Friday, May 29, 2015

Top 6 Tips for Great Author Readings

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I think most authors dream about the 'perfect reading.' I know I did. Here's what that looked like in my head:

1) Packed audience full of cool people
2) Great bookstore with good acoustics
3) Just enough wine to take the edge off
4) Kick-ass success

Here's what my first reading was actually like:

1) Great bookstore full of empty chairs
2) Bad cold
3) Absolutely no wine
4) No audience = no reading

It was in Minneapolis on the first stop of my book tour for Devil May Care. I'd been warned that my first reading might be a no-show (for even established authors, the average turnout is 5-8 people). My other readings turned out much better, but still. They say you never forget your first one. Sniff.

I learned a lot of tips on my own, but I've also been researching other authors about the topic. Everyone from literary writers like Laurie Weeks (Zipper Mouth) whose small publisher couldn't afford an actual tour, to huge bestsellers like Stephen King, who could afford to foot the bill for anything, but whose publisher pays for everything anyway.

Mashing all of our experiences together, I saw a pattern developing. So I decided to share the top 6 tips most authors had:

1) Practice Makes Perfect

Practice, practice, practice. Whether that's in front of your family, your goldfish or your iPhone, get very familiar with the passage you want to read. It may feel boring to you, but you've got to be so comfortable with it, somebody coughing in row 3 or a baby crying in the kids' section won't throw you.

I practiced my readings many times, but when I got up there, in front of a room full of strangers, all blinking, breathing, staring, I looked down at the page and no matter how many times I'd read it, it seemed as if it had just been beamed to me by interstellar fax machine.

Of course, you also have to remember that this is an 'event' and people expect to enjoy themselves. As familiar as you are with the material, you can't appear bored. Charles Dickens's reading tours were standing room only and big money-makers for him. It's partly because Dickens - who was also an amateur actor - loved to perform. Veteran editor Alan Rinzler agrees. He tells us to think of readings as a "dramatic performance from the moment you walk through the door."

2) Booze helps

Believe it or not, this is true. There was wine at only one of my readings, everyone was definitely in better spirits as a result. Matthew Gallaway (The Metropolis Case) suggests trying to find a sponsor to cover the cost of the refreshments. Especially because not all publishing houses have the money to get everyone drunk anymore. Unfortunately.

If libations aren't on the menu, Jon Michaud (When Tito Loved Clara) and Sheila McClear (The Last of the Live Nude Girls) both suggest bringing your own beer or wine as part of a good reading.

But keep it down to one glass, lest things get blurry and/or slurry.

3) Team Up With Someone

This seems to be another running theme. A lot of writers like doing readings where someone else is involved. I had two readings with another young author and they both turned out great. (Damn. I hate that I forgot her name. Sorry. I'll get it when I go out to storage for that big box of publishing mementos that I never wanted to see again. Well, I'm ready to see it all again. And share it all, too.)

btw, I know it might seem counterintuitive to an author reading - because there's a certain glamorous vanity to being solo - but it'll really help fill out the crowd. Plus you'll feel more relaxed because there's someone there to share the pressure.

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4) Choose Your Passage(s) Carefully

I totally agree with this one, too. In fact, you should have more than one passage prepared, so that you can gear your reading to the audience that shows up. If your appearance happens to be that week's stop on the local senior ladies social club, you probably want to steer clear of the swearing and the gore. Though it really depends on how rowdy they are. If they start jeering and catcalling, you can probably spice it up a bit.

Also try to pick a passage that makes sense on its own. I usually read from the opening of my book because I'd spent a long time setting up the story and I thought it worked. If you've got a piece you've been dying to read and it's in the middle of the book, set it up for the audience so they're not confused. And unless you're a natural thespian and can distinguish characters with your voice alone, avoid scenes with lots of choppy dialogue. Either way, Rinzler suggests preparing a handful of passages and getting comfortable with all of them, even if you only deliver two or three.

As for coarse language, here's something I learned the hard way. There was on "F-word" in the section I'd chosen to read. Out of respect for my audience, I decided to skip over it, just in case it offended anyone.

But, on one of those stops, with a packed audience (say sixty people) who all seemed into it, I thought I could do no harm. So I went for it. But I'll never forget hearing the F-bomb boom throughout the store. And seem to echo for quite a while too. Nobody actually got up and left. But I became self-conscious and it threw me. I ended up losing focus and feeling as if I was having an NDRE (near death reading experience).

When it comes to that, btw, book publicist Lauren Cerand puts it this way: "choose sex over death" every time.

5) RELAX AND HAVE FUN!

