If you are at Capricon this weekend, I have cake for you. My mom’s poundcake, which is my very favourite cake. Come by the autograph table from 1:00 pm to 2:15 pm for cake. Cake, cake, cake…
But for those of you who are far away, and who cannot have any of my mother’s amazing cake, I have a science fiction short story as a party favour. This originally appeared in 2013 in The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, edited John Joseph Adams and is in my Punchcard Punk universe. For those curious types, it takes place prior to “Lady Astronaut of Mars.”
We Interrupt This Broadcast
by Mary Robinette Kowal
Doubled over with another hacking cough, Fidel Dobes turned away from his 1402 punchcard reader. The last thing he needed was to cough blood onto the Beluga program source cards. Across the cramped lab, Mira raised her head and stared with concern. He hated worrying her.
Fidel’s ribs ached with the force of the cough. He held a handkerchief to his mouth, waiting for the fit to pass. For a long moment, he thought he would not be able to breathe again. The panic almost closed his throat completely, but he managed a shuddering breath without coughing. Then another. He straightened slowly and pulled the cloth away from his mouth. In the glob of sputum, a bright spot of scarlet glistened.
Damn. That usually only happened in the morning. He folded the handkerchief over so it wouldn’t show, turned back to the 1402 and continued loading the source cards into the sturdy machine. Its fan hummed, masking some of the ragged sound of his breathing.
Mira cleared her throat. “Would water help?”
“I’m fine.” Fidel thumbed through the remaining manilla cards to make certain they were in the correct order. He had checked the serialization half a dozen times already, but anything was better than meeting Mira’s worried look. “The T.B. won’t kill me before we’re finished.”
Mira pursed her lips, painted a deep maroon. “I’m not worried about you finishing.”
“What are–” No. He did not want the answer to that question. “Good.”
She sneezed thrice, in rapid succession. On her, the sneezes sounded adorable, like a kitten.
“You still have that cold?”
She waved the question away, turning back to the 026 printer keyboard to punch a row of code into another card. Her dedication touched him. The Beluga program was huge and the verifier had tagged a score of corrupted data cards. He did not have time to send the cards back to one of the card punch girls upstairs–as if this were even an official project–and still be ready for broadcast. He had only one chance to intercept Asteroid 29085 1952 DA before it hurtled past the Earth’s orbit.
It had been a risk bringing Mira into the project, but when she asked for details he’d implied that it was classified and she left it at that. As far as the government was concerned, she had the security clearance necessary for the clerical work for which he’d officially employed her but then, the government didn’t know about Fidel’s Beluga program. They knew that he used this forgotten corner of the Pentagon’s basement to do research on ways to control spacecraft through computers. The additional program that he had devised to fit into the official project was something he had managed to keep hidden from everyone. So many times he had wished for someone to confide in and had nearly told Mira. But fear kept the words inside. Despite the years that he had known her, despite the strength of her mind, he feared that if she knew what he had created, he would lose her.
Ironic, that he now kept her close to be certain she was safe.
Fidel loaded the next set of cards into the feeder and stopped. On the top card, someone had drawn a red heart. He brushed the heart with his index finger; it was a smooth and waxy maroon, like a woman’s lips. The next card had an imprint of lips as if she had kissed the card. The one after that was blank.
He looked up across the lab, to Mira. She met his gaze evenly with a Mona Lisa smile.
Suddenly too warm, Fidel broke eye contact and loaded the cards, the nine edge face down. What kind of life would he have been able to give her anyway? Not a long life together, not happily ever after. Nine months in a sanatorium had done nothing for him except give him time to read the news out of Washington and brood.
Only his correspondence with Mira had kept him sane — knowing that she had agreed with him about the outrages against humanity. And what a relief it was to know that his was not a lone voice crying out: How dare they!
He had known what the Manhattan Project was when he had worked on it, but they were only supposed to use the A-Bomb once. The threat of it was supposed to be deterrent enough, and yes, yes, he had known that it would involve a demonstration. For that, he had remorse, coupled with acceptance of his sins.
The second town. Nagasaki. That had been unnecessary. And now… the new project. Launching bombs into space and holding them there, ready to rain terror on any country that disagreed with the United States. As if that were a surprise coming from President Dewey, an isolationist president who defeated Truman on the strength of his reputation as a “gangbuster.” His idea of foreign policy was to treat every other country like the gangs of New York. Well, no more.Fidel put the last of the cards in the 1402. “I’m ready to generate the object cards when you are.”
Mira nodded and did not look up from the 026. The clacking of the machine’s keys filled the room with chatter as she rekeyed Fidel’s code.
Her fine black hair clung to the nape of her neck. Fidel wet his lips, watching her work. The delicate bones of her wrists peeked from the sensible long-sleeved shirt she wore. Her fingers deftly found the keys without apparent attention from her. Mira stifled another sneeze, turning her head from the machine without breaking her rhythm. His heart ached watching her. Mira must be kept safely away from D.C. “Is everything still on for our trip tomorrow?” he asked.
She laughed without looking up from her work. “This is the third time you’ve asked in as many days,” she said. “Yes, I’m all packed.”
The punch machine clattered as she continued to work. “I’m glad you’re getting away from D.C. for a few days.”
“So am I. Happier that you’re coming with me.”
Her hands stopped on the keys and a frown creased her brow. “Fidel–”
“Nothing. I’m just glad you’re getting away. D.C. isn’t good for you.”
Without thinking, he laughed and plunged into a fit of coughing. His lungs burned with every breath reminding him of the gift he was leaving the world.
He had run the calculations, punching the cards over and over to check his theory against numerical fact. Blowing up Washington would get rid of the corruption and greed, but it would rekindle the tensions of the second World War and lead to a destruction the likes of which man had never seen. An asteroid crashing into the city would seem like an Act of God. The shock waves and ash thrown up would affect the entire world. People would rally together, coming to the aid of a country shocked and devastated. It would be the dawn of a new Age of Enlightenment.
