Noir at the Bar

By John Gilstrap

A few weeks ago, I had the honor of attending a conference that is quickly becoming one of my favorites, and has earned a place on my very small must-attend list.  Creatures, Crimes & Creativity (C3 Con) is one of very few writer and fan confabs that is not genre-specific.  In fact, C3 is the only conference on my list that is not specific to the mystery/suspense/thriller genre.  It’s nice to hang out with romancers and science fictioneers.  Hey, writers are writers, and it’s hard to find a smarter, more entertaining group to hang around with.

A popular after-dinner feature of C3 is an event called Noir at the Bar, where writers sign up in advance to read a selection of their work to the assembled crowd, who then vote for the “best” story.  (By way of full disclosure and bragging rights, I won the contest in 2018, but was too crushed by deadline pressure to prepare anything for this year.)  There’s always a time limit to the presented pieces, usually somewhere between five and seven minutes, and at hard core Noirs at the Bar, they cut readers off at the sixtieth second of that final minute.

This year, as I sat in the audience listening and watching authors slash each other with gladiatorial prose, I realized that too many of the presenters didn’t understand the challenge they were facing.  To read a story aloud is to perform a story.  Pushing the competitive element aside, when a writer chooses to read to his audience, he is denying his audience the opportunity to read along.  Whatever the listener gleans from the story must pass through not just the writer’s fingers, but also his vocal chords and his eyes and his body language.

The whole point of taking the stage–any stage–is to entertain the audience.  Hard stop.  That requires eye contact and knowledge of how to use the microphone.  It means knowing your material.  The year I won, I confess I cheated a little bit by reading an epic poem instead of a short story.  (I was just a child, a boy of ten, when I went to the mountain where I’d never been/and I heard the old folks talk and say there’s a monster up here, still lives today/with glowing red eyes and a deathly look/I’m telling you, boy, ’bout Old Mack Cook . . .)

Our time limit was 7 minutes, and I edited the piece and rehearsed it and trimmed it some more until I had it down to 6:45.  I presented from a manuscript that I’d printed out in 20-point Arial, and using the timer on my phone, I tracked my progress through handwritten notes I’d placed during rehearsals that showed me what the time should be at the beginning of key stanzas.  By the time of the performance, I had the piece pretty much memorized, and the manuscript was there just as a reference.

Speaking of using a manuscript as a reference, I learned a valuable trick.  First of all, I never staple or bind the papers.  When I place the text of a presentation on the lectern, I begin with two piles, both face-up, with the bulk of the text on the right, and the current page I’m referencing on the left.  As I get to the bottom of the left-hand page, I slide the right-hand page over to cover it.  This way, if a brain fart happens, I know at a glance both where I’m supposed to be, and where I’m going.  When the presentation is completed, the entire manuscript is stacked on the left, face-up, with the last page on top.

My rationale here is that I want to appear to be as prepared for a presentation as I try to be.  To the degree that I can memorize the presentation, I do, but I think it looks terrible to break the flow of language for a page turn, and I hate the optics of a page flip.  It looks unprofessional to me.  And the flopping page turn necessitated by a staple in the corner is just flat-out awful.

When I’m on tour for a book, I avoid doing readings whenever I can because I find them boring.  But when pressed, I invoke a trick I learned from an author buddy of mine, and read a scene from the book that I’ve rewritten specifically for a bookstore audience.  Since my stories are largely inappropriate for children, yet children are often present at readings, I simplify the language and make it family-friendly.  I’ll make the violence less violent.

While we writers are not in show business, per se, we are in the entertainment business, and we’d all be wise to treat every public presentation as if we were addressing a television audience of millions of people.  Preparation is key.  Obsessive preparation is even better.  Every time you ask people to watch you and listen to your words, you owe them the courtesy of having something to say and being prepared to say it in the most engaging way you can.

Just as writing is about the reader, not the writer, presentations are about the audience, not the speaker.  However many or few are in the audience, every one of those people came for a show, and you owe them the best you can give.

There’s really no downside to writers putting themselves out there as public speakers.  For the most part, the public expectation is low because most writers hate being out in front of audiences–that’s why they sit alone in rooms making stuff up.  If the speaker is boring, he’ll have met expectations and will largely be forgotten.  If he nails it, though–if he makes people laugh a little or cry a little (preferably both)–he’ll be remembered for taking the audience on an unexpected journey.

What say you, TKZers?  Do you have any tips to share on presentation skills?

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

27 thoughts on “Noir at the Bar

  1. I remember going to a similar reading-style event. That’s where I learned I can NOT process things if they’re read to me. I simply can’t stay focused. My brain zips around, following threads triggered by words or phrases. Needless to say, I don’t listen to audiobooks.
    But everything you’ve said about preparation is spot on. One of my early writing critique partners wrote poetry, and she had a launch of her book of poems. I had my first book out, and she invited me to “open” for her. She said her peeps were used to listening to 30 minute presentations. I said, “One chapter” which, after timing it was about 8 minutes.
    But I printed it in 18 point font and practiced the hell out of it because yes — you’re now a performer.

