I’m going to admit something that’ll probably get me in trouble. What else is new?
Here’s the thing: I’m not fond of public author readings—or, at least, I’m frequently disappointed by them. I’ve been to quite a few over the years, probably more than your average reader/fan because I’ve been involved with college English Departments that have strong reading series.
But I’ve also been to bookstores and coffee houses for readings, especially since I’ve moved down to Atlanta, where one can see a bestselling author in person more than once a decade. One doesn’t generally get to shake hands with Michael Connelly, Michael Chabon and T.C. Boyle, all within a sixth month period, in upstate New York. That’s Atlanta—not the most literary city in the country, but something. This past summer, my public reading attendance reached a fever pitch when I was at the Sewanee Writers Conference squirming in my seat through at least two or three forty-five minute readings a day.
Don’t get me wrong. A few of the readings were great, and the Barry Hannah reading in particular was among the most entertaining and enthralling half hours I’ve ever spent seated in front of an author. But Mr. Hannah, sadly, is the exception to the rule, from what I can see. Part of my disgruntlement is my fault: I have bad posture and can’t manage to be comfortable in a wooden-backed chair without readjusting on the average of twice a minute. More importantly, I have a terrible aural attention span. I can read or watch stuff for hours on end, but my listening skills plummet after five minutes flat. Part of the reason I love music so much is that the listening is generally passive and, since I can’t remember anything I hear, I can listen to the same album a hundred times before I get bored with it.
At readings I’m good with poets or fiction writers who read several short sections of their work because there are stopgaps where I can jump back in. Even better are panel presentations. Last month at the Decatur Book Festival I watched a panel presentation on historical mysteries that included Tasha Alexander and Cara Black, among others. Now, I’ve never seen Tasha read and she’s probably brilliant, but she and the others kept my attention the entire hour merely by explaining their books, their research, their struggles.
Seems to me they pitched their books just as well as if they’d read excerpts—maybe even better. I don’t know why panels work better for me, except that you’ve got several people talking, a vibrant conversation, and you’ve got improvisation. Of course, I suspect that such panel conversation might be far more interesting to fellow writers (published and aspiring) than it would be to people who just want to read and don’t want the behind-the-scenes mumbo-jumbo. Plus, you never know if there’s a sweaty guy in the audience itching to ask a psycho question.
All right, I am to blame as a bad listener and compulsive squirmer, but we must also face the sad fact that many of us authors are not also actors. I’ve seen a lot of unfortunate folks who’ve taken prose that lives on the page and kill it with a monotone reading, who’ve confused the hell out of me because they haven’t modulated their voices to help me distinguish between exposition and dialogue (not to mention delineating the different characters talking).
I feel terrible saying this because, after all the readings I’ve attended, I’ve rarely heard anyone else complain of the same kind of acute boredom I seem to suffer. I don’t know; maybe I have ADD. Maybe I’m a product of the MTV generation. But maybe the culture of “literary readings” still retains the kind of genteelism that would not allow for booing, throwing tomatoes or banging a large gong—so we’ve gotten pretty complacent. I’m just saying, maybe a few of us (myself included) could benefit from a few acting classes, or at least some lessons in voice projection.
I’m not bitching just for the sake of bitching. Author readings can be a powerful way to bring a writer and reader together, and of course they’re a great tool for marketing. They’re also one of the last hip forms of free entertainment, since rarely have I paid money to listen to an author read. I’ve seen astounding readers bring a whole new dimension to their prose via oral recitation, but again, I happen to know that most of the best readers I’ve ever encountered—Clyde Edgerton, Robert Olen Butler, for instance—have some background in acting. They’re also generally comic writers, or at least they choose to read their more comic work. Suspenseful genre writing might work too, but most of my experience is with serious, slice-of-life literary prose. It’s a tough sell.
I’m also musing on this subject partly as a way to psyche myself up for several readings that I’ll be doing next month to promote the release of Pyres. I’m nervous, but not nervous to be performing in front of large groups of people. Despite my significant introversion, years of teaching have dissolved my stage fright altogether. No, it’s more about the possibility that I’ll walk into a bookstore and find that my audience is a couple of Christian ladies who got their days mixed up and meant to see a Rachel Ray cooking demonstration. On occasion I’ve been one of two or three audience members, and I was sick with embarrassment for the poor writer who had to read his book to us. I said to myself, “please, God, never let this happen to me.” Of course, now I totally deserve a few readings with nothing but crickets in the audience, just for saying that.
