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What Not To Do At A Reading

My trip to California last month marked a memorable occasion: I did my first book signing in my hometown, at the bookstore where I practically grew up, The Avid Reader in Davis. I bought my first books there, and used to imagine that one day I would host my own signing there. I mentioned this casually to my stepmom when we were planning our trip, and before I knew it she had everything arranged with the bookstore and had the red carpet rolled out for me with a massage, facial, hair and makeup. She found out we could bring wine and bought nine bottles, plus cheese, crackers and cookies. She contacted the local newspaper and they interviewed me. She told everyone she knew, and stopped people on the street to tell them to come. The bookstore ordered 55 copies of my books in anticipation of a large turnout, and when we went down there the afternoon of the signing to touch base, they told me what was going to happen. I was going to do not just a signing, but a reading and discussion. I’d never done a reading before because, frankly, I was terrified. I learned a lot that night, but mostly what I learned is what not to do. Now I’m here to share my wisdom, so that you can avoid making these mistakes.

At a book reading and discussion, do not…

1. Go Unscripted.

I’m one of those writers who HATES talking about my books. It seems like the only people that ask me what they’re about are the ones who don’t know or like fantasy. They don’tunderstand it. So trying to explain the plot of a novel in two sentences without it sounding trite or ridiculous is next to impossible. Above all I don’t want to start out my explanation with something banal like, “Well, there’s this planet…” but usually I’m so nervous that that’s exactly what happens. For some reason, I decided that I’d “wing” the introduction before my reading. I had this crazy idea that I’d be struck with poetic inspiration, and would say something brilliant. What happened, of course, is that I was so terrified I did the exact opposite, and launched into a lengthy, confusing and idiotic description of the book that involved magical gateways and alternate universes. “So like there’s this guy from another planet…” Thankfully I’ve blocked out a lot of what happened. Like childbirth, it was so traumatic that I don’t remember most of it. It probably doesn’t help that I was almost drunk at that point, which brings me to Number 2.

2. Get Drunk.

Did I mention my stepmom bought NINE bottles of wine? I thought, hey, that’s a great idea! I can relax by drinking a glass of wine. I have a pretty low tolerance for wine anyway, and I hadn’t eaten since before noon since I was so nervous. When the first glass didn’t calm me down enough, I drank another. Then I stood in front of about 35 people and tried to tell them what my books are about. Yeah, brilliant! I stumbled, I mumbled, I made fun of myself. No one laughed. I hurried onto the reading. I did mark my spot with a bookmark, but because I was drunk…well, that’s Number 3.

3. Lose Your Place

I dropped the damn bookmark, and ended up starting two pages prior to where I meant to start. Which means I ended up reading about twice as long as I intended. Plus there were F-bombs in those two pages, and children – including my own – were present. The good news is there was a passage in there that got quite a few laughs, and that was the only thing that relaxed me. It actually gave me enough confidence to sail through the Q & A at the end, even though my aunt insisted on relaying charming anecdotes from my childhood to everyone.

4. Assume Your Audience Has No Ulterior Motives

There were only five people that showed up who didn’t know me in some way. Of those five people, zero were actually interested in my books. They were aspiring writers who either wanted advice, or to yell at me for being published. While I enjoy giving other writers advice or encouragement, especially teenagers, I’m not sure my book signing was the time or the place for a trio of teenage girls to ask me to read the first chapter of their book on their iPhone. This was especially difficult to do when relatives I hadn’t seen in 20 years were asking me to sign their books. I will tell you this though: that chapter was pretty good. The other two writers were older – and very grouchy – men who assumed I was self-published and therefore had no business doing a signing. I had to explain that, A. Those particular books are not self-published and, B. I had every right to do a signing even if they were. One of them was apparently the local psycho who’s been arrested a few times and routinely sues people who don’t let him have his way. He, as it would turn out, had absolutely no qualms about describing the plot of his novel. I heard it in excruciating detail. Suffice it to say, I wasted a fair amount of time trying to entertain people who never had any intention of buying.

5. Inscribe the Wrong Names

The very first book I signed was for my dad’s brother and his wife. They bought both books, and so I wrote in the first, For Uncle Fritz and Aunt June with love. In the second, I wrote, For Uncle Fritz and Aunt Judy. I realized as soon as I wrote “Aunt Judy” that I had screwed up the first book. Aunt June was married to Uncle Lowell, not Uncle Fritz. I had to snatch the first book back from my uncle, and turned the N and E into a D and a Y. Yeah, it could’ve been worse, like having to turn Eleanor into Phoebe or something, but still. I hope to this day that they just think my handwriting sucked, rather than having my aunts confused.

