Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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June 2, 2023

How to Talk Publicly About Writing

by James R. Preston

Once upon a time as a barely-eighteen-year-old freshman I walked into the Long Beach State bookstore and saw this little old man sitting at a table behind stacks of books, looking lost and alone. I stopped in my tracks. A writer? Yes! And I could just go up and talk to him! It was wonderful. That writer never knew how much talking to him meant to an eighteen-year-old kid who only knew he wanted to write.

That’s why you need to not only talk about your work, but to do it well. Hopefully this essay can help. Perhaps you will be standing in front of other writers, offering support. This essay can help you find a way to do that.

When I first started selling science fiction short stories, I was a kid, in grad school, and, uh, somewhat full of myself. I did not want to talk about the stories. I said — and if you think this is embarrassing, just wait — The stories are what’s important. They will stand or fall on their own.” Guess what? The stories ARE what’s important and now more than ever you have to help them as much as you can.

Since writing is your main job, talking about writing is a separate skill that may require some work, but it’s worth the effort. These rules are a good start.

We live in a world of fiction over-choice.

During the time it takes you to read this essay, mysteries, thrillers, and romances will be released; you have to compete to get noticed and talking to groups large and small will help. And it can be fun. It gets you out from behind the keyboard. And there’s one more reason that might surprise you. I’ll save that one for later.

I have three suggestions that will make it easier and illustrate my points with some true-life adventures about standing up in front of groups and trying to sound reasonably coherent. And I have tips about what you should not talk about, too.

Where writers get their gigs and their edge

Let’s start by listing where you can do this talking.

Book clubs.

There are thousands of them; the members are avid readers by definition and not only do they buy books and read books they also talk about books to people outside the club. And they don’t have to be local -- you can “appear” via Zoom these days.

A techie I worked with knew I was a writer and said his wife’s book club wanted me to talk to them. 

The very first question they asked was “If Mac’s wife had lived, would he and Kandi gotten together anyway?”

I almost blurted, “They’re made up! They have no existence beyond what you see on the page.” But I stopped and thought. It dawned on me that these ladies treated my characters as if they were real. It was an eye-opening moment, and that’s another benefit of interacting with your audience: you learn. You learn about how readers see your work.

Writing conventions, like left coast crime.

You might be surprised at how organizers sometimes struggle to fill panel discussions. Register for the event well in advance, then send the organizers an email describing your book and saying if they have a spot on a panel you’d love to participate.

Professional organizations.

Writing is an important skill, one that needs work. In this case you may not talk about your book very much, but putting together a coherent report is something many non-writers struggle with. You can help, and your name will be out there.

Social organizations.

Clubs of all kinds are always looking for programs. You have writing tips to offer, in part because you are studying this blog.

So, how do you get that all-important first gig? Through your friends. I know a woman, a retired teacher, who is a member of a national women’s honor society. They are always looking for speakers. Be shameless! Just say, “I’m available if you need a program.” It may not work all the time, but it will get you started. Remember —- the characters in your story deserve it.

So now you have your talking gig. What’s next?

Standing up in front of groups and trying to sound reasonably coherent

Rule one 

Practice — or not. If it’s a stand-up speech, yes, absolutely rehearse. On the other hand, if you are asked to host a table at an event, all you need to do is plan out some conversation starters, questions you can ask, like “Have you enjoyed the event so far?” Do I need to say that you should avoid, “So, have you read my new book?”

Rule two

Assess and modify. Watch your audience! If half of them are looking down at their cell phones, you need to speed it up. This relates back to Rule One. You need to have an idea of what you can cut. I was once asked to talk about grammar, a subject near and dear to my heart, and at the break the man who had invited me said quietly “You’re losing them.” I found it hard to believe, but not everybody is as interested in commas and semicolons as I am.

Rule three

Know your audience, know your time limit, and if at all possible know your venue. If the organizers want five minutes, make sure that’s how long you talk. No longer! Use the stopwatch on your phone to time your rehearsals.

