Friday, October 15, 2010

To Read or Not to Read

Peter here. As most authors know, the writing of a book is just the tip of the iceberg. And lurking below the water are all the things we really don’t want to do. Re-writes and revisions, haggling over the title and the cover, contract negotiations and... yes, that dirty little word, promotion.

After all, there’s no point in writing the book if you can’t sell it. And since the publisher is not going to get on the road and do that for you (or even spend any money on it), you have to get out there and do it for yourself.

A process for which most writers are innately unsuited, since most of us chose to write in the first place because we are anti-social loners who enjoy the solitary act of creation.

So how hard is it to get out there and be the opposite of who you are - confident, articulate, funny, interesting...? In my case, VERY. It took me years to be able to find the courage to stand up and give a talk without being a slave to my notes, pink-faced and clutching my speech in shaking hands, hardly daring to lift my eyes from the text.

In the end, I found that the secret was not to have any notes at all. Just some stories to tell - about the writing or research, where the idea came from, my rites and rituals - and to speak from the heart.

But the one thing I still hate to do is read extracts from my work. Because at the end of the day I am not a performer, and if I can’t do my work justice by reading it aloud, then I am probably doing it a disservice. So I simply never do it.

The French have a great tradition, in bookstores and libraries, of presenting an author and his or her work like a TV interview. I was reminded of it last Friday night, when I had to make an appearance at a library in Toulouse. There was an audience of about 50 or 60, and an “animateur” - a presenter. She knew my books and my personal history and presented both to the audience, frequently turning to me to ask for elucidation - which gave me the chance to tell my stories. But the French also love to hear extracts from your books, and what they do is get a professional or semi-professional in to read them.

In this case it was the director of the local am-dram group, and he did a fantastic job, reading four extracts from different books at different times during the two-hour presentation, really bringing them to life in a way that I never could (particularly in French!).

I read an interesting article in the Huffington Post the other day about a writer about to embark on a book tour of Germany, and he seemed fixated on the writer’s need to read extracts. If you are going to do it yourself, then he offers some interesting advice. You can read it here.

But personally I would rather run a marathon than read an extract. How about you? How do you think an author should present his or her books? Or if you are a reader, what is your preference at an author talk?


Anonymous said...

I would say: Whenever you read a good book, it’s like the author is right there in the room talking to you, which is why I don’t like to read good books.

JBH said...

Fortunately, no one asks for excerpts from an academic work!

peter_may said...

Yeh, I know what you mean, Anonymous. It's a damned invasion of privacy!

And, Josh, to read extracts from any work, academic or otherwise, means you have to be able to, er... read. Maybe that's why no one asks you!

Rick Blechta said...

It's a tough thing to be a writer and then be told by your publisher that you also signed on to be a "personality", too.

I'm lucky in that I've always been an inveterate ham (Vicki and Barbara will back me up there!), so the talking part is not difficult for me. Having been a teacher, I know how to project and engage with the audience. Students will cut your career short if you can't.

But readings...aye, there's the rub. I'm not bad, but I'm certainly no actor. I am absolutely no good at doing accents.

Best reading of one of my books ever?

Well, since Donis usurped my spot on Tuesday through an electronic glitch, I'm going to take her place tomorrow.

Tune in for some good road stories as well as a few tips on doing a more effective job as a "personality". And I'll reveal whom you should ask for a really terrific reading.

Don't worry. I only steal from the best!

Hannah Dennison said...

I used to be really nervous until I joined Toastmasters. I forced myself to do this after my husband advised me never to wear a skirt at an author signing again ... apparently, my knees shook so violently, everyone was fixated on my mobile kneecaps.

Reading one's own work is really tricky - I think someone else reading it (as in your case, Peter - particularly in French!) sounds perfect.

Dennis said...

When you spoke of being more relaxed when you tell stories rather than read extracts it reminded me of the advice to writers to "write what they know". Your stories are what you know which is why you feel and appear more relaxed and engaging at those portions of signings. The stories make the event.

Personally, I can take or leave readings from a book by an(y) author at a signing event. Mainly because I want to read it for myself. Each character in a book eventually develops their own voice in my head as I interpret their character. I do not want to hear the author's voice in my head whilst I read.

By the way, is that the correct way to use whilst? It is not commonly used in American English, but it makes so much sense.

Mike McPherson said...

I suffer from bad stage fright too. My first panel at Bloody Words I was shaking and terrified.
However, I ran a marathon yesterday, and I can say with certainty that I'd rather do a reading.

peter_may said...

Good English, Dennis. And, Mike, I was probably indulging in a bit of hyperbole!