Tips for a Successful Author Reading

On Friday, I had a great time giving a reading at Potions Lounge, a speakeasy bar on Bourbon Street in New Orleans managed by Marita Crandle, owner of Boutique du Vampyre. I love reading from my work and, in recent years, I almost always sell books as a result of my readings. Unfortunately, readings are not always well attended, especially at venues such as science fiction conventions. The reason is simply that many readings don’t prove to be memorable experiences and people skip them for other events. Below I present a few tips that have worked for me when giving readings.

Don’t read from the book

This may sound counterintuitive, but allow me to explain. Often at a reading, the first thing I see someone do is pull out a copy of their novel and start reading from it. It seems like a good idea because you’re reading the words as they were published and you’re showing off your book. The problem is that font sizes and bindings often mean you have to hold the book closer to your face than ideal. It also can be surprisingly easy to lose your place, especially if you look up to make eye contact with the audience.

I took a lesson from my days in choir. I print out my reading with a nice, easy to read font on one side of the paper and put it in a notebook. It allows me to hold the book further away, making it easier to look up from time to time and make eye contact. If you want to show off your cover on what you’re reading from, you can print out a nice copy and slip it into the plastic sleeve on the front of the binder. Better yet, bring your book and prop it up on a table while you read.

Go slow

When I’m nervous, I start talking faster. When I talk faster, I stumble over my words and my words become non-distinct. My mom’s family is originally from Texas and when I catch myself doing this during a reading, I summon my inner Texan and slow down. By this, I don’t mean that I drawl my words, but I take my time with each word and make sure I see and say each one in turn. It’s actually quite hard to go too slow during a reading.

Practice beforehand

I spend months and perhaps even years with a manuscript before it’s published. Therefore I must know it inside and out. Right? Maybe, but that doesn’t mean I can read it well. Again, taking a lesson from those choir days, it doesn’t matter how well you think you know a story, practicing always helps. A rehearsal session also allows you time to experiment with varying your voice for different characters. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, just work on making sure you learn to read their dialogue as naturally as possible. Some readings enforce time limits, especially if you’re reading during the same session as others. Practice helps assure that your reading will fit. Make sure you practice going slow!

Read a complete piece

I don’t necessarily mean that you should read a novel from cover to cover or even a complete chapter if your chapters are long. However, your reading should have a hook, some development, and some kind of satisfying conclusion. Let your audience feel as though they’ve had a complete storytelling experience.

Lagniappe

This is a term from Southern Louisiana and it means “a little something extra.” Always give your audience some kind of lagniappe. A baker might give you a thirteenth doughnut when you order a dozen. When I give a reading, I try to do something a little extra and fun. The photo above is from WesterCon in Phoenix where I showed a rough cut of the book trailer for The Astronomer’s Crypt during my reading. At Bubonicon, later that year, I read from my new anthology Kepler’s Cowboys and invited fellow contributor Gene Mederos to read with me. He showed off some of the artwork he’d created inspired by the stories. I’ve done Halloween readings where I give out candy. I even did a space pirate reading where we sung sea chanties. A lagniappe doesn’t have to be big. It doesn’t even have to cost you anything. What it should do is let the audience know they’re special and appreciated.

Are you an author who has given readings? If you have additional tips, please feel free to share them in the comments below.

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Good Writing Requires Good Reading

I feel like I’ve been reading a lot since this year began. I agreed to moderate a panel at the Tucson Festival of Books in March, which required me to read books by each of the panelists. Soon after that was the voting deadline for SFWA’s Nebula Award and I wanted to read as many of the nominated works as possible before I cast my ballot. This was a great exercise because it introduced me to quite a few good books. The ones below are a sample of those I read for the Festival of Books panel.

The stack there is nothing compared to my Kindle, which feels like it should be bulging at the seams from all the great books I added to it. This has proven to be a great time to do some extra reading, because I’ve been working on my fourth Clockwork Legion novel. It might seem counter-intuitive to be busy reading when I’m also busy writing, but in my mind, the two activities go hand in hand and one is actually essential for the other.

