From Stage Fright to Stage Right

I spoke a little about my upcoming gigs in the last entry. This week, I want to pass on some of the advice I’ve picked up in the years I’ve been performing.

A live performance is a great way to introduce yourself to a new audience, and to add extra enjoyment for your existing fans. So it’s crucial to make a solid effort. The advice below should be treated not as strictly unbreakable rules, but as guidelines to make your event flows as smoothly as possible. Some of the points were made in a 2015 entry, but have been updated as I’ve gained more experience.

Think about your introduction.

Check with the organisers what content you need. Sometimes you need to give an introduction; other times, you’ll be asked only to read the piece. If you do need to introduce your work, it’s worth making brief notes, such as:

  • Give your name
  • Thank Tracey Jones for organising
  • Story is called On the River Tay
  • Taken from collection The Pie Seller
  • Published by Law Hill Books
  • Brought copies, happy to sign

Then on the night, you might say, “Good evening, my name’s Mary Walker. I’d like to thank Tracey Jones for inviting me to read tonight, and the piece I’ve chosen is called On the River Tay. It’s taken from my collection The Pie Seller, and that’s published by Law Hill BooksI’ve brought some copies and I’ll be happy to sign them afterwards.”

Explain if you need to, but don’t apologise.

Some pieces do require an explanation. Perhaps the work is unfinished; perhaps it’s an extract from a longer work and needs context. But whatever you have to explain, keep it as brief as you can and certainly don’t apologise. If you feel an apology is necessary, ask yourself whether the piece is ready to be heard in public.

Before reading to someone, read to no-one.

The best way to identify any weak parts in a piece is to read it aloud – and that’s the last thing you want to happen in public. So find a space on your own and read it out when nobody can hear you. Are there any long sentences that need to be broken up? Are there words that are difficult to say clearly when grouped together? Can you add or take away any alliteration or rhyme?

If you don’t have the luxury of solitude, the next best method is to use text-to-speech software and listen to your words through headphones. There is plenty of suitable software available online, and some programs allow you to adjust the speed and the type of voice.

Make sure you also time yourself and keep it within the constraints laid down by the organiser. This might mean writing a longer introduction to expand a short piece,  or reading out only a section to reduce it.

Practice your page turns.

Unlike a rock star, the great thing about being a writer is that you’re often allowed to take your notes on stage. When reading from a book or from sheets of paper, it’s a good idea to turn up the corner slightly or stick a post-it note to the back to help turn it more easily. When using an e-reader or tablet computer, practice tapping the correct area of the screen to turn the page. Make sure to account for any delay, as not all devices instantly show the next page.

To use my microphone, you have to speak into the side. It connects to a PC with a USB cable, and works with no additional software.
To use my microphone, you have to speak into the side. It connects to a PC with a USB cable, and works with no additional software.

Make sure everyone can hear you.

In my experience, smaller readings tend not to use a microphone, so you need to project. Avoid tilting your head down to read the piece; instead, hold your manuscript higher and off to one side so it doesn’t muffle your words, or look down only with your eyes. Always speak slowly than you would in normal conversation.

If you do have a microphone, ask the sound engineer if you can test it out beforehand, especially if you’re unfamiliar with using one.

Most microphones collect sound from the top, but some designs mean you need to speak into the side, like mine (pictured). Either way, make sure you know which one has been given to you. One of the biggest distractions for an audience is a sound level that vastly increases and decreases, especially at random. Whether the microphone is handheld or on a stand, keep it at the same distance from your mouth.

Avoid too much alcohol or a heavy meal before the gig.

I fully understand why many people need Dutch courage before going on stage. But a drunk speaker rarely makes a good impression, especially during a paid gig, so strictly control your alcohol intake. It takes some concentration to perform, and too much booze impairs that concentration.

My rule is not to take alcohol before speaking, only coffee. Afterwards, however, I sometimes enjoy a red wine. It’s also a good idea not to eat too much in the hours before the performance, as a heavy meal can also slow down your thought process.

Decide where in the room to look.