Fighting to control the coughing, Fidel pressed his handkerchief against his mouth to stifle the sound until he could breathe. “I’m okay,” he said.
“I’m sorry.” The distress in Mira’s voice forced him upright.
He tucked the handkerchief in his pocket without looking at it. “Don’t be. As you say, D.C. isn’t good for me.”
She twisted her fingers together. “Why don’t you rest while I finish up. I can run the last compile on my own and you can check the listing for errors afterwards.”
“Please, Fidel. I worry about you.”
He had nothing he could say in response. She was right to worry about him and at the same time worry would do no good. His fate was sealed. Nodding, he settled in his chair. “All right. Let me know if you need anything.”
While Mira worked, Fidel let his head droop forward until his chin rested on his chest. If he could just close his eyes for a few minutes, he might be able to chase off the fatigue for a while longer.
A hand touched his shoulder and Fidel lurched upright in his chair. Mira stood beside him, a stack of punchcards in her hand. “Sorry to wake you.”
“No. It’s fine.” Fidel stood, trying to mask his fatigue and confusion. How long had he been asleep? The urge to check the cards one more time pulsed through him, but he’d done that enough and Mira was more than competent. “How did it go?”
“I haven’t run it yet. I… Will you check this?” She handed him the stack of cards, a few stuck out at ninety degrees from the others as flags. “They match the listing but I don’t think they’re right.”
He waited for enough of his drowsiness to drop away for her sentence to make sense. How could the cards be wrong if they matched his code? She was a smart girl but it was impossible that she could be critiquing his programming. Frowning, Fidel accepted the cards and sat down at his desk again. Flipping through the cards, he compared each to the lines of code he had originally written. The code handled the timing of the rocket’s navigation. It was scheduled to start the takeover on March 1st, three days from today and everything matched up. Mira hovered next to the desk, twining her fingers together.
To reassure her, he jotted the numbers on the back of an envelope and redid the calculations leading in and out of that code. “I don’t see any errors here.”
“What about leap day?” Mira asked.
Numb, Fidel stared at her. A blue vein beat in her neck as she stood on first one foot then the other. Leap day. Which meant that the rocket would not fire until a day late, by which point the asteroid would be gone. He shoved aside the pile of papers on his desk to uncover the ink blotter calendar there, as though Mira had made leap day up. Twenty-nine days. And he had only accounted for twenty-eight of them.
“My god.” His hands shook as he picked up the cards and began to recalculate. One chance to save the world and he had almost missed it.
“Then it is an error.” Mira nodded, pressing her lips together.
“Yes, thank you for catching that.” His pencil flew over the paper. The changes were minor since the only bug in the code was how long the program lay dormant before triggering. The launch date, though, was unchanged; only the interval between had altered. Which meant that he had to make these changes quickly. “Start keying these as I hand them to you.”
The lab vibrated with the sound of Mira’s keypunch machine as she replaced the six cards she had flagged. As she finished them, he flipped through the deck to check the serialization one more time and nodded, grunting in satisfaction.
“Well…” he said. “Shall we?” Fidel winced at the banality of his own words. Perhaps he could write something in his journal that sounded more appropriate to the moment.
Straightening, Fidel let his hand drop to the 1402.
Mira ducked her head and lifted one hand to rub the base of her neck as if she were pained. “Fidel–”
He lifted his finger and waited for her to continue. She bit her lip studying the cards in the machine. He waited. “Yes?”
“Are you… are you sure?”
“Sure about what?” His heart sped and he glanced at his desk, but the drawer with his journal was locked and it was only there that he had recorded his thoughts. She could not know.
She touched the cards. “Sure…Sure that your calculations are all correct?”
“I believe so.” He had gone through the cards often enough that he felt certain and time was running out. He put his finger back on the start key. “Thanks to the error you caught.”
“No…” she said. “I mean the other calculations. The ones about the asteroid.”
His throat started to close. “Asteroid?”
Mira nodded, tears brimming in her eyes. “I read the cards.”
“You read them?” He seemed only able to ask questions.
“So many people…” she said, trailing off as she choked back tears. “That’s why we’re leaving the city tomorrow isn’t it?”
He removed his hand from the key and wiped it over his face. She was never to have known. Such a soft and gentle heart should never be a party to what he was unleashing on the world. “I’m sorry. I thought I’d divided the cards up among the punchcard girls. I didn’t think any of you had the whole program.”
“I– I was interested in what you were doing so I printed a second copy of the listing when we ran it.”
“I see.” Fidel pressed his fingers against the center of his forehead, rubbing them in a circle. “Then yes, I am certain. Did you tell anyone what you read?”
“No.” She grimaced. “It’s just… This is what you faced when you worked on the Manhattan Project, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” He put his finger on the start key. “I had… I had initially planned to stay in the city when it happened. The T.B., you know. I thought it would be faster this way.”
A muscle pulsed in the corner of her jaw. “Why did you change your mind?”
“You. I wanted to see you safely out of the city. I wanted to know that I had not killed you.”
She covered her mouth, eyes bright with tears, and turned away.
“Do you…” he began. All of the work he had done, all of his calculations–he would give it all up for her. “Do you want me to call it off?”
Her voice was hoarse. “No. It’s just…. all those people.”
“It can’t be helped. But the new world, Mira. Oh, it will be chaos and the world will suffer at first but the dawn that follows…”
She straightened and turned back to him, placing her soft hand over his where it rested on the keys. Compressing her mouth, she gave a small nod and pressed down on his hand.
Fidel pushed the start key with a harsh click, and the machine began feeding the cards, whirring and clunking as it joggled the cards and then fed each piece of the program into it. From there it would get loaded into the magnetic memory tapes of the N5 rockets scheduled to launch in the morning, carrying a nuclear warhead to orbit. On March 1, his program would activate and override the rocket’s programming. The rocket would appear to lose communication with ground control, but it in reality it would be hurtling toward Asteroid 29085 1952 DA. Fidel’s program would cause it intercept the asteroid and redirect it to Earth and Washington.
