Madeleine Robins

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?

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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.

July 11, 2011

Filed under: Regencies,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 12:37 AM

Oscar Wilde said “a poet can survive everything but a missprint.”  I suspect that that’s a slight overstatement.  And yet, there’s no denying that a typo can really mess with the rhythm, the weight, the meaning of your words.  And sometimes it can really stick in your craw.

Mumblety years ago Althea, my first Regency, was published.  In the fullness of time my editor called and said, do you want to write more?  And I said “yes please,” and wrote My Dear Jenny. Reading Jenny now pleases me because I can see that my writing improved between book one and book two.  And I’m delighted that the ebook of Jenny joins Althea on the virtual sales shelves of Book View Café this week.  But along with the general delight of seeing the book made available again, there’s a very specific pleasure of fixing something that’s been annoying me for years.

When I wrote Jenny I used one of the tropes of Romance: the heroine who does not realize her own worth, but whose worth is recognized by the hero.  Miss Iphegenia Prydd is a poor relation, not as poor, plain, obscure and friendless as Jane Eyre, but destined in her own mind to be a worthy spinster aunt.  But of course the book, and I, and eventually the hero, have other ideas.  The thing is, somewhere close to the end of the book there is a sentence that read “He was, she felt, rather above her touch.”  Meaning, of course, that he was too good for her.

Only, see, when I got the galleys from my editor, there on page 187 or whatever it was, the pronouns had been flopped by the typesetter: “She was, she felt, rather above his touch.”  Suddenly she’s too good for him!  So I circled this, marked the error, and in my cover letter to my editor implored her please to fix it.  Six pages set upside down or in Pashto would at least not look as if I had suddenly lost track of my characters and my story.  So I sent the corrected galleys back to my editor, certain that the error would be fixed.

You can see where this is going.  When I got the book I turned to page 187 and there, once again, poor Jenny Prydd thinks she’s too good for the hero.  As tactfully as possible I pointed out to my editor that this repair had not been made, and she patted and soothed me (telephonically, as I was in Boston and she was in New York) and told me that when it was reprinted they would fix the error, no problem.  Only, of course, Jenny never was reprinted.  And for several decades the typo has niggled at me.

Thus, the first thing I did, when I had scanned the book in and fixed all the input errors, was to restore Jenny to her sense of inadequacy.  So that the hero can explain her error to her, and they can live happily ever after.  I cannot tell you how very satisfying it is to have that typo fixed!

July 4, 2011

600 Miles Through Rough Country

Filed under: Craft,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 9:20 AM

Some days I swear that, writing-wise, I’m like Bart Simpson* muttering “can’t sleep clowns will eat me.”  Except, of course, I substitute write for sleep.  Why will the clowns eat me?  The temptation to be really really glib here is almost overpowering, but I’m going to try to play this one straight.

I’m trying to finish three short stories and start a new book.  I know what all four works are about; what I don’t exactly have a handle on is some of the events in those stories. This is what happens when you write by discovery rather than plan.  The metaphor I usually use to describe the process is that I have a topographical map of the story’s terrain, but I don’t have the road map.  I know who the characters are, I know where they’ll wind up (emotionally, if not physically), but I don’t know whether they’re taking the train or walking 600 miles through rough country.  Sometimes I know something about rest stops they’ll be making (to pull this poor, weary metaphor out to its last thread) or people they’ll encounter on the way.  Sometimes I find myself fetched up somewhere, blinking and wondering where the Hell my character’s got to, only to find that it is, indeed, somewhere useful, probably necessary, to the story.

This can be disconcerting.  For a life-imitates art metaphor: I went to a friend’s birthday party on Friday last, held at a restaurant somewhere in the East Bay.  I had printed out directions, got under way, and it was only when I scanned the directions as I was crossing the Bay Bridge that I realized that my computer had, for some reason, not printed the instructions after “cross the Bay Bridge.”  I called my daughter, asked her to look up the restaurant, get directions on MapQuest and text them to me (I love living in the Future).  She did.  Unfortunately, shortly after she texted the directions to me but just before I pulled over to look at them my cell phone battery died.  So there I was, wandering in a place that might have been anywhere, looking for a very specific somewhere, with directions I could not access, no way of calling for specifics, and with a birthday cake sitting in the front seat.  I finally found the place by following the BART tracks (because I knew where the place was relative to the BART station).  Once I got there it all made sense.  Also, it was a lovely party.

