Saturday, November 1, 2014

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

I attended a Noir at the Bar reading this week, as part of NoirCon 2014.  The event was held at the Misconduct Tavern in Philadelphia, a fairly ritzy bar.  The event was held in the bar's basement, with the authors reading from one corner.

However, as you can see in the above photo, the lighting was terrible.  I can't even tell from this photo who the author was!  (I think it's Jon McGoran, but I can't be sure.)  The authors were not well lit, the lighting for the authors to see their manuscripts was limited, and the microphone wasn't very adaptable.

Since even a high-profile reading like Noir at the Bar can have these drawbacks, it's time for me to reiterate what I know about giving public readings.

Your first decision is this: What do I read?

Keep in mind that your goals are to entertain your audience and, if you have a book for sale, entice them to buy the book.  In the latter case, many authors will chose to read from the book they are selling.  Often they simply read the first chapter.

However, I think it's a mistake to commit to a specific reading until you are physically at the venue and have the chance to look at your audience.  I learned this years ago when I was doing stand-up comedy.  I went on stage on a Monday night during football season...and the audience was entirely female.  All the men were off watching Monday Night Football.

That was when I learned that my act didn't have enough jokes that appealed to women.  (OK, maybe my act was a little misogynistic.  This was the 1980s, after all.)

The upside of this event was that I learned to tailor my performance to the audience on that specific date.

What surprises could happen when you arrive at the venue?

The audience could be all women (or all men).

The audience could include children.  All of a sudden, you have to do a clean reading.  This is also the case where there are children in earshot, but not physically at the reading.  (The old Chester County Book and Music Company in West Chester, Pennsylvania, had its reading lectern next to the children's book area.  We did readings at night, so there weren't many children about then...but sometimes there were.)

An event might have just happened that makes the material you chose seem insensitive or ill-timed.  What if your chosen excerpt has an airplane crash, and there's been a real airplane tragedy while you were going to the reading?  Would you really want to read about a fictional air crash, when there are real people suffering?  Or a major fire, earthquake, assassination...any of the delightful events we use to move our plot along. 

Alternately, there could be an unintended comedic effect from something going on at the venue.  For example, the Readers Forum Bookstore in Wayne, Pennsylvania, is situated under a dance studio.  What if the piece you selected is a meditation on silence, but it's interrupted by the thump – thump – thump or dancers clomping on the floor above?
So it's safer if you bring at least two different pieces prepared for your reading.

One other thing: don't be thrown by interruptions to your readings.  I once worked a venue that was directly across the street from a firehouse.  Sure enough, a loud siren went off during my performance.  You can't out-shout a fire alarm.  Just halt your performance, make a note as to where you stopped, and wait it out.  Similarly, I was at an event where a member of the audience had a seizure, fell off his chair, and hit his head on the concrete floor.  We took a break until the situation was resolved.  There was a nurse in the audience who took over tending to the afflicted person, so I didn't have to attempt that.  I just told everyone that we'd have to take a break while the situation was resolved, and asked for the lights to be brought up to maximum so the EMTs could see what they're doing.  Even though we were in an urban area, it took 20 minutes for the EMTs to arrive.  The venue had put the Muzak back on, and the EMTs asked for it to be turned off so they could talk to their patient.  Then the EMTs put the patient on a gurney and took him away.  Even though there was a 35 minute interruption, most of the audience had stayed.  So I thanked them for staying, and we resumed.

A final note: if you want a stock line for brief interruptions (like a waitress dropping a tray of drinks) from the comedy clubs, try this:  look in the direction of the noise and say, “Just put that anywhere.”  Delivered correctly, it usually gets a laugh.

In Part Two, we will go over how to physically prepare your piece for your event.  Thanks for reading! 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Power of the Thank-You Note

(Sorry I haven't posted for awhile.  My next two posts were written months ago, and were supposed to be cross-posted with the new blog for the Main Line Writers Group.  But the start of that new blog has been delayed...and delayed...and delayed.  To prevent my own blog from becoming officially moribund, I'm going to add some new posts.)

I was listening to the radio show Here and Now, which is co-produced by NPR and WBUR in Boston.  They were interviewing the actor John Lloyd Young, who starred in both the Broadway production and the recent film version of "Jersey Boys," directed by Clint Eastwood.

At the end of the interview, the other co-host of the show, Robin Young (no relation to the actor) joined in. She mentioned that she had interviewed the actor some eight years ago, when the play version of "Jersey Boys" first hit Broadway.  Here's the important part:
Robin Young mentioned that, in all her years of interviewing people, she has received only two beautiful, hand-written thank-you notes.  One was from the film actress Ashley Judd, and the other was from...John Lloyd Young.
Here and Now is a two-hour show, which is on five days a week.  Even if Robin Young only interviews one person  per show, she must interview some 250 people per year.  In her 25-year career, she's interviewed thousands of people.  And in all that time, she's received only two nice notes!!

