Wednesday, February 24, 2010

I need my busker experience

Buskers are those musicians--singers, guitar players, the occasional violinist--playing in subways and street corners. For some entertainers, this is an opportunity to perfect performance skills and learn how to connect with an audience. After all, if you can get someone to stop and listen to you in the street, then you must be doing something right.

So, I've been wondering: As writers, do we get that similar kind of opportunity?

Now, more than ever, writers are told to get agents and not to self-publish. And, maybe, if we're talking about sheer numbers of books sold, that's the way to go. (Maybe.)

But, I wonder if this strategy separates us from the people we're actually trying to reach. Some of the most useful criticism I've gotten came from audience reactions when I read in public. Simply by the volume of their applause, by their silence, by their laughs, and by their tears, I came to pick up on what was working in my stories and what wasn't.

Michelle mentioned yesterday that I was down on my writing. I'm realizing that part of my depression comes from the fact that I feel too separated from the people I'm trying to entertain. I'm wondering if I need my busker experience.

How would your writing be affected if you had to present your work directly to an audience with no middle person to help you? Would you learn faster? Would your writing evolve in a different direction that it has? Would that be a good thing?

Note added: Please check out Tricia's comment on this post. She makes my point better than I do!


  1. Yes, I would learn faster.

    If we don't know we're doing something wrong, minor or major, than how can we fix that wrongness? If I don't know that the dialogue in a certain scene is coming off as overly dramatic as, gasp, shudder, melodramatic, then how can I fix it? The answer: I can't.

    I had a critique of the first 1,000 words of one WIP. It came across as, to more than one reader, as melodramatic, and the character came across in a way I had not intended. So, I went back, paid way more attention to things, and fixed what was broken.

    We are not gods with our writing. We don't create perfection. We need input in order to improve. For me, faster input is a plus.

    Great post and food for thought on a cold Wednesday. I say we kidnap the groundhog next year.


  2. I think for me, that it would depend on what I was reading. If I took a random few pages out of my current WIP then I think the audience reaction would be a snore. Now if I took a few pages that I knew were action packed, or emotional, that would be different. I don't know if that would help me learn faster, but I do think it would allow me to see where, or if, I've made any mistakes.

    I think Davin, and this is just my own selfishness speaking, that in order for you to get your "busker groove on" you need to develop your own writing blog where you could throw us a bone of your tid-bits, that way we could all see your writing. I've heard so much about it and bribed Michelle one night to let me read some of it, however, a million dollars wasn't enough.

    Not only would it help you in your "depression", it would also allow you to help us with our own craft, and give us a sneak peak into your little world. I, for one, would be the first person to "follow" you. I know you're a very busy man but please think about it. **begging on both knees**

  3. I don't think reading aloud to an audience will address strengths and weaknesses in your writing.

    Think of it this way: have you ever heard anyone butcher a good joke?

    If you took one passage and had three different people read it aloud, you can get different reactions based on the reader, regardless of the passage.

    Do you read too fast or too slow? You you enunciate clearly, or garble some words? Do you have a deep radio voice that can make a shopping list a pleasure to listen to, or a nasally voice that is like fingers on a chalkboard no matter what words are spoken? All of these variables will have an impact on audience reaction, and they are all unrelated to the writing.

    I think blogging is one way to test the waters for your voice in general, but it won't act as a litmus test for storyline or characterization in a novel.

    In my opinion, the best way to busker your experience is through a diverse group of beta readers who will read a MS front to back, and judge it based on its entirety.

  4. Ummmm, I have nightmares about reading my stuff in public. But if wetting myself in front of an audience would advance my career . . . ; )

  5. I tend to agree with Rick. I've never read my work in public, though I occasionally read it aloud to myself. I just hand out stuff to family, friends and my critique group. Unfortunately, I get a lot of "great stuff", "I loved it" feedback because no one wants to say "Man this really sucked". I don't know what the answer is. What was the question?

  6. Reading aloud to an audience and having your intended audience read your works seems like two completely different experiences to me.

    As a novelist, your intended audience are readers and of course you'll need to keep them in mind as you compose your novel, but I'm not sure as to whether or not input in the "creation stage" from the audience works for or against the novel.

  7. This was a great post. But instead of looking at it as not directly reaching your audience, why not think of something published widely as reaching a larger audience? OTOH, I see you are making a great point in looking for that physical connection, which makes a lot of sense. There is something to be said for reading to a room of people and discussing it afterwards.

