Butterflies with machetes
When I was a child of nondescript age in school, I hated speaking in front of the class. And I don't just mean 'hated' in that casual way that we've all come to use it ('Oh, I hate it when someone doesn't ask if I want sugar in my tea'). No, I mean HATED. With every fibre of my scrawny being, with every nerve and every sinew. I would curse the fates that had shat upon me with such contempt that I now had to face this wretched ordeal. HATED.
And I was terrible at it: a red-faced and mumbly, whispering words so fast that they blended into one unintelligible hiss of embarrassment.
But I suffered these indignities, because I knew that one day, one day I would be free from school and all its trials, and I would never have to speak to more than a handful of people at a time. My younger self sat at the back of the class and clung to the promise of this golden day, when no one would make it give presentations on the water cycle or perform stupid plays about peer pressure.
So you can imagine my delight when I found out that my dream job - writing stories and then illustrating them - came with the added bonus of having to occasionally address the public. Delight! Absolute. Bloody. Delight.
Writers are called upon to do it all the time which, when you think about it, makes no sense at all. Whoever thought that people whose job involves many, many hours of quiet pensive solitude would be comfortable with booming their thoughts to an assembled crowd of strangers?
When my first book was published and the publishers asked me to do some talking of the promotional variety, of course I agreed to do it. I knew it was the done thing, and it was an honour to be invited, and that on the great scale of human endeavour it wasn't much. And Megan from the publicity department was far too nice to say no to.
Fortunately for me, the first talk I ever did was a resounding failure. Having spent hours on a PowerPoint presentation about how I got into graphic novelling and the working process involved, I discovered some ten minutes before the talk was due to begin, when my terror was at its zenith, that I was billed as 'talking about my Ecuadorian heritage and how it influenced my work'. Which was a surprise. The main character of Britten and Brülightly is from Ecuador, but that has no bearing on the story and is really only mentioned in passing in the book. I mean I'm very proud of my Anglo-Ecuadorian heritage - proud enough to own an Ecuadorian flag for sporting events (even though I hate sporting events) - but in my work I would class my mixed ancestry as roughly the same level of influence as my shampoo.
The theme of the talk was really the only selling point, as of course nobody knew who I was, but the number of people who are interested in comics AND Ecuador is very select. In fact I think it's just me, is it? So in the end I had an audience of six: the four librarians who organised the festival, the lady selling my book, and an old lady who went to Ecuador once. None of them were at all interested in graphic novels.
Turned out, though, that that huge laughable failure was the best thing that could have happened, because it meant I could ease into public speaking slowly, like you'd ease into a very hot bath [of sulphuric acid]. I cautiously sounded out ideas that I thought people would want to hear and could watch the response in those 12 eyes without having to worry about those scores of other eyes looking on. It wasn't pleasant, but it was educational, and the relief of it being over was the most exhilarating thing I'd ever felt.
That was my first 'event'. Over the months that followed I was involved with several more 'events', mostly panel discussions at literary festivals. Panel discussions are much more user-friendly: it's like a guided, heat-seeking discussion - precise and effective. Still, the panic of actually being there and having so many people expecting something from you is overwhelming. One of the few things I remember from the blur of a panel I was on at the Edinburgh Book Festival was the sudden realisation that I couldn't feel my feet. I had no idea adrenalin worked that way. I didn't know one of the options of the 'fight or flight' mode was 'sit'.
I was a newly published author, and I knew nothing. Now, years later (all four of them), I think there's a chance I might've gotten the hang of this, purely from doing it a lot. I'm fairly sure I'm better than I was, at least. The nerves are still there - the shakes, the sweats, the furious tumbling word-erfall (I can probably burn around 900 calories per event) - but around those I've now learnt to pause for breath, articulate myself, and look at the audience. I can even raise laughs in a room beyond just my own nervous cackle which, let me tell you, is surprisingly rewarding.
I feel like I should be rounding off with some advice, although apart from 'stand, talk, repeat' I'm not sure what else I can suggest. Although, even at my shyest I've always enjoyed talking to people individually, and it turns out that the way to get around talking to groups is just to imagine you're talking individually to a lot of people at the same time. Which you are, of course.
I'll tell you what you shouldn't do, which is follow popular advice and imagine your audience naked. That is impractical and very distracting.
The photo above was taken just before my talk at Laydeez Do Comics on Monday. The group very kindly obliged my demand for them to look bored for the purpose of illustrating this blog post. (Sadly the photo showing Sarah McIntyre swooning with tedium didn't come out…)
I swear they didn't look like this when I was talking, though. My talk was very interesting.
If you have an interest in comics - reading or creating - I heartily recommend moseying along to one of the monthly Laydeez Do Comics events (bit of a misnomer: men are welcome too). There's a monthly one in London, but other groups have started in Bristol and Toronto. A nicer, more welcoming crowd you'd be hard pressed to find. Plus, there's amazing cake. And you can have a glass of wine/bottle of beer for a pound. A POUND.
SONG du JOUR
The Big Bamboozle by Barry Adamson
More disturbing than the album cover is the current top Youtube comment that suggests this song is in some way connected to Piers Morgan. Don't let that put you off.