Madeleine Robins

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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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.

November 16, 2014

Fight Scenes: Time Dilation

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

Blog-Hoppery

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.

(more…)

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.

(more…)

September 26, 2011

Balance, Juggling, Life

Filed under: Writing — madeleinerobins @ 12:30 AM

This year’s biggest accomplishment may be that I found a job.  A 9-5 gig.  After 14 years away from the “salaried workforce” (it isn’t like I haven’t been working for all those years, just that I was freelancing). There were persuasive economic and personal reasons to do this (and to the person in my social circle who seemed to believe that by taking a job I was somehow either betraying My Art or giving in to The Man–chill.  Really).  And in fact I can confidently say, after four whole days of employment, that I’m enjoying it a lot, and learning new things every day.  I had missed having a community of colleagues, not spread all over the internet but right across the way.  I had missed the sense of getting thing-after-thing-after-thing done, like knocking over dominoes.  And I had missed the structure that helps make me feel productive.

Or rather, I had missed not having to impose that structure on myself.  As a freelancer, every morning you get up and say “Now today we’re going to get the following things done,” and you make yourself stick to it–but that takes energy that could be as usefully applied to the getting of the things done.  If you follow me. (more…)

September 19, 2011

It Must Follow, as the Night the Day

Filed under: Writing — madeleinerobins @ 12:19 AM

I had a perfectly splendid time last weekend, making cake for Tachyon Publication’s 16th birthday party (it was a Sweet Sixteen cake.  With a rhinoceros.  In a tiara) and attending the party.  And as a nice add-on, I wound up getting to hang out with writers Nancy Kress, Jack Skillingstead, Pat Murphy, and Ellen Klages, all of whom are really smart people, funny, and know lots of stuff.  At dinner, apropos of something or other, Nancy said despairingly that in her writing classes she often had students who want to be writers, but admitted that they don’t read a whole lot.

Say what?

Aside from all the craft-related reasons to read–research, inspiration, scoping out new trends and (let’s be honest) the competition–how do you come to want to be a writer if you don’t read?  If the acquisition of story isn’t a kind of fuel for you? To me that’s like being a chef who doesn’t much like to eat; yeah, you can do it, but why?  It’s not like there are not more remunerative jobs, jobs with higher status.  So why? And how?  Why would you think of writing fiction if you never touch the stuff?

I guess there are reasons.  I guess.  My own writing is so firmly rooted in my need for story, my impulse to play make-believe, inspired by the writing of other people, that I can’t really wrap my brain around the idea of a writer who doesn’t read.  Okay, so writing-wise I am an auto-didact: I learned to tell stories by reading stories.  In fact, I’m a little suspicious of writing classes and writing books, because writers can hide behind prescriptions to the detriment of their work (“but look, I made it a classic 5-beat plot! And I gave the heroine backstory with telling details! and there’s lots of visual detail in the scene! and…”).  But that is just me: there really is no wrong way to do this writing thing, if it works for you. Except not reading?  It just doesn’t seem like a negotiable to me.

You don’t have to read fiction: many writers I know read more non-fiction than fiction simply because it’s research, or a springboard of ideas.  You can read poetry, plays, magazines, shampoo bottles, but you have to read.  If for no other reason than to see how other writers use language and work their ways around technical writing problems.

So why would a non-reader want to be a writer?  Why would a non-reader assume that other people would want to do the very thing he/she scorns?  Fame?  It could happen, but it’s not something you can depend upon.  Fortune?  Again, it could happen, but statistically it’s unlikely. The wish to use a skill, be your own boss, work a solitary job?  There are better ways to do it than write.  It’s like being a cook who doesn’t like food, or an historian who thinks the past is boring.

I don’t get it.  Do you?

August 29, 2011

We are the World(con)

Filed under: Conventions,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 12:58 AM

I am just back from Renovation, this year’s World Science Fiction Convention.  It was a perfectly excellent six days; I saw people I don’t see often enough; met people I hadn’t known before; got to do improv (at 11pm, when by rights my brain should not have been working–but panic and good improv-mates pulled me through).  I was on two panels, had a kaffeesklatch, and did a reading from The Sleeping Partner.  Also ate a lot of good food, talked about long and deep about writing, publishing, and the state of the world, slept too little, and clocked many miles just getting from one end of the convention center to the other.

The public notion of an SF convention, lovingly lampooned in Galaxy Quest, is of a bunch of people in media-tie-in themed costumes, behaving like extras on The Big Bang Theory (not that there’s anything wrong with that), obsessing over minutia of Star Trek or Star Wars.  And there is some of that.  But an SF con–especially a Worldcon–contains multitudes: many costumes are made to professional standards, and rather than being copies of Queen Amidala’s wardrobe in Star Wars Episode II, are often interpretations of literary characters or scenes.  The panel discussions range from academic tracks to scientific topics to the business of writing to appreciations and examination of the work of writers past and present.  At the same time that those of us from the book side of the Force are talking books, there are gamers gaming, anime fans watching and talking anime, costumers (the ones making those costumes) discussing technique and history; and fans discussing the history of fandom.

What’s the point of all this for a writer, specifically?  There are many upsides to going to a convention–although going to a Worldcon as your first convention is pretty much jumping into the pool at the deep end.  But conventions are a place to meet colleagues (after a couple of decades of writing and of going to conventions my interior fangirl still squees with amazement when someone whose work I admire sits down and strikes up a conversation with me) and renew friendships.  Despite all the current noise about “brand building” and “getting your name known,” I still believe that the best thing you can do at a convention is make friends, be amusing and entertaining.

Worldcon, in particular, has dozens of things going on at any given time, including readings, sewing demonstrations, anime or film viewings, filk concerts, and panels on everything from Vampire Semiotics to urban planning in world-building to the business of finding an agent.  And everything in between.  If you plan to go to a convention and want to be on a panel, contact programming well in advance and–even if you are unknown in the field–tell them what you are best suited to speak about.  Just because you haven’t written your SF novel doesn’t mean you don’t know a lot about things that people want to hear about–but remember that they may have other experts in the field, and be gracious if they can’t find a spot for you.  If you are on a panel, mention your work as part of your credentials (“I’m the author of sixteen books featuring a vampire slayer who’s also a professor of Philology…”) but don’t go on a “Well, in my book” rampage.  Even better, mention works by other authors that are germane to the subject; I always come home from a convention with a long list of new “must read” books.  Remember that you are on a panel to enlighten and entertain, not to build your brand.  Or rather (and this is important): You Build Your Brand By Being Enlightening and Entertaining.  Apparently, after seeing me on one of my two panels at Worldcon, a woman stormed the dealer’s room looking for one of my books.  That’s the kind of brand-building I want.

It’s easy for people not on the inside to make fun of the insiders: romance writers and readers are all swathed in pink chiffon and airy salaciousness; SF writers and readers are unsocialized geeks; technothriller writers and readers are gun-happy Libertarians; mystery writers and readers are…  You get the idea.  In fact, all of these genres contain multitudes, and any get together of genre-readers and writers will contain multitudes too.  What links all of them is a love for some aspect of the genre and its craft.  And you can’t go wrong getting more exposure to craft and the people who love it.

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.

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