In the golden age of publishing, back before there was the internet and big chain stores and marketing, there were neighborhoods, and writers buried themselves in stale-aired tiny rooms tucked under the roof with one window, lots of coffee and piles of books, and never went outside if they could help it unless it was just to the cafe or deli or liquor emporium at the end of the block. And eventually they (we) became pale and sickly and unable to speak or make eye contact.
We could just concentrate on writing our little books and forget that there were people out there. Vague hand motion indicating some place far away in a nebulous direction. And soon enough we would die after having amassed a collection of prose on topics that interested us, and that our publisher (whom we had perhaps met once in a dingy bar or in their resplendent, gleaming and shiny office building on a good street in New York City) hailed as masterpieces. We didn’t bother reading our press or reviews either because that was just a worthless distraction from writing.
And the isolation of a life like that would be alright because it was the perfect environment in which to write. Although some of us who aren’t quite so damaged and anti-social enjoy spending a few hours out of the day with our families, and sometimes we do stray outside and let the sun fall on our faces, but we still spend most of our time hunched over a notebook or a computer and sometimes we forget how to communicate with people except through the written word.
But to be a writer these days, you have to also be part marketing professional and self-promoting wizard. You have to go out in public and meet your potential readers. You have to try and connect directly with people and this is a dichotomy because by and large writers tend to be insecure and shy and not the best at public speaking.
Now I fortunately got a little kick-start in this department because although I was one of those painfully shy kids- the sort who looked through her hair and blushed tomato red if spoken to- by the time I started my own record label- fifteen years later- I had to learn how to address large groups of people and what with panels at record conventions and countless meetings with eager musicians not to mention some terrifying incidents with big groups of gangster rappers and their assorted entourages, I overcame my shyness and learned how to appear natural and at ease. Except for the unscheduled meetings with rap mogul producers who just showed up at the office foaming at the mouth and full of accusations that we had attempted to steal their artists. At those times I just pretended I was in a mafia movie, and I still had to appear at ease and on top of things, and try not to let the fact that I was being flanked and stared down by some seething boys with mean mugs (as we used to refer to it in the rap biz) get to me. Reading to a bunch of kids and their parents, teachers and librarians just doesn’t compare. Except that it is still hard.
I’ve probably done about twenty-two readings and presentations since my book came out. Barring the short break I took after my daughter was born that’s about one per month, and I was nervous for the first one but not cripplingly so, and some of them have been a breeze because the audience is so excited and thrilled that you’re there and most have been pretty great.
I did an appearance yesterday. At Barnes & Noble. It was actually the 4th time I’ve read at this particular store but they’re not sick of me yet. And it was the 2nd time I was appearing in support of a particular local school and they’re not sick of me either. Which is just plain wonderful.
However, my audience was too young and I had not prepared for this eventuality and I had to rapidly revise my introduction speech which is usually heavy on the music biz anecdotes and my boxing career and talk more about my childhood and super heroes and comic books and monsters that live under your bed and in your closet. And then my reading-the first chapter from my work in progress- Feltus Ovalton & the Lost Warrior- was not age appropriate either. These were mostly 6 and 7 year olds, with a sprinkling of my desirable 10, 11 and 12 year olds, so I cut paragraphs as I read and stopped short of the end, although it was probably just 7 minutes of reading altogether. Kids just can’t pay attention for that long. I’d guess from experience that for the younger ones, we’re talking about 3 minute’s tops unless you have hand puppets or a slide show, and I had neither. It’s an awful thing to look out and see small bored faces, and it is a lesson in humility.
So what to do? First of all one should not assume that the planner of your event has thought about the appropriate age of your audience. They tend to lump all children’s authors together in one big group. At one of my first signings I was paired with a picture book author and she was wonderful and fun to hang out with but our readers are almost ten years apart in age.
So I’m going to work on two different intros which I can adapt for the occasion and I am not going to read full chapters anymore. I am going to choose one or two of my most action-packed passages and preface them and I’m going to keep my readings short and hopefully thrilling and engaging. And I’m going to expand the question and answer portion of the program because everyone seems very interested in the writing and publishing process, and employ more visuals, and encourage direct participation and involvement at the beginning of my presentation by asking my audience personal questions.
I really like doing readings, and I get such a thrill signing books, and I am so thankful that there are people out there who want to meet me and talk to me. But the hermit part of me sometimes hankers after that dusty room under the roof, and a world where my books can just sell themselves.