Gay romance fiction

Reading Allowed… save your bacon by embracing your inner ham

by Damon Suede

(A-game Advice was a monthly column offering practical tips for winning promo that fits your personal style, strategy, and measure of success.)

I love reading my work in public, but I grew up in showbiz, so I’m a trained ham from way back. There’s no better opportunity to tell the story directly to your readers and get that immediate emotional feedback on the fly. You learn a TON about what actually works and only works in your head when you’re staring down the barrel of a microphone aimed at your head with a hundred people squeezing the trigger.

Of course public presentations of your work only serves your promotional efforts if it dazzles fans and hooks new readers who have yet to pick up your titles. You read FOR your audience not AT them. Readings are a performance, and that means some kind of rehearsal is essential and basic training can be a huge help. You want your public presence and speaking voice in killer shape.

Your job is to provide, ample entertainment, insight, and charm to replay all those nice people willing to come watch you tell meaningful lies at one end of some dark room.

Now you’re gonna think I’m being grouchy, but I don’t believe that every author in the world needs to be reading in public. Plenty of authors should never stand at a mike saying words to a captive audience. That doesn’t make them failures or monsters. Those presentational skills simply aren’t in their wheelhouse. Plenty of our greatest authors have had astonishing careers without busting a mic.

I’ve watched authors bullied into atrocious readings by well-meaning family and friends who seem to think that watching them squirm like worms on a griddle is a boffo promo plan. There’s an Oprah-era encouragement which insists everyone needs to tackle public speaking before they die and that braving your greatest fear in front of fans is somehow salutary. Balderdash.

A great reading can boost your presence and sell a pile of books to folks who’ll spread the word, but a painful reading can have the exact opposite effect.

Readings are not for everyone and deserve serious consideration before you schedule one. What works for Author A might be a terrible idea for Authors B-Z. Authors can repel potential readers with clumsy, angry, or panicked readings because their rage or pain was the only element which communicated itself perfectly.

Play to your strengths. If public-speaking gives you hives and you don’t have the chops, please think twice before clambering onto a stage in public. There’s no shame in being shy or awkward, and anyone who bullies introverts into that kind of torture must serve some dark, carnivorous god that revels in creative suffering.

Choosing material for a public reading requires a different sensibility than excerpts. A public reading is more like performing a monologue for a distracted crowd. Since most readings involve a mix of writers, quality and skill will vary wildly; by the time you read, the audience may be homicidal or narcoleptic. Your brief performance from the text should dazzle them so much that picking up the book becomes a no-brainer.

  • Start your story. Pull an excerpt from the early part of the book that requires little to no explanation. You don’t want to waste time setting the scene for them, and you don’t want to give any spoilers.

  • Know your crowd. The selection should be appropriate and appealing to your anticipated audience.

  • Sell the hook. Consider your audience and the book you’re promoting, and choose a section that highlights the qualities you’re pitching. Emphasize the memorable and appealing elements.

Choose a scene suited for public performance. Look for moments of action and transformation. Funny, flirty, and dramatic all make for great performance material. Descriptions, aimless dialogue, and complicated backstory will kill a reading stone-dead…and repel potential readers. Be careful with dialogue unless you can differentiate clearly and rapidly between characters. Be cautious with explicit sexiness unless your presence and the audience can handle it. A few things to keep in mind:

  • Open with a bang: a zinger, a hook, an observation, a startling image. Get your audience’s attention and keep hold of it until you walk off the stage.

  • Shorter is better. Leave them wanting more. We live in a visual culture, so you are always racing against the audience’s boredom with the spoken word. Better to have five impeccable minutes than ten adequate minutes.

  • Edit the text for performance. This excerpt operates like a monologue you need to bring to life. Don’t be afraid to reword for maximum clarity in front of a live audience. Remove digressive details and asides and tertiary characters. Ditch anything complicated or unrelated to the action of the immediate scene.

Prepare a brief one or two sentence intro (based on your book’s logline) that sets up the moment you’re reading. Do not blather, do not wander. Use minimal commas and embedded clauses. Once you stray beyond thirty seconds, your intro weighs against you with an audience like a taxi meter on a rainy night. Don’t make them hate the book before you even begin.

The logical move is to read from the book you are currently promoting because it foregrounds current promo efforts and allows you to plug your newest, best work without actually telling them to buy anything. The book can sell itself. Yay!

