confessions / memories / writing

How the Shyest Person You Know Found a Way to Talk in Front of People: A Great Mystery

I used to be painfully shy.

I know I’ve spoken about this before—maybe here on the blog, maybe at events—but I used to be a really, really shy person. Horribly shy. Talking in front of groups of people, being made to speak, to answer questions, to say what I was thinking, being looked at by people who knew me and by strangers, being judged, was terrifying. So painful, I strove to never have to do it. I was the quiet one in class and in groups, and I still am for the most part. But as we all know, doing events is part of being an author… and recently, I discovered to my shock that I somehow have been able to move past my true shy nature.

My nerves are—mostly—gone before events now.

I find myself able to talk in front of large groups of people now.

I don’t get a splitting headache after events anymore and have to hide myself in a dark room, alone, until it goes away.

The last couple events I had were actually kind of… fun.

HOW did this happen?

It’s a mystery I’m trying to figure out. All I know is I noticed this change in me this spring and summer, after 17 & Gone had come out. I’d hit a bottom with my confidence after Imaginary Girls was published, and during the writing of 17 & Gone in the months after that, but maybe part of hitting bottom is coming to see yourself as you really are. Down there, I found some scraps of confidence that had been there all along. Or… to be blunt… I stopped caring so much about what everyone else thought, or didn’t bother thinking, about me. By the time 17 & Gone had come out, I’d reemerged inside myself with a little bit of defiance, and with far more tempered expectations this time around, and I just thought: This is who I am. This is the book I wrote. And I have things to say about it.

I guess what I’m saying is I discovered my own worthiness. And in doing so, I stopped being so terrified of being in front of people and taking up space in the world. I guess I wrote through my shyness and emerged here, on the other side.

I also started realizing what I could and couldn’t handle from book events.

So here are some things I learned from doing events… a few little tips for shy writers like me:

Not being alone up there makes all the difference. I prefer doing events with other authors. At least three authors on the bill is ideal for me. It helps to not have to be the one person standing up there at the head of the room—it makes for a more dynamic event, and conversation between authors often brings up something interesting that you couldn’t have brought by yourself (especially if you are shy and easily embarrassed like me). But preferring group events is not because I wouldn’t know what to say by myself, it’s mainly because the stress of drawing in enough of an audience just on my lonesome is too much for me. If there are other authors with me, the pressure of filling enough seats to avoid embarrassment is not all on me. That’s because…

The worst part is worrying no one will show up. This, I’ve learned, has become my main source of stress in the days leading up to an event. And connected to this—stressing over not selling a single book in the signing after. I’ve never done an event where I haven’t sold books, or where no one showed up to see me, but I did get close, at an event at a small bookstore near where I’m from. And I learned that if the bookstore is depending on me and only me to spread the word about an event, and it’s somewhere I don’t live now, I can be assured the event won’t be worthwhile. It’s important to only visit stores and libraries that have a circle of readers who regularly attend their events—and stores and libraries that have a proven network to publicize the events as best they can beforehand. My little tweets, blog posts, and Facebook updates about an event aren’t enough.

Don’t assume your friends know you wish they would go. The last New York City (my hometown, now, since 1997!) bookstore event I did I was hoping I’d look out into the audience and see the supportive faces of friends and former coworkers and just people I know here from various ways. But when I looked out into the—not very big at all—audience, I saw one such face: E’s. And no others. Not one person in my life besides my husband had shown up. I didn’t realize how badly I’d wanted people I knew there for support until I saw that no one had come. I never really expressed how much I wished people I knew would come, either. I guess I’d hoped they’d psychically, subconsciously know…. and how is anyone going to do that? I should have asked. But the point is, I learned I can’t depend on other people to make the event okay for myself. I have to make the event okay. Maybe there is someone in that audience who hasn’t heard of me before who will be intrigued enough to pick up my book. Maybe I will say something that will resonate with a stranger. All it takes is one person. That’s why I’m there doing a public appearance, not to fill seats with people who already know me. Besides, I usually do have one supportive face in the audience, and that’s E, my dedicated other half who goes to every event he possibly can. If you have that one person, it can make all the difference.

A new outfit can be a nice distraction. This is very superficial, but it makes the preparation for an event feel a tad better if I get to wear something special to it, something I haven’t worn anywhere else before. I can be uncomfortable in my own skin and don’t like people looking at me, so the outfit choices always have to be comfortable ones. It’s most important that I feel at ease, and this usually involves my wearing my comforting colors of black and dark blue and not wearing jewelry apart from a simple necklace. I have to be myself up there if I want to be able to act like myself. And I’ve learned that the best events are the ones when I do act like myself—I seem to connect with more readers that way.