I’m not the only one who says this. In his book On Writing, Stephen King suggests that anyone serious about writing should have a book along so they can read in any spare time available. I was in the audience at a writers event in Tucson some years ago when Ray Bradbury suggested that someone serious about being a writer should read one poem, one essay, and one short story every single day.

It might seem like it’s tempting to steal ideas from writers when you do so much reading. I’ll be a little provocative and suggest that’s exactly the point of reading so much. Okay, yeah, lifting whole passages from another book into yours is plagiarism. Don’t do that! That said, when you’re writing, you might have difficulty finding just the right way to describe a series of events, knowing how much detail to include, or making a character feel really alive. By reading others, you can see how other writers have solved those problems which might suggest solutions to you.

The converse of this is also true. By reading a lot, you see pitfalls other writers have stumbled into and paths you don’t want to go down. In fact, while reading the Nebula-nominated books and stories, I become aware that even the best authors write passages that don’t work for me. It allows me to see that the piece might work in spite of a slight stumble. Sometimes when I think about something that looks like a stumble, I realize “fixing” a minor problem might result in either clunky prose, or might cause the writer to tell an entirely different story than the one they set out to tell. It also reminds me that I don’t have to be a perfectionist. Imperfect books are sold and even get nominated for awards all the time!

At this point, it might be tempting to invoke Sturgeon’s Law, which usually claims “90% of everything is crud.” Often a stronger word than “crud” is used, but that was Ted Sturgeon’s original word and I’ll stick with it. It’s become fashionable in fandom to bandy this “law” about and cynically state that this applies to any set of books or movies you might want to name. Now, I’m here to say that of all my reading in the last three months, hardly any of it was crud. Most was quite good. Some wasn’t quite as much to my taste as others. Some of the stories and books worked better for me than others, but I saw value in all of it.

In fact, it’s important to realize that “Sturgeon’s Law” was not meant to be invoked about absolutely anything. Originally, Theodore Sturgeon referred to it as “Sturgeon’s Revelation” and it was an argument against people using the worst examples of science fiction film and literature to demonstrate the worthlessness of the genre. His point was you can find bad examples from any art form or genre and use that as an excuse to vilify it.

Sturgeon’s Revelation came about because Ted Sturgeon was not only a great science fiction writer, but he was also a science fiction fan who loved to read. He hoped to encourage people to dive in and find the good stuff science fiction and fantasy had to offer. In short, that’s what I’ve been doing and I hope to see it pay dividends in the writing I produce.

Worlds of Words

Last weekend, I was at the Tucson Festival of Books, which brings together authors of every genre imaginable from around the world to talk with readers about their work. The entire University of Arizona mall is taken up with tents occupied by vendors selling books and exhibiting products, services, and information. There was also an area called Science City which focuses on STEM literacy.

I love walking through the festival and seeing the books for sale and meeting the authors exhibiting their wares. Bookmans Entertainment Exchange is a chain of used bookstores in Arizona and one of the sponsors of the festival. They had a large tent and it was especially fun to go in and discover they had a copy of my novel Owl Dance for sale. What’s more, it was sitting on top of a copy of Bridges of Longing by my friend Marsheila Rockwell. As it turns out, I’d just spent time visiting with Marcy and her husband Jeff Mariotte a few minutes before at a tent where they were selling their books.

Fun as it is to visit the vendors, my favorite part of the festival are the tremendous panel presentations. On Saturday morning of the festival I joined J.L. Doty for a panel on Scientists Writing Science Fiction. I discussed how science influences my writing and editing. For example, science brought me together with Steve Howell of NASA Ames Research Center to assemble Kepler’s Cowboys, a collection of stories about planets discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. I also noted that working in science doesn’t always influence my science fiction. The 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak is a big, spooky building, especially at night and it inspired me to write my horror novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. We also discussed bringing the discipline we learned in science to our writing. In that context, Jim mentioned how he writes without an outline. On the other hand, I do use outlines. In both cases, we think carefully about what we’ve written and plan our next writing sessions so we do any required research ahead of time.

