Thursday, October 22, 2015

Noir at the Bar 101

So you wanna host a Noir at the Bar, eh?

Wait, you don’t know what Noir at the Bar is? Eek. OK. Well, read this and this and this. This blog post is not a history lesson, but those links should give you a general idea. Going to a ton of Noir at the Bars will help, too. Lemme know when you’re back.

Oh, hi. OK - still want to host one? Great.

I’ve had the pleasure and honor of participating in a ton of Noir at the Bars as reader and host - mainly in the NY/NJ area, where I learned a lot about hosting from folks like Todd Robinson and Thomas Pluck. I also like to think I’ve hosted a few good ones on my own in Queens. That said, I’m not the be-all, end-all when it comes to the mechanics of these events. With that in mind, I’ve put together a quick and dirty guide with my thoughts, plus insight from some of the best and brightest Noir at the Bar hosts around the world. So, sit back, pop open your favorite beverage and start dreaming up your plans for Noir at the Bar Narnia…


A good venue is the unsung hero of N@tB. What makes a good venue? Well, it should be relatively spacious, have a decent PA/mic setup (so the audience can actually hear the readers) and sport a relaxed atmosphere. Now, here’s where I digress from traditional N@tBs - I’ve hosted four, and all have been at coffee shops. The first four were at ODradeks, a coffee place in Kew Gardens. The most recent, and arguably most successful one, was at Astoria Coffee. Both places served beer and wine, covering the “bar” part - but most importantly, both places had a mellow, welcoming mood with engaged owners/managers that “got” what we were trying to do and promoted the events via their channels. That last point is key because it draws people in beyond your circle of writers and friends-of-writers. I’ll get into promotion a bit later, too.

It’s important to find a place that not only opens its doors to new patrons, but to the event as a concept.

“You want a place that likes having you and doesn't make you charge a cover,” said Jen Conley, who runs Noir at the Bar New Jersey. “I like the old school bars. I do mine at Tumulty's in New Brunswick. We have a downstairs room with chairs and a bar—all to ourselves. The place is fantastic.”

Adding special twists to make your event stand out from the many going on across the country doesn’t hurt either. But first order of business is getting a killer venue, most N@tB planners agree.

“For Noir at the Bar Twin Cities, we partnered with Paul Von Stoetzel - our MC - of Killing Joke Films,” said organizer Dan Malmon. “He shows a short film at each of the readings. That gives us a unique experience. The venue is so important. We've been in bars that were too loud, a private theatre that had a bar and stage, but was too isolated. We've been at Bent Brewstillery for 2 readings now, and it's perfect. They are a great partner and really enjoy having us. Tasty beer too.”

Even something as simple as a “VIP” meal can suffice.

“At the one I hosted in Harrisburg,” said Erik Arneson. “We had a pre-event dinner with all the readers who could make it early. Great fun.”

It also helps when the venue doesn’t do readings often - so the event feels new to not only the attendees, but the venue and its staff.

“For my money, the venue needs to be somewhere that doesn't typically host literary events,” said Jay Stringer, co-host of Noir at the Bar Glasgow. “I like the punk rock idea of taking literature out of libraries and book stores and putting them in a bar, making it live and fresh.”


OK, so your venue is locked in. What’s next? For me, I usually coordinate a ballpark date with my contact at the space - like, Thursdays in November, for example. Then I send an email out to some writer contacts to gauge interest (BCC is your BFF here). The people on the list vary and depend on the event. Not all Noir at the Bars are the same. For example - the first three N@tBs I did at ODradeks were not “selling” events. Which is to say, people didn’t expect to sell copies of their new book at the event. We did raffles every 2-3 readers so authors could bring their giveaway books and promo materials. However, the most recent Noir at the Bar Queens was done in tandem with the wonderful Astoria Bookshop - which meant I had to limit my roster to authors who had books out that could be ordered by a bookstore. Sounds trivial, but it changes things. After the initial emails are sent, I wait to see who responds and what date works best. Based on that, I start building a list. I try to cap it at 10-12. That’s usually two hours of reading, and you shouldn’t try to go over that. That’s the mechanics of it. There’s more to it.

