Madeleine Robins

July 22, 2017

Crickets: The Art of Reading to an Audience

Filed under: Reading,Writing — 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…)

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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…)

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?

September 1, 2016

Let me call you… Mister

Filed under: Life,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 8:04 PM
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EtiquetteA friend mentioned the other day that she’d run into a novel set in the mid-19th century in which everyone addressed each other by their first names. All the time. Under every circumstance. It was driving her nuts; her interior historian kept being thrown out of the story. Wouldn’t there have been more formality?  And if the author was fudging this aspect of etiquette, what else was she fudging? Or getting wrong? Or figuring just didn’t matter?

It would drive me nuts too. I’m a very forgiving audience, except when I’m not–I can gloss right over what I believe to be an error in world building, if the story and characters are sufficiently engaging that I just don’t care. But make an error before you’ve got my heart and you’ve lost me.

So: how did people talk to each other in the Olden Days? How did they talk about each other? When did the new informality, if I may call it so, become a Thing? As so often happens when such questions are raised, I turned to Emily Post.

(more…)

August 5, 2016

Confessions of an Inadvertent Prescriptionist

Filed under: Life,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 7:55 AM
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victorian_teacher_postcard-r54cfbbfd3f9b4af68a22d15a9b640f1a_vgbaq_8byvr_512So my daughter is home for the summer, bringing joy and great conversations and taking over my kitchen. I really enjoy both my daughters, but Younger Girl is such an emphatic presence in the house that you really know she’s here. And we talk. Oh my God do we talk.  And there are some tics in her language that drive me a little crazy.

Such as? “I’m really excited for this vegan dinner.”

The way I understand my language, the sentence above suggests that my kid is excited on behalf of the vegan dinner, which is not what she means (I asked). Once I started hearing her use this particular construction, I realized that it was everywhere.  What happened to about? For the life of me, I can’t see a reason for the shift in prepositions. And that’s what annoys me every time I hear it.

I’ve become, in my own way, a language crank. My daughter calls me on it.

She says at college she’s the one who corrects her friends. She sends me every single paper she writes for me to vet for style and grammar. She also says (and I agree) that English is a living construct, and changes constantly. I’m generally on board with neologisms, and I try not to be too twitchy about the erratic use of spoken grammar (I live on the internet; I have stopped worrying about there/their and your/you’re). But language is also the tool of my trade, and some of the things the kid thinks she’s saying are, well, not.

When the subject comes up my daughter suggests that I’m the problem, that I’m being prescriptive and exclusionary. It’s almost a social justice issue to her. But in my head, I’m like a carpenter that doesn’t like to see the side of a hammer used to sink a nail–what’s wrong with using the tool the way the tool is supposed to be used?

It occurs to me that “that doesn’t mean what you think it does” is the root of my problems with some language shifts. At some point many words do shift (when was the last time you saw “nice” used in its original sense of “choosy”?). But until they have shifted, a speaker risks losing meaning by using those words in their newer sense. Lost meaning = risk of not being completely understood. And that’s it for me: the idea of not making myself understood gives me the screaming collywobbles. But as with so much else about life, Your Mileage May Vary.

I forget sometimes that I’m part of a continuum. I wake up each morning at the very end of evolution, and language (maybe even humans) have reached a point of perfection where there’s no need for further change. So a change that makes no sense to me (like “for” for “about”) feels like a step backward. But in thirty years it’s likely that “about” will feel as awkward to casual English speakers as “for” does to me. So I’m trying to curb my prescriptivist ways. Or at least restrain my flinching.

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.

May 19, 2016

Whitehall

Whitehall CoverI ought to have mentioned this earlier, but: about a year ago I was approached (doesn’t that sound mysterious?) about becoming part of the writing team for a serialized historical story called Whitehall, focusing on Charles II, his wife Catherine of Braganza, and his mistress, Barbara Castlemaine. Not a period I know well, and I was a little reluctant to take on something I’d never done before… and then I heard about the people who’d be on the team with me: series creator Liz Duffy Adams; Delia Sherman; Mary Robinette Kowal; and Barbara Samuel (and Sarah Smith coming in as guest writer on #11). In which group, in my own mind, anyway, I  was decidedly a Junior Partner.

When a group of writers like that invites you to play, you say Yes. Thank You. Which I did. And dived into research and reading and plotting, in the most unsual sort of collaborative process I’ve ever participated in. Once I got over the first flush of “wait, you–what? but I was writing that scene” push and pull of the thing, I began to realize how generous, and inventive, and fun all these people were.

We knew the story, of course: Charles, newly returned to the throne, finds his nation impoverished and damaged by the years of religious turmoil. He has to marry money, even if that money comes in the form of a Portuguese Catholic: Catherine of Braganza. Catherine’s nation, under threat from their larger, more powerful neighbor Spain, needs England’s military strength to keep her country safe. Meanwhile everyone in England , from the peerage to the peasantry, has an opinion, good or bad, about the new Queen.

