There are two sides to every artist. No. Scratch that. There should be two sides to every artist. Whether we actually have those two sides is another conversation. Another painful, tear soaked conversation that yields a raging vulnerability hangover.
The side of us that locks ourselves away and creates is where we find the truest versions of ourselves – raw, real and fulfilling. And then there is the side of us that must put our art out THERE. Outside of the sanctuary in which it was created. Outside of the net of safety we would rather it stayed in. Outside for others to experience it in a totally out of our control kind of way.
Both sides have their own minefield of risk.
*breathes into paper bag*
One of the ways we writers do this, is by having readings and book signings. I’ve been doing this now for over ten years and I’ve made every mistake, survived every calamity and am here to offer my advice.
TEN TIPS FOR A GREAT BOOK SIGNING
1. WEAR SOMETHING COMFORTABLE
I know. You want to look nice. There are going to be pictures and you want to be put together. Here’s the thing. You are going to be a nervous wreck. Like beyond your imaginings. To add to that equation something you’ve never worn before, teetering heels and too much make-up – you are now so outside of yourself you’ll be lucky if you can focus on anything – let alone your own words.
Find the middle ground. A lovely outfit you’ve worn before that photographs well – do test runs. The biggest thing? Shoes that will ground you when your knees get wobbly and your stomach starts to flip.
2. TELL PEOPLE YOU’RE NERVOUS
This is the most freeing piece of advice I’ve ever gotten. Let people know you’re nervous – it gets them on your side and relieves them of the worry they have for you. I usually open with some combination of a joke (“I passed my first test, I didn’t trip coming up here.) and then some kind of flight instructions (“I wasn’t nervous all day, I’m so happy it finally kicked in just as I walked up here!) You’ll get a laugh. Everyone will calm down (including you) and everyone in the audience will be pulling for you. Being human is a good thing. Show it.
3. KNOW HOW YOU’RE GOING TO START THINGS
The worst thing I ever did was think “I don’t know, I’ll just get up there and read what I planned and you know, take it from there.” NOPE. NOPE. NOPE. For the first few minutes you’re at that podium, you’re in this weird auto-pilot fugue state. And the more you plan those minutes, the more Your Future Self will thank you. I try to have some story to tell about my day – some anecdote that will feel conversational. Warming the crowd up before you launch into your reading settles people in, including yourself. This anecdote can then lead into a general Elevator Pitch of your book – as much as the audience needs to know to understand the bit you’re going to read – and then maybe some backstory about the journey of the book. (PS: This opening bid usually clocks in at around 5-10 minutes at most)
4. CHOOSE WHAT YOU READ ALOUD WITH THE UTMOST CARE
I was at the Texas Book Festival touring for Nowhere but Home and the moderator for the panel chose the bits of our book she wanted us to read – and she picked a passage I’d never have chosen – BUT IT WAS PERFECT. This gave me an idea. You can’t go wrong with reading the opening chapter of your book. That’s always a great choice. But, maybe have two or three other shorter sections (page and a half?) to supplement that choice just in case you read faster than you thought or the audience isn’t responding the way you would have liked or it’s going well and you want to offer another thread/tone to what they can expect when they buy your book.
I was once at this reading and the last reader of the night read for I AM NOT KIDDING upwards of 45 minutes. Just droning. Reading. Not any performance of the passage just… mumble mumble mumble. And? Because he was the last reader, it was already super late and his reading took us well past 1130. It was so tone deaf and inconsiderate that I’ve actually been fascinated by his choice ever since. Did he not know? Did he think people were enjoying themselves? Was he just nervous and locked in and hadn’t done a test run to see how long that passage was going to actually take to read aloud? I still don’t know.
What I will say is CHECK IN WITH YOUR AUDIENCE. Are they glazing over? Can you make a quick aside or a joke to reel people back in? Something. DON’T BE THAT GUY. Practice what you’re going to read ahead of time and give it a level of performance. These are the words you wrote. Give them the life that they deserve.
A reading/signing usually lasts about an hour. The reading part of that should last maybe 20 minutes. After that, people start tuning out.
4a. THE ART OF PHOTOS
There is the reading and then there is the reading as it is seen on social media. A not well attended reading can have a whole new life on social media with the right spin.
Take pictures of stuff – the sign with your name on it. The bookstore. Tag the bookstore (so they’ll retweet). Your book. Any swag you brought. Tap someone you trust with taking pictures of you during the reading. Someone you trust, meaning they’re not going to upload a picture of you looking like the Colossus of Rhodes, eyes closed and mid-sentence. You don’t have any control of the pictures your audience posts, but the ones you choose to post should be curated wisely.
