Saturday, September 30, 2017

What I've Learned About Giving Public Readings, Part Five

I've often recommended that, when going to a public reading, you should bring a selection of stories to choose from.  Once you arrive, size up your audience.  Are they interested in one genre, but not another?  Is the topic of one of your stories not likely to interest them?  You need to pick the right piece for each audience!

(I learned that lesson years ago when I was scheduled on a Monday night during football season.  The audience was all women; all the men were watching the game.  Unfortunately, I had nothing available to entertain them -- my work was very male-oriented back them.  I bombed.)

However, it's been pointed out to me that new authors don't have a wide variety of work to choose from.  Furthermore, most authors concentrate on just one or two genres.  If all you write is science fiction and fantasy, you've got a very specific fan base.  You probably won't be able to keep an audience of nonfiction or poetry fans entertained.

So, here are my suggestions for a successful public reading when you don't have that many readings to pick from.

1)  Find Out What the Audience Likes to Read

You don't have to wait until you arrive to find this out.  Ask the person who's organizing the event.  If the organizer says that his typical audience loves poetry, but you only write prose, just say "Thanks, but no thanks."  No one can entertain every audience.

When you arrive, LOOK at the crowd.  What if the audience is all young people, and you only write science fiction?  Yes, there are some younger science fiction fans.  But SF fans tend to be older.  (I'm talking about fans of SF books, not movies or video games.)  The people who organize SF conventions even have a name for it: "the graying of fandom."

Yes, younger SF fans do exist.  They're the ones most likely to dress oddly.  I've even seen them dressed like characters from their favorite books.  But if you've got an audience of, say, serious college students who want to hear serious literature, you're in trouble.

Another possible problem is if your work is adult...but the audience includes children.  If you can't censor yourself and change the curse words in your story, maybe you shouldn't present it.

And, once again, after you've arrived, ask the organizer, "what do these people like to read?"  Maybe they aren't the people the organizer expected when he or she spoke to you before the event. 

If you feel you have nothing to entertain them...well, as long as there are other readers, maybe you should back out.  Or at least lower your expectations.

2)  Make Your Selection SHORT

Keep to your allotted time.  If there are several readers, you are probably allotted either five or ten minutes.

Practice reading your piece, and know how long it takes to present.  If it's too long, cut it down.

At a recent reading, the only complaint I heard from the audience was that one reader went on too long.  Believe me, too short is much better than too long.

I notate my expected reading time of each piece right on my script, so I know how long it should take to deliver. 

As the saying goes, "Leave them wanting more."

3)  Don't Rush!

Another rookie mistake is to read too quickly.

Sometimes this happens when you're trying to fit a seven-minute piece into a five-minute slot.  Don't try it.  Cut the piece down to a leisurely five minutes.  Or, better yet, four-and-a-half minutes -- that way you have a cushion.  And time for the audience to laugh at the jokes (if any).

Other times, the reader speeds up because he or she is nervous.  Experience should help you get over your nervousness.  If it doesn't, my best suggestion is to time not only your piece, but each page.  Write that time on each page.  Then put a timepiece where it's clearly visible to you.  That will let you know that you should be done (for example) page 2 at the 3 minute-mark.  If you're not at 3 minutes when you finish page 2, you'll know you're going too fast.

(I don't know if anyone makes an "click track" app for readers, but that might be helpful.  A click track is an even, regular, metronome-like sound that is piped over a singer's headphones in a recording studio.  It's a way to keep a singer from speeding up.  But then you'd have to wear an earpiece while you read -- which might be too much of a distraction.)

4)  Finally, Pick a Piece You Can Deliver

Everybody stumbles over some words.  Maybe it's a multi-syllabic word.  Maybe it's a technical term.  (I was acting in a medical video recently, and my partner had to repeat her part ten times in order to correctly pronounce some medical terms!)  Or perhaps it's a foreign word that causes problems.  I was once in a play in which a character had to refer to a type of French white wine called Pouilly Fuisse.  He couldn't do it.  We finally changed it to Chianti.