    • It’s the presenter’s job to capture and hold your attention. It’s not your fault that your mind wanders. The fault lies in the fact that the distractions are more interesting than the presentation.

  2. A few years ago I participated in the Missouri Liars Competition. Largely designed for storytellers in the oral tradition, I felt very out of place. It had been 30 years since I regularly addressed a group (I pastored a small rural congregation for 2 years right out of college). I was surprised, even shocked when my recording earned me a live audience at the finals. I didn’t win, place, or show. No money. But I held me own against professional storytellers and held my head high. For a while after I attended meetings of the local tellers to learn a little more. You have hit things right on the head, John. Memorizing is very good. Tellers tell long (sometimes 20 to 30 minutes) stories without any notes. But no 2 tellings are the same. Ever. Be okay with that. Use your voice and facial expressions and body movements to assist in the telling. Most of all—have FUN!! If the presenter enjoys it, the audience is more likely to.

  3. I really loved this! Especially the part about sitting alone in a room making stuff up. 🙂 And I liked your suggestion of the arrangement of notes. Flapping paper on the lectern is indeed distracting.

    Having been a vocalist since age 15 and majored in vocal music in college, I’d add (although you allude to it very nicely) eye contact, eye contact, eye contact. Whether a musician or speaker, the audience (I know this because I am one occasionally) wants you to look at them. And not just at “them”-at him or her. They want you to see them.

    Think about the speaker who looks over heads at the back door, sometimes longingly. Then think about the speaker who looks you in the eye. Big difference in engagement. Of course, practicing eye contact reinforces the need to memorize the presentation.

    It’s frightening for an avowed introvert to stand or sit in front of a mass of humanity. We like our notes, our printed words. But just a lift of the head to connect iris-to-iris might, as you say, make an otherwise forgettable performance unforgettable.

    • One of the reasons why I think that music programs are so important is schools is that students learn to be on stage with people watching them. That’s a truly valuable life skill.

      That said, I know several actors who are terrified of public speaking. They’re fine with being on stage performing other people’s lines, but they vapor lock when they have to speak from their own hearts. People are interesting.

      • It’s okay to pretend to be someone else, but don’t you dare ask me to be myself…that what you mean? I found out the truth of that when I directed a play I wrote. It’s much more fun to be someone else.

        Yes, people are interesting…

  4. You nailed it. I do almost everything you cited here (background as a professional musician taught me to respect all performances) but the idea of keeping the pages in two piles and sliding over as you do is brilliant. I wondered last year how you were able to make that reading so seamless. (And it should speak volumes for both the writing and the performance that someone of my age remembers the event at all, let alone specifics.)

    The one thing I do that’s not mentioned is to mark up the pages in pen. I put slashes before (or after) dialog tags to give the reader a second to adjust from dialog to narrative. I’m place emphasis on certain words so I don’t have to rely on memory for the rhythm of the sentence. I don’t usually need them by the time I’m finished rehearsing but they’re nice to have as security blankets.

    • Thank you for the kinds words, Dana.

      The secret to successful presentation is the illusion of ease and spontaneity. It’s hard work to make stuff look easy!

  5. Great advice! Even the deep in the weeds stuff like staples. How many of us have been to readings and had the experience of pasting on a smile while fighting off sleep in a too-hot crowded store?

    I, too, avoid readings. But sometimes you just gotta. I do the same thing you do, find a compelling passage that says something about the heart of the book. And I, too, edit it for general consumption.

    A funny thing I discovered about reading to an audience: HEARING your book makes you want to edit it sometimes. Either to take out junky description or to add a better word here or there. Or to make the dialogue better. Makes me think I should read a final draft out loud to someone before it gets published!

  6. After talking to tweens and teenagers for 8 years about sex, or rather why they shouldn’t, it doesn’t bother me to speak in public. Actually talking about writing is easier. Usually, I’m teaching a craft course and have a PowerPoint for the audience to look at, but I still have fun with the audience. I’m definitely not an introvert…

    • Ah, PowerPoint. There’s a deep, dark hole. There’s a very fine line between helpful graphics and coma-inducing screen noise. Finding that sweet spot is tough.

  7. Really helpful, John. I’m increasing public appearances and learning on the fly what works and what doesn’t. Your tips are specific and doable. Thanks for great advice.

  8. My brother and future sister-in-law asked me to read Brownings’ “How Do I Love Thee” for their wedding ceremony a few years ago. Afterwards, people complimented me and asked about my acting career. None. English teacher, college poet, and professional writer who reads at sf conventions. Lots of practice reading in public and my teacher voice which didn’t need no stinkin’ microphone.

    For the wedding performance, I used most of your tricks. I also printed the poem on heavy-weight paper so I didn’t need support for the paper, no podium, and the paper didn’t make noise. Since it wasn’t my work or my natural rhythm, I also listened to professional actors perform it online, then read it to myself enough to figure out where I needed to drop a word or change the rhythm slightly to fit my voice.