No one else could program this. No one else would even think it was possible to hit a target so small in the vastness of space, but for Fidel, the numbers had always danced at his command.
Mira kept hold of his hand as they sat down to wait for the program to compile. He kept his focus on the machine rather than what mattered to him. She sat silently by him, shoulders hunched as though against the clatter of the card reader.
When the last one rattled through the machine and dropped into the finish tray, Fidel let out a long, careful, sigh. “It is finished.”
She squeezed his hand. “I thought it was just beginning?”
“More like a hard reset,” he said. He held her hand, tracing the lines of her palm with his thumb, grateful that he would not have to spend his remaining months alone before the T. B. took him.
Mira echoed his sigh and then sneezed, daintily. A cough followed, hacking and wet. He looked at her in alarm.
Mira waved her hand to brush his concern away. “It’s nothing, just a tickle in my throat.”
But he knew what he had heard. “Are you certain?”
She pressed her fist against her mouth and stared at the floor for a long moment. Lifting her head, Mira looked at him with bright eyes, chin firm. “Maybe we both should stay in D.C.”
Fidel gripped her other hand harder and bowed his head. In his efforts to protect her, he had killed her anyway. “Yes,” he said, “perhaps we should.”
Here’s where to find me at Capricon. Please note, I am turning 45 this Saturday and will have treats with me. And, you know, someone might just be going home with an ARC of Valour and Vanity.
Researching Foreign Times – 5:30 pm to 6:45 pm - Botanic Garden B
L. P. Hartley said, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” This means that authors who set books in historical milieus must research their period as much as an author setting their stories in a foreign land, and perhaps should approach the past with the same attitude they would approach a strange country.
Walt Boyes, Mark Huston, Sherrilyn Kenyon (M), Mary Robinette Kowal, S. M. Stirling
Saturday — My 45th Birthday
Autographing: Eisenstein, Hawks, Kowal – 1:00 pm to 2:15 pm – Autograph Table
I will be signing, yes, but I will also have treats! For you! Because birthday.
Phyllis Eisenstein, Laura Hawks, Elizabeth Anne Hull, Mary Robinette Kowal
What We Don’t See – 5:30 pm to 6:45 pm - Botanic Garden A
When an author sets out to create a world, there is a lot of detail that never makes it into the final story. Is it important for the author to know those details of the world?
Brian Babendererde, Dan Berger, Emmy Jackson, Mary Robinette Kowal (M), Kathryn Sullivan
Time Enough for Love – 10:00 am to 11:15 am - Botanic Garden B
Romance novels meet time travel in numerous works, from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander to Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time-Traveler’s Wife. How do these differ from a conventional historical novel? What does this form allow authors to do that they otherwise couldn’t do?
Laura Hawks, Mary Robinette Kowal, Mary Mascari, Rochelle Weber ([email protected])
2 Story and Their Histories – 11:30 am to 12:45 pm - Birch B
Mary Anne Mohanraj will read from her short story “The Stars Change” and Mary Robinette Kowal ([email protected]) will read “We Interrupt This Broadcast.” Following the story they will discuss the research they had to do in order to bring the stories from their fevered imaginations to the page for your enjoyment and edification.
Mary Robinette Kowal, Mary Anne Mohanraj (M)
Today actually began with snow, freezing rain, and many subway lines being down. A lot of the participants had to walk to the workshop today, but such was our zeal that pretty much everyone made it and made it on time. We traded stories of wading through slushy morasses and generally all seemed to feel a certain masochistic pleasure, you know… “Back in my day, we had to slog to puppet workshops through calf-deep slush, uphill! Both ways!”
Still, because of the transit difficulties, Marty, Peter and Matt started us with the Q&A portion that they’d planned for the end of the day. Questions were things like, “Differences between TV and film puppetry?” Answer: Very little. The biggest is that often you have a crew that has never worked with puppets on a film, whereas a tv show, because of the repetition, they are more likely to figure things out. Also, there’s sometimes a flicker on the monitor if the video feed is coming from behind the shutter.
Once we were all assembled, they started demonstrating how to do rolly work. A rolly, or rollie… hm. Never seen it spelled before. Anyway– a rolly is a small rolling stool, sort of like rolling stool in which the cushion is attached directly to the castors. Plus some noise dampening stuff, like a baffle round the outside edge and some extra foam to control echoes. They started with two characters, Telly Monster and Wilbur (not his real name), a little green puppet.
They showed basic tricks like, “loading,” which means stretching your legs in front of you in the direction you need to move, so you can pull yourself in, rather than having to move with little steps. Once positioned, you pulled your legs up, or tucked to the side to make room for the other puppeteer. They demonstrated changing position with other puppeteers. How to interact with a live actor and two puppeteers. Showed us how to “bobsled,” which is when you line up your rollies and straddle each other like bobsled racers. The biggest thing, through all of that, was having an awareness, through peripheral vision, of what was happening around you and making space for your fellow performers.
Then Matt and Peter stepped out, and let the participants start rotating through the scene. I hopped in to live-hand for Telly. I probably should have gone for the rod puppet instead, since assisting is what I did on Lazytown, and I have actually live-handed for Telly a couple of times (Back in Elmo in Grouchland, when Marty’s usual right hand, Pam Arciero, wasn’t available). I will admit that I headed for Telly simply because it’s fun and Marty is a joy to assist. Telly’s intentions are so clear, through the breath and rhythm that it’s like being partnered with a really, really good ballroom dancer. I just have to follow and not screw up. No idea how I actually did, but Marty didn’t grab the right hand, which is a way lead puppeteers will restrain wild assistants. On the other hand, he may have just been letting people screw around and screw up on purpose. Regardless… such fun.
Also fun to watch other people jump in and improvise. While they were doing that, Matt came in and said, “How many people here have wet feet from the slush?”
Most of the hands went up.
“Who would like dry socks?”
My hand totally shot up. Waterproof boots are great, unless they are only ankle high and the water/slush/doom is higher. The reason I tell you this is not to make you jealous of my dry socks but because this sort of generosity of spirit characterized the entire week. It’s not just that Marty, Matt, Peter and the folks at Sesame Street were willing to share their experience with us, but they think about us as individual people, too. My feet offer their thanks.
