On Smaller Crowds

One of my dear friends used to be a stand-up comedian, who tells this story about the late, great Redd Foxx: Apparently for one of his Las Vegas shows, Redd strutted onto stage to the Sanford and Son theme song. He peered out into the room, spat, and said, “I ain’t doing a show for five white people,” and walked offstage … with the band still playing him off.

A few years ago, a Shakespearean company came to my home town. They were to perform Julius Caesar, one of the shows I haven’t seen often; and I was super excited to take it in.

Unfortunately, on top of the fact that small-town Illinois isn’t much of a Shakespeare hub, the show was inexplicably slated for a Sunday matinee. As a result, the audience was myself, my wife, and I believe two other couples in a theatre that seats over 700. The curtain went up, and I could see – and feel – the reaction of the performers.

Regardless, they swung into action, and put on a show that felt as though they were treading the Globe.

You’ve got a choice to make when you look out on a disappointing audience. Whether you’re a musician or a public speaker, an actor or on a book tour, you have a choice to make. You can mope about the results and deliver a lackluster, half-hearted demonstration that will leave the few people in your audience disappointed and unlikely ever to return, or you can remember why you’re here in the first place. To entertain or inform, to educate or delight, no matter the size of the crowd.

Note that I’m hardly perfect at this. It’s difficult to put your whole heart into something and get so little energy back for it. I work at it, though, because in a way a smaller crowd can also be liberating.

You can take chances with your style and delivery that you might not want to try on a larger, more review-focused crowd. You can loosen up and interact more individually with the people who came to see you. You can pay them exactly as much attention as they deserve – they, the people to whom this performance and appearance really meant something.

It’s important to remember that. We’re owed no attention at all. Sometimes the difference between us and the gentleman on the street corner with a tinfoil hat is only in the quality of our writing and delivery, and if anyone has stopped to give us the gift of their time, then the least we can do is give them the gift of our best.

Empty auditorium

Adapting a Fable

I delivered an original speech yesterday. Well, not completely original, and not completely a speech.

The Storytelling manual is an interesting bit in Toastmasters. Like Interpretive Reading, it’s one of those which is right up my alley but which feels a bit like cheating. These aren’t speeches so much as solo performances, which I’ve already got plenty of training in. In fact, one of the commenters yesterday pointed out my “unfair advantage as an actor,” which I understand. I’m doing this manual as what they’d call a quick win in the business world, a way to progress swiftly through the checklist to the next level of the organization.

Project Three is “The Moral of the Story,” which asks you to either write an original story with a moral lesson at the end, or to adapt an existing fable into a new story. I decided to go with the second option, again, working toward that quick win.

There were a few comments that stuck out to me both as a speaker and a writer.

  1. “Maybe a bit too dramatic / Try a more natural mode of speaking.” Well, guilty as charged. As a fan of Kipling (his writing, not his imperialism), I used many of his tricks from Just So Stories, which makes the language seem a little archaic. I personally enjoy that stylistic difference and chose to make use of it, but I can understand others can find it off-putting. In terms of the performance, I chose to deliver it as though I were speaking to a room of children – since lecturing adults on morality is something I’m trying to step away from in my personal and public lives. Perhaps I should have made that clear at the outset. Either way, the drama was a choice I made, so it’s good to have the comments.
  2. “The mother’s really just a plot device.” Argh, argh, argh. True. Excellent point. While I’m working toward simplicity in a five-minute story, that shouldn’t reduce any of the characters to mere devices. And of course, it’s the mother who gets the short end of the stick, because I’m writing automatically as a man and not being as attentive as I should be. I’m embarrassed by this comment and ashamed of its accuracy, but I can take it as a reminder to watch more closely next time.
  3. “Dogs can’t talk. That was a big surprise, but it gave the moral greater impact.” I … okay, I don’t know what to tell you about this one. It’s a fable, of course animals can talk. That’s a staple of the genre. Happy accident that you felt it punched up the purpose, but an accident nevertheless.
  4. “I was so happy to see this bratty kid get his comeuppance.” I didn’t think I’d written the little boy as a brat, per se. Just as a little boy, with the tendencies I’ve observed in all little kids. They cry and cajole when they want something, and things don’t hold their interest very long when they involve work. Is that bratty? I’d call it human nature, but I wonder if this says more about my thoughts as a writer or the commenter’s experience as a listener and mother.

A couple things for me to remember. It’s always good to get feedback like this, that I can actually work on. Sometimes the comments are too positive when I do well, which is obviously nice, but doesn’t help anything except my ego.

