Tuesday, November 11, 2014

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

In Part One, we covered the importance of having several different selections ready to read, in order to appeal to your audience.  Now we'll examine the physical aspects of your reading.

There's always a temptation to read straight out of a copy of your book.  Don't do it.  It's much easier to hold a few sheets of manuscript than an entire book.  Furthermore, you should make notes and changes to your piece, and there's little room to do that in a book.

Print out your selection, preferably on white or ivory cover stock.  Actual paper can blow away if there's a breeze.  Yes, you're inside...but a stiff breeze can scatter unsecured paper when someone opens the door to enter.  If you don't want to use cover stock on your home printer, print it on plain paper and take it to a photocopy shop.  Have them transfer it to the cover stock – their photocopy process will probably be better, anyway.  Your home printer may use water-soluble ink.

Of course, number your pages.  If they do get mixed up, you want to be able to quickly get them in the correct order.

At the top, I include the word count, and include a note as to how long it should take me to read this piece.  If I only have five minutes to read, I don't want to select a piece that takes ten minutes.

Assuming the piece has already been published, I include the information as to where it was published. If there's a website link, I add that.

Underneath that is my “key” - my guide to the different characters.  I put it in color, like so:
Waldo - blue
Victor – green
Bartender – black/boldface
Pirate Queen – red
When I read, I'm going to do different voices for each character, and the different colors remind me which character is which.  (Yellow doesn't show up well, so I print black in a different typeface instead.)  If I wanted, I could add a vocal characteristic, like “gruff,” “strong,” or “fearful.”

In the top center, I put the title of the piece, followed by my name.  No, I don't think I'll forget my name, but I might lose the manuscript.  If my name is on it, it might get returned to me.  But the current title is something I MIGHT forget, so it's good to have it on the page.  (I often change titles, so they're not fixed in my mind.)

The type is double-spaced, of course.  And, because you can't guarantee that the lighting will be good at a lectern, I bump up the point size from my standard 12 point to 14 point. 

In the body of the manuscript, I add diacritical marks to remind me of what I want to do.  If I want to emphasize a point, I put it in ALL CAPS.  I add a slash  /  where I want to pause.  (Technically, it's called a bar, but I've never heard anyone call it anything but a slash.)  A long pause gets two slashes, like so:  //.  And, since eye contact is important, type LOOK UP to remind myself that I want to to look up at the audience at that point.  The LOOK UP note also keeps me from losing my place when I go back to looking at the page.  I pick a spot with just a few words (easy to remember).  After all, I'm not just looking up at the audience - I'm also continuing to speak.  The punch line of a joke is perfect for this.

Then I put all the dialogue in the appropriate color, and delete most of the attributions.  You don't need me to say, “Victor said” when I'm doing Victor's voice.

Finally, I look at the text.  Are there any words I might stumble upon when I read?  Or words that might be obvious to a reader but can be confusing when heard?  (Homonyms, like whine and wine, for example.)  If there are any in the text, I change them.

Remember, you're there to entertain the audience – not confuse them.  You didn't take an oath that the version you're reading is identical to the one they would purchase.  Deliver the best reading you can, even if you have to make minor changes to the text.  And, like any other art form, you must practice, practice, practice!  Read the piece out loud, timing yourself.

Thanks for reading this blog post.  I hope it has been of help to you.  Please comment below – do you agree or disagree with the points raised?  And feel free to comment on your own experiences.

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).

As in the Noir at the Bar event, the lighting could be sub-par.  I certainly wouldn't read something that required my gestures or facial expressions when the audience couldn't see me!

If the sound system is poor (or nonexistent), you have to decide if you can be heard at all.  I'm known for having a loud voice...but the louder I have to be, the smaller my vocal range.  If I have to work at maximum volume, I'm going to choose the story with the least number of character voices.

You want the audience to be sitting down.  But if they're standing, there are going to be distractions.  I'm going to assume a short attention span, and choose the shortest piece I've got.

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...usually.)

And 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 of dancers clomping from the studio above the bookstore?
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 managing an event when 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.  We 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 the audience 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), 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

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 (see photo), 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 http://www.indifferentignorance.com

Ben Dodge has several links:
dA page: http://dodgingthebeat.deviantart.com/

Blog: http://www.dodgingthebeat.blogspot.ca/

Tumblr: http://bendodge.tumblr.com/

Tony Conaway's blog is at http://wayneaconaway.blogspot.com/

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!