23 June 2008

Writer as celebrity

Today I was in a bookshop browsing the aisles while waiting to see a film. Nothing like multitasking -- while browsing, I was listening to the person behind the counter talking to someone else about a writer he had just seen in conversation somewhere. Apparently, the said writer was not a good public speaker, and he was justifying this by saying that of course a lot of writers aren't great public speakers, and in fact often the best writers are the worst speakers.

It is a conundrum for the shyer writers among us. And, yes, I'll put my hand up here -- which is not to say I won't do public speaking engagements because I will. That's part of the territory, part of the professionalism, but it doesn't mean I have to enjoy them. For example, I'm speaking in a few weeks time at a friend's book launch. But I've digressed...

I don't think it's a matter of people who aren't great speakers being drawn to writing, necessarily -- that this is a venue for them to get their message out. Rather, it's just that writing often appeals to shy people. There's the whole romantic notion of the starving writer in her garret -- it appeals in its solitariness. (Of course, these e-days, that solitary writer is just as likely to be checking emails and engaging in online gaming...)

Some of us are more at home in front of an audience than others, but the reality is that it is what's expected of us as writers. One of the books on writing I own talks about this being the age of writer as celebrity. And that's why some writers write. Some come to classes with stars in their eyes and talk about which publishers they would and wouldn't let publish their books, as if the publishing world is going to lie down at their feet in awe of this great, as-yet-undiscovered talent. I try to break the realities of the publishing world to them gently, try to disperse the spectres of seven-figure advances coming their way. Sure, such things can happen, but they don't happen to most of us. Most of us plug away, honing our craft, because we love to write, because we are driven to write, because it's a passion -- even if it's a passion that's going to make us face up to our fear of public speaking! We write our first drafts for ourselves, and then craft with a mind to an audience because we want to be professional writers -- or at least published writers.

It's not just novelists who have to suffer this. Poets are expected to front up to readings, to share their work with an audience that might be judgmental. Some of course revel in it: a great reading can lift a mediocre poem just as a crappy reading can shoot down a great one. Short story writers often read at conventions and other places -- the last con I was at, one of my friends despondently told me that he'd had a really small audience for one of his readings, and I was able to say that that may have been the case, but he'd obviously made a big impression on someone because I'd heard someone discussing his reading as being the highlight of the con, that that reader had found a new favourite writer. It's all about getting the word out, and then of course this flowing on to book sales.

Like it or loathe it, most of us have to face the audience at some time. There are a few reclusive published authors, but this is a strike against them. It makes it harder for the PR wheels to turn, harder for the cash registers to ring, so their books have to be so much better than everyone else's.

For me, the key to public speaking is preparation. I need to plan out in advance what I'm going to talk about, or if it's a reading have several dry runs. I do remember Jack Dann's advice to do schtick, which works for him, but I think I'd founder in a blubbing mess of ums and ahs if I tried to wing it. Maybe that ability will come in time because public speaking is like anything else: it gets easier with practice.

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