I was a shy child. So painfully shy,
in fact, that before the age of seven, I didn’t have the nerve to
walk up to a checkout counter and buy a candy bar. My sister always
had to do it for me.
At nine years old, after some coaching from my uncle on the ukelele, I taught myself to play guitar, and
within a year, I was in a band and practicing in my friend’s garage.
If not The Beatles, we were convinced that we were definitely
destined to be as popular as The Ventures.
Unfortunately, the first time we played
in public was a personal disaster for me. It was an elementary
school talent competition and we were slated to play a medley of surf
songs, including our two favorites, Pipeline and Wipeout. But as the
curtain went up, I gathered up what little nerve I had, strummed my
And the amp remained silent. No sound.
Not even a buzz.
Feeling the collective gaze of the
audience on me, I quickly checked to see if I was properly plugged
in, and the moment I touched my amp, the cable jack fell to the stage
with a resounding thud.
This was followed by a roar of laughter
so loud and forceful, I felt as if it might blow me off my feet. The
curtain closed and I quickly replugged the cable, but that laughter
seemed to go on forever as a small part of me shriveled up and died.
That I was able to continue at all was
a miracle. But we played our tunes, got our applause, and ultimately
lost the contest to a seven year-old singing A Spoonful of Sugar in a
squeaky, off-key voice.
Not that it mattered. All I took away
from the night was that moment of utter humiliation.
Years later, when assigned to do an oral report for a high school biology class, I chose to do a talk on the digestive system. But as the day approached for me to get up in front of
the class, the butterflies in my own digestive system got so bad that I actually
stayed home from school — only to be forced to do the report the day
I reluctantly got up in front of my
fellow students — one of whom was a girl I’d had my eye on (but was
too shy to talk to, of course) — and stammered my way through the
presentation while my classmates quietly snickered. My teacher,
already a sourpuss, kept frowning at me. And I wasn’t surprised to
discover that my grade for the report was a big fat D.
As I got older, like most young men, I
continued to have dreams of being a rock star. I actually got pretty
good at writing songs and performing them for my friends. But the
idea of being up on stage scared the hell out of me and I never took
my music beyond those private performances.
So I became a writer. A screenwriter,
in fact. I won an international screenwriting competition and the
first thing I had to do was fly to Los Angeles to accept my prize —
in front of an audience of industry bigwigs.
Prepare a speech, they
So there I stood, nervously clutching a
podium, Jack Lemmon staring up at me with that cock-eyed grin on his
face. Trying not to throw-up, I said, "I’m a writer, not a
speaker, so I just want to thank the Academy for giving me this
wonderful opportunity. It’s an honor to be in such fine company."
Then I got off the stage as
quickly as I could, actually believing the words I had just uttered:
A writer, not a speaker.
Oh, boy, how wrong I was. From that
day forward, a good part of my time was spent speaking, not
writing. Sitting in front of executives, pitching stories —
terrified to be in a room full of strangers.
And it never seemed to get better. No
matter how many meetings I went to, no matter how many stories I
pitched, I never got over that awful, unsettling stage fright.
Years later, I decided to abandon
Hollywood and set my sights on the publishing world. When I got my
deal with St. Martin’s Press, I thought, ahhh, finally. All I have
to do now is write. No more pressure to perform.
What an idiot.
I soon discovered that most novelists,
even mere thriller writers, soon find themselves before an audience.
Be it a conference, a book signing, a speaking engagement. All of
these things come with the job and are an important part of it.
When I found this out, I shuddered at
the idea of once again having to perform in front of people. My anxiety level rose whenever I thought about it.
Then, oddly enough, something changed
inside of me. I can’t pinpoint the moment it happened, but it did.
I participated in my first panel at Thrillerfest and it went quite
smoothly. I’m told I blushed like crazy, but nobody seemed to mind,
and I even got a few laughs.
Several panels later, I almost felt
like an old pro. As if I were in my element. I didn’t love doing
it, still got a tiny twinge of nerves, but I didn’t mind it either.
And I found that people actually responded quite well to me.
When I was asked earlier this year to
go down to San Diego and teach a workshop, I immediately said yes. I
admit I had an attack of panic before it was my turn to speak, but
that dissolved the moment I started teaching. And, afterwards,
several people came up to thank me, telling me they really got a lot
out of it.
Now, just this past Saturday, Brett Battles
and I did a joint appearance, speaking together before the Southern
California Writers Association about writing thrillers. I again had a momentary twinge of nerves, but they disappeared immediately and I felt comfortable and completely at ease.
Brett and I riffed
off each other, spontaneously cracking jokes, sharing our experiences
and offering trips and tricks to a room full of aspiring writers.
And, surprisingly enough, I really enjoyed myself. In fact, I not only
enjoyed myself but was a little disappointed when it was over.
And we were a hit. Afterwards, attendees told us that we
had raised the bar for future speakers and, believe me, those are
words I never in my life expected to hear.
Am I still shy? Of course. But these
days, for some reason, I’m better equipped to cope with the shyness.
I don’t know if it’s practice, age, or simply some strange miracle,
that has changed my attitude about such things, but I’m actually
looking forward to the next speaking engagement. And the next. And the next.
And, hopefully, I’ll always be able to keep
the guitar plugged into the amp.
But now that you’ve heard about my
worst public appearance disasters, let’s hear about yours. What went
wrong and how did you deal with it? And if such things have gotten
better for you, what was the turning point?
P.S. The winner of my Videorati
opening scene contest has been chosen. My favorite opening was this
"At the end, there was so much blame to spread around that we
could all have taken a few shovelfuls home and rolled around in it
like pigs in stink. But that’s not the way it goes with most of us.
Most of us like to think that blame belongs on somebody else’s
doorstep. And I’m no different.
I can picture the way it was on the day everything went bad, just
as clearly as if I still had my sight. Of course, I probably made up
most of it. You know how it goes: your mouth fills in the details
your mind doesn’t catch. And then later, when you’re looking back
over everything that happened, your memory just smoothes out some of
the corners, takes away that metal taste of fear, makes you seem a
little braver than you really were, and then paints in a rosy-toned
You’re always the hero of your own story. Even if
that’s not the way it happened at all."
My fellow Murderati-ite, Louise Ure,
wins a signed UK paperback copy of KISS HER GOODBYE. Send me your
address, Louise, and it’s on its way.