Friday, July 26, 2013

Exit Stage Left, Pursued by a Reader

By Russel D McLean

One of the things I love most in this business is meeting readers.

I've talked about this time and again but its true. I love getting out in the trenches and seeing people in action, figuring out who buys the books. Sometimes they're insane. Sometimes they're wonderful. Sometimes they're determined to prove they're smarter than the author. Sometimes all they want is to be entertained.

Whatever, I love meeting them.

I was thinking about this again after doing a book and beer evening with Stuart MacBride in Crail. Its the third me and Stuart have worked together. The first time we did an event together, things were a little awkward awkward. Neither of us knew the other's rhythms too well and we both floundered a little (although thankfully we pulled it back in the end and everyone had a good time) but now we seem to be getting a handle on each other, working out how to come across well on stage.

And that's something you're never prepared for as a writer:

The Event.

You know, where people come out to meet the flesh behind the pages. Where they want to see in action the mind that created a whole fictional narrative.

The people who come out want to be informed. They want to be entertained. They want to feel like they've seen something behind the books.

And that's odd.

Because writers are naturally insular people. One of the reasons I have loved working with MacBride (God only knows how he feels working with me) is that he is a born entertainer. I can play the straight man to his Polish Swearing routine or field a serious answer to which he can then create a punchline (and then still tack on a serious answer that outflanks my own). But he knows when to pull it in, when the audience aren't reacting or when they need him to be the writer, not just the beardy Sex God.

But its strange being on that stage. Knowing that these people have come to see you.

I've seen it go wrong so many times. From the writer who talked for five minutes then announced that not enough people were here and walked off to the author who read from their book in a dull monotone for an hour straight. I've seen writers paired together who clearly had no common ground. I've seen panels collapse due to a overbearing host.

But the problem is that we're not trained how to speak in public. We're just expected to know how to do it naturally. We're also often expected just to show up with no advance contact and bounce off other writers we've never met... (I'm not going to mention the pay situation)

I've done a lot of events now. I'm starting to get a personality that I play up. Mostly its a befuddled one,  but then its just an extension of who I am naturally. I've learned how to project, how to vamp when I don't know what I'm talking about, but all the same I've had little in the way of formal training (in terms of talking about writing; I did some stage work in my younger days) and just had to make it up as I went along. I still envy writers like John Connolly who can talk so eloquently, or Christopher Brookmyre who can naturally make a room crack up with laughter. Or Megan Abbott who just seems to always know exactly what she's saying. Or James Ellroy who just puts on the greatest motherfucking show that any pervert with a brain will appreciate. Dig the demon dog, hep-cats, he's got the greatest show in history.

 The pressure of events on writers is fantastic. We're expected just to show up and be interesting, but unlike stand ups or actors, we got into our line of work so we wouldn't have to deal with people. Now, I've discovered I love doing events, and more importantly love meeting readers, but I know every time that I have to give them something whether its a few good punchlines or perhaps a few insights into something they didn't expect (I've started to talk more and more about the style and lives of writers who influenced me; my life revolves around books, so why shouldn't I talk about them?). It can't just be about plugging the new book or reading page after page (unless you're good at that). The audience are there to be entertained. Which means that any writer who agrees to do an event should be aware of what they are getting into. As I have seen (especially with the writer who talked for a few minutes before walking off due to low turnout) some are doing only because it is expected of them, not because they want to. A bad event can be worse than no event at all in a reader's eyes, especially if they are not entertained. Because we have to remember, its all about the readers. The audience. And its certainly not about feeding our own egos. I certainly hope that anyone who sees me comes away with some sense of value for money. Even if the event was free...


Ricky Bush said...

Thanks for sharing your insight on author events. One of the first for me was at Murder By The Book in Houston to sign/discuss my debut. I was apprehensive about being paired with another at the last minute. Glad it happened because most turned out to see him, but they bought my book too. My second pairing at a different venue was with an author who wrote a book about sexual fitness. Yeah, right. Offered to swap signed books with him, but he simply said, "No, that's alright. I don't really read much."

Stringer Belle said...

"We're expected just to show up and be interesting, but unlike stand ups or actors, we got into our line of work so we wouldn't have to deal with people."

Great post. Loved this part in particular. Obviously, author events/panels are part of the whole promotions shebang - it's far more traditional than a social media presence, for example - but when you go to such an event (and I'm as guilty of this as anyone) you forget that authors aren't necessarily, or supposed to be, natural entertainers.

I can empathise, not being a novelist but being a writer who has spoken on the odd panel. I grew up loathing speaking in public, turning into a shaking mess of a thing whenever eyes were on me, but was lucky enough to end up in a job a few years back where teaching small groups was part of my daily role. I got so used to it that now I could lecture a football stadium and not care.

It's great to read that you've found your way around it: perhaps you could give our mutual acquaintance some tips when he eventually becomes That Guy.