Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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April 14, 2014

Performing Your Book

Barbara Claypole WhiteBy Barbara Claypole White

Before the launch of my debut novel, THE UNFINISHED GARDEN, I lost 5lbs to performance terror. Painfully shy as a teenager, my mother and music teacher once had to conspire to sneak Valium backstage so I could perform a solo in the high school band. (It’s okay, we’re talking about the seventies.) Bottom line? I was never having a career that involved podiums or microphones.

The day of my first author reading, I attained a catatonic state of anxiety so complete that I believed my heart would stop as I opened my mouth to whisper, “Hello, I’m Barbara.” For someone with high blood pressure and a family history of heart troubles, that’s not an irrational fear.

Three months ago I launched my second novel, THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR, with an extra 5lbs and a normal case of the jitters. What had changed from one book to the next? Endless exposure to my fear, which is standard treatment for an anxiety disorder? A slew of polished performances? Nope. Acceptance was the key.

I learned to accept that my flaws are part of my performance. Peel back my nerves about author events and you reveal the underlying fear—that instead of projecting the professional author persona, I would crack jokes, loose track of my thoughts, rumble off on tangents, and speak from the heart. Maybe even get a little tearful or start talking about my favorite gin. I routinely do all these things in my author events and they seem to work. As I open myself up to strangers, they open up to me. The comment I hear most often is, “You’re so real.” (And then we have great discussions about my favorite topic: invisible disabilities.)

Does this mean I’m a flake who doesn’t prepare her talks? Au contraire, my friends. I prepare the heck out of every event, but I leave enough wiggle room so that I can be me—so that I can veer off on tangents and go wherever the mood takes me. I like to think of it as prepared spontaneity.

Back to basics, how do I achieve a non-catatonic state of performance being?

(1)  I go to loads of readings and watch A-list authors. I take notes and time their presentations. (I like to figure out how long they spend discussing the book, how long they read for, how long they leave for questions, etc.)

(2) I practice, practice, practice…. (Often I do this in the car, which means I get very strange looks at stoplights.)

(3) When I’ve figure out what I want to say, I give a dummy performance to the toughest critic I know: my husband. I’m cheating a little here, since my beloved is an internationally-renowned academic and a master performer. Really, I couldn’t pick a better coach.

(4) After my husband has told me what works and what doesn’t, I create a crib sheet with bullet points. As long as I cover those bullet points, I can be loosey-goosey. Also, if I get too far off track, I can glance down to see what I haven’t covered and rein myself it.

(5) Then I close my office door and using my crib sheet, I practice with a timer until the presentation works. This gives me a sense of how much I can talk around one particular point (for example, why I write about mental illness).

(6) I prepare several presentations of different length. This is key for book clubs. Some book clubs want a real performance; others want a brief introduction before discussion time. Again, if you’re prepared, you can seem spontaneous (even though you’re really not).

(7) I devote a huge chunk of time to practicing the reading portion of my event, marking words I stumble over or places where I want to pause to give backstory, inject an aside, or simply make use of silence.

(8) When my brain does implode mid-flow, which it did twice in a recent event, I turn it over to the audience and say, “There goes my middle-aged woman’s brain. What was I talking about?” When people shout out answers, you get to play twenty questions. 🙂

(9) If the nerves return to haunt me, I remind myself that I AM the leading expert in the world on my novel. Yes, we all make mistakes in research, but nothing you say about your characters or why you wrote the story can ever be wrong. You are performing your book. This is your passion, your creation, your baby. Be yourself and be proud.

What tricks do you have for getting through author events or other speaking engagements?

In-Between HourAbout Barbara

Barbara Claypole White writes and gardens in the forests of North Carolina. English born and educated, she’s married to an internationally-acclaimed academic. Their son, an award-winning poet/musician, attends college in the Midwest. His battles with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have inspired her to write love stories about damaged people. THE UNFINISHED GARDEN, a love story about grief, OCD, and dirt, won the 2013 Golden Quill for Best First Book. Barbara’s second novel, THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR, a story of two broken families released on December 31.

Connect with Barbara on her website, Facebook or Twitter

49 comments on “Performing Your Book”

  1. Wow, that was a fascinating look into the brain of an introvert, Barbara. I'm amazed at the sheer volume of prep you do! As an extrovert, I do prep work too (and I'm careful only to talk about things I KNOW about - I have a fear of someone asking me something I don't know) and practice in front of the mirror, or the cat (she's a tough critic) but then I put it down, and stand up there and stuff falls out of my mouth. Sometimes it's the script, sometimes it's a tangent based on the audience's interest.

    I do think that this gets easier with time and repetition. Isn't it interesting that, in spite of your fear, you chose a career where you have to speak in front of audiences? Hmmmm. Or did you think that author's just sat in a silent room and just tapped out novels?

