Showing posts with label readings. Show all posts
Showing posts with label readings. Show all posts

18 May 2018

Face the Music: Public Readings and How to Survive Them


by Thomas Pluck

Thomas Pluck



There are few terrors greater than being faced with reading your work in front of an audience, particularly when they are strangers, or not even fans of the genre. Public speaking is a skill, and I don't want to hear writers whinging that they are introverts and just want to stay at home with their cats. No one forced you to write your book. If you were so private, it would be sitting on a closet shelf like Emily Dickinson's poems. Cut the humble shy wallflower act. Being nervous about what people will think of your book doesn't mean you are a selfless monk devoid of ego in the temple just waiting for enlightenment to strike.

It's natural to be nervous about it. However, you are doing yourself, your readers, and your colleagues a disservice if you do not practice reading aloud when you're home alone with your bored cats, whimpering dogs, and headphone-wearing partners and children. We can tell when you show up having never read this story aloud before, unless you are very well practiced at reading in public in general. Some have the knack, the gift of gab, the desire to have an audience, willing or not. And good for them. I remember the first time I read poetry in front of the Rutgers-Newark English department. I gripped that podium so tightly I thought it would shatter into timbers. Before that, remember reading a presentation in 5th grade on deer, where I was shaking like a sizzling slice of bacon in a pan, having to say "urine" with a straight face in front of my classmates. I got a little hammy after that, the class clown act in middle school and high school, doing silly spoofs of Shakespeare. That confidence faded the moment I had to read something I had written in front of people who read books for a living.

Practice does help. "Noir at the Bar" readings, where you can socially lubricate if necessary, can be a good start as long as you don't let the drink in your hand become a crutch. Invite your friends, they'll mimic their rapt attention, or look at their phones and say they were posting a photo of you to Instagram to boost your social media presence. Join a writer's association like the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and so on, and you can ask to be a reader at their events, surrounded by friendly writers who know what it's like to be up there. I did all of that. I even hosted Noir at the Bar in Manhattan for the longest year of my life-- that's another column, but if you host one of those events, you suddenly become every writer's unpaid publicist-- and all those accomplishments helped:

Now I can say "urine" in front of a crowd of strangers and not even snicker.

I had a stealth strategy, helped along by some of my pub family. They like karaoke. Some of them even insist on pronouncing it like they're in Tokyo, where it's done differently, in a private room among friends. You can do this in Koreatown in Manhattan as well, and I'm sure in other cities with such neighborhoods, if you prefer privacy, but to me that misses the point. It helps to have grown up in and around bars. My uncle ran bars for the Jewish mob in Manhattan for thirty years. I never visited one, to my chagrin--I wanted to be a bouncer, like Sascha the Slovenian, who busted knees with his club and smashed The Infamous Urinal Pooper's face on a car hood--but it was not to be. I did sit on a stool at Grandinetti's next to my grandfather and drink a Coca-Cola before Sunday dinner, while he nursed a Pabst. And I've been to every tavern in northeastern New Jersey so my father could drink while we kids had burgers and fries. Bar patrons often have the blues, and when you have the blues, you want to sing about it.

So, American karaoke is more about flipping through a binder full of songs until you find the one that reflects your soul, and belting it out in front of a bunch of people who just want to drink and not hear your caterwauling. And what better way to get a thick skin about reading in public? So what if you can't sing, few can. Even the good ones can maybe belt out one song or singer, and know not to step out of their wheelhouse. Or should. I don't. I'm a tenor. I've sang everything from Elvis to Guns 'n Roses, growled out John Fogerty, flopped terribly trying to keep up with the Ramones, serenaded my wife with a gender-bent version of the DiVinyls "I Touch Myself", and done duets of "Love Shack" by the B-52's that brought down the house, and been hugged by strangers on their birthdays for my emotional rendition of "You Oughtta Know" by Alanis Morrissette.

Comedians know. Sometimes you kill, sometimes you bomb. More often, you face a storm front of indifference. That's the ugly truth. Even if you silence a room with your reading, it doesn't mean that they are waiting with bated breath for the climax. It's a better sign than the audience talking amongst themselves, but don't get cocky. Unless it's a book event for you, they may not even be there to hear you. Even if it is your event, they may only be there to ask how they can get their epic about their Uncle Oogie and his funny-looking foot made into a movie with Tom Hanks. Hey, you write the script, use my idea, we'll both be billionaires. But it's more likely for people to show up to your events if you are a practiced reader who respects the audience.

Some advice:
Keep it short. This is another reason you practice reading at home. A "short" story of 2500 words can take 15-20 minutes to read, which is an eternity. Read excerpts. Read the good parts. Give a short introduction and start where stuff happens.

Be entertaining. If you want to read a nuanced and powerful piece, by all means do so, but read the room. If you're not alone, and the writer before you just read about a puppy who died defusing an atom bomb, you might want to chat a little bit about your book or what inspired the story so they can finish wiping their eyes and put away their tissues. Bring a backup story. I didn't do that for my only reading at Noir at the Bar D.C., where Josh Padgett brought in a great crowd. An older crowd. I had read host Ed Aymar's stories, Nik Korpon was there, they both are a little raunchy. So I brought my story "Gunplay," a hilarious poke at gun fetishism. (It went really well when Hilary Davidson read it at Shade in Manhattan, for our story swap.) I'm no Hilary Davidson. I read it to be funny, but the groans from the audience told me that a couple who cosplays as Union soldier and Scarlett O'Hara with live ammunition in the bedroom wasn't their cup of sweet tea!

