Writers can be shy retiring creatures, preferring their stories to remain quietly on the page. However, there comes a time when more is required, and hiding behind the printed word is no longer an option. If you're doing well you may be paid to do it. You may have an audience of hundreds, or an audience of three. Or it may be that self-promotion means you have to do it for free, with few obvious sales. Remember, though, that the person who listened avidly, read the whole of the first chapter on the sales stand and bought nothing may remember it in the future, when a present is needed, or a recommendation, or holiday reading is on the agenda. What's required can differ wildly. There are straightforward readings from books, when merely being audible can be enough – as long as there’s a mic, and you remember you’re meant to speak into it. It depends what you write, though. If there's a lot of dialogue you may have to manage different accents, as well as threatening characters or terrified victims or, in the case of children's books, tigers or steam engines or fairies. You need to become an actor. This is no bad thing, as the introverted anti-social hermit you may be in reality has to take a back seat, and Joe Bloggs, crimewriter, has to take the stage. He needs to be one of your characters, and may bear little resemblance to your real self. Practice in front of the mirror. Film yourself on your tablet or your computer, and play it back. Joe may need a special hat, or scarf, or make-up, anything that lets you transform yourself as completely as Superman in a phone box. The more you do it, the easier it gets.
Questions about your work can be another matter. There are the standard ones which crop up over and over again. Where do you get your ideas? How much do you earn? Have you met J.K.Rowling/Anthony Horowitz/Stieg Larsson? (He died fourteen years ago. Really? Are you sure?) It’s only once in a while you get a question that totally throws you. I was at a conference in Ukraine, and reading a passage from The Divide to a group of eleven-year-old children, who then lined up in a very orderly fashion to ask me questions in perfect English. “Can you tell me please,” said a bespectacled boy with a serious face, “whether the fantasy world in your book reflects the social values in the United Kingdom?”
The biggest struggle I had was with poetry, despite the fact that the poets usually outnumber the audience. Trying to stop my hands shaking was really hard. Open mic sessions are unpredictable, and although people tend to go on for far too long the opposite can be just as difficult. You may decide that the poems you have chosen are totally unsuitable. Too graphic, not graphic enough, too many
swear words, wrong subject matter. And the really good one you wrote about your aunt’s dementia is right out when an elderly lady wanders in with a carer, and keeps asking where the changing rooms are and whether the water will be warm. This is when your Kindle can be invaluable, if you have your work on it. Remember you can import files as well as your own books. It's usually easier to find things on a Kindle than on a tablet or phone, as the font on your phone can simply be too small, even when you enlarge it. In the picture I'm reading from my poetry pamphlet, The Spirit Collection. Some people have prodigious memories, and can recite their poems from memory. I can’t. These days I have trouble remembering whether I put the car keys in the fridge or the oven. You need to hold your Kindle high enough so that your head isn’t buried in your chest, and the words have been lost down your cleavage – if you have one, of course. Humour never seems to win big poetry competitions, but it’s gold dust at an open mic session. Because you’re looking at your text rather than the audience, you have little idea how your work is being received. But raise a laugh, actually hear a positive reaction, and your confidence rises like a lark. Detecting someone snoring can have the opposite effect, of course, but you can put it down to the beer as the gathering is usually in a pub.
Reading your work aloud is beneficial in many ways. You find out where people are amused, where they’re holding their breath with excitement, where they’re monumentally bored. You get to hear other people, witness their triumphs and disasters and learn from them. With practice, you can even start to ad lib. Poking fun at yourself or your birthplace is to be recommended. I attended a talk by Eoin Colfer at a conference, who, being Irish is a master at it. It was a Sunday, and there had been a certain amount of alcoholic revelry on the Saturday night. Ten minutes into the talk a door opened, and five or six people shuffled shame-facedly in, trying to be inconspicuous and sit down at the back. “Ah,” said Eoin brightly, “I see the Irish contingent has arrived.”