Surviving your first literary slam – thoughts from a veteran

Posted: April 27, 2013 in Writing
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On Wednesday this week I watched by good buddy and only client Callum perform at his first ever lit slam¹, promoting new hacker fiction² novel, The Geek Manifesto.

geekmanifesto-ebookIn the spirit that these kind of events engender, and I guess in the hope that other writers may benefit from his successes and failures, I  asked him a few questions about how it went, and this is what he said.

“I should probably set the scene first off, as I understand that there are a wide variety of writerly shindigs ranging from the book launch to the finger-snapping, beret-wearing “happening” and many others in between. This was a bookswap, hosted by local indie bookshop heroes The Big Green Bookshop, a regular event they run where people come along with a book they want to swap, talk about it and swap it. This particular time it was billed as a “local author special event”, and featured myself, Andrew Blackman (On the Holloway Road, A Virtual Love) and Louise Millar (The Playdate, Accidents Happen).

In this case, the three of us sat on the stage in the back room of The Great Northern Railway Tavern, read a short excerpt from our books and then answered a few random questions from the crowd, before saying a little about the books we’d brought along to swap³.

On balance, I think it went okay for a first time (for me, the other two were old hands), but not without a few learning opportunities, as we say in the education biz.

1. Prepare. I think I could have just turned up and read from whichever page I happened to turn to and just rolled with whatever came my way, and in this kind of informal set-up I’m sure I’d have been fine. I didn’t do that though, and neither did my (far more) professional colleagues. People have come along to be entertained or informed or just maybe even inspired a little bit (my guess is I provided little more than bemusement) so I think you have to put in a little effort. The lovely Louise Millar had pages of typed notes, and although she does this kind of thing a lot and definitely in way more upscale places than the back room of a pub, she was totally charming, engaging and funny, and I bet she puts a bunch of thought into her whole show. I spent a long time choosing which section of my book to read (see point 3 below) and quite a bit of time thinking about the way I was going to introduce myself. I spoke about having used Yahoo Answers to get some advice, which I was going to segue into a slightly longer story about when I’d used it for some book research about trying to buy a tiger, but in the end cut it short. Which brings me to point 2

2. Be reactive. Yes you’ve prepared, but don’t feel you have to stick to the script. These events tend to have their own energy and character, and you can’t really tell how they’re going to shake out until you’re there. Be ready to change things up, say a little more about this and less about that, cut the swears down or ramp them up, and maybe sometimes just STFU. I think I possibly needed to do that a little more at times. It’s hard to critique oneself, but I felt that STFU was exactly what other people were thinking when I opened my goddam maw yet again.

3. Choose the right reading for the right crowd. It can be hard to know who your crowd are going to be before time, but where possible, pick on reading them whichever bit they’re going to dig the most. Rowdy young Hemingway fans? Read the fight scene. Sensitive poet types? Read the scene where the gauche lead tries to tell the girl he loves her. You get the idea. This may not always be possible and if you’re playing to the local Marxist/Leninist society and you’re reading from Why Capitalism Fucking Rocks and Lefties All Suck Balls, you’re probably doomed from the start. In my own case, I think going for the scene in which the main character in The Geek Manifesto sexually assaults a loathsome female co-worker, maybe didn’t play too well with the predominantly single, feminista crowd that turned up at my gig. But you live and learn, right.

4.Work the crowd. I’m pretty sure that this is sound advice for anyone who wants to shift units at these events, just as I’m sure that it’s advice I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to take myself. I find it hard enough not to be actively rude to people in the normal course of events, so being actively pleasant and charming is a struggle. And I’m also pretty sure that you can’t hurl a battered copy of  How to Win Friends and Influence People into the crowd at a literary event without hitting half a dozen annoying weirdoes. So, if you can keep smiling and chat to everyone, total respect, my friend. This was another area in which I felt a little outclassed by my fellow wordsters: Andrew Blackman (despite looking like the most terrified man I’d ever seen, before the event) was thoughtful, self-effacing, witty and clearly a thoroughly nice dude; Louise Millar was warm, funny, whip-smart and seemed genuinely happy to listen to any idiot who rolled along (myself included). I’m gonna have to work on my people skills.

5. Have fun. Despite my many shortcomings, I have to say the whole thing was a blast. It felt decidedly preposterous to be sitting on a stage in an enormous Chesterfield winged armchair, talking to a bunch of people about my little book (several of whom were clearly confused by my presence at the event and one of whom visibly recoiled in horror when I said “fuck” and then went outside and vomited all over the lounge bar in disgust4). But I embraced it and threw myself into the whole thing and smiled the whole damn way through. And I think that counts for a lot. If you look like you’re having a good time, people will generally have fun too.

So I’ve got a few evenings free at the moment;  just let me know if you need  a keen young writer to come and shake up your lit event.”

Sounds like good advice to me!

¹Okay I know this doesn’t exactly make me a veteran, but you grow up fast in this game.

²I’m not sure if this is the best genre description. It is about hackers, but it’s about other things too and runs the risk of it sounding a bit too niche. Someone suggested calling it “contemporary urban techno-fiction”, which I quite like but I’m not sure deals with the “too niche” problem.

³In a strange turn of writer synchronicity, fellow author Millar brought along a book by the American writer John Fante, who’d been second choice for my own book to bring and swap. Millar had brought the one Fante I’ve not read and so I was desperate to swap with her, but wasn’t sure of the etiquette of us authors pairing up, so I let it go. I ended up swapping Anne Lamott’s fantastic book about writing Bird by Bird, for a stack of amateur poetry books. Pretty sure I know who won here.

Authorial postulate.

  1. […] myself,  Louise Millar (The Playdate, Accidents Happen, The Hidden Girl) and a couple of others (Millar gets a name check because we’ve done stuff together before  and she rocks!) talk about which books we would choose if Crouch End was lost beneath the rising oceans and we only […]

  2. […] in the south west of the USA, sage brush and cactus, odd balls, diners – you get the picture. Last time I did a book thing with Millar we’d both chosen John Fante novels, so I know we share a love of American […]

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