I finished anyway, took a bow, and lost the audience favorite in the voting. But they will remember my name. It's not always so bad, I've had many readers come up and tell me how much they liked a story at a reading. It's a great way to introduce yourself to a new audience. It's part of the job. Even if you never do readings, chances are you will be on a panel, flanked by witty and seasoned writers, and you will have to hold your own. Or worse, you'll be next to That Guy who hogs the mike and bullies the moderator into making it a one-man show, and you will need the chutzpah to interrupt and grab the wheel of the bus so you and your fellow writers can get a word in edgewise. To some people this comes naturally. For the rest of us, practice makes passable. Read to your cat. Sing to your dog.

And be thankful for the printing press, or we'd all be reciting our stories like Homer. Maybe we'd be so good the king would pluck our eyes out so we couldn't wander off.

25 June 2016

Damn Right, there's ME in my Characters!


by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)

Several times a year we do these reading and signing events.  And people ask you a pile of questions about your books.  Most are repeat queries that you’ve heard a dozen times before.  So you get pretty good at answering them.

Lately, I was asked a question that I didn’t have a pat answer to.  In fact, it really made me think.

“Do you make up all your characters, or do you put some of yourself in them?”

I’d like to say that every character I write comes completely from my imagination.  For the most part, they do.  I can honestly say that I have never seen a real person who matches the physical description of any of my characters.  (Not that I would mind meeting Pete.  But I digress…)

Back to the question:  are there bits of myself in my protagonists? 

PROOF NO. 1 (others will follow in later posts)

“I am SO not a salad girl.”

Some people say this is one of the funniest lines in my screwball mob comedy, THE GODDAUGHTER.  It is spoken by Gina Galla, goddaughter to the mob boss in Hamilton, the industrial city in Canada near Buffalo, also known as The Hammer.  Gina is a curvy girl.  She says this line to her new guy Pete, as a kind of warning.   And then she proceeds to tell him she wants a steak, medium rare, with a baked potato and a side of mushrooms.

Apparently, that’s me.  So say my kids, spouse, and everyone else in the family.

Eat a meal of salad?  Are you kidding me?  When there is pasta, fresh panno and cannoli about?  (I’ve come to the conclusion that women who remain slim past the age of fifty must actually like salad.  Yes, it’s an astonishing fact.  For some people, eating raw green weeds is not a punishment. )

Not me.  I’m Italian, just like my protagonist.  We know our food.  Ever been to an Italian wedding?  First, you load up with appetizers and wine, or Campari with Orange Juice if you’re lucky.  When you are too stuffed to stand  up anymore (why did you wear three inch heals?  Honestly you do this every time…) you sit down, kerplunk.  Bring on the antipasto.  Meat, olives, marinated veggies, breadsticks, yum.  Melon with prosciutto.  Bread with olive oil/balsamic vinegar dip.  White wine.   

Then comes the pasta al olio.  Sublime.  Carbs are important fuel, right?  And I’m gonna need that fuel to get through the main course, because it’s going to be roast chicken, veal parmesan, osso buco, risotto, polenta, stuffed artichokes (yum), more bread, red wine.

Ever notice that salad is served after the main course in an Italian meal?  Good reason for that.  We aren’t stupid.  Hopefully, you will have no room left for it.

So yes, my protagonist Gina shares an important trait with me.  She likes meat, dammit.

So you can be a bunny and eat salad all you like.  Bunnies are cute and harmless.

But Gina and I are more like frontier wolves.   Try making us live on salad, and see how harmless we will be.

Which is what you might expect from a mob goddaughter from The Hammer.

Do you find bits of yourself sneaking into your fiction?  Tell us here, in the comments.

Melodie Campbell writes the award-winning Goddaughter mob comedy series, starting with The Goddaughter which happens to be on sale now for $2.50.  Buy it.  It's an offer you can't refuse. 
P.S.  My maiden name was 'Offer.'  No joke.  Although I've heard a few in my time.

05 August 2015

As long as a piece of string


by Robert Lopresti

If you catch me talking to myself, don't worry.  No more than you usually worry about me, anyway.  I am practicing - rehearsing, I suppose.  In a few weeks I will be doing a signing at my local bookstore, and I will be reading from my new novel.

Which brings up an old question: how long should one of those events be?  My feeling is this:
* Five minutes of introductory prattle
* 20-30 minutes of reading
* Half an hour of Q&A.
* Two hours of frenzied crowds standing in line for autographed copies.

Okay, the last bullet is sheer fantasy, but do the rest of them sound right to you?

When my book of short stories came out last year I picked out a few fragments that added up to twenty minutes and thought I had nailed it.  But a friend of mine said that he thought it had been too short.

