Madeleine Robins

July 22, 2017

Crickets: The Art of Reading to an Audience

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

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

July 5, 2017

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

Filed under: Conventions,Reading,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 10:47 PM
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Bert
Do you need to read accented speech with an accent? Let’s think about it.

Dick Van Dyke is appearing in the new Mary Poppins film–not, blessedly, as Bert the Sweep, but in some other role. And according to Mr. Van Dyke, they had a dialogue coach glued to his elbow at all times. With reason. When the first Mary Poppins came out, people were a little more understanding about accents–or rather, it just didn’t seem to matter so much. But Van Dyke has taken… well, anywhere from teasing to abuse over the failures of his Cockney accent for fifty years.

Van Dyke is an absolutely wonderful performer (I’ve had a crush on him since I first saw him pitch forward over the hassock on the Dick Van Dyke Show), but he does not have a mimetic ear. Many actors don’t: far worse than Van Dyke’s Bert, in my book, was Leonardo DiCaprio playing Louis XIV and his twin in The Man in the Iron Mask, where Di Caprio, bless him, couldn’t pronounce his characters’ names. There’s no shame in not doing accents well–but you need to know that that’s the case.

So maybe, even if you hear the words you’ve written with a perfect what-ever-it-is accent, you’ll want to think carefully before giving voice to their accents. This is a time when enlisting the assistance of a friend can be useful. Read aloud to them and ask them to tell tell you if it works. If your listener says you’re more Bert than Sir Ben Kingsley, rethink.

But my dialogue is written in dialect! Okay, but you don’t have to read inflections that are not in the page. If you’ve got a character saying “I don’t know ‘ow!” you can soften the presumed “Oi” in I; if you aren’t good at the vowels, don’t hit ’em hard. And remember, it’s more important that your listeners follow the sense and meaning of the words than that they get a full theatrical performance.

You can also give the impression of an accent by varying your tempo, by changing your pitch, by adding a little vocal fry (vocal fry is when you lower your voice enough to get some gravel in it, which Wikipedia informs me is “produced through a loose glottal closure which will permit air to bubble through slowly with a popping or rattling sound of a very low frequency”). This last is a really good tool for a reader, as it gives your character voices a quality which can suggest age, gender, or social class.

Now, there may be a time when it’s important to the reading of your story that you be able to sound like Alfred P. Doolittle or Pepe LePew or Boris and Natasha–that is, that you sound like a comicstrip version of the accent you’re using. In which case, go for it.

What you want, in the end, is to read your words in such a way that the hearer is not distracted from the action, the characters, the story of your story. Even if you’re good with accents (or good with some accents…) don’t make that the focus of your reading. It’s just another tool.

June 19, 2017

Modulation: The Art of Reading to an Audience

Filed under: Craft,Reading,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 10:14 AM

The first reading I ever went to was by a well known writer of whose work I was a huge fan. There were three readers (I think it was in a bookstore). I found the first reader un-compelling–he read in a subdued, almost monotone voice, and I couldn’t focus on the words–let alone the story. The next participant was not much more inspiring, but I was there for reader no. 3, so I waited patiently. And then it was the third reader’s turn. And she read in the same dry, subdued way–as if she didn’t enjoy the words she’d written. It was just a little heartbreaking.

As I got more experience at these things I came to realize that this is a style. The lack of engagement and performance is deliberate. Later in the evening I heard one of the authors chatting about a reading he had been to, complaining that the writer he’d seen was “acting” the reading. I wanted to tell this guy that his reading could have benefitted from a little acting too, but tact won out.

Too much performance at a reading can be clownish, or make the audience feel talked down to–you don’t want to come off like a deranged reader at the Thursday afternoon Story Time for Tots at the local library. But too little… gives your listeners nothing to hang on to. As with all things, there’s a sweet spot in the middle.

You’re telling a story. When you’re among friends telling the anecdote about that time in Marrakesh with the nun, the waffles, and the chicken, do you tell it in a monotone? Not so much. Reading in a monotone does not give your material dignity–it flattens it. So read as if you’re talking to your friends. On the other hand, unless you’re a really gifted actor, you don’t have to act it out. No, really.

And dialogue? Speak it as you hear it in your head, as if your characters were saying it. Use the emphases you hear them using. Pause when they do. (Maybe I’m overselling this, but when I write I hear the dialogue, so that’s how I read it. Your mileage may vary.)