  8. Without trying to completely reiterate what others have said, I don't think reading our works aloud is what is needed. For one thing, many of us are not good at speaking before groups (even if we're reading our own beloved works). The reactions you get from the audience could involve how you are presenting the words as much as what the words are themselves.

    A perfect example I can point to is the student speeches I got to hear at my graduation this past weekend. The one student that I admired more than the other three had more to do with his ease at speaking rather than what he was saying. Sure the content in his speech was compelling, but it was not that distinct from the rest. Each of them told their own story about how they got there, what they had to overcome, etc. What made his exceptional was how conversational he was, as opposed to the rest who read from their speeches with no real "voice".

  9. Those of us in critique groups do present to an audience, and sometimes one does get the laugh or gasp that is good for the writer-soul. But they are also there to be blunt in a way that a casual audience wouldn't, so I'm not sure it's what you mean.
    But I've got two examples that I think meet what you are saying.
    Last night at my crit group one of the writers was reading aloud a chapter that is mid-way through her WWI novel-in-progress. A young woman at a nearby table in the cafe where we meet got up and came over to ask what book that was we were reading--she wanted to buy it. Now, if that doesn't pump a writer's ego I don't know what would.
    I felt the same rush when I read a snippet of a kid's story while at a meeting held in a bookstore. A young boy who had stopped to listen to us reading, hopped up and down when I finished and said he wanted to hear the rest. So I was flying high.
    I'm thinking that's more along the lines of what you are thinking. But how could we do it? Perhaps hold something like poetry slams at cafes but for fiction?

  10. Scott, I'm very grateful to have my critique group around me, willing to help me whenever I need them. In your case, it looks like you got some helpful feedback from whoever reviewed your WIP, but for me I sometimes wonder how honest my friends--because we have become friends at this point--are willing to be. Would they ever tell me simply that I wasn't good enough the way a stranger would?

    Anne, you hit upon something else I've been wanting to post on, so thanks! I'm delightfully surprised by your suggestion of having my own blog. Of course when Lit Lab started, it was just me, but I felt early on that I didn't want to post much of my own writing. Still, there are a few of my exceprts and short stories around here somewhere if you poke around! I was also planning to post some links on the latest short stories that have come out. :)

    Rick, I think you're right that having a diverse group of readers helps, but I think there are also limitations to that. I do personally think reading aloud to an audience is helpful. I think so from experience, both in reading my own stories, and in one opportunity when a professional actor (Joshua Harto, who had small roles in Dark Knight and Iron Man) read one of my stories out loud. In both cases I learned about what was working and what wasn't. Granted, those had to be short selections.

    Rebecca, ha ha! I should tell you that all three times I've read my fiction in front of a large audience my leg has started shaking uncontrollably. :)

    Chuck. Um. Thanks? :P You should try reading it to an audience, just to see.

  11. Crimey, I agree they are different things. I happen to think both are valuable and helpful to a novel. I think there is an element of entertainment in everyone's writing, literary or not, and the reaction of a large audience can, in my opinion, be more honest than that of a reviewer.

    Jennifer, I am speaking from a side of ignorance in that I've only very very rarely had feedback on published material. Perhaps that does end up being honest and direct in some ways. With some of my latest published shorts, I've tried to include contact information wherever I can, hoping for such feedback. So far, nothing.

    Eric, thanks for your comment. (And congrats on the graduation again!) Okay, you have a good point. A bad reading will be bad. But, assuming one can pull off at least a decent reading, I believe the kind of feedback you can get is unique.

    Tricia, THANK YOU! Yes, that is what I'm trying to get at. No, it doesn't need to be the public reading I mentioned in my post, but some form of that direct (and unexpected) interaction with a potential audience. The two examples you brought up are perfect. Those people could have completely ignored the readers, but they were captivated. That must have been wonderful!

  12. I have a few thoughts from someone who does share work, for free, on my blog every week. Work that's only edited once before I stick it out there. Call me a "busker".

    Originally, I thought I might get some helpful feedback. I don't, really...everyone who reads my serial novels either comments positively, remains silent, or clicks the little "Ugh" button I have available below the posts. Constructive feedback isn't something you're probably going to get from a blog.

    I can tell you what I do get though - and perhaps that's what these musical buskers get...and that's confidence. Every single positive comment, even if they only come occasionally gives me a motivational boost to work harder on the stuff I'm writing for eventual publication. It gives me a connection to the reader, and the reassurance that at least one person out there liked what I wrote.