The story was adapted from “The Goatherd and His Wild Goats,” one of the Aesop stories I’d never heard before looking for one to adapt; and I’ve included the story below.

The Mother, Her Child, and His Two Lost Dogs

Once upon a time there was a woman named Claire who lived in this very town, and this woman had a little boy, and because of this we will call her Mother Claire and we will call her little boy Caleb, for that was Caleb’s name.

Like all little boys, Caleb was sometimes quiet and sometimes he was loud, and never was he louder than on those occasions when he wanted something, and never EVER was he louder than on those occasions when he wanted something which Mother Claire would keep from him. And like all little boys, one of the things Caleb wanted more than anything in the world was a puppy to call his own.

And after asking and pleading and crying and shrieking for the better part of a month, like many parents, Mother Claire became so tired and worn out from the noise that one day she brought home a puppy for Caleb, and they named that puppy Buddy because Buddy is a very good name for a puppy.

Now Caleb had promised to take very good care of Buddy, and so he did – for a little time. He kept Buddy in his bed at night to keep him warm, and he fed Buddy the very nicest of scraps from his table, and he walked Buddy proudly around the block, and he even picked up the things which Buddy left behind, which I will not talk about because I can see by the way you smile that you know what I mean.

But after a while picking up after Buddy seemed like a nasty thing to do, and so Caleb stopped doing it, and Mother Claire had to pick up where Caleb left off. And after a while walking Buddy became a chore, and so Caleb stopped doing it, and Mother Claire had to walk far around the block before and after she went to work.

And after a while Buddy became roly-poly and round, and so Caleb called him Fatty and stopped the feeding of scraps, and Buddy got so big that Caleb had no more room in his little bed and he made Buddy sleep on the hard floor.

Then one evening in the winter – and you know how cold winter gets, my loves – one winter Caleb heard a scratching and a whining at the door, and he opened it up, and there was a little lost puppy who was long and lean and floppy-eared and so much more handsome than Fatty Buddy.

Caleb felt very sorry for the new little puppy, and he showed Mother Claire how handsome and young and friendly the new puppy was, and he took the puppy into his room, fed him actual pepperoni (which is the finest of snacks for a puppy), and tucked him up in his own bed sheets to warm him and make him a friend.

And Mother Claire saw this, and she saw that Caleb liked the new puppy best, and so she called a friend who lived on a big farm and she told him to come and he could have Buddy for his own. And Caleb said that was just fine, for the new puppy was so much more to his liking.

Now the next morning, when the snow had stopped and the sun was out and the day was fine, Caleb opened the door to walk his new best friend. But! The new puppy was much smaller than Buddy, and he slipped easily through the leash and easily through the door and ran down the street.

Caleb called after him, “But wait! Come back! You bad dog! You ungrateful dog! Didn’t I treat you better than my own Buddy?”

And the puppy called back, saying “You did, and that is why I will not stay! Because if I stay with you, one day I will be an old friend, and you will throw me aside like you did Poor Old Buddy for a new friend!” And the puppy ran off into the wide world, never to be seen again.

And as for Caleb, he grew into a man.

But Mother Claire never again brought him home a puppy.

Panel Event: Crystal Lake, IL

Good news, everybody!

I will be part of an author’s panel at Le Petit Marche in downtown Crystal Lake, IL on Thursday, August 15 at 7:00 PM.

I’m very excited to read both from my first book in the Gentleman Ghoul series, FAMISHED: THE FARM, but also a never-before revealed selection from the upcoming sequel, FAMISHED: THE COMMONS; currently in its final editing stage for Apocalypse Ink Productions.

The excitement is compounded by the fact that I’ll be joined by three other local writers from northwest Illinois.

M.E. May is currently writing a series of novels involving the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, which she calls the Circle City Mystery Series. The first novel, Perfidy, explores the depths of human perception and to what lengths a person will go in seeking revenge. Perfidy was honored on February 2, 2013, by colleagues at the Love is Murder Conference in Chicago, when Michele received the 2013 Lovey Award for Best First Novel. The second novel, Inconspicuous, was released on July 13, 2013. The third novel in the series, Ensconced, is set to be released November 15, 2013.

Annie Hansen was named the winner of the Helen McCloy Mystery Writers of America Scholarship in 2011 for her submission of Give Me Chocolate. Annie is the author of The Kelly Clark Mystery Series.