But while I was wandering in the wilderness of San Leandro I felt something very much like the way I’ve been feeling lately when I sit down to write.  I can try this turn here, I think it’s in the right direc–oh, Hell, it’s a dead end.  Okay, U-turn, back on that road.  I’m going east, but don’t I need to go north?  Except that I see something over there that’s what I’m looking for and…  Yes, that works.  Okay, let’s go on in this direction for a little while longer and see…yes.  Okay.  Good.  Feeling a little better about this now…

I’ve been doing this long enough to have a reasonable certainty that I will find my way to where each of these stories needs to go.  I’m pretty sure that the clowns won’t eat me–but it may be a close thing sometimes.

*thanks to Deb G for setting me straight on who was saying this.

June 20, 2011

Ur Doing it Rite

Filed under: Craft,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 12:24 AM

My friend Janni Simner wrote a great piece last week on finding the writing process that works for you.  Go read it.  No, really.  It’s terrific.  I’ll just wait here.

I am one of those neurotic folks who thinks that everyone else was issued a full set of instructions at birth. For everything–friendship, clothes, housekeeping, parenting, business.   Mostly I’ve learned to background that assumption, or even forget it for long periods of time.  (I am always convinced that people I think are cool must have homes that are tidier and cleaner and better organized than mine.  In fact, not so much.)  There are situations–job hunting, class reunions, etc.–that revive that anxiety, but mostly I know better.

Except about writing.  It’s not that I think everyone else’s writing is better than mine–I have seen enough to know that that’s not true.  There are some kinds of things I will never be able to write, and some writers I outstrip, and that’s just the way it is.  But process, ah, that’s where the neurotic certainty that I didn’t get the memo really kicks in.

There are a zillion books out there that will tell you how to write.  My mother used to give me the more high-flown, literary ones (she wanted to write literary short stories in the Updike/O’Hara style; failing that, she wanted me to write literary short stories etc.).  I never bought any for myself (and I’m sorry to say I never read any of the books Mom bought me).  Why?  Am I too good for advice?  Not hardly.  When a friend says “Oh, I have that problem too; you know what works for me?” I listen.  I’ve learned a lot in just that way.  I might learn excellent things in all the writing books out there, if I read them.  But I have a superstitious, deeply irrational fear of messing with my process, which means I don’t actually look too closely at how I power myself through writing, lest it somehow evaporate.

See, I’m still convinced that everyone else got the memo.  Memo-less, I’ve been making it up as I go along for decades.  You know what? It works for me.

When I was at Clarion, Kate Wilhelm described the way she put a book together, and her husband Damon Knight sat right next to her, pleased but mystified by the process she described.  “I tried it that way once,” he said later.  “It was interesting.”  I guess the burden of this particular song is: whether you got the memo or not, if what you’re doing works, it works.  If you’re writing, and your work is progressing, Ur Doing it Rite.

May 30, 2011

So, What Do You Write?

Filed under: Writing — madeleinerobins @ 12:13 AM

There are a list of questions that writers get fairly routinely, most of them springing from the GP (general population)’s odd ideas about the writing life, which seem to arise from years of TV and movies, prejudices for and against the “artistic life,” and vague recollections of their own dislike of writing essays in school.  There are business questions (“so how much did you get paid for writing that book?” and its opposite-twin, “how much did you have to pay to get that book published?”), glorious fantasy questions (“so which bestseller lists has your book been on?”), and a slew of advice-or-collaboration questions, from “will you read my book,” to “I have this great idea; how about if you write it and we’ll split the profits?”  But the single question I have the hardest time answering is: “what do you write?” (more…)

May 23, 2011

Distraction and The Sistine Chapel Effect

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

Sometimes, when the writing is being uncooperative, you need to do something else. It’s a nice thing when someone asks you to do that something else, so you can pretend that this isn’t a tactic to outrun your inability to figure out what comes next. This is where the cake making comes in. I don’t wake up and decide “hey, I’m going to make a Green Man cake!” or “gee, wouldn’t it be fun to make a Wedgewood Regency cake,” but if someone says (as someone did) “My birthday is coming up and I really want a Regency-themed cake, go wild!” well,  what am I to do?