“Venue” includes the actual place you will stand. Is there a podium? Microphone? Here’s a horror story from my past. At Cal State Long Beach I was in student government— Associated Students Chief Justice — and at the end of my Senior year I was to hand out awards to the other Justices.

I stepped up to the podium and could not be seen. Ok, I’m short. Fortunately, my speech teacher had trained me to think on my feet. l just stepped around the stupid thing and said, “Due to technical difficulties the use of the podium will be discontinued.” The audience erupted in laughter. The Dean, who followed me, said she was laughing so hard she forgot to give me my award. I got it as we were all leaving.

Not a rule, exactly, but beware of overconfidence. It can and will bite you. Years ago the Huntington Beach Sanitation Department — right, they process what you flush — asked two of us to come and talk about electronic document creation. Well, the lady and I had years of experience and we’d done this gig before, so we got our overheads ready, met a couple of times to decide who would do what, and in we went.

Everything went wrong. I set the overheads down in front of a fan and they flew everywhere; the audience had no interest in what we were telling them, and that was before the sewage smell crept in. I’m not making this up. We were so sure we had it wired that we neglected finding out about the audience and their needs, and we didn’t rehearse. So we paid. It’s still painful to talk about. 

What NOT to talk about - one opinion

Now, in my opinion what not to talk about. Ideas. If you are thinking about a terrific love story between a vampire cheerleader and a shape-shifting alien prince, keep it under wraps at least until you have a draft. If you tell people about it before you write it, two things can, and probably will, happen. First, you can lose your edge, your enthusiasm, because after all, you have told the story. Second, the way you have described it will be locked in, settled, when in truth the tale will grow and change, evolve during the writing process. Either way the story can be damaged or even killed. 

Final thoughts

So that’s it. By the way, that writer behind the books was Erskine Caldwell of Tobacco Road fame and the book was his novel Jenny by Nature. I still have the signed copy.

Now I’m the little old man behind the stacks of books, but I’m not lost and alone. I have you, gentle readers of WITS. Thanks for listening once again.

And now it’s your turn. Do you have presentation stories you are willing to share? Suggestions? C’mon, we’re all in this together.

Until next time, this is James, signing off.

About James

James R. Preston is the author of the multiple-award-winning Surf City Mysteries. He is currently at work on the sixth, called Remains To Be Seen. His most recent works are Crashpad and Buzzkill, two historical novellas set in the 1960’s at Cal State Long Beach. Kirkus Reviews called Buzzkill “A historical thriller enriched by characters who sparkle and refuse to be forgotten.” His books are collected as part of the California Detective Fiction collection at the University of California Berkeley. 

Find out more about James at his website.

19 comments on “How to Talk Publicly About Writing”

  1. Excellent excellent suggestions. I’ve done all of these. Imost dislike talking to a group at a library because you never know how many are going to come and who is really interested. I love talking to book clubs because they buy my books ahead of time, and then ask really interesting questions after I do my little spiel. And once we relax, we writers love to talk about our writing.

    1. Hi Pamela,
      Your experience sounds like what most writers want to have, but being in the public eye can be nerve wracking. You mentioned the library being an open book (sorry, had to) as far as not knowing who would attend. Book Clubs sound more intimate and a known quantity for selling books.

      My question is though, how do you prep yourself to go in front of your audience? I believe it's tough for many writers. What's your go-to pep-talk or routine before public speaking? What tips would you give to writers?

      Thanks - asking for a friend. 🙂

    2. Hi, Pamela =
      Like so many writers, I grew up hanging out in a library, so I have a soft spot for talking in libraries. However, you are right about not knowing how many people will show up. A poet friend of mine, a man I went to high school with whose day job was as a foreign correspondent in whatever part of the Middle East was the most dangerous, invited me to a reading. Of course I went and I was glad I did. I was 1/3 of the audience. Yep, three attendees, three poets. And we still had a great time. So it can happen to anybody.
      Thanks for the comment. Spot on!

