Noir at the Bar is what happens when a bunch of ne’er-do-wells get together and read their dark crime stories. Sometimes there’s magic on the stage, other times, well, other times not even the best bourbon can help–it’s not going to hurt, but it sure as hell doesn’t cover up a shitty performance.
I’ve read at two Noir at the Bars (N@B), seen over half-a-dozen others from Canada to Florida, and I have even organized one. (That’s another article on the lessons learned from that.) I have a good idea of what makes a good N@B reading, but I reached out to some N@B veterans, organizers, and performers to get their take. Thanks ahead of time to those that participated: Eryk Pruitt, Steve Lauden, Christa Faust, Shawn Cosby, Jen Conley, Eric Beetner, Jedidiah Ayres, and Ed Aymar. The usual meaningless caveat about anything wrong in this article is the fault of this author and not the kind people who gave their thoughts.
If you have the attention of a pre-schooler, here’s a summary on what it takes to have a successful night at a N@B.
Practice reading aloud.
Choose a piece for the actions/attitude it has and not for the good prose–that shit is appreciated on the page muuuuuuch more than read aloud.
Keep it short (unless you’re amazing)
Focus on his last bit, “Keep it short (unless you’re amazing).” Rule of thumb, if you think you’re amazing, you’re not, I don’t care what your Mama told you. So keep it short.
Shawn (S.A.) Cosby is one of the organizers of the Richmond N@B along with Marietta Miles. Cosby read at the inaugural Wilmington N@B and his first novel, “My Darkest Prayer” (Intrigue) was released this year.
Keep your story under 1,500 words.
Don’t just read your story. Perform it.
If you read an excerpt from a novel read one from the first few chapters. It makes listeners interested in buying your book.
Regarding Cosby’s third point, please refer to Ayres’s final point to see if it’s possible.
Jen Conley, organizer of N@Bs in Northern Jersey and New York City, former editor of flash fiction at Shotgun Honey, and an author of “Cannibals: Stories from the Edge of the Pine Barrens” (Down & Out Books, 2016) wrote:
Try to read a complete flash fiction story if at all possible. If you can’t do that, read the beginning of a novel you are writing or a section that is engaging and, more importantly, complete. If you have to explain too much beforehand where we are in your novel, the audience will have to do too much work themselves. They don’t like that.
Before you read, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Make sure you get the intonations correct and the beats rights. Make sure you project your voice. You want people to remember you and then go read your stuff. They’ll remember you if you’re a great reader.
If at all possible, know your audience. Don’t read a long drawn-out sexual scene that will make people cringe. And when in doubt, watch your curse words. I curse all the time in real life and in writing, but if I walk into a place where I get the feeling it’s a more formal crowd, then I quickly go through my story and do a quick edit. At Shade in NYC, the crowd is more casual and swear words don’t really offend. But I’ve read in other places where I’ve switched out my f-bombs for something else.
All in all, remember, this 5-7 minute spot is there to showcase you and your work. So do your best to hit it out of the park–and remember, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.
If you get anything from Jen’s advice, it’s this: fucking rehearse, or, depending on your audience, freaking rehearse.
Choose something nasty, brutish and short. Seriously fucking short. Did I mention short? The shorter the better. And don’t bother with a bunch of set up or plot explanation. Just get in and get out and leave ’em wanting more.
Let me reiterate Faust’s point, keep it fucking short. The number of times I’ve been bored by a N@B author is too many.
Memorize as much as you can of your story. Makes for more engagement with the audience and, generally, a better read. Memorization means that you’ve rehearsed quite a bit, and the story has become overtly familiar to you. That’s a good thing. But still take the story on stage with you, so you’re not awkwardly trying to remember stuff.
Write for the event. This is something Angel Cólon always says, and I think he got it from Johnny Shaw, and both of those guys are worth listening to. Reading an excerpt from your book is rarely entertaining––most books aren’t meant to be read aloud in 5-7 minute segments. They’re not self-contained. A short story, specifically for the event, is better. And you’re not going to sell a ton of books at a Noir at the Bar anyway.
Along that note, KEEP IT SHORT. No longer than 8 minutes, at the most. Nobody wants to sit through a reading longer than that. Don’t assume you’re different. Short, punchy, entertaining, and fun.
Aymar takes the idea of practice one step further. Basically, you can’t practice too much for a N@B gig.
Writing is often a solitary pursuit. Getting up in front of a crowd to read what you wrote is show business. So try to entertain the people staring back at you by reading something that will make an impression. Breathtaking action, funny scenes or cringeworthy violence will work, depending on the kind of stuff you write and how good you are at presenting it. Most importantly, practice reading your selection out loud at home a few times before you do it in front of a crowd.
Allen Iverson is definitely not a fan of Lauden’s advice.
Eric Beetner, author of “All The Way Down” (Down & Out Books, 2019), editor of “Unloaded #2: More Crime Writers Writing Without Guns” (Down & Out Books, 2018), co-host of the “Writer Types” podcast, and organizer of the LA N@B, writes:
The things I always tell readers is to practice. This is a performance and the ultimate audience is someone who has never read your work so you are presenting your writing for the first time and want to put it in the best light. Stumbling, stuttering, pausing isn’t the way to do that. Read it out loud several times. That way you can familiar with the rhythms of it. You can look up off the page now and then to connect with the audience.
And don’t be afraid of acting a little. Characters have different voices if you read a piece with dialogue. You have to sell it. When choosing what to read, funny always goes over well or big action. It has to be action that is easy to follow, but if you’ve written it right that shouldn’t be an issue.
And keep it tight. I put time limits on readers for the L.A. events that seems short, and sometimes it can be tough to find a piece that fits into the 3-5 minutes I request. But A) I assume people are gong to go over and this means they’re not going from ten minutes to fifteen, and B ) the crowd likes it short and sweet. Leave them wanting more. (That way they’ll go buy your book) with six readers on a typical night for us, keeping the readings down to about 5 minutes still gives the audience and good night of readings but doesn’t burn them out.
The biggest thing though is the idea to treat it like a performance, not a book report. Be animated when necessary, pause for effect, try out an accent or two. You want to hook a listener.
I’ll wrap this up with Eryk Pruitt, author of “Townies: And Other Stories of Southern Mischief” (Polis Books, 2018), host of the true crime podcast “The Long Dance“, and organizer of the Durham N@B. I left Pruitt for the end, because, like Ayres at the beginning, Pruitt keeps his advice to the point.
No excerpts and for fuck’s sake no prologues.
It’s a PERFORMANCE, not a reading.
There you have it. Follow these rules and you may have a successful N@B gig. Break the rules, your audience will be eyeing the hot bartender instead of paying attention to you.