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Frozen Here On The Ladder of My Life

Dear Betsy,

I am a blog follower whose debut novel is coming out in April. We are having a small book launch in a friendly independent bookshop in London. I haven’t spoken in public since my sixth grade debating team and I am afraid I will shrivel up and forget my first son’s name. What suggestions do you or your readers have for 1) being relaxed not drunk 2) making people laugh or be interested in what I am saying and most importantly 3) choosing an appropriate passage from my novel. Should I choose something saucy? something introductory? For how long should I speak/read? It is a women’s commercial novel and I don’t have a strong speaking voice. Should I ask a friend to read who speaks BBC English?

Thank you, NAME WITHHELD

Dear Debut Author:

First and foremost: Congratulations. What a great accomplishment. If you like, send in a link to the book so we can all decide if we are happy for you or jealous of you. As to your questions:  I think you should read and speak for three or four hours without ceasing. Ask your friend with the BBC English to ask three-part questions  from the audience. Have her ask some in a cockney accent, and an Australian accent for fun. Saucy is good, but dry is better. It will be easier to make people like you if you wear something super tight, preferably your DVF wrap-around, and give out good swag. Oh, and ask your son to wear a hat that has his name on it. Be creative and good luck!

Anyone have anything to add?

50 Responses

  1. Relax your anal sphincter. And if it makes you feel any better, I once did a reading in an Australian accent (I’m Canadian).

    But seriously. Plant some friends and family with SENSIBLE and not private joke questions (ie NOT “Is character A based on uncle Morty? Because he really reminds me of Uncle Morty. Remember that time at Sylvia and Ryan’s wedding…etc”)

    Thank everyone. Read something from the first quarter of the book. about five or ten minutes worth. Then go to questions.

    Serve good wine. Simple.

    • I have to disagree on one point: do not read for five or ten minutes from your book. In fact, don’t read from your book at all.

      I’m guessing this is the book about getting divorced in Italy? Then make your talk about the stuff that you couldn’t fit into your novel, and put it in a bullet list. “The Five Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Married An Italian”, “The Five Things I’ve Learned About Being Married to an Itlaian”, “Five Marriage Tips for a Happy Divorce”, something like that.

      All you have to do is make a connection with your audience as a person and they will want to buy your book. So be YOU.

  2. Maybe Jim Dale can read a passage for you. . .

    Seriously, the public speaking folks say that 7 is the magic number in practicing reading something, that by the time you practice something 7 times you’re comfortable with it, it feels like muscle memory. It’s always worked for me. Between now and then see if you can fit in 7 run throughs.

    After that, relax. You’ve done everything you can prepare, and most of all, you published a novel!! Even if you end up doing a face plant in the first row, no one can take that away from you, and that’s what counts.

  3. I’m already jealous, Debut Author. But also happy for you. As someone who’s spent a good chunk of my life on a stage, let me offer a few suggestions.

    At your reading:

    Act like your novel’s protagonist. If she’s a bitch, scratch that, and act like your most likable character. That’s who your readers want to meet. They want to meet Miz Bitchy too, but only so they can scratch her eyes out.

    But seriously (that makes me the third commenter to say “seriously”), the main thing to remember with public speaking is really two things: 1. Prepare
    and
    2. It’s not about you.

    It’s not even really about your book. It’s about our (your readers’) longing for an unforgettable experience.* Because all we get to keep in this life are the memories. That’s what we’re here for, to have an amazing experience. (Don’t you want one too?) Do your best to give it to us. Love in the form of literature. Be the conduit.

    Bonus: I understand the kindness and concern behind such advice, but I suggest that you NOT “relax.” You’re a new author; it’s not your place to be relaxed. What you can do, instead, is to redirect that thrumming nervous energy, rein it in like a bucking bronco, and RIDE your reading. If we think you’re a little intense, so much the better. Remember, we want an unforgettable experience, as much as your constitution can afford, though you can try to push yourself a little beyond your comfort zone. Be excited, but in control.

    Do not have more that one normal-sized glass (if that) of anything alcoholic (or even coffee) prior to reading. You don’t need it.

    *Marie Osmond, while performing on a cruise ship, laughed so hard she peed her pants. The crowd lapped it up, so to speak. But then, she’s Marie Osmond. 😉

    Sorry for the length, but I’ve been editing video and am a little wound up.

    • I reiterate Tulasi-Priya’s point: “It’s not about you.” It’s SO not about you. It’s about how what you’ve written will be of value to your audience. Those four words are as powerful as “I love you.”