So, if you have trouble with a word, change it.

Another obstacle to presenting a piece: I recently saw a writer who read a piece that was so emotionally affecting to her that she broke down during the reading.  She choked up, then coughed repeatedly.  The organizer brought her a glass of water.  She drank the water, but it didn't help.  Eventually, she was so overcome with emotion, she had to complete her reading while sitting down. 

Don't do this.  If a piece has such emotional resonance for you that you can't deliver it without breaking up, don't read it.

Those are my suggestions.  Happy reading!

Monday, July 31, 2017

Put It Out There...Then Shut Up!

My friend and colleague Gary Zenker recently wrote an article for writers on "How to Get the Most Out of a Critique."

It's a good article with some important ideas. However, I have a few points I want to add:

1)  Present Your Work...Then Shut Up!

Time and again I've seen new writers try and defend their work from every criticism. Some people find it almost impossible to just sit there and take criticism.

But that's what a critique is supposed to be: the chance for OTHERS to say what they think of your work. If you keep defending your choices, people will give eventually give up giving you honest critiques.

If someone ASKS you a question, answer it. Or, as Gary suggests, redirect their question to others in the critique session. (As in, "What did you mean here?" "Well, can anyone else answer that question?") Otherwise, shut up.

2) When You Have to Preface Your Work, Keep It Short

Sometimes you are presenting the middle of a work for a critique. In that case, you may have to give some backstory. Preferably, it should be written down, and no more than a few paragraphs long. Keep it as simple as possible.

An example is this: "This is the 15th chapter of my novel. The protagonist, Waldo Pickens, is a Junior in High School. He's being raised by a divorced mother, who has grounded him. In the previous chapter, he and his mother argued about him going out to a party. He has now sneaked out and gone to the party. We pick up the story after he's gotten drunk for the first time and is trying to walk home."

Keep it short, and relevant to the pages being critiqued. We don't need to know about his dad, the name of his dog, where he went to summer camp, or how he's doing in school. Maybe those things are important in subsequent chapters, but not in the part being critiqued.

3)  Save Your Own Questions for the End. (This is a point on which Gary and I may disagree.)

When you ask the critique members to focus on something up front, you're dragging out the process. Plus, it's important to get their honest impression of the entire piece, rather than focusing on one aspect.

If you want to ask them, "I wrote this in the First Person. Do you think it would be better in Third Person?" -- that's better asked after everyone has had their say.

One thing I like to ask is, "What do you think will happen next?" Usually, they will give you the most obvious answer. Then I'll go ahead and write the opposite. I want to surprise my readers as much as possible.

4)  Finally, Ignore the Outlier Opinions.

Act like an athlete having their performance judged, and ignore the lowest score and the highest score. Go with the majority opinion.

The guy who hates your work is probably wrong. There's a former member of one of my critique groups who often said, "I hate your characters so much I wish a meteor would fall out the sky and crush them." Yeah, that's not useful. Ignore him.

The one who loves it to death is probably wrong, too. I've actually had someone say, "This is as good as anything Mark Twain wrote." Hey, I'm good, but I'm not Mark Twain good.

The exception: if that outlier opinion is from a publisher or an agent. If someone says, "I'll publish this and pay you money if you cut out this character"...well, you might want to follow their suggestion. Or if someone says, "I'll take you on as a client if you rewrite this in the Third Person." If there's money (or the potential of money) involved, you might want to take an outlier opinion. But that rarely happens.

Happy critiquing!

Friday, June 30, 2017

Fantasy Author Molly Neely: Ghosts, Vampires and Zombies

Molly Neely is one of the authors with a story in the soon-to-be-released Fall into Fantasy anthology, published by Cloaked Press.

Molly describes herself as “a life long reader of everything from history and theology, to politics and vampires.” Her first published novel is The Sand Dweller, released last September by Black Opal Books.

