Thursday, December 4, 2014

Cosmic Wonder vs. Humanity: "Interstellar" and "2001"

Is cosmic sense-of-wonder incompatible with humanism?

I recently saw Interstellar, the SF film by Christopher Nolan, and the reviews repeatedly compared it to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  

The comparison raises a question, however, and suggests an innate limitation to SF film itself.  

Like 2001, Nolan’s film has visual outer-space grandeur and encounters with overwhelming phenomena:  other planets where humans are dwarfed by the environments, a black hole magically used for ultra-light transportation, and the disturbing relativistic effects of time dilation in heavy gravity.  Because of the time dilation alone the movie warrants its “cosmic” designation; it depicts realms more complex, peculiar, and “transcendent” than what we normally experience on Earth.  2001 did the same with its inexplicable messages from aliens, undefined confrontation with galactic “others,” and a transformative experience at the end of the film.

But there’s still a big difference.  

Interstellar is memorable not for its interstellar grandeur but for its emotional tie between an astronaut father (Matthew McConaughey), whose life passes at a slow rate because of acceleration and gravity effects, and his rapidly aging daughter back on Earth (played, throughout the movie as she gets older, by Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, and Ellen Burstyn).  Indeed, the relationship is so strong that it transcends the vast space and time between them.  The human connection triumphs over the horrendous distances between the stars.  


Yet the emotion in 2001 comes from the gosh-wow effects of big space and big cosmic powers, of moving into an area which is different from what we can know and control.  Humans are almost out of place here; they botch the meeting with the aliens by relying too much on a self-programming (and unstable) computer, and they make no decisions once whisked away and “remade”—if that’s what happens at the end, and our not being able to pin a label on what does happen indicates the point:  it’s beyond human understanding.  

Such emotional responses to the cosmos are suggested in Interstellar too—the big scenes of Saturn, that huge tsumani that engulfs people, the brooding icefields of the dead world, the gossamer chandelier of the black hole.  But the film’s viewers connect more to the relationship between the father and daughter:  her hatred of him for leaving her and his unflinching determination to return (even though he’s losing the daughter he knows as she ages past him), and the attempts to communicate between them when stellar communication is impossible or “garbled.” 

I’m not saying one emotional response is better than the other.  It comes down to which you prefer.  What I wonder, though, is whether you can ever have both responses in one film.  Are they maybe incompatible?

2001 was criticized for its lack of particularized and interesting characters, a claim they were too sterile or trivial.  Interstellar has characterization and feelings galore—it’s a love story between father and daughter, and there’s love between the Anne Hathaway character and the lone astronaut on another planet, and we also see the brutal effects of confinement and isolation on the Matt Damon character who goes berserk.  But 2001 hardly cared about such things (the only father-daughter talk is about birthday gifts, telephones, and the mother who went shopping—more materialistic than emotional, and the deaths that do occur are almost icily clinical—“Life Functions Terminated”).  What’s important for 2001 is the alien-spawned Star-Child at the end, and we never learn how “human” it really is!  Indeed, the most emotion in the movie is shown by the computer—which indicates just how far from humanity its characters are.  

                                                                   2001: A Space Odyssey

Meanwhile, Interstellar lavishes in pulling heart-strings and sharing lamentations, to the point where the characters hardly care about how grand, incredible, or overwhelming that black hole (and the universe) really is.  The father just wants to know whether it will get him home to his daughter.  

One film is cosmic and ultimately post-human. Its sole surviving human character is made into something other at the end—which says little for a human-controlled future, given the power of the alien interventionists.  The other film is so human that anything cosmic becomes secondary.  Its protagonist is hardly transformed by his experience of outer-space wonders and terrors—at the end of the movie, he still wants exactly what he wanted at its start; he follows his single-minded devotion and ultimately meets again with his daughter.   

2001 is so focused on galactic wonders that it maybe trivializes humanity, while Interstellar is so caught up in its human viewpoint that maybe it trivializes the universe.