After that, they handed out actual Sesame Street scripts. I was in a group of six people doing a bit called “Sons of Poetry.” My team made a couple of mistakes. They had said that we had only twenty minutes to put the piece together so we needed to get it up on its feet as quickly as possible. They also said that twenty minutes was way, way more time than they ever had to plan things. So my team read through the script quietly, divvied up parts, and then grabbed puppets and tried to rough block it AND do our read aloud at the same time. That was a mistake.
Marty and Peter saw us and came to suggest that we should probably do a table-read first. (Table reading means you read it, usually at a table, without puppets) Basically, that would give us a way to figure out pacing and beats before we were attached to puppets. So we put the figures down and did that. We should have done it first, because the time we spent rough blocking, while not totally wasted, was not used as efficiently as if we had table-read it first.
We were up third. Now, I don’t have our version to show you, but I CAN show you the original Sesame Street sketch. When you watch it, know that I played Jax in our version, although we were not using those puppets.
I didn’t get to see that clip until I started writing this up tonight. What is interesting to me is that our blocking was very similar. The Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett characters were center screen. We had two Sons of Poetry on the left, and two on the right.
Our version was… rough.
We tended to sink in the frame. For me, this was straight-up fatigue. My puppet was one of the taller ones, so I was stretched to full height and on my toes. If I’d been thinking, I would have taken my shoes off, because I have a weird thing with the way my feet are built so I can go onto my toes and “lock” there. This is handy because it means that I don’t usually need an applebox to be taller.
A brief digression. When one puppeteer is too short, they put them on a box, which is called an apple box. Apple boxes are a weird industry term leftover from when they were actually boxes, that are now standard heights. The downside to having them is that it means the short person is locked in place and the tall people have to work around a box on the floor..
Back to the scene. As handy as it would have been to “lock” onto my toes, it’s also good that I didn’t because it means stocking feet, which would not have been a good choice today because… Midway through the scene, as the Sons of Poetry were heading for one of their huddles, while the Browning and Barrett puppeteers were backing upstage out of our way. One of them stepped on my foot as I was trying to clear, and caught me at at angle so I literally fell out of frame.
(Oddly, this happened on the first day as well — I will say, that I found both hilarious. While collisions happen less often in a group of seasoned pros because they are more aware of their surroundings, you do just sort of run into each other sometimes. Marty told us a story about getting actually knocked out during a scene. I also took an elbow to the jaw yesterday, but saw it coming and turned with it. Tight spaces. Limited vision. Hands wrapped in foam. Accidents happen. Most of my injuries in life have been from puppetry. Ask me in a bar sometime about the Little Shop accident that took me out of puppetry for two years.)
Anyway, I got the puppet up again as quickly as I could, but it was entirely without finesse. We had some missed lines and other bobbles. It was a good experience, but I wish I had a chance to run it again.
We watched the other teams run through and get their notes as well.
And then… it was over.
I wanted more time. Desperately, wanted more time. I felt like I was just hitting the point where I was going to be able to start finessing things when we had to stop playing. Of course, that fits in with the old adage, “How long does it take to make a puppet show? One more day.” A group of us went out for lunch and met up with some of the next group of twenty-five. We shared notes and were all sad that we wouldn’t get to play together tomorrow.
It was an amazing week.
I am sitting on the couch with a glass of red wine and a bag of frozen peas. The frozen peas are icing my shoulder after today. It’s not so much that I’m in pain as that I would like to not be in pain tomorrow. Icing after rehearsal used to be part of my daily routine, and it is an odd thing to feel nostalgia for.
Today was another amazing day and we spent a lot of time with puppets up. Today we were put back into our original pods and again rotated through the instructors. The emphasis today was on performance and acting.
My pod started with Peter Linz again, who put us through emotions and common physical movements, like jumping, hopping (not the same thing) and tripping. He set us up in a group of four on the monitor to start and just ran us through the emotional wringer. Since our group was up first, Peter was in with us and would demonstrate what he wanted us to do. Our job was to match the idea of the emotion, though not necessarily do an exact copy. Some fo the things are easy to explain like… laughing. You move the head to demonstrate the breath of the laugh, but you don’t articulate each “Ha” with a mouth movement. If you try a laugh with your own body, even a fake laugh, you can see why lipsyncing each part of “hahahahah” doesn’t make sense.
Other things are harder to articulate, like the specific movement involved in a bashful shrug. Most puppets don’t have articulated shoulders and collarbones with which to shrug, so it’s a head movement, which gives the sense of a character digging his toe into the ground, ducking his head, and hunching his shoulders, while being pretty close to only a head movement. Certainly there are no feet involved.
Most of this was familiar territory for me.
A new piece was fainting — the puppet, not me. Faints are most effective, apparently, when done straight upstage. It begins with a slow movement starting from the fingers, which control the upper jaw. Those tilt up and back, given the sense of the eyes rolling back in the head, until the eyes are basically hidden and then you accelerate down in an arc from the shoulder as if the weight of the head is pulling the puppet down. Surprisingly difficult to get all the pieces put together at the right speeds.
From there we went to Matt, who had my favorite class today (sorry guys) largely because it was the first time that I felt like I was bringing something from my writing life back to the puppetry side. Allow me to explain.
Matt’s sessions are focused on acting and doing scene work. Today we were paired up with scene partners. I had Frankie Cordero, who is a very good puppeteer that I’ve performed with before. This immediately gave me a leg up. The scenes that Matt gave us are called A-B scenes. I have not run into these before, or at least not known that I had. Basically, it is a scene that is dialog only without a lot of detail so you can push it in multiple directions, depending on the context you give the lines. Our job was to decide who the characters were, what the conflict was, and create a beginning, middle, and end. Then rehearse it with puppets. In half an hour.
Anyone who has taken one of my writing workshops — oh, heck, I actually have this exercise on my website — but I teach exactly this when I’m teaching writers about dialog.