Molly, we both have stories in the Fall into Fantasy anthology. Yours is titled “Six Degrees of Zombie Separation.” Would you like to tell us a little about it?

The story started out life as a simple writing prompt. I am a sucker for anything that has a zombie or bacon in it, and I was all amped up from the season finale of "The Walking Dead," so…zombies! The story begins at the onset of the zombie apocalypse, and works backwards towards the source. I intend to write at least 3 more, continuing the main story, while also being pieces that can be read independently. Did all that gibberish make sense?

Perfectly clear. Molly, you live in California, which is a good place to be for attending writing conventions. Can we expect to meet you at any upcoming conventions?

I like to stay local. Not only because I’m cheap, but because Fresno, CA, has such a diverse and active writing community. There is a Lit Hop that happens in The Tower District every year, The Sierra Vista Mall in Clovis hosts a large Author book fair and A Book Barn (local bookstore) is constantly hosting events. There is even the occasional conference at Fresno State. But, if you want to travel outside the comfort zone, there are dozens of book events and conferences happening year round in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Your first published novel, The Sand Dweller, features a priest as its protagonist.  That’s an unusual choice.  How did you get inside the head of your protagonist, Father Caleb Glass?

It seems like every time a book or a movie comes out dealing with demons and the devil, the priest always gets portrayed as this bulletproof and fearless holy man who sails in and kicks Satan’s ass…the end. The truth is, priests, pastors, deacons, whatever, are all human! With human hang ups, human backgrounds, fears, blah blah blah. I felt it was essential to let the reader know, that for men of the cloth, the struggle is just as real as it is for us. But I knew Caleb needed to be special. So, I made him younger than what would be considered the norm. I felt his lack of experience in life would be the perfect wrench to throw into his battle with Lucifer.

Molly, you also have a short story, “A Candle in the Window,” in one of the Snapdragon collections.  That’s a beautiful title, reminiscent of one of my favorite poems, “A Candle Burned” by Boris Pasternak.  What was your inspiration for that story?  

"Candle" is an old fashioned ghost story, seasoned with young love and heartache. John Hardy assumes his young love won’t marry him because she’s of noble birth and he is not. Let’s just say, what separates these two lovers is haunting.

I know you’re a fan of vampires. Who’s your favorite?

That’s a hard question!! I love a good vampire and there are lots of them out there. Ok. There’s a film called “Dracula: The Dark Prince,” starring Rudolf Martin. It’s a Vlad the Impaler becomes a vampire movie. I loved their take on the history and legend that surrounds the real life people and I was particularly taken with the way Rudolf Martin played the character. It’s dark and tragic…and Roger Daltrey from The Who is in it. I was sold. It’s kinda hard to find, but worth looking for.

Last question: I understand that you have a pet whippet.  I’ve never seen a whippet.  Do you have a photo?

Of course!

Beautiful dog! Thank you for your time, Molly!

You can follow Molly on Facebook or on Twitter

You can purchase her novel, The Sand Dweller, via Amazon or Barnes and Noble


Saturday, May 13, 2017

Michael's Last Day

For the past seven years, the Main Line Writers Group has met once a month at Michael's Restaurant and Jewish Delicatessen in King of Prussia (Upper Marion Township).  It was a great place to meet.  Michael's has not one but two meeting rooms.  Since our group usually draws between 20 and 30 people, we usually got the larger of the two.  (The above photo shows just a small portion of the membership, standing in front of a flag painted on the wall of the larger meeting room.)

Sadly, after 36 years in business, Michael's Restaurant closes for good today.

I contacted a reporter friend, Katie Kohler, who wrote a good article about Michael's closing.  The link is here.

Goodbye, Michael, Eileen, and the rest of the staff there.  It was a great place to eat, and an even better place to hold a meeting. 

