I’ve been combing through old blog posts, preparing for The Big Read in San Miguel de Allende of The Shadow Queen this coming January. For one, I need to have my website in order, especially the posts that relate to that novel. I also need to refresh myself on the process I went through in writing it. It has been a moving exercise.
As soon as this is done, I will need to begin crafting my keynote speech. February will be upon me in no time. It seemed appropriate that in combing through my website I happened upon an interview I gave on Jane Friedman’s blog some time ago. In response to Kristen Tsetsi‘s question on public speaking, I outlined my process. I share it here — with some additional stories of things I’ve learned since.
Q: A reading, you’ve said, is more like a talk, an opportunity for the author to engage with the audience. What five pieces of advice would you give authors about to deliver their first reading/talk?
Most writers are introverts and find public speaking daunting. Take heart! Introverts are, as a rule, excellent public speakers, but only because they prepare like crazy.
Here is my process …
Write the talk: every word of it
Put a lot of time into writing a good talk. Write out every word of your presentation. Aim for only about five to ten minutes of reading, and the rest of it talk, leaving time for about fifteen minutes of Q&A at the end. Type the sections of your book you plan to read into your speech.
In general, people love to laugh, and self-deprecating humor goes over well. Remember that you are there to entertain. Readers enjoy personal accounts about the process of creation.
People like to be participants, so ask questions: engage the audience.
Prepare a few funny questions to suggest at the end, should your audience be shy to speak up during the Q&A.
Your entire talk/reading should be about thirty to forty minutes.
Read the talk out loud: every word of it
Read your talk out loud slowly. Edit the passages you are going to read from your book to make them easy for you to read, as well as easy for listeners to understand. Change words you find difficult to pronounce or stumble over. Think of this as theater. A passage read out loud comes across differently from a passage one reads to oneself silently, so adjustments must be made.
Print the talk out in big bold type
Convert your talk to large bold print, and break each paragraph into sentences. Print out your talk and assemble it in a binder. Dog-ear each page so that the pages are easy to turn.
(I wrote about my speaking process in a blog post here, “Finding focus.”)
Rehearse the talk, over and over
A natural, relaxed presentation is achieved with lots of preparation. A few days before your talk, read in front of a mirror, sweeping up from the page with each sentence to meet your own eyes. The day of the talk, do this two or three times. (A caution about going hoarse, however!)
Slow down as you read—don’t race through it.
Try on what you’re planning to wear—is it comfortable? Do you feel good in it? Do you feel like yourself?
Prepare to present the talk … and to expect glitches
Getting comfortable with public speaking comes with practice.
When I was first published, I read and was greatly helped by Never be Nervous Again by Dorothy Sarnoff, who advises speakers to think of the following mantra before a talk: “I’m glad I’m here, I’m glad you’re here, and I know what I know.” Try it! Don’t dread a crowd; embrace it. (I highly recommend this book.)
The most important rule-of-thumb: enjoy yourself — but most of all enjoy the people who have made an effort to come see you …
… including the snoring fan slumped in the front row.
This happens! For amusing stories from actors, read this. (Confession: I’ve once or twice been that snoozing person in the audience myself. When the eyelids start to droop, it can’t be helped!)
I’ve learned that giving out door prizes throughout a talk is not only fun — Who doesn’t love a door prize? — but keeps everyone on their toes.
Find out what the venue is going to be like. Ask for a mike if the group is going to be large. This will allow you to have a more emotional range in your reading. I like to be able to dramatically whisper, for example.
If you plan to give a visual presentation (such as Powerpoint), expect that there will be glitches with the equipment. In my experience, this never fails to happen, and sometimes too with mikes. I’ve learned to bring my own computer, portable projector and cables just in case. If only there was a portable mike one could have on hand, as well.
Plan what you will do in case only one or two people show up. Offer to go to a cafe for a one-on-one chat, for example. Consider this your rite of passage: every author goes through it.
Some of my most memorable talks have been to very small and intimate groups.
There will be disasters: these will make good stories. Eventually. One of mine was a live TV interview, called an “open-ender” because I was in one city and the interviewer was in another. I could hear his questions through the ear bud in my right ear. And then it fell out and I couldn’t hear a thing. I was filmed scrambling on the floor trying to find it.