And so the question I raise: are human experience and galactic experience incompatible?  

Or is this just a film phenomenon?  Prose science fiction has been criticized, and defended, as a genre where characterization is often generalized to cover the whole human race, where a protagonist might be a “representative” human being to confront and provide reaction to a changed future or incredible galactic events. 

But some classic examples in prose of compatible successes do come to mind.  Like “Nine Lives” by Ursula LeGuin, which uses cloning to demonstrate how humans are ultimately alone:  a member of a cloned “family,” whose members live together intimately and almost telepathically, suddenly has all his “sisters” and “brothers” killed in an accident, and he’s alone, which he’s never experienced before.  As the other humans in the story suggest, now he knows what humans always feel.  And Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris gives equal weight to both the “inhuman” story of the sentient planet (with its mimoids, symmetriads, and other bizarre phenomena that evade human understanding), and the “love story” between a terrestrial male and alien-created reproduction of his dead wife, where he tries to treat the relationship as “normal” and finds it impossible.  (Note that the Steven Soderbergh film version of Solaris did not even try to tell the “inhuman” part of the story—the weird surface activities of the planet are not presented at all.)  

Ultimately, I raise the question more for debate than to offer any conclusion (for, to be honest, I don’t want humanism and the universe to be incompatible, in film or otherwise).  I’m sure that defenders of Interstellar would argue that humanism doesn’t trivialize the universe but presents it as a formidable opponent, to show just how strong and precious human love can be in its triumph over any distance and time.  And the defenders of 2001 would say that if the universe is to be presented with any authenticity at all, then humanism has to succumb to its overwhelming power, to be flattened by it in order ultimately to be moved and transformed by it.  

And both arguments make sense.  

Maybe the word “cosmic” means exactly what’s implied here:  everything that’s incompatible with humanity.  

And maybe always will be.  

Monday, November 3, 2014

"Space Noir"

A review of my novel The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes called the work “space noir.”  I loved that phrase.  And though I didn’t aim for such a label I welcome it and find it accurate.  
The review, by Michael Wellenfels, appeared in his “Book Culture” blog, “The Shelf Life”:

. . . if Star Wars is space opera, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes is space noir. For me, noir trumps opera. I love the lone protagonist navigating a complex web of blind alleys, shadowy players and secrets galore – it’s the stuff that really turns pages, and Wendland does it well ( 

Thank you, Mr. Wellenfells!  I love that type of story too, and I’m glad mine worked for you.

But this got me thinking about the possible characteristics of “space noir.” I don’t want to produce a list of requirements—there’s no better way to kill the energy in a sub-genre than establishing a list of “must have’s.”  And I’m sure my own book would not satisfy everything on such a list (I had no list in mind when I wrote it).  But I couldn’t help thinking of the possible associations, and maybe even the background, of such a label.  So let me offer a few basic assumptions on what would permit this phrase to be used. 

First of all, there’s a precedent for noir stories in SF, though not many before the 1970s. The first inspiration (for me, anyway) was the Marvel comic Warlock from Jim Starlin, and then the starker, grimmer tale “Darklon the Mystic,” also from Starlin, that appeared in Eerie in 1976, a story of murder and revenge under an overly starry sky.  It used the standard noir locations of dark cities and grimy bars, but spaceships were included too.  A greater influence was the Dan O’Bannon/Moebius story, “The Long Tomorrow,” that appeared first in Metal Hurlant (1976) in France, and then Heavy Metal (1977) in America. It established the scenario of the hard-boiled detective walking the mean streets of a futuristic but dysfunctional city—with a nasty scene at a spaceport.  The next big example, inspired by the Moebius story, was Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner (1982), the most influential example of SF noir yet.  It was startling to me when it came out—I saw it 8 times within three weeks.  But Bladerunner was limited to Earth, specifically a grungy if futuristic but nearly unlivable urban world, with almost nothing natural in it at all.  Noir, but not really space noir.  And Bladerunner’s type of noir went on to influence most of the cyberpunk stories that followed, starting with William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984).  But these books were also often limited to only Earth or near Earth orbit. 
The kind of space noir I was interested in would be more free-ranging.  So here are some tentative, non-restrictive, and never required characteristics of a speculative sub-genre:

1.   As Wellenfells suggests, one common feature would be the “lone protagonist navigating a complex web of blind alleys, shadowy players and secrets galore.”  The person need not be a private eye, but someone who predominately, by choice or necessity, works alone, and thus is often more in danger—and ignorance—than a whole police squad or “galactic patrol.” And the hero could be compromised with a secret past, not eager to share his or her personality.  We get only hints of it, and thus the main character can become as much a mystery as the events of the book.

2.   Most likely, you need a murder, a drastic event to start the story rolling.  It could be several murders or a physical catastrophe that looks too purposeful.  But the murder should not be posed as just an intellectual mystery—this is no cozy, no game or puzzle for a Marple or Poirot to solve.  The murder, or whatever the event is, should be more than just a moral indiscretion; it’s also a slip in cosmic balance, something not right on a bigger interplanetary or interstellar scale. The story’s not just a whodunit, and the villain is not just a murderer.  There’s the hint of greater insecurity and of more going on—beyond the city, and especially beyond the planet . . . even “beyond the stars.”  

3.   The trail of investigation leads into space, not just to orbital stations or habitats but to other planets.  Indeed, as the story progresses, the bigger concerns and wider vistas overtake the simple murder, and the forces and motivations behind the act swell in significance, so the protagonist has to travel to different worlds or different outposts in space.  The involvement or problem can thus span the magnitudes of star-fields and the galaxy, and even, possibly, time itself.

4.   Setting is important in all noir stories; witness how the grunge future of Bladerunner’s acid-rained Los Angeles has become such a visual influence (internet depictions of Neuromancer’s “chiba” look an awful lot like it).  We can get a bright outer side of the future in space noir, but we also get the underside, a short look behind the scenes, at the underprivileged, the “discarded,”  just to show that the culture itself, no matter how progressed or technologically superior, still has its problems, and still tries to hide its seamier self. 

5.   And, as another part of setting, obviously not required but appropriate if included, there could be a scene at a spaceport, preferably at night.  As with most noir stories, there’s a sense of transience, of people dislocated, of old train stations and people on the run.  This spaceport is not just a bright stop with great restaurants and exclusive shops; it also has a seedy underside or underworld where people don’t want to stay hurry on to somewhere else. 

6.   And finally, and here’s where this type of noir would be completely different from more standard urban noir, it needs a touch of the sublime.  In traveling into space, natural (or artificial) phenomena are encountered that have all the characteristics of the sublime:  they’re overwhelming to human observers, they’re often beyond comprehension, they’re near impossible to describe (they challenge our standard means of comparison and understanding), and they’re frightening—and the fear itself can become an attraction.  Whether they’re black holes or crashing galaxies or exploding suns or planetary geologies in upheaval, they can be fascinating because they’re so new and alien, so unlike anything we’ve seen—captivating even when they’re incredibly scary.   

This last quality is important because, in urban-centered noir, the overly-powerful element that the small protagonist must confront is usually some characteristic of the culture—ruthless corporations, out-of-control technology, vast economic or social exploitation. Think of the eye of the cop at the beginning of Bladerunner staring out at the industrial wasteland that is human-made, a world of metal and brutal profit, of poison smog and climate collapse.  But in space noir, it’s something in the larger universe we must confront, something cosmic, some aspect of the way planets and stars and galaxies work, or a manipulation by aliens powerful enough to be gods.  Humans are not up against their own society out of control or their own technology running rampant, they confront some aspect of the whole universe instead, its secrets, its powers, its indifferent violence. There’s just more to deal with. 