The cake on the left was made for the band room for Words & Music2, a benefit concert, and was my attempt to replicate the art from the gorgeous poster.  It may be the most photographed cake I’ve ever made–people in the bands, the staff photographers, everyone was taking shots of the cake.  Fortunately the cake also had the most desirable trait of cakes: It tasted good.  So everyone was happy.

Except, just a little bit, me. Because I had this image in my head of what it was going to look like, and it fell short. This is what I call the Sistine Chapel Effect: when my older daughter was small she would draw something and I would admire it, not only because I was her mother and that was part of my job, but also because her eye for color and line was pleasing, and the finished work was admire-able. But Older Daughter, otherwise known as Sarcasm Girl, would crumple it up because in her head she was sketching the Sistine Chapel, but what she produced was somewhat less evolved.  Later, she had something of the same problem with homework: the essay she was writing in her head was sooo much better than the one she produced on the page.  We have had many conversations about this, boiling down to: Perfect is the Enemy of Good.

You want to do your best work, not just because you want your work to be admirable but because doing your best work feels good.  But “best work” is a constantly evolving goal.  If you’re constantly worrying that your best work isn’t measuring up to The Best Work Ever, you’re not going to progress, no matter whether it’s cake-decorating, writing, or science.*

So my Green Man cake doesn’t match up to the celestial perfection I was hoping for.  But it’s a far better cake than any I made three years ago when I started learning cake decoration.  Onward and upward.

* In this regard I refer you to the ever fabulous xkcd.com and the comments of Zombie Marie Curie.

May 16, 2011

Bedtime Stories

Filed under: Craft,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 12:18 AM
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My younger daughter, a high school freshman, has hit one of those adolescent patches where she can’t go to sleep.  Given that this makes her soggy to the point of uselessness in the morning (getting her out of the house can be a little like rolling a boulder composed of Jello uphill), we’re working with her, as the jargon goes, to help her get her sleep mojo back.  Some of this involves impounding her computer at 10pm and suggesting that she do something quiet and non-screen related: read, play guitar, torment the dog.  She’s been almost cooperative, which is the best you can really expect from a 15 year old.  But she’s been demanding bedtime stories.

I loved reading to my kids.  I loved telling them bedtime stories.  Some of the stories have been enshrined in memory (if I could find an artist and a publisher for the book about the Sandman’s youngest son, or the one about the morbidly shy princess, my daughters would be happy forever).  Others have gone the way of ephemeral art: vanished.  Telling a brand new story to kids is both exciting and stressful, and both for the same reason: there is no outlining, no making a few notes and then doing a little research.  On the spot storytelling is a high-wire act (and sometimes when I was really tired, I’d start dropping off before the kid did, and be wakened by an irate 8-year-old saying “MOM! You’re not making any sense at ALL!”).

It helps, of course, if you don’t try for great art; sticking to the classic well-made-plot (character-problem-attempts to solve problem fail-solution!-resolution).  It helps that most kids don’t want a moral but they do want what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call a takeaway.  In my shy princess story the princess becomes less shy–and finds her own core strength.  In the Sandman story the little boy discovers he’s not the only one in the family who ever misbehaved.  (Okay, not War and Peace, but my audience liked them.)  And it helps if you’re willing to put up with suggestions from the audience (“I hate that name.  Can you call her Crystal instead?”).

But my secret about making up stories is that I sometimes use a story I’m already thinking about, and use the panicky-what-comes-next nature of telling the story to find solutions to plot points I hadn’t even gotten to yet.  Last night I started telling my daughter the bare-bones version of a story I’ve just started, and by the time she started snoring o-so-gently, I knew a number of useful things about where the story was going.

And tonight, if she wants me to tell her another story, I’m gonna pull this one out again and see if I can get a little farther with the plot.  Motherhood is all about the multi-tasking.

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