Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Dr. Bird's Advice for Debut Author Readings: WHAT DO I READ?

3) WHAT DO I READ? Picking an excerpt shouldn't be hard, but it totally messes people up. For good reason, I think. As I've discussed with people on Twitter and at my MFA readings back before I knew what the heck I was doing, there are considerations of content, spoilers, length, dialogue, clarity, and more.
  • Basic ideas—What part of your book can you read that feels like a story, not just a chapter? The opening chapter is usually a good place to consider. It's what you, your agent, your editor, copyeditor, reviewers likely read first and agree is the best place to start. Some books are "bigger" and require more "warm up"—so the opening chapter might be too much of a "broad overview" for an engaging reading.
    • I find that SCENES work better than DENSE NARRATIVE PASSAGES. Great writing can draw attention, but if you have a chapter that's all in a character's mind, involves tons of setting description and orientating description, you might lose some people. On the page it works differently than out loud. 
      • Scenes are real time, involve dialogue, involve multiple characters, and can be very easy for the audience to imagine.
    • If you don't have a sequence that feels like a story, can you create an engaging reading with multiple sections that aren't sequential or juxtaposed in the book, but can be easily threaded together by you with some commentary?
      • Maybe the subplot is more accessible for a live audience if you read passages from chapters 2, 5, 8, & 10
      • Maybe you want to just talk about character descriptions and how you do something really cool with them that people might not notice.
      • Maybe you want to highlight your use of color in a particular group of scenes.
      • Think outside of "I have to read 1 solid chapter" and totally dismiss the idea that you can't stop and talk about your writing or thought process. Read a scene and then describe how that scene came about, changed positions in the book, caused you problems, etc.
  • Content—your audience and your own comfort level determine whether to read that passage where your characters curse while doing drugs and having sex in order to subvert the American government. Parents may object to language and content at a reading but, in my experience, parents who bring their teens to readings are actually more open minded than not.
    • Cursing or graphic descriptions of sex/violence can be tricky unless you know your audience is full of friends or people who already read the book. Skipping cursing/harsh language isn't lame, though teenagers do love to hear adults curse! 
    • Do you have a platform or larger goal outside of crafting great stories? If the answer is yes, and you also are worried simply about audience response not your own discomfort, then recognize the benefits of reading "tough" passages.
      • For instance, Dr. Bird is about a kid that suffers from depression & anxiety, considers suicide, and has a sister that also suffers mental health issues. It's a book about people who lack the vocabulary to talk about their problems. It's the kind of story that encourages readers to speak up about their own issues. I knew before the book came out that I would have the chance to show teen readers that I was an adult willing to listen and discuss these issues in public. I wanted to encourage people not to dump problems on me, but to gain courage to talk to people in their lives. If you read difficult passages from your book in person, you might inspire a teenager who needs to see a confident, successful adult being vulnerable and risky. I have proof that the book alone can do this; I also have proof that speaking in public can do this. 
      • I made the choice to open up to strangers about my issues. (I still control what I specifically say and don't say.) HOWEVER: No one else should command you to read what you think will make you or others uncomfortable.
    • If parents come without their kids and ask if your book is appropriate for a certain age, just go with what your publisher has said and suggest the parent read the book first. Don't put yourself in a position where a parent says, "You told me my 12 year old could read this book and there's bad language in it!" 
  • Spoilers—Even if you don't spoil your book, someone will do it in the Q&A session. ("When did you decide that the whole book was really the dream of a bored pigeon?" Note: That's not actually what happens in Dr. Bird.) Sometimes you have big reveals early on and you might not feel capable of reading around those plot point but you also don't want readers to experience the reveal at the reading. 
    • Consider reading towards that plot point without reading through it -- entice your reader with the moments that lead up to the reveal. This requires more prep before you do your reading, and you may need to tweak your passages before you get the right "flow" but it CAN be done.
    • Consider reading passages from after the reveal that aren't plot dependent. 
    • If you can't read an excerpt without a spoiler, consider the nature of the spoiler. 
      • Is your whole book ruined? (Doubtful. Books with reveals that early still have to be good for the rest of the way.)
      • Are people not going to buy the book if they know that your main character is a robot? 
        • If something is early enough in the book (first fifty pages) then it's not a true spoiler. You can read it aloud and the reader will still have 200+ pages to enjoy your masterpiece. 
      • If the spoiler is later, then there should be plenty of scenes for you to read without a major incident. 
    • Early in Dr. Bird, my main character is hit by a bus trying to save a bird in the street. This incident is not a huge spoiler, but it's one of the most overtly comedic moments in the story and one I am very proud of because it gives the story such energy (which I then take away with depression and sadness! muhuhuhahaha!). In fact, the funniest part about that scene is...well, that would be spoiling it. Honestly, at a reading I do the whole scene. It might be ruining the experience of reading it for the first time, but for me getting an audience to laugh at a point I want them to laugh is a great feeling when reading live. Plus, am I going to spoil the book for ten thousand readers if twenty of them hear that particular part?
  • Length—see above, but don't fret about ending mid chapter. You're a writer—you know what the end of a scene feels like. You know cliffhangers. Leave your audience wanting to buy the book!
  • Dialogue or "He do the police in different voices" (unnecessary Dickens-via-Eliot reference)—You have to choose how to differentiate the voices of dialogue when you read. It just makes for an easier listening experience but also shows energy from you. Don't get cartoonish unless that suits the tone of your book (even then, be careful). 
    • At least make a vocal differentiation so the reader—and you—know who is talking when. Doing slight appropriate accents or changes in pitch will also SLOW YOU DOWN, which is always good when you're nervous. 
      • I do this kind of stuff when I read to my son, who is three. Sometimes the voices are over-the-top, but sometimes I just want him to be able to know that 2 characters are talking so I just raise my vocal pitch for one character and lower it for another.
      • Consider these subtle pairings: 
        • high vs. low voice
        • loud vs. soft voice
        • fast vs. slow voice
  • Choose passages based on Clarity—Sometimes a prologue or opening chapter might seem perfect for a reading, but what if it makes more sense on the page than when read out loud?
    • For instance, do you have multiple, unnamed voices in the first chapter? That might be hard for the audience to follow. 
    • Is there a ton of description (more than a page from the very beginning?) or something that won't make sense until the middle/end of the book? At a reading you want to give something that's compact and feels whole in 15 minutes. You want the readers' attention immediately. 
    • If the first chapter or two doesn't provide something that feels like it stands alone, then find a chapter that stands alone. Of course, setup the context first! "This is after the main character James has been hit by a bus and now has a cast that no one is signing, so he's feeling lonely. He's already had a crappy week and now we're introduced to his best friend, Derek, who plays a key role in James becoming more self aware." 
Initially: WHERE TO BEGIN?