Thursday, August 28, 2014

How to Do a Good Reading, How to Survive the Audience Experience

Zestful Blog Post #68

One of the most uncomfortable hours of my life was in 1994 during a meeting of Borders store managers. At that time I was regional director for the West Coast, and was looking forward to seeing all my managers there, as well as my friends in the regional ranks.

The very first night after everybody got in there was a cocktail reception, during which an author reading was scheduled. The author was Gita Mehta, noted media producer and bestselling author (also the wife of Sonny Mehta, head of Knopf), and she was to read from her new book of stories, A River Sutra. It was thought that an intellectual author would appeal to the managers, most of whom had come up through the ranks of booksellers and were hence serious readers.

Horrendous idea. In spite of their interest in Gita and her book, the managers immediately started meeting and greeting and drinking and hanging out, being in no mood to stand quietly and listen to anybody. However, Gita took the podium and, with admirable poise, plowed through the excerpt she had prepared. I gravitated toward one of my buddies from home offices and stood listening in silent solidarity, trying to form at least a pocket of politeness amidst the din. An author more animated than Gita might have been able to hold their own, but for her it was hopeless.

Takeaway 1: Readings are not cabaret performances.

Takeaway 2: Maybe they should be.

Simply standing and reading for tens of minutes on end is, almost without exception, deadly. What you want to do is:

1) Welcome your audience with a warm anecdote or two, something about what drove you to write your book.

2) Give them a taste of your book, like 10-15 minutes of reading some lively passage, or passages.

3) Tell another anecdote or two and then take questions. Funny is good. Good anecdote material might come from how you researched your book, or how you got it published, etc.

4) If nobody asks a question, provide your own, and / or start asking questions of them. Like, "Apart from me, who's your favorite author and why?" You might learn a lot.

If you're in the audience, of course you'll be polite and pay attention. But everybody will love you if you come up with an interesting question or two. Off-the-wall is fine. Ask about the author's childhood, or if they've ever been arrested, or what their favorite fast food is and why. Anything. If you're a budding author, ask the questions you'd really like to know, like, "How did you hone your craft? How did you get an agent? What do you wish you'd known at the beginning of your career?", stuff like that.

See a demonstration of this at the Wordier Than Thou open mic tonight in Sarasota. I'll read chapter 1 of Left Field, my next Lillian Byrd novel-in-progress. The other headliner will be Lynn Waddell, author of Fringe Florida: Travels Among Mud Boggers, Furries, Ufologists, Nudists and Other Lovers of Unconventional Lifestyles. I've not met Lynn, but with a title like that, she's got to be fun.

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  1. Always get something worthwhile, damn. Thanks, ES!

  2. As much as I'm not a YouTuber, (images of a potatoe anyone?) I so hope you will be able to snag a recording and post your reading on the ZW site.

    This came about a month too late, Did my first reading and wow, just showing up with ms isn't enough, no matter how polished.

    Thankfully, had a great audience and moment the event was over, could not escape other writers wanting to talk about it.

    1. I believe the event will be video'd. Will share link when available. Thanks for looking in, Cordia. And congrats on the enthusiasm of your audience!

  3. Thanks for the excellent reading last night. This is great advice, especially when speaking to a group of writers, who are often there to hear your story as a writer, as well as the story you have written.

    1. So glad you came, Darrell! Stay tuned for a little more on this subject next week.


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