Friday, December 4, 2015

The Final Polish by Susan Oleksiw

When I read my first scholarly paper to a room of academics (there were barely a dozen seated among the rows of chairs but it felt like hundreds), I learned to my dismay that I was terrified of speaking in public. I held my six pages in my hand and stood at the podium trembling, my voice faltering, for at least twelve minutes before my terror evaporated and I sounded just like anyone else. Unfortunately, I was allotted ten minutes maximum to read my paper.

This was the beginning of learning the last and often most important lessons of the professional writer. After we finish writing the mystery novel, negotiate with a publisher, and survive the first reviews, we have still one lesson to learn--how to be a professional writer in the eye of the public.

First, we will be asked to give talks or appear on panels and read a few paragraphs of our work. We have listened to the words in our head for months, perhaps years, but we may have never heard them read aloud. If you are going to make any public appearances, learn to read your book aloud.

When I am asked to read, I choose a passage from my most current work and read it aloud several times, both for timing and cadence. And I do mean aloud. I stand in the middle of the living room and read loud enough to project across the room, through the hall, and into the kitchen. I read the passage aloud at least three times. You can't count on having a microphone.

I also choose a passage that contains some suspense but doesn't give away anything important about the plot. I can adapt a longer passage by eliminating one or two paragraphs or a few sentences to bring together what I think are the most captivating scenes. I mark these in one copy of the book that I use for all appearances.

I never assume I will know what to read when I show up for the event. I always practice in advance. No one wants to hear me mumble, stumble, or mutter about skipping a few words. And no one wants to watch me flip through pages wondering where I should go next.

If I read typed pages, I make sure to dog-ear the top right-hand corners to make it easy to turn the page. No one wants to watch me lick my fingers to get a grip on the page to separate it from the ones that follow.

Second, have a photographer (professional or amateur) take a good photograph of you, with or without makeup. If you think you'll use this photograph for book covers, publicity mailings, and more, find a professional who will provide the makeup artist if you need help with this. Make sure you have the rights to use the photographs however you want. Be sure to get the correct attribution for publication.

Third, consider the wardrobe you have and what you will wear to panels and conferences. You don't have to buy anything expensive, but you may want to rethink your favorite pair of jeans or sweats. If you write a series set in India, as I do, you might want to wear khurtas in warmer weather, or a nice Indian shawl in winter. If you write westerns, consider a nice pair of red cowboy boots. The idea is to have a wardrobe that is a step up from your ordinary day wear or one that illustrates your interests as a writer. Dressing reasonably well is a sign of respect for your audience.

Fourth, design and order a simple business card. The fancier the card, the more likely you will have to redesign it as your tastes and publications change. Keep a supply of cards in your purse and hand them out whenever you have to make a note or give contact information.

These lessons for polishing an image may seem obvious, but like many others I never knew how hard it would be to read six typed pages to a group of strangers. I learned. And I remind myself whenever I stand in front of an audience that these people whom I've never met came to listen to me and they want me to succeed. That will take you far in getting over the jitters and making a solid presentation and a good impression.


Jacqueline Seewald said...


Excellent advice for new and old authors alike! I suggest practicing a reading or presentation in front of a mirror. It's important to make eye contact with the audience as well. I've never had a business card made up but think it's a very good idea.

Maddy said...

I forgot about the photographer bit-yuck--don't want to do that. I'm thinking about a business card--on the back burner. Never considered clothes--hope to have a shower ahead of time--more importantly--feedback please--how do you decide which excerpt to read aloud?

Edith Maxwell said...

Great tips, Susan!

Pamela S Thibodeaux said...

Great post, very informative.
Good luck & God's Blessings.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Jacuie, that's a good point about making eye contact. Thanks for adding that. I thought at first that business cards were passé but I have found them useful for jotting down information for people. They get the phone number or a book title or the name of a conference, and they get information on me, which I hope will lead to a book sale.

Yes, Maddy, a shower is a good idea, especially if you've been outside gardening or running or whatever. Perhaps I should go back to even more basics.

Thanks to all of you, Jacquie, Maddy, Edith, and Pam, for commenting.

Sheila York said...

Good tips. Practice, practice, practice. I've done a bit of author-reading coaching, and when at the beginning, we discuss what makes them uncomfortable, a surprising number have confessed to feeling that they are "showing off" by making a good story sound like a, well, good story. They realize it's not rational, but it affects their performance. I'd advise authors to consider (in private, where no one has to see you blush) whether that applies.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Sheila, that's a very interesting bit of research. I hadn't thought that reading a passage aloud made an author uncomfortable because it was "showing off." That's a new twist. I second your advice to practice, practice, practice, and yes, in private. Thanks for sharing your experience here.

Peter H. Green said...

You write in the great tradition my mother wrote itn--laughing to keep from crying.
You make me glad we don't live on the East Coast and can sneak unchallenged into our nearby mall parking garage at 9 AM, walk until the stores open at 10:00 and get our shopping done early! Nonetheless, we did most of our shopping online this year. As you say, it was great to have those gifts delivered, hassle-free, to our door.

Best seasons greetings to all!

Peter Green
Fatal Designs
Crimes of Design
Ben's WAr withthe U. S. Marines

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