    For every negative "mark", I get to make a decision - let it impact me negatively, or let it drive me to write the next installment better. The latter usually wins. I also get to practice ignoring negative "reviews". ;-)

    For every installment I post that gets no comments or negative marks, I get to reaffirm the decision to write even if no one's reading that particular day - and I remember those positive comments that came before too.

    All of this makes me a stronger, more confident writer, and keeps me motivated, keeps me writing and working hard toward publication. Before I started sharing my work, I struggled a lot with "what if no one ever reads it"? Now the pressure's off. People read my work every week - even if I never get published, I put my work out there, and someone read it.

    And that gives me motivation to keep working at it. :-)

  13. Davin, this is interesting. I think that I feel the best about my fiction when someone reads a snippet or hears me read a snippet and I see their face light up and I can tell they are genuinely interested. This is VERY hard to do on blogs and the internet - unless you are skyping with video or something. Watching someone's expression and seeing that genuine reaction - nothing can compare to that. Comments in the written form are never quite the same. (This is why I'm always wanting to talk with video or voice, by the way).

    I think we get removed from our writing when we query and post things on our blog and all this internet stuff - it's that middle person, in a way, that buffer keeping me separated from the true reactions I wish to see. Of course, if those reactions are bad, I may not wish to see them...

  14. I think I'd have more fun with it, maybe write lots of short stories and publish little chapbooks. In Pow! Right Between the Eyes, Andy Nulman talks about how one of his writing friends smuggled copies of his book into bookstores with a tag on the flyleaf that read, "Here's an incredible offer. Take this book home. IT"S FREE!" What a great way to "perform" for readers.

  15. Jamie, thanks for your comment. That's also the problem I see about posting on a blog. I think that only very rarely will anyone come to a person's blog entry and give a thorough critique, or even be honest about whether or not they like something. But, I think that what you say about getting no feedback or getting Ughs is sort of what I'm getting at with this busker thing. Those are the quick, anonymous responses that make us stop and reevaluate our writing. For me, though are learning experiences, as you say.

    Michelle, Yes, you get what I'm saying. Somehow, things get removed. And, it's a good point that even the act of writing reviews is one step in that removal. There is editing that goes on there too. I think actors probably pick up on this sooner because their art is focused on being in front of people. (Well, okay, at least sometimes.) Maybe they understand sooner why this is useful.

  16. Loren, this is right along the lines of what I've been thinking. Self-publishing makes me feel the same way, it feels more direct, more like the proper test. And, honestly, if I thought I had the right story, I would do that. I think it's fantastic, and thanks for your great example.

  17. I think we writers need at least a couple different ways of receiving feedback. A balanced diet of criticism and encouragement work best for me.

    Like Piedmont Writer said... If you posted your writing, I'd read and respond honestly! And by "honest," I don't mean "mean." I mean constructive, explaining my likes/dislikes and ideas. I realized it's not very helpful to simply say, "That's great" or "That sucked." And the comments from all the readers of this blog are phenomenal and thoughtful, so I think you'd have a goldmine of an audience.

    I've posted bits of my writing on my blog (which feeds into my Facebook, where I get most of my comments) and e-mailed others to my writing group. Only a few people respond, but because I'm lucky enough to have a good group, I generally receive thoughtful, detailed commentary from those who do read and respond. Mostly, I use blogging and e-mail to receive CRITIQUE. People are braver about offering suggestions or constructive criticism when they're not face-to-face with you. And it helps if your writing group members are not your best buds or family members. The criticisms and suggestions I've received from these folks have vastly improved each part of my draft, which makes me feel more confident about it.

    I use face-to-face writing group meetings mostly to ENCOURAGE myself. It's an unbelievable feeling to hear people laugh out loud as they read a piece to themselves... or say, "Oooh!" and underline a sentence... or go silent and tilt their chairs as they try to listen in on my reading of a piece to a friend. Also, regular group meetings keep me on a schedule with mini-deadlines.

    So, for me, blogging and e-mail is a good way to gather suggestions. And face-to-face meetings, complete with spontaneous utterances and facial expressions, feed my excitement and joy in writing.

  18. Genie, I'm really surprised by your comment because for me it's just the opposite. I feel like the online comments to my writing are always just positive and the real critique comes from my writer's group, although these days that has slackened a bit as well. This is all sounding bad. I wonder if I'm just looking for someone to tell me that my writing sucks because that will reaffirm my own low self-esteem or something.

