I’m teaching a workshop at Orycon on reading aloud. How does this text sound as a blurb?
You may be a good writer, but reading aloud is a separate skill. In this workshop, learn to make your words sound as great out loud as they do on the page. Using both demonstration and audience participation, we will explore voicing, narration and pacing. Come with one paragraph of your own work; sample text will also be provided.
I also need a snappy title. Here are some random candidates, not all of which are from me.
How to Give a Reading without Wetting Yourself
The Science of Readings
Remember to Breathe
I’ve had time to cook lately, which has been a nice change of pace. Last night I made a Espresso Black Bean Chili that I’d discovered when I was staying with my folks at Woodthrush Woods. I really like this recipe, although I cut it in half and still have more chili than makes sense.
I froze some of it and stuck it in the freezer. The challenge there is that three large haddock now fill our freezer. Right before Julie headed out of town, she popped in and dropped these off. The gang had gone fishing with TÃ³ti and caught ridiculous numbers of haddock. These are not small fish and, although they’ve been cleaned, they are whole fish and take up a lot of space in our tiny freezer. It was not easy to fit everything in, so the bags of frozen chili are nestled between the fish.
Meanwhile, the pot in which I’ve cooked the chili is carbon black on the bottom. I don’t know what it is about this particular pot, but everything that I’ve made in it chars. It’s really frustrating. I had to scrape the bottom of the pot, trying to release the crust. I alternated between letting it soak, while I did other dishes, and scraping it. As I turned from tossing some of the scrapings in the trash, I whacked into the cabinet door–left open from the other dishes.
I broke the skin, but not badly. It lines up nicely with the wrinkles on my forehead, so I don’t think it will leave a mark. Still, it seemed like a good idea to put an icepack on it. Except that it was behind the haddock. As I held the first of the frozen fish in my hand, I briefly considered just putting it on my forehead and lying down.
Rob came in and found me about then and took over the dishes, including the pot of carbon. So, I guess that the frozen haddock did relieve me of one my headaches.
Apparently this happens every year, because it happened when I worked here two years ago. After we wrapped, everyone went to Magnus’s house for a party and then on to the Studmenn concert. Last time I had been here for a week and a half so I was still fairly dazed.
This time, I was so excited to see everyone off the set and all dressed up. It was a nice change from our studio clothes. People kept looking at each other and saying, “You look really good,” with this sort of shock in their voices. It was very funny.
Rob and I didn’t stay long at the concert. We were both tired and probably would have passed but wanted to hear StefÃ¡n and Steina sing. They are both very good, which isn’t surprising. Rob and I cut out after StefÃ¡n’s first number. The band is good, it’s just not my scene. Loud and smoky with lots of drunk dancers… The rest of the evening was fun.
Cross-gender voices are a tricky business. Even if you can really do a convincing cross-gender voice–and I know folks who can–the fact is that in a live reading, people know there’s one person doing all the voices. There are two ways cross-gender voices can throw people out of listening. It’s really bad, and embarrassing, or it’s really good and shocking that a female voice is coming out of a man’s mouth. Either way, the listener drops the story for a moment.
This is like a turn of phrase that’s really stunning in a story. You stop reading for a moment and think, “Wow, that’s lovely.” That may be true, but the story has stopped, right there. Same thing with voicing. Any time you make the listener stop to think, you’ve injured your story.
The point of doing different voices is to make it clear who is speaking–it’s not to make it sound like there are fifty people sharing the stage with you. If you really want it to sound like there are completely different people, hire some actors.
Now, with that said, you also want to use your voice to enhance the character and to help paint a picture in your listener’s mind. Even when I’m doing same gender voices, I tend to “lighten” my voice a little to make it more feminine.
But, besides the “audio picture” I’m trying to paint, part of the reason I do that is so that when I do male voices, I’m altering my voice to a similar degree.
