Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Dr. Bird's Advice for Debut Author Readings: WHERE TO BEGIN?

I recently began doing events to promote my novel, Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets, and found that the process of preparing for readings felt very similar to teaching literature as a college adjunct. Basically: I arrange some introductory comments to set context, concoct some comments about the main character, pick a passage to read, practice some voices for dialogue, etc. It seems pretty natural, and yet it's not.
Not everyone is a teacher.
Not everyone is comfortable with reading, speaking, or performing in front of crowds.
Not everyone has written the same kind of book.
Not everyone has been going to poetry and fiction readings since they were twelve.
So, at the risk of increasing my tendancy towards know-it-all-ism, and even mansplaining some things, I have composed a few posts on promoting your book in public. I've broken this into 4 posts because I tend to be...wordy. Links to each topic are featured at the end of each post.
Also, please put suggestions or thoughts or experiences in the comments section. Ask follow up questions and I'll incorporate stuff into the main post if it's super-helpful!

1) WHERE TO BEGIN? A reading is a performance in many ways, but it's never successful if you get up, read, then sit down. Even if you're reading the opening pages of your novel, where all readers begin on equal footing, you should give the readers some sense of what they're about to hear. Consider it this way: in a store or online, people might read the jacket copy before page 1, so at a reading the very basic thing you can do to begin is:
  • Be your own jacket copy! 
    • Here's a simple example of what I might say: "Good evening! Thanks so much for coming out to celebrate reading and books and laughter and more serious things. For those of you unfamiliar with Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets, it's the story of a teenager who suffers from anxiety and depression and tries to manage his mental health by reciting Walt Whitman poems and talking to an imaginary pigeon." That plus a couple of lines to give a sense of the key characters is often enough for any audience. 
    • It's basically: Hi, here's my pitch. Wanna listen? Great!
  • In addition to being my own jacket copy, I like to discuss what precisely inspired the book. (Usually someone asks this question if you don't discuss it up front, so you should have an answer in mind anyway.) You don't have to rewind the story of your life to second grade and talk for 15 minutes. 
    • I often start with "I wanted to write a book about a depressed teenager that was funny but also respectful. In many ways, the book is emotionally autobiographical even though the plot isn't. I never liked Whitman as a teenager nor did I hug trees or talk to an imaginary pigeon. But the anxiety is what binds James and I together."
    • I also have a different origin story that involves another book I started to write with friend and author Matthew Quick. He's the reason I wrote this book in the first place, but he and I also openly discuss mental health issues in our work, so it's an authentic way to show 1) writers aren't totally isolated from each other, 2) I have a serious issue and personal investment with this book, and 3) I give a shout out to a guy who's been supportive to me since the day we met. 
      • You should always give shout outs at readings! People are going to ask you who you read anyway, why not support your friends?
    • If the inspiration of your book feels lame to you, don't fake it! Don't use it! Discuss what excites you! Discuss what inspired you! Discuss what expresses the YOU of YOU! 
      • Who do you hope to connect to with this book? 
      • How do you relate to other writers? To books? 
      • When did you know you were a writer? 
      • Is this the first book you wrote or, more likely, the second/third/fourth...? 
      • Why is this the book only you could have written?
      • Is some of this sounding familiar?
  • Matt Quick and I did an event for the Newburyport Literary Festival at the end of April. We spoke to about 200 people for an hour (including a long Q&A). We discussed our friendship, writing relationship, and our struggles with mental health. Neither of us read from our books. Both of us sold out of books. Not everyone can do this, or has the material to do this, but if you can give your audience a reason to care about you as a writer (not necessarily as a person, but as a writer-who-is-human), then you will connect and succeed. 
  • Maybe you don't want to share personal information—that's ok! I stress that your story, your persona, is what will energize people. Who are you? How do you create stories from thin air? It's a magical skill to non-writers. It doesn't have to be emotionally raw, it can be fun or serious & still authentically YOU.