What that outline doesn’t tell you is how rich the characters are: Charles, finally on the throne, enough of a king to realize that he cannot enact vengeance on the nation that killed his father and sent him on a decade-long flight through Europe. The original laughing on the outside/sorrowing on the inside guy–restless, thoughtful, deeply intelligent, taking the stewardship of his nation very seriously. Catherine, with the weight of her nation on her shoulders, who–against all self-interest–falls in love with her new husband. And Barbara Castlemaine, who loves her king, but realizes as well that her standing at court depends on maintaining ascendancy over the new queen. And a cast of secondary characters who scheme and want and worry, with–literally–the fate of nations on the line.

Whitehall is available from Serialbox: one episode a week for 13 weeks, available as e-book or audio-book. With five different voices telling one story, each of us with our own take on the time, the place, and the people. For what it’s worth, me, I’m Team Catherine all the way. At least one of my fellow writers is team Barbara. Where do you come down on this one?

 

April 16, 2016

I Remember It as Clear as Day

Filed under: Life,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 10:04 AM
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blocksLast time I was here, I talked about my earliest memory. I have long considered (because I’m a writer and my brain works that way) that it has some metaphorical connection to the person I became. And because it’s my life and my metaphor, I can say that. Years from now, when my life is being taught as a cautionary tale on millennial writers (as if), an educator can tell their version of what my life was, and why my mother going out to get lemons and leaving her 2 year old at home had nothing to do with anything.

What was lovely about that post was that people started posting their earliest memories, here and elsewhere. I really enjoyed reading them. But they also got me thinking about a memory I have that is utterly false, and yet still compels me.

From three-and-a-half until 13, I went to a school in Greenwich Village: The Little Red School House. It was very small, very lefty, academically very good, and formative for me in ways both excellent and not so excellent. I was a gormless little kid who generally did better with adults than my peers.  I was also physically small and clumsy. If this sounds like a perfect recipe for attracting the less kindly among my peers, you’re right. I suspect, with the wisdom of age, that I was the kind of kid who begged to be picked on because I was so clueless and annoying. Which doesn’t justify bullying, but does explain something of why it was me being bullied.

Anyway: the memory.  Until we were in second grade our “gym” period was held on the roof, which had some playground equipment, balls, etc., but also these big wooden blocks. The blocks were made of plywood, painted a deep forest green, and as best I can estimate from half a century on, most of them were 18-24″ long by 12″ by 6″. Big enough so that a little kid could carry one of them at a time. They were used on the roof only, for building the sorts of things one builds with blocks. And though it wasn’t allowed, the structures were frequently built by the kids to be stood on. I swear, it’s an amazement to me that we all survived to adulthood.

My memory is that on a rainy day, somehow the blocks had been brought down to my classroom (the 4s, or nursery school) and some of the boys were building a big wall out of them, six blocks or so wide and five or six blocks tall. That one of my chief tormentors, a kid named Mark, climbed to the top of the wall and stood there threatening to jump on me, and that suddenly the wall fell. My last memory is of those forest green blocks coming at me. The rest is silence.

And this never happened. I checked with my mother. I checked with my nursery school teacher (the perfectly wonderful Gertrude Asher of blessed memory). Neither one remembered such a thing; each was ready to say categorically that it never happened, because an incident that resulted in one kid being knocked out cold would have been reported, to say the least. Also: those blocks were never brought downstairs, regardless of weather. Also… see incident reports and repercussions to the aggressor party, etc.

And yet it’s one of the clearest memories I have of early childhood. There seems to be nothing else in my history which I might have conflated with school life to create the memory. I made it up out of whole cloth, or it’s a dream that lodged in my psyche and wouldn’t let go. Did I feel small and at the mercy of larger kids? You bet. And I have the m/e/m/o/r/y dream to prove it.

As a writer, this becomes part of a larger conversation for me about truth, and the difficulty of sorting out the objectively true from the subjectively true from, and how a false memory can color all the true memories that surround it. And in practical terms, how can you nest believed truth, perceived truth, and (for the purpose of fiction) actual truth in a way that works for–and perhaps even surprises–the reader. I have more than once used a dream as a way of illuminating a character’s state of mind or beliefs*; talking about this now, I’m suddenly intrigued by the notion of writing a character whose behavior is shaped by a false memory. A false memory that is so seamlessly integrated into the long line of memories that shape belief and behavior as to be unquestionable.

For the purpose of the story, the character would then have to discover that the memory is false, not in terms of perspective (“No, I was sitting there too, and Grandma didn’t eat the last cookie herself. I could see her give it to the dog.”) but in terms of possibility (“Grandma was already dead by that time.”). When a foundational memory gets removed from your structure, do you just go on with the life you’ve based on that memory? Do you actively reject that life? Does it continue to represent itself as a memory?

As the ever appropriate Mr. Shakespeare put it, “When my love swears that she is made of truth/I do believe her, though I know she lies.”

* It is not either cheating. Or a cliche. Sometimes it’s the fastest way to tell the story. So there.

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