(You can hear Robin Young's comments here.  The interview is long; pick it up at the 12-minute mark.)

This is the power of the written thank-you note in our world of email and social media.  Most people will remember and appreciate an actual, hand-written note or letter.

If you want to make an impression, when you are interviewed while promoting something, get the address of the interviewer and write them a thank-you note.  And if your handwriting is poor (like mine), have your thank-you notes pre-printed with your own name and address.  You can do that at a print shop or online.  After all, there's no point sending a thank-you note if the recipient doesn't know who it's from!

Friday, January 10, 2014

I'm Not a Nice Guy

My schedule is changing, so I won't be free to lunch at one of my favorite restaurants.  It's not a special place, just a chain restaurant that serves guy food.  But I've been served by the same waitress there for almost ten years.

Today I went by for lunch mostly to say goodbye to her.

Now, I've been a bartender, and like most people who have been in food service, I tip well.  And, when  I could easily get two-dollar bills from my bank, I used to tip with them.  It was just a way to be remembered.  "That's the guy who tips in deuces:  he's a good tipper, let me take care of him."

(My bank has changed owners twice, and the new bank doesn't carry twos anymore, not even back in the vault.)

That waitress told me a touching story about her late son.  He died a few years ago at the age of 23 - a car accident I think, although I didn't want to pry.  She'd already told me that she gave my two-dollar bill tips to him.

Today she said that she was going through his things, and found a big atlas.  She opened it, and discovered every two-dollar bill I'd given her inside the atlas!  Page after page with four two-dollar bills, pressed like flowers.

Understand - I'd never met her son.  I barely know this waitress.  We talked a little each time I came by.    I don't even know her last name.

It was touching, nonetheless.

But I'm a writer.  And we're ghouls, using the pain of others in our stories.

So here's my question: would it be churlish to use that story in a work of fiction?

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Virtual Panel Discussion with Five Authors from The Story Shack

The Story Shack is an online magazine the presents a new work of flash fiction every day. This is an interview with five authors whose work appeared in The Story Shack.  It has been edited for length.

Let's start with a quick, easy question: How long have you been writing?

Francesca Burke: I guess since I learnt to read and write, which is so pretentious! Part of me wishes I picked up a pen yesterday.... I just didn't really notice that I enjoyed it until I was twelve or so. I've been doing my blog since I was fourteen.

Tony Conaway: I started selling nonfiction in 1990, but it's only since around 2010 that I've gotten my fiction published regularly. Does that make me a new writer?

Ben Dodge: Since I was little, really. I did the odd short story in elementary school, an occasional fragment of a play or some such, but I never started writing seriously until halfway through high school, when I met a number of supremely talented friends from out of town. They've been an inspiration to me, and I haven't stopped writing seriously since I met them.

Peter McMillan: I have been writing flash fiction since 2007.

Anna Peerbolt: It depends on the genre. I made my living for about 20 years as a journalist (magazines and newspapers). As for fiction, like many writers I was dabbling in it by high school and continued to dabble until about ten years ago when I got serious. I started out with short stories and passed on to flash, though I still do a longer story now and then. So, the short answer is 30 years, give or take.

Who is your favorite author, the one whose writing inspires you or the one you'd like to write like?

Ben Dodge: My answer's different for all three. My favorite author of all time would be Orson Scott Card or Neal Stephenson.

The author who inspires me the most would be Dan Abnett, Hilary Mantel, Tony Burgess, or Chuck Wendig--their collective ability to world-build and create narratives that fit their characters to a tee is flawless and beautiful.

If I could write like any author I know of, my style would be an eclectic combination of S.M. Stirling, Hunter S. Thompson, and Brent Weeks. With an undercurrent of the ethical concerns and dialogue that Orson Scott Card weaves into his work.

Francesca Burke: My favourite author is usually the one whose work I'm currently reading, so at the moment it's Jane Austen. In the past few months it's been Rick Riordan and Khaled Housseini, as well as Lionel Shriver, JD Salinger and Sylvia Plath for school. If I could write like all those people I'd be the knitted jumper of the book world, it'd be great.

Peter McMillan: Jorge Luis Borges.

Tony Conaway: Michael Chabon.

Anna Peerbolt: That is actually a tough question to answer. I’m a huge mystery story fan with Robert Parker and Dorothy Sayers being the best in my book. There are many other writers I admire, among them: Ursula K LeGuin, Charles Dickens, Anne Patchett, Martin Cruz Smith, and Ian McEwan.

