Laura and I are back in one piece from last weekend’s Noir at the Bar, and what a fun time it was! Lots of writers, yummy crepes. It was cozy and collegial, and that was a night with many terrific readers, but it made me think about readings in general. The idea of authors reading their work is supposed to amount to entertainment for the audience and a good promotional opportunity for the author. However, too often IMO, it’s neither, and most often, I think it’s because writers assume that familiarity with their own work through having created it