Monday, February 15, 2010

Reading with your lips moving

I'm getting ready to do a reading this week, down at the KGB Bar in New York, and Matt Staggs at Suvudu asked me if I had any advice for new writers on how to do these things. Now, I'm an ex-Theatre major, and so maybe I approach these things differently than other folks, but for me, there are two things I keep in mind: (a) the spoken story and the written story are two different things, and (b) you have to treat it like a performance.

It starts with the editing. Here's the bit from the interview on how I edit:
After I finally decide on a scene to read, I begin editing, and try to make it work as much as possible as a standalone piece. I cut out exposition that doesn't matter outside the context of the novel, and then trim other distracting details. I've cut entire characters, added descriptions from earlier in the book, and combined scenes--any hack to make it work.

Then I print out the pages in a big font and practice reading it aloud. I always have to line edit, deleting repeated words, or altering near-rhymes I didn't catch when I wrote the scene. If I've really marked up the page, I'll make the changes in the file and print again. I practice a couple more times. Even after all that, when I start reading it live, I usually realize that there are yet more changes that I should have made. If I'm feeling jazzy and confident I'll make those changes on the fly.

So, is that overkill? Underkill? What do the rest of you Clockworkers do?

A couple of things I didn't mention in the interview, and those related to the performance part of the process. One, I always read standing up. It keeps my energy (literally) up, and I can move around. I don't act out the scene -- not by a long shot -- but I do move my arms, and I do things like pause and look at the audience when the character is pausing and looking at another character.

Also, I deliberately move to address one side of the room, then another. Part of this habit comes from theatre, but mostly it comes from my three years as a high school teacher. I'm a little bit paranoid about boring people, so I like to move in on them. I think this will be harder to do at the KGB, because there's a podium with mikes, and the place is supposed to be crowded. I'll report back.

The second thing I think about is character voices. This is tricky. My first advice to a new writer is, if he's a guy, don't attempt a "woman's" voice, and for a gal, vice-versa. And for God's sake, don't do some ethnic dialect. Your only way to get away with that is Meryl Streep-level accuracy. Anything short of that will be heard as an embarrassing stereotype. The one exception? Pirate. Even Pirate-Americans find their accent funny.

I have to admit, though, that I'll be breaking the dialect rule. See, my book is set in the Smokies, and I am sure as hell going to throw down some southern accent. This is why I have 10,000 cousins all over East Tennessee -- so I can do their voices in this story. (Notice, though, how I deflected critique by claiming insider status? This is the "I can do the voice because I'm from there" defense. This strategy does not work on the internet, though. It's the fastest way to start a Race-Fail flamewar.)

But you can't not do something with your voice. I try to concentrate on emotion and tone. If I get the tone of the character right, whether they're male or female or Moldavian or nosferatu, the audience will usually meet me halfway.

That's the theory, anyway. If you're in NYC this Wednesday, Feb. 17, stop by the KGB Bar and see how it goes down. Oh, and there's this guy named Peter Straub reading too. I hear he's good.

See y'all later.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Born Standing Up

Steve Martin uses this wonderful biography* to chart the development of his stand-up routine. It starts with his first job selling guidebooks at Disneyland and ends with him walking away from that life on the road to make his first movie, The Jerk. He is by turns harsh to the people that never followed through on showbiz promises made and kind to comedy giants such as Johnny Carson and Carl Reiner. His relationship with his Dad and women on the road are a little too intimate for me, but this is a fascinating and well-written book.

The wonderful thing for me was discovering the genesis of his act and seriousness required to make it hum. His stories of failed attempts and stumbles are as entertaining as his impressions of Saturday Night Live alum like John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd. His anecdotes and clever approach to being silly really makes me want to go back and listen to that old vinyl. It almost erases the stench of some of his recent movie projects.

More importantly for those of us who make a living with stories of 'jokes and punching' is the constant analysis of what he was doing and what he learned from that. In the beginning, he carefully considers breaking the old structures to create something new in comedy. There are dozens of entertaining and charming parallels between the writing life and the comedy writing life. This should be a primer for anyone considering a life in entertainment.

* I know the term is autobiography. But he makes the point that he is writing about the man he used to be, so I am using his terminology.