How not to bore your audience at a reading, Viet Thanh Nguyen

“Am I the only one who finds literary readings boring? I usually avoided them. Then I had to go on book tour and tried not to bore people. I learned to think of myself as a performer rather than a reader.”

Here are some tips for writers who have to speak in front of audiences:

1. Do not be defensive and think that you are a writer and that writing is different from performing. I have seen poets who say that the words on the page are what matter and therefore they will read them with minimal interpretation. I invite them to do so in the privacy of their own rooms, because listening to them in public was painful (for me). …

2. Perform from a script rather than just read your book. I also like to blow up my font to 16- or 18-point size to make the text easier to see.

3. Make eye contact with your audience. Not just once or twice. Regularly. This will help keep the audience involved.

4. Do not just read 20- to 40-minutes straight while never looking up from your book and speaking in a soft monotone. PLEASE.

5. Consider reading just short excerpts and insert them into a story you are telling or a talk about some larger issue. Imagine what the larger story or talk is about

If you’re lucky enough to get an auditorium, dim the lights to get your audience in the mood for a performance. 

Dress up, whatever that means to you.
 A vintage outfit, a motorcycle jacket, a cowboy hat. T.C. Boyle looks like a punk rock statesman.

Consider visual aids
. T.C. Boyle has the advantage of actual movies made from his work that he can show. For my initial tour of The Sympathizer, I had a friend make a three-minute highlight reel from American movies of the war in Viet Nam.

If you just cannot perform, consider having someone interview you

Writing programs should teach their students how to perform.
 Just a one-unit course. 

Last, bring energy to the room.
 Your energy level will be the room’s energy level, which comedians understand

Full details in his article at Lithub here.

See some Zadie Smith writing tips here.

Philip Roth on writing

If you write every day, eventually you’ll have a book.

I can’t explain the fact that there have been a series of books coming rather regularly out of me. I work most days and if you work most days and you get at least a page done a day, then at the end of the year you have 365.

-from a 2009 interview with Tina Brown for The Daily Beast

Learn to edit yourself.

Part of being a writer is being able to read what you’ve written and see what’s missing, see what needs development, see what’s suggested by what you wrote. It’s like a trampoline. You know, you’re jumping up and down on this draft, and each jump is an idea.

-from an interview with Robert Siegel at NPR

Write towards what works for the story (or for you).

You go with what’s alive. Two thousand pages of narrative and six lines of dialogue may be just the ticket for one writer, and two thousand pages of dialogue and six lines of narrative the solution for another.

-in a 1984 interview with The Paris Review

Work sentence by sentence.

Solving the problem of the book you’re writing always remains hard work, and your progress is snail-like. Even if you write a book in two years, sometimes you get a page a day, sometimes you get no pages … every sentence raises a problem, and essentially what you’re doing is connecting one sentence to the next. And you write a sentence and you have to figure out what comes next or what doesn’t come next.

-from a 2013 interview with NPR

Jonathan Franzen: 10 Rules for novelists and mocking

Writer Franzen recently re-published his 10 rules for novelists and has received quite some mocking by some other writers.

These rules first appeared in 2010 in a Guardian series (with a Zadie Smith set of tips amongst others).

Here are his rules and then Chuck Wendig’s rost. (Wendig himself has written 1001 Ways to Write Great Fiction. )

1. The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.

2. Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.

3. Never use the word then as a conjunction—we have and for this purpose. Substituting then is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many ands on the page.

4. Write in third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.

5. When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.

6. The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than The Metamorphosis.

7. You see more sitting still than chasing after.

8. It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.

9. Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.

10.You have to love before you can be relentless.

And Wendig’s response (Wendig also takes apart each line):


Ah well how easy to be mocked.

Link to Zadie’s tips here

Franzen’s new book of essays is here (amazon link) I believe he writes on the loss of wildlife and birds, amongst other occupations.

Zadie Smith. Writing Tips.

In 2010, The Guardian made a series asking for writing tips. Here are Zadie Smith’s:

  1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.

  2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.

  3. Don’t romanticize your “vocation”. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no “writer’s lifestyle”. All that matters is what you leave on the page.

  4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.

  5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.

  6. Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.

  7. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.

  8. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.

  9. Don’t confuse honours with achievement.

  10. Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.

Zadie Smith and Jeffrey Eugenides (New Yorker bios) sat down in then October 2016 New Yorker Festival discuss writing habits. The two agreed that eight hundred words made for a good day (though Zadie as a child could write more). Eugenides spends six to eight hours at his desk in a sitting, while Smith believes that her work goes bad after four.  More in the conversation below.


More writing tips on style here (writing style tips ); from Philip

She has said: "It might not always feel meditative, but when the book is very good you'll notice it is because time passes in a strange way in a book you love… four hours you didn't even notice, you haven't even moved from the sofa. To me that's kind of the ideal writing mind."

(as an aside, to my mind she is describing what positive psychology calls Flow studied by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi)

She doesn’t glamourise being a writer, but she has written some good perspective as well:  “Some writers are the kind of solo violinists who need complete silence to tune their instruments. Others want to hear every member of the orchestra—they’ll take a cue from a clarinet, from an oboe, even. I am one of those. My writing desk is covered in open novels. I read lines to swim in a certain sensibility, to strike a particular note, to encourage rigour when I’m too sentimental, to bring verbal ease when I’m syntactically uptight. I think of reading like a balanced diet; if your sentences are baggy, too baroque, cut back on fatty Foster Wallace, say, and pick up Kafka, as roughage. If your aesthetic has become so refined it is stopping you from placing a single black mark on white paper, stop worrying so much about what Nabokov would say; pick up Dostoyevsky, patron saint of substance over style.

I think you follow your contemporaries from afar.  At least, I do.

She was at my university, we only overlapped a year. We never met, just crossed paths in passing. I was a science specialist with a theatre and writing interest; she was in the Arts.  She did edit the May Anthologies (as did Nick Laird), which I did a few years after along with a friend. (I also in a different year had a poem published in them, as did Laird)

I knew her work. I knew she was with Nick Laird who qualified into law and was a practising solicitor for several years while also a poet before moving into full time writing.

Working in the city and writing I could connect with.  

Her voice reminds me of my West London.  

While she is not my yellow brown banana colour, she’s not the causcasian pink white of the UK’s last 20 or 30 prime ministers and kings and queens

So she looks like me in that she bears no resemblence to our ruling elite - difference plus difference equals something similar?  But, she is who she is - the multi-cultural poster child thing plastered on to her, probably unfairly.

I mention Nick Laird, as I gather they were friends a long time before marrying, and friendship presumably came before love.  They also edit each other’s work.

Anoushka somewhat edits mine of late, and she does see an early draft before almost anyone else. I’d give it to someone like my playwright mentor friend, Jane Bodie, but am too embarrassed about the state of an early draft.  

“Do you want to make a fool of yourself in front of me, or in front of x amount of people?” (Smith/Laird)

I recall reading she was cautious about having children (who would bring children into this world…) and then learning she had a child (then another) about the same time as me.

Most is written about her novels. But, I love her essays. I trace Susan Sonntag, John Berger, David Foster Wallace all in her essay writing.

Her sentences are great in either form, but her angle of opinion always seems to provoke a thought in me from her non-fiction.  The conversations you can see of her on youtube are erudite and thoughtful. Maybe one day I’ll bump into her in NW6/10 or NYC.

Read more tips here - top writing style tips - some thoughts from Ursula K Le Guin - Philip Pullman.

Lastly, another in conversation with youtube of her chat at around 2013