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Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 14: WorldCon with Mary Robinette Kowal

Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 14: WorldCon with Mary Robinette Kowal


Key Points: (1) Focus indicates thought. As a writer, you can only show the audience one thing at a time. Show them what you want them to think about. (2) Breath indicates emotion. Speed tells people how you feel about what you are doing. Writing is a way to capture storytelling to share with people when we're not in the room. (3) Muscle. Create the illusion that characters are moving of their own volition. (4) Meaningful movement. Every move should mean something.  

[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Mary] And I'm Mary.

[Brandon] We have, at WorldCon, Mary Robinette Kowal. Kowal? Kowal?
[Mary] Kowal.
[Brandon] We had lots of discussion about that.
[Dan] Five minutes of getting that pronunciation right have now been ruined.
[Brandon] Mary is a Hugo Award nominee this year for short story, won the Campbell Award for best new author... which I lost twice, but not against her... and has a short story collection coming out in November from Subterranean called Scenting the Dark. Next year, a debut novel from Tor which is Shades of Milk and Honey.
[Mary] Correct. [Scenting the Dark preorder at ]
[Brandon] That's in the spring?
[Mary] That's in the spring.

[Brandon] We are going to talk about using theater and film to... learning from theater and film as we write... or kind of adapting theater and film... what can we learn from theater and film? Okay, another five minutes of explaining the topic. Mary, you pitched this topic, tell us what you mean.
[Mary] For me, one of the things is that I'm a professional puppeteer. So one of the ways that I approach it is using the vocabulary that I picked up as a puppeteer.
[Brandon] Wait a minute. Professional puppeteer? Really?
[Mary] That is my day job.
[Brandon] Wow. Really. Like, you build puppets for movies and things or is it like...
[Dan] Can you go into John Malkovich?
[Mary] I am John Malkovich. I build for stage predominately. I performed some for film and television. There's a show called Lazy Town. So if you have a child in the 2 to 4 range...
[Dan] I watch Lazy Town.
[Mary] Yes.
[Brandon] We don't need a child in the 2 to 4 range. We have Dan.
[Mary] Apparently it's very popular with the 2 to 4 range and the college range for the drinking game that goes with it.
[Dan] I love Lazy Town.
[Mary] And then I design shows and perform. I've been doing this... this is my 20th year as a professional puppeteer.
[Brandon] That is awesome. I have a friend who once introduced himself as a cartographer. I thought that was the coolest way to introduce yourself. No. Puppeteer. That is way cool.
[Mary] I don't know. I think cartographer's fantastic. All of my friends are puppeteers.
[Brandon] So, you apply what you've learned from puppeteery to writing?

[Mary] Yes. For example, one of the things we talk about with puppetry is focus. There's five principles. Focus indicates thought. What the puppet is thinking about is what it is looking at. The same is true when you're writing. Because as a writer, you can only show the audience one thing at a time. You have to rely on their imagination to build that picture based on that one thing at a time you can show them. So when you are showing them something, you're controlling what they are thinking about. So what you are having them focus on needs to be what you want them to think about. And it's the same for the character, what my character...
[Howard] Wait a minute, you just said the reader is the puppet, didn't you?
[Mary] Yes, I did. I am manipulating the reader. And if you think it's anything else...
[Brandon] No, no, no, no, no.
[Howard] That's awesome. Because I got this mental image that was just creepy.
[Brandon] The reader is the audience, though. Cause...
[Mary] It's both.
[Brandon] In puppetry, you're saying you point the puppet at something, and the audience focuses on it. It's what the public is focused on is what the audience is focused on. Is that what?
[Mary] It's both. Humans... there is this form of puppetry called overt puppetry which is where you can see the puppeteer. The puppeteer is in full view. So the puppet is looking at something. Humans are trained to look at what someone else is looking at. Like if I'm talking to you and I keep looking over your left shoulder, you are eventually going to turn around to see what the heck I'm looking at.
[Brandon] Stop doing that, by the way.
[Mary] It's just the funny faces behind you.
[Brandon] Howard, stop that.
[Mary] So as a puppeteer, what I'm looking at is what I want the audience to look at. I am controlling what I want them to look at by what I am focusing on. I am also, as the puppeteer, controlling what I am saying about what my character is thinking about by what my character is looking at.
[Brandon] Can I embarrass you?
[Mary] Sure.
[Brandon] That's brilliant. That is awesome. I have never heard writing described that way. That's brilliant. That really is.
[Mary] This is the puppetry training.
[Brandon] So the first one is focus. I want to hear what the other four are now. I'm not going to let Howard or Dan talk because I want to hear the other four.
[Howard] Oh, no, I'm done. I'm all ears.