I don’t know if that’s enough to define a sub-genre, but it’s a possible type of story I’ve come to love (Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination might fit as a good “classic” example), and I hope to deal more in it.  Each new book would have its own characteristics, like my next, In a Suspect Universe, which won’t be as close as my current novel.  But the next after that in the Ranglen “trilogy” should be more representative—it’s tentatively entitled Galaxy Time.   
All in all, these notions sound fun.  And creating the characteristics of a sub-genre can be almost as interesting as writing the book itself.  

Monday, October 27, 2014

Autumn, New England, and H. P. Lovecraft

            Most people returning from New England in autumn think pleasant recollections of yellow-red leaves, apple pie, white church steeples against blue heavens, maple syrup, quaint covered bridges, and rolling hills of brightly colored trees. 
            But I think of H.P. Lovecraft. 
            It doesn’t matter that the sun shone for the two days I was there (in Vermont, in October at peak foliage intensity), that all the people I met were friendly, that the town where I stayed (Woodstock) was lovely and welcoming, and that the forest trails to the nearby mountain tops provided delightful and peaceful excursions. 
            None of that counts.  When I come home from an autumn trip, the first thing I want are the gloomy, mysterious, lurking, frightful, and threatening words of H.P. Lovecraft.  Like the start of “The Dunwich Horror” where a man takes a wrong turn in New England and—

. . . he comes upon a lonely and curious country.  The ground gets higher, and the brier-bordered stone walls press closer and closer against the ruts of the dusty, curving road.  The trees of the frequent forest belts seem too large, and the wild weeds, brambles, and grasses attain a luxuriance not often found in settled regions. . . . When a rise in the road brings the mountains in view above the deep woods, the feeling of strange uneasiness is increased.  The summits are too rounded and symmetrical to give a sense of comfort and naturalness . . . 