    3. Hi, Pamela =
      Like so many writers, I grew up hanging out in a library, so I have a soft spot for talking in libraries. However, you are right about not knowing how many people will show up. A poet friend of mine, a man I went to high school with whose day job was as a foreign correspondent in whatever part of the Middle East was the most dangerous, invited me to a reading. Of course I went and I was glad I did. I was 1/3 of the audience. Yep, three attendees, three poets. And we still had a great time. So it can happen to anybody.
      Thanks for the comment. Spot on!

      PS My Reply turned up under Kris Maze's comment. Sorry about that!

  2. Hi James,

    Sanitation Speech. Too funny.
    Your quest for sharing about writing has led to very interesting venues. And more stories!
    Thanks for sharing these ideas on public speaking.

    1. Thanks Kris! Yeah, I guess it was a "learning experience." At least that's what my co-presenter and I told ourselves afterwards -- and kept repeating until we believed it.
      I think it's important to find out as much as possible about your audience and the venue ahead of time.
      And, you know what? We still got good comments. One thing it's vital to remember is that in virtually all cases the audience wants to like you. Really, they want to leave thinking it was a good use of their time.
      Of course, we also told ourselves that the positive comments were sincere, not out of pity.

  3. James,

    Great post. I’ve had luck with library and bookstore “author events”: chances to be on panels and talk with serious readers. I also keep a cheat sheet of helpful Q&As for these events: where do you get your ideas, how much research do you do, how do you pick character names, etc.


    1. Glad you liked the post, Jack. The cheat sheet idea is a really good one, like a 3" x 5" card that you hide in your lap and that helps fill in uncomfortable silences. I plan on stealing, er, using it.
      Jack Bowie is the author of the excellent Adam Braxton thrillers, the most recent of which is The Kodiak Conspiracy. They are definitely worth a look!.

    1. Thank you, V. M. Keep your eyes open -- there are many opportunities out there. One useful idea that I did not have time & space to explore is one way to get that first opportunity. Visit your local library and see if they have a mystery or romance or pop fiction reading group. Start attending meetings to get a feel for what they read and who the members are. Do NOT show up and "I'm a writer, I'll speak to your group." (Note: this can be started even before you finish the book.) After a while see if they are receptive to listening to you.
      Good luck!

  4. I've been invited to a local podcast a few times. While it's not live, it's still a type of public speaking. It helps when the host is really good at keeping the conversation going.

    1. Excellent! Denise, can you share how you got the invitations? Podcasts are an area I did not have time and space to address. What did you like about the experience?
      Thanks for commenting!

  5. As always, James, you've provided us with a thoughtful, humorous, and quite useful essay about supporting our writing with speaking events.

    Thank you for a clear, easy-to-follow guide for those who aren't used to talking to large and/or small groups.

  6. This was great. Lots of helpful ideas on how to speak about writing— your writing and writing in general. I always think I don’t or wouldn’t have anything to say, but the fact is, if you write, you are a writer, and therefore you have something to say about it.

  7. Thank you, this was helpful. Besides looking at writing a book, I'm working on selling a concept (no money involved-just involvement). I find that by researching selling or promoting a book, I can transfer many of the ideas/concepts to what I'm doing. Speaking to organizations and writing in pertinent magazines is on my agenda. (My concept is family tutoring on-line for at risk kids.). Thanks again, Barbara

  8. James, After reading the follow up comments I decided to be notified of these as well. Several helpful hints from you readers, including about speaking to libraries-simple concept but hadn't thought of that one. Thanks all.

  9. Hi James!

    What worked best for you to find book clubs?

    Public speaking takes a lot of practice! I remember the first time I spoke in front of a group of adults. (It's easier with kids.) I paced with nervous energy back and forth so much that I'm afraid I gave them all whiplash.

  10. Not fiction - presentations at an annual academic conference.
    First time - crippled by nerves and word perfect rehearsed, including two unavoidable and very long German words, my turn and what was that screaming insistent noise. Someobody grabbed me, firefighters were racing in, we spent the next hour outside, at a safe distance. Relocated, time limited now to ten minutes,no more strangers, just new friends.
    Another year - hand over USB on arrival, so tech staff could adjust everything.. My turn. On the screen, somebody else's presentation. Maybe no longer scared enough ?

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