Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Putting on the Final Polish @Susan Oleksiw: Advice for Authors

HALLIE EPHRON: I often to go to author book launches, and it can be painful to watch an author speaking for what seems like the first time about his or her work, read haltingly, go on for far too long... So not hitting a home run.

So when I saw author Susan Oleksiw's (FOR LOVE OF PARVATI, an Anita Ray Mystery) thoughts about it on Author Expressions I thought YES!  Great advice for authors who want to present themselves with final polish.

I invited her on Jungle Red to share her thoughts. Here's Susan's advice on how to look like a pro.

When I read my first scholarly paper to a
room of academics (there were barely a dozen seated among the rows of chairs but it felt like hundreds), I learned to my dismay that I was terrified of speaking in public. I held my six pages in my hand and stood at the podium trembling, my voice faltering, for at least twelve minutes before my terror evaporated and I sounded just like anyone else. Unfortunately, I was allotted ten minutes maximum to read my paper. 


This was the beginning of learning the last and often most important lessons of the professional writer. After we finish writing the mystery novel, negotiate with a publisher, and survive the first reviews, we have still one lesson to learn--how to be a professional writer in the eye of the public.

1. PLAN! PRACTICE! Learn to read your book aloud

First, we will be asked to give talks or appear on panels and read a few paragraphs of our work. We have listened to the words in our head for months, perhaps years, but we may have never heard them read aloud. If you are going to make any public appearances, learn to read your book aloud.

When I am asked to read, I choose a passage from my most current work and read it aloud several times, both for timing and cadence. And I do mean aloud. I stand in the middle of the living room and read loud enough to project across the room, through the hall, and into the kitchen. I read the passage aloud at least three times. You can't count on having a microphone.

I also choose a passage that contains some suspense but doesn't give away anything important about the plot. I can adapt a longer passage by eliminating one or two paragraphs or a few sentences to bring together what I think are the most captivating scenes. I mark these in one copy of the book that I use for all appearances.

I never assume I will know what to read when I show up for the event. I always practice in advance. No one wants to hear me mumble, stumble, or mutter about skipping a few words. And no one wants to watch me flip through pages wondering where I should go next.

If I read typed pages, I make sure to dog-ear the top right-hand corners to make it easy to turn the page. No one wants to watch me lick my fingers to get a grip on the page to separate it from the ones that follow.

2. Project an image: Hire a pro to take your picture

Second, have a photographer (professional or amateur) take a good photograph of you, with or without makeup. If you think you'll use this photograph for book covers, publicity mailings, and more, find a professional who will provide the makeup artist if you need help with this. Make sure you have the rights to use the photographs however you want. Be sure to get the correct attribution for publication.

3. What to wear?

Third, consider the wardrobe you have and what you will wear to panels and conferences. You don't have to buy anything expensive, but you may want to rethink your favorite pair of jeans or sweats. If you write a series set in India, as I do, you might want to wear khurtas in warmer weather, or a nice Indian shawl in winter. If you write westerns, consider a nice pair of red cowboy boots. The idea is to have a wardrobe that is a step up from your ordinary day wear or one that illustrates your interests as a writer. Dressing reasonably well is a sign of respect for your audience.

4. Business cards!

Fourth, design and order a simple business card. The fancier the card, the more likely you will have to redesign it as your tastes and publications change. Keep a supply of cards in your purse and hand them out whenever you have to make a note or give contact information.

These lessons for polishing an image may seem obvious, but I like many others never knew how hard it would be to read six typed pages to a group of strangers.
I learned. And I remind myself whenever I stand in front of an audience that these people whom I've never met came to listen to me and they want me to succeed. That will take you far in getting over the jitters and making a solid presentation and a good impression.

HALLIE: What advice would you give authors preparing to talk about their books? What works, what doesn't... and how long should we go on before it's too long?

About For the Love of Parvati 
Anita travels with her Auntie Meena to visit family. As they approach their destination, they are stopped at a temporary checkpoint, where a sharpshooter tracks them. Later, during a break in the monsoon, Anita discovers the corpse of a man in a flooded stream. The police imply this is the criminal they were searching for but Anita isn't so sure. A servant has gone missing, the son of the household is in trouble with his employers, and someone is stalking the household.