Have you been published before? If so, where?

Francesca Burke: I was published in Story Shack in 2012 and an article I wrote for my school magazine was included in a book about the school this year.

Tony Conaway: Some recent stories of mine have appeared in the online magazine Smashed Cat and in the anthology Unclaimed Baggage.

Peter McMillan: I have published two collections of my reprinted stories.

Anna Peerbolt: My bio names some online zines where I have been published plus stories coming out soon in The Boston Literary Journal, Right Hand Pointing, and Burning Wood.

Ben Dodge: I've been published four times in Story Shack. In order of publication, Drive, Inked, The Last Song, and Bury Your Soul Six Feet Under. Other than that, I've published a few of my pieces online--I've been a member of deviantArt's community for almost two years now. If you're interested in looking me up, go to my deviantArt page

What genre is your story in Story Shack? Can you tell us a little about the origin of the story?

Tony Conaway: It's humor. I was fortunate to have a bookstore that allowed my writer friends and I to read our work. Lachrymosa is a piece I wrote specifically to read (and get laughs) at that venue.

Francesca Burke: My story is called Season's Greetings. It's a Christmassy piece first set at Halloween. It was inspired by some people's insistence that festivals like Christmas should be all about Jesus, even though they don't go to church the rest of the year, as well as by those people who are just really into some holidays. Thalia was inspired by Thalia Grace from Rick Riordan's novels.

Peter McMillan: Poker Night at Papa G's is a vignette or tableaux that evokes stories not told.

Anna Peerbolt: The Magical Night is literary/magic realism. I wrote it in response to a prompt offered in the Flash Factory, which is part of the online Zoethrope Virtual Studio.

Ben Dodge: The Last Song is a suspense story. I remember that I'd been swamped with a lot of work, and I hadn't written a short story in months. I was frustrated, it was late, and I ended up going to the BBC's website. This was after Hurricane Sandy hit New York City. I saw the photographs being taken of the storm, and realized that I'd run to the end of my CD. I put the two together--if you had to go out, what would be the last song you'd listen to. Would it matter? I grabbed a pen, and this story happened.

Finally, some writers are willing to talk about their works-in-progress, some aren't. Would you like to tell us, briefly, about what you're working on now?

Francesca Burke: An essay for a school project whose title I can't actually remember and some future blog pieces and projects. I've always got sketches for stories and characters too, but it's anyone's guess what will get published (though I sincerely hope it won't be the essay).

Ben Dodge: My chief project right now is a post-apocalyptic novel called Pit Stop.

Peter McMillan: The topics for my flash fiction just happen, so I can't go beyond saying that I'm working towards a third collection of reprinted stories.

Anna Peerbolt: I’ve got a short story titled “Cops and Lenny” that is about a small town petty thief and the trouble he gets into. It’s a love story doused with humor. I’m also rewriting a number of flash pieces that have shown promise.

Francesca Burke's blog is at

Ben Dodge has several links:
dA page:



Tony Conaway's blog is at

And that's all we have room for in this post. Take a look at our fiction on The Story Shack, and please leave a comment on that site!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Interview with Author Claire Mulligan

I interviewed Claire Louise Mulligan, author of the collection “Reading Abigail and Other Stories,” and the novels The Reckoning of Boston Jim and The Dark. She is just back from the latest writing festival in Vancouver (her former home), where she read alongside such famous authors as Eleanor Catton, the 2013 winner of the Man Booker Prize.

How long have you been writing?

I wanted to be a writer as long as I can remember. Ever since I was a child.

Do you have a favorite author, one whose writing inspires you, or just an author you'd like to write like?

There are so many. But one is Rose Tremain, an English historical novelist. Her latest is Merivel: A Man out of Time.

So many novels today are plot-driven. The narrators are interchangeable. One-of-a-piece. But in Tremain's books, the character development is as important as the plot. Other than that, I love a poetic approach – a prose style that's distinctive without being overdone.

Are there any Canadian authors (besides yourself) that you'd care to name that Americans should be reading?

Definitely, more people should read David Adams Richards. He's very Canadian.

When readers become authors, they sometimes claim that they've lost the ability to enjoy reading. That is, instead of just reading for pleasure, they get involved in the mechanics of a story. Do you ever feel that way?

Sometimes, especially when I'm doing book club stuff. I tend to get very analytical. But that's OK – I'm in awe of great writing.

You've won or been nominated for many awards. Your first novel, The Reckoning of Boston Jim, was nominated for the 2007 Giller Prize and for the British Columbia Book Award. Once you've won or been nominated, is there pressure for to continue that with subsequent books?