      Case in point: Two years ago, I volunteered to make a brief introductory speech for one of my mentors in front of the faculty and student body of Goucher College’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction program. I signed up for this knowing that I was terrified of public speaking. I wrote and rewrote and read aloud in an empty room my four-minute speech until it felt natural. But I still couldn’t visualize actually delivering it until my sister said those invaluable words. “It’s not about you.” And that was the key. Because it wasn’t about me. It was about my mentor, and about how gifted and funny and wise she was, and about how everyone else would soon know it. I actually typed “IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU” in the header of each page in 18-point type. I made the speech. Without a tremor in my voice. I have spoken publicly several times since–always keeping in mind that it’s just not about me, and my fear has never returned.

  4. I’m in the exact same position in April, launching in my hometown where I haven’t been for 10 years, so I’ll be listening closely and taking notes. So far: relax, Uncle Morty, number 7, scratch a bitch, don’t relax, crowd loves peeing in pants. Got it.

    • I already used my “laughing” on August’s comment and the stern blogmistress won’t let me duplicate, so: This made me laugh out loud.

  5. Xanax.

  6. Put together what you want to say, then read it aloud to your room, your son, or your BBC friend. Rehearsal is absolutely huge. Do it till your sick of it. Then you’ll know you’re ready.

  7. I’ve been to a lot of boring book events. The only author who can get away with reading his own stuff is Nick Hornby (he has a great voice and knows how to read comedy).

    I’ve modeled my book events after Kate White, the former editor of Cosmo magazine who writes mysteries. When she did a book event on Long Island for her lastest murder mystery, which was set in a New York magazine office, she didn’t read from her book. She didn’t even talk about her book or her characters. She introduced the book, told the audience a little bit about the magazine office setting, and then gave a talk about The Five Things I Learned as the Editor of Cosmo.

    In other words, she spoke about her platform. In other words, she did not make her book event feel like a book club meeting or an English class. She made it fun. She made me buy her book (and I loathe novels).

    And it helps to do one or two practice events before you take your act to the big time. Try doing the entire talk for your family and see if they stay engaged.

    Good Luck!

  8. Don’t worry about shriveling up, I do it all the time. Oh, and drunk or relaxed . . . that’s a fine line. Settle for lubricated.

  9. I don’t have any advice . . . I’m just here writing all this down for later.

    Congratulations on the release of your book!

  10. Go naked.

    I’ve been told I’m a great orator, or was that oral, anyway, just this last weekend I spoke at my daughter’s wedding, (what I wrote, and said, is on my blog), anyway, here’s two pieces of advice.

    1. Be prepared. Write an intro, read it a bazillion times and when it comes the time to speak, pull out your paper and speak-it, don’t read-it. There is a difference, even if you are following every single line with your pointer finger.
    Smile
    Slow down
    Breathe
    Enjoy the very special moment
    Breathe again
    Be human, tell folks you’ve never done this before, they’re on your side
    Slow down

    2. Don’t take advice from anybody, do what feels right for you. Congrats !

  11. Nobody would want my advice because I hate doing those things. I’m terrible at them. Congratulations on your book. That’s great.

    And that dog. I keep looking at him and thinking that his mama bought his clothes too big so he could grow into them.

  12. Congratulations!
    Avoid milk, ice cream, cheese, strawberry shortcake w/ whipped cream, etc. prior to speaking. After, have a ball!

  13. “Anyone have anything to add?”

    Not much here. Sounds like you’ve got it sussed. Have NW send you the link and we can all be that sharp brittle mix of happy and envious while we get drunk on bathtub gin and end up sobbing over our notebooks while fantasizing about successful writers of any gender who can wear tight clothes and look good in them (and out).

  14. I second the suggestion to plant a question or two in the audience–and don’t be afraid to wait a bit for the dam to break. People enjoy the Q&A time, whether because they’re would-be authors themselves, or they want to prove to you that they’re #1 Fan and have already read the whole book, or because they’re genuinely curious. But it takes a bit for that first wildebeest to come down to the watering hole, as it were. Don’t panic.

  15. If you do read from the book I would avoid dialogue-laden sections (unless you’re a particularly good mimic). And if the bookstore will allow it, serve wine.

  16. Where can I buy a pair of the jammies the puppy is wearing…oh…I’d have to grow a couple of more legs huh.

  17. Dearest Name Withheld, Intuition tells me that your wit and sense of humor will keep them riveted. And perhaps, a blue dress with sparkles. Much love.

  18. I’ve got one more suggestion: please pay attention to your wardrobe. I went to a “meet the author” event recently and was so distracted by the striped-polo-shirt-under-the-over-sized-suit-jacket-with baggy-jeans ensemble, I couldn’t focus on the presentation of his latest detective story. If the airline had lost his luggage and he had to grab clothes from the thrift store sale bin, such an explanation for the sloppiness would have made sense and who would have cared? But he mentioned his wife and son had driven to the event with him- they were in the audience and dressed as if they knew how to pack a suitcase. His appearance was completely at odds with the PR claims that he was a writer who paid attention to the details. I left early and didn’t purchase his book – and neither did the friends who went with me.