I laugh about it now. One wonderful thing about being a writer is that everything is potential material, nothing is wasted.
What public speaking adventures/misadventures have you experienced, either as a speaker or someone in the audience?
I’m an avid Podcast listener. I listen to them while exercising, doing household chores, or driving. These are the ones I check out most often.
Daily news podcast:
The Daily by the New York Times is a short (about 20 minutes) in-depth look at a specific issue in the current news. It covers the history of the subject in an entertaining way. It’s my go-to daily podcast. I miss it on the weekends.
(Note: Since publishing this post, I’ve also started daily listening to The Rachel Maddow Show podcast.)
Whenever there is a new episode:
These are the ones I think, “Oh great! A new episode.”
Bag Man, by Rachel Maddow. This is a special series on the blatant and shocking criminality of the Nixon-Agnew White House and how it was brought down. Fascinating. And perhaps all-too relevant.
I love Serial because I love Sarah Koenig’s journalism. The current series explores the justice system in various cities. Always enlightening.
Every now and then, depending on the subject:
David Axelrod has been in the thick of the political world for ages. On The Axe Files, his interviews with politicians from across the spectrum are in-depth.
Kara Swisher is sharp as a tack and tackles interesting techie subjects on Recode Decode. Most recently, her guest was Elon Musk. For example.
Great literary podcasts (when I need a break from the news):
I love the gossipy banter about books, authors and publishing on the Book Riot podcast.
The Story Grid is a wonderful podcast with Shawn Coyne, a top editor for 25+ years, coaching Tim Grahl, who week-by-week is going through the process of writing his first novel. Start at the beginning.
We all love Eleanor Wachtel. She’s smart, humane, incredibly well-read, and has a delightful sense of humour as well. Her interviews on Writers & Company with top authors from around the world are amazing.
Shelagh Rogers is another Canadian institution. On The Next Chapter, she interviews Canadian authors, her style cosy and warm.
Just for fun:
WTF! Comedian Marc Maron is a wonderful interviewer — funny (but of course), irreverent and candid. He most often gets fellow comedians on his show, but also big-name musicians and (gasp) even politicians. Don’t miss the interview with then-President Obama, for example.
Hosts Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond tackle letters from troubled fans in a sensitive and enlightening way. Dear Sugars is a “Dear Abby” live for our times.
What are your favourite podcasts? I’d love to know.
This is an exciting winter for me. Not only will I be giving a keynote at the San Miguel Writers Conference in February, but my novel The Shadow Queen has been chosen as “The Big Read.”
What this means is that readers all over San Miguel will be reading The Shadow Queen. (Yes!)
From an article in the Atencion:
“For most of us, who never mastered the intricacies of French history in high school, or never studied it at all, this richly detailed portrait of life in the French court under the rule of Louis XIV will thrust us into an absorbing world, described by an extraordinarily talented writer. It is such an outstanding example of historical fiction that it may open up other alluring worlds to readers who have never ventured into the genre before.
“Every year, the Writers’ Conference hosts the Big Read, inviting everyone in town to read the same book by one of the Conference keynote speakers and then to join one of many Big Read discussion groups around town. We provide discussion questions, present a program to provide background information on the book and the author, and invite all discussion group participants to meet the author in person at a private reception.”
On January 14 there will be an event held to present the novel to book clubs. I’m not able to be there (we will be on the Pacific Coast at that time), but I’m working with the organizing committee to help put together an entertaining presentation.
The first thing I suggested was that they serve beignets, a French pastry featured throughout the novel. That turned out to be fairly easy to arrange since San Miguel is blessed with an excellent French pastry chef.
The second thing I suggested was that we recruit my actor friends Rick Davy and Marilyn Buillivant — of Literary Cabaret fame — to put on a short, dramatized reading from the novel. They are keen, and it’s going to be wonderful, but I have since discovered that scripting scenes is not easy!
The committee has also arranged for a filmmaker, Dennis Lanson, to make a short film to show at the event. It will likely partially be an interview of me about the novel — my process and how The Shadow Queen came to be, etc. — and partially images of 17th century theatre and some of the characters in the novel, along with my voice-over commentary. This has entailed a search for images that are of good-enough quality to be projected onto a large screen. Again: not easy!