I know one poet who deliberately looks at individual audience members and delivers a few lines before moving on to the next person. However, this is not what most people do because it can be unnerving to make eye contact. Fortunately, there are some techniques to make this easier. One of my favourite methods is look between two people, so the person on the right assumes I’m looking at the one on the left, and vice versa. Another way, which is particularly good for a theatre setting, is to look beyond the back row. This has the advantage of keeping your posture correct.

Sometimes the audience reacts wrongly.

I’ve had experiences where an audience didn’t laugh when I’d expected, or chuckled at a serious point. You have no control over this. Should it happen to you, don’t point out the anomaly or repeat it. Wait for the laughter to die down if there is any, then move on without comment. But if you find different audiences keep reacting in the wrong way to the same part, you might consider revising it or editing it out in future performances.

If there’s a cock-up, keep going.

In a live event, something is likely to go wrong. Perhaps the microphone fails, perhaps you forget the words, perhaps somebody walks out. The best course of action is to keep going. The audience will easily forget a slipup if they’re engaged with your narrative. Conversely, they’ll remember the person who stopped the show early, and they’ll remember for the wrong reasons. It’s true that there is no easy way to recover from forgetting your words, other than picking up from the last section you remember, but keep saying something.

Two years ago, I was invited to read at Dundee University Students Association. I was debuting a poem called Housekeeping. I now know this piece back to front, but if you’ll excuse the terrible picture quality, here was my first attempt at memorising the words:

Signal that you’ve finished.

At the end of a piece, the audience doesn’t necessarily know whether you’re finished or simply pausing for dramatic effect. But an audience can pick up on your gestures. You can lower your manuscript, step backwards slightly, or say, “Thank you,” whereupon they’ll take the hint and applaud.

Do it again.

It’s an eye-rolling cliche, but the more you stand up and speak in public, the easier it becomes. Over time, you’ll learn little nuggets like which techniques work or don’t work for you, which pieces always or never provoke a reaction, &c. Ultimately, a good performance can sell more books.

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Anticipation, Oration, Ovation.

Thanks to electronic publishing and print-on-demand, there are more ways than ever to read fiction. It is, however, as important as it’s ever been for a writer to be able to stand in front of a crowd and read out his or her pieces.

A good live performance means engagement with your existing audience, a chance to have your name known by more people, and – if you’re published – to shift more copies of your work. I was performing on Thursday just gone, and I’m scheduled to take part in three more over the next fortnight.

To that end, I’ve put together some advice for speaking to an audience. These should be treated not as unbreakable rules, but as guiding principles to bring out a better performance.

Think about your introduction. At a minimum, people want to know your name and the title of the work you’ll be reading, but you’ll sometimes need to include other information. To make this part sound natural, I like to make brief notes which I’ll expand as I go along. The list below is totally fictional, but it might read:

  • Give name
  • Thank Tracey Jones
  • Piece is called On the River Tay
  • Taken from collection The Pie Seller
  • Brought copies, happy to sign

When it’s read out, it might go, “Good evening, my name’s Gavin Cameron. I’d like to thank Tracey Jones for inviting me to read tonight, and the piece I’ve chosen is called On the River Tay. It’s taken from my collection The Pie Seller. I’ve brought some copies and I’ll be happy to sign them afterwards.”

Explain if you need to, but don’t apologise. A good example is when you’re reading an unfinished piece of work. In December, I read out an unedited piece I’d written during National Novel Writing Month. I felt I needed to explain that what they were about to hear wasn’t as highly polished as they were accustomed to, but I was still willing to share with them as an example of what can be done in a month. Should you feel the need to apologise, it’s worth reconsidering whether you want to read out that particular piece.

Before reading to someone, read to no-one. Find a space where you’re on your own and hear how it sounds. Check the inflections you use in the piece, and whether there are any long sentences where you need to take an extra breath in the middle. If you’re reading a new piece, this is also a prime opportunity to make edits.