The objects seen are not frightening in themselves—the ground, the stone walls, the curving road, the trees, the grasses, the mountains, the summits.  It’s the way they’re described, the words chosen:  “lonely and curious,” “press closer and closer,” “too large,” “wild,” “not often found,” “deep,” “strange uneasiness.”  Lovecraft is famous for taking objects that normally have standard “comfort and naturalness,” but then layering them with emotional adjectives that spawn an inescapable tension and fear.  Nothing really threatening appears, but the perception of it, the emotional reaction to it, makes the mood so uneasy. Mountain tops being “rounded and symmetrical” are harmless, but if they’re “too” rounded and symmetrical, then just that one word makes things suddenly weird. 
            For me, this stylistic game-playing is the great attraction to Lovecraft.  Even if such impressions are forced, a product of imposing emotional reactions onto harmless objects, the overall mood is still convincing.  His New England is not the one I encountered, but I still like to read of it—imagine it, feel it—when I get back home from it.  Keep the maple sugar!  In autumn, I want hints of cosmic terror, a lurking shadow of something not right behind the landscape—an ambiguity, a touch of vast and sinister presences “out there.” 
As said in “The Colour Out of Space,” “It is not because of anything that can be seen or heard or handled, but because of something that is imagined.”
            When I was a kid, my family used to go for weekends to a hunting camp in northern Pennsylvania, and my favorite time was in the fall.  Of course, there was all that color and scenery, but what struck me more was the sense of decay.  Of fleeting time, of all that you see accelerating into an unreachable past.  Change is so obvious in autumn—each day brings more leaves to the ground.  And it produces a sense of growing vulnerability:  the trees become more bare, the woods open and reveal themselves, lose their protection, lose their cover.  And since the nights grow longer, and the camp was near the top of a mountain, the night skies seemed closer, to the point where we could almost touch them—and if we could touch the stars, then they could reach down and touch us. 
            The bunk I slept in was on top, close to the ceiling . . . closer to the sky.
            Can you feel that Lovecraft mood creeping in?
            As said in “The Colour Out of Space,”  “at twilight . . . I vaguely wished some clouds would gather, for an odd timidity about the deep skyey voids above had crept into my soul.”  And:  “I hurried back before sunset to my hotel, unwilling to have the stars come out above me . . . the sinister stars.”
            While I was lying in the bunk alone and listening to the wind outside in the dark, another Lovecraft quote would be appropriate:  “in the autumn of the year, when the winds from the north curse and whine, and the red-leaved trees of the swamp mutter things to one another in the small hours of the morning under the horned waning moon” (“Polaris”). 
            The season of fall always brings impressions of Lovecraft.  In Vermont I saw Halloween decorations, even a shish-kabob totem tree of pumpkins on top of each other.  But I felt no feelings of  ominous haunts.  I crossed and photographed a covered bridge, but the sun was glorious and no headless horseman seemed near.  I even saw a lurking full moon pass in and out of clouds and paint baleful glows on white churches, but no hidden demons emerged.  And though the woods were sometimes quite dark with un-illuminated black hemlocks, and though the skies did become overcast and make the hills seem to close in with hidden threats, any sense of menace didn’t stay long. 
            Still, I’ll take Lovecraft’s moods. They bring back what always made autumn so attractive and so haunting to me.  They capture what hides around the corners—even if nothing hides there at all, it’s still here in my mind.  While I download pleasant photographs of tinted leaves and nestled farms, I can’t help imposing my own imaginative excess, and realize I walked on what Lovecraft called “the wild domed hills of Vermont” (“The Whisperer in Darkness”), and that, who knows, just maybe, I unknowingly came near “Unseen things not of earth—or at least not of tri-dimensional earth—[that] rushed foetid and horrible through New England’s glens, and brooded obscenely on the mountain-tops” (“The Dunwich Horror”). 
            And thus that kid from long ago, in the upper bunk that was too close to the sky, draws his tightly closed eyes a bit further under the blanket, realizing he’s in the scary state of “awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim” (Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature”).  
            Ugh!  The delight!

 An example of "the wild domed hills of Vermont." 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The 777 Meme -- In a Suspect Universe

I’ve been tagged by Heidi Ruby Miller for this year’s 777 Meme. 

            The rules are:
            Go to the 7th line of the 7th page of your work in progress.
            Post the first full 7 lines. 
            Then tag 7 friends.

            My current project is a prequel to my novel The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes.  Though it occurs before the events of that book, it really should be read after it, since the story in the prequel—called In a Suspect Universe—gains greater significance when read after the first book.  It’s self-contained and can be read alone, but the prequel will begin with this message: 
            At the end of The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, Pia Folinari asked Mykol Ranglen if he would ever tell her the “big story” she was sure he kept hidden in his past.
            He never said he would.
            But this is that story.

            Ranglen—the protagonist of the first book—has just been rescued from a storm in the desert on another planet by an amateur archaeologist surveying the ruins of an extinct alien race.  She’s working alone and she doesn’t trust him since she suspects he’s treasure-hunting at the site.  In an attempt to learn more about him, she insists she’s not after treasure herself, and we then get these 7 lines:

He showed no change at all. “Neither am I, and you can believe that.”
She wasn’t assured but she didn’t feel as threatened by him now.  His personality didn’t seem contentious or selfish.  But she knew—she knew!—he had secrets, and his real focus seemed far away. 
This disturbed her. 
Still, she felt she couldn’t do much else.  “All right,” she said.
He turned away from her and closed his eyes again. And this time, maybe overwhelmed by fatigue, he fell into a genuine sleep. 

            The two go on to have a tentative if difficult relationship.  But she’s correct that he does carry secrets, and the rest of the novel gradually reveals them. 
            She will regret learning what they are.
            The story will be an intricate brew of meetings in a desert, fighting on a tundra world against peculiar denizens of a “Blight,” and a frantic search across many planets.  For anyone who wondered why Mykol Ranglen in The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes is as withdrawn, guarded, and paranoid as he is, In a Suspect Universe will explain why. 