In going though old blog posts and selecting images, I’ve begun to fall under the spell of that era again. For example, OTT Baroque theatre:
How is it possible not to swoon?
I love, too, this image of Madame de Montespan, the woman we all love to hate:
In order to do all this coherently, I’ve been rereading The Shadow Queen. It has been years since I was in that world, and I have to confess that I’m finding it delightful.
I’m using Scrivener right now to write my next novel and most everything else I need to write … a speech, a workshop, etc.
Notice I said “right now.” It’s a bit of a love/hate relationship so far. For the short pieces, I jump in frustration to Word fairly quickly … only to recall why Word frustrates me. That said, the newest Word for Mac has an amazing feature — “Insert Online” pictures —which makes crafting an illustrated blog post a breeze. I’ll be using it for blog posts, for sure.
I love trying new systems (a new To Do List method, new Exercises, etc.), but I’m in systems overload right now. Back problems have forced me to change how I even go about writing. No more cozy in bed for hours with my latte and laptop. No more sitting with a notebook on my lap to write. Now I have to do what I’ve been told for years I should do: get up off the &%*# couch.
In short, I’m learning to adjust to a sit-down/stand-up desk, learning to put a 30-minute timer out of reach so that I have to move to turn it off. In short, there will be no more losing myself for hours in a cramped position while writing, but moving, moving, always moving.
There are often benefits in making changes. For example, I’m learning to dictate while moving. Yeah!
So end of the world? Hardly.
Plotting on Scrivener
Which brings me around to the initial subject of this post: an intriguing YouTube video on plotting with Scrivener. Every day I look for an article on writing to post to my Flipboard magazine. I always read the article to see if I feel it’s worthy, and this one absorbed me for quite some time. I’ve downloaded the template (the download link is toward the bottom of the page), loaded it into Scrivener and am going to give it a try. I’ll let you know what I think — once I stop moving, that is.
Organizing Scrivener to Plot Your Novel with Allan L. Mann
JFK was murdered on November 22, 1963, fifty-five years ago today. I was nineteen and in university. I don’t remember the moment I learned — How is that possible? — but the images and the shock of it are indelible in my memory.
I have since read a moving biographical historical novel, titled, simply, Nov 22, 1963, by Adam Braver.
The assassination was made all the more horrifying in learning in this novel that JFK and Jackie had recently suffered the death of a baby. This tragic trip to Texas with her husband was Jackie’s brave first public event.
A Berkeley childhood
I grew up in Berkeley, California. Air raid siren drills were common; there was always the fear of annihilation. At Girl Scout camp, I remember a cloudy day being attributed to the test of a nuclear bomb in near-by Nevada. I was assigned to write stories about our last day alive in Grade School.
My high school years in Berkeley were vivid with protest. I was a proud member of Students for a Democratic Society. In English, I sat next to Tracy Simms, who led the very first sit-in against a hotel in San Francisco that did not hire Blacks.
These were intense years, rich with both excitement and fear. The Whole Earth Catalogue was Google in print. It’s message was: “You can do anything, go anywhere. Here are the tools.” It was a powerful concept, and an entire generation took it to heart.
Although I don’t remember the moment I learned of Kennedy’s assassination, I remember, vividly, the night of the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961, two-a-half years before. I was seventeen, living in San Francisco with roommates in the Castro district, going to San Francisco State. We believed that it could be the end of the world, our last night alive. (In fact, recent scholarship shows how very close it came to being just that, by an accident of communication.) I imagine that there was a surge in births nine months later, for many young couples succumbed. Why wait?
The three assassinations
On April 4, 1968, four-and-a-half years after Kennedy was killed, Martin Luther King was assassinated. I was twenty-one, married and working in a factory in Belmont, California — a factory that provided micro-chips for fighter jets. I had to sign a Loyalty Oath to work there. I remember the Ohio Flute Society (or something similar) being listed as one of the suspicious organizations.
I couldn’t sleep the night of April 4. I got up and went downstairs. It was very late. I turned on the TV: screams, a newscaster’s urgent voice, flickering images. King had been shot.
The next morning, at the factory, a white guy riding a trolley yelled, fist raised, “We got another one!”