I’m also nervous about the flip side: reading to a large group of people and boring the shit out of them. Next month, somewhat large audiences will be “prearranged” for a couple of my readings, either because the readings are at colleges where some attendance is mandatory (can you imagine?) or because I’m reading with other folks who draw their own audiences. I feel a tremendous obligation to work up my acting skills and give them a true performance, but this is what makes me the most nervous. I don’t want to be one of those guys who makes people fall asleep. I do that enough in the composition classes I teach.
And, hell, I’ll admit it: I want to put on a good show. What’s entertainment but somebody showing off? I want to get the accents right, find the inflections, speed up and slow down at the right spots for dramatic effect. I want to ooze with the emotion that I intended to inhabit the language because, for whatever reason, oral presentations need that emotion amplified a bit. One can go too far, though, and I don’t want to unleash a torrent of cheeseball kitsch, either.
For a while there I considered just memorizing and reciting the whole shebang, but then I realized that I’d be needing to remember almost ten pages of writing. Even though I wrote those sentences, I’m never going to know them by heart. Still, I feel like I’ve got to practice what I’m reading a hundred times so that I’ll have carefully considered beforehand how to say each line with the right tone. Authors who pick what they are going to read five minutes before the reading baffle me. How do they know all the emotional inflections they’ll be needing?
There are, of course, other residual benefits to giving a good reading beyond merely keeping people awake. I’ve always bought the book after a knockout reading. And I remember amazing readers for years afterward, even if I’d never heard of them before. Certainly, the best author readers do begin to develop a following for their oral performances, and some even get paid more than peanuts for it.
So, more than anything, this is me coaching myself: “Don’t screw this up, Nikitas. This is your one shot.” This is me reminding myself that I’ve got to get up there and keep people entertained, even if there’s only two of them. I’m no actor, and I’ll probably screw it up, but I’m determined to err with overzealousness or bad acting, not with a narcotic drone. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some lines to rehearse.
Author of Pyres
release date: 16 October 2007
St. Martin’s Minotaur
Dave White’s critically acclaimed debut hits stores today!
Buy it here.
Not really. My book comes out in the morning. And there’s not much else I can say about it.
I just turned in my edits on THE EVIL THAT MEN DO, the second Jackson Donne novel.
Writing the second novel was an interesting experience. It was like learning to write all over again. Duane Swierczynski always says each time you learn to write a novel, you have to learn how to write that novel. It’s an interesting theory, and one I now agree with.
Writing WHEN ONE MAN DIES was an exercise in flying blindly. I had no deadline, I had no concerns. I had characters and a slight plot idea. The idea for EVIL came to me halfway through WOMD, and I had time to let it percolate. This book I had to write quicker, I had a deadline to deal with, I knew there were going to be lots of revisions, some big ones too.
But I think I got it. Or at least I’m close now.
I just sent my agent the idea for Book 3.
The train keeps on rolling.
One thing I can’t stand is when author take the easy way out. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve done this, too, and I hate myself for it.
You know what I mean. When motivation is glossed over, or a character is faced with an impossible situation, but wait, suddenly he’s the master of a little known Asian fighting art that is the only thing that will save.
For me, even an unbelievable story needs to seem believable. And that means not taking the easy road. Not copping out. It’s something I learned from my late teacher/mentor/friend Bill Relling. He would never let any of his students get away with easy outs. He would question us and question us until we gave in.
“Why does he find the knife under the car?”
“Because it was there.”
“Not a good answer. Why?”
A pause. “Because…he needs it?”
He nods. “Yeah. But?”
Another pause. “But just because…he needs it doesn’t mean it should be there.”
A smile now. “So…?”
“So I’ll change it.”
Admittedly, that’s a pretty lame example, but essentially it illustrates what I mean. (I would have been a horrible critic back in the old Greek days…Deus Ex Machina? Pah-lease!)
If a character needs a ray-gun to solve the plot, make obtaining one believable within the world of the story. If a detective needs info about a suspect, don’t have an ex-lover conveniently sitting at a bar ready to spill the beans. Make the detective work. Make the ex-lover lie. Make the lies tell the truth.