    Surprise! 😉

    1. Laura said - "Isn’t it interesting that, in spite of your fear, you chose a career where you have to speak in front of audiences" ... That's what baffles me too. As Queen of the Troll Introverts, the idea of speaking in front of an audience about my book or writing or anything for that matter, terrifies me. Maybe that's part of why we do it (on a subconscious level) - the need to conquer a fear? We push ourselves to dig into those scary, uncomfortable places for our writing. This is just an extension of that. Oy!

    2. Funny thing--I'm not an extrovert but people think I am. I can't decide whether this means I'm really good at faking it or I can make myself live outside my comfort zone… (And yes, I wanted to be Bronte sister--but without the consumption.)

        1. As you know, Orly, I'm all about conquering fear. And I agree--I think going to the uncomfortable places IS part of the writing psyche. Anything bad happens in my life, and I'm figuring out how to use it in my WIP!

  2. Valium is passé. The typical mood-altering substance is more like whiskey I suppose, but for those who absolutely must be calmed down somehow, I would suggest talking with your doctor about a beta-blocker. this is a category of drug that directly prevents your body from surging with adrenaline, used in heart patients. When I was a musician I used it under the supervision of an MD. It removed the anxiety but without mind-altering or hangover.

    Do a websearch for "Stage Fright" and you will find lots of pro-and-con articles written by others. here is one: http://www.bulletproofmusician.com/3-reasons-why-beta-blockers-could-ultimately-be-holding-you-back/

    There are various caveats. you use a short acting one ( Inderal) and don't take the same dose a heart patient gets ( they might take 10 mg, all you need is 2.5 mg. if you take the full dose, you may end up with low blood pressure that makes it difficult to stand. I DID THIS UNDER THE DIRECT SUPERVISION OF AN M.D. and I myself am a critical care nurse.) also, you should try it the first time *before" you go onstage. (to make sure you are okay. you can drop your blood pressure with this.)

    As a lasting effect of this, I haven't needed it in years, I am no longer nervous as a public speaker.

    lots of info out there on this.... good luck!

    1. Laughing because I use beta blockers--but for a heart issue. Basically, exposing myself to my fear over and over seems to have worked too. This is the same therapy that worked for my son's obsessive-compulsive disorder. I've learned so much about how to reclaim my life from fear through my son's journey. (OCD is an anxiety disorder.)

  3. Love this, Barbara. And guess who gets to go first on the 3rd. I'll be watching!

    I used to prepare exactly as you do when I went out to speak or teach, because I just knew I'd fall on my face and the message (not about my books) was important. Now, I figure I'm talking about me and my books and what I say varies only by type of group, so I work on the first lines and then just open the mouth and pretend I'm the extrovert Laura is.

  4. My knees shake just imagining this. Funny how so many introverts choose this path without realizing we'll have to crawl out of our cozy writing holes. If my books ever make it to this stage, I'll be checking back for your advice!

    1. Honest to God, I would be much happier if I could crawl into my office with my laptop and stay there. Except for visiting book clubs, which I love.

  5. Barbara,
    I am with you on the stage fright thing. I took public speaking in high school and again in college and barely managed to survive with my sanity intact. That was more than 20 years ago. a writing group I belong to recently put together an anthology and are presenting it at local libraries and bookstores. We each take a turn to say something. I write, I outline, I practice, I sweat, I manage to get words out. Often the words are only generally related to the topic, but each time it gets a little easier. I even have been getting a little humor in there. I figure it is good practice for when my novel sells a million copies and my publisher begs me on their knees to go on a world wide speaking tour. At least I have an active imagination!
    Anyway, thanks for letting me know I am not alone out there!

  6. Okay, first off, Barbara, when you come to speak at our Wine and Words in August, I'll have a nice big glass of wine ready for you! 🙂 I understand where you're coming from. I've dwindled in my public-anything capacity over the years. Starting in 5th grade, I played the organ at our church, all the way through high school. No "stage fright", no problems in my public speaking (or plays, etc.) until I hit about 40. I'm not sure if it was menopause (yes, at that age) or what, but over the past 15 years I can break out in a sweat and my heart will race like Thumper's foot just thinking of having to stand up in front of people now!
    You have the right attitude. We are all human, every little thing doesn't matter to the general public, and people have you there to speak because they WANT to hear from you.
    I'm looking forward to August! p.s. - let me know if I need to sneak some gin in for you 😉

  7. My heart rattles so badly I actually have to have a silent conversation with it, "Okay, heart, you need to slow down before I croak in front of all these lovely people." I should warn you, too, that I'm worse when I have to present with other authors, which means I am sooooo taking you up on the wine/gin (all of the above) offer for the August event. 🙂

  8. Great post, Barbara. You're tools are just like those taught in those public speaking classes Kate mentioned. I used to teach speech and theatre in high school. You can take all kinds of speaking and writing classes, but it's from the doing of the activity you really learn. I went back to teaching after years of being out of the classroom, and part of my preparation was to script that first day, and several others following, then I got the hang of it again and just did normal preparation and planning. 🙂 I'm a shy, introverted person who has learned to live my life in the natural extrovert's world. It was only after my retirement as an elementary school principal that I realized how exhausting that was for me. Give me a mike and I'm ready to go, but I enjoy sitting in front of the computer spinning yarns and interacting this way.
    Everyone, get out there and practice. It truly does get better.