There are many ways of “doing voices.”  I tend to go for different tones for different speakers, just so it signals a new speaker. Sometimes a character needs a higher voice or a different tone. If you’re able to find voices for your characters that work for you–and that you can replicate as needed–do it. But two cautions: 1) don’t overdo it (that’s the sweet spot principle again), and 2) don’t do so many voices that you get confused, mid-reading, as to which one you’re using.*

Regarding accents, if you use them (I often do, as I’m often writing in historical settings where accent signals a host of things, from regional origin to class), my feeling is that unless you’re really, really good at them, it’s easier and better to hint at them. You don’t need to sound like Alfred P. Doolittle in order to suggest that the chap whose dialogue you’re reading comes from the lower reaches of British society, or like Pepe le Pew to suggest a person of French extraction.

When it comes right down to it, the way you read your material offers your listeners a way into it. You want that way in to be enticing and welcoming.

Oh, and if you’re reading something funny? Try your best not to laugh at it–that’s the listeners’ job.

_____

*when my kids were young I generally used voices when I read to them–but I confess that somewhere in the middle of The Phantom Tollbooth I started getting confused as to which voice was for the Humbug, which was for King Azaz, and which was for The Mathemagician, and by the time we reached the Senses-Taker I was hopelessly lost.

June 6, 2017

Practice, Practice, Practice: The Art of Reading to an Audience

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 9:59 PM

RehearsalSo you have screwed your courage to the sticking place, and chosen the thing you want to read. Do you just walk in to your reading with the manuscript in your hand, stand up at the mic (if there’s a mic to be had) and start to declaim?

Maybe not.

Okay, then: should you plan to memorize the story and walk in without copy to read from?

Not that, either.

Obviously, you want to practice some, but not to the point where your own words give you a dreary feeling of familiarity. And you want to set yourself up so that reading is as easy as possible. For me, that means printing out a copy of whatever I’m reading in larger than usual type (or, if you’re reading from your laptop or tablet or, ebook, blow the image up a little larger than usual). This is simply good sense: who knows what the light is going to be like where you’re reading? What if you find yourself squinting or bending over your story trying to read it? Why make life more difficult than it needs to be. If I’m doing a reading I generally try to keep the type at 14-16 points.

Then there’s timing. It is pretty much certain that when you’re reading you’re going to speed up. Adrenaline will do that to you. Fear that you won’t be able to read everything you’d meant to read in the time you have can be a factor too. But trust me: no good comes from speeding up. So you read your work aloud to get a sense of how long it takes to read… and then add 10%. Practice reading at what will feel like a glacial pace: if you record and play it back you’ll note that you don’t sound slow–you sound pretty normal. So rehearsing will get you comfortable with the pacing that works for you and your listeners.

Another thing–which may be peculiar to me, but I doubt it–is that in reading your piece aloud you may find infelicities, places where another word would work better, things you might want to change. Reading the text aloud before you have to do it in front of an audience means that you can catch those things, and be less prone to whip out a pencil in the middle of your reading and annotate.

You rehearse your reading for your own sake. You rehearse your reading for the sake of your audience. Cause you want your audience to love your work and want more of it.

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?

March 1, 2017

Grace in the Face Of

Filed under: Life,Movies — madeleinerobins @ 6:46 PM
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envelopeA few years ago I got to be a presenter at the Nebulas. Ask any writer of SF and they will tell you that it is generally better to be a nominee or–please God–a winner. But being a presenter is pretty cool too. I got dressed up and went to the banquet and, when my name was called, went up to the podium, and was given a by-God-actual envelope. And was filled with a rush of adrenaline when I tore the thing open and announced the name of that year’s Andre Norton award. And the winner came forward ands got her award and made a speech, and I felt weirdly chuffed at having been a part of her triumph (if only a small part).

Fast forward, as they say, to Sunday night.

I tend to watch the Oscars™ primarily because I love the In Memoriam section. Call me weird (it’s been done before) but I get weepy. The last 12 months or so have been really hard on creatives of all sorts. So I watched the Oscars, and it was more or less business as usual, with more awards going to La La Land than I thought was strictly necessary, but not as many as I’d feared. And then we got to the end. To be honest, when La La Land was announced as Best Picture my husband started fast-forwarding… and then it became obvious that something had happened, because there were more people on stage than there should have been, and he re-wound, and we saw the whole breathtaking mess.

In case you were hiding under a rock and missed the sensation: La La Land was announced as the winner–and then the mistake was caught and it was announced that it was Moonlight that had taken the big prize. Heads at Pricewaterhouse Cooper, and at the next AMPAS Governors’ meeting, are likely to do some rolling, but given the way the process has worked for the past many decades, it’s hard to believe it hadn’t happened before. There are two identical envelopes for each award, held by PWC operatives stage left and right, and somehow the Best Actress envelope got handed to the presenter for Best Actress… and then to the presenters for Best Picture.

