Friday, October 13, 2006

Improv at Wordfest & Author Performances

When we sat down in the front row for Thursday Night Glam Kevin and I took one look at the stage and simultaneously thought, What the hell? I know this because a second after I thought it, he said it.

As I looked at the stage, I suddenly had a flashback, to something I’d read about, an event in France months ago including authors like Simon Kernick, where the authors read from their work while people danced and then there was some voting involved. A ‘to each their own’ kind of thing.

Except I was looking at amps and musical instruments.

Now, I should add in, I’ve been to some Wordfest events in the past. I still think about them bringing Val McDermid all this way to stick her on a panel and have her read from her book. For the life of me, I don’t understand why every Wordfest event I’ve been to, with the exception of Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith, has been dominated by authors just reading.

I mean, maybe I have unreasonable expectations. After all, I've seen these people in the UK. I've seen them in the US. Why is it they seem to be so limited in what they can do when they come to Calgary? Good lord - give Sandy or Mark a microphone, a stage and an hour with an audience and you don't need to do a damn thing other than advertise it. And it would be sold out because they can both entertain, and they can entertain better without being hamstrung. I’ll rant more later.

While Kevin and I had waited outside, we’d actually heard the bookseller in the lobby indicate to someone, “These are the books by the authors who’ll be reading tonight.” My heart sank. Could they really just stick Mark on two events where he’d just read from his book?

It turned out better than I’d feared.

What they did was give each author 15 minutes to do their thing. Now, this meant that most authors just introduced their book and read from it. One tap danced.

But it meant that Mark could grab the microphone and do his stand up routine. He was cracking jokes about hecklers and reviewers and Brits and sex. He even poked fun at people from Newfoundland, and then tried to shift the blame to the organizers by saying, “They told me to say that!”

Mark did some stand up, then read from Buried. He did some more comedy, and then he read from Death Message, the book not due out until next summer. I have to say that both scenes he read from where intense and gripping. If the prologue to Death Message is any indication it’s going to be a hell of a read.

I have to be honest. I’m not a big fan of hearing authors read their work. In small doses, the way Mark did it, I’m great. But I have to tell you, I’m not an auditory learner in the slightest. Even when people talk to me on the phone about stuff, I have more difficulty processing it than when I read it on a computer screen. I suppose that’s part of the reason I tend to communicate with people via email a lot. Don’t get me wrong – I like talking to people. But when it comes to business, if it’s done orally, I have to take notes. I can recite whole conversations verbatim (a skill that’s fading with age) but I just don’t process the information the same way as when I read it.

So when I go to a convention and people read from their books, after two minutes I’ve tuned out completely. If people sit there and only talk about their book, it’s marginally better, but not much.

In a way, Mark’s the perfect catalyst for this little tirade of mine, because I’d actually communicated with Mark before I’d read his work. It wasn’t planned that way. I was strongly encouraged to read his stuff and sign up for his newsletter. I signed up for his newsletter before I’d picked up the first book, and Mark being Mark, emailed me to thank me for signing up. I don’t know if he still keeps up with that, but I know he used to try to do that whenever people signed up.

What struck me about Mark right off was how personable he was. Although I’ll admit to my hang-up of being intimidated by funny people, Mark was interesting and the spectator in me loves to watch interesting people. And if I think someone is interesting, I’m going to read their books.

Not because they begged me to. Not because I heard them read from it. But because there’s something about them that appeals to me, that makes me want to see what they’re doing. I don’t know – maybe it’s that I think if the person is sharp and intelligent and intriguing, the work they produce will be equally so.

I have to say that Mark did a phenomenal job of working the crowd last night. People were laughing from the outset. He chose to have the musicians do musical accompaniment when he read, and it worked effectively. It set the tone. I’m not always terribly keen on that myself, but I did think this was a good call on his part.

And so, while I feared that the event would be a disappointment, the organizers had the good sense to step back and let the authors call their own shots. In Mark’s case, that meant an exceptional performance, in part because he is such a pro at working crowds.

If there’s a lesson for me to take with me from this, it’s that I need to think about how I’m going to handle stuff in the future. Wordfest is pretty much 98% literary and poetry types and the only crime authors I’ve ever seen them put on line-up tend to be international bestsellers or Canadians labeled as ‘transcending the genre.’ I don’t ever expect to be on a Wordfest stage.

But I’ve thought a lot about doing panels and the ‘performing’ side of this business, particularly since Bouchercon. I’ve seen authors who don’t speak into the microphone, so you can’t hear them. I’ve seen authors who are more interested in talking about their promotional gadgets than themselves or their interests.

I’m still working on ‘the author me’ but I’ve got to say this. I would suggest you have someone film you on a panel. And then, if you’re going to spend money on promotional gimmicks, redirect it into paying for your performance to be assessed. Politicians do this all the time. How do you come off? What does your physical posture subconsciously communicate to the crowd? What about your tone of voice? Could you be heard?

Were the people in the audience falling asleep?

Because there is one thing that’s worse than not being on a panel at a convention, and that’s being boring, or just plain bad, on a panel. I listened to assessments at B’con this year and heard the, “I didn’t like him” assessments after people had left a session. For some people, that will make a difference in whether or not they pick up a book and give an author a try.

And it will also make an impression on people as they recap their highlights and the things they didn’t enjoy about a convention or event.

This is horrid to say, but you know how I know Kevin enjoyed Mark’s performance without even having to ask?

He woke up.

I’ll be off for the better part of the day, having lunch and a beer with Mark, so you might not see me on the comments today.


Anonymous said...

This acquisition is definitely what everyone desperately need. It gives so much more data compared to an cyclopaedia! - stop snoring

Bill, the Wildcat said...

Having organized this year's James River Writers Conference, I can definitely agree with this. I've bought many a book at these conferences because the writer proved himself or herself a good speaker and an entertaining person. I was already a fan of Brian Haig before this year's JRW Conference. After it, I'm probably a fan for life. He was that entertaining and intelligent.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

It definitely is important that i be entertained, if they want me to buy their books!

ivan said...

Ah, Sandra, Sandra.

I am no grammarian, but I really rankle at the phrase "to each their own", even in quote.
Must be the old pedant in me.

Never trust a naked high school teacher. LOL

Julia Buckley said...

Hey, Sandra--let me know when you're back. I wanted to call you up and read my book to you. :)

Julia Buckley said...

Hey, Sandra--let me know when you're back. I wanted to call you up and read my book to you. :)

Julia Buckley said...

Hey, Sandra--let me know when you're back. I wanted to call you up and read my book to you. :)

Julia Buckley said...

Hey, Sandra--let me know when you're back. I wanted to call you up and read my book to you. :)

Julia Buckley said...

Oops--Sorry. My computer is deathly slow today, and I impatiently clicked three times.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Bill and Bonnie - if only people would listen to you!

Ivan, one thing I have been working on an ear for is how people really talk. Writing good dialogue is about writing what people really say, not what they should say. I practice that approach on the blog routinely.

Julia, and four times I'll tell you, next time I have insomnia, I'll give you a call. ;) Not that your book is boring, just that that's the way it works...