Try to know what to expect of the event. But always prepare for multiple scenarios. I always ask what I’ll be doing at the event: Reading a section of my book, and for how long? Talking about my book and not reading? Sitting on a panel and answering moderated questions? I really like to know before I get there. But here is something I’ve learned: It doesn’t always go the way the bookstore manager or whoever it may be says it will. For example, I’d prepared a reading for a recent event only to arrive and discover we weren’t reading at all and were only taking questions. The event turned out to be a blast, and I think it helped that, as soon as I discovered we weren’t reading the day before, I thought of all possible questions that could be thrown at me and how I’d answer. I even practiced my answers in my hotel room, yes, embarrassing though that may be. And it turned out that none of the questions I’d anticipated were asked, but by practicing, I had some go-to topics I could speak on if my mind went blank. And that’s the thing…

There is always one panicked, icky moment. I say I don’t get nervous before events anymore—and I don’t, really—but I’ve noticed there is always one nervous, heart-pounding moment during an event and that’s okay… I can live through it. I’ve survived before. I’ll fumble over something I’m saying. I’ll look out at a series of blank faces and feel a rise of panic. I’ll be asked something I absolutely don’t know how to answer… There’s always something. And it’s okay. Oftentimes, the audience doesn’t know how badly you panicked—they see a pause, and then they see you pick up again. The worst freeze I ever had was during a conference workshop, when I started talking and realized I had nothing to say, and kind of circled in on myself like a vulture until I stumbled and stared out at the audience utterly dumbfounded. I will always remember that terrible moment because, for one, it felt like it lasted an hour, and for two, because I know why it happened: Because I hadn’t prepared to talk on that topic. I know myself now, and I know I need to prepare as much as I possibly can.

So back to the multiple scenarios. Because it just helps to be prepared. If I have to do a talk on my book or a reading, I’ve started preparing two ways I’ll approach each event, and it all depends on how the authors before me go. I’ll change, depending. I prepare two readings: one longer; one shorter. Or one serious, one more lighthearted. I’ll think of two ways to approach a talk and I’ll prepare both options. I started doing this after a group event where I went last on the panel, after an author who was VERY funny and who had a great many fans in the audience there to see her. She was hilarious. She talked, casually, and the whole room was laughing and with her and loving her, and then it was my turn. I’d prepared a talk about writing, for writers, that was dry and serious and not funny in the least. I also hadn’t eaten a thing out of nerves and was feeling light-headed and my stomach was growling. This audience was in a cheerful, happy mood, and they were also tired of listening to the five or six authors who had come before me, and they probably wanted me to be light and entertaining and… fast. But I had nothing else prepared. So I went into my spiel, and it took a while and it fell so flat I could have heard the smack. What I should have done is adjusted my presentation on the spot, after knowing I’d come after the funny, delightful author. But now I know: I get too nervous to adjust on the spot—so I should prepare two versions, and then decide on the spot which one to do.

Try to eat, even if you can’t stomach it. I mentioned that I did that event without eating. I have often been too nervous to eat before events, but this did not help me be coherent. I’ve now learned to eat something small, just a little something, beforehand. But to not drink any liquids too much before, so I’m not stressing about having to pee during the signing. (Hey, I’m just being bluntly honest here!) Then, after, I can eat a big dinner and treat myself to Thai food, my comfort food.

Allow yourself a dark, quiet room after it’s all over. When I was doing events for Imaginary Girls, I would always have to excuse myself after, and go lie down, even if it meant missing a group dinner with all the authors who were a part of the event. I’d get splitting, horrible headaches from having been “on” and needed time, after, to recover. Now I know that I might need this recovery time. I haven’t, for the last series of events I’ve done. After, I’ve been able to talk and hang out with authors and be personable. But I know it could happen, and I have to be okay with being antisocial and taking the time I need to regenerate.

Don’t dwell on the one stupid thing you said. Listen, if you’re not a natural public speaker, odds are, you will say something that makes absolutely no sense at some point during your event. Words you wished you didn’t say. Or maybe, after, you will run over and over all the smarter things you could have said. It’s not helpful… It doesn’t make the event feel good to dwell only on the negative moments. It happened. It’s over. Think of the good things: You stood up in front of a room full of people and you didn’t run away or collapse! You spoke intelligible words! You signed books! You made it through, and you smiled, and you appreciated the fact that you were allowed to be there.

Know what you like doing at events, and what you don’t. I like doing readings—that’s my favorite thing. I think because the words are down there on paper already and I don’t have to think on my feet. Also because I like the sound of my words out loud, the feeling of them on my tongue. I like reading my own words, and I like reading other authors’ words aloud, and I like listening to a good reader… it will often make me want to buy a book. So I’m usually more inclined to say yes to an event if it involves a reading. If it’s a “talk,” I am more inclined to say no. I just know what will make me the least nervous, and what I think I’m better at doing in front of people.