Practice your page turns. Unlike a rock star, the great thing about being a writer is that you’re often allowed to take your notes on stage. When reading from a book or from sheets of paper, turn up the corner slightly or stick a post-it note on each page to help turn them more easily. When using an e-reader or tablet computer, make sure you practice tapping the correct area of the screen to turn the page, as there is a delay on some devices.

Keep your mouth where everyone can hear it. Avoid tilting your head down to read the piece; instead, hold your manuscript higher and off to one side so it doesn’t muffle your words. Always speak loudly and more slowly than you would in normal conversation. If a microphone is available, keep it at the same distance from your mouth; I’ve seen too many readers wander around the stage and it sounds like a Norman Collier routine. Where possible, work with the sound engineer to set the level before the gig begins.

Sometimes the audience reacts in the wrong places. I’ve had experiences where an audience didn’t laugh in a place I’d expected; don’t point out it’s a joke or tell it again, just move on to the next part without comment. There might be occasions where they react, positively or negatively, in an unexpected place; in this case, pause until it dies down and move on without comment.

Signal that you’ve finished. Just lower your manuscript by your side and/or say, “Thank you.” The audience will take the hint and applaud.

Do it again. This guide doesn’t cover how to deal with nerves. There are many tricks you can use to overcome them: the classic advice to imagine everyone naked, or more unusual methods such as looking at people’s eyebrows to avoid eye contact. However, the only effective way of becoming a confident public speaker is by doing it again and again. It’s worth remembering that the audience sometimes is nervous on behalf of the speaker and most will be forgiving even if you make a mistake.

Speaking of which, even the best of us experience the occasional cock-up. In October, I was invited to a poetry reading at Dundee University and I attempted to read one of them from memory. I managed the second time, but here was the first attempt:

An Update on @Strange_Musings, and Some Transatlantic Translations.

Alternate Hilarities
Alternate Hilarities

Around three weeks ago, I was pleased to report that I’ve had a third short story accepted for publication. Strange Musings Press of New York will be printing Amending Diabolical Acronym Misuse, subject to raising enough funds through their Kickstarter page.

There’s still around a week left to raise the $1,100 required for it to go ahead. You can donate at several different levels from $1 to $150, each of which buys you into the project with increasing levels of reward, including electronic and/or paper copies, autographs, and your name in the Contributors’ section.

My story is called Amending Diabolical Acronym Misuse, and it’s about a man who wants to rid the world of badly-constructed acronyms. Although I’m Scottish, my dialect is British English so that’s how most of my stories are written, including this one.

If I’m sending to an American publisher, I often change the grammar and spelling to suit; at least, I have a decent stab at it. In one case, I even wrote the whole story in US English because the character was so strong in my head: a cross between Jason Gideon from Criminal Minds, and Adrian Monk. In Amending…, I took the decision to keep it in my natural dialect as there are a number of references to British places and companies, and I felt it would look odd if I, “translated” it.

A couple of weeks ago, I began reading The Traveller by John Twelve Hawks. The narrative is written with a curious mix of dialects. For instance, the title is spelt with two Ls and there’s a reference to a pub, but the colour gray and an SUV appear in other parts. The SUV would be known as a 4-by-4 in Britain. The story is set in several countries so I expect it’s difficult to settle on one standard spelling, yet it’s not a distraction here, and I’m thoroughly enjoying the story.

Conversely, my mentor Zöe Venditozzi released her debut novel Anywhere’s Better Than Here in 2012. When a US edition hit the shelves, she told me there were no spelling changes made. When you buy a copy, watch out for the character whose initials match mine.

So is it important to adapt your dialect depending on which side of the Atlantic you’ll be published? I expect most Internet users will be accustomed to reading both, but at the same time, people will still write in whichever they feel comes most naturally.

Perhaps one day in the future, the two will merge and we’ll have one way of spelling each word, one form of grammar for all. It would be more practical, but probably rather dull.

Can you help @Strange_Musings fund an anthology?

Alternate Hilarities
Alternate Hilarities

I’m pleased to report that I’ve had a third short story accepted for publication. New York publisher Strange Musings Press will be printing Amending Diabolical Acronym Misuse. However, it will only go ahead if enough people contribute.