I tag: 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Reading Your Own Work, Aloud

I recently did a reading of the first chapter of my novel and several poems to the Morgantown Poets at the Monongalea Arts Center in West Virginia.  I enjoyed it immensely, and I have always looked forward to doing readings of my—or anyone else’s—work.  I teach literature and sometimes the best way to study a poem or a prose passage is to first read it out loud—to absorb how it sounds, how it flows, how the writer worked with the words, how the passages were chosen and precisely arranged to get just the right effect.  A poem is like music, and in reading it aloud you can hear the words sing.  

But not all writers enjoy reading their own work.  So many of us still get nervous standing before a crowd, thinking, “They’re all listening to me—to every word I say!”  Yes, it’s intimidating, and, to this day, I still hate walking into a classroom at the start of a semester and feeling everyone’s eyes on me.  Once I get going I’m always fine, but I do know what it’s like to be nervous, unsure, on display, utterly self-conscious, and so eager to finish and just get-the-hell-out-of-there. 

So because of all that, I’d like to share some pointers.  Now that you’ve written and completed your work, you now deserve to share it in the most intimate, sensory, immediate, and ultimately controlling way that you can manage—by reading it aloud.

Here are some tips. 

Practice.  This is essential so that you can time yourself and know how much you can read.  It’s sometimes hard to gauge times—I find I always take less time at the event than I do in practicing.  I presume that’s because I stop more in practicing to “get it right,” while at the actual event I just keep plunging forward.  But know that practice is the only way to get a notion of how long you’ll take.  Also, where you practice is crucial.  You need a place where you can truly read out loud—not in a library, not at Starbuck’s, and not near a room where your relatives or friends are watching television.  Find a private spot where you can close the door—a cellar, an attic, a secluded area in a yard, a deserted warehouse, an empty swimming pool—a place where you can shout as much as you want.  And then . . . read!  The robins or pigeons or mice might stare at you but they won’t notice any errors. 

Be organized.  This goes without saying, but you don’t want to be splashing through your notes or desperately trying to find your place—which you “just had”—when you start out.  So have all your passages marked.  Have everything handy and easily found.  And if water’s not provided, then you might need a bottle handy.  And be sure you can carry everything you need to the podium—you don’t want to drop anything along the way.  And, if you need them, be certain you can access your reading glasses. 

Check out the setting beforehand.  If you have time, it’s good to survey the environment where you’ll be reading.  Is there enough light?  Is the podium shaky?  Can you lean on it without it collapsing under you?  Is the room too hot, or too cold?  (Most likely, you’ll be too hot—just doing the reading should be active enough to keep you warm.)  Is the podium already cluttered?  Is it slanted enough that things might fall off?  Is there enough room for all your books and papers--and iPads and laptops?  And if you use technology, make sure it will do what you want it to do.  For a reading I almost never use it simply because I don’t trust it.  (A colleague of mine inadvertently entered a command by just the way he held his iPad right as he stood up to read, and all his material disappeared.)       

When you first reach the podium, look at your audience.  Walking up to the podium is always the scariest moment.  You might be on a panel instead and won’t have to do this, but let’s assume you’re a star and have the room to yourself.  To overcome that moment at the beginning when you’re most unsure, here’s what I suggest.  When you get to podium, look at the audience.  Don’t look down and arrange your pages.  You can do that soon.  But take the very first moment to look inclusively and widely at everyone who’s sitting there.  You might see a grouch or two, but in most cases the people are present because they want to hear you.  You have the advantage at that moment because you are the invited guest.  They’re pulling for you—because then the reading will be better yet and they’ll enjoy you more.  Also, when you look at them directly, you avoid imagining worse things about them. If you just look down, then the people remain undefined, shadowy, lurking half-presences that grow more threatening in your overwrought imagination.  So look at them first, before you’ve even opened your book.  You’ll make them real, known, and thus not scary at all. 