[Mary] The second thing is breath. Breath or rhythm. So we say that focus indicates thoughts, breath indicates emotion. And breath can be... this is a... sorry, some of this is going to be difficult because I normally do this with a visual... but the speed at which you do something tells people how you feel about it. The easiest example is with breathing. Tell me, if you... I'll do very aspirated breathing so it picks up. If someone walks into a room and they're breathing like this [panting] you know what's happened. They've just run in. If they walk into a room and they go [sigh]
[Brandon] That means they just left Howard behind.
[Mary] Yes. But it's not just... what you're doing is you're getting signals from the speed of the breath. So when you're writing, one of the things... everyone talks about pacing. When you're writing an action scene, the sentences should be short and choppy. The reason, I think, is not because action is short and choppy. It's because writing was developed to convey the spoken word. When you do short, choppy sentences, it mimics the sound of someone talking very quickly in rapid breaths.
[Brandon] That's very clever. A lot of readers don't pay attention to this. Even a lot of writers don't. But a lot of studies have shown that when we read, we hear the words in our heads. That's how we do it. We're actually imitating, we're playing it out in our head. Speed reading, generally, what they're teaching you to do is to ignore the voices in your head, so to speak. To not hear it. It's actually, when I tried to learn speed reading, it ruined reading for me, because it was no longer... so I abandoned it. I didn't want to learn any more of that. Because when you're reading fiction, you really are playing it out. Up until modern years, people when they would read, they would always speak it out. Even if you're just sitting in your room reading by yourself, they would read it out loud because that's what you did. Only now do we do it only in our head but even still we hear those words even if we don't think we are.
[Mary] Exactly. It seems so obvious when you actually start talking about it. I think that what happens is that people get focused on the word and like, "Oh, I'm writing words." What we're really doing is, we're storytelling. The writing is just a way to capture it so that we can share with people that we are not in the room with. It is a form of telepathy in many ways.
[Uncertain] Wow.
[Mary] What, it's not?
[Brandon] You can't see it, but Howard is giving her this confused Howard look. He does this on occasion. He's a cartoonist.
[Mary] But it is. It's taking a thought that's in my head. Then I'm handing it to you and I'm not in the room. Then you... if I've done my job... get the same thought in your head.
[Howard] That's not telepathy, that's mind control. I was worried...
[Dan] Invasive telepathy.
[Howard] Mind control I'm familiar with.
[Mary] Oh, that's fine then.
[Howard] I write things down and my goal is to write them down this month and next month have people four continents away laugh.
[Brandon] Or sometimes say you... did he just draw that?
[Howard] That happens actually often.

[Brandon] All right. What's number three?
[Mary] Okay, number...
[Brandon] I'm sorry. I'm moving them back and forth away from the microphone because... I don't know.
[Mary] Because the microphone is clipped to a book?
[Brandon] Long story. It's Jordo's fault.
[Mary] Number three is muscle. Muscle is the idea that the puppet is moving by itself. Even though it's obvious that a puppeteer is picking it up and moving it, you need to be able to create the illusion that it is moving of its own volition. This also ties into focus. For instance, when a puppet jumps up into the air, you have to bend the knees because you can't jump without bending your knees. When you go up in the air, the puppet looks up because it's thinking about looking up. When it comes down, it looks down because it's thinking about landing. The difference between a puppet landing like from a jump and a puppet falling is a puppet landing looks down because that's where it's thinking about landing and a puppet falling thinks about where it's come from. So you're using the two things we've talked about before -- focus and thought -- with muscle to create the idea that the puppet is moving by itself. The same thing happens with a book. If the audience can see the puppeteer, which is the author, moving the characters, then they are going to lose all interest. They will stop believing the book. It will break...
[Brandon] We want narrative to be translucent. People don't to see the man behind... the Wizard of Oz hiding back there making everything happen. It's... I often describe writing as like smoke and mirrors. It's much like magicianry. But puppetry sounds kind of the same way.
[Mary] They are very similar arts.
[Dan] It sounds like... this same principle is that you want your characters to have solid motivation. That if it's obvious something is happening because the plot required it to happen rather than because that's what the character would naturally do, it breaks that illusion of muscle that you're talking about.
[Mary] Exactly so. And also making sure that not just the character but that the world also makes sense. Like the number of times that you read something and clearly someone has not thought... like there's a tannery in the middle of the city. A tannery could not physically be in the middle of the city because the neighbors would go insane from the uric acid that's being dumped into the streams. I mean it just wouldn't happen. So that's a type of muscle where the author is like... but I need the tannery in the middle of the city, and they aren't thinking about the natural physical consequences of those.

