05/28/2013 02:11 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2013

How Authors Learn Stage Presence

When my first novel came out last summer, I thought I had most of my ducks in a row. I'd arranged a book tour. I'd designed a website, and written magazine articles related to my book.

But there was one area in which I really wasn't well prepared, and it was sort of an important one. I had virtually no experience reading my work in front of an audience. Over the years I'd done public speaking, and used to appear on television a bit for my old job. But fiction, and reading aloud in bookstores, was totally new to me.

A week before my book was to be released, I accepted that this was an Achilles heel I couldn't hide in pretty shoes. So I sought out the toughest training ground I could think of -- the place where I'd witnessed the harshest, most vocal and easily bored audience.

My daughter had recently performed in a piano recital, and while she plunked out the ballad from Titanic, she was heckled by a woman in the second row. "Who are these children," the woman had shrieked, "and what the hell are they doing in my kitchen??"

I knew I had to read there. This would be the crucible in which my fortitude would be forged.

A few days later I stood in the activity lounge of the Sisters of Charity nursing home, describing my novel to 30 or so residents. About a quarter of them were already asleep. I explained that my novel was about a woman who inherits a trunk of journals from a friend, an finds an unexpected portrait of the so-called perfect mother as well as a mystery about where she was really going when she died. But mostly it's about the faces of ourselves we present to the world and the aspects we keep secret, and what that secrecy costs us in the end.

I began to read a bit from the beginning. Within a paragraph or two, a woman in front muttered her dissatisfaction. "What is she talking about?" I heard her say. I glanced up to see the friend beside her shake her head. I slowed down, tried to read with more inflection.

About a minute later there was agitation as someone with a walker made her way to the rear, then an alarm as she breached a forbidden door. A nurse gently herded her back to the fold.

The activities director intervened. "Isn't this nice? Nichole has come here to read to us from her very own book today. How did you become a writer, Nichole? Are there writers in your family?" She had that encouraging and slightly desperate look preschool teachers sometimes have with their students, hoping they'll reply with something of use.

I told them there were no writers in my family, but there was a very special typewriter -- one I'd inherited from my grandfather, who had escaped with it from the last ship to be sunk in World War II. He'd left it to me because I'd shown signs of becoming a writer.

The room came alive like the swimming pool scene in Cocoon. By the time I left 20 minutes later, it was filled with talk about the war: where husbands had served, love letters received, favorite novels about the 1940s. One woman even started singing "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)." I'd gone in thinking that if I bombed, at least the odds were good they'd never remember. I left hoping they might, because we'd had a ball.

I learned valuable lessons from the Sisters of Charity. First, that if you don't read slowly or loudly enough, you won't be understood. If your excerpt is too long, people will fall asleep, figuratively or literally, so it's better to talk about the book -- the inspiration behind it, the process of writing it. And when all else fails, find something else in common with the audience.

In the months since my book came out, I've learned that my method of breaking myself in wasn't really so strange. Below, authors I know to share their ways to prepare for readings, and offer advice for developing a stage presence.

Authors Dish on Stage Presence