I also moderated a terrific panel on building fantasy worlds. The panel included my friend Gini Koch. I was also delighted to meet Samantha Shannon, Erika Lewis, and Brian McClellan. We discussed the process they go through when creating their alternate worlds and how they keep track of the places within those worlds so they’re believable to the readers. I thought it was especially interesting to hear that Samantha was a fan of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, because I saw some influences in The Mime Order. That said, she noted that she’d actually removed some of the more overt influences because she didn’t feel they were working in the context of her work. The photo above was taken after the panel was finished and we gathered to sign books.

By itself, a terrific weekend at the Tucson Festival of Books would have done a great job of recharging my batteries so I could continue work on my fourth Clockwork Legion novel Owl Riders. However, just a couple of days after the festival, I was delighted to find a new review of book two of the series, Lightning Wolves posted at Geek-o-Rama. Reviewer Katrina Roets wrote, “Do you want to know how you know that you’re really enjoying a book? It’s when the power goes out and you curl up on the couch with a flashlight so that you can keep reading. Seriously. This happened to me last night.” Knowing that I wrote fiction that kept a reviewer reading through a power outage gives me a great, warm fuzzy feeling and makes me ready to write even more.

Balticon 50

This weekend I’m at Balticon 50, which is being held at the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel in Baltimore, Maryland. This is especially exciting, since it’s my first convention on the East Coast and I’ll finally get the opportunity to meet several people I’ve corresponded and worked with over the years including Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Christine Norris, and Patrick Thomas. As the name implies, this marks Balticon’s 50th anniversary and the guest of honor is none other than George R.R. Martin. Not only that, many past guests of honor will be attending including Jody Lynn Nye, Kaja and Phil Foglio, John Varley, Larry Niven and more. You can learn more by visiting the Balticon 50 Website.

Here’s my schedule:

Saturday, May 28

8:30-9:50pm – Tortuga Readings – Pride of Baltimore. Authors will present their short stories of the high seas and those daring opportunists that call the ocean blue their home. Costumes are encouraged for a special prize from the authors. I’ll be sharing a reading from my Captain Firebrandt adventures. Reading with me are: Laura Nicole, Alan Spencer, Jack Campbell, and Misty Massey.

Sunday, May 29

9:30-10:20am – Finding Balance (Tentative) – Pride of Baltimore. Do you wear more than one literary hat? Having trouble divvying your time between your editing duties and your need to write? The Pros share their tips on how to do it all. I’ve labeled this as “Tentative” because I’m listed on this panel on one schedule, but not on the other. Since I don’t have any apparent conflicts, I’m planning to at least be in the audience, so it’ll be a place you can find me.

11:00-11:50am – The Biggest Mistakes by Beginning Writers – Parlor 9059. The panel will discuss (from a reader’s point of view) not only writing mistakes but also promotional mistakes: How writers have screwed themselves over and killed their chances of making it in the publishing world after doing easily preventable things! On the panel with me are Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Michael Ventrella, David Wood, and Christine Rake.

G&GRed-Gold Leaf-150

7:00-9:00pm – Gaslight and Grimm Launch Party – MD Salon B. Help us celebrate the launch of Gaslight and Grimm. Kirkus Reviews says, “in this tasty short fiction anthology, the editors have combined two appealing genres into something greater than the sum of its parts.” Most of the contributors to the anthology will be on hand including Jody Lynn Nye, Gail Z. Martin, Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Christine Norris, Jean Marie Ward, Jeff Young and more. Come hang out with the authors and editors, eat great food (and my mouth has been watering watching the planned items on Facebook!), and win awesome door prizes, including one of my wife’s hand-crocheted airships!