[Brandon] So the fourth principle of puppetry that applies to writing?
[Mary] Is meaningful movement. That idea is that with puppetry, you generally speaking don't have facial expressions. Everything that you've got is body language. So it has to mean something every time the puppet moves. You'll see a lot of bad puppeteers who walk into a room and they bobbed the puppet's head up every time it says something. We call it head bobbing.
[Brandon] Very descriptive. Very nice.
[Mary] Thank you. Most puppetry vocabulary is in fact just that blatant. The problem is that it's conveying no information, so you're just putting a lot of mud on the stage. My feeling is that when a character... any time a character is moving... again, because I can only show the audience one thing at a time, that movement has to convey meaning. If my character decides to pick up a water glass, there has to be a reason that it's going for that water glass at that moment. So that it's conveying either an emotional content, plot content... that there is some meaning that that is conveying.
[Brandon] So no extra words is what you're saying?
[Mary] No, I'm not saying no extra words. I'm saying... well, maybe it is no extra words. I don't... it's not so much...
[Brandon] It's more than that, but when you said the head bobbing thing, I thought of sometimes... in writing, we talk about, don't use adverbs and don't use said bookisms and things like that. But I think one of the reasons we say that is because if you use them too much, when you do use them, they lack power. Is that kind of what...
[Mary] No. A lot of times, again, you know that there needs to be a pause in a piece of dialogue. So the... it'll be something like... the main character is talking and she says, "I don't like what you're saying to me." She looked away from him. "I don't understand it at all." Okay. She looked away is largely meaningless. Because there are many... what is she looking at? So, what you do is... "I don't like what you're saying to me." She fiddled with the knife on the table. "I don't understand it." That fiddling with the knife on the table immediately starts to tell you what she's thinking about, because she's... if she's going from "I don't understand what you're saying to me" to I need to play with this knife...
[Brandon] Yes. Put that knife down, please.
[Mary] Yes. The two things that I've done there is that I've given you some emotional content and I've also set the scene. So I'm using that one thing I can show you at a time to do two things and I've made that meaningful.
[Brandon] Okay. That's also very clever. Go ahead, Dan.
[Dan] I was just going to say an obvious example of this being used poorly is Jar Jar Binks. One of the reasons that people hated Jar Jar Binks even though they didn't know it at the time is because most of his movements were meaningless. They were showing off what they could do with this CGI puppetry and his movement was so loose and fluid that it was distracting and it bothered you.
[Howard] It amazes me that puppeteers call it head bobbing and not Jar Jarring.
[Mary] That's because it predates Jar Jar and we don't want to claim him in any way, shape, or form.
[Howard] Wise. Very wise.

[Brandon] All right, Howard. You're going to give us the fifth principle. What did you come up with?
[Howard] I came up with a writing prompt.
[Brandon] Okay. Go for it.
[Dan] Cheater.
[Howard] That's not cheating. Let's recap for a moment. What are these five principles? Or these four principles?
[Brandon] I wrote them down. Let me see if I got them right. Focus. Breath. Muscle. And meaningful movement. Am I correct?
[Mary] That's it.
[Brandon] If you do that, you can both be a brilliant puppeteer and a brilliant writer.

[Howard] The fifth principle is the writing prompt. Create some sort of fantasy magical setting in which puppetry requires a fifth principle.
[Brandon] Magical puppets! This has been Writing Excuses. Thank you very much, Mary.
[Mary] Thank you.
[Brandon] Now you're all out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: breath, focus, meaningful movement, muscle, puppetry, writing excuses
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