Our scene was taken from Spare Scenes: 60 Skeletal Scenes for Actors and Directors by Diane Timmerman and was called “Syllables.” Frankie and I each read through and then talked about the things that seemed obvious. It was a couple who were having an argument. That’s not enough, so we started getting more specific and trying some different scenarios. We considered playing against the text and having it be all flirty instead. In the end, we decided to go with a couple playing Scrabble, he ticks her off by flaunting his superior vocabulary. She has had enough of this sort of teasing and questions the entire relationship. At first he thinks they are talking about the game, then realizes that he has seriously screwed up. Apologies and happy ending.
So where did Scrabble come from? Part of the dialog was:
A. Now that is rich.
C. Yes rich.
A. Is that a word.
You’ll note that the only punctuation are periods at the end of sentences. The actors are free to change the punctuation, but can’t add or cut words. So when we did this, I mimed placing four tiles. “Now that is rich.”
Frankie’s puppet looked at it and was all, “Rich?” as in “Really? That’s your word.”
My puppet said, “Yes. R. I. C. H.” (A little bit of cheating there, but I thought of it as altering my enunciation. Ahem.)
Frankie then rapidly placed tiles, looked up in triumph and said, “Caloric!”
My puppet peered at the “board,” which we were totally miming, and said, “Is that a word?” the same way people do at least once in every Scrabble game I’ve ever played.
Then we got up in front of the camera and did it for the group. This was a little nerve wracking because we hadn’t gotten a lot of camera time before doing it, but you know, no one else had either. I did a cross from left to right, that had made sense without the camera, but didn’t actually have enough space to do it for real without breaking the edge of frame, which is a no-no.
(Pardon me while I remove my ice pack)
When he gave us notes after, Matt suggested a cross from center left, which is where my character was seated) to down left and play the depth of frame rather than the distance. It’s the same idea, but an example of a difference between stage and video.
After the four groups in our pod each did their thing, which was great fun to see, we moved on to Marty’s room.
Here the fatigue began to show itself.
Marty put us through a whole series of exercises again. We did more stop and go. I kept winding up in the back of the group and had some trouble seeing the monitor, which was a problem. Understand, that it is my responsibility to find the monitor, and in a show setting, there would be one back where I was. Here? Wall o’ bodies. So that was frustrating because I couldn’t find a way to fix the problem but felt like I ought to be able to do so.
Then we did this thing where we’d start at the back of the frame, creating a wide shot, and do really big emotion, manipulation, and chew up the frame. From there we’d walk directly toward the camera to a medium shot, with a medium level of excitement and manipulation, followed by Extreme Closeup with small, subtle manipulation. I wish I’d gone later in that round, because I picked up some tricks from the other puppeteers that I would like to have tried, but there are advantages to going first, too. The bar hasn’t been set yet. La!
The last exercise was a focus one. Two puppeteers at a time. I was on the right, Frankie was on the left. The goal was to make hitting clean focus, which means that the puppet is looking directly at the camera, instinctively. Sliding on a plane, we’d send the puppet out of frame to the side and pop the focus when we came back in. Then down and up, same thing. This wasn’t about getting the focus into muscle memory, because that will change with every frame, but to rewire our brains to recognize and be able to hit correct focus quickly. Marty demonstrated first, and as he did it would say when it was correct, and when it was acceptable, and when it was bad. Clearly, he had a high percentage of correct, but it was nice to see that even at his level bad still happened.
Once we started getting a high percentage of correct hits, Marty began to make it harder. First, Frankie and I had to move with synchronization. This didn’t mean we had to move in the same direction, but that the beginning and ending of each movement needed to happen at the same time. He and I got that almost instantly and the folks that went before us took a little longer.
I used a stage trick.
It’s this. Audible breath to signal my partner that I was moving. We didn’t talk about it, but having that additional cue is subtle, and totally natural.
Unfortunately, getting that so quickly meant that Marty felt like we were ready for more challenging things. Now, it was slide in, hit focus, look at each other, look back to front, slide out and repeat. Again, we got this pretty fast. Yay, breath.
Now we had to slide in, hit focus, look at each other, open our mouths, look back to front, slide out and repeat. Right about here is where my brain started just saying “No.” At first, I was fine. I thought we were moving in pretty good sync.
Then Marty said, “You two are doing one thing differently, do you know what it is?”
Frankie and I looked at each other. “Um… No.”
“Does anyone else know? Don’t tell them.”
The entire class said, “Yes!”
“Try it again and see if you can spot it.”
The moment we started again, I realized that Frankie was keeping his puppet’s mouth open as he looked back to front, while I had been closing mine. I tried to change to match him. and my brain completely shut down. I stopped being able to tell right from left and up from down. All of my monitor skills were just deleted from my brain. And here, I can only say, “Thank God, I’m forty-five,” because I had enough sense to stop, laugh, shake it off, and put the puppet back up. Then we nailed it.
Then we went to lunch.
Frankie and I had lunch together so we could work through our scene and make some specific blocking decisions, and refine our beats. Also to just shoot the breeze.
After lunch, all twenty five people were back in the main studio. We were given puppets and half an hour to rehearse. Then everyone started performing for each other. They were recording the scenes (No. I don’t have a copy to show you.) so that we could watch playback while Marty, Peter, and Matt gave us notes. I will just say that Frankie and I showed well,
The format that the notes took was that they would ask the group, “Could you tell what their relationship was?”
“What were they doing?”
And then from there, they gave specifics about what we could do to improve the scene. Things like, “You could raise the stakes, by standing with more force.” After they gave the notes then they showed playback of the scene so we could keep those notes in mind while we watched. The difference in my performance level between today and yesterday is noticeably improved.
One of the groups in another pod had the same scene and did a totally different interpretation with a teacher and a student. It was a lot of fun to see all the different ways people interpreted scenes.
Though I am saying less about the afternoon, we went from 2:00 until 6:30 on the acting stuff. But since writing it up would involve a play-by-play of other participants’ scenes, and I didn’t ask anyone for permission to do that, I’m going to skip it.
