Friday, December 13, 2013

The Entertainer

By Russel D McLean

The other week, I was out at Literary Death Match (where, by the way, I won the evening...). Its an odd mash up of literary event and game show where four writers read in front of three judges who choose the two "best" to go into a head to head competition tangentially linked to literature. Hosted by the effervesent mass of energy that is Adrian Todd Zunga, LDM is a fantastic night and well worth attending. The mix of standard literary stuff (the readings) with more fun additions (the standoff, the occasionally insane judging commentary) makes for great entertainment, and its no surprise the show has been optioned for television.

But it got me thinking about authors and reading. Generally I don't do much reading at my events. The main reason being I can barely concentrate on the whole thing as a listener. I admit I drift off during most author readings, because most authors aren't trained performers. There are exceptions, of course. Stuart MacBride is a great reader. But he really plays the parts he's reading. However, most authors tend to lose any traction they've built up prior to reader by mumbling the words off their books. Sometimes this is down to ability, but often I think it's lack of preparation. I admit I read by the seat of my pants. I will change my mind about what I'm reading at the last moment, but I am confident in the fact that I'm two steps ahead of the words that I'm speaking in my ability to edit as I read, to change words and tones to suit the drama of the moment (ie, I edit my own work as I'm reading it). But as one writer told me on the night of LDM, they cannot read without knowing exactly what they are going to say. And I suspect many writers are similar, and yet I get the feeling they don't practice over and over again with their readings. Because they are never told how to.

Writers are expected to perform their books. Where the truth is that most writers don't know how to perform expect on the page. They can create stunning words, but reading those words is not enough. Our brains perform for us when we read words on the page, but its the rare untrained reader who can then perform in a way that brings that to life.

And while I claim to be a seat of the pants reader (when I do read; most of the time I talk about things that interest me, or about the stories behind the books or that time I got chucked out of an internet cafe while doing research for a novel when I was a teenager), the truth is that I always practice my voice and intonation. I may not read what I expect to read when I go up there, but I have always prepared myself with a tone of voice and feeling I want to convey. When appearing with other writers, I make sure I have a few topics we can both talk about just in case we dry up. I have spent hours thinking about how I want to appear and the kind of mood I want to create.

Because an author event is an event. You can't just show up. No other business in the world would allow a performer to show up and not have prepared to engage with the audience. And yet so often in the world of literary events, writers are let loose with little to no idea of what kind of structure or tone they are supposed to be shooting for with an evening.

LDM sets its tone nicely with the pre-event communication. It lets writers know what they need to do. But I do think that writers (none of those I appeared with at LDM, by the way; its just that this is the event that got me thinking) need to understand more about presentation and showmanship. We are writers, but if we insist on turning up to meet and greet our readers we need to give them something more. We need to give them a show. We need to give them a good time (by which I mean interesting; you can be serious, and it can be equally as much fun as someone who is laugh a minute if you are passionate and interested in the subjects about which you talk).


Nigel Bird said...

It sounds like you did really well, whatever your style. It also sounds like a great concept and I hope that if it makes it to TV they include champs like you. Is there any footage available to take a look at?
I've always prefered reading poetry to prose - that way there aren't usually things like accents to throw into the mix and the flow is less governed by puncuation. Mostly when I read prose, I get muddled and have to try and correct sentences as the grammar goes astray and that makes me nervous and it gets worse and...which is when I remind myself I'm a teacher and imagine the audience is all under 7 - that helps. :)

Dana King said...

You and I are in agreement on this. My novel launched about a month ago; I was asked to tell how the story came to be, read a bit, then answer questions. I prepared notes for a five minute talk on the first. For the reading, I printed the two short chapter in large font, double-spaced, and read it once a day for a week before the event, experimenting with inflections and separating dialog from narration, and larking up the pages as I went. The end result looked a little like a musical score, but it went well by all accounts.

People spend their money on our books, but they make time in their schedules to see us at an event. We owe them the best time we can give them. (I spent the first half of my adult life as a musician, so this is a natural attitude for me.)