DON’T MAKE IT EASY!! But as a corollary, DON’T MAKE IT COMPLICATED FOR COMPLICATED SAKE.
Make it believable. Make it real for the world you are writing about. Make it gripping. Put up obstacles that are really obstacles. Make your characters work. Make ’em think. Make ’em make mistakes. And even the good guys get hurt now and then.
Just don’t cop out.
(Cross post with Murderati)
I was a shy child. So painfully shy, in fact, that before the age of seven, I didn’t have the nerve to walk up to a checkout counter and buy a candy bar. My sister always had to do it for me.
At nine years old, after some coaching by my uncle on the ukelele, I taught myself to play guitar, and within a year, I was in a band and practicing in my friend’s garage. If not The Beatles, we were convinced that we were definitely destined to be as popular as The Ventures.
Unfortunately, the first time we played in public was a personal disaster for me. It was an elementary school talent competition and we were slated to play a medley of surf songs, including our two favorites, Pipeline and Wipeout. But as the curtain went up, I gathered up what little nerve I had, strummed my electric guitar…
And the amp remained silent. No sound. Not even a buzz.
Feeling the collective gaze of the audience on me, I quickly checked to see if I was properly plugged in, and the moment I touched my amp, the cable jack fell to the stage with a resounding thud.
This was followed by a roar of laughter so loud and forceful, I felt as if it might blow me off my feet. The curtain closed and I quickly replugged the cable, but that laughter seemed to go on forever as a small part of me shriveled up and died.
That I was able to continue at all was a miracle. But we played our tunes, got our applause, and ultimately lost the contest to a seven year-old singing A Spoonful of Sugar in a squeaky, off-key voice.
Not that it mattered. All I took away from the night was that moment of utter humiliation.
Years later, when assigned to do an oral report for a high school biology class, I chose to do a talk on the digestive system. But as the day approached for me to get up in front of the class, the butterflies in my own digestive system got so bad that I actually stayed home from school — only to be forced to do the report the day I returned.
I reluctantly got up in front of my fellow students — one of whom was a girl I’d had my eye on (but was too shy to talk to, of course) — and stammered my way through the presentation while my classmates quietly snickered. My teacher, already a sourpuss, kept frowning at me. And I wasn’t surprised to discover that my grade for the report was a big fat D.
As I got older, like most young men, I continued to have dreams of being a rock star. I actually got pretty good at writing songs and performing them for my friends. But the idea of being up on stage scared the hell out of me and I never took my music beyond those private performances.
So I became a writer. A screenwriter, in fact. I won an international screenwriting competition and the first thing I had to do was fly to Los Angeles to accept my prize — in front of an audience of industry bigwigs.
Prepare a speech, they told me.
So there I stood, nervously clutching a podium, Jack Lemmon staring up at me with that cock-eyed grin on his face. Trying not to throw-up, I said, “I’m a writer, not a speaker, so I just want to thank the Academy for giving me this wonderful opportunity. It’s an honor to be in such fine company.”
Then I got off the stage as quickly as I could, actually believing the words I had just uttered:
A writer, not a speaker.
Oh, boy, how wrong I was. From that day forward, a good part of my time was spent speaking, not writing. Sitting in front of executives, pitching stories — terrified to be in a room full of strangers.
And it never seemed to get better. No matter how many meetings I went to, no matter how many stories I pitched, I never got over that awful, unsettling stage fright.
Years later, I decided to abandon Hollywood and set my sights on the publishing world. When I got my deal with St. Martin’s Press, I thought, ahhh, finally. All I have to do now is write. No more pressure to perform.
What an idiot.
I soon discovered that most novelists, even mere thriller writers, soon find themselves before an audience. Be it a conference, a book signing, a speaking engagement. All of these things come with the job and are an important part of it.
When I found this out, I shuddered at the idea of once again having to perform in front of people. My anxiety level rose whenever I thought about it.
Then, oddly enough, something changed inside of me. I can’t pinpoint the moment it happened, but it did. I participated in my first panel at Thrillerfest and it went quite smoothly. I’m told I blushed like crazy, but nobody seemed to mind, and I even got a few laughs.
