A Brilliant Book Tour in the Works

Damn. This has been a tough month. A tough month with very little writing. A month of reading at bookstores around the west coast and doing interviews and doing a not-so-great job at publicizing the release of my novel (A BRILLIANT NOVEL IN THE WORKS). It is amazing how consuming even doing a bad job of publicizing a book can be. I can tell you that I’m not a natural at publicity. Follow my lame Facebook author page to get an idea. (I’m admittedly better at Twitter, but if you follow me on Twitter, you’ll learn more about my drinking and parenting problems than any book news.) Even though there have been plenty of moments this month when I want to hide in my attic and never confront humanity again, there have been some fabulous moments too, like when someone grabs me after a reading and says, “I made my husband read your book. He never reads fiction. But he loved this book… even the weird parts.” Those moments are worth a hundred hide-from-humanity moments (which gives you an idea of how many hide-from-humanity moments I’ve had lately). There is too much to say about this subject, but I need time to digest — both the good and the bad — so let’s focus on just one thing this round: the art of presenting yourself to a live audience. I can safely say that this part of things was not a total failure. Let me explain.

In case it hasn’t been far-too-obvious already, I’m a nervous angst-ridden mess. Even more so when speaking in public. I freeze up to the point where I can’t even count to five when on stage. But there are things I have going for me. For one, I’m decent at planning things in advance (aka brooding at 3am). I also can make these video thingies. And most important of all, I actually take comfort in sharing about my fears and failures to others. So I structured my whole book tour experience around these qualities of mine.

To get more specific, here is how I decided to structure my reading events:

I started each event with a quick joke about my fears. These jokes were not planned or scripted in advance but always revolved around something on my mind that day. For instance, when reading at my hometown Powell’s Books, I said something like: “I always get my rituals screwed up. This afternoon I took a cold shower to deal with my stage fright. The problem is that now I’m just as scared about speaking in public as before. But at least I’m less horny.” It’s a dumb joke — if it’s a joke at all — but it successfully tapped in to my real fears right at that moment. And the audience laughed. We connected. And I relaxed a bit.

And then I moved on to a talk where I shared my appreciation for the people who helped me along the way. While I spoke, I played a poorly animated slideshow that both acknowledged and mocked the things I was saying (which were things that I had practiced many times from a script). It turns out that the animated slideshow amused the audience so much that my actual spoken words were hard to deliver. They kept laughing at my animations. Which wasn’t a problem, because people were engaged, even if it wasn’t exactly how I intended it to go. I retooled my script during the tour so that people could just enjoy the animations without me trying to say too much.

After my slideshow talk, I played a video that I called “A Making Of… Video”. This was a new video that I created specifically for my reading (and that you can now view below). Of course it took a bunch of hours to prepare, but it kept the audience entertained for five precious minutes and addresses one of the biggest questions I get about my book: What the hell is true and what is fiction? It also addresses another question I get a lot: How the hell did you piece this thing together? (I guess a lot of my questions have the word “hell” in them…)

After this video, I played my originally-fake-but-now-real book trailer to amuse the audience for another minute.

After this, I told a joke along the lines of “and now I’m going to read from my book without using the crutch of video.” And then I read from my novel. At this point, the audience was amused by all the activities and were ready to settle in to the reading, which was an intentional mix of both funny and poignant moments from my book. I could really sense the emotional state of the audience. It was almost more obvious to sense when they thought something was emotionally powerful than when they found something funny. You can somehow hear your listeners take in a breath and reflect.

After reading slightly under 15 minutes, we moved on to Q&A. By this point — at least at most venues — I was comfortable, they were comfortable, and we could all settle into a fun Q&A session. If people were too quiet at first, I’d egg them on by suggesting they try to embarrass me or say something scathing (though it’s rare for someone else to make me feel more embarrassed than I already am).

It turns out that the readings were a blast. Both when it was an audience of friends (like in my hometown) and when it was an audience of strangers. It was also just as much fun when there was a small turnout. In fact, I appreciated the added intimacy of a small audience. I had no idea how much I would enjoy performing, telling people about all my flaws and fears, and about my characters’ flaws and fears. Talking in public about shame and spanking and impotence and marital troubles is surprisingly pleasant. And there is such a pleasure in hearing someone in the audience sigh in a quiet moment.