I always strive for a mix of “big” names, up-and-comers and outside-the-box readers (i.e. crime writers who people might not expect to see at a N@tB). The idea is to pull from each author’s fanbase or circle of friends and to also draw in people that don’t normally attend a Noir at the Bar. Once you lock in your list, you’re halfway through. The next challenge is reading order. I liken it to creating a mixtape (so does Jay Stringer, which further proves we’re soul twins) - you want to start strong, close strong and have tonal shifts throughout to keep things interesting. Whenever I make a playlist, I start big, then hit harder with the second song and blow it out of the water with the third, always keeping in mind that the finale has to be the biggest moment. What does that mean in concrete, picking-a-reading-order terms? It’s hard to say. It should be a mix of what you know about an author’s skills as a reader and their resume in terms of being a draw. If you have a big name, like Lawrence Block - who was at the last Queens Noir at the Bar and hadn’t done a N@tB before - you close with him. Not only was he the biggest name on the bill, he was also a masterful reader (and a gentleman and joy to deal with), so it evened out. Other times, I’ve closed with a lesser-known author who I’m certain will bring the goods and end the night on a strong note. Go with your gut.

For what it's worth, I always ask readers if they have a preference as to where they land on the list. You’ll be surprised at some of the responses you get. I don’t always do this, but you should also note that while you’ll do your best to make it work in terms of author preference, final say on reading order rests with the host.

“Go with someone dark and funny to open,” said Ed Aymar, who runs a Noir at the Bar event in D.C. “Nik Korpon opened at our first, and Peter Rozovsky opened our second. Great ways to set the tone, and let newcomers know what to expect. Along those lines, if someone wants to participate but their usual storytelling is a different flavor, it's good to let them know what to expect. My pal Wendy Tyson is reading in Philly, and noir's not her bag, so she asked Angel Colon for advice at Bouchercon. I think she's still a little shaken, but ready.”


Easier said than done. I’m thankful I have some basic PhotoShop skills. Most of my N@tB posters are old paperback covers with modified text. They work for me.

If you’re not design-oriented, keep ‘em simple - cool photo, legible font and there you are. Just make sure the poster lists your readers, venue (with address!), start time and date. I also like to note it’s a free event, because I think everyone is cheap.

I also like printing it out on nice paper and providing it to the venue so it’s on display a week or two before the actual event. I’ve heard from attendees who came based on just seeing the poster.


Not all authors are Noir at the Bar veterans. In fact, you don’t want your lineup to be full of the same names someone could see elsewhere. After doing a few of these, I’ve started to notice how the Queens events differ slightly from its N@tB siblings. Not in a better or worse-than way, but just different. That’s good. And because you should strive to get new people into the mix, you should also be prepared to over-explain what the event entails. I try to lay it out as clearly as possible when emailing the roster - readings shouldn’t go over 10 minutes, I suggest a time of arrival and also ask readers to stick around until the end if they can (for the post-game group photo and because I think it’s nice to support your fellow readers - but you should also be understanding if someone can’t). These guidelines serve as a safety net for readers - it doesn’t guarantee a good reading. But you, as a host, have done your duty in letting your participating authors know what’s expected. The rest is in their hands. 90 percent of the time, it’s great.

I’m also learning as I go as a host. I make a little cheat sheet for myself before each event - it’s literally a script for the night - “Thank the venue, thank the readers,” etc. It includes author bios and sections that note when breaks should happen to allow people to exhale a bit, order a drink and mill about. Without those pauses, you’re basically sitting in silence for two hours.

Most, if not all Noir at the Bar hosts are veteran Noir at the Bar readers. With that experience comes a sense of how it works and what to do.

