Advice For Writers: 4 Things Writers Should Know Before Doing Readings From Their Work

I’ve done hundreds of invited talks and readings on three different continents and I love being out there with my writing—it’s a dream come true. But even though I’m an extrovert, I found doing readings more challenging than I expected when I started out touring twenty-five books ago.

I had the benefit of some acting experience in college, so I was very comfortable with my spouse coming along to give me director’s notes on my first book tour. I learned a lot from every single reading: what worked, what didn’t, and how I needed to up my game. I began to look forward to every reading with excitement. Do I get nervous even now? Absolutely, but in a good way.

I’ve taught workshops about how to do author readings because I believe that there are skills you can learn if you’re dedicated enough. And whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, here are four things authors should know and consider before they meet their public in a bookstore or any other venue.

1. The word “reading” sounds a little flat because it actually involves a whole lot more than the text at hand. It’s a performance. You’re performing your own work, acting it out, giving it texture and color that might not even be there on the page, but that audiences crave. I’ve seen people actually fall asleep at some readings because the authors read as if they were sitting at their desk, in a monotone, with no shading, no nuance, no drama.

2. You need to prepare for this performance as if you’re going on stage, which in effect you are. You don’t have to memorize your text, but you need to have practiced reading it enough times so that you’re familiar with it and can look up at the audience as often as possible. Making eye contact is important in a reading, and this is a chance to connect with your audience in a very deep way. It’s not just your words that count, it’s the power you imbue them with.

3. Picking the right thing to read can be tricky. Whether you’re reading for ten minutes or half an hour, what you present needs to have a clear beginning, middle, and end. You want to satisfy your audience’s need for structure in the entertainment. Don’t choose anything you feel iffy about, or that you don’t have emotional control over. Crying or even choking up in a reading can be very embarrassing for people who are listening.

4. Trying to win the audience’s favor right off by apologizing isn’t a good idea. Telling them that this is your first time, or that you’re not entirely sure this story or novel chapter really works undercuts your authority as a performer. Likewise, announcing that you decided on what to read “on the way over here” is disrespectful to the audience: they deserve an author who’s prepared. And be careful about making jokes to warm up your listeners—they might fall flat.

It doesn’t matter how big your audience is. Every audience deserves the best you’ve got, and you can learn how to give that to them, no matter how shy you might be, or how anxious, or how reluctant.  Readings are a unique way to reach your audience–and they can make you a better writer, too.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-six books in genres from memoir to mystery and teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.

Are You Having Bad Sex–In Your Fiction?

I didn’t realize there was so much bad sex out there until I started book reviewing in the mid-1990s for the Detroit Free Press where my portfolio included literary, commercial and genre fiction.  Though there’s an annual prize given in England to bad sex writing—The Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award—I hadn’t previously paid much attention to the problem. But as the books arrived at my door by the boxload, I began to realize that a lot of writers, even good ones, were sexually inadequate. On the page, that is.

Time after time I’d find myself reading an involving story of one kind or another and suddenly there would be a sex scene that made me wince because it was clumsy, improbable, or even grotesque. I was surprised and disappointed that writers I admired and enjoyed seemed to fall apart when it came to writing sex scenes. Whether it was lack of practice in this particular aspect of their craft, or embarrassment, or even being too turned on to have enough objectivity, I couldn’t say.

But I did start to notice two major trends in bad sex writing and I still see these problems cropping up: problems with timing, and depersonalization.

Many authors don’t seem to understand that timing is just as important in fictional sex as in real sex. If a sex scene is introduced, where does it fit in the arc of the story? Does it move the plot along, or does it slow it down? Does it add depth to the characters and story or is it distracting? Not enough authors ask themselves when’s the best place for a sex scene or even if it’s organic to the work.

I goofed in an early version of my novel The German Money by putting a sex scene early in chapter one. I thought it illuminated the inner state of my narrator, but a writer friend thankfully pointed out that it would distract readers from the character’s dark musings about his very dysfunctional family. As soon as she said it, I knew she was right, so I moved the scene several chapters along and used it as a short flashback.  It worked.

A more serious problem than timing and appropriateness in sex scenes is that two people who’ve been fully individualized characters before the scene fade away and become little more than a jumble of primary or secondary sex characteristics. We end up reading about parts having sex, rather than people. Some writers seem so determined to be un-puritanical that they forget they’re writing about human beings who have feelings aside from lust or passion. Sex means something more than just itself, or at least it can be something more than just itself. And if it’s casual or “meaningless” sex, then that should be clear in the scene, however it’s narrated.

As my first editor at St. Martin’s Press said: “Sex reveals who people are in unique ways–it’s crucial for authors to get it right.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from mystery to memoir.  This blog is adapted from his guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk.

Writers: Don’t Call Your First Drafts “Garbage” Or “Shitty”

I know, I know: Anne Lamott says they’re “shitty” in Bird by Bird so she must be right. A lot of people swear by her.  And she says that all good writers write shitty first drafts.  Really?  How does she know this for a fact?