This is really the most important one. Pretty much every single author I researched said the same thing. Charles Yu did about twenty readings for How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (Pantheon/Vintage). He said it's really important to relax and enjoy your readings as much as possible. Nobody's there against their will (except possibly for you). Everyone really wants to have a good time. A reading is just like any other situation that way: you'll bring your energy to the crowd so if you're enjoying yourself, it's more likely everyone else will too.

Of course, the idea of relaxing in front of a group of strangers might be a bit of a stretch. Especially since these people hold a small portion of the future of your career in their wallets and/or on their blogs.  So remember, before you get out there take five deep breaths. Have that drink. And then picture everyone naked.

6) One last tip from indie-author Judy Croome: Bring a pen!

By the way, even if you're not published yet, I suggest you practice reading anyway. Even to yourself. It's vital to get comfortable with the whole process. Whether you're reciting one of your own passages, a page from your favourite book, or something from your kids' creative writing assignment,  go for it. The more accustomed you are to doing it in the first place, the more like you'll be relaxed enough to have fun when it actually happens!

For more info about author readings:
Editor Alan Rinzler
Book Designer Joel Friedlander
Matthew Gallaway at TheAwl.com

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Author's Intention


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I am Sheri McInnis. I bid you welcome to my blog.

This is what Count Dracula says to Jonathan Harker upon his arrival at the castle. I am Dracula. I bid you welcome to my house.

In case it's not obvious, I'm re-reading Dracula by Bram Stoker. (His first name was Abraham, by the way. Cool.) I read it for the first time in my early twenties, when I was at Ryerson University. I remember sitting on my mattress-on-the-floor next to the window of a fifteenth-story condo I shared with three other 'Rye High' students: Bettina, from Germany, studying Hospitality. And best friends Kirk and Jeff, both taking Business Admin. The roommate thing was a platonic affair by the way, though I always did enjoy watching the boys wrestle each other every night on our wall-to-wall gray carpeting. Gentlemen have a lot of surplus testosterone at that age. ;)

Anyway, it was curled up on my mattress next to the window, with Bettina sleeping in the darkest corner of the room we shared, that I first read Dracula long into the night. It wasn't an assigned book in one of my English classes. Dracula was a voluntary read. Creepy. Elegant. Sensual. A Victorian page-turner, I'm not sure there's ever been a fictional character who's enthralled the world as much as Dracula.

Reading it again, I'm struck by a few things: Yes, it's as brilliant as I remember. Yes, I am so seriously influenced by it, I should be charged with plagiarism in the book I'm currently working on, The Hunter's Moon – a supernatural horror about a secret society of powerful Witches who've lived among us for thousands of years. The idea came to me in a dream …

But reading Dracula again brought something even more important to mind, something vital to a good book: the author's intention.

The opening of the story is told in diary form by a young man who is traveling by carriage into the Carpathian mountains to see a mysterious count named Dracula. We're not sure why he's going there, only that the closer he gets, the more disturbing the journey gets. The locals cross themselves when they hear who he's going to meet. The night gets darker. The ride rougher. As the outline of Castle Dracula comes into view, chills start working along your skin.

Yet nothing has happened.

It's just a young man in a carriage. How is it possible that a reader could be so totally frightened – at the very least, in a state of heightened suspense – even though nothing has happened yet?

I realized, it's the author's intention.

Stoker could never have known how influential this story would become – he wrote many less popular books – but it's obvious that as the words went down onto paper over a century ago, his mindset was very clear: he wanted to creep readers the hell out. It's apparent in all his word choices. His sentence structure. His descriptions. A candle "quivers." The wine puts a "queer sting on the tongue." The carriage sways "like a boat tossed on a stormy sea." Every sentence Stoker chooses to write informs the reader – even subconsciously – that this is a book intended to put you on edge. 

I realized when I was struck by the vision for The Hunter's Moon, my intention in writing the book was clear: I wanted to scare people. That was good, because the journey of being a writer is fraught with doubts and insecurities. It's hard to get those thoughts out of your mind. So anything that will keep you focused and on the task of writing is helpful.

In this case, your intention as an author. 

Because your intention will help whisk away those doubts when they creep up. And it'll come through in every sentence you write. It doesn't have to be an obvious thing either. Being subtle with an intention is just as effective as being obvious. But – you have to know what your intention is to begin with.

Do you want to make readers laugh? Cry? Fall in love? Do you want to inform them? Arouse them? Scare the hell out of them? Impress them? Maybe it's a combination of things, but knowing what you intend to do with your book will help get the words out more quickly and effectively. Because your main priority is set. This will give you more confidence to weather the inevitable doubts that sail beside you the whole way. And anything that does that is a real gift for a writer.


So before you sit down to write next time, I want you to really think: What is my intention in writing this book? How do I want readers to feel? It'll help guide you every step of the way.