Reading from a work in progress is tricky. If you don’t have a release date and purchase details, it may not be useful because there’s no way for listeners to preorder. But if the story really lends itself to public performance and the tease has serious appeal, it can be a sexy peek behind the scenes that your fans will appreciate.

PRACTICE! And I mean that literally and repeatedly. Read your excerpt out loud several times, both to yourself and at least twice in front of other human beings. Get a feel for how the piece flows, where the critical moments fall, and how best to build to them.

Change the tune! Vary your pitch, pace, and rhythm as you perform the piece. Day-to-day conversation tends to operate in a narrow band of pitch and pace. The best way to get people’s attention is to use the full span of your voice: look for highs and lows, the quicks and slows. Let the music of the story come through you as you read.

Format your selection with large type, your explanatory intro sentence to start, and ample margins for notes. Always print and bring two copies, because one will get misplaced on the way. Keep a backup uploaded to the cloud or a handy flash drive because accidents happen and pages get lost.

Score those pages like music. After you practice the section out loud a few times, take time to mark up the printed copy:

  • Use a highlighter to differentiate between characters to make accents and tone easier to maintain.

  • Flag critical words, names, details, and punch lines.

  • Indicate essential beats, pauses, and full stops necessary for maximum impact.

  • Specify pacing in the margins with symbols or reminders so you can breeze through the swifter bits and take your time in moments that need more time.

Finally, the reading is upon you. Expect to be nervous, and give yourself time and space to get your game face on.

  • Wear something comfortable, on-brand, and professional. You want these pics out on the web, showing ‘em how it’s done.

  • Show up early so you can get situated and do a mike check. Learn the steps necessary to make you feel both calm and energized when the moment comes.

  • Be grateful and professional with the organizers and see if they need help with anything before the punters arrive. They deserve your love and respect.

  • Visit the bathroom and grab water (or slippery elm tea!) before you get situated. Don’t drink milk or dairy before you read because they clog your throat with mucus.

Make eye contact with your audience. Tell them the story, and let your energy bring it to life. Don’t hold the pages in front of your face or stare down at a lectern for long stretches. Don’t fidget or fuss with your clothes. Focus, enthusiasm, and conviction cover a multitude of flaws.

Play to the room. Surf the audience’s energy. Keep changing the tune based on your sense of audience reactions. If they respond more to comedy, hit the jokes hard. If they’re raunchier, sell ’em the sizzle. Give and take makes them part of the story.

Remember: most of them won’t remember what you read, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.

Allow time for positive reactions. When your audience laughs (or gasps or sobs or orgasms), let the audience reactions crest (but not fade) before you continue. Begin again a beat or two after the peak, well before the sound dies out, so that you maintain the overall energy and pace. Rushing through audience emotions will kill them, and flailing in dead air will kill you.

Bring a red pen in case of an editing emergency. I once did a reading in which one author ran double the suggested length. To keep the schedule, I edited my excerpt on the fly to fit the remaining minutes. A red pen can save your buttski.

And when you aren’t physically up there at the mic reading from your work, please be a gracious team member. Be positive, upbeat, and professional. Folks will notice and remember your behavior more than you imagine. Sit your butt down, open your ears, and enjoy the miracle of folks spinning their yarns live in front of a live audience. You can learn a ton just by watching what other people get wrong and right.

Please keep negative opinions or boredom to yourself. Bad readings and bad books are a reality. Learning how NOT to do something is a gift. Keep your yap shut, even if someone asks for an “honest” opinion right then, offer praise and gratitude. Real notes come 24 hours later. Wait until the next day and tell them they can call or email if they want feedback. On the night, smile and clap and thank them for including you.

We’re all in this together, so don’t punch holes in the bottom of the boat.

Don’t bail, EVER. It’s rude for an author to leave in the middle of someone else’s reading. Worse, everyone will notice, and that exit will undermine any good you might have done yourself by participating. Even if you gave a beautiful presentation from a phenomenal book, you will always be that selfish creep who walked out. THAT is what fans and colleagues will remember. They sat through yours, so return the favor and then some. If you can’t stay, then don’t come in the first place.

Respect your work by giving it and your audience the attention they deserve. Played right, a public presentation of your work can deepen your relationship with existing fans and snag you a whole new audience.

A professional development article for writers by M/M author Damon Suede

Copyright 2017. Damon Suede. All Rights Reserved

Originally published as part of A Game Advice for the Romance Writers Report.

If you wish to republish this article, just drop me a line.