I should say that this formula didn’t work 100% of the time. I had one disastrous reading where no one laughed at any point in the event. When a video of me dropping my pants or when I tell a joke about Nazis and I don’t even get a smile, I know I’m in big trouble. But what would a book tour be without some glorious failures? (I’m actually jealous of a friend of mine who read to an audience of three: one homeless guy, and two people who came to the wrong event. Now that’s a juicy story to recount later.)

So what’s my point with this whole spiel? I’m honestly not suggesting that you learn how to create second-rate animations or drop trou or fine-tune your Nazi jokes. I’m not even suggesting that you make fun of yourself. But I am suggesting that you tap in to some aspect of you that also relates — however loosely — to what you’re reading. Use some humility too. You’d be surprised at how sympathetic the audience will be if you tell them up front what you’re feeling. And consider reading in public long before you’ve published a book and are on a tour. It’s good practice. And it will help you understand the effect your work has on others in a new way. At least it did for me.

So what about y’all? How have you dealt with reading to an audience? Have you seen any interesting, unorthodox methods from authors reading in public?

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About Yuvi Zalkow

Yuvi Zalkow writes and worries in Portland, Oregon. His stories have been published in Glimmer Train, Narrative Magazine, Carve Magazine, and others. His first neurotic novel is now available. He is working on a second novel (about one Jew obsessed with napkins and another Jew in the Klan). He recently received an MFA from Antioch University, which makes him feel official.

Comments

  1. says

    I get charley horses in my cheeks from smiling when I read your stuff, Yuvi, or, especially, see your brilliant videos. Youse a clever dude.

    You ended asking about our reading experiences. My only offering is that I was dumped from Toastmasters because I found I loved the writing of the speeches and was insufficiently disciplined about the strictures of proper speachifying. Now, if I could only combine the two like you have so successfully done….

    But, wait. I didn’t have a video. Sigh.

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    • says

      Good to hear from you, as usual, Alex. Wow — I’m jealous of people who can write speeches. It seems like an art form on its own. And I’m slowly learning — through a lot of fumbling — that certain things work when speaking to an audience and certain things don’t… Good luck with your writing.

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  2. says

    Great post and I enjoyed your video. As a former teacher and military officer I am always overconfident when public speaking which is not a good thing. I experiment with humour but I am no comedian so that’s why I loved your video; I’ll give it a try. Also I like the idea of self-deprecation although I doubt I will ever go as far as telling audiences what I like to get into in the bedroom…

    Thanks you’ve taught me loads. :) I hope your novel is a success.

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    • says

      Thanks for the feedback, Christopher. Yes, self-deprecation isn’t suited for everyone. I suppose it’s sort of my shtick, especially with this book. Though I sometimes go too far. At one reading, I started telling them where they can find the worst reviews of my book :) Take care, Christopher.

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  3. says

    I love that you learned how to “cheat in the right way.” It’s great to get the backstory on your novel AND to hear that the tour went well.

    I used to teach college comp and high school English — and a brief summer of middle school English. Loved them all. And there’s something about standing up in front of a group of 17-18 year olds and getting them to love Dante or Austen (at least a little) that makes you immune to public speaking fears. Here’s to hoping for my own wacky book tour, somewhere in the distant future!

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    • says

      Lisa — I somehow suspect that if you can speak to teenagers that you can tackle any audience. I was keenly aware that most bookstore audiences are extremely friendly and supportive, which makes the whole process less intimidating. Good luck with your own book writing!…

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  4. says

    Okay, so I’m just frustrated as Hell (yeah, there’s that word again …). As I’ve just settled in here ready to enjoy tales of your book tour, knowing I will not be disappointed, and yet here I am, VERY disappointed. But only because for some reason known only to the evil trolls that mess with computer gizmos and doo-dads, the sound on my system is NOT WORKING! Not a whisper. Not a whir not a gasp. WHAT THE HELL?

    Although I will need to return to catch your presentation once all is running again, your narrative assures that your readings are one-of-a-kind and wholly memorable. Since I’ve only ever been at signing events where the author reads, I’m looking forward to seeing your masterpiece.