Several panels later, I almost felt like an old pro. As if I were in my element. I didn’t love doing it, still got a tiny twinge of nerves, but I didn’t mind it either. And I found that people actually responded quite well to me.
When I was asked earlier this year to go down to San Diego and teach a workshop, I immediately said yes. I admit I had an attack of panic before it was my turn to speak, but that dissolved the moment I started teaching. And, afterwards, several people came up to thank me, telling me they really got a lot out of it.
Now, just this past Saturday, Brett Battles and I did a joint appearance, speaking together before the Southern California Writers Association about writing thrillers. I again had a momentary twinge of nerves, but they disappeared immediately and I felt comfortable and completely at ease.
Brett and I riffed off each other, spontaneously cracking jokes, sharing our experiences and offering trips and tricks to a room full of aspiring writers. And, surprisingly enough, I really enjoyed myself. In fact, I not only enjoyed myself but was a little disappointed when it was over.
And we were a hit. Afterwards, attendees told us that we had raised the bar for future speakers and, believe me, those are words I never in my life expected to hear.
Am I still shy? Of course. But these days, for some reason, I’m better equipped to cope with the shyness. I don’t know if it’s practice, age, or simply some strange miracle, that has changed my attitude about such things, but I’m actually looking forward to the next speaking engagement. And the next. And the next.
And, hopefully, I’ll always be able to keep the guitar plugged into the amp.
But now that you’ve heard about my worst public appearance disasters, let’s hear about yours. What went wrong and how did you deal with it? And if such things have gotten better for you, what was the turning point?
Filed under: Patry Francis
The muse and I have struggled mightily this summer. In the spring, things were looking great! I wrote up a synopsis to a new novel and sent it around to a few friends. All agreed (as friends tend to do): it was brilliant, complete with rich characters, a dazzling plot, and a couple of intriguing subplots to keep things going. This one was practically going to write itself.
All I planned to do was sit in my summer office and take dictation. I’d even bought myself a new laptop–my instrument, as an astute friend called it. And it really felt like that: something unique and fine, something that if handled with the respect it deserved would produce the music I heard in my head–a simmering tale that would make readers everywhere–or at least one or two of them–see a little corner of the world in more vivid colors.
I wrote 80 pages. It was the best thing I’d ever written, I told my agent. I was humming, I told my husband, my kids, my friends. I could hardly wait to show them the manuscript that grew daily under my clattering fingers.
And then abruptly, I came to a particularly lonely spot in the road, well-known to all writers. There’s only one sign on that road, but instead of offering direction, it’s emblazoned with a huge, taunting question mark. That’s right: I didn’t know where I was going. Even more fatal, I had no idea why I’d ever set out on this particular journey.
But not to worry. This happens in the writing life, right? I started again. This time I got to page 103. I was so excited by my progress I couldn’t wait to finish. I had to share it with my agent right now. I e-mailed what I optimistically called “the first third of my novel” to her on a Friday, and by Sunday, I was in despair. Not because I hadn’t heard from her, but because I already knew what she was going to say. I knew because in my truest heart, I thought the same thing. On Monday, she called and said it.
On Tuesday, darkness descended. I mooned around in my pajamas, shades down, living on chocolate and wine. Even the house plants wilted. I watched dreary afternoon TV, and scanned the paper for waitressing jobs. There weren’t even any of those. I wasn’t sure how I’d ever written a coherent blog post, or a slightly witty e-mail, never mind an entire novel. Only one thing was clear: I couldn’t do it again. I drank more wine, and refused to turn on the lights when night came.
But on Wednesday, I leaped out of bed, filled with the irrational enthusiasm that keeps writers going through years of rejection–and new certainty. While I’d been mooning, the subconscious mind (rumored to be a close friend of the muse) had been working on the problem. What’s more, she was fired up with a new idea. Before I’d even buttered a piece of toast, I was back in my summer office, birds singing, dogs at my feet, ready to play my instrument as it had never been played before. I knew exactly what was wrong with my wimpy character, my flaccid plot, and what’s more, I knew how to fix them.
In the coming weeks, I wrote another 126 pages before I saw it wavering in the distance. No, it can’t be! I said, trudging on for two more pages. I kept my eyes steadfastly downward; I refused to look ahead. But by then, the sign with the huge question mark in the center was the only clear thing on my horizon. I was on page 128 and I was lost. Utterly and hopelessly lost. Again.