“Rehearse! Practice your piece. Keep it short,” said Eric Beetner, who’s organized a number of Noir at the Bar events in L.A. and elsewhere. “Pick something with humor or action and something that doesn’t need a lot of setup or backstory.”

Yes, bring the funny.

“Funny is always good,” said frequent Noir at the Bar reader and organizer Nik Korpon. “Don't go too heavy on dialogue unless you're an actor. Or at least, too many speakers. Don't go too long. I try to keep my readings under five minutes, which is about 2–3 pages.”


Every Noir at the Bar has a story - funny, bizarre, awful or amazing. It’s just the way these things go. As host, you should do your best to keep things relatively painless for your authors and put on an entertaining show for the people attending. Everything else is out of your control.

One of my fondest memories as a reader was watching Todd Robinson read a story of mine that involved some graphic stuff at a recent Noir at the Bar NYC that featured a handful of authors trading stories. I cried with laughter as things got more and more awkward.

As a host, I don’t think anything can top introducing Lawrence Block. He not only honored us with his presence, but he absolutely killed it as a reader.

But it’s not all unicorns and rainbows. Shit happens.

People get turned off.

“Our weirdest story was when we had someone walk out,” said Malmon. “During our second N@tB, Jed Ayres was in town from St. Louis. He read his story ‘Hoosier Daddy.’ It gets pretty graphic at the...climax...and we had a walk-out. Jed says it was a Red Letter Event for him.”

People get pissed.

“Our bar double booked by accident one night,” Beetner said. “So we had a very raucous birthday party going on at the same time. I’d worked really hard to get a reclusive writer out that night and it felt like he thought I was an idiot. Like, why did he agree to this bullshit.”

Readers swap stories.

“Reading Rob Hart’s story ‘Pretty Princess’ [at Noir at the Bar NYC] was just a blast,” Conley said. “Todd Robinson put together an event where we read each other’s stories. It was absolutely hilarious—the story and the event. I swear I must have turned 10 different shades of red while I was up in front of the microphone reading that tale.”


You’re probably doing this because you love crime fiction and being part of the community. So make sure you’re enjoying the process: listening to great stories, meeting the readers, connecting fans with great books and laughing  with your friends. Otherwise, why bother?

“They're all great,” said Eryk Pruitt, who hosts a Noir at the Bar in Durham. “As a host, it's going to be hard to top the one at Raleigh Bouchercon because there were eleven seasoned pros showing us how to do it. As a reader, I enjoyed reading at Shade in NYC because everyone was so nice and receptive. It was great to see how the grown ups do it.”

Got a favorite Noir at the Bar story? Share it in the comments.


Al Tucher said...

Nailed it, Alex.

I'd do a graph of all the colors Jen turned that night, but it would be too complicated.

Anonymous said...

Time limits, mother fuckers. Time limits.

Read for more than 10 minutes and fuck you is what.

Alex Segura said...

Thanks Al and Anon!

Neliza said...

I learned that I do not have the energy to keep hunting down venues after the first twenty failed to respond, responded harshly, flaked when it came to finding a date, or demanded large sums of money for the space. I am sure there are other bars and coffee houses and empty warehouses once used by serial killers, but there's a limited number that are near "stuff" and have the setup. I just don't spend enough time in bars to scope them all out.
I also get the impression that while every third person in South Florida is a "writer," only the ones who have half-finished Nanowrimos from three years ago would respond to me.

Unknown said...

I loved Noir at the Bar in Raleigh. You did a GREAT job. I attend open mic and spoken word events all over the Atlanta area and have organized and read at a few on the Gulf Coast of Florida. I would love to get a group together to start a regular NatTB gathering. Hmmm.... now, you've got me thinking.

James R. Tuck said...

I love N@TB. I got to do the one up in NYC at Shade and had a freaking blast. I missed the one at Bouchercon and hated that.
It's a great gig.