Sure. Awards get you on the map.

Let's end with this: you've done many interviews. Can you tell us the stupidest question an interviewer has ever asked you?

My latest book, The Dark, has a theme of spiritualism. A radio interviewer once asked me “Do you believe in ghosts?” What does that have to do with anything? It's as if, if you're not a believer, you shouldn't be writing about ghosts.

Do they ask a writer who writes about zombies if he believes that zombies exist? Of course not. And they probably wouldn't ask if I believed in God – that's too personal. But they feel free to ask about ghosts. It's as if belief in ghosts lies somewhere between science and religion.

Another question I couldn't answer was “Why do Canadians support their writers more than Americans?” How would I know the answer to that? You'd have to do a sociological study to come up with an answer.

All I know is that it's true. Canada treats its writers like movie stars.

Thank you, Claire.

Claire Mulligan's website is She will speak to the Brandywine Valley Writers Group on Tuesday, 19 November, 2013 at 7 pm. Admission is free, but we meet upstairs at Ryan's Pub in West Chester, and the restaurant expects attendees to purchase some food or drink. For more information on this event, please go to

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Don't Hate Me

I'm cheating on my Starbucks this afternoon by writing in a BrewHaHa.

I know, I'm a rebel.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Interview with the Publisher of "Unclaimed Baggage"

To celebrate the publication of the anthology "Unclaimed: Voices of the Main Line Writers Group," I interviewed the book's publisher, Gary Zenker, who brought it out under his White Lightning imprint.  It is also available as an ebook from Amazon.

Gary, “Unclaimed Baggage” is a project of the Main Line Writers Group. You're the founder and leader of that group. How long has it been in existence?

The Main Line Writers Group has been around for five years now. It’s one of the most successful groups in the area. I attribute that to the writers themselves. They are really engaged and excited about welcoming new members. 

In most writers' groups, writers (and potential writers) meet, talk about writing, exchange tips, and/or do writing exercises. How did the Main Line Writers Group end up producing their own anthology?

In one word, talent, The writers that make up the Main Line Writers Group are extremely talented. We’ve all read each others’ work. I am in awe of the stories and story telling skills they have. Many of the writers have been published in a variety of publications: print collections, online collections, some have even published novels.
Since the group’s primary goal is to help the writers grow in all areas, we figured a collection of their work would be a great way to add to their portfolio and learn the details of producing a book.

And by book, you mean both a print version and an e-book, correct?

Absolutely. I have no doubt we will distribute ten times as many ebooks as print books. The printed book isn’t dead yet…some people prefer it. But ebooks are a necessity for almost any one publishing today.

Unclaimed Baggage” has a pretty low price, almost half what someone would expect for an anthology. Why is that?

This is a non-profit venture. We wanted to showcase the writers and give people exposure to them. As a group, we decided to cut out any profit from the sales. All of the authors agreed to this.

But most books are not group projects.

That’s right. There’s a huge value to the writers learning all of the steps and roles in the creation of a book. Over the next few years, many of them will complete enough work to create a book. And the entire publishing industry is changing so quickly. They need to understand ALL of the steps and options they have to make the smartest choice for bringing their completed works to market.

Whose idea was it to create a book?

I remember it being a group idea sparked by  by another book. A local writer, Jim Breslin, created a book called “Chester County Fiction.” It was his personal project, not but directly tied to the writing group he attends. I thought it would be interesting to do a book for our writers group and the members jumped all over that. A couple of conversations later and we had a basic plan for producing the book.

Where did the title, “Unclaimed Baggage,” come from?

We didn’t set a theme that the submitted stories needed to follow. We were just going to use the title Voice of the Main Line Writers. But we started to rethink the theme as we were creating the cover graphics, looking for a visual presentation. We found this image and realized that most stories involve some kind of baggage, figurative or literal, that people are carrying. Sometimes it’s the core of the plot and sometimes it’s just the backstory. But it seemed to work, the image and the title.

Finally, what's next? Will the Main Line Writers Group come out with another anthology?

Well, it would be a shame not to leverage all this knowledge and experience we gained. But it really depends on the group.

One last question: if someone in the Philadelphia area wanted to join the Main Line Writers Group, how would they contact you or find out when the meeting are held?

The Main Line Writers Group meets in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, on the third Wednesday of each month (unless that conflicts with a holiday). The best way to contact us is through Sign up (it's free) - you'll get information about meetings, you can RSVP, and you'll get email reminders. And I'm excited to say that we have a new website! It's still being developed, but, unlike the Meetup site, it will promote the individual members of the group.