So what do you do when you’ve written a total of 316 pages (a whole novel!), when you’ve spent your entire summer sitting on the deck trying to play an instrument that remains resolutely tuneless? What do you do when you’re out of ideas, and you seriously don’t know if you’ll ever write again, when the bills need to be paid, and your waitress shoes are hanging in your garden, bloated with a season’s worth of rain and a lifetime of dreams?
Well, if it’s August, you make a pie, of course! Not just any pie, but a pie that has it’s own history of literary magic. That’s right, you make a Literary Blues Pie. (Recipe and background here)
As you can see from the photo above, my friend and pie-baking cohort, Susan Messer, baked a pie of rare perfection–from the crisp pate brisee to the lovely presentation.
The two pies I made, on the other hand, were as messy and flawed as my life, my summer, my attempt to write a new novel. The oven doesn’t work right so the crust burned; and I decided to experiment with the cream layer, only to realize the old adage about not messing with perfection. But since they don’t get too many homemade pies around here, my family gobbled up the first pie. And when I shared the second one one night at the each with my friends, Laura and Jake (who brought a good bottle of Pinot Noir to further tempt the muse) they even asked for the recipe.
Then, I took a week or two off, and called my son, Josh. Josh isn’t a writer; nor does he read much fiction, but he’s an excellent listener. He asked me how the novel was going, so I told him.
“Sounds like you’re overthinking it, Mom.”
A few days later, I began again, this time with Josh’s words in mind. Instead of going back to polish my words on a daily basis, I began to write the way I had made my pie. I didn’t worry that the temperature might be off, or that my corn starch was lumpy or that I might be a quarter cup short of blueberries. I just worked with what I had, and did my best. I didn’t overthink.
So far I’ve got 30 new pages and no road signs in sight. But I’m an optimist: If I run into you on the street and you ask me how the written, I’ll say it’s brilliant; it’s humming, and at least for now–and I’ll believe it, too. At least, for now.
What do you do when the muse goes on strike? When you try your best and nothing seems to be working? When you just can’t find the door that opens to the heart of the story?
(cross-post with Murderati)
This has been making the rounds lately–what work-in-progress feedback can sometimes look like:
Which is a radically different experience than what I have now in publishing. (Thank God.)
The best way of phrasing how to deal with notes that I heard once was given by a young writer, a big 6’6″ football-player-sized man who’d just had his first hit movie (an Adam Sandler comedy) and was one of the featured authors at the Austin Film Festival–Steve Franks. Steve sat sprawled in a chair clearly not designed to hold a man so large and I half-expected to hear him discussing the shot-gun formation or defensive end stats. The other members of the panel Steve was on discussed receiving notes from studios: how they dealt with the hell of having sometimes upwards of twenty execs and assistants hand them copious notes, many contradictory, often not clear as to who gave what note (so no way to put them in a hierarchy). They commented on how the studio expected the writer to incorporate all of the notes. Steve laughed, a little embarrassed, and when they asked him why, he explained he hadn’t realized at the time that the studio had expected him to do the notes. Instead, he thought everyone was just trying to be helpful when they first gave him the piles of suggestions. He’d never received studio notes before–he’d been working at Disneyland the day before his script sold as one of the “ride engineers” — the guy who made sure you were buckled in before hurtling you past your own brain cells.
He had looked through the notes they’d given him and, since they were contradictory, realized there was no way to do all of the notes. And, since these were relatively smart people, he concluded (you’ll see how naive he was) that they clearly hadn’t meant for him to do them… they were just trying to give him the tools to determine what needed to be done. He decided that these notes were diagnostic tools, not prescriptive. He mentioned, for example, how several people noted the story slowed too much in a certain section and wanted him to change only that section. Others had wild ideas about how to change the beginning of the story which resulted, ultimately and most specifically, in that slow section being changed. Others had problems with the characters or reactions… somewhere a little after that slow section.
