Let me tell you about Newt, a shy young man in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Newt adores Lorena, one of the saloon women.
The narrator says Newt “was painfully aware that if the chance for personal speech ever did arise he would have no idea what to say. On the rare occasions when he had an errand that took him by the saloon he lived in terror, afraid some accident might occur which would actually force him to speak to her.”
Other than the fact he’s a character in a great novel, what does Newt have to do with writers, you ask? Many of us are like Newt and live in terror that someone will ask, “what’s your book about?” Or that we’ll be offered a chance to speak in public.
As a writer you’ve spent hours upon hours honing your writing skills, drafting, revising and polishing your work. Perhaps you have a finished manuscript. Perhaps you even managed to find an agent or a publisher without actually talking face to face about your novel.
Now comes the next part of your job – letting people know about the book. For a published author that means talking to readers and reviewers. For unpublished writers, it means talking to agents, editors and publishers.
And that will result in what I call The Terror of Newt – that paralyzing fear that dries your mouth and blanks your mind.
If you had unlimited funds, you’d hire a mouthpiece. But you don’t, so if you are to do your job of letting people know about your book, you must conquer The Terror of Newt. Here are a few suggestions to help you.
• Join a speakers’ group, such as Toastmasters. Until I moved away from Vancouver, I belonged to Off the Page – a local Toastmasters group for writers who want to hone speaking skills. Excellent and collegial.
• If you are part of a writing group, consider devoting one meeting a month to speaking skills.
• If you don’t belong to a writing group, gather a few of your colleagues and create a speakers’ group.
What skills might you practice to beat back The Terror of Newt? How about:
Workshops/conference presentations: have a group member present a short workshop on aspects of craft, blogging, publishing, public readings, or pitching. The workshop leader gains experience in developing material for a workshop, and in leading a workshop; the members learn a new skill, and in interactive workshops (such as reading one’s work, or pitching) practice the skill.
Interviews: run mock interviews. The interviewer gains experience not only in asking questions, but also in listening to the answers and, where appropriate, expanding the interview; the interviewee learns to answer both scripted and impromptu questions.
Panels: similar to workshops, but your panels can involve several members of the group. The moderator learns to structure a panel, set the topic, lead the questions, and manage panel members; the panel members learn to participate as one of a group.
Improv: a group member leads the improv and lobs topics to individual members, who speak for one or two minutes on the topic. Try to select topics that focus on the writer’s work, background, and process to give the writer experience in addressing the most common questions.
Writing can be lonely work. Writing groups help us manage that. Speaking about your writing projects, whether to a small group or a large conference, can be terrifying. If you have a writers’ group (or if not, if you join a group like Toastmasters), you can alleviate some of the terror by devoting time on a regular basis to speaking skills.
What things have you done to conquer The Terror of Newt?