What impressed me, even with the chaos and the people with headsets milling about in the background, was the grace with which the people from La La Land and Moonlight handled the situation. When it became clear that a mistake had been made, Justin Horowitz (the producer for La La Land) announced “I’m sorry, there’s a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won best picture.” Then he added that it was not a joke, and gestured to the Moonlight company to come up. “I’m going to be very proud to hand this to my friends from Moonlight,” he finished.

And the Moonlight folks trooped up to the stage, looking a little shell-shocked and not at all sure what protocol was. No one snatched the statues away from the people who held them, there was no hint of sore-winnership. When Barry Jenkins, the producer of Moonlight, got to the mic he was graceful too.  “I have to say, and it is true, it’s not fake: We’ve been on the road with these guys for so long. And that was so gracious and so generous of them,” he said. “My love to La La Land.”

Okay, I have never won a major award, let alone one with millions and millions and millions of people around the world watching. And if you know you’re under that sort of scrutiny, I don’t doubt you might toughen up and try to behave yourself becomingly. But the shock–of losing a trophy you thought was yours, of suddenly gaining an award you thought was lost–could make anyone pardonably lead footed. I felt bad for Warren Beatty, who was clearly flustered (and perhaps feared that people would think the Old Guy had lost it).

Watching the ceremony play out and wind up, I was unexpectedly moved by a moment when it seemed like all the platitudes about awards were true: these were two groups of smart, creative people who saw each other, not as adversaries or competitors, but as colleagues.

February 2, 2017

Doing the Smart Thing

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 7:42 AM

mark-greenOver at the Book View Cafe last week, Alma Alexander wrote about characters doing, as she put it, “eye-wateringly dumb” things in order to advance a story, and she isn’t wrong. Watching characters do dumb things for no reason is painful, exasperating, infuriating. But what about characters who do the smart thing, the thing that their knowledge, training, experience leads them to do… and it goes sour?

A few months back I was asked, as part of promoting my part in Whitehall, the serialized drama about the court of Charles II, to write about my favorite episode of TV, “the one where…”. And I wrote about 90s doctor drama ER, and an episode called “Love’s Labors Lost,” the one where every decision seems to be the right one…until it all goes to hell.

I love medical history, medical drama, Untold Stories of the ER. The more medical the better–and the first few seasons of ER, before they jumped the shark, are my jam. But even among those seasons, “Love’s Labor’s Lost” is indelible. I remember watching it and thinking “I didn’t know you could do that on TV.” (more…)

January 25, 2017

Life Lived Out Loud. Very Loud.

Filed under: Life — madeleinerobins @ 11:10 PM
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gossip2Two years ago, at 19, my daughter deleted her social media accounts. This is a kid who had lived on Facebook and Snapchat and all the rest, and then… poof, not just inactive, but Gone. She says she wants to stop worrying about the personna she was crafting for the world. But I suspect, as well, that she’s discovering the benefit of undersharing.

Two illustrative anecdotes and a spot of musing:

About fifteen years ago I was writing in a coffee shop. A couple sat down behind me. When you write in a public place you get used to tuning out the sounds of the people around you, but some times the pitch of a voice will grab and hold your attention. I didn’t mean to listen, but I got sucked in by the tone, then the words. They were getting divorced. They had chosen the cafe as a neutral place, and they were there to divvy up their property. They were trying their best to keep their voices low and their manner civil. If others in the cafe were listening, they gave no sign of it; neither did I. We all, speakers and auditors, pretended they were alone. After about an hour and a half the couple finished their negotiations, said awkward goodbyes, and left.

I don’t remember a thing they said, but I remember the event as clear as day.

Fifteen years later: I was at my haircutters this fall to get the blue streak in my hair refreshed. There was a delay–something had gone wrong with the prior client’s hair color, the stylist had had to re-do it, and now–the stylist’s helper looked a little nonplussed. Because of the delay, the client, who had to catch a flight, was doing her performance review via Skype. In the salon. “Come in and we’ll get started, but it’s a little… weird.”

It was: at the point where I took my seat, the other client, her hair in foils, was sitting in the chair next to mine (the salon is tiny). She looked about 24, had her laptop open, and was video-chatting with complete unselfconsciousness about her progress at her company, mentioning the projects she’d been involved in, getting in a dig at a co-worker. She finished up with a sort of up-voiced interrogatory: she’d been at the company for over six months, wasn’t it time to take the next step?

The woman she was addressing very kindly but firmly pointed out that six months is not a very long time; that a promotion was not guaranteed after six months, that while some of the progress she spoke of had been noted by her colleagues and supervisor, she had some other areas that needed work, that…. well, the promotion wasn’t coming just yet. It was hard for her to hear. It was awkward for us to hear.