Let me use a visual analogy. If you are watching a cartoon, you don’t think about the fact that there is no texture in hair or clothing. But, as soon as the animated character wanders onto a digitally rendered lawn, the fact that you can see every blade of grass is jarring. It makes the grass look unreal, and the character look unreal. They don’t and shouldn’t live in the same universe.
With voicing, if you want your cross-gender voices to sound real they must live in the same universe. So if you’re a guy and you’ve got to do a female voice, then don’t use your “natural” voice for a male character. Color your male voices to the same degree that you color your women’s.
Narrating is at once the easiest part of reading aloud and the hardest. It is the easiest because you don’t have to worry about character voice or distinction–or do you?
You do. That’s why it’s one of the hardest parts. The narrator is a character in your story and is the one that needs to connect to the listener. The voice needs to be distinctive enough that when you say a line of dialogue and then return to the narrator, the audience recognizes the voice. At the same time, it cannot distract from the story by being so distinctive that it overshadows the words.
The initial instinct is to use your own voice. This is a good instinct, but I’m going to suggest that you use a specific form of your natural voice. When we’re talking, there’s a number of different shadings that happen with our voice most of which have to do with Attitude. Your voice changes, subtly, depending on whether you’re talking to your mother, your boss, your lover, or answering the phone.
Your phone voice is a really, really useful voice. It will probably sound professional, fairly neutral, and slightly more modulated than your hanging-with-chums voice. You know the one I mean, right?
So let’s take that voice out for a spin. I’m going to give you a chunk of text to play with from Ray Bradbury’s The Fruit in the Bottom of the Bowl. Read this silently first.
William Acton rose to his feet. The clock on the mantel ticked midnight.
He looked at his fingers and he looked at the large room around him and he looked at the man lying on the floor. William Acton, whose fingers had stroked typewriter keys and made love and fried ham and eggs for early breakfasts, had now accomplished a murder with those same ten whorled fingers.
He had never thought of himself as a sculptor and yet, in this moment, looking down between his hands at the body upon the polished hardwood floor, he realized that by some sculptural clenching and remodeling and twisting of human clay he had taken hold of this man named Donald Huxley and changed his physiognomy, the very frame of his body.
Here are very rough, basic rules to start with.
Speak slower than you think you should. As you become more familiar with text you will naturally speed up. This is the first time your audience has heard the words. You should be painfully slow, in your own ears.
A period means pause and count to 2.
A comma means pause and count to 1.
Go ahead and read through it, just thinking about that.
Now, the fun stuff.
Each sentence has a word or phrase that is the most important thing in it. Take the first sentance of the second paragraph. “He looked at his fingers and he looked at the large room around him and he looked at the man lying on the floor.”
What’s the most important thing here? “the man lying on the floor.” Underline it, so that when you get there you put a slight emphasis on it. Now in that phrase, what’s the most important word? Man? That would be my bet. So a slight line goes underneath it, but you don’t want to do too much or you’ll break the rhythm of the sentence.
Placing emphasis can be as simple as putting more stress on that part of the sentence, the same way you put more stress on the accented syllable of a word.
There’s a simple exercise to make you more concious of using stress in a sentence to change the meaning. Say “The ball is on the table.”
Now I want you to answer each of these questions with the same sentence, changing only the emphasis of one word to answer.
What is on the table?
The ball is on the table.
What is the ball on?
Is the ball under the table?
The ball is not on the table, is it?
There are other ways to do it as well. You can use a vocal tremor, a dimenuendo, a crescendo, tempo, aspiration or a dozen other tricks. The key is to decide how your character, the narrator, feels about the moment. Remember Attitude? Go through this block of text and mark the attitude that you think your character feels. The deeper the penetration into the POV character, the more attitude your voice should display.
Bradbury uses the word “looked” three times in that sentence. The echo of the word can be powerful if it’s used right. Take a minute and think about how William Acton feels about each of the things he’s looking at. Perhaps the emotions could be wonder, disorientation and horror.