And now, I am going to finish my glass of red wine and go to bed. Tomorrow we have only a half day, but I will still need my full brain to survive.
Bonus random quote: “If you’re going to stuff the chicken, stuff the chicken”
So this is the week that I’m at the Sesame Street puppetry workshop. It is fun. Oh, guys… it is so much fun.
Trying to describe it for you, that’s harder. It’s such a movement based form and a lot of the moments of ah-ha! are involving subtle things like the precise angle of your hand and the difference that a single millimeter can make. Not even exaggerating there.
But I’ll try, because I’m supposed to also be a writer and all good with words and stuff.
There are twenty-five of us in this session. 300 people auditioned. They narrowed it to 50 and we’re split into two sessions. Then those sessions, they split down into 8 person “pods.” There are three instructors, Marty Robinson, Matt Vogel, and Peter Linz. The participants range from people who are brand new at this to people who work for Henson and everywhere in between. Some folks I’m old friends with. Some I’m just meeting. Everyone is nice. EVERYONE. It’s a great group.
In the morning, we started at 10, with a brief orientation session and then were sent off in our pod to one of the instructors. They are having us rotate between the instructors, which is kind of funny because it feels oddly like class change in highschool. I keep thinking I should start passing notes.
My first session was with Peter Linz. Peter and I have known each other since before he started at Sesame Street and he is my oldest puppetry friend. He is brilliant at this and a damn good teacher. They had told us that they were going to start with some basics, just to help them assess where we are were. Peter’s first exercise is the same one I use when I teach probably because we both trained at the Center for Puppery Arts. Recognizing the form of the exercise is not the same as having the execution, and usually I do tabletop puppetry not video. So it was familiar and strange all at the same time.
Basically, you walk the puppet into frame, turn to the camera and say, “I came from over there [look] and I’m going over there [look]. Nice talking to you. [focus on camera.] Goodbye.” And then walk out.
Sounds dead simple, right?
Yeah… Walking was fine. Focus was fine. Lipsync was sloppy. There was a very slight delay on the monitor and I honestly don’t know if I was being thrown by that or if I was just out of practice. I suspect that it was a combination. I am out of practise, so the slight delay threw me more than it should have. Think of it like hearing your own voice when talking, but a movement based thing.
Anyway, Peter was super and helped me correct a couple of things. That millimeter difference? It was how far I was turning the puppet’s head and the angle at which I was turning it. It was the difference between, “That puppet moved” and “That puppet is looking.” Know what I mean? He’s just so good at instantly seeing what you are doing and how to adjust it. It was really exciting to feel improvement at the end of just an hour. We did some other back to basics stuff, but with a focus on nuance.
Then we went to Matt Vogel, who’s focus was on the acting aspects of puppetry. Although we were still doing basic things like entering, saying our name and exiting, the emphasis here was on making sure that we were moving with intention. The first session was very much an evaluation of our individual baselines, but even so the small tips were great.
After Matt, we went to Marty. I’ve known Marty almost as long as Peter and have performed with him before. This is the fist time I’ve been formally instructed by him though. Again, we were entering, talking to the camera, and exiting. The first session with him, my lipsync was clean. It got sloppy again later, which might be fatigue or maybe that I was trying to speed up. Hard to say.
You will notice me obsessing on this. It falls into the category of things that I used to be really, really good at and it’s atrophied because it’s a muscle memory and I’m not performing regularly these days. It’ll come back fast but… the difference between what I remember being able to do and what I am currently doing is a little frustrating.
Marty then had us start doing group work and this was great. It was a lot about how to compose a frame so it looks good. One of the ways that video puppetry differs from stage is the monitor. It’s basically a television that shows you what the camera is seeing. As a video puppeteer, you are not only acting with the puppet but also helping compose the frame. It’s very much like an actor hitting their marks or cheating to give another perform room in a scene. The difference is that you can see when the other puppeteer needs more space and then adapt to them.
Then it was time for lunch.
Yeah… The morning was packed.
After lunch we were put into new pods and then rotated between our three instructors again. My new pod started with Marty. We did a lot more group work. One person would start a scene, then another character would enter and engage them in conversation. Character 1 would exit, leaving character 2 alone. Character 3 would enter, and you’d just repeat that cycle until we’d rotated through all 8 puppeteers. It was very much about give and take.
We also played something called “stop and go.” Six of us in the frame, which is crowded, and you just milled about until Marty stopped moving his puppet. At that point, no matter where you were, you had to look front and try to adjust to make the frame look good. Sometimes, in the back, it was hard to see the monitor. That makes it challenging, but not an excuse.
Then we did some choreography, very mild. Moving in unison is important and can also totally throw people. I was fine on all the left right, up down, back forwards. When we got to the figure eights with our heads… I apparently just stopped being able to process. Suuuuuucked at that. I’m going to set up the monitor tonight and see if I can figure out why. Marty also had us practiced double-takes. Synchronized group double-takes.
From there we went to Peter again, for more walking and staples of choreography. By this point, I felt like I was back in the saddle again. Thank god. He had me walk left and right. Then downstage right and left diagonal crosses — I should explain that the reason these are hard is that you have to change your height as you get closer to the camera, in order to make it look like the puppet is remaining the same height. It can be tricky so I was relieved that I remembered how to do them.
Um… what else. Oh. More choreography, this time in a group while singing “Twinkle Twinkle.”
Then to Matt who had us do improv exercises with the puppets. As an example: Three puppets in the scene. One puppet starts solo. The second enters and says, “Hello” then — oh, heck. The only thing we were allowed to say was “hello.” The purpose of the exercise was to give the word intention and to learn to share the frame with the other puppeteers.
We ended the day with all twenty-five us in one room and the instructors. They did a demonstration of assisting, which means two puppeteers on a single puppet. It is so nice to watch them work because all three of them are amazing performers and work together effortlessly. Or, as Marty says, “I make the same mistakes you guys do, I’ve just done this enough that I can correct them fast enough that you don’t see them.” After that we broke into groups of four and did improv scenes.