About Susan Oleksiw
Susan Oleksiw writes the Anita Ray series (For the Love of Parvati, 2014) and the Mellingham series featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva (Last Call for Justice, 2012). Her short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and numerous anthologies. Susan compiled A Reader's Guide to the Classic British Mystery (G.K. Hall, 1988), and co-edited The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing (1999). She was a co-founder of Level Best Books.


  1. It's tough to add to Susan's excellent advice.
    I enjoy hearing authors talk about their books when their presentations are enthusiastic, with a respect for the audience and a genuine pleasure to be there.

  2. Great tips, Susan. I like to keep readings very short, just a couple of pages. You never want audience eyes to glaze over! I also like to ask the audience questions about themselves. "Are any of you writers?" for example, or something pertaining to the setting or theme of my series (organic farm, vintage cookware, southern Indiana, 1888, and so on).

    Back a hundred years ago when I gave my first academic paper, I was standing in the back of the auditorium with a grad student buddy. He leaned over and whispered, "Don't forget to breathe." Excellent advice! It makes you take the time to take a deep breath, which is calming. And when I get nervous, I do almost forget to breathe.

  3. Make eye contact with audience members! It always helped me to connect, to remember, as Susan said, that all of these people (whether 2 or 200) are present because they want to hear what you have to say--so look at them, see them as individuals, and don't be afraid to pause for effect (or, as Edith said, to take a deep breath!)

    Adding this series to my pile & will be recommending it to a friend who has worked in India.

  4. Great suggestions Susan!

    I tend to give more of a talk than a reading. So I might tell a funny story about the Citizens' Police Academy or the Fantasy Fest parade, and then read a really short section. I try to shoot for 1/2 an hour or less, and then take questions. Always leave the audience wishing for more, rather than wishing you'd quit yakking:).

    Now tell us about the new book?

  5. I remember my first Bouchercon I attended an author panel where one of the authors never once looked at the audience, mumbled inaudibly, and was obviously so unhappy and uncomfortable sitting up there, my heart went out to her. Because it takes one set of skills to write the thing but another set entirely to sell it. Tough times these days for authors who aren't comfortable performing for a crowd and giving it that old soft sell...

    Add reading to the mix -- another set of skills entirely!

    And I guess I'd add *Respect the audience.* I've seen bestselling authors arrive and announce with an offhand chuckle that they really didn't prepare anything. As if this will endear them to those of us who took the time and trouble to show up to hear them speak.

  6. When I moderate a panel, I always try to make the panelists feel as comfortable as possible. This is not only a nice thing for them, but it also reminds me to focus on keeping myself calm and connected.

    Speaking in front of crowds of people is not one of my favorite things and yet, I hear again and again that I do a great job with my panels at conferences. I credit this all to my panelists, who make my job easy. That said, Preparation is the key!

    And just a piece of advice for panel moderators, over-prepare. You never know when one of your questions is going to be a dud and you don't want to run out of topics while in the spotlight.

  7. Hey, Kristopher! Excellent advice. Moderators!

    What makes me crazy is when a panel moderator takes over the panel and talks endlessly about their own work. Because when you moderate, you're there to make the panelists look good, not yourself...

    Which brings me to a tip for panelists: know who your moderator is (Google is your friend) and be generous to the moderator, flipping a few questions over to him so he CAN talk about his (also) wonderful writing.

  8. Reading? I hardly EVER read..and often, audience members come up to me and thank me for that! Because authors just RUIN their books by over-reading.

    A couple of pages is too long, in my opinion! Three paragraphs, a fast-paced scene, just a taste. Unless you are a TERRIFIC dramatic reader.

    And you don't have to read exactly what's on the page of the book! As Susan says, print out your pages, with big print. Then EDIT! To make it go more quickly and be more compelling to hear. YOu might take out references to things that won't make sense in the brief snippet, or something that's not critical to this particular part. The key is to make your book irresistible--so end on a cliff-hanger!

    Susan, you are terrific--I love the hint about crinkling the page corners--that is SO important! Like wearing something you don't have to fidget with--you're trying to make the audience comfortable, as well as yourself!

  9. I'm making a list of the additional tips many of you have shared--ask the audience questions, make eye contact, shorten the reading, and more. These are all important to making the audience comfortable with the writer. Thank you for all of these comments.

  10. Ah, breathing. Yes. Very important to remember that. In so many things. I recall watching someone do his first-degree Black Belt form once and I told him, "Breathe. You can't do 81 moves and hold your breath the entire time. This form should take 2 minutes. You have to breathe."

    I'm on the fence about readings. Some people are really good at it and it's a joy to listen. Others, not so much. I think you need to get an objective opinion before you try it.

    I thought I'd be a lot more nervous when I did my panel at the Raleigh Bouchercon, but I wasn't. And people in the audience said I sounded pretty good. Hopefully they weren't just trying to make me feel better. =)

  11. This is wonderful advice, Susan, and comforting for me personally because I have done these things in my first year of publication. Read only a short passage (as Roberta says, leave them wanting more), edit the passage to eliminate the distracting stuff (yep, Hank) and taking the time to prepare well.

    I actually worked with a public speaking coach to find my comfort zone as a speaker. Like you, Susan, my prior experience speaking in public was in my non-writing career (law), where judges and other lawyers pick apart what you are saying and argue back. It was important for me to flip the mental switch on that, to understand that those who attend readings want to like me, and aren't going to pick apart what I say. Such a revelation!

    I've seen you speak at Crime Bake and was impressed by your professional approach. It is great to have good role models, and you are one.

  12. Brenda, that's a lovely compliment, especially since I've never seen myself at a conference. (I'm not one for watching tapes of my "performance.") I like the idea of a speaking coach, and you were smart to take the idea seriously and seek out a professional. Your point about lawyers and judges being ready to pick apart whatever you say made me wonder if the reason I was so nervous in the beginning, in the academic setting, is that I was waiting for my colleagues to do exactly that. Professors and other students are expected to punch holes in whatever you say, to prove that they know more. (One professor actually told me to do just that.) Thanks for sharing your experience.

    Yes, Mary (and Edith), we must remember to breathe. I do sometimes find myself holding my breath. I often ask myself, What's the worst thing that can happen? I will live through it, whatever it is.

  13. Has anyone tried Toastmasters? I've heard it can be helpful getting you comfortable with public speaking, but I've never gone to a meeting.

  14. I do know someone who went to Toastmasters. She made a one-year commitment, and had to deliver a speech, which she had months to prepare. I'm not sure what else she did, but I gather each meeting involves a talk with feedback. She thought it helped her. I'm curious too but I've never been to a meeting.

  15. Susan, such great advice! I was absolutely terrified of public speaking, but I knew, when I sold my first book, that speaking in front of groups was going to part of my life if I wanted to be successful. So I took a public speaking course, for which I have been truly grateful. I still use those things I learned more than twenty years later (and many of them are things Susan and the commenters have mentioned.) Another great tip is to always open with an ice-breaker. Usually you can't predict these ahead of time, but something that connects you to the audience and makes you seem human, and if you can get a laugh, it's even better. Then everybody relaxes.

    I never read at events unless I am specifically asked to do so. If I do, it's short and edited and I will have practiced reading aloud. BUT--I write in a British voice. I cannot read in a fake British accent, so the books don't sound right. Unsettling for me, disappointing for the audience.

  16. I went to a Toastmasters meeting ty years ago, but never went back. I should've tried another group in the area. I suspect Toastmasters is like Weight Watchers in that these peer groups with a leader depend a lot on the chemistry of the individuals involved.

    Also, back in those days of shoulder pads, each Toastmasters speech began with a serial salutation (loosely paraphrased): "Thank you, Madam President, Mr. Vice President, ladies and gentlemen, and random dolphins in the back." I just couldn't do it. I knew I'd never give talks that launched from that kind of ritualized format. Maybe things have changed since then? I know should give it a go again, but I do like the idea of a speaking coach, which is probably much pricier than Toastmasters.

  17. Rhonda Lane, I took a class through a local community college adult education program. You might check out what's available in your area.

  18. Susan, your advice about what to wear made me stop and think. I hadn't really given much thought to what authors wear when presenting, but wearing something that connects to their books does sound like a good idea, but I think I'd prefer a subtle touch on this than an over-the-top wardrobe transformation (and I know you weren't suggesting that, but I'm a fan of the subtle connections). Perhaps, being a fan of Sherlock Holmes, I prefer the "aha" moment of recognition.

    The business cards I think are a necessity, and I can't imagine why an author wouldn't have these. I'm a blogger, and when I attended my first Bouchercon a few years back, I made sure that I had business cards to give to authors and others to help them remember me. And, if there is some way to make the business cards a bit memorable, I'm in favor of that. With my cards, I have a picture of me with an Edgar Allan Poe bust rather than just my picture. For authors, I think their cards should contain a connection to what they write, and so, they might have to update them from time to time, which should just be part of doing business. Bookmarks from an author's latest book might avoid updating cards yearly, or just giving the bookmarks with the cards seems like a good idea, too.

    I'm so glad to see others here emphasize the importance of connecting with the audience, "making eye contact," as FChurch states. Attending a book signing or panel event at a conference can be a very big deal to readers/fans of an author, and we want to feel the love. Edith and Lucy, engaging the audience with questions sounds perfect. And, Hallie, I like what you say about respecting the audience by not treating your appearance like it's not important enough to prepare for.

    Some authors have a real gift for talking to audiences, and if you ever get the chance to hear Patricia Polacco or Pat Conroy or Carl Hiaasen speak, please do. Three of the best I've heard. And, at my first Bouchercon, I fell in love with all the Reds at their panel, and have been in love ever since. Debs, I like your suggestion of opening with an ice-breaker.

    One negative aspect I'd like to comment on is money. I think it is the worst possible thing an author can do, to mention making money on their books. When I was at the National Book Festival in D.C. a few years back, there was a well-known author whose books I'd read and enjoyed, and who had been quite successful with her books and ventures involving them. She pretty much ruined my respect for her when she began talking about that success and "laughing all the way to the bank." Really? I felt that she was laughing at her fans and disrespecting them. So, not that I know any authors here or in the circle of favorite authors I have that would do so, never boast about the financial success of your books and spin-off projects, unless you are to say humbly that you are so happy your fans have made the popularity of your books result in television shows or movies.

  19. Thanks for the tip on community college courses for instruction in public speaking, Deborah.

  20. Kathy, I want to tell you how much I agree with your comments, but I'll comment on only two, first, about making contact with the audience and, second, not talking about money. If we have any success, however much or little it is, we have it because of readers who like our books. Whenever anyone tells me they like my latest novel, I want to tell them how much I appreciate that. Without satisfied readers, I wouldn't be publishing. I love talking to readers and getting to know what they like or dislike. People are endlessly fascinating.

    As for the comments on money, most people don't really want to know how much we make. Most readers think all of us, even midlisters, are making a fortune and they want to maintain that illusion of the magical life of the writer. Why should I tell them otherwise? I wouldn't make disparaging comments to my clients about money if I were a lawyer, so why do it as a writer? I did hear one very successful writer make dismissive remarks about how much money he was making and I've never felt the same way about him and his work since.

    Thanks for adding your thoughts on business cards as well.

  21. I attended a panel where one of the author's spent her entire talk justifying why it was perfectly fine for her to set her books in a present-day culture and country she had never visited. Having spent a few years researching, writing, and presenting on this topic regarding First Nations and Native American research, I thought I might have something to offer. I worked with a team of Native American academics in developing a new research methodology that would not be invasive, intrusive, disrespectful, or misrepresent the culture.

    I looked for an opportunity to pose a question or make a comment during the Q&A portion of the panel, but the author left no room for questioning her technique. Her topic was presented in such a way as to close off discussion and prevent the asking of questions that would help her justify her position. I have to admit that I can think of no way to do that, but there might have been if it was somehow written into the story.

    My advice is to make any presentation open to questions so that you can respond and that members of your audience can feel free to ask. Open up. Invite discussion. While writing fiction is an opportunity to put your opinion into a good story, it doesn't validate misrepresenting the truth. Don't take a defensive posture. You can only benefit from an audience that is included in the discovery of your work. If you can't do that you will expose your writing to valid criticism.

  22. Great point, Reine -- We could probably do another entire blog on the art of inviting and fielding questions. And how to deal with the smart aleck ;-) in the audience who knows more than you do!

    (When I was on the road with a novel called ADDICTION I often had people in the audience who'd come to hear about the latest 12-step program and bristled with questions I could not answer. Which is another good blog topic: how to avoid misleading titles.)

  23. Laughing about the money thing. After the last talk I gave an older man and his wife came up to me and asked "How much money do you make from a book?" I was flabbergasted. At least he didn't ask it during the formal Q&A. I told him if he was writing, not to bank his retirement on the income he'd make.

  24. All good points, Hallie! Of course you can't be prepared for the smart aleck. No, not me... I am actually quite reserved. Truly! I hate arguments, but a good discussion is something else.

    It's very interesting that people would expect an author to have expertise by the very use of a word in a title. That could be a good topic of its own. But how much input does the author have on a title. I've read many complaints by authors that others have effectively made that decision for them.


  25. I'm starting to think of a blog post on research. I can't imagine writing a whole book about a culture I don't know or haven't visited. I set a series in India, where I used to live. I have several good friends there and visit every year if I can. Even so, things change and I struggle to keep up. In addition, I'm always worried I'm confusing my values with those of my characters. I have a beta reader who reads only for that (though she finds many other failings as well, alas).

    And of course we need a post on dealing with the surprises from the audience. I've had some brilliant questions from the audience and a few that completely threw me. I have adopted the Hamlet approach. To answer or not to answer, let me think about this. . . . .

  26. Susan, I think that's as perfect an attitude as we can have.

    Over the years, a number of medical students I appointed as residential peer advisors were from India and were very quick to inform me of the many cultures and ethnicities throughout the country. They were very proactive in their insistence on not making generalized assumptions of any kind but to be aware of any tendency to assume correctness based on experiential bias. Indeed they were chosen for those qualities. Our leadership program benefitted, because they had the willingness to speak up and also to ask.

    I look forward to reading your books. I am fascinated by your experiences.

  27. You've reminded me, Reine, that when I first went to India I got lots of advice from others who had been and returned. At the end, we agreed, everyone has their own India. Each experience is different. (And my first year there was the best year of my life.)

    I love the comments I've been reading here. Lots of ideas for more discussion. Thank you to everyone for sharing your thoughts, and to Hallie for inviting me here today.

  28. A very practical preparation technique from a poet who reads regularly: drink lots of water the day BEFORE the reading. She has a marvelous voice and like you Susan Oleksiw always reads and re-reads her pieces aloud before a scheduled reading. Thank you for sharing your preperation and advice.

  29. Susan, I hope I'm not adding these comments too late for you to see them tonight. I have to apologize for being so focused on the topic of authors' presentations that I forgot to mention how interested I am in your Anita Ray series. Some of my favorite books have been set in India, and a mystery series set there is something I want to read. I've put your books on my wish list and hope to get to reading them soon. Oh, and I might add that in reading more about your books and you, Susan, I have to say that you are one multi-talented writer.

  30. Having just done a library program last night, I found this both useful and interesting! It's the common sense ideas that we need to keep hearing. I find I can be all over the place- surprisingly poised one time, surprisingly nervous and scattered another. I'll use Susan's list to try and figure out why. Thanks Susan and thanks, Reds!

  31. Elizabet, thanks for the tip about drinking lots of water the day before. Worth remembering.

    Thank you for the compliment, Kathy. I hope you enjoy the Anita Ray series. I read Keating's Inspector Ghote series avidly and also enjoy Tarquin Hall's series set in India.

    Over time, Triss, I finally learned to relax and trust the audience.

    Thank you, Hallie and Reds, for hosting me.