Another section to pay special attention to is this bit, “he realized that by some sculptural clenching and remodeling and twisting of human clay”
The verbs “clenching” and “twisting” are particularly visceral. When I was talking about words that were almost onomodopaeic, I meant words like this. When you clench something it doesn’t really make a sound, but you can manipulate the word to create a vocal description of it. If you tighten your throat–clenching it–the sound of the word will change. Find words like these and see if you can wring the vocal description out of them.
So read that chunk o’text again–after marking it–and see how much emotion you can get out of it.
What we’ve done with this exercise is gone from an emotionally neutral narrator to an emotionally invested narrator. There are times when each will be the most appropriate choice. Remember when I said about each sentence having a word that’s the most important in it? When you are using these ornaments try to pick only one per sentence, otherwise it’s like having a superflity of adjectives. It’s very easy to tip from emotional investment to verbal pyrotechnics. Make certain that you are making choices that advance the story.
The human voice is very flexible and we’ll look at the ways you can manipulate it. Remember though, that the voice uses muscle and you can strain it just as easily as an ankle. Pay attention and stop if anything hurts.
Your basic tools are Pitch, Placement, Pacing, Accent and Attitude.
Pitch is fairly self-explanatory. To check your range, hum from your highest to your lowest note. Of that, you probably mostly use the middle when speaking. While it can help color a character, it isn’t a good idea to rely on pitch alone to distinguish between characters, simply because you use more than one note while speaking.
There are several resonators which affect the tone of the voice. Put one hand on your chest and the other hand on your nose. Now hum through your range again. As you do, you’ll feel your chest vibrate at the low end and your nose vibrate in the upper middle. These are both resonators.
The facial mask has several other resonating cavities, which you mostly notice with a sinus infection. Ever wonder why you sound nasally with a cold?
You can move the voice from the front of the mouth to the back of the throat. Broadly speaking Russian tends to be at the back of the mouth while British English tends to be very forward.
I will now attempt to explain how to do this without being able to demonstrate. (Oy. Why did I think this was a good plan.) Okay, start with the nasal resonator, because it’s easiest to find.
-Hold your nose, say, “Nnnnnn” and try to get your nose to really buzz.
-Now remove your hand and try to talk, keeping your voice as nasally as possible. Use the phrase, “What did you say?” as your experimental phrase.
-Try adjusting the pitch while keeping the nasality.
A little bit of nasality can be used to make a “brighter” sound.
Next we’ll move to the back of the throat. Open your mouth in a yawn. Let your soft palate rise. Try to talk. Does it feel like your voice is at the back of your mouth? Again, play with pitch. Placing your voice at the back of your throat can make a “darker” sound.
Next, we’re going to move a series of consonants from the back of the mouth to the front. As you do this, pay attention to where your voice feels like it is during the “aaaah” portion of each consonant sequence. It will be subtle.
The series runs like this. Guh, guh, guh, guh, Gaaaah, Kuh, kuh, kuh, kuh, kaah, (I’m not going to write them all out, I’ll give you the consonants and you can figure out the pattern.) G, K, D, T, B, P.
Reverse it, moving from Puh to Guh.
Try saying our test phrase, “What did you say?” at each “location” in the mouth.
Roughly, and very loosely, that’s placement. I’ll talk about other aspects of placement when I discuss how to create specific types of voices like children and older people.
This covers everything from how quickly a character speaks to the types of rhythms they use. Is their voice quick, but fluid or is it staccatto. Slow and halting, or does it drawl?
Note: Generally speaking, always speak slower than you think you should when reading.
You can tell on the phone if someone is smiling, right? Technically, it’s a combination of the things we’ve already talked about, but fundamentally it’s about attitude. If you know your character, you’ll know how they speak.
Take the phrase, “What did you say?” Say it as if you are angry. Now, curious. Disbelieving? Great. Now say it like you’re a parent and a kid has just talked back to you. That is attitude. Attitude is your friend.