(these are the pictures that happened when I gave my niece the camera, btdubs)
5. MASTERING THE Q&A
We’ve all been there. “Any questions?”
Crickets. Tumbleweed rolls through.
a) Enlist a shill. No shame in this game. Because the truth? Once the first question is asked – more people will come forward. The audience has stuff they want to know, they just don’t want to go first. So, get a friend. Tell them to ask the first question. They’ll be happy to.
b) Cut the tension. I usually say something about… okay, I’m gonna stand up here and awkwardly stare at you until someone asks something. Or you can make a joke like … I can talk about what happened last night on Empire for a full hour, so… Something to loosen people up so that someone will come forward.
6. GOODIES: YAY OR NAY?
At this last big launch for Girl Before a Mirror, I had both cupcakes and little conversation hearts for the audience. They loved them and moreover it made the reading look like AN EVENT. This isn’t a necessary one – I’ve done readings that went fine without swag, but it did add something. It was a way for me to say thank you to the people who schlepped out on a school night. It’s definitely something I’ll be doing again.
7. BE GENTLE WITH YOURSELF THE DAY OF THE READING
It’s the nerves. They sneak up on you. For me, writing has always scared me a little because I care about it so much. And a reading seems to really bring out a lot of hidden shit. From my secret fears that I’m not worth all this fuss to the out and out fear that my work is not good enough to be read aloud. And what are people going to think. And IT’S SO VULNERABLE. You’re running around and keeping busy and you think you’ve got it under control. Sure, you’re nervous, but… My advice. Be gentle. You’re going to be all over the place and it’s going to manifest in a very visceral way. Your body isn’t buying what your mind is selling. So watch what you eat (your stomach is going to be a wreck) have Pepto on hand, bubble water and give yourself a break. Also? Communicate with your loved ones. Let them in on – as much as you can – what’s happening. Once again, being human is a good thing.
It’s not just a reading. It’s so much more.
8. WHEN TO ARRIVE AT YOUR READING
This one is kind of tricky. Sometimes the bookstore has a place in the back you can crash with a cup of tea. This is the best option. Maybe call ahead and ask if this option is available, getting the name of the person handling your event in the process (also ask when they prefer you to arrive.) If this option is not available, then arriving early at your event with nowhere to go except to LURK and act like you’re TOTALLY NOT FREAKING OUT is going to be an issue. If there’s a coffee place in the bookstore that could work, too.
What you’re battling between is that 13 year old no one’s going to show up for my party syndrome and getting cornered by the wrong kind of person just before you go up. It’s a tight wire act, to be sure.
9. WHAT TO DO IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE READING
After the reading/signing you’re going to be a lovely blend of amped and super vulnerable. Now. Because you can’t experience your own reading, the first and foremost thing on your mind is HOW DID I DO? And this is a tough answer. It’s gotta be the right blend of specific details, positive feedback and measured criticisms to not send you running for the hills. The Car Ride Debriefing is about quelling those fears that you somehow embarrassed yourself, while at the same time gossiping and talking about the event itself. So choose that person WISELY. Maybe even let them know the boundaries of what you need from this debriefing. You’re too raw and vulnerable to be around someone who is going to pick apart how you did. Protect yourself.
I’ve found that I needed something after the reading to help me decompress before I went home. This may not be the case for you. You may need to get home, get your 8oclock pants on and wind down thusly.
10. WHEN THINGS GO WRONG
A bookstore invited me to come read and they also invited the local high school to perform The Grapes of Wrath. I have had no one show up. I have had no one show up, but an elderly gentleman who meandered through my reading only to tell me my grammar was terrible. I have had two people get into a weird fight in one of my signing lines. I have been so nervous that I couldn’t get a breath and almost passed out. I have never been asked a weird question, but I saw Dennis Lehane be asked, “I loved your series, but hate your stand alone books. Why do you think people like your stand alone books?” To which he replied, “A writer never defends their work. Next question.”
Shit happens. Your reading is not going to be perfect. There is no perfect. There is you doing the best you can and realizing that the only way to get better at this thing is by allowing yourself to first be bad at it, learn and grow. And the only way to learn and grow at readings and signings is by doing them. You will survive. You will learn. And those anecdotes then become your war stories to tell around some bar table at a book conference. You are not alone. Everyone has had a terrible reading/signing. Everyone.
When you wake up the next morning after a book signing, you will most definitely have a Vulnerability Hangover. You will second guess and pick apart everything that you said and did. Embarrassment. Shame. Any emotion that you can hang on to so you won’t feel that discomfort that comes with baring one’s soul. Be gentle with yourself. You did not do as badly as you think you did. Start there. You actually did quite well. You are making art and putting it out there. Always remember that.
You are brave.
You are brave.
You are brave.