6. Wear High Heels

I know, you men don’t have this problem (well, I shouldn’t make assumptions). But wine, hyped-up nerves, and high heels don’t mix. My audience and I walked about a block to my sister’s restaurant for a post-signing party, and I almost sprained my ankles a dozen times. Look out for the polished, elegant author!

And, finally, the most important one. Above all, do not…

7. Puke in Your Dad’s Gorgeous Manicured Lawn

At the post-signing party, I had yet another glass of wine – this one out of a very large glass. In essence, it was like having two regular glasses. So that, more or less, put me at four altogether, and this is for a girl who gets a pretty good buzz after one. I did fine until we picked up my daughter from my sister’s house and my dad backed out the long driveway. I guess it made me carsick, which was just enough to put me over the edge. I managed to hold on for three minutes, at which point I stumbled out of my dad’s car before he could even cut the engine, sank to my knees in his Better Homes & Gardens lawn, and puked up red wine everywhere. My eight-year-old daughter patted my back and told me everything was going to be okay, and then she put me to bed and read her new book to me. The next morning it looked like a Satanic ritual had been performed in my dad’s lawn. And I was very hung over. Good news though! My aunt threw me a party at her house that night, and as soon as I walked in the door someone put a glass of wine in my hand.

All in all, I have to call the evening a success in spite of the aforementioned snafus. I sold 31 books and gained some new fans. I learned that doing a reading is not the worst thing in the world (doing an unscripted and drunken introduction is). Several people asked me to come back next year when the third book of my series is in print. I’m definitely considering it.

Just keep me away from the wine.

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13 Comments

  1. Paul Wiseall says:

    Fantastic article as always Ms Barnard.
    I especially liked the line ‘Thankfully I’ve blocked out a lot of what happened. Like childbirth…’ Also, you’ve gotta love the crazies for at least making things even more interesting and keeping you on your toes.
    I think I might have to retract my offer of vino when you visit Italy though…The lawn’s colourful enough.
    Great stuff 😀

  2. I Hardy says:

    Ha… A great article! I’ll likely never have readings of my own book, but your experience is similar to one I had as an artist many years ago when I’d painted a portrait of someone and was invited to his vernissage. (He was also an artist). My painting would be front and center, and I got quite a bit of attention… and wine. As a very shy person at the time, the wine helped me through the chatter at first, but unfortunately, after two or three glasses, not much more than some strange mumbling came out my mouth by the end. (nothing resembling a satanic ritual happened though, thank goodness!)

    I’ll have to go hunt down your books!

  3. Oh. My. Heavens.

    Ashley, you are a brave and wonderful woman for posting your experience here! 🙂 I’ve done readings, but they were stories from anthologies, and other women were there reading as well. That made it a lot less threatening.

    You realize that four glasses of wine is basically a whole bottle, right?

    Thanks for making me laugh this morning. Great article, and now that you know what NOT to do, I bet the next reading will be an even bigger success. 🙂

    Amy

  4. Fran says:

    Great post, very honest and brave of you to share. We’ve all had moments in our lives where we wanted the earth to open up and devour us, but this takes that moment and learns from the experience. You’re a very funny lady and I think that’s what carried you through.

  5. Thanks, Fran! I’ve had way too many of those moments that are horrendous as they’re happening, but I know they’ll make great stories later!

  6. Congratulations on your book and while the night may not have been perfect, it is at least something you will remember and can learn from. Thank you for the tips to those of us who are yet published, but hope to become so at some point.

  7. Will Evans says:

    Great story. You had me laughing out loud. Just keep in mind how you saw the event was not how others saw the event. Kat told me you did fantastic and you did yourself proud. These experiences only add to your skills as a writer. I only wish I could have been there. With luck I’ll be there for the next. I’ll bring a bucket to save the lawn.

    Can’t wait to review your next book. Big hugs!

  8. Khaldun says:

    Funny, honest, awesome. Really enjoyed reading this article Ashley. I absolutely love when my favourite authors talk even vaguely about their writing process, the writing life, etc. One of the things I’m most worried about is figuring out how to use twitter/facebook effectively as well as doing readings. Thanks for a bit of insight into what NOT to do =)

  9. David says:

    Love the post Ashley–candid as ever! Sounds like the next reading can only get better 🙂

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