Chances are, this won’t be something you need to deal with. If you do have a character who has an accent for God’s sake, make sure you can do it convincingly. There’s nothing worse than hearing someone butcher an accent, it will destroy the credibility of your story faster than you can say “Run fer the hills.” There are a lot of tapes that deal with learning accents for actors. If you’re going to do it, do it right.
So, those are the basic tools. The nice thing about character voices is that you can be fairly subtle. Most of the time the Attitude and Pace will be enough. If you can affect Placement, that’s even better. What you are looking for is a voice that is distinct from the other voices and appropriate to the character. Of course, which of these tricks you use for each voice depends on the character for whom you are speaking.
Still, there are some basic types of voices, so I’ll talk about how to make a child’s voice as an example, and then later talk about aging voices and cross-gender voicing. A lot of this will be useful for other voice types.
The natural impulse for people is to shoot up into falsetto for kids’ voices. The trouble is that it alters the placement of your voice so much that it sounds ridiculous.
In singing one speaks of the Chest Voice, Middle Voice, Head Voice and Falsetto. Each of these resonates in a different place. Most people speak with their chest and middle voices–this includes children. So when you raise your voice too high to match a child’s pitch you move it into a different place.
The human voice uses a number of different muscles to generate sound. Generally speaking, the longer someone’s neck is the deeper their voice will be. So a child, with a short neck is also going to have a higher voice. In addition to the changes that happen at puberty, this has a huge impact on the pitch you hear.
That said, we respond tone as much as pitch. So to make a child’s voice, raise your pitch a little, but don’t try to do a literal match with kid.
The next thing is resonance. There are different resonating cavities that simply don’t develop until you’re an adult. To make a child’s voice you need to kill the resonance in your voice. Part of that happens by raising up to a head voice, which gets you away from your chest resonating cavity. Next, keep your soft palate down. And now try to make certain that you aren’t resonating in your nose, which you can do by pinching your nose. (Remember those exercises?)
You also need to add a tiny bit of aspiration. Aspiration is what happens when you allow more air to pass through your throat than is needed to produce sound. Remember the scene in My Fair Lady when Eliza is learning to pronounce her Hs? An H is an aspirated sound. People will also say something sounds “breathy” Think of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday.” A little bit of aspiration helps make the voice sound less supported and younger.
Finally there’s the pronunciation. This is going to change depending on how young your child is, but in the under-10 camp things to listen for are more pronounced dipthongs and softer consonants.
Great, but what if there’s a piece with more than one kid? Remember Attitude and Pace. You can also still adjust placement by making one voice more or less nasal. Or having a voice that is breathier than the others. Again, with this or any character voice you don’t need to push far to make it distinctive.
With all voices, the main thing to focus on is telling the story, if a character voice prevents you from conveying emotion don’t use it.
3d-printers I just saw this article about 3-d printers, which is like SF happening right now. I’ve seen a few things printed out by a 3-d printer, but I had no idea that the technology was becoming as accessible as it is. This is amazing stuff.
One of the applications that they are talking about is a thing where kids can design their own toys online and print them out for around twenty-five dollars. How cool is that?
6 tablespoons shiro miso* (white fermented soybean paste)
3 tablespoons rice vinegar (not seasoned)
1 1/2 tablespoons water
3 3/4 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon finely grated peeled fresh ginger
2 tablespoons vegetable oil plus additional for brushing pan
6 Asian eggplants(about 8 inches), halved lengthwise
2 scallions, finely chopped
Whisk together shiro miso, vinegar, water, sugar, and ginger until sugar is dissolved.
Brush a large shallow baking pan with oil and arrange eggplant, cut sides up, in pan. Brush tops with 2 tablespoons oil (total). Broil eggplant 4 to 6 inches from heat until it begins to turn pale golden and soften, 4 to 5 minutes. Brush generously with miso mixture and broil 2 minutes more. Brush eggplant with miso again and rotate pan 180 degrees (do not turn eggplant over), then continue to broil until eggplant is tender and glaze is golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Serve sprinkled with scallions.
