Author as Actor: Or how to get through public readings

with as little pain as possible…

[originally published on the Pubslush Blog.]

Reading at my hometown library in Hoquiam.

Reading at my hometown library in Hoquiam.

I spent the first 30-something years of my life as an extroverted actor, director, playwright. Over the last decade I’ve transformed into a mostly introverted author.

Recently, as I attended other authors’ readings and heard about how much stress being the center of attention in public brings them, I realized those skills of an actor might help authors who spend their lives on the introverted side.

What do good authors do better than average? They create memorable characters. What do actors do well? They create memorable characters. How do they both do that? With words. The actor has the advantage of using someone else’s words—the playwrights’. And these words have gone through many drafts, staged readings, performances and often revivals.

So if our authors are willing to first play playwrights, then toss in some stage management, stage-handing and acting, they can reduce the amount of stress public performances bring. Some might even learn to enjoy them. Here are 11 steps to a less stressful reading.

1. What is your author backstory? One of the first things an actor does when creating a character is decipher as much backstory about the character as they can. When they run out of concrete clues in the text, the invent the rest. So what are those questions every author gets regularly? Three of the most common are:

  • When did you start writing?
  • How do you get your ideas?
  • Who’s your favorite writer?

Once you have answered these, try to make a list of the others you have heard. You might even come up with multiple answers. It’s sort of like preparing for a job interview. Wanted: Favorite Authors. Apply within.

2. Finalize your script. Before the play goes on stage, the script needs to be finalized. What elements of your reading can be scripted? The readings, of course, and also any introductions to the readings. Which section(s) of your book are you going to read? Mark them with sticky notes or highlighter. I use a copy of my book that Hugh Howey held and complimented the pagination!

Cut out parts that don’t make sense as an excerpt. Read it aloud. You don’t even need to read it to someone else. Mark it for emphasis: crescendo/decrescendo, whispered, pause, etc. Write down the introduction for the section so you make sure the set up is there for the audience.

3. Meet your fellow actors/backstage help/director/stage manager. These are your best friends. Who is introducing you? Who is helping with the signing? Who will step in if you’re really overwhelmed? How will they know? Come up with a cue line. “Can I get some ice in this water?” or “Can I get my tea heated up?” or “Isn’t it hot in here?” Are there other authors who will be reading with you? They can help, too. We all get nervous, even those of us with lots of training and experience.

4. Prepare for the stage. Prepare and test any electronics you need: microphones, videos, Powerpoints. Do this 30 minutes before and then again right before if possible. Get in costume. I like to dress up like a professional, as I think a t-shirt does not give one much gravitas. Gather your props. Put your hands on them: books, the one you’re reading from and any to have for advertising. You can get little photo/plate stands at a dollar store to give your presentation of the books a professional quality. Have glasses both for your eyes and for drinking water. Have bookmarks or any other paraphernalia you are giving out, signing pens and sticky notes for the listeners to write the name they want inscribed in the book.

5. Wait in the wings. Get there a few minutes before you need to go on. Do deep knee bends or whatever it takes to relax as much as you’re able. Drink some water. Don’t think you need to relax and drink something stronger. You want to stay in control.

6. Go on stage. Smile. It will all be over in a couple hours. Do your intro bit and mention any news of other appearances, new works or recent awards. Then read. Hopefully you rehearsed this. Take your time. Enjoy your own words. Pause for water if needed. Especially if you can do it at a cliffhangery part. End that way as well. Leave them wanting more.

7. Take questions and then take your bows. If you are in a big room and/or miked, repeat the person’s question for the crowd. This also gives you time to think about your answer. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” or “I’ve never thought of that.” Listen, ask for clarification. When the handler/emcee says its time, thank everyone for coming. Include any last minute plugs here for yourself or other authors in attendance. Accept the applause. You’ve earned it and will be deserving of more before the night is done.

8. Sign books. Here is another place where having a few questions and comments comes in handy. You can ask about local sights, the bookstore, or the weather. Have they heard of the book by Mr. Blank that inspired you to write this one? Have those extra sticky notes and someone handing them out so that you don’t have to ask how to spell Nevaeh or Jacklin!

9. Wrap up. Have someone primed, or even two someones primed to extricate you from any long-winded fans. The cue from earlier about more water, etc. might help. You can enlist one of the Booksellers or if you’re lucky, your handler. If your partner/spouse came along, they are good for this. “Honey, we’ve got reservations at 8.” Even if the reservation is a quiet glass of wine and a B movie in the hotel room.

10. Thanks and Escape. Thank the bookstore folks profusely, get names if possible and send e-mails of compliments the the events coordinator. Then go find some place to be where it will be quiet and you won’t be interrupted except by room service delivering your champagne. Enjoy having been on stage. Odds are you will have forgotten most of the bad moments by now.

11. The Reviews. At some point when you’re ready for critiques, ask your partner or someone else from the reading how it went. If you remember any particularly painful bits, think about how similar occurrences might be avoided in the future. Revisit your script, revise your backstory and then get back to writing the next book.

If you want more author advice, please check out my Path to Indie Punlication Series. Special thanks to Mary Robinette Kowal and her Debut Author Blog posts, Amanda Hagarty, and Elena Bianco, Rocket Tears Press, for their advice on readings.