Thursday, May 2, 2019

The Video That Ate the Author's Stage Freight

No, this post isn't about a B-rated horror movie. It's my strategy for keeping my cool in front of audiences.

I used to have absolutely zero stage freight. None. Didn't even cross my mind. In high school, I was in plays, emceed pep rallies, and led (highly unwelcome) student protests about everything from the lack of ice cream as a lunch option, to the double-standard athletes enjoyed as it related to a preposterously lenient bell curve.

In my late teens and early twenties, I sang in bands, worked in radio (as a production talent) and, as marketing director for the regional transit authority, gave countless talks on the benefits of riding the bus.

It was not until several decades later that I, inexplicably, developed extreme anxiety about any kind of public activity. Talk about bad timing. Just when publishers started buying my books, I was too terrified to go out and market them.

Fortunately for me, things have now swung back the other way. I'm in front of audiences again, doing radio and TV appearances, and greatly enjoying interacting with readers and fans. Part of this healing process was a natural by-product of aging and growing comfortable in my own skin. But another equally important part, one that you can use as your own secret weapon, is my use of short videos during my presentations.

This is the title page of my most recent video. It serves as a companion piece during talks and book signings for my latest release, Spiritualism and the Supernatural: An Entertaining Encyclopedia for Believers and Skeptics Alike.
Now, I can hear many of you pointing out, in rather terse and aggressive tones, the fact that you don't have the slightest bit of experience with video production. Well, neither did I. But I can read instructions, FAQs and help files - and so can you. You may not rival Francis Ford Coppola first time out, and that's okay. You just need to be you.

If you use a slightly older Windows computer, you already have Movie Maker. If you have a newer computer that doesn't feature this program, there are other free video making software packages, one of which is VSDC free video editor. (And, no, I'm not making money on that recommendation.)

Your videos can be as complex or simple as you like. Maybe just still pics with voice overs, for instance. Or, maybe you (like me) choose to film yourself delivering anecdotes or demonstrations. Maybe you just prefer background music and no voice over at all. Do it.

The point, of course, is to give yourself a diversion at the same time you're offering your audience added value. "Look at me," you'll be crowing silently to yourself. "Not only am I speaking to you - I'm showing a short film, too!"

The best thing about videos is that you can choose when and how to present them. If you're nervous the moment you hit the stage, thank the audience for turning out, and hit "play." Let the video introduce you and your topic. Then hit "pause" and deliver prepared remarks. Take some questions. Embellish what your video has summarized. Whatever pacing or approach you choose, let the video alleviate some of the pressure of public speaking.

Let's face it: folks wouldn't turn out if they weren't interested in you or your book. They're not going to insult or embarrass you. They're rooting for you to do well. While I can't give you a hard and fast rule, for me it takes about five minutes to achieve complete ease at the podium. By then, I can see the audience enjoying the video and my interjected live comments. Once I feel that wave of welcome, the rest of the event is pretty much smooth sailing.

Will the first video you make be the one you show at your book signing? Probably not. It takes a little while to get things the way you want them. On the other hand, your audience isn't expecting mind-blowing special effects, either. Go easy on yourself. Include a few interesting details not in the book. Tell a few personal stories you've not shared before. Open up with some unique details about how you went about researching and writing the story. In short, capture YOURSELF on film, in whatever way best illustrates the kind of author that you are. This isn't just for the audience's benefit - it's for yours. You're making a video you can use time and time again. That makes your next appearance even less stressful than the first.

The best person to sell your book is you, though that doesn't make public speaking any easier. An entertaining video relieves some of that anxiety. That eight-minute film may never fully eliminate stage freight, but it can certainly keep it at bay until your confidence kicks in. And trust me: it will. So take a deep breath, relax, start filming, and get ready for your close-up.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Don't Ask People Who Love You to Proofread Your Work

It seems natural. You write a few pages, or chapters, or a whole book, and you want a second opinion. So you hand your newborn literary baby to the person closest to you and ask him or her for feedback.

I mean, they're right there, right? So why not use family, friends and neighbors as sounding boards?

I'll tell you why. Unless they're the worst family, friends and neighbors in the world, they really want to like your book. Because they like you. And, perhaps more importantly, they want you to still like them when they're done reading your manuscript.

Aside from the unfair pressure this involuntary editing role creates, consider this more pertinent drawback: what you write might not at all be what these kindhearted folks enjoy reading. In the case of non-fiction, the topic may be incredibly boring to them. Or offensive. Or ridiculously unimportant. It could be a book they would never, ever choose to read, were it not for you thrusting the manuscript in their hands. So how in the world can they be expected to critique it?

But let's say you've already given the book to a work friend and he's finished reading it. Now what? Are you expecting sentence-by-sentence analysis? Objective criticism of plot transitions? A conversational deep dive into how your approach to Victorian vampire romance differs from the supernatural shenanigans of other early 20th century cultures? (Clearly that last one will NEVER happen, and if it does, you must tell me where you work and what else this friend does in his spare time.) The point is - and I'd be willing to bet on this - the response you receive will be one of the following: 1) I really liked it; 2) I wouldn't change a thing; or, 3) You're a really good writer. None of these are necessarily true, they're just an expedient way for your indentured reader to end the ordeal.

Even more disappointing, none of these responses give you what you're craving. What you really want is someone to tell you how to make your book better. No one who loves you will tear out your heart - or tear up your pages - and demand that you start all over again. And THAT'S who you need as your proofreader.

Want to hear how great you look since losing 20 pounds? Your husband's the guy to ask.

Want to know if two flashbacks and a flash forward are too much for one chapter? Ask a literary professional whose job it is to give you an honest answer.

Unless that literary professional is your spouse. If so, hire someone else.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

How's This for Offensive: Take Your "Morals Clause" and Shove It

The Authors Guild reports an increase in publishers' demands for a "morals clause" in writers' contracts. Vague terms for our punishable sins include "publicly condemned behavior."

Let's be honest: under the back-breaking yoke of the "influencer" era, every time you write a Facebook post in opposition to the majority of your followers, you will be "publicly condemned."

So... should you have to repay your royalties because a friend-of-a-friend's cousin-in-law finds your position on hemp farming "offensive?"

Should you be forced to return your advance if your comments in support of your gay/lesbian/black/brown child create a Twitter backlash?

Should you lose your book contract if your old college roomie posts a picture of you sleeping with both arms wrapped around your beer bong?

In my view, this trend toward "morals clauses" is one more way that writers - or, as I like to call us, the income generator that finances the publishers' yachts - are trivialized.

It's not bad enough that the vast majority of publishers do NOTHING to assist with the marketing of our books. That they apparently regard the words "book launch party" as vestiges of a dead language. That their business model seems to be "quantity over quality," resulting in a stable of writers so large that providing sales and promotional support is impossible. That their royalty statements are written with the sole purpose of confusing the author.

Nope. All that's just not enough. Now they want to base our (dwindling) income on our level of "morality."

That, my friends, is TRULY worthy of "public condemnation."