Mary Gustafson is the author of My Wish: To Fill the People With Joy, A Monk That Brought Happiness to America, about the journey of Bhante Sujatha and the Blue Lotus Buddhist Temple in Woodstock, Illinois.

The evening will begin with each of us taking 10-12 minutes to discuss our books, provide our readings, and briefly answer any audience questions about our books. There will be a short break after the first two readings, followed by the second set; after which we will begin the actual panel and take audience questions as a group.

I look forward to sharing a table with these fellow authors, and bringing a bit of toothy horror to a pleasant evening out.

On Reading

I was an actor long before I started writing. I worked – unsuccessfully – to make it on the Chicago scene.  I’d abandoned that dream, but lately I’ve signed up with a program called “Get Lit(erary),” bringing readings of fiction, drama and music to local establishments. I’ve been able to watch the most common mistakes of novice readers, and would like to address them here.

Reading is a very public performance for people who often work privately. Below are some basic tips for making the most of your readings.

1.       Speak Up and Slow Down. Most people on stage feel that they’re speaking much more slowly than they actually are. You should aim for a measured pace that keeps the audience with you, not stuck behind and straining to understand. By the same token, the person you want to hear your words is the one in the back of the house. If that means raising your voice in a large venue – within reason – then be sure to do so.

2.       Breathe. Allow yourself to take space to breathe between sentences, unless your scene’s at a breakneck pace. Breathe through your nose if you can (especially if you’re on a microphone), and breathe into your diaphragm, not just your chest. This is where speech originates – just above the navel.

3.       Engage the Audience. There’s nothing worse than a reader who keeps their nose stuck in the book they’re reading from. You know the lines, so make a point of delivering them to the crowd. Make eye contact. Look up from the script as often as you can. The audience is here to see you, to connect with you, not just to hear what you wrote. Engaging with the crowd is the biggest thing you can do to keep them entertained, involved – and more likely to buy your book.

4.       Use your Voice. When you come to a tense section of the reading, slow down and lower your voice – or speed up slightly, and raise the pitch. Which you do is a function of the scene (a lurking killer in the house vs. a race through the Ardennes), but by modifying the way you speak, you present the audience with a chance to be caught up in the action. Coming to a romantic scene? Soften your tone and draw the words out. Speak as if you were reading to a crush, or to a committed partner. Again, you know the scene – use a voice that enhances your words.

5.       Always a Full House. It doesn’t matter if the hall is packed or the bookstore has only three chairs filled with the manager, a cashier and a cat. These people are here to see you. You owe them your best. It can be hard to smile through disappointment; but hey – you’re acting now, and this is all part of the act.


Have you had reading experiences, bad or good? Trade a tip in the comments section and you’ll be entered into a drawing to win a signed copy of FAMISHED: THE FARM on its October release!


The Wisdom and The Edge

So! The good news I mentioned on Facebook yesterday comes in two flavors.

  1. Writing: At GenCon this year, I spoke with the esteemed Jennifer Brozek about returning to the online magazine The Edge of Propinquity in 2011. We agreed that my current serial, Solstice, hadn’t reached the level of  my previous story, Vorare; and that while I wasn’t interested in revisiting Vorare, we agreed that Solstice’s time had come.

    I spent the next two weeks brainstorming and scribbling frantically. I wanted to get a story down that hit my sweet spots: Weird suburbia, rural horror, the Midwestern seasons, the new age, arts and crafts, obsessive characters and boundary issues. I wanted characters who were sympathetic but vastly flawed, characters with more distinct voices and more careful research put into their development and worlds. I wanted an outline that would let me start working well in advance of my due dates and plan for photos, images, foreshadowing and more polishing than I’ve done in the past for any serial work.

    I pitched Jennifer on Friday and received a thumbs-up on Sunday afternoon that made a good day great. I am tremendously excited about this new story and its world, and will be sharing it aggressively in the lead-up to 2011 and throughout that year.

    I hope you’ll come along – it’s going to be a fantastic ride.

  2. Acting: My friend and colleague Diane Baia’s excellent play, The Wisdom of Serpents, has been picked up by Northwestern University to repeat her staged reading. I will be repeating my role as Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, which is an absolute plum for me. Historical Emperors with a dash of snark? JA, BITTE.

    I’m also elated for Diane, as one of the world’s foremost scholars on the life of Hildegard von Bingen will be taking part in the performance as well. Quite a feather in the cap of any writer, to be sure!

    This will take place on October 17 at Northwestern University. More details will, of course, be forthcoming.

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