Crying Out Loud: Preparing Authors for Public Readings

Image courtesy: Theatre Press – Australia

With a new book out, I face the prospect of reading from my work, searching for venues where I can add voice to my novel. The idea is to find and engage audiences, entice them to buy the book.

If the reading is well done, well . . . maybe would-be readers will buy the book and recommend it to others. Then interest in the story will grow in concentric circles like when a stone is thrown into a still pond. That’s the theory.

This time-honored approach to connecting with readers at book stores and literary events is, however, undergoing changes. Authors and book buyers are rethinking how they come together in the marketplace. Public author readings aren’t the marketing mainstay they used to be, according to a BookPregnant blog post by author Sophie Perinot. Her new book is Sister Queens.

“Once upon a time, when a writer sold a book, author appearances were pretty much a given,” Perinot says. “Writers, from newbie to veteran, gamely piled into their cars (or got on planes if their publishers would spring for airfare) and traveled through a wide swath of bookstore-land, giving readings and signing novels. Nobody questioned the wisdom of the live-author appearance as a way to sell books and generate buzz.

Not anymore. Even if you sell your book to a big publisher, traditionally published writers are in the same boat as authors who publish independently. If you want to give voice to your work, if you want to build audience and sell a few books, then the experts say it will have to be a do-it-yourself project—online, in-person, word-of-mouth, social media, festivals, street corners, and anything an author can do to gain sales traction in a chaotic marketplace.

But what if reading in public is part of the plan and the prospect scares the bejabbers out of you? What if you don’t know where to find public performance opportunities? What if you stand in front of a few dozen people and they don’t like you or what you’re reading. What if you faint or forget your glasses? And, how important is it, really, to appear live and in person?

Perinot says there probably are as many opinions on these questions as there are authors. In her view—public readings aren’t very important. The online world provides plenty of ways to connect with potential readers without changing out of your pajamas.

Anne Buelteman, AEA

She says, “If your budget or your ‘real life’ don’t lend themselves to a fifty-store swing through your home state, no sweat.”

I read this advice before I headed out the door last week to meet actor, voice coach and writer Anne Buelteman in San Francisco at the Writer’s Grotto. It’s a pioneering work center where narrative artists–writers, filmmakers and the like–keep offices, teach classes, build community. Buelteman offers a workshop on reading your writing aloud and says public presentations aren’t a vanity exercise or a waste of time.

“Being a compelling reader is a valuable skill every writer needs for connection with their audience,” she says. “In case you’re not feeling convinced local literary aficionados will be as fascinated as your cat when you read aloud, coaching is for you.”

The workshop wasn’t an acting lesson. It was an introduction to reading before an audience—how to prepare physically, mentally and creatively to deliver a meaningful performance of your work and create the desired impression.

Buelteman recommends selecting a section of your work that has a beginning, middle and end, where something happens. For my selection, a rag-tag softball game with a zinger ending – her  advice was slooooow down. It didn’t take her long to see that I was trying to cram a chapter’s worth of words into a limited time frame—the equivalent of sightseeing at 70 mph, with gusts to hurricane force, ensuring the audience’s impression would be a blur. About a third of the chapter was probably enough to impart tone and style of the story and engage an audience, she said.

Buelteman seized on this paragraph from my new book Adrift in the Sound and made these suggestions for pacing: “The poet Toulouse showed up in the seventh inning, flourishing his cape. He walked to the pitcher’s mound and took the ball from Gizzard’s hand, (pause, count 1, 2) turned it in the light as if studying the facets of a jewel. (pause, count 1, 2) He faced the dugouts, gathered himself.  (pause 1,2,3) The Tuggers complained about delay of game, but settled down when somebody said they were doing a tribute to a fallen player.”

 “This workshop is not an acting lesson,” Buelteman says. “Most of us are not comfortable if we feel we are acting. You became a writer because you have something to say—usually some story or topic to which you have some personal connection. The truth of that connection is more compelling than any ‘acting’ you might do.”

Once you’re at the reading event, Buelteman recommends: Remember to breathe, loosen your facial muscles and tongue before you begin, do not rush your words, enunciate and speak up. In my case, I did these things, but perhaps over-acted, making my presentation not only fast, but  phony and histrionic.

Instead of using gesture to act out the written flourishes, she recommended pausing to allow the words to sink in and give the listener a chance to appreciate the image of the poet standing on the baseball field lifting the ball and turning it in the light as if studying the facets of a jewel. (Breathe)

Buelteman will be offering coaching workshops on public reading skills in the fall through the SF Writers Grotto. Check out the site for more classes and sign up for email updates.

If you want to do live appearances,  Perinot has this advice: Create a “value added” event to get the biggest interest and attendance from potential book buyers.

“My favorite author event thus far was the panel discussion (billed as a historical fiction triple-treat) I did with a pair of fellow historical fiction authors,” she says. “We prepared a discussion called “Sex, Lies and History: A Literary Threesome.” Those who turned out had something more to see (and hear) than authors sitting quietly at a table, or reading text they could just as easily read themselves (which, after all is what a traditional reading is). They witnessed a lively debate on, among other things, common misconceptions about women in history and the trend towards more sexual content in mainstream historical fiction.”

 So, if a public reading is on your calendar—there are ways to improve your delivery and new ways to present your material. The best way to build audience and book sales is to prepare. There are resources to help you put your best theatrical foot forward and there are new ways to think about author events and public readings that add value to the experience for the audience you hope to build.

P.S. Adrift in the Sound will be offered as a free ebook download July 26 to Kindle Select members. Order online from Amazon.

Published by Kate Campbell

Writer, editor, photographer, novelist, short story writer, poet.

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