Some thoughts about author appearances, specifically at conferences. This is partly based on my experiences at the Virginia Festival of the Book, which ended today. It probably goes without saying that an author appearance is basically a commercial: your opportunity to sell yourself to the attendees. If you do a really good job, the people at your talk or reading will go on to rave about you to all their friends. Take Barry Eisler, for example. In addition to being darn cute, he did a fantastic job of presenting himself during his panel with four other mystery writers. MJ Rose was also great, but Eisler is the one (the only one) who stood up when he spoke. Because the room wasn’t set up well, the speakers sat at a table on the same level as the audience, and it was difficult to see them—and part of the point of going to conferences is to see authors. I still don’t understand why the others didn’t follow his lead, but it felt like they just couldn’t be bothered.
Eisler also always spoke up so everyone could hear. He smiled and joked, and had great stories to tell. And he had a background that was inherently fascinating: three years in the CIA. The rules this illustrates:
This one may seem difficult. I mean, what if you haven’t worked for any three-letter acronym agencies? But as a writer, you should know that everyone has something interesting about them. If you have to sit down and come up with (or even embellish) stories about experiences that motivated your writing, or adventures you had while doing research, do it. Being on a panel or answering reader questions is a lot like being on a job interview. Preparation is key!
In the past, I’ve seen authors show up in jeans, ratty skirts, boots so worn they looked like they were purchased from Goodwill twenty years earlier. Dress nicely to respect your audience, your hosts, and to make a good impression. Make it seem like the audience and the event are important.
There have also been authors in the last two years who have seemed to go out of their way to convince the audience not to buy their books. Emphasizing that you can write a novel in six weeks and that you never revise, for example, is unwise. Saying “I do it for the money” is crazy. If you don’t feel passion for your work…LIE to me! Please. I mean, if you actually want to sell books. Otherwise, why show up?
While waiting for one panel to start, I heard a woman going on and on to a cluster of people about authors and their bad attitudes. She had wonderful anecdotes about one writer who agreed to come speak to her class but then blew her off. And she mentioned another writer who was openly hostile to an audience member who asked about her writing process. You will hear questions that seem trivial, idiotic, intrusive, and insulting. Suck it up. Learn good strategies for dealing with such things, and never give the audience a chance to think, “Wow, that was rude,” after you’ve spoken.
It makes me crazy when an author is getting ready to read and can’t find the page, isn’t sure where the piece ends, stumbles over words. Mark the beginning and ending with tape flags, post-its, pens, whatever, and practice reading enough times that you have it down. One author who just blew me away at the conference was Luis Alberto Urrea. Not only was be amazingly engaging, he actually had his piece memorized. He did accents, he distinguished characters by the way he spoke, and he even used body language to help convey the action. Brilliantly done.
OK, back to my real life, already in progress. I hope someone finds this useful!