…and when I say public speaking, I mean Author Readings.
I am an introvert. I am! I hate crowds, I am agora-phobic, I suck at small talk… but I spend eight hours of every weekday with teenagers. Half of my life is spent begging the thirty people in front of me to… listen! Pay attention! Take your hat off! Stop texting! Listen, for fuck’s sake, you little…
But I digress.
And I write books.
And I try to get people to read my books.
And even to… gasp… BUY my books!
This weekend I was privileged to join roughly 30 authors at the Halifax Author Event where we all attempted to peddle our wares to a crowd of readers and fans.
I have two fans… besides my spawn, who don’t technically qualify as fans because they are wearing my genes and are therefore exempt from the Perks of Fandom. What, you may ask, may these much-coveted perks be? Oh, no-big-dee… just a spotlight on TELEVISION. Like SUPERSTARS. (advance to 9:25 on the Global News clip)
Kathy and George. I love them. Kathy even bought a copy of Lily’s Valley, even though I offered it for free, and I offered to let her ogle the cover of Indefinitely Idled, because it is just so fucking sexy, but George was there and so she demurred.
George is fucking sexy, too. We are blessed in our men, Kath and I.
I realized, after I read an excerpt from That Thing That Happened, that I have to thank my decade as a high school teacher for my limited and sketchy understanding of how to attempt to grab the attention of a crowd. I do it every day. With varying degrees of success.
Here is my questionable advice to self-published authors, nervously trying to share our work with the world when doing a public reading:
#1: Grab your audience:
Sing. Tell a joke. Do an interpretive dance. Tell the entire audience to wave to your helpers, who may just happen to be your lovely spawn sitting at your display table at the back of the room. Just do something that says “Hey! Hello! Do I have your attention?”
In school, I use sarcasm, verbal abuse, antiquated vernacular with which they are unfamiliar… “It behooves you to listen to me at this very moment, you scurrilous curmudgeons, you pustulent oozing keloids of vacuous inaninity… yes, yes YOU! Thank you, now let us begin…” Whatever you choose, it has to be MORE powerful than “Hello, today-I-will-read-from-page-32-of-this-book-I-wrote, all-by-myself, with-my-weiner-tucked-under-my-shirt-over-many-shivering-cold-winter-nights…” Even though your audience may flinch momentarily in your general direction at the word “weiner”, you have to dig just a little deeper and make sure they are all with you before you begin. I love the word pustulent. I use it as often as I can.
#2: Say something dirty.
Obviously, this is wildly inappropriate in a high school classroom, and no self-respecting teacher would EVER say: “I can’t wait for today to be over, so I can go home and stroke my weiner.” Even if that teacher is the proud owner of a weiner dog, and all her students know just how much she loves her weiner, it would be totally inappropriate to EVER make weiner jokes in a classroom of high school students.
I, obviously, NEVER do that. But at a book reading, surrounded by demanding and critical readers who are innundated with descriptions of “the dappled light” and “the grassy knoll” and the unexpected tilt of the protagonist’s head when he says “I am overwhelmed with passion for you”, it’s sometimes necessary to stir things up a little. I suggest throwing out such words as “dildo”, and “gyrating”, and “self-gratification”, just for fun.
Just… trust me. The grassy knoll will be ever-so-much-more-interesting with a little phallic symbolism thrown in. Your novel isn’t dirty, you say? You don’t write smut, you say? Of course you don’t… but at some point in your novel you must have two people touch each other. Or two vampires. Or two historically accurate personas. We want to hear about intercourse… I mean, oops, inter-ACTION! Choose the most dynamic part where two people meet and rub against each other. Symbolism, man. Get those folks naked and sweaty… emotionally, symbolically, relation-ship-aly. Your audience wants a little word porn, and you have to deliver or they’re going to wander off to the “Fifty Shades of Metaphor” table and leave you gasping and lonely.
#3: Put someone on the spot
I’m afraid I must confess to doing this in my classroom. I usually pick the most hardy and resilient kid in the class. The one who I know is still listening and absorbing even though they are drooling slightly and their head keeps wobbling like they are mostly dead.
“And so, what do you think Iago meant when he said ‘From this time forth I never will speak word’… little… Johnny?”
Little Johnny leaps to wakefulness and the rest of the class follows, afraid they will be next. At an author reading, pick someone in the crowd… hell, plant someone in the crowd (which can be difficult if, like me, you only have two fans, and you definitely can’t borrow my Kathy and George. Get your own damn fans, people!)… and talk to them in the middle of the reading. Apologize to them for #2, the dirty thing you just said… shame on you! Or thank them for laughing just when you really needed someone to laugh. Or just ask them if they would like to come up and take over… anything so that the rest of the audience perks up in fear that you may pick on them next. Fear is nearly as good as saying “dildo” in a crowded room. Use it.
(I apologize to the lovely lady on my right who laughed at just the right moment and forced me to acknowledge her by saying “If it’s in the book, I have to read it, right?” Best audience member, ever.)
#4: Say something dirty, again.
Well… why not? By now you should have their attention and you are probably either so nervous because you know you’re going to Hell for the dildo comment, or so euphoric that you haven’t puked on the microphone that you might as well throw out a fuck or two. They’ll be expecting it at this point.
If you’ve just read the part where two people have gotten down and dirty and started trimming their toenails together, you might as well throw in the mud bath and bikini-waxing to sustain the tension. This doesn’t mean giving away the climax… God knows the Reader wants to enjoy that in private… it just means you want to build that tension a wee bit. You’ve read that bit from Chapter 2 where they met, and that crazy moment happened… now leap to Chapter 5 when OMG! another layer has been peeled away and you can practically read the labels on their Froot of the Looms.
But not quite.
There is no rule that says you have to read all of Chapter 2. Slice and dice, friends. If there’s a good bit of dirt in Chapter 5, go for it. You want your audience to be more intrigued five minutes into the reading than they were when you began with the interpretive dance and the creative use of the word “pustulent”, so it’s time to pull down the big girl panties and get sweaty.
(Disclaimer: Never swear in school. In a classroom, this is the point where you threaten them with assignments and projects and tests, and it’s the audience who say something dirty. Then you give them detention. Teachers never swear. Swearing is wrong… you hear me? Do as I say, not as I do.)
#5: And always… ALWAYS… leave them wanting more.
At a book reading, this means leaving your reading at the most exciting point. This doesn’t necessarily mean at the end of the chapter, or at the end of the plot point… this means leaving them utterly curious about the character you’ve just painted for them. You want to leave the stage amidst muttered questions from the audience: “Why is the heroine so obsessed with dildos?” This will make people want to read your book! Don’t give away the dildo secret! In a high school classroom this means promising chocolate cupcakes for the next class, or watching twenty minutes of “The Crucible” instead of dissecting Freytaq’s Pyramid.
(Disclaimer: NEVER swear, or talk about sex toys, or use the word “gyrate” in a high school classroom. Only do those things in the crowded room of an Author event when you are surrounded by strangers and your children, whom you have birthed from your loins only a few short years previous, who are waving and smiling and taking pictures of you at the podium. That is the ONLY time when you are allowed to talk dirty in public.)
I doubt this advice will help you, eager self-published author seeking advice on How To Be Successful, so I will leave you with the only comment that really matters.
Follow your Bliss.
Just do your thing and have as much fun as possible while you’re doing it. I have fun saying “dildo” in crowded rooms. Don’t judge me. If you infuse what you do with joy, you won’t fail.
Happy reading, happy writing, and remember: there’s no shame to self-gratification!