But when you first start reading, look at your words more than your audience.  That doesn’t contradict what I said in the previous suggestion.  I’m talking here about when you actually begin reading, after you’ve said a few words like, “Thank you for having me tonight; I will read from . . .”  I’ve noticed that when I start the actual reading, especially since I just addressed the people directly, I mistakenly look up from the book often to maintain the connection with them. And it’s mistake, at least for me, because when I look up too much at first I lose my place and trip over a sentence or skip a word.  I’m connecting with the people but not with the text, and that’s crucial at the beginning.  So, my suggestion, just for the first few moments of actual reading to prevent any initial glitches, pay more attention to the book and where you are in it—you’ll have plenty of chances later to regain that closeness and get your audience “into” the story. 

Take your time.  Let me repeat that:  TAKE YOUR TIME!  This is the best piece of advice I can give you.  The most common problem with readings is that readers go too fast.  I understand why this often occurs—if you’re scared, you want to get done quickly.  Or if you have a lot of material (and you haven’t planned or timed it) you feel you might not get to finish it all.  But the effects of speaking too fast are almost always bad:  a monotone, poor enunciation, not being heard well, and your eyes so locked into the text that the audience sees only the top of your head.  These words are yours.  You know they’re great.  So take your time with them and show them off.  Present them like treasures. You’ve worked hard to get them just right, so treat them like the precise codes of meaning they are.  Roll them in your mouth as if they’re lumps of ice cream, let the phrases glide through the air like the aurora borealis, and present your statements with grandeur because they’re your true findings and conclusions about life.  

Enunciate clearly.  If you take your time this should occur naturally. The more you slow down, the more time you take with the pronunciation of each syllable.  People have more problems understanding words than hearing them.  So make each part of each word distinct, don’t “slur” over the words, don’t let your voice drop in pitch and volume at the end of a sentence. And again, remember, your words are wonderful, so you want to make them heard—precisely, distinctly, roundly and deeply.  You’re conducting a symphony in language, so make sure the notes are clear. 

Make your voice carry.  You’re not reading to the first row.  They’ll hear you no matter what you do, even if you whisper.  You’re reading for the back row.  So you need to speak loudly enough for them to hear you.  Don’t shout, just let your voice come from deep inside you—from the diaphragm, I’m told, instead of the throat.  If you know your voice is soft, ask for a possible microphone, or ask everyone to move closer—tell them you want a campfire effect.  (Besides, if there are any editors or agents in the crowd, they’re probably sitting in back.)

Voices of your characters.  You don’t have to be fancy.  If you can’t master accents, or gender differences, or slang, don’t try.  You can suggest differences in characters’ voices by simply changing the pitch, making one a bit deeper than the other, or a bit higher.  Or you can just point your head in a different direction when you’re speaking in that voice.  This helps in dialogue:  one person talking slightly to the right, the other speaking slightly to the left (and, if your hands are free, when speaking “right” you can raise your right hand to make a gesture, and then use the left hand when talking “left”).     

And ENJOY IT!  My last recommendation, and it’s the best!  This is your moment, your material.  Everyone’s  looking at you not to frighten you but to share in your achievement, and you’re showing you’ve worked long and hard for it.  Such a chance doesn’t come often.  So savor it!  And—I guarantee—the more you enjoy it, the more your audience will.  Pleasure communicates.  If you’re having a good time, so will they. 

So get out there and have a blast.    

(See the links in the sidebar for two brief videos, the first of me reading from my novel at a panel of Dog Star readers at Confluence, and the second presenting one of my poems to the Morgantown Poets.  Thanks to Jennifer Barnes and John Edward Lawson  for doing the recordings, and the still photo above was taken by Michael Arnzen during the Morgantown reading.)