And then, only two months later, on June 6, the same thing. I couldn’t sleep, I went downstairs and turned on the TV. A newscaster’s urgent voice, flickering images, screams. Bobby Kennedy had been shot.
I’d been canvassing for him, handing out leaflets — it was my first involvement in a political campaign. Belmont was a conservative town, yet the day after Bobby Kennedy’s death there was, I was told, a rash of suicides.
That morning, the morning after, my then husband and I went to Half Moon Bay. Sitting on a sand dune overlooking the Pacific, stunned by the news, I said I wanted to move. Away. To another country. Bobby Kennedy’s death was the straw that broke my back.
And thus the decision was made to leave my country of birth for a more peaceful realm. Move to Canada — a “healing” country in the words of the wonderful Carol Shields, who had herself immigrated to Canada from the US. I found it to be just that.
A Canadian citizen now, I have never regretted that move. Even so, a part of me will always be American. A part of me will always love that country — love it, and fear for it. Which is one reason I, like so many others, am addicted to the horrifying daily news.
Are things worse now than they were during those violent and tumultuous years? I would say yes, although in a more institutional way. I believe in democracy, and greatly fear for it.
The two reviews I read of Helen Humphreys newest publication, Machine Without Horses, were somewhat negative, claiming that the combination of memoir and fiction simply do not work. Humphreys is one of my favorite writers. She never fails to please, and so I was curious.
I’ve just now finished it and I beg to differ. I found this to be an innovative and inspiring work.
Machine Without Horses is billed as a novel: therein, I think, lies the problem. The first half of this “novel” is a memoir of the author researching and thinking through how to write about her subject, Megan Boyd, a famous fishing fly maker from Scotland.
I particularly love the author’s thoughts on writing. Coming from Humphreys, these are gold. Here are some examples of her thoughts on character development:
The beginning of a life is often the start of the story. Character is formed from the early incidents and accidents, from sudden trauma, or reassuring constancy. These are more important than aspects of personality because they are the ground on which the inherent nature of the person blossoms or is stifled. (Page 7)
I particularly like this because it jives with my current thoughts on character development. (See my thoughts regarding the book Story Henius.)
When I set about making a story, one of the first things I think about is the motivation of the main character. What is it that they want? What are they driven by? Story is created from combining a character’s motivation with their circumstances. (Page 16)
In this section of Machine Without Horses, the author taking lessons on making fishing flies.
“Anything will help,” I confess.”I’m trying to work my way inside her mind before I write about her.”(page 24)
Her teacher Paul asks, “How do you get inside someone’s head to write about them? Especially someone who was a real person?”
This is the sixty-million-dollar question, and one that I don’t really have a definitive answer for because I’m constantly shifting my thinking about how to accomplish this kind of transference. It is hard enough to be oneself. How can we effectively become someone else? (pages 26/27)
This quote pertains especially to writing biographical fiction:
The trouble with writing a novel is that there are so many ways to make mistakes that you just have to give up on the idea of getting it right. Instead, you have to choose a few aspects to remain faithful to and do your best to make everything else as believable as possible for the reader. (page 33)
I especially love this passage:
A writer must slowly build a story and characters, as though they were making a machine, with each part intersecting snugly, each sentence casting forward to hook onto the next. You must lean the way they lean, have the understanding they have, never step outside the limits you have determined for them. You cannot just kill them off with no real warning. It will feel unbelievable to readers and they will stop trusting your story. Fiction is measured and reassuring in a way that life isn’t, and perhaps that’s why we read it, and also why I write. (pages 89/90)
Throughout this section, there are now and again descriptions that echo fly fishing, i.e. “each sentence casting forward to hook onto the next.”
Starting a novel is like starting a love affair. It demands full and tireless attention or feelings could change. Commitment takes time, and so there must be a rush of passion at the beginning. This means that the other life of the writer, the “real life,” has to fade into the background ground for a while. (Page 11–12)
Not exactly like being in love, however:
When I’m working on a book, I just wear the same clothes day after day, eat the same food with no variation. Novel–writing and depression have a great deal in common, as it turns out. (page 41)
This is a spare book, only 267 pages, and this section on Humphreys preparing to write about her subject accounts for more than half of it. The last 120 pages is the work itself, a beautifully spare biographical novella about Helen Boyd.