Trust me when I say I am not used to people telling me I don't talk enough.  That is not the standard complaint.

There is another complication in this case.  My current book, being about the Mafia, features a good deal of violence, sex, and profanity.  And I ain't reading those scenes out loud.

I deliberately created a few key scenes at the beginning that are free of those three special treats, figuring that those are the ones I would read.  Turns out they aren't long enough, so I expect I will bowdlerize a few naughty words, warning the audience in advance that they are being subject to censorship.  Any thoughts on that are welcome.

Hey, maybe nobody will show up and I won't have to worry about it.  But, regrettably my friends are extremely loyal and I can count on them.  Terrible the way I suffer.

So, writers: how do you organize a reading?  And readers: what do you hope for at one?


13 December 2014

Readings and Spellings





by John M. Floyd


A year or so ago, my wife and I were invited to attend a dance program featuring our granddaughter Susannah, who was at that time four years old. That afternoon, as we took our seats in the school auditorium alongside our son and his wife and family, our grandson Charlie (then six years old) crawled up into my lap holding one of his storybooks he had brought from home. Keeping my voice low (things had quieted down and everyone was waiting and watching the stage by that time), I said to him, "Charlie, why'd you bring a book along? Don't you want to watch your sister dance?"

"I might," he said, "and I might not. I think this is going to be B-O-R-I-N-G."

I'm not sure why he needed to spell it out, but I had to admire his foresight. He was prepared for anything. As it turned out, the program was entertaining, even for my grandson--but I later remembered that moment, when I was asked to do a reading from my new book following its "launch" signing at a local bookstore a couple of months ago. I decided that whatever happened that night, I wanted to try hard not to be B-O-R-I-N-G. And sometimes that's easier said than done.

King author and the signing table

I and others at this blog, including my friend Fran Rizer several weeks ago, have written about the good and bad and hilarious things that can happen at a typical bookstore signing. But what about other kinds of booksigning events, ones that include a reading and/or a speech? That kind of gig, my friends, can be a whole different ballgame. You don't want your captive audience to feel like captives.

Let me begin by saying something controversial: I don't particularly like readings. Not only do I not enjoy reading aloud from my own work, I'm usually not fond of listening to others read aloud from theirs. To me, the best way to enjoy a story or novel is to read it yourself, silently, at your own pace and in a location of your own choosing. I think that was, after all, what the writer intended when he wrote it. Besides, at bookstore readings, I've usually just finished standing in line and buying the book, which I plan to take home and read and enjoy later; why would I want to sit there and listen to the author read part of it to me now?

I know, I know: it's a chance to find out how the author expresses his writing, in his own spoken words. The truth is, though, that I don't find that very interesting. I also doubt that readers are interested in hearing the way I express my own writing, in spoken words. I'd rather read their words, and have them read mine. As a listener, I'd much rather hear authors tell us about the way they plot, and develop characters, and rewrite, and market their work. But maybe that's just me. (I should mention, so you'll know that I'm not completely insensitive, that I certainly don't turn down offers from those places that are kind enough to invite me to do a reading. I get up there and smile and soldier on, and I'm grateful for the invitation. But I make darn sure to keep the excerpt mercifully short.)

Okay, bub--close that book and step away from the podium . . .

How about those events that don't involve a reading? Maybe you're just asked to make a talk to the local Rotary Club, let's say, or to the Friends of the Library, or to a book club, or to a high-school class. Suppose the president or librarian or facilitator or teacher just wants you to tell the audience a little about yourself and your writing and your latest literary accomplishment. What's the best way to do that?

I think the wisest approach in that situation is to (1) keep your remarks brief, (2) make the audience laugh a bit, and (3) close with a question/answer session. The Q&A seems to work especially well. If what you've said is interesting to the group, there'll be plenty of questions, and if you run a bit too long it won't be your fault. But (one might well ask) what if there aren't any questions? Well, if there aren't any questions it means that what you've said wasn't very interesting, and you might as well shut up anyway. It's a lot better to finish early than to fall victim to the Baptist Revival Syndrome and drone on until your audience either passes out or walks out.

Thank goodness, you will probably find that most listeners in just about any venue seem to enjoy hearing about writers and about the process of writing. (I certainly do.) They also seem to like asking questions. (I do, too.) With any luck, you'll find that very few attendees have brought their own storybooks along with them to read in case you turn out to be B-O-R-I-N-G.

Q's from me to you:

Do any of you share my reluctance to read my own words aloud to a group? Do you enjoy hearing other authors read theirs? (I know many who do.) Do you find such readings inspiring? Enlightening? Nap-inspiring? Would you rather hear instead about how and why these authors write what they do? If you're asked to speak to a library or a class or a civic group, do you offer to do a reading as well? What advice would you give to a beginning writer, about addressing an audience?

I'll close with a sincere "Thank you!" to those who are kind enough to invite us authors to be guest speakers, and a sincere "Good luck!" to my fellow writers with any and all signings/speeches/readings that you perform. 

May all of them be F-U-N.



NOTE: I'll be away most of today at an out-of-town booksigning. (Not a reading, just a signing.) Wish me luck . . .