  9. I always have to tell myself I'm not giving a speech. I'm just telling people stories about farm life (my memoir). I'm still working through what I'll say about my novel. I, too, see a lot of author presentations though I haven't analyzed them as thoroughly as you. Good idea(s).

  10. Your post really hit an emotional spot for me. I was painfully shy yet longed for the spotlight. I forced myself to enter a speech contest in Grade 7 (came in last), then joined drama club in high school despite the fact I almost got physically sick before walking on stage. I'm still nervous before speaking in public, but it's getting a little easier. Preparation plus remembering to breathe - key for me.

  11. When I decided to write full time I knew sooner or later I'd have to speak in public, if just in a pitch session, so I joined Toastmasters. I'm comfortable with my little club, but when I have to get in front of a bunch of writers, watch out. Forget the racing heart, someone stands on my lungs and squishes all the air out! Yes, I'm an introvert, too, and also a perfectionist. What a deadly combination.

    This is a great post, Barbara. I'm going to borrow some of your ideas for a Toastmaster's speech -- with full attribution, of course!

  12. Barbara, It's nice to know I'm not alone! I swear my knees turn into the proverbial jello. I got better by becoming Prez of my RWA chapter which forced me to get in front of people once a month. It's been a long time since I had to speak though and I dread what it will be like. So thanks for the tips. It's nice to know I can talk throw out the where-was-I-question to the audience too. 🙂 I once had a crit pal stand in the back of the room to cue me. Mostly she made funny faces at me, but hey it made me smile and got me through the terrible jitters.

    1. Great question! I do have a loosey-goosey format: start with thank you's, then a little bit about what I write and why I write what I write (remembering to direct people to my website), then I dive straight into talking about the book (my inspiration, what the story means to me, a brief synopsis), then I read and leave time for questions. The question part I love. Go figure…

  13. Ha! Barbara I have to do #8 all the time! But it always seems that there's someone on hand with that "teacher's helper" mentality to whom, by asking for help, you've just handed an important role. 😉

    Interesting about your book club experience--so far I've only experienced clubs who wanted informal discussion. Did they inform you that they expected a "presentation" ahead of time, or is this something you whip out if conversation dies down?

    1. I now ask the book club ahead of time what the format will be, since my first ever book club wanted a formal presentation and that threw me completely.

  14. I'm not the least bit shy, but the idea of reading from my own work is unappealing. When I'm telling a story to an audience, making eye contact, and adapting to their reactions, I feel comfortable. I can't do that when I'm reading a passage of text, though, and I'll worry that people are getting bored. Maybe I'll ask for volunteers to read the dialog while I read the narrative... if I ever have that opportunity.

    I used to be shy as a kid but got into performing live music and the inner extrovert came out! I'm not sure what happened to my outer introvert. He moved to the Yukon I guess.

    1. Actually, the reading part doesn't bother me so much. I choose a passage I'm proud of and try hard to project the character's voice. I'm very character-driven, so if I can slip right back into the POV, I'm normally fine.

      1. I can see that. If you are shy, the story offers an opportunity to be in character so to speak. I'm thinking, either way, distract 'em with a cookie platter.

  15. I am in awe of your preparation, Barbara. I'm with Laura, with one exception. I teach small groups all the time, but big groups and new podiums scare the crap out of me, no matter how much I prepare. I fake it till I make it, because I really am mostly the same kind of extrovert Laura is, and I like people (and love teaching) despite the fear. I've been getting up in front of crowds for almost 20 years, but I still don't love public speaking all that much.

  16. Barbara, love the title and cover of your book. Fortunately, I have no need at any time to stand in front of an audience! It's funny, though. I can do an impromptu 'stand up and talk' without a qualm, but schedule me - aargghhhh!

  17. Barbara ... Once again, I am a day late, but not a "nickle" short. I don't know that all writers are supposed to be shy because I am anything but. I love public speaking. Back in the day, I remember I was frightened for about ten seconds. It was at a woman's conference and this ex-hippie read some of her less prosaic poetry. I think I got hooked. There is something about the buzz of the live crowd and the knots in my stomach unfurling into a rope that might hang me. I am a compulsive "over" talker and need to be mindful to pull myself back.

    I love your great examples and wish I could tell you that one of these days you'll stop being nervous, but since it is your way ... use the nerves and enjoy the tension they create. It will make you even more interesting than you are ... if that's possible 🙂

  18. Great stuff Barbara. Sounds like you really got it nailed. As a fellow shy writer, I can relate to what you went through. I guess facing your fear is the best way to conqueror it.

    1. As someone who lives in the trenches of fear with my brilliant OCD son, I can tell you that facing fear really is the only way to conquer it. 🙂

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