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How Not to Bore an Audience - A Plea to Authors Everywhere

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Literary festival season 'tis upon us. There are many opportunities for book lovers and authors to meet up and learn something from each other; book lovers generally learn that authors don't look a thing like their jacket photos, and authors generally learn that many book lovers are also aspiring authors who want to learn the secret handshake that will get them published.

(Sorry to break it to you all, but there is no secret handshake. Or if there is, nobody ever bothered to tell me about it.)

It's a lovely thing to get out there and meet all those wonderful, weird people who think that authors are rock stars. I know; I was, still am, one of those weird people myself. (Blatant self promotion: I'll be at the Downtown Omaha Lit Fest this Saturday, September 11th, for all you downtown Omaha-ians.)

And now, in the spirit of the season, I would like to perform a public service for authors and book lovers everywhere.

Please, all you wonderful authors out there - PLEASE reconsider giving readings of your book.

I'll be blunt about this. Most of you are really bad at reading from your work. Yet there's an expectation that the one thing everybody looks forward to is being subjected to an author droning on for what feels like hours at a time, his head buried within the pages of his book.

I may be sticking my neck out here, but I actually don't think that's what people want.

The moderator of one of the panels I'm appearing on this weekend emailed all the authors and suggested that, to kick things off, we each do a five minute reading from our novels. I did some quick math - I'm nothing if not multi-talented - and calculated that would be approximately 20 minutes of authors droning on and on. I imagined the audience, then, in an advanced state of somnambulance, drool spooling out of the corner of every mouth. I shuddered, and implored the moderator to please, PLEASE reconsider this. I did not think this was a good way to kick off what was intended to be lively discussion. Not unless we then hired the Rockettes to come out and dance naked except for giant copies of FREEDOM held in strategic places.

I simply have a horror of boring people; call me crazy, but I feel as if it's my duty to entertain all the lovely people who venture out from their comfortable homes to see me. And the thing is, I'm actually pretty good at reading. Or so I've been told. Yet I still resist reading for longer than five minutes, ten, tops. I'll talk for much longer; heck, I'll even tap dance if you want me to. But I won't read for very long.

I did not start out life as an author, you see. I started out in the theater. And part of what allowed me to immerse myself into other characters has served me well as a novelist, and that's what novelists and actors have in common. There's another trait, however, that many of us do not share, and that is the ability not just to be comfortable, but to sparkle and shine in front of large crowds.

This is an ability many authors do not have, frankly.

When I prepare for a reading or a panel or a talk, I do what it takes to get to Carnegie Hall; I practice, practice, practice. I write out my speech and memorize it and most importantly - time it. I stand in front of a mirror while I'm rehearsing. I record myself reading the section - the very small section! - of my book that I have selected. I listen to the recording, practice my inflections, change the cadence of my voice. I don't just read it, I try to inhabit it. Like I did a play script, back in my acting days.

I also remember the old show business chestnut - Always leave 'em wanting more.

And when I go in front of that audience, I'm not afraid. I love it, actually; I expand and blossom in direct proportion to the size of the audience. That's just part of my nature; I'm a ham. It's not something that can be learned. This is why some people are performers, and some people aren't.

There are ways to interact with readers that don't rely on performing skills. And that is why I urge authors to reconsider simply standing in front of an audience and droning on and on from their books. The easiest thing to do is simply turn it into a Q&A session. Even the most retiring authors generally relax and open up a bit when questioned about their work. And readers love to question them.

So writers, consider this my plea: Do not read from your work simply because you think you have to. You don't. You deserve better - and so do those wonderful, weird book lovers.

And whatever you decide to do, please, PLEASE practice beforehand. Remember that you're there to interest people in your work and you - and try to put yourself in their shoes. Look at what you're capable of doing objectively. Don't be afraid to say "No, thank you" when invited to participate, if you honestly don't feel comfortable in front of lots of people, even simply answering their questions.

When we write, we enter into a relationship with our readers. When we speak to them, that relationship is in flux. In the best of worlds, it's strengthened and personalized. But there's always a danger of damaging it. And believe me, I have attended readings where authors have done just that.

So whatever you choose to do, do it judiciously. Cherish the relationship you have with your readers, and respect it.

And remember the prime objective: Always leave 'em wanting more.