Madeleine Robins

April 2, 2018

I Want(ed) to Believe

Filed under: Movies,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 10:49 PM

It was perhaps a mistake to re-read A Wrinkle in Timebefore I saw the movie, but I hadn’t read the book in a few decades. I enjoyed it, picked up things I hadn’t remembered, and went on to read (for the first time) three more books in the quintet (A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and Many Waters) before I ran out of interest.  The overt Christian themes (which scudded right over my head when I was a kid reading Wrinkle in Time) didn’t particularly bother me–perhaps because I knew they were there before I started reading this time.

Anyway: I went to see the film, which I enjoyed at the time, but find that I enjoyed less with each moment away from the film (it’s that “objects in the mirror are less impressive than you thought” thing that sometimes happens with films). It is true enough to the books [SPOILERS AHEAD]: (more…)

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March 26, 2018

Mind the Gap

Filed under: Writing — madeleinerobins @ 4:16 PM
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gapWhen I consider it, and I have been considering it lately, all the books I’ve written that I thought worked had a gap in the writing process, somewhere a little more than half-way through. I am a “night driver” (Kit Kerr used this phrase recently, and my brain went **ping!** with recognition). I write what I can see ahead of me, and I generally know where I”m going, but the terrain between where I am and where I will be in another ten pages is often unseeable (in the same way that driving in the dark you can see what your headlights reveal and no more).

On this basis, I wonder if maybe I’m going to love the book I’m currently s/t/r/u/g/g/l/i/n/g/w/i/t/h writing. I have 13 solidly decent chapters. And I not only know where the book is going, I’ve written parts of the last two chapters. So I figure I’ve got five chapters in the middle that stubbornly are not revealing themselves to me. Disobliging to say the least.

As I said above, this is not a new experience. I went through it with The Stone War and Point of Honour and Petty Treason and The Sleeping Partner. That I don’t remember whether I went through it with Sold for Endless Rue doesn’t mean that I didn’t, but the structure on Rue was different and not so conducive to stopping cold midway through and saying “huh?” My brain has interesting ways of diverting me from applying analysis to my plot problems (the other night it went so far as to wake me up in the middle of the night, give me a title for the next book, and tell me how I could make use in it of some characters from the current book).

Obviously at some point I’m able to snap out of it and get through the book. I may even write a better book because of this irritating gap. But there has been, as far as I can discern, no specific thing that helps. I know this because I’ve tried all the techniques that worked before: retyping, mapping, making notes, free-association… if taking photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one would help, I’d get out my camera.

Right now I’m re-reading, looking for the breadcrumbs that writers leave for themselves all unaware. Nothing makes you feel smarter than realizing that That Thing You Tossed Off 38 pages ago is a linchpin for the plot. I’ve found a couple of small ones, and that’s encouraging. But on the basis of prior experience, I gotta say that when I finish this book I’m sure gonna love it.

Edited to Add: I was working today, chewing at what had to happen during that gap–which sent me back to Chapter 10, where I realized I’d gone chasing rabbits down the wrong valley. So I spent several hours making my way back to where I’d left the road, and wrote a new scene. I think it works better. I think it’s going to lead me farther into that unknown territory. It’s really exciting.

February 19, 2018

Did You See What I Did There?

Filed under: Reading,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 10:53 AM

Olympic figure skating is one of those things. I never mean to watch, and then, somehow, there I am and five hours have passed and it’s late and my head is full of salchows and axels and spangles.  There are a lot of brilliant technicians out there on the ice, and they’re riveting to watch, but the ones I love are the performers. Anent this, I was directed to Jason Brown’s 2014 performance at the US National Championships. He’s not just good–he is a brilliant performer, and more than that, his joy in the doing is both infectious and endearing. The audience is on its feet at the end of the routine, and well they should be. And his face just shines, because he had fun and made something beautiful; in the compact between audience and performer, it’s a perfect transaction.

This doesn’t work as well for writing, I think. Does this mean, I want the author to disappear? Maybe. Perhaps. Sort of.  At least while I’m engaged with their words. I don’t mean this punitively: I want the author to be engaged in her own work. And as a writer I am not immune to the satisfaction of pulling off a phrase, or a scene, or a whole book, where you feel like you’ve done your best and better, maybe. But the writing/reading compact is a little different from the performing/watching compact, and when I’m reading one of the things I don’t want is to have someone (particularly the author) standing between me and the text.

I was reading something the other day–an op-ed piece, I think–when I came across a phrase that was so clearly beloved of its author that I immediately heard, clear as a bell, a voice in my head saying “Did you see what I did there?” It’s a boy’s voice, maybe the voice of a nine- or ten year-old, excited, desirous of praise, a little tentative about asking for that praise because the owner of that voice knows damned well that you’re not supposed to do that. But also nakedly proud and pleased and SOMEBODY ACKNOWLEDGE THIS NIFTY TRICK I JUST PULLED OFF. And while the trick wasnifty, the insistence that I stop engaging with the text and engage the author for a minute is irritating.

Maybe this is the basis for the “kill your darlings” dictum.  Mind you, in the case of this op-ed piece it was true: the phrase was a clever one. If I’d been let alone to admire it, I might well have applauded. But the author, having delivered his knock-out phrase, got a little sloppy and soggy thereafter, like a skater who pulls off a quad salchow in the first minute of her routine, after which everything it a little lackluster.

Sadly, Jason Brown isn’t competing at the Olympics this year (injuries hurt his chance to give the kind of performances he gave in 2014). But I watch figure skating anyway, when I stumble upon it

September 22, 2017

No, I Won’t Put You In My Book

Filed under: Writing — madeleinerobins @ 8:05 PM

CarefulMy daughters gave me this t-shirt a few years ago. I don’t wear a lot of t-shirts–particularly t-shirts with slogans on them–but I keep it for exercising and for those times when a t-shirt is required. However, as regards my own work I fundamentally disagree with its message.

I have a lot of friends who tuckerize, or even kill off people who have hurt them in their fiction. Sometimes they auction off  naming for a character for charity. Sometimes a friend just works his/her way into a story. I found myself a member of the NYPD a few years ago, which was kind of interesting. (more…)

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…)

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…)

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