    I did have one particular signing at Borders when my debut novel came out a couple of years ago that stands out in my memory, but in the worst possible way. Depressing, humiliating, awful. I’m thinking I might write about it sometime (though it will likely involve dictating from my death bed. Uggg…awful…)

    You’re awesome, Yuvi! If you’re ever in my little corner of the world, I’ll be front seat center.

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    • says

      Barbara — Sorry to hear that the audio wasn’t working for you.

      Call me a sucker for “Depressing, humiliating, awful” but that horrible reading you mentioned may very well be a hell of a helpful story for other writers to hear about… :)

      Thanks for the encouragement…

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  5. says

    Love the video, especially because I’ve read (and loved!) your novel, Yuvi. This is great advice: “tap in to some aspect of you that also relates — however loosely — to what you’re reading.” I’ve shared the story behind my debut at a few events, and it’s always very well received.

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  6. says

    Funny, informative and for real! Good luck on your first novel. I am writing one now (i’ve been “almost finished” for more than half a year now). So i get the angst, boy. I get the angst. Love the vids. Keep it up!

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  7. says

    Great post, Yuri, and I plan to read your book – and the others on my “books to buy” list. That list is increasing daily. Your fears sound so much like an ex-boyfriend of mine I had goosebumps. Thank goodness you included a picture – otherwise, I may have thought you were G. using a fake name. LOL

    I would love to do a book tour! Other than a launch and some signings within a 100-mile radius, I have no plan for a huge tour. Of course, the book may have a life of its own and I’ll be surprised.

    Good luck in all your speaking engagements and thanks for your honesty. It was very refreshing!

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  8. says

    Yuvi,

    I thoroughly enjoyed your post. I’m a terrible public speaker as well. After reading about your anxiety and how you dealt with it, I have hope.

    I will follow you on twitter. I love drinking and messed up child-rearing! Lol.

    Best,

    Kate O’Reilley

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  9. says

    Loved the video and can’t wait to read the book, now added to my “to be read” stack. This is my greatest fear – that I might write something someday that I need to go on a tour about. Have my biggest publication to date coming up next month in an anthology and I am having a hard time even promoting that! I tend to run like a bug when lit up by any bright light! Your post is one I’ve clipped and will draw on if some day I find myself having to stand int he spotlight. Of course, I don’t do videos, but I am a hell of a baker…maybe if I take warm cookies to the crowd?

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    • says

      Congrats on your upcoming publication, Amy. Baking is definitely not a bad talent to have for readings. My friend, Anne Mendel (http://www.annemendel.com) actually gives out cookies at every one of her readings. The connection of cookies to her book? Well her book is a post-apocalyptic comedy and one of the messages in the book is that you better be nice to your neighbors now, because you’ll need their help during the apocalypse… so bake them cookies asap. :)

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  10. Sonny says

    When I see your name come across my ‘puter I have to listen, read, view what you’ve posted. You are spot on about this thing called life. All the best to your writing future, Yuvi. Thanks for the entertainment.

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  11. says

    Great stuff, Yuvi! You make some really good and interesting points and it’s got me thinking for my next book signing/launch (two new books in 2013 – yikes!). I think I’m going to structure things differently and add some new material!

    This Shrinking Violet is inspired so thank you!!!

    ~Kimberley

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  12. betsy says

    i read something out loud that i had written in a workshop. the audience was about 10 other women. they laughed and said it was my deadpan delivery that put them over the top. i was trying to emote! the piece was funny but it’s weird to think that it has to be read by me to be understood. that my “deadpan” delivery has everything to do with it. i’m scared.

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  13. Crichardwriter says

    I am reading your novel now, and I am finding it hilarious. There are a lot of “What…” moments that make you stop, laugh, and think about what was said. The video is enticing as well – I think it is a perfect way of introducing your character. I would love to hear you speak in person – you should consider doing an East Coast tour; I promise we’ll laugh :)

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    • says

      Thank you for the kind feedback.

      I actually might be in New York in mid-January… But that’ll probably be the extent of my “east coast tour” :)

      Hope you’re doing well!

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