Friday, October 28, 2016

Crispy and Warm: Six Questions for Author Lynnette Adair

Today I interviewed author Lynnette Adair.  Lynnette just published her first novel, The Sea Sprite Inn, with Cat & Mouse Press of Lewes, Delaware.  This book release also has something to do with chocolate chip cookies!  Let's find out what....

1.  Lynnette, you just had your very first book release.  Tell us about the event.  Was it fun?  Was it everything you hoped for?

The Sea Sprite Inn launched at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.  I suppose most new authors have self-doubts and I'm no different.  I worried that no guests would show since it was a gorgeous beach day and no one has ever heard of me!  What a thrill to hear my publisher say she had never seen such a turnout at a book signing!  I remember giggling the entire day in disbelief.  
The turnout was over fifty guests!

2.  Jillian -- your protagonist in The Sea Sprite Inn -- is in the process of reinventing herself.  Now that you're a published novelist, does it feel like you've reinvented yourself as well?

I've reinvented myself so many times that it feels frighteningly familiar.  My bio reads like a compilation from an entire neighborhood, and it truly is great fodder for stories.  Air Force veteran, professional ballroom dancer, insurance adjuster, waitress, retail saleswoman, geriatric caregiver...the list is endless.  But THIS time, it's different.  Not so much a reinvention, but the actualization of my destiny.  (Oooo...I like that line!)

3.  You and I met at a lecture sponsored by the Brandywine Valley Writers Group, where you mentioned something about chocolate chip cookies.  What was that about?

I shared my cookie story as a example of a creative way to engage readers.  On September 10th, I had an event at the Hockessin Bookshelf, which is also in Delaware.  I asked my Facebook followers what cookies they liked.  It created a LOT of energy.  People posted their cookie choices and I committed to saving one for them.

I baked the snickerdoodles, posted the pictures, and wrote a mouthwatering description.  I followed the same steps with the oatmeal raisin and ended the day with chocolate chip cookies. 

Battling the fear of no guests, I walked in very early stunned to find people already in line with copies of The Sea Sprite Inn.  They RAN OUT of books!  Super glad I had an extra case with me!  The owner was overheard saying she had never seen such a turnout! 

4.  Well done!  Now, tell us how you connected with your publisher, Cat & Mouse Press.

There's that self-doubt again.  I needed feedback from someone who I wasn't related to, so I sent a submission to the Rehoboth Beach Reads contest.

I was contacted by Nancy Sakaduski, the owner of Cat & Mouse Press.  She asked if I was interested in writing a proposal.  I remember squealing, "Is that even a question?"  I also MAY have done a little happy dance...all right, I danced like crazy while laughing out loud.

In 2016, my short story, The Magical Suit, was published in the anthology Beach Days and my novel, The Sea Sprite Inn, was also published!  Both books are available at local bookstores and can be purchased on Amazon.

5.  What's next for you?  Will we see the further adventures of Jillian, or will it be something different?

Anyone who has ever heard the line, "...but you're sisters, can't you just try to get along?" will understand the premise of the new novel I'm working on.

The story revolves around three sisters who all come home to help one of their own with a devastating diagnosis.  Hearts fill with joy, hearts break, and hears will heal in this story of love, grit and the constant evolution of the family dynamic.  As one of four sisters, I have enough material for an entire series!

Not to worry, though -- Jillian will return to the Sea Sprite Inn along with most of her friends.  I already have two more books planned.

6.  Anything else you'd like to add?

During the renovation of the Sea Sprite Inn, Jillian discovers a World War II ammo box filled with mementos.  She goes on a quest to return the box to its original owner.  The box and its contents will be on display.

Plus, I'll have home-made cookies.  You know the kind...crispy and warm on the edges.  One bite and the melty chocolate drapes between your lips forcing you to moan in delight as you chew.  Those kind of cookies.  Shall I save one for you?

Definitely!  And thank you for your time, Lynnette.  You can follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.  Her publisher is Cat & Mouse Press, and you can order The Sea Sprite Inn through them.