* Just a quick note: I am doing a reading in New York City on August 21!

Don’t be afraid to say no. Doing an event can take a lot out of you, if you’re shy. When I first started doing book events, I realized that the two or three days leading up to the event were an absolute wash, due to nerves. I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t do much of anything. I was that nervous. Now, I am somehow okay, and am grateful for it, but having had that experience and knowing how much events can cost me, I want to be very picky about what I say yes to. This will mean having to politely and kindly decline sometimes—and that may mean you won’t be asked by that organizer, or venue, again. That has to be okay. Your sense of self-preservation—and your time to write—just has to come first.

Appreciate every single person who comes to see you. I remember all the people who said kind things to me at my book events. All of you who have come up to me, all of you who have been there to support me (for example: Logan, who came to see me in Asheville! And the girl who sidled up to me at my Irving Public Library appearance and told me I was her favorite author!), I will never ever forget. You are the people who make these events worthwhile. So to the shy authors: remember these faces. If you’re feeling stressed about an event, remember there actually are people who have come to see you in the past and will come to see you in the future. And how wonderful and miraculous that feels. I remember one event I did where I felt I just wasn’t connecting with the audience—that my non-funny, too-voicey book just wasn’t up their alley, and they wished I could have been someone else. But after, at the very end of the event, a teenage boy who’d been hiding in the very back of the room slowly came up to the table of authors and went straight to me. He was holding one of my bookmarks from the free table and shyly asked for my signature. He said he liked what I read and he couldn’t wait to read more and that he’d get it from the library. He could barely meet my eyes. But I smiled and told him how much it meant to me that he came up to tell me—and it did, it still does. I never got his name, but I won’t forget him. He made the entire event worthwhile to me.

If you are a shy author who has learned coping mechanisms for doing public appearances, please share in the comments!


And, I have one more upcoming event on my calendar… I’ll be reading with Libba Bray in the Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series on August 21, in New York City at the KGB Bar! Come be a supportive face in the audience for us both!

More info about the reading series here.


Now, here are some photos from my recent book event at the amazing Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina…

The window of Malaprop's Bookstore, before the event.

The window of Malaprop’s Bookstore, before the event.

Walked into the bookstore, and saw this!

Walked into the bookstore, and saw this!

Q&A at Malaprop’s, with Beth Revis, me, and Stephanie Perkins. Wish we’d gotten more photos of the three of us! (Photo by Logan)

And here I am from a fantastic recent visit to the Irving Public Library in Texas, to be a part of the “Beneath the Surface” YA author panel…

The panel at the Irving Public Library in Texas. (Photo by OhMagicHour.)

The panel at the Irving Public Library in Texas. (Photo by OhMagicHour.)

Talking on the panel at Irving!

Talking on the panel at Irving!

Authors after the "Beneath the Surface" panel! Here, from left, is our moderator Jenny Martin, Rae Carson, me, Tessa Gratton, Tahereh Mafi, Ransom Riggs, and Aimee Carter.

Authors after the “Beneath the Surface” panel! Here, from left, is our moderator Jenny Martin, Rae Carson, me, Tessa Gratton, Tahereh Mafi, Ransom Riggs, and Aimee Carter.

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15 thoughts on “How the Shyest Person You Know Found a Way to Talk in Front of People: A Great Mystery

  1. I’ve had to wrestle with this too. Teaching gave me panic attacks because of being so shy but it turned out to be a religious way of overcoming my fears. I’m in for a new round soon so I’ll use your advice.

  2. I am not a shy author but I am a shy person and hated public speaking. Well I still hate it but I was worse before. Back in high school and university when I had to do a presentation I would get very nervous, my thighs would feel like jelly (you know that sensation you get when you are falling?) when I was doing the presentation I wouldn’t look at anyone, my sentences would gradually get quieter, I didn’t breathe and my chest would feel tight and afterwards I felt even worse because I thought I totally messed up and sometimes I did. So I’d want to curl up into a ball and disappear. In fact there were two occasions in my life where I completely didn’t do a presentation because I was too scared to do it and my grading suffered for it. It was always easier for group projects because one I didn’t want to let my group members down and two I wasn’t the sole focus.