Just a note, the official convention schedule shows me at an autographing from 1:30pm to 2:20pm on Saturday. Unfortunately, my plane isn’t scheduled to land until 3:05pm That said, when I’m not on a panel, there’s a very good chance you can find me in the dealer’s room at the eSpec Books table. They’re the publishers of Gaslight and Grimm and many of my novels will be available for sale there. I’ll be more than happy to sign for you anytime you see me. Looking forward to making lots of new friends in Baltimore!

Multitasking

This has been a busy week at Kitt Peak National Observatory. I’ve been helping with infrared images of supernovae, taking spectra of galaxies to understand their composition, and taking images of some of the earliest known galaxy clusters. In the meantime, my third steampunk novel is due with Sky Warrior Publishing in about six weeks. So I’ve been reviewing the manuscript so far and making edits here and there as I have time. Here you see me on a typical night, operating the telescope.

Operating Telescope

When moving a telescope from one target to another, there are several jobs that must be accomplished quickly. You must make sure you’re moving the telescope to a position it can reach mechanically. You have to make sure that an off-axis camera is set up to keep the telescope on target. You have to make sure the telescope is in good focus. You must check to make sure the dome and the mirror support systems are working properly. You have to pay attention to see if the visiting scientists are having problems or questions. When I learned how to operate the telescope, the woman who trained me used to hover behind me and say, “Multitask! Multitask!”

Research suggests humans are actually pretty poor at multitasking. Now, if you read the article I linked, they define multitasking as focusing on several things at one time. Instead of being able to multitask well, they say that humans are good at focusing on discrete tasks and shifting their focus from one thing to another very quickly. It’s a subtle but real distinction.

Because I work long hours at the telescope—as long as 16 hours a night in the middle of winter—I’m often asked if I write while I work. In fact, I find it difficult to compose stories while I’m at work because so many things vie for my attention and I have to shift attention quickly. To compose a story or a chapter, I need to be at home away from too many distractions. I’m definitely not the kind of person who can sit in a coffee shop and write.

What I can do at the telescope (when the programs allow it) is read and edit. I’m using something more like the analytical parts of my brain than when I’m composing new material. I can shift my focus quickly from editing tasks to a job at the telescope if I need to.

In order to be a successful writer, you need several related skills. You need to be able to compose a story. You need to be able to evaluate and edit what you’ve written. You need to read good works by others critically. This is all before the economic reality of putting on your marketing hat and telling others about your work.

Write everyday is great advice and I’d argue that a true writer can’t help but follow it. That said, writing is composed of several discrete tasks and I don’t necessarily do every task every day. If you find composing something new everyday is difficult, as I do, why not identify the discrete parts of your writing job and do them when you can? Carry your manuscript with you. As you see in the photo above, I have my laptop with me at work. Pull out a work in progress and go back over it. If nothing else, carry a book with you and read for a while. Instead of “write everyday,” I like to say “do the job of a writer everyday.” Multitask! Multitask!

For those who may have missed it, I was featured author this past week at the Lachesis Publishing blog. Here are the posts:

TusCon 40

My last convention of the year will be TusCon in Tucson, Arizona, which runs from November 8-10 at the Hotel CityCenter. You can get all the details about the convention at tusconscificon.com. Not only will I be a participant at the convention, I’ll be there as a dealer working the Hadrosaur Productions table. Look for us by our nifty new banner!

Hadrosaur Banner

Here’s my schedule for the convention:

Friday, November 8:

  • 9pm – Panel Room 1 – What is this TusCon you speak of? Not sure how you fit in to a little convention you never heard of before? This is the place to learn about your 400 new best friends. On the panel with me are Fred Kurtzweg and Carol De Priest.
  • 11pm – Panel Room 2 – Vampires and Lightning Wolves. Join me for a reading from my recent and upcoming novels.