You can also order her book through Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Five Ways to Rock a Public Reading

Now that this guest post of mine has been up on the site for several days, I'm re-posting it on my own blog.

5OnFri: Five Ways to Rock a Public Reading

by Tony Conaway

A guest post on the website 
It’s an old observation, but an accurate one: public speaking is the #1 fear for many people. This, unfortunately, includes many writers.
Public speaking, like most things, is less scary when you’re well-prepared. I’ve been reading my work in public for many years, and here are some things I’ve learned. They may help you.

1) Practice

I go to many readings given by authors, and I’m amazed how often they seem to be unprepared. I understand that, if you’re reading a new piece – or a work in progress – your reading might not be as polished. But you’ve got to read it – out loud – several times before you do it in public. You also need to time the piece, and make a note of that. If you only have ten minutes to read, you don’t want to pull out a work that will take twenty minutes.

2) Select the right piece for your audience

You may have a racy, R-rated piece, only to find out that some of the audience has brought children along. Another possibility is that a recent event would make your piece feel insensitive. What if you’d planned to read a story that involved an airplane crash, and, as you drove to the venue, you found out that an airplane really did just crash? Or (this happened to me) you’re scheduled to read on a Monday night during football season. Monday Night Football is on, and your audience turns out to be entirely female. Will they appreciate your planned piece on boxing as much as a mixed-gender audience would?
The best way to handle this is to have more than one piece prepared. Bring a clean piece and an R-rated piece, or a funny piece and a sad piece. Give yourself options. Even if you’re there to promote your latest book, have at least two sections (clean vs. blue, or funny vs. sad) of the book prepared.

3) Don’t read directly out of your book!

Surely you have an electronic copy of your book – print that out, double-spaced, in large type, preferably on cover stock. Why? Because the lighting where you read may be poor. (At the last Noir at the Bar event I attended, the lighting was so bad the audience could barely see the author!) If it’s double-spaced with large type, it’s easier to read – even in bad lighting. And printing it on stiff cover stock will keep the pages from crinkling as you progress, and make it less likely for them to blow away if someone opens an outside door and lets in a sudden breeze.
I’ve only ever seen one author who could justify reading out of his book. This was a fantasy author who drew over 75 fans to a bookstore reading. Some of the fans were so ardent that they actually dressed up as characters from his books! The author began by announcing, “I’m going to read the first chapter of my new book. I see many of you have purchased it already. Would one of you like to lend me your book to read from? Afterward, I’ll autograph it, noting that I read from it tonight.” 
Unfortunately, I don’t have fans like that, and you probably don’t either. So read from pages, not a bound book.

4) Prepare your script

This is another reason to read from double-spaced pages rather than your book. If you can do character voices (as I do), you can eliminate some of the “he said/she said” attributions – it will be obvious from your voice who is speaking. You also might want to cut or change some words from the book version: homonyms that might be confusing, curse words, or simply words you have difficulty pronouncing. And finally, there is much more room to make notes on a double-spaced page than in the tight confines of a bound book. I make marks and notes on the page, indicating that I should pause here, or look up at the audience here. I even differentiate the dialogue of different characters by typing in different colors. I read a noir story last night at a library event. On my pages, the narrator’s dialogue was in blue, the character of “Colin” had his dialogue in red, and the very loud thug called “Moose” was in boldface. That kept me from getting confused, and my character voices were spot-on.

5) Type your introduction

Someone invited you to speak: an organizer, a librarian, a bookstore owner, whomever. They might or might not be a good public speaker. Make things simpler by handing them your introduction before you start. Do it the same way you prepared your script: large type, double spaced, on stiff cover stock. You’re making their lives easier, and you’ve increased your chances of getting an accurate introduction immensely.
If you’re truly phobic about public speaking, following these tips might not be enough to make these events fun. But you’ll feel more confident if you’re well prepared.