    For work we had to do training and I had to train people, stand in front of strangers and show and tell them how to do something. It felt awful in the beginning but it got easier over time. It helped that my coworker picked up when I forgot certain things and gave me pointers afterwards and I think doing something over and over again does make it easier to handle ^_^. Other things that help me besides having others doing something with me is being prepared – having notes and practicing beforehand. Also I like having a barrier between me and other people (like a podium), something to “hide” behind and I still don’t like looking at people but instead of just keeping my eyes down I focus on other things. Instead of the person I’ll look at their monitor or the edge of desk or the light switch on the back wall.
    Also I think it’s good to remember that no one is eager to see you flop and they aren’t going to think you are a failure or a joke if you fumble ^_^. As long as you care and are trying your audience will understand.

  3. I loved this post, Nova! The thought of speaking engagements is slightly crippling. Your tips are superb, especially the new outfit tip because DUH.

    • Julie, You know what helped at my last (awesome!) event at the Irving Public Library? YOU. Stepping off the plane and having you and Jenny there to meet me, such friendly, supportive faces. (And whoa was I exhausted from the flight trouble, too.) So, thank you, so much, for helping me be okay on the panel that night!

      I hope you do a book event in NYC so I can be there in the audience to support you!

      • Awww, it was my pleasure! I would love to see you in NYC one of these days. I’m sure I’ll get trapped in a subway and will require your assistance. :D

  4. Thank you–this is great. I’m a solitary person who has also come to enjoy many writer events. These two things help me most: remembering that I’m talking about writing and/or my books, which are subjects I know well and love to discuss; and remembering that anyone who’s there *wants* to be there. Except on school visits, any author’s audience is not a captive audience; they will generally be friendly and sympathetic.
    Also, with the “freeze” questions–it’s OK not to know an answer. OK to say, “I don’t have experience with that,” or, “That hasn’t occurred to me before; I would have to think about it.” This is where doing events with other authors helps–you can always toss the question to the rest of the panel! Chances are someone will have something to say. :-)
    Finally, my favorite events are when I can get the audience talking. That’s what I especially try to do when I talk to book clubs. And even though it’s disheartening to have a small audience at a public event, the silver lining is that’s when we can really be informal, and have more back-and-forth with the audience, and hear their thoughts too.
    Thanks again!

  5. Something kind of small that has been invaluable to me? Remembering to bring some medicine: ibuprofen for headaches and something for an upset stomach, both of which I suffer with nerves. And I second the new outfit tip. Confidence comes from within, but feeling comfortable and cute in a new outfit really helps!

  6. What great insights, Nova! And honestly, you were so polished and articulate and utterly CHARMING during your stay that I’d have never guessed you’ve struggled with shyness or events. You came off like a pro, and we, your fans and friends, feel so lucky to have you! *pinky swears* :D

  7. The most important aspect of your presentation is the realization people are there because they are interested in what you have to say. That’s all there is to it. They want you to succeed.

  8. Here by way of Jenn Hubbard

    ” Or… to be blunt… I stopped caring so much about what everyone else thought, or didn’t bother thinking, about me.”

    I can relate to this. In the last 18 months, I’ve done over a hundred author talks/presentations, ranging from school visits, to writing workshops, to author luncheons. I’ve learned to turn my inner-dial to Loud, Confident Author. It works, but on the inside, I still find it hard not to focus on the little things in my talks I did wrong, or could have done better, or the guy in the back row who doesn’t look like he’s enjoying himself.

    An excellent post. Thanks for sharing :)

  9. Great post Nova. I had a lovely experience yesterday that resonates with what you say about appreciating every single person who comes out. My first book, a collection of linked short stories called A Simplified Map of the Real World, launches in September, and I’m busy lining up readings, and found myself meeting with a couple of women who run an Arts and Lecture series in a nearby suburban town. One of the women brought a fellow named Jimmy with her, a man who was clearly challenged in some way. Maybe Down’s, maybe something else, but Jimmy sat across from me, polite, a little distant, quiet. Connie asked me to read, right there in the coffee shop, so I opened up my book to the beginning of one of the stories, and started in. Jimmy zeroed in on me immediately, giving me his full attention, and nodding at me every time I looked up from the page, encouraging me to go on. He loved being read to, and though the passage I read had some very long and twisty sentences, he was there with me, and we were really connecting. I read two pages to him, stopped at a space break, and asked him if he wanted to hear more.

    “No,” he said, firm, no hesitation. He’d had his fill, and he knew his own mind well enough to tell me so.

    It’s unlikely that Jimmy will buy my book, but that’s not the point. He was that one person in the room that I could give something special to, and I am so glad I did. I write to connect with people, and Jimmy and I connected, and that’s all that matters. He made my day.

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  11. Thank you for writing this, Nova. The one thing about publishing a book that really gives me pause is the thought of having to do public speaking on a regular basis. I really appreciate the strategies you’ve shared here–and your honesty.

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