawl or stay tactfully home so there won’t be an odd number at the dinner party. Her frankly loathsome Aunt Norris sees her as someone further down the class scale whom she can bully without fear of repercussion. It’s no wonder Fanny loves Edmund, who encourages her to explore literature and history, who talks about religion and principles and right thought–who treats her as if she were intelligent which, as it happens, she is.

Look, I had a serious crush in 6th grade on a kid who held the door for me (because I wasn’t used to people being, um, nice to me at school). I totally get Fanny seeing Edmund as a combination of Parfit Gentil Knight and Moral Arbiter. About the only thing that saves Edmund from being an irredeemable prig is that he falls in love with Mary Crawford, whose moral compass is–shall we say–variable. For once Edmund’s rectitude abandons him and he is blinded by, and led around by parts of himself he would ordinarily not admit to owning. He sees Mary’s witty, shiny, beautiful, feckless self and tries to believe that deep down she’s got the same sort of moral center as Fanny–in a sense, the woman Edmund created. It’s hardly surprising that when Mary displays her lack of moral base, Edmund recoils. At that point it’s inevitable that he’ll back to Fanny.

A lot of people think of Jane Austen as a “romance writer,” a notion that would very likely have made her head explode just a little bit. But, as Austen herself said, she wrote of “love and money.” And class. Austen writes about class all the time. Elizabeth Bennet’s comment to Lady Catherine de Bourgh that Darcy “is a gentleman and I am a gentleman’s daughter” is quite correct. They may be at different ends of the “gentleman spectrum”*–he’s got relatives in the peerage, and centuries of economic and class privilege behind him, and she’s got “inferior connections:” relatives in trade–but they in terms of class they are equals. Sir Walter Elliot may regard himself as the very model of a modern country baronet… but he can’t suck up fast enough to his cousin the viscountess. Fanny Price, whose mother married beneath her, is introduced to a world very different from her own when she moves to Mansfield Park.

Fanny Price has good reason for being the person she is. And she continues as that person despite pressure from within and without her family. For a woman constitutionally skittish and anxious as she is, that in itself is heroic. It’s nice that she gets the guy in the end. It’s nicer that she does so without having to become a Mary Crawford or a Maria Bertram.

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