  19. I think this is a great point to ponder. Exactly who would we walk up to and peg as a reader for our novels? I suppose it has more to do with taste but demographics are important. I'll have to chew on this and see if I really do take my readers into consideration. Great post!

  20. Genie, is there some way I could get your email address by any chance? Mine is

  21. I would learn much faster, I believe. I often read to my husband, who I'm sure is bias anyway. He gives me his best critiques, but always ends with, "It's good." The same worked for my parents during high school and early college. That's one reason I enjoy blogging so much. It tells me who is interested in my "junk" and who isn't and how often my blogs are read and which posts get the most attention. Not to mention, I learn a lot from comments.

  22. I think that busker experience is important. That's what's great about having beta readers and that kind of thing. It helped me so much before I had that to be able to share my story with my daughter. I knew if it was working for her then it might work for others. It's also been nice having several of my nieces read for me since that age range is my target audience.

  23. There's a difference between busking and having people give you critique. It's rare (and, frankly, generally rude) for someone to give playing tips to a busker ("hey, man, you need to work on your rhythm playing and your singing's a little rough"), no matter how true those comments might be or how well-meaning they are. That's not the busking experience. I think that reading one's work to an audience is closer to it.

    It all depends on what you want to get out of it, Davin. I think if you want to connect with an audience and share your material, you might try to organize public readings with other writers you know in L.A. Having people (especially writers) read and comment on your work over the internet is not going to give you the "busker experience" you seem to be after. I think you're trying to connect with readers, to feel that your work communicates something and to experience that moment of communion/communication, not so much get critique. So beta readers and web sites are sort of not the point.

    You know that I post snippets from my WIP on my blog, and I'm not so much loooking for critique, just sharing what I'm writing because I think it's interesting. Also, people do say nice things and believe me, that has value.

  24. Whoa. Uh. Hmmm. That question makes me nervous. I would learn faster. And I'm sure the audience would either bask in the love or walk away mumbling, "who told her she could write."

    I did read Pat's comment and agree totally. And a fiction slam is a wonderful thing. I must tell her she might have started a movement.

    I think I'll check into doing this at our coffee shop or bookstore. I'll let you know how goes it Davin.

    But DO NOT be down on your writing. It will show through in your writing. Just remember why you started this path. Write something that means a lot to you. Write it for yourself. Then you will not come out of it down on your writing.The excitement and and sheer bliss will bring you to a euphoric high on writing. Your writing. =)

    I have read some of your writing. I know you definitely have what it takes. So find a way to feel the love again. =)

  25. This comment has been removed by the author.

  26. Oh, hello. Scott Bailey and Lady Glam, I just became aware that you have your own blogs. :) Very cool!

    Davin, I e-mailed you just now.

  27. Hi, Genie. Hope you comment on my blog sometimes. I love your comments!!!

  28. Honestly I don't think that would work for me. I've been to a few readings - not my own - and my attention span for listening to someone read their work aloud is spotty. And when you're reading your own work, you know exactly where to put the inflection in you audible voice to elicit the desired response out of the audience.

    If the audience had read the same narrative, would they still gasp and laugh?

    Music is a listening motif; so it makes sense to be out there strumming your wares. Authors have to sell the written word, using only the strength of the verbiage on the page.

    I'm a lousy out-loud reader and I mangle the words and tone because I'm nervous. Even when reading someone else's work in class.

    Blogging helps me connect with readers - and other writers. My critique group is excellent. And I love it when friends are willing to say more than "nice work" over a story or excerpt.

    Maybe B&N or Amazon can put a group forum up for us unpublished authors so the avid readers can read anonymously and offer feedback. That would be swell!

    For you Davin, I have to agree with Piedmont; you need to do a blog strickly devoted to your own writing. You don't have to tend it every day, or offer writing samples each post; but it really helped me improve my writing.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


  29. Oh, one more thing about posting your writing on a blog; if you don't tell the readers you want to be critiqued, you will indeed get lots of "that was great".

    My critiques are very detailed on what I like and what doesn't work for me; and I'm willing to offer suggestions. But yeah, the writer has to ask for that type of feedback. I offered unsolicited feedback once, back when I was a newbie to the blogs, and the author was devastated by some of my feedback because they were honestly just putting it up to be read and enjoyed. I learned a valuable lesson and it only took once to catch on.

    So be sure to ask for a crit if thats what you want.


  30. T. Anne, I'm beginning to think that it's a philosophical difference among writers. Some strive to please readers. Some strive to please themselves. The best case scenario is when we happen to do both.