But there’s a bigger issue here: the word itself. “Shitty” is an adjective I’ve never used to describe a first draft of my own and it’s a word I’ve never used in any creative writing class or workshop I’ve taught anywhere.  I think it’s more than just pejorative, it’s gross and inappropriate.  Messy is fine. Disordered, unfocused, rough, undisciplined, chaotic, jumbled, scattered, unfinished–any words like that will do.

But shitty?  That vulgarity undermines your own work, and it’s a slippery slope–even though Lamott’s apparently trying to make people relax and feel confident.  You get writers used to applying a word like that to a first draft and it’s too easy for them to survey other work of theirs in dark times and think, “This is shit.”  It can plant the wrong kind of seed.  Writers have to deal with enough doubts about their abilities and cope with jealousy of other writers as it is.  We can brood endlessly about the wrong word spoken at the wrong time….

puzzled-lookI once had a graduate writing professor call a story I’d worked very hard on “shit.”  Luckily I’d won the MFA program’s literary prize for that story so I was partly armored against his invective, but I still found his language deplorable.  I feel the same way when I hear stories from my own students who report how other professors have insulted their work, using words like “crap” and “shit.”

None of the first drafts of my hundreds of stories, essays, reviews, or blogs were “shitty.”  Hell, some of the first drafts were pretty good. Surprisingly good. But I always knew they were just a starting point and that they would need more work, sometimes much more work.  That was a given, part of the process.

For me, any draft is just opening a door, but with a sense of adventure and expectation because I never know where the piece will end up.  So labeling it or dismissing it in any way, even if I’m dissatisfied or disappointed, is setting a road block in my own way.

I’m not saying that drafts make me want to put on a big hat and sing like Pharell, but every draft has possibility, and that makes me hopeful.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk (Advice for Writers) and 25 other books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.  He now teaches creative writing on line at writewithoutborders.com and there are still some openings in his June workshop.

 

 

Anne Lamott Is Dead Wrong About First Drafts–And That’s Not All

I know, I know: a lot of people swear by her.  And a lot of writers find her inspiring.

People especially like to quote the writing guru on the subject of first drafts.  She’s apparently very reassuring for anyone who fantasizes that established authors get it right the first time–though are there really folks naive enough to believe that?  They can’t have thought too seriously or deeply about writing.  But then there are also people who tell me that they’ll write a book if they ever get “some free time”–as if that’s all it took.

Lamott’s unsurprising points about revision are valid: you have to keep revising, and revision is the heart of good writing for most writers. Where I think she goes seriously wrong in Bird by Bird is when she uses the word “shitty” to describe first drafts.  And she says that all good writers write them.  Really?  How does she know this for a fact?  Where’s her proof?

“Shitty” is an adjective I’ve never used to describe a first draft of my own.  And it’s a word I’ve never used in any creative writing class, workshop, or master class I’ve taught anywhere.  I think it’s more than just pejorative, it’s gross and inappropriate.  Messy is fine. Disordered, unfocused, rough, undisciplined, chaotic, jumbled, scattered, unfinished, inferior–any words like that will do.

But shitty?  That vulgarity degrades your own work, and it’s a slippery slope–even though Lamott is ostensibly trying to make people relax.  You get writers used to applying a word like shitty to a first draft and it’s too easy for them to survey their other work in dark times and think, “This is shit.”  It can plant the wrong kind of seed in people who already have to deal with doubts about their abilities.

She’s unfortunately spawned hundreds, maybe thousands of writers who throw the words “shitty” and “shit” around in connection with their work without thinking through its implications.

I once had a graduate writing professor call a story I’d worked very hard on “shit.”  Luckily I’d won that MFA program’s literary prize for the story so I was partly armored against his slam, but I was still offended.  I feel the same way when I’ve heard reports from my own students who report what other professors have said about their work.

In that same Bird by Bird essay, Lamott also talks about how much writers suffer, and how writing is never rapturous.  Well maybe some writers do suffer the torments of hell, and maybe for some writers their work is like a series of root canals without anesthesia, but never rapturous?  Her writer friends must be really miserable.  Most of the writers I’ve met enjoy writing.  Yes, it’s true!  They’re not martyrs–they love what they do.

You do not have to suffer to be a writer.  It is not a requirement.  It is not a badge of honor.  It is not a proof that you’re a professional.  And you definitely do not have to disparage your own work.

None of my 26 books has tormented me when I wrote them, and none of the first drafts of my hundreds of stories, essays, reviews, or blogs were “shitty.”  Hell, some of the first drafts were pretty good. Surprisingly good. But I always knew they were just a starting point and I knew they would need more work.  For me, any draft is just opening a door, that’s all.  I don’t need to label it or dismiss it in any way, even if I’m dissatisfied or disappointed.  I just keep working.

Of course its work, but it’s also fun.  Promoting the idea that writers have to suffer plays to a stereotype that’s potentially damaging to beginners, though it may satisfy people who don’t write and don’t understand the process or the life.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk (Advice for Writers) and 25 other books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.  He teaches individualized workshops and edits manuscripts in all genres at writewithoutborders.com