    Went to a different M.T.A. event for a children’s book launch. That author was dressed in bright flowing clothes, sparkling jewelry and colorful nail polish. She was as effervescent as her book’s characters. The kids in the audience were entranced (as were the adults); she sold out her inventory.

    Just saying….

  19. I’ve performed from small coffee houses in the East Village to large candle lit castles in Northern Germany, recited everything from poems and full length plays to stand-up comedy and familial wedding toasts. I ALWAYS memorize what I plan to say. I practice in the shower, as I’m driving, when I’m walking. Then, after I have that foundation tucked safely in my bosom, I deviate ever so slightly from the script. How I do so depends on my audience, the energy they give off, and, of course, however much I’ve imbibed beforehand. But I never walk onto any stage without a plan. There’s nothing worse than having all eyes on you and an empty noggin.

  20. Vivian’s suggestion about *not reading* is brilliant.

    Also: visual aids.

    Also: 1.8 glasses of wine.

  21. Gah! So exciting.
    The best small readings I have been to were when the writer talked about personal stories leading up to the book, what the impetus was, why she started it to begin with, that sort of thing. The more open and honest the writer was to start, the better the questions were. I love Vivian’s idea of a top 5.
    And wear something that makes you feel beautiful.
    You’ll do great, just be you, Mystery Writer.

  22. oh, reading is enjoyable and here’s why.

    you’ve worked hard on each of those sentences, so enjoy reading them. stay with each sentence, be with the sentence. jesus, i sound like gordon lish in those notes on Tetman’s website. anyway, just be yourself and talk about yourself a bit, too.

    ps. don’t read for more than 8 minutes, eyes glaze over.
    pps. practice the section you’re going to read, repeatedly.
    ppps. no wine until after you’ve read.
    ppps. have a great party!

  23. Don’t say you’re shy, you hate those kind of things or promise to be brief.

  24. Dear Betsy and all,
    Thank you so much for this advice. So many great points my mind is jumping and instead of nervous I am almost feeling enthusiastic. I don’t care if I face plant. I’ll get Omar to wear that hat. I’ll subject every poor Italian friend I meet over the next three weeks to a mini-performance in my unashamed Australian drawl. No coffee, minimal prosecco. I’ll be thinking of you all in that blue sparkling dress.

    Thanks truly, grazie mille a tutti.

    http://www.indigodreamsbookshop.com/#/catherine-mcnamara/4561751985

    • Wish I could be there to see you read, for you are already holding me spellbound.

    • Just read the first chapter extract — you’re going to sell many copies. Have fun!

    • You’ll be great, Cat. Congratulations.

      What fabulous advice, especially Vivian’s bit about not reading at the reading. And those lists! I just went to a reading where the writer read 3 paragraphs — a funny passage — and then talked about how and why she wrote the story. She took questions for over an hour. The audience of 60 fell madly in love with her bought all of her books.

    • You are going to charm the hell out of them, Cat. I’m only to Via Vitruvio and you’ve got me wrapped around your finger.

      (Still pushing for the sandals.)

    • Loved this link – congrats! Also, the mention of “grappa” brought back fond memories of nights on the Isle of Poros; lounging with my friends and their lovers on that dark veranda, sampling ouzo and grappa until everything tasted the same, the night air so warm and sweet, I could momentarily forget I had traveled there, alone.

      [sigh] Back to work…

  25. Looks fabulous! Though not divorced, I’ve always wanted to move to Italy–the men there make you feel so hot. Maybe I can get some pointers from your novel. That is, after I finish mine. Best of luck and I’m sure the party will be a great success–especially with all this sound advice!

  26. Breathe and pause. Refrain from saying filler words such as: um, like, you know…

    Good luck!

  27. (I shut up my smart mouth (which in this virtual land speaks through my hands) and read all these comments and there’s a lot of useful information and pointers and advice here today.)

  28. Congrats, Cat! Any other readings lined up? I didn’t see an event listing on your blog. I’ll be in Italy in June and would love to see you put all this great advice to work!

  29. Wear a thin white shirt and a black lace bra. Nobody will care what you’re saying.

  30. Melting with gratitude. Thank you, Betsy for posting and Name Withheld, for asking. Thanks to all for great suggestions. I’m going to re-conceive my June launch events. Out with the snooze-fest droning, the what-not-to-wear. In with the flavor, the connection, the real. Cheers to all. I for one want lots of post party details…

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