Giving a first-ever public talk on your book is an experience not totally unlike being present at your child’s birth and getting asked to cut the chord. How do you know you won’t hurt the baby? Sure, they tell you everything’s going to be fine but … That’s your baby.
And today’s the day. The public library in my town is opening up just so I can discuss my book, City ofWoe. They are spending money to hear me speak, so I have to be good or I may never be able to borrow a book again. And local people are supposedly coming, so I have to be good or I won’t be able to look them in the eye when I am out buying milk or cheap bourbon. If I stink up they joint, people will give me the “you should probably buy some lottery tickets too, you ain’t making no money writing” look.
So, welcome Pressure. Nice to see you again. How’s the family?
The really odd thing about giving a first-ever book talk is there is no way to really know what I am doing. Sure, I can fake it (yep, that’s the main thrust of the plan), mimicking what I have seen “real writers” do when they give talks. I saw Richard Price give a reading two times; for me, it was like seeing the Beatles, then the Rolling Stones. I can do what he did. Except he’d already done hundreds of these (in my mind any way), he was a Pro, An Established, Beloved Writer. I’m just a schmo starting his dream, talking at his local library; what do I have to say?
Lots, actually, and that is the beautiful, awkward truth about all of us. We write because we have lots to say, and deep down, if we are really truthful with ourselves, we want to talk about it. That’s why we started writing in the first place, because we had so much to say.
So what should a writer do at a reading or book talk? I am not An Established, Beloved Writer, yet, but here are a few tips:
* Respect the venue. With the possible exception of a firing squad, any place that will have you should be considered sacred.
* Bring a gift. Cookies, a signed copy of the book, something to show that you appreciate the opportunity.
* Open with gratitude. A simple thank you can help break the ice and set an inviting tone. “Thank you for having me.” “Thank you for coming.” Won’t hurt and doesn’t cost a penny.
* Open with a reading, and introduce it briefly. Write down the introduction. Practice both the introduction and reading, out loud, to smooth it out. Try not to get caught up in perfection, just smooth enough to engage.
*In selecting the reading, ask yourself what gives your book the best chance to appeal to readers without giving away key plot points. Keep the selection to a few pages at most. Less is more, you don’t want to bore.
* Read at a comfortable pace without melodrama. Speak up but don’t feel obligated to scream. In preparation, read and speak everything you plan to do at least once, just as a test run. Make note of phrases you stumble over, and say them a few times. The current bane of my existence is “He picked up a Fruit Roll Up wrapper one of the kids left…” No reason why I keep stumbling on it, but I do. Okay. And if it happens during the reading, I will survive. That is one of the benefits of rehearsal; knowing the challenges.
* Also, remember, nothing is the end of the world. If you stumble on a word, correct and continue. People have noticed you are human; they understand. Don’t make yourself crazy. If they have come to see you, you have already won them over. These are your people. Enjoy!
* What to discuss? Depends on the venue. If you are at a writer’s convention, writers will be attending, so teach them something. I once saw David Morrell, author of many novels including First Blood, the basis for the Rambo movies. He discussed the challenge he set for himself with that book to see if he could write a novel that was almost entirely chase scene. It was a fascinating lecture. And as I mentioned earlier, I saw Richard Price speak. That guy was so calm and unassuming and open in discussing what his intentions were with the book he was presenting (Clockers one time, Lush Life another, if memory serves), that people embraced him like family.
* How long to speak? Between “What a waste! He barely said anything!” and “Oh My God, he wouldn’t shut up.” I am shooting for around 15 minutes, not including the reading, so about 20 minutes or so total.
* And then what? Offer to answer questions. This allows the audience to lengthen the event a bit if they want (if this gets long and/or tedious, you can end at any time with the magic words, “Thanks again for coming out.”).
* What next? Usually there is a signing. Bring books commensurate with your popularity as a writer. This is difficult to judge when you are starting out and acting as an army of one, but bringing more than you think you will need and stashing them under the table so it looks like you only brought a proper amount works well. I usually display a few, have a small pile nearby, and a box under the table in case there’s a sudden mad dash, which happened once and was delightful.
The public reading experience can be wonderful and is always a lesson. Believe in your work, embrace the opportunity, and share your passion.
Here’s hoping this was helpful.