tony-conawayTony Conaway is a freelance writer, ghostwriter and editor. He has co-written ten business books for such publishers as McGraw-Hill, Macmillan and Prentice Hall. His fiction has appeared in eight anthologies and many publications, including Blue Lake Review, Danse Macabre, Rind Literary Magazine, the Rusty Nail, and Typehouse Literary Magazine.
Some of his odder writing gigs included writing a script for a planetarium show, and co-writing jokes used by Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. He has blogged often about reading in public; you can find his most recent post on the subject (with links to previous posts) right here.
You can Tweet him at @tonyconaway or contact him at

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Shoplandia: An Interview with Author Jim Breslin

Jim Breslin is a writer, storyteller and a former television producer who spent seventeen years with QVC, the world's largest home shopping network.  His first collection of short stories, Elephant, includes a short story that was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  Next, he published the anthology Chester County Fiction that presented short fiction from thirteen Southeast Pennsylvania authors (including the author of this blog). 

Jim Breslin’s latest book is his first novel, Shoplandia.  It was inspired by his years as a producer at a home shopping network.

1)  Jim, I see that you’ve been accepting invitations from book clubs to talk about Shoplandia.  I’m sure that I speak for many authors when I say that the idea of talking to a book club in someone’s home is daunting (or even terrifying).  How has your book club visits gone, and do you find them worthwhile?

Actually I have found book clubs to be really fun, particularly since the wine is usually flowing! Seriously though, I love hearing from book club readers what they enjoyed about the books and what they didn't like. Sometimes those in the book club will start debating a character or what they took away from a scene and I just sit back and soak it all in. I often hear the same themes and it's helpful to hear that feedback. Everyone has been very cordial and asked insightful questions. Of course, they want to know if any of the scenes in Shoplandia really happened at QVC!

2)  You recently attended the HippoCamp Creative Non-Fiction Writer’s Conference in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  How important is it for writers to go to conventions?  What do you get out of it?

HippoCamp is a great conference geared towards writing creative nonfiction. While most of my writing is fiction, the stories I tell at Story Slams are creative nonfiction so it was fun to teach our storytelling workshop at HippoCamp. Writing is such as a solitary craft that it's important for writers to seek out community with writers conferences, retreats, writers groups, or critique groups. The classes and workshops are always insightful, but some of the most memorable moments are meeting amazing people who are working on really cool stories. I had lunch and dinner with some people who have amazing personal stories they are working on and I can't wait to see their stories in print.

3)  I’ve noticed on your website that two of the stories from Elephant are available separately for download.  That’s an interesting marketing technique.  Has it been successful?

I just put those two stories up and tested giving them away for free for a certain period of time. Of course, they were downloaded thousands of times for free. I have found that offering stuff for free will get an author downloads but it doesn't translate to sales. It would work better if it was the first chapter of a novel with a suspenseful ending but these were just two short stories.

4)  You’ve also collected stories from your Story Slams.  What’s a Story Slam and how did you come to be involved with them?

I was a fan of The Moth podcast so I tweeted out one day, in the summer of 2009, I love The Moth. Is there anything like that around West Chester? People tweeted back, joking no but that I should start something. So I started West Chester Story Slam in my living room. We had so much fun I moved it to a pub in West Chester and we're now in our seventh year. It's been really gratifying to hear people tell incredible stories. People can check out to learn more, watch videos of stories, listen to the podcast, or buy tickets for an upcoming event. We sell out of tickets every month. Beer and stories go together.

5)  Finally, what are you working on now?  Short stories or a new novel?

Both! I have a wild pre-apocalyptic novel I'm working on. Imagine if Quentin Tarantino directed a Hardy Boys movie. It's different than anything else I've writtern and I may publish it under a pen name. I also have some short stories and flash fiction I've been diligently working on. I need to get a few stories over the finish line so I can send them out to journals. It's been over a year since I've published any short fiction.

Thank you.  You can follow Jim Breslin on his website, on Twitter, and on Facebook.
You can purchase his novel, Shoplandia, and the collections Elephant and Chester County Fiction at Amazon.