    Erin, a few people are telling me to use the blog-o-sphere. That's interesting, and something I wouldn't have thought would work. But I'll ponder it some more.

    Lois, I do think that's a nice situation for a younger audience. And, I also have a feeling younger people, if they are young enough, are also more honest.

    Scott, I think you're right. Both types of reactions/critiques are meaningful to me, but they are very different. I am trying to find that connection somehow. Maybe reading are a good idea, but that also kind of terrifies me. I did get invited to read at Skylight books in a few months though. I said yes!

    Robyn, do tell me if you decide to do this. I know Michelle had some experiences with this. I've been in for large readings that were all good experiences. Somehow, thinking of organizing my own is far scarier. And, thanks for your support!!!

    Donna, thanks a lot for your thoughts! I don't agree with you completely, but I think you make very valid points. And, I've also learned not to give unsolicited advice! When I did in the past, people took it politely enough, but I ended up feeling like a jerk afterwards.

  31. Write more flash fiction. Submit it to places like Flashquake and Flash Fiction Online that'll offer comments on pieces, even if they reject. Post some to a blog and see what people think. Explore short ideas in LitLab, why not? Find a local crit group at a bookstore and swing on by. Check out online writers' groups like Zoetrope. There're lots of ways to get feedback and encouragement, good sir.

    Or perhaps a good, stiff drink or three would do the trick. You never know. I might start with that last idea and work backward, but your mileage may vary. :)

  32. Ahem. I'm kind of surprised you guys don't realize people are already doing this... (my own online serial novel) (directory of online fiction) (discussions about making money posting fiction and other creative stuff online... and there's at least one person there who describes him/herself as a busker with fiction)

    Constructive criticism: rarely.
    Comments: frequently. And oh, they help. At least they help my ego!

  33. Clare, I think the readers here are aware. :) They're just giving me advice directly.

  34. I get what you mean, and I totally identify with Tricia's comment. I think what every writer wants is to have someone read an excerpt and ask for more. Isn't that the real test?

  35. Davin, I fixed the link. I didn't know if you saw that I did. And Davin, A HUGE THANKS TO YOU. I am in your debt, big time, my friend!! =) I would have emailed you, but I can't send out. My email program is all messed up.

  36. Livia, exactly! Or, at least that's one of the real tests.

    Robyn, done and done. :)

  37. This is partly why I write flash fiction and post it on my blog.
    It's hard to say exactly how many people actually read but I know a few do.

    But getting back to the Busker question, I was in this coffee shop that actually had a piano player in it.

    I was wondering how much like I'd have if I put up a sign, "will write for coffee" and wrote someone a piece of fiction for them while they drank their coffee.

  38. Andrew, Yes, this goes along well with what I'm getting at. How much money would go in my hat? I think, after today's comments, that I see this as only one type of reaction that is important to me. But, it's one I'm missing at the moment.

  39. Davin, you totally need to become a StoryQueen for a day!

    This is what I do all the time. I read to kids (often my new work) everyday.

    and yes, every laugh, every silence where there should be laughter, every gasp, every groan that the story is over, helps me learn more about my writing.

    But you know, I find myself still thinking about ME as my audience first, and THEM second. Does that make any sense? I mean, if I just wanted to make kids laugh at me, I could just make a bunch of rude noises, right? I want something more. I want to write stuff that *I* connect with, and that somehow still resonates with my audience.

    That being said, it is hard to duplicate such an authentic experience as reading to an audience.


  40. Blogging itself is a form of busking. The problem with writing on the Internet---as opposed to playing music on the street---is that it's so ridiculously easy to pick up someone's stuff and walk away with it.

    So self-publishing (indie publishing) is starting to fill that role. Publisher's Marketplace included this in today's Publisher's Lunch:

    "In the tidbit department, we picked up these interesting factoids on Twitter from Arsen Kashkashian at the Boulder Bookstore:

    "'Self published books are now accounting for over 1% of our sales. The times sure have changed. Many look like bks from major houses.... We have three, four, five authors coming in almost everyday to get their bks on our shelves. We charge a fee, still they come.'"

    If someone is telling you "now more than ever" not to self-publish, they're saying that out of panic. The worm has turned in just the past year (the past six months), and indie publishing is very much becoming a viable option.

    Busking for the Digital Era? We are living that surreality right now.

  41. I don't know if I'd learn faster, but it would probably cull a lot of writers. People can be downright cruel, especially if they don't know you or care about you. I'm just imagining the mean things people might say to a writer on a street corner and the really thick skin a person would need to take it.


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