Ours was about a drill sergeant who was supposed to conduct a test, but all of his soldiers faked a horrible illness in order to get out of it. Silly but fun. Because our group had five people, I offered to live hand for the drill sergeant.
And…. that was the day. Tomorrow we’re apparently doing more scene stuff. I can’t wait.
You guys… today was so much fun. I was smiling so much that my face hurts more than my arm.
Bonus quote: “Make sure you don’t show the pooper.”
This is the third year for the Month of Letters Challenge. It’s a simple thing, really, just to encourage you to slow down. The challenge goes like this:
In the month of February, mail at least one item through the post every day it runs. Write a postcard, a letter, send a picture, or a cutting from a newspaper, or a fabric swatch.
Write back to everyone who writes to you. This can count as one of your mailed items.
All you are committing to is to mail 23 items. Why 23? There are four Sundays and one US holiday. In fact, you might send more than 23 items. You might develop a correspondence that extends beyond the month.
Clearly, I’m participating in this but… for those of you who like my books I have an additional twist. If you write to Jane or Vincent, “they” will write back to you from 1817 using an actual quill, wax seal and the whole nine yards.
Jane, Lady Vincent or Sir David Vincent
c/o Mary Robinette Kowal
P.O. Box 221298
Chicago, IL 60622
The letter will be “real time” for them, which means that it is February 1817 for Jane and Vincent. You’ll be catching them between the events of Without a Summer and before Valour and Vanity has begun.
Adam Christopher is joining us today with his novel Hang Wire. Here’s the publisher’s description.
Ted is worried. He’s been sleepwalking, and his somnambulant travels appear to coincide with murders by the notorious Hang Wire Killer.
Meanwhile, the circus has come to town, but the Celtic dancers are taking their pagan act a little too seriously, the manager of the OldeWorlde Funfair has started talking to his vintage machines, and the new acrobat’s frequent absences are causing tension among the performers.
Out in the city there are other new arrivals – immortals searching for an ancient power – a primal evil which, if unopposed, could destroy the world.
What’s Adam’s favorite bit?
Look, I’ll be the first to admit it: there is a heck of a lot going on in Hang Wire. If it’s not exploding fortune cookies and a masked acrobat chasing a serial killer, it’s a Hawaiian God of Death and a mythological warrior-king from ancient Korea searching for the lost power of a murdered Chinese trickster god. There’s a sentient – and quite malevolent – circus fairground, not to mention something unspeakably old and shapeless slumbering underneath San Francisco.
Picking a favorite thing from all of that is actually pretty difficult, but the more I think about it, the more it comes back to one particular character: Joel Duvall.
Joel is a wanderer. When we first meet him, he’s deep in the middle of Indian Territory in April 1889. Part of the great Oklahoma Land Rush, Joel has nothing left to lose as he marches on foot across the open country, ready to stake his claim.
Move forward to the present, and Joel is the oddball operator of a circus fairground. One eye is white, his clothes are old and dusty and he wears a ridiculous stovepipe hat. People don’t like him, and for good reason. He doesn’t mix with the company, and at night he talks to the fairground rides.
And the fairground rides talk back.
Joel was right there at the beginning, when I first made notes on what would become Hang Wire. He was the villain – or rather, the personification of the evil that had arrived in San Francisco. Because while Joel is a nasty son-of-a-something-or-other, he’s also a pawn. He’s being used by something far worse, an evil that is almost beyond human understanding; an evil that needs a puppet to carry out the tasks that it can’t.
The more I wrote, the better I came to understand Joel and his situation – he was looking for salvation, not servitude. And while the evil thing he found has kept him ageless from the late Nineteenth Century to the early Twenty-First, all he really wants is to find a way out.
Joel’s journey from Indian Territory to modern-day San Francisco became a new part of the novel, one I never planned to write, but really added something to the story. His journey, told as a series of interludes, is almost entirely separate from the main book, but those sections were a lot of fun to write. There’s murder, and mayhem, and an alien power pushing him to carry on – a power channeled through a coin in his pocket, as Joel discovers when he finds something hiding in a cave:
Joel gritted his teeth and slid his fingers into the pocket where the fob watch should have been, had he not hocked it somewhere back in Tennessee the previous week, getting just enough money to reach Indian Territory by high noon. The watch was nothing and was worth virtually the same, but it had been just enough. The coin was worth a lot, Joel knew that, even if it wasn’t gold like his daddy told him (but it was, it was). But the coin was his father and his father marched with him, to the west, to the future.
Joel took the coin between two fingers and pulled it out. It was cold, although not burning cold like it had been moments before. Joel held it up and turned each side in the sun, the embossed bird on each catching the sunlight and shining, shining like the eagle itself was alive.
And then Joel heard the voice again.
Alas, poor Joel. If only things had gone differently…
Adam Christopher is a novelist, the author of Empire State, Seven Wonders, The Age Atomic, Hang Wire, and the forthcoming The Burning Dark. In 2010, as an editor, Christopher won a Sir Julius Vogel award, New Zealand’s highest science fiction honour. His debut novel, Empire State, was SciFiNow’s Book of the Year and a Financial Times Book of the Year for 2012. In 2013, he was nominated for the Sir Julius Vogel award for Best New Talent, with Empire State shortlisted for Best Novel. Born in New Zealand, he has lived in Great Britain since 2006.
Myke Cole is joining us today with his novel Breach Zone. Here’s the publisher’s description.
The Great Reawakening did not come quietly. Across the country and in every nation, people began “coming up Latent,” developing terrifying powers—summoning storms, raising the dead, and setting everything they touch ablaze. Those who Manifest must choose: become a sheepdog who protects the flock or a wolf who devours it…
In the wake of a bloody battle at Forward Operating Base Frontier and a scandalous presidential impeachment, Lieutenant Colonel Jan Thorsson, call sign “Harlequin,” becomes a national hero and a pariah to the military that is the only family he’s ever known.
