So, let’s say you’ve got an actual audience for your reading. Fantastic!
In other words, I’m wondering if anyone in le Chambre Rouge has tackled the issue of being the best public reader one can be.
Not all writers, after all, are natural performers…or, in many cases, even adequate readers of their own work. For many, there’s a reason they’ve chosen a gig that allows them to work at home (or a local coffee shop), in relative solitude; to be able to make a living sans co-workers, supervisors, meetings and those oh-so-fun office parties.
But then they get published. And the fortunate ones get a promotion budget as well, and do tours of media and big chain stores. Others may be able to finagle an indie bookstore or two to host a reading. Whatever, they’ll have to stand at a podium and address, entertain and, hopefully, sell books to whoever shows up.
All right, enough of this “they” business. Let’s say it’s you. And let’s say you are not Michelle Richmond or Fae Myenne Ng, the two most recent authors I saw at bookstores here in San Francisco—Michelle at the spacious Books Inc. in the Opera Plaza; Fae at the intimate Book Passage in the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero.
They are both adept and accomplished in front of bookstore crowds, and they did some things that, if I can recapture them accurately, amount to a concise set of tips for better readings. And, I must admit, some of what follows comes from my several decades in broadcasting and promotional work behind seven or eight books.
- BUY THEIR LOYALTY: Granted, the Richmond reading, for No One I Know, was her premiere event—a “book launch,” she called it—but she made it a party and advertised it as such. When people showed up, they were surprised to find food (less than catered hors d'oeuvres; more than chips 'n' dip) and wine. And, before reading, Michelle did drawings for door prizes. And they weren’t remainders of her old books (or of books she found on the remainders table). By calling on friends and family, she scored a Pilates session; pounds of coffee beans (coffee is a subtheme of her book); a framed photo by her photographer sister Misty, and, best of all (although possibly not for Michelle), lunch with her at a Vietnamese restaurant she mentions in the book. By the time Michelle – who happens to be funny and charming anyway – started talking, everyone was in a damned good mood, and in her pocket.
- USE YOUR FRIENDS: Even though Fae lives in New York, she’s from San Francisco, and obviously let her buddies know she was in town. They came to see—and support her. Likewise, Michelle began her evening by looking into the large crowd for anyone she might NOT know.
- SCREW THE RULES: Fae had asked me, months before her appearance, to join her and do a Q&A with her. I assumed I’d be serving as her interviewer. But, on the eve of the event, she suggested that we “wing it.” And we did. When the store manager, in his introduction of Fae, overdid things by reading from her book—which was what SHE was there for—she simply skipped right to the Q&A. Only she turned the tables on me by asking how I got into my dual professions of writing and broadcasting. The question accentuated our common grounds—children of Chinese immigrants; lovers of the written word; rebels against what might be expected of us. Which led, smoothly enough, right back to Fae and her stunning new novel, Steer Toward Rock.
- OPENERS: Plan on what to say in greeting the audience. If you’ve got a sense of humor, use it. If you don’t, don’t even try. Just say hello, smile, tell why you wrote your book, and get into your reading (or raffle, or whatever).
- READ…OR WHATEVER: Don’t feel like you’ve got to just mark up certain pages from certain chapters and read. You can do that, sure. But Michelle took advantage of her knowledge of the audience and interacted with them, resulting in amusing digressions. When I was promoting my book about the Doors, I had Ray Manzarek, the keyboard player, with me (he lives not far way, in Napa Valley), and, knowing we couldn’t do much reading from what was essentially an oral history, we turned our appearances into free-ranging chats about rock and other music, with highlights including Ray demonstrating, on a keyboard, how he came up with the opening of “Light My Fire.” (Think Bach.) Lowlights came when I’d perform “Riders on the Storm” with Ray. But, hey, how much did the audience pay to get in?
- PRACTICE, PRACTICE: This is a public appearance. If you’re not a regular performer, rehearse. Get comfortable with reading aloud; listen to your own tempo, and be sure you’re not going too fast. Or slow.
- TICKED OFF: Guard against the tics that have infested American conversation (“like,” “I mean,” “uh,” “you know”) and youthful cadences, in which the last word of a sentence turns it into an unintended question. “So like I’m talking with my editor? And, you know, she’s like, ‘You should get rid of that last paragraph’? And I’m like ‘No way.’” Just listen to yourself, and you’ll soon be relatively tic-free.
- MAKE IT EASY ON YOURSELF: It’s enough that you’re a little nervous. Don’t be squinting, too. Don’t just read from your book. Pull out the excerpts you want to read, and blow them up to an easily readable type size—say, 14 or 16 points. With double spacing. Mark words or phrases you should be emphasizing. Add reminders to look up at your listeners. And if you’re on a schedule, count your words. Figure on about 150 to 180 words a minute (leave time for laughter and the occasional standing ovation).
- ANY QUESTIONS? ANYBODY? Be ready for a shy audience. (Maybe they’re writers, too.) Have questions ready for yourself, and, if necessary, say that this is a query from a previous reading. If this is your first reading for the book, just say it’s a question from a previous book…or life.
- YOU ARE NOT ALONE: Remember that it’s natural to be a bit nervous before appearing in public, and that the audience appreciates your being up there. They especially appreciate it that it is you, and not they who are at the microphone.
Well, that’s all I’ve got. I'll look forward to seeing any suggestions you might have, here at Red Room.
Any questions? Anybody?
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