    For my own work, I figure out how each character’s voice sounds and remove all the dialogue tags like “said” which clunk when reading a story aloud. (If you want to see how a genius voice actor works, listen to Jim Dale’s performance of the Harry Potter series. Incredible!) And, yes, definitely rewrite since reading aloud is a different medium than reading on page.

    I also pick one of my short stories of the right length rather than a book chapter or two because I’m performing, not slogging my books directly. Funny with a small cast is better than dark and violent for most groups, plus kids may be present. My favorite is “The Werewolf Whisperer” about a werewolf trapped in his wolf form in an animal shelter where he will be gassed or neutered. Neither is a good outcome. I’ve linked below if you want to snort your coffee through your nose at the ending. (You and your keyboard have been warned!)

    http://www.marilynnbyerly.com/page9f.html

    • I’ve been asked to read at a few funerals over the years–or to present a eulogy. One of the advantages to multiple rehearsals is giving yourself a chance to get through the emotional parts.

  9. I completely agree with your sentiments. People are giving up a few hours of their recreational time to sit with you, the writer. Make it feel worthwhile to them–entertain them, intrigue them, get them emotionally invested.

    Something I’ve done is use short Youtube snippets to enhance the material…it gives just enough background information in an entertaining way to make the writing come to life even more. This means I have occasionally had to rent a high-quality projector/screen, because not all venues have these items available, which means…yipes, I’m spending $$. But for unknown writers such as me, it’s even more important to make a solid impression.

    • Good for you, Rick. Those extra steps can make a huge difference, though each element of technology introduces another element of things that can (and will) go wrong. Now, to all the other levels of preparation, you have to add testing the equipment.

  10. You nailed it. This is a presentation. The key is to present. There is no such thing as too much practicing. One thing would be to set up some chairs and then set up your phone to record yourself. Yes it is hard to watch and listen to yourself speak, but you can learn alot and be better.

    I was sitting close enough when my congressman gave a speech. His copy of his remarks were triple spaced and the letters were over a half an inch high. Yes his 500 words were about 20 pages, on his copy. The one that allowed him to look at the crowd, not his notes. His staff had more normal sized copies for the press afterward.

    I am an IT guy. My conferences can be a full day of 90 minute PowerPoints. I became a big fan of “Death by PowerPoint” which I now learned is almost a decade old. Still good advice on PRESENTING. It isn’t the slides, it is the message.

    For on tour, or more one off occasions like this. Have something ready. Something you say at every store on the tour. Something you are comfortable with. Something that can be adjusted for little ears. Practice with it. It should be your travel buddy.

    • That something ready is always good to start with. It calms you down, gets you in the rhythm of public speaking, and it’s a good audience warmer. Humor or emotional content works especially well.

  11. I was asked once what my superpower was. It’s public speaking. I can get on-stage and read lines, or give an off-the-cuff talk on writer’s block to a group of 25. I’m an introvert, but when I have to get up, I don’t have issues with it (just let me recharge on my own with a cup of tea and a cookie afterwards).

    Several people have already said it, but when you present in public, make sure you present, and not read. I’ve been to far too many presentations where speakers read off the powerpoint with very little intonation, or read off their notes with little intonation.

    Many years ago, my grandmother dragged me to church. Being a typical 10-year-old who would rather be anywhere but sitting through (yet another) homily, I began to fall asleep. Shortly afterwards, I was jolted awake by the priest clapping his hands and yelling “BOOM!”. I thought he saw me sleeping and immediately sat up straighter. And he kept going, periodically yelling out “BOOM” and waving his hands around. He’d look people straight in the eye. His voice would get soft, then loud, soft again, then “BOOM”. Not sure what the homily was about, but I remember his presentation. He kept everyone engaged with his message.

    Perhaps that’s the take-away? The message is the important part, but how you present it and how the audience engages with it is what will make it stick.

  12. I’ve attended author readings where the writers were so stilted and wooden, delivering their pages in such droning monotones that it made listeners wonder if they really wrote their books. And readings, where it was like the author climbed into a familiar and well-loved world and pulled us with him. As you can imagine, those events were the ones where attendees lined up to buy the books.

    The tips you’ve shared in this post, John, will help even those of us who are terminally introverted. If the author remembers why he loves his story, he’s lost in and speaking from his passion. Then he can enjoy the connection of falling into the magic of words right along with his audience. The audience will feel this, and their returned appreciation will help override his fear.

  13. Reading about your presentation brought back memories of attending a Pat McManus performance. (I am sure you are familiar with the humorist.) The author re-enacted his hilarious stories on stage with props. The audience howled, oohed, awed and then gave him a standing ovation.

    After performing dramatic readings in competition at local colleges while in high school, I learned to change my voice for each character, and my short stint in the drama club helped with the body language.

    I used all of these techniques when reading to my kids. They loved it.

    I have only read my work once, to a friend. She encouraged me to look into reading for audio books. That was a sweet compliment.

    You have given me some great tips if I ever have the privilege to do a public reading, things I would never have thought of like the rotation of the loose pages rather than a book. The timing I did when doing the dramatic readings, but the notes with targets times is a great pacing suggestion. I didn’t win any ribbons during the competition as I tended to read a little too fast.

    Great post, John.

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