In the fight for Latent equality, Oscar Britton is positioned to lead a rebellion in exile, but a powerful rival beats him to the punch: Scylla, a walking weapon who will stop at nothing to end the human-sanctioned apartheid against her kind.
When Scylla’s inhuman forces invade New York City, the Supernatural Operations Corps are the only soldiers equipped to prevent a massacre. In order to redeem himself with the military, Harlequin will be forced to face off with this havoc-wreaking woman from his past, warped by her power into something evil…
What’s Myke’s favorite bit?
When I first got my book deal and moved to New York City, I was eager to launch my life as a writer. I spend the majority of my time in the intensely conservative institutions of law enforcement and the military, and I was looking forward to forging deeper into a social circle that was progressive and diverse.
When a friend hit town and asked me to meet her at the Romance Writers of America (RWA) conference in Times Square, I threw on my Chuck Taylors (hey, I live in Brooklyn), and jumped on the subway over there. I rode the escalator up, wondering what the crowd would look like. I’ve pretty much lived my whole live in SF/F conventions, but this was my first time ever going to a gathering of romance writers and fans.
I crested the escalator and my jaw dropped open. There were thousands of people on the con floor.
And not a single male.
When my friend and I took our seats, I asked her why this was. “There have to be some men writing in this genre,” I said. “Not many,” she answered, “and the ones that are writing category romance do so under female pseudonyms.”
So much for diversity. I hit the ceiling. It was wrong when fantasy writers like C.S. Freidman, Andre Norton and Robin Hobb had to choose deliberately ambigious pseudonyms because women weren’t supposed to write fantasy, and it was wrong that men should do the same for romance. I resolved then and there to change it. I was going to be the first male category romance writer to publish a work in the genre under his own name.
I went on this same tear with a friend of mine who had been an editor for Harlequin, one of the major romance imprints. “That’s all well and good,” she said, “but you can’t just waltz into a genre you know nothing about and expect to be successful. You need to learn your trade. You have a lot of reading to do.”
Good advice. I took it. I read and read and read and still do read romance. I was amazed at how central character was to the genre, how these seemingly plotless stories were pulled along by agendas clashing, how transporting it was to see protagonists fleshed out until they felt like real people.
I was in awe of the skill involved. I felt sure I could never equal it.
Which brings me to my favorite bit of BREACH ZONE, my 3rd novel.
BREACH ZONE is a war story, as are all the books of the SHADOW OPS series. They center on the US military, and feature a lot of action, hardware and explosions, spinning rotors and rounds downrange.
But in BREACH ZONE, I began to explore the backstory of two of the main antagonists from the first novel in the series. Their storylines merged and intertwined until I sat back, reading this bit:
“I’m sorry, Grace,” Harlequin said, his voice breaking. “I’m so sorry.”
She covered the rest of the distance on her knees, rose unsteadily do her feet. Her voice went smooth, her eyes little- girl wide. “I thought maybe you loved me.”
Harlequin wasn’t fooled, but it didn’t stop the tears from coming as he answered her lie with truth. “I thought maybe I did, too.”
And that blew me away. Because I realized that all that reading in the romance genre had percolated into my brain, flowed unconsciously into my story.
BREACH ZONE is a war story, absolutely.
But it is also a love story.
And it is so soso much better for it.
As a security contractor, government civilian and military officer, Myke Cole’s career has run the gamut from Counterterrorism to Cyber Warfare to Federal Law Enforcement. He’s done three tours in Iraq and was recalled to serve during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
All that conflict can wear a guy out. Thank goodness for fantasy novels, comic books, late night games of Dungeons and Dragons and lots of angst fueled writing.
It is one of the great tragedies of my life that I cannot include this TOTALLY LEGIT steam-powered wheelchair from 1811 in my novels, because it will look steampunk. Even though it is a real thing — or at least was proposed as a real thing and published in Ackerman’s, it is so out of keeping with what people imagine the Regency era to be like, that there’s no way to include it without it appearing to be an invention of mine.
Sure, I could expend energy and wordcount to making people believe that it fits into the story, but they will never, ever, believe that I didn’t make it up. Since I’m not writing steampunk with the Glamourist Histories, it will make the books feel like something that they aren’t. If the plot in Of Noble Family turned upon it, that might be worth it. Since it doesn’t, I just have to sigh over the chair.
Also… the fact that this was invented by a guy named Merlin?
No. Way. No way could I ever get anyone to buy into it as a real historical thing. The reason people say, “You can’t make this stuff up” is that you can, but no one will believe you.
But oooooh…. Isn’t it cool?
Is there a native Italian speaker who could record this sentence for me? I took Italian in high school so can pronounce all the individual words, but my rhythmic flow is sounding very American.
“Signore e signori, devo chiedervi di andare sotto coperta per la vostra sicurezza.”
If you can say it slowly once and then once as if you are shouting a passengers on a ship about to be attacked by pirates, that would be lovely. Then I can listen to it and try to copy your rhythms for the recording. Because this is a sailor, his origin is undefined so I’ll take any regional variation.
Make me a heifer. For charity! I mean… That actually makes more sense than it sounds at first blush.
You’ve heard me talk about Pat Rothfuss’s Worldbuilders charity before. The basic idea is that the money you donate goes to Heifer International which “helps people raise themselves up out of poverty and starvation. Heifer promotes education, sustainable agriculture, and local industry all over the world. ”
One of the ways they do this is by helping families become more self-sustaining through the gift of goats, sheep, and chickens to families. And heifers. They break things down on the site to make it easier to visual exactly what your money is doing.
Water Buffalo $250+
Sheep or Goat $120+
Flock of Chicks $20+
Here’s where you come in. I donated a tuckerization to Worldbuilders, which means that I’ll use your name in a novel or short story. So not only do you turn up in one of my books, but you also get to help out families in need. It’s a chance to be a geek and to use your geeky power for good.
At the moment the auction is at $420. I want to be a heifer.
Edited: AS OF 5:07 PM the auction is at $1025.00 so I am officially two heifers. I don’t know who you are, but you are beautiful.