The change that came over the young woman was subtle; she had had no problem carrying on what, at work, would have been a confidential conversation held behind closed door, in front of three strangers, until it went in a direction she had not anticipated. The meeting ended and she closed her laptop; the foils were removed and her hair dried and styled, and she left to catch a flight. Apparently she never came back to the salon.

Life is lived very publicly these days. For writers, who are told that Establishing a Media Presence is a requirement, it can be just another writing exercise. But when even middle schoolers worry about crafting an online persona*, the world has moved well past my mother’s adjuration not to tell Other People the family’s concerns. We’re all awfully comfortable with taking up, not just our own space, but the space of the people around me. I tend to lower my voice if I’m talking on a cell phone in public–both for the sake of my own privacy and so as not to thrust my business on the people sitting nearby. Not so the woman two seats away from me on BART who was chatting animatedly with someone about her visit to the gynecologist.

“A life lived out loud”, as a phrase, suggests courage, not being squashed by societal expectations–being who you are unapologetically. I’m totally on board with that: I’m old enough to remember a culture of conformity which extended well past the era of the hippie and letting it all hang out. What I’m talking about is different: it’s acting as if the world around you is either an audience or a set. With the couple in the cafe they were painfully aware that they were in public, and tried their best to keep from making the other denizens part of it. With the young woman at my haircutter’s, she was okay with all of us being her audience–until the discussion went in a direction she wasn’t expecting. And the woman on BART? I think, to her, that the world around her was one big sound stage.

*https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/05/well/family/the-unspoken-rules-kids-create-for-instagram.html?_r=0

December 21, 2016

The Milestone I Didn’t See Coming

Filed under: Family,Life — madeleinerobins @ 11:53 PM
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I have two daughters, and one is an actress Because of this, she and her sweetie have worked at the Great Dickens Fair in San Francisco for… five? No, six years. First as scum (the local color who give the joint color); then last year Julie got taken off to be one of the singing barmaids at Mad Sal’s gin palace. And a couple of years in, Julie’s Beau Joe, whose character is the Reverend Mr. John Thomas Palmer, defrocked vicar, started doing a Sunday morning service for the cast which was successful enough that it became part of the publicly scheduled shows.

These days Cockney Church is a well-attended event with players and patrons mingling to hear Rev. Palmer’s patented Lord’s Prayer (“‘Ullo, Dad, up there in good ol’ ‘Eaven! Your naim is great and ‘oly, and and we respec’ you, Guv…”) and his meticulously researched, hilarious sermons. And the last Sunday of the five weeks is the blowout Church, with carols sung by doxies, a Christmas Can-Can, and a Nativity scene that features… well, it’s pretty amazing. The Rev. is aided and abetted by his helpmeet, the ditzy Fanny Palmer, his common-law wife (played by Julie, of course), who manages to get herself cast as the “Wirgin Mary.”

nativity

Note above: the Infant Jesus swaddled in a blue shawl, the Wirgin right behind him, and a couple of questionable Can-Can girl sheep (plus some Magi drawn from the brothel clientele…)

So, on the final Sunday, dressed in my Victorian outfit and prepared to demonstrate bookbinding techniques (something I did for five weeks in support of my day job), I got my sewing frame set up and ready–then took myself off to Church. There was merriment and singing, and, of course, the Nativity. There had already been one homily, but following the Nativity it appeared there was going to be another, delivered by Mad Sal herself. Backstory: a month ago, when Julie’s appendix ruptured, Joe was the Man On Hand who represented her (and us) at the hospital and took the full brunt of the anxiety. The following weekend, at Dickens without Julie, he delivered a homily about Joseph and Juliana as a way of praising the doctors who had taken care of Julie, and as a way of putting in a plug for the Affordable Care Act. So this past Sunday Joe returned to the story of Joseph and Juliana–and Julie, not having a clue what was in store, played along (Mad Sal: “And Juliahner woz wery ill…” Julie: **cough cough**). What was in store:

I, in my Annie-the-Bookbinder outfit, was sitting in the back of the auditorium having a full-body flush of incredulity, like “Is this really happening?” I was so startled that, a few minutes later when my younger daughter stood right in front of me after giving her sister a big hug, I was so focused on the newly affianced Julie that I did not recognize Becca.

What made it the more magical was how many people at the Dickens Fair know and love both Joe and Julie, and were cheering and weeping at the little drama playing out in front of them. They were surrounded by their friends, their peers, their family.

When you have a kid you’re handed a bunch of milestones: first step, first word, first “NO!”, first day of school. You see those coming: many of them are on a timeline. But once the child becomes an adult–maybe at the point when she graduates from high school or college–you sort of stop seeing them coming. Until one happens right in front of you, ushering a vista of potential milestones. It’s breathtaking for a lot of reasons.

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