Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The importance of practise and other Helpful Tips for authors

A number of years ago, I had a very talented French horn student to whom I was giving private lessons at the Royal Conservatory. Only problem was, the lad didn’t practise very much. In fact, I got the feeling he was coming in and basically sight-reading his assigned etudes and pieces. Because he was so talented, he could almost pull it off, but with his teacher also being an experienced lesson faker, I could spot what was going on. So I decided to confront the issue and tell him if he didn’t change his tune (sorry for that!), he’d have to find a new teacher because I wasn’t going to waste my time and his parents’ money listening to him sight-read at his lessons. I laid out exactly what I expected for his next lesson, and if it wasn’t done, he would be shown the door.

The next week in he came and completely blew me away. Obviously, he’d put in a very healthy number of hours over the intervening week, and consequently, he sounded great. When the lesson was over, I congratulated him on his fine work, and he said something that I still chuckle about: “You know, Mr. B, this practising thing really works!”

I didn’t know whether to hug him or slug him.

But that student’s observation is worth thinking about when a writer puts on his/her author’s hat. When you’re doing the authoring thing, it really has nothing to do with writing in so many ways. I think of it this way: you’re being an entertainer, not a writer. Sure, you’re talking about writing, but you can’t behave the same way you would when you’re in your cold, dark garret, warming your hands on a guttering candle so that you can hold your pen and scribble your immortal prose.

You have to dress differently.

Would you really show up at a reading in your bathrobe and worn out slippers? Look like the event is at least a special occasion. What do authors wear? Look at other authors being interviewed and take your cues from them. Sadly, there are no longer author’s clothing stores. I blame the Internet…

You have to speak differently.

The idea with doing personal appearances can be boiled down to one thing: communicating effectively. That means – unless you’ve recently joined Toastmasters (not a bad idea if you’re uncomfortable about speaking in public) – speaking a different way than you normally do. You have to slow down, enunciate clearly, get rid of “ums”, “ahs” and all other words you might tend to use as crutches – and above all, speak up! Don’t sound like you’re in a rush to get this done – even if you are. You’re entertaining, remember?

A recorder (tape or digital) is your friend. Regardless of what you may think upon hearing your dulcet tones played back, these darn things don’t lie. This is what you sound like. I always have the mental image in my mind that I’m an actor (don’t laugh), and that I’m in a large hall. I want people to hear me all the way to the back. If I’ve got a mic, great. If I don’t, I’ll have to handle it the old-fashioned way: by projecting.

One last thing: if you don’t like how your voice sounds, modulate it. I think my voice is rather high and a bit nasal. Lately I’ve been trying to drop it and speak more from my chest. I’m always amazed by hearing people speak after I’ve heard them sing. They often sound like two completely different people.

Know what you want to say before you start talking.

Boy, this is one I learned the hard way. I’m glib. I talk easily (eye-rolling here from those who know me). I can get up and start talking before my brain is fully engaged, and that has gotten me into a lot of trouble. My son with the diploma in Public Relations came to some library appearances I did a few years ago, and the little so-and-so took notes on what I was doing wrong, copious notes. “You’re talking too long and getting off topic. Keep it short and sweet, on topic and people will remember it better.” “Do you know how many times you used ‘ah’?” Etc. Etc. And he had counted my “ahs”. I was appalled, chastened – and very grateful.

If you’re asked a question, there is nothing wrong about thinking a bit before you speak. For one thing, it makes you look like a deep thinker and possibly even philosophical. Gather your thoughts for a few seconds, then speak. And don’t ramble!

If you’re doing the Dreaded Reading, you have to practise it first.

This should be a no-brainer, but I have seen too many authors get up to read, and I know they were deciding what passage to use as they were waiting their turn or driving to the gig. Sorry. That just won’t do. Don’t you want to know what it’s going to sound like? If you do a good job, perhaps people will be more encouraged to buy your book. Hmmm? You’re doing a performance of your book. Make it a good one. Even if you’re not good at this sort of thing, you can learn to do it by practising and listening back then being honestly critical about how it’s coming out. Repeat the process until it’s sounding good.

Get out your trusty (trusted?) recorder, read your selection and listen back to it. Are you speaking in a monotone? Can you understand all the words easily? Are you racing through places that could benefit from a little space? Is it clear by how you’re reading dialogue that speakers are changing and where they’re changing (a big problem for a lot of readers).

I also don’t read from a copy of my book (although I do generally show folks the cover). I print my selection out in large double-spaced type so that I can see it clearly, even if the lighting isn’t ideal. I also remove stuff that doesn’t add to what I’m reading. If you have a bit of character development or similar material that really doesn’t have much to do with the selection you’re reading, chuck it out! Reading an action scene might be a better choice, rather than a contemplative scene (unless it is really arresting). You also shouldn’t go on for more than a minute or two setting up the scene. The audience doesn’t need to know all the nuances of the characters for your reading to be interesting to them.

No matter how badly things screw up, remain pleasant – and helpful.

No one likes a prima donna. Unless someone is deliberately trying to mess you up, you’ve just gotta roll with what happens. I’ve shown up at author gigs (usually signings) where they’ve forgotten I’m presenting. Okay. That is a piss-off, but you’ve already driven all that way, it’s better to be the good guy and get something out of it than storming off in high dudgeon. You’ll be surprised how quickly those brownie points will mount up, too. So someone goofed up, perhaps big-time. Have you never done something like that? No reason to rub their nose in it. They probably already feel really bad. It’s called being a pro. Being nice can sell a few extra books and get you support from people who can help you. Bottom line: do you want to be remembered as a good guy or an unpleasant person? Smother your true feelings and smile. It really helps.


Eileen Goudge said...

Great advice! My first publisher sent me to media training "boot camp," which I barely survived with my ego intact, but which was a blessing. The most important lesson is the one you stated about thinking about you're going to say before you say it. This has served me well in life as well as in front of a camera or on a podium. The other lesson I learned that was invaluable: don't be afraid to flub. The audience actually loves you more when you say "Whoops! I lost track or that wasn't what I meant to say." It makes you seem more human and approachable. Always go with the flow when you screw up! It happens to the best of us.

Rick Blechta said...

My advice to myself (reminders) and others always starts with: park your ego at the door, please. Sounds as if you're doing that. Appearing human is honest, direct and endearing and does help. You're right about that. Good points, all -- and thanks for contributing.

Eileen Goudge said...

My first TV appearance was for a library channel that had, I'm guessing, 3 viewers. Thankfully no one was watching because I rambled all over the place. What was your worst public-speaking flub?

Rick Blechta said...

In the middle of answering a question at a rather large reading event, I, too, rambled, and then realized I'd forgotten what the question was. Best to draw a curtain over what transpired -- as I started to perspire...

Charlotte Hinger said...

Eileen, my worst flub was a library event when. . .really, I simply can't continue.

Rick Blechta said...

Oh, come on, Charlotte, you can't do that to all of us! Come on! Dish!! You've started and you can't back out now.