Steve, though, used the notes not to change the section, but to analyze what was making that section slow to begin with. And the problem, he discovered, had actually occurred in a decision he’d made about twenty pages earlier. The readers hadn’t realized this, because it took them a few pages for the cumulative effect of that one decision to start resonating through the story–and the readers were reacting. Had Steve made all of the changes they requested–which was impossible anyway–he’d have had a mess and they would have ended up having the same disquiet, only now they would attack something else (probably whatever he’d changed the section to). Instead, Steve changed the earlier section, left the old one as it stood, and when the execs received the script back, they were enthusiastic (it was greenlit at that point) because they were convinced he’d done all of their notes. And he’d done almost none of them.
Now, I’m not claiming Steve’s a great writer–I’ve never read anything of his, and judging a writer by the finished product of a movie is a bit like judging an alligator by the shoes a woman’s wearing. He did, however, manage to stay on the film, get the credit, get the back-end production bonus and start his career. Not bad for a guy who’d been pushing a lever to send people up a rollercoaster just a few weeks earlier.
One last (possibly apocryphal) story. John Sayles has had a quiet-but-successful career in Hollywood as a script doctor and (from what I was told) often did not ask for arbitration in order to take credit away from the original writer; he would, instead, just ask for a fee, do his job, make the original writer look better in the process, and walk away so that the writer got the credit (and back-end). An exec who worked with him closely on a couple of projects told me the following story, swearing it was true.
One day, John was hired to fix the characterization of a woman. This character, let’s call her Mary, came off as extremely bitchy and unlikeable, even though later on, the audience was going to have a great reason for liking her and rooting for her. The problem was, the execs couldn’t get any actress of any stature to read that far because the character started off so mean. They hired John to rewrite the beginning of the script, (with permission to toss out everything there), and to change her character throughout so that she was still the tough-as-nails type of character she needed to be to accomplish whatever it was that was her goal… but to be more approachable and likable. So John took the script, kept it about a month, and turned it back in. The execs loved it. Raved. He’d solved the problems, they were ecstatic. They paid him and went on their merry way.
Now the executive telling me the story said he’d had a copy of the original script and when he started reading John’s rewrite, he couldn’t see what was different between the two versions. (He was not an exec on the project.) Since John was a friend, and since his curiosity got the better of him, he called the man and asked him, “What the hell did you do here? It works, I like Mary now… but I can’t see any major changes.”
John (reportedly) said, “Notice when you first meet Mary?”
The exec flipped back to the beginning, and read the line (something like): Mary, a stubborn woman, sometimes, bitchy, but you’re really going to like her later…
And that was it. The first few times Mary was introduced, he simply changed her description, point blank telling the reader what their reaction to Mary was going to be. Clearly, that bit of directness won’t usually do in prose, but it amuses me that he dealt with it so simply, instead of tossing out the script. He went to the root of the problem: Mary hadn’t been introduced well.
Sometimes, we get feedback during the writing process and it seems on the surface to not be helpful. Maybe like the YouTube example above, it’s so contradictory as to lead nowhere. Sometimes, the person reading just does not like the genre of your material and when that’s true, that’s just all there is. There’s almost nothing a writer could have done to change that sort of natural individual preference, and the writer shouldn’t try. (You cannot please everyone, nor should you.) I respect reviewers / commenters who shy away from something that they know ahead of time just isn’t their cup of tea because they don’t wish to do harm to a work-in-progress.
If the response you’re analyzing is true of only one person, and everyone else universally feels differently, then toss the aberrant opinion as just that–a random opinion–and go with the general responses. But if the general consensus is confusion–when it’s clear that the note-giver means well, likes you, likes the story, but has vague or non-helpful or even contradictory suggestions–line those suggestions up and use them as a diagnostic tool to see if you can’t ferret out the real problem.
I have been exceptionally lucky with my editor–she’s smart, funny, and thorough, and it is crystal clear from everything she does that her goal is to help make the book–my vision of the book–better. She asks questions, doesn’t impose (except when I’m loading the gun to shoot myself in the foot), and her ability to push me to be a better writer is one of the single finest gifts I’ve received. That isn’t to say I agree with her 100% of the time, or that I always accomplish the ideal, but she’s a joy to talk to and receive notes from because I know I’m going to come away with a better book.
Then again, I love the editing process. For me, that’s when a work really starts to form into a whole, a final image.
What sorts of helpful advice have you ever received when editing your manuscript? Or, heavily disguised as to the culprits if you like, what was the worst advice?