Note: I used a regular eggplant cut into eighths and only half the miso glaze.
Sometime in the last week it started getting dark at night again. Last night I slept without an eye cozy for the first time (excluding my trip to Boston) for months. I still haven’t started seeing stars again, but seeing dark outside our windows keeps surprising me.
We climbed part way up Esja today. On the way back down, Steve saw a side path and said, “Why don’t we go back down that way?”
“Okay. But you know it’ll hit a point where it goes straight down,” I said.
Steve got a wicked grin and said, “Great.”
So down we went. At a certain point, Steve was ahead of me and stopped. The path, in fact, the ground in front of him had disappeared. “Hey, Mary. Guess what?”
“It goes straight down.” And then my brother vanished over the edge.
I followed him, leaning back on my heels and trying to stay on the vegetation instead of the sheer gravel slide that the path had become. The thing is that I’d always thought of Steve as a sporty sort of guy, but not as particularly outdoorsy. I’m wrong. Who knew?
I wrote this post a couple of months ago, but didn’t publish it because the episode had not been released yet. Now that it’s shown in the U.K…. but don’t worry. There are still no plot spoilers.
After we wrapped today, everyone trooped upstairs to watch Haunted Castle. It was so long ago that I had forgotten that I did the voice of the owl–the only voice I’ve done on the show. The 3D department did phenomenal work on this show and deserves major kudos.
One of the funny thing about seeing shots months after doing them, is that it brings back memories of the day surrounding the moment in addition to the seeing the finished product. So when Bessie is hanging the sheets on the line and there’s a closeup of her hands, which are mine, I remembered standing on an apple box in order to reach the line and that Emily was standing to my right to hand me the second clothes pin. Although, now that I’m typing this, I don’t think that bit was used.
Anyway, it was fun to see. I can’t wait to see the next one.
What a day, what a day. Julie normally does the live hands for Jodi, but she wasn’t in today because it didn’t look like he’d need live hands.
And then…it started as a simple thing. Can the puppet tap his finger against his head? It looked bad with rods, and Jodi had to enter the scene, but I thought I could get in there with “fake” hands. This is when I wear live hand gloves but am not attached to the puppet. We’re faking standard live hands. We tested it, and I could be there. It was one of the most uncomfortable positions I’ve had to hold but figured it was a short shot.
Little did I know that for the rest of the day we would be returning to that position for different angles or variations. Now, I don’t mind pushing through discomfort, but in this particular instance, because Jodi was coming to where I was, it meant that we were in a slightly different configuration every time. Not much. A half-inch here or there. But when I’m not attached to the body that little bit can be enough to make the arms completely unbelievable. Add to that the need to touch the puppet’s head. I look in a monitor and have no depth perception, so I have to base it on a kinetic sense of where the head is in relation to me in order to make sure I don’t miss it. That kinetic sense is blown when the puppet is in a slightly different place.
All of which means that it comes down to luck. It worked. We got shots that are good but it was intensely frustrating to get there.
I have not written anything today except this. I feel okay about that.
Right. I’ve spent the last two days trying to find an appropriate image for Shimmer‘s Autumn 2006 cover. After looking at hundreds of pieces of art, I would like to know why it is so difficult to find a winged woman who is not a) nude b) carrying a sword c) nude AND carrying a sword d) offering someone salvation–with a sword e) badly rendered or f) all of the above. Oh, wait. I forgot the bondage angels. What’s up with that?
So, I think we’ll be commissioning the cover this time.
(Tor Books – July 14 2020) Mary Robinette Kowal continues her Hugo and Nebula award-winning Lady Astronaut series, following The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky, with The Relentless Moon. The Earth is coming to the boiling point as the climate disaster of the Meteor strike becomes more and more clear, but the political situation is already overheated. Riots and […]