To this end, a Kickstarter campaign has been set up to raise $1,100 by Tuesday 25 March. You can donate at several levels from $1 to $150, each of which buys you increasing levels of acknowledgement, privilege, and general bragging rights.

I wouldn’t ask you to do something that I’m not prepared to do myself, so I’ve donated $22 under my legal name Gavin Cruickshank. That amount includes $10 overseas postage for a copy of the book, due out on Thursday 1 May. You can see my contribution on the backers’ page.

I would be most grateful if you could give whatever you can, and the editor Giovanni Valentino will be delighted. Don’t forget to share this blog post on WordPress and/or your preferred social networks.

If this comes off, I’ll have been published in the UK, Australia, and the US. Canada, I have my eye on you.

The N-Word.

I’ve a feeling you’re getting sick of me talking about National Novel Writing Month, so I’ll devote only one paragraph to it. To date, my total is 48,711 words, meaning less than 1,300 to go until I hit the target. I have until Saturday to complete it, leaving plenty of time.

I’ve been going to two other classes at the same time, and I seem to be going through a rather philosophical patch as I complete their respective homework.

Class one is Life Writing at the University of Dundee. Our homework is to write a short passage about our lives each week, all focussing on a particular aspect of writing, which might be the use of the child or adult voice, or employing the past or present tense. This week was a little different, where we were asked to choose an abstract noun and write a piece around that theme. Mine was On Solitude, arguing that this is not the same as loneliness.

Number two is my regular writing class with Zöe Venditozzi, held at a new, secret location. One of the prompts led me to write about a floating island and the ideological arguments its inhabitants had when setting up their community. The other is about twins with wildly different reactions: one is always brutally honest, while the other goes into denial when he hears bad news.

Also, my second published story is currently being launched in Australia as part of the FourW Twenty-Four anthology. The Wagga Wagga and Melbourne events have taken place, but the Sydney launch happens this Saturday 30 November. It’s impractical for me to attend as I’m halfway around the world, but if you live there, pop along and let me know what it’s like.

NaNoWriMo and Other Stories.

Just a quick update to say I’m still alive, but I’m not only taking part in NaNoWriMo, but homework for two other writing classes as well. As you might imagine, this is keeping me jolly busy.

With 33% of the time elapsed, I had reached half of my target of 50,000 words. I think be able to match the target, but not beat it, so I’ve been taking it slightly easier. At a day over the halfway mark, I now have around 33,000 words.

But I’ve also had time to visit the cinema. Last week, I saw Gravity, although I felt that because Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are such famous faces, it distracted somewhat from the story. Yet it remains an excellent film, with the action of Apollo 13 set to the backdrop of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

And today, I attended a free screening of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, in Swedish with English subtitles. I enjoyed this for its captivating story, even if it becomes a little muddy towards the end, and I hear it’s much better than the English-language remake. I’ve no current plans to read the book but if I have a chance, I’ll give it a look.

So hope you reach the end of NaNo in one piece, and any other writing projects you may have on the go. I’ll update again when I have the chance, which I hope will be the day I hit the target.

NaNoWriMo: One Week In.

If Bridget Jones had inhabited me in a Quantum Leap style. I’d say I was typing out a v. v. quick update on my National Novel Writing Month process.

I have a very organised Municipal Liaison, or ML, who gives us writing space in a friary. While I’m not religious by any measure, the calm, quiet sanctity of the place is very conducive to writing.

But equally, so is a certain coffee shop in the town centre, where I tried writing on Sunday. A friend happened to be in the area, and she forced me to go to the pub across the road and drink red wine – forced, no less – leaving me 2,000 short of my intended target.

Despite this small setback, I still bagged a mammoth weekend total. The daily target is an average of 1,667 words, which equates to 11,669 on the seventh day. As of last night, I’ve banged out 12,539. I’m just about to start hacking away at today’s total.

If you should like to follow me on the NaNo website, please do so. It’s helpful if you can also send me a message saying you saw it here so I know where you’ve found my profile.