Saturday, November 9:

  • 11am – Panel Room 2 – Speed Date an Editor. This is your opportunity to pitch me a story for Tales of the Talisman Magazine. I’ll work with you and give you suggestions so you can send me something I won’t be able to resist when we open to submissions in January.
  • 1pm – Panel Room 1 – Fahrenheit 451. If the world were on that path what book would you memorize to save for the ages? On the panel with me are Gloria McMillan, Liz Danforth, and Weston Ochse.
  • 4pm – Ballroom – Mass Autographing. Bring something that has mass and I’ll autograph it! (Of course, we will have plenty such things at the Hadrosaur Productions Table that I’ll be happy to sign.)
  • 9pm – Panel Room 1 – A tale of two ghettos: Is Romance more or less stigmatizing than Science Fiction? Why do the Sharks and the Jets hate each other and who is Maria? On the panel with me are Jordan Summers, Juliet Blackwell, Jennifer Roberson, and Michelle Gates.

Sunday, November 10:

  • 9am – Ballroom – Asimov, Bradbury, & Heinlein. What will be their historical legacy, how is historical legacy determined and why does it matter? On the panel with me are Gloria McMillan, Juliet Blackwell, Eric Schumacher, and Wolf Forrest
  • Noon – Ballroom – How to rewrite right. Not just editing, but knowing which rough edges to polish off and which are integral. And the most important step – when to stop. On the panel with me are Sharon Skinner, Dr. Jennifer Grier, Thomas Watson, and Rick Cook

If you’re in Tucson the weekend of November 8-10, I hope to see you at TusCon!

MileHiCon 45

The last two weeks have been busy ones. At Kitt Peak National Observatory, I supported observations of the supernova remnant Cas A and I got to see the inner workings of the new KOSMOS spectrograph that will soon be in regular use at the 4-meter telescope. Once I returned to Las Cruces, I shipped out the summer issue of Tales of the Talisman magazine and then promptly dove into editing the autumn and winter issues. The copyediting for those two issues is now complete and I just sent the stories to the art director for illustration. I also gave my website a new, updated look. If haven’t already, go check it out at davidleesummers.com.

Cloud Lab Airship

One fun thing that happened this past week was that I spotted the Cloud Lab airship outside my back door. It’s part of a venture sponsored by BBC Two. The blimp is ferrying a team of British scientists across the United States from Orlando, Florida to Big Sur, California, studying insect life, bats, and the relationship between these ecosystems and the weather.

This upcoming week, I have four days at Kitt Peak followed by a trip to Denver, Colorado for MileHiCon 45. Unfortunately, my work schedule keeps me from getting there before Saturday, but I’m looking forward to seeing my friends in Denver. I had to miss last year’s MileHiCon altogether. You can get all the details about the convention at the MileHiCon Website. Without further ado, here’s my schedule for the convention:


Saturday, October 19

  • 1-2pm – Poetry Fantastique – Wind River A. This is MileHiCon’s annual poetry reading/slam/discussion. At the reading with me are Catherynne M. Valente, Stace Johnson, Gail Barton, Laura K. Deal, Robin M. Ambrozic, and perhaps even more!
  • 3-4pm – Discovering New Worlds – Wind River A. This is my presentation about how exoplanets are discovered and what we’re learning about them. Things are changing so quickly in this field, I learn new things every time I prepare and update this talk for a new audience.
  • 4-5pm – Eating Outside the Mainstream – Wind River A. This is a panel discussing the challenges of living with imposed dietary restrictions. My daughters have a number of food allergies and I’ll be happy to share the ways we’ve learned to cope and prosper. I look forward to getting some good tips from my fellow panelists, who include Dana Bell, Vivian Caethe, and Tim Simpson.


Sunday, October 20

  • 10-11am – Author Reading – Mesa Verde C. I’ll read an excerpt from my novella Revolution of Air and Rust which was just reviewed at SF Site last week. Also reading during that hour will be James Van Pelt.
  • 1-2pm – Was Frankenstein a Zombie? – Mesa Verda A. I’m moderating this panel that discusses what makes a zombie and what makes a zombie scary. On the panel with me are Paolo Bacigalupi, Selena Chambers, Stant Litore, and Stan Yan.

If you’re in Denver the weekend of October 19 and 20, I hope to see you at MileHiCon!