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