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?

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.