Debut Author Lessons: The Q & A

I’ve been attending readings at conventions and booktours for years now. So when I started doing my own readings I followed more or less the model that I’d seen others do. First I’d read, then I’d ask if there were any questions.

I got pretty much the same response that I saw most other authors get. Crickets. Then, eventually, someone would feel sorry for the author and dredge up a question. It was awkward.

When I started the book tour for Shades of Milk and Honey I added a tiny little puppet show to the mix and suddenly started getting questions during the Q&A. they weren’t all about the puppetry either.  When I added the puppet show was that I fell back into the rhythms built from 20 years of performing in children’s theater where almost every show was followed by a Q & A.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

  1. Signposting – This is a term from public speaking, which means that you let the audience know what’s coming up next. So when I begin, I say “I’ll start by reading from the novel, followed by a short puppet show from Chapter 10, and then answer any questions you might have.” After the reading, I signpost again, to remind them where we are.
  2. Transition – When you finish reading, ideally the audience is still in the story. This means that they are in receptive mode and you need to help them transition to interactive mode. An easy transition is to talk about part of the writing process or trivia from the scene you just read. The transition also helps set up areas that you are interested in talking about. So, a transition that discusses the book is good. A transition that talks about travel woes on the way to the reading isn’t helpful.
  3. Plant questions – There are many, many ways to do this. A blatant example would be something like: “The skeleton, unlike the other puppets in the show, is made of neoprene.” This naturally sets up someone to ask what the other puppets are made of.Cherie Priest says, “If anyone has any questions about writing the book, Civil War History, or anything else… Anyone want to ask about the hair?” She points to her aquamarine tresses and the hands fly up.I start off by talking about what it’s like to write a historical novel and the effort that it takes to avoid breaking history. This plants the idea that they can ask me questions about actual history and how it relates to the novel.
  4. Answer questions with specificity. Basically, I’ll see authors answer the question that the person asked like “How long did it take you to write this?” and then go on to talk about the entirety of publishing and their full writing process. The problem with this is two-fold.
    • It means the author talks for a long time which reduces the interactive nature of a Q & A.
    • It eliminates questions that the audience might otherwise ask.

    At puppet shows, you’ll see a kid who just wants to ask a question because talking to the performer is cool and makes the kid feel important. So we get “Hoowwww… how did you… how did you do that?”

    Nooooo idea what “that” refers to. The only thing you can do is look at the part of the stage where they are looking and try to figure out the most interesting thing that happens there.  The thing is, that adults will sometimes do the same thing albeit a little more gracefully. “Where do you get your ideas?”

    Sure you’ve answered that a thousand times, but instead of answering the larger question, if you talk about where you got a specific idea, then it will be more entertaining for both of you.

  5. Don’t hold them captive. I’ve also seen authors force questions from the audience by just waiting until someone asks them. Don’t do this. The social contract means that silence is awkward so eventually someone will think of something to ask. It is much better to keep it short.
  6. Don’t make the audience feel stupid. This shouldn’t need to be stated but… if the audience member’s question acts as a straight line to pure comedy gold, make sure that you are the butt of the joke or don’t tell it. No one else is a safe target. At the end of the day, your goal is for them to like you and by extension your book.
  7. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.”

The curious thing about a Q & A is that disseminating information is only part of why it is there. The larger reason is to make the author accessible and to give the readers a chance to interact.  There are other tricks out there, but those are the ones that I’m pulling from the puppetry world.

What tricks do you have?

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4 thoughts on “Debut Author Lessons: The Q & A”

  1. When I’m doing readings from an Amazing Conroy story or novel, I always have Barry with me. He’s a plush buffalito, and he radiates cuteness. He also provides me with a prop (he’s wonderfully flexible and can assume many positions), a straight man, and when the crickets start chirping I can turn to him and say, “oh, right, Barry has a question.”

  2. I have to second Lawrence’s suggestion. A sidekick can pinch-hit in… err… a pinch. I once did a 20 minute technical demo on a complicated computer system. When I was met by the Sound of Silence in the Q&A, I had the computer begin ‘asking’ me questions. Real zingers. Which then led to the audience following-up. I’ve also played the sidekick with an ice-breaker question at the ready, which I like unloading from the rear of the audience to generate some banter with the presenter. Often the back-and-forth interplay (and head turning) is enough to unshackle the crowd and spark some lively chatter.

    The other trick I’ve applied to unmute an audience is quizzing them, often with a coveted tschotske as a must-have prize (read: whatever I dredged out of my backpack). Walk the line carefully with this approach, though. Mary’s point #6 still applies in full. Absolutely nobody ever wants to feel foolish.

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