“Preparing for the Audience” (by Michael Haskins)

A former journalist, Michael Haskins began his fiction-writing career in the pages of EQMM’s 2007 March/April double issue, with the Department of First Stories tale “Murder in Key West.” The central character of that story, Key West journalist Mick Murphy, was soon to star in the author’s first novel. He has since reappeared in eight more books, including one to be released March first, entitled Mick Murphy’s Law. He was also featured in the Shamus-nominated story “Vampire Slayer Murdered in Key West” (EQMM September/October 2011) and in the story “Hemingway’s Typewriter,” in this year’s January issue. The author has created in Mick a character with many parallels to himself. Both know the Florida Keys well; it has been Michael’s home for over a decade, and in addition to having served as information officer for the city of Key West, Michael recently became one of the organizers of the Mystery Writers Key West Fest. In such roles, he’s had to learn how to meet the public, and he shares some of his insights on public speaking here.  —Janet Hutchings

I’ve been asked to speak to the Friends of the Library in Marathon, one of the islands that make up the Florida Keys this month. It’s a great opportunity for a writer. Most of us are homebound, as we write alone, and some even shy when it comes to speaking in public.

Today, as the publishing world changes and the writer’s role expands, we must be willing and able to meet the public and entertain them with stories and backgrounds of our characters and ourselves.

Most of the audiences I’ve encountered consider my books, the characters in them, and me to be one. If they walk away bored, they won’t buy your book. If you’re able to entertain the audience with anecdotes that make them feel they’ve gotten an insight into you, your book, and your characters, they are more likely to buy and enjoy your book.

A little humor goes a long way in relaxing those listening, and it doesn’t hurt the writer to see people laughing with him or her instead of at. The humor should be personal. I like to work in an ex-wife story about using some of the ex’s uniqueness in one or more of my characters. Mentioning how upset she’d be knowing that she helped me create a character that’s loved/hated usually gets a laugh from the guys in the audience and snickers from the women.

The audience is there to listen and ask questions, so ask them questions too. Ask for a raise of hands of those who read fiction and then nonfiction, and you can always ask who’s there because they tagged along with someone. Get those people listening and you’ve captured the whole audience. Thank those who got dragged along for not falling asleep when you’re done. If you get a laugh, you’ve done well.

Set the scene with humor and the audience likes you. They not only like you, but many of the faces staring back at you will want to be you. Of course, by you I mean a writer. I often tell my son when he complains about the “trolley” full of tourists slowing traffic in Key West, that those people envy you, want to be you because they think that you live in paradise.

It’s not much different from how the public sees writers. One book or ten books, a writer is a writer and the public has its expectations. If they only knew the reality of a writer’s life!

How do you make it easy to stand in front of people at a book signing or a library gathering? If you have a simple answer, please let me know. It’s work, and today a necessary part of being a writer.

I have learned from standing in front of an audience wishing I’d checked to see if I spilt something on my shirt at lunch some things I’d call universal.

First, eat lunch afterward!

Second, there are stock questions you can expect and plan for. Have that humor set aside and waiting as soon as the question is asked.

This happens to every writer, I don’t care who you are. You’re at a party, a book signing, or library talk, someone is going to tell you they have a great idea for a story, but not the time to write it, so how about teaming up. Be gentle, be kind, but remind them that if they write one page a day for a year, they’ll have a 365 page book. One page!

But there are fun questions too! Here are some I seem to be asked at talks and book signings, and my answers.

Q: What made you want to be a writer? A: Murdering my ex-wife (women writers, feel free to change this to ex-husband) would get me jail time, as a writer I can kill her/him repeatedly and get paid for it. Smile as you say this.

Q: Where do you get your ideas? (It’s always good to tell the public occasionally “That’s a good questions.”) A: I get ideas from the short sidebar newspaper articles I read. They’re usually about the unusual and often go along with the “what if” theory of writing. Most people miss these stories, so when your book or short story is published, people wonder how you got that idea.

Q: What’s your writing schedule like? A: My answer today is different from what it was when I also worked at a steady job. I mention how I used to be up at 5 A.M. and write for an hour or two and then go to work. Today, I tell them, it’s up at 6 A.M. and I’m at work; I write longer because I am working at home.

Q: What’s your writing day like? A: I always begin with something about how what works for one may not work for another, so try to find the time/place/system that works for you. Me, I tell them, I write daily—Monday through Friday—and those days writing are more than sitting at the laptop. Writers write themselves into dead-end corridors all the time. Our characters take on a life of their own and don’t care what we had planned for them. How do I handle it? I wander around the house, talking (arguing) with my imaginary friends. I live in a stilt house (eight feet above the flood level is the law in the Florida Keys) so I often go downstairs, under the house that we’ve set up as another room for entertaining, maybe smoke a cigar and think. My wife calls it goofing off, but to my imaginary friends and me it’s as much a part of my writing process as the keyboard and editing. Giving a little personal information can endear you to your audience and they walk away thinking of you as a friend.

You have to find your comfort zone when meeting the public. You are serious about writing but you see the humor in your life. I found that the audience wants to find a similarity between us. They want to relate, and you should help them with your anecdotes.

Prepare. List items you want to talk about on an index card. Rehearse your talk, your humor in front of a mirror, with your significant other (I avoid my children, they are much too scary as an audience). Know what you want to say, in general. Choose a short chapter from your book to read and then go to the Q&A and have fun. If there’s a back story to the chapter you’ve read, give it to them before the Q&A. It’s another personal touch the audience takes home with them. If you are enjoying your time with them, they will enjoy their time with you.

What’s that get you? A good afternoon or evening, a growing fan base of readers, and you’ll be a little more relaxed the next time you get to stand up and introduce yourself. Lunch or dinner can follow as a celebration ritual.

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One Response to “Preparing for the Audience” (by Michael Haskins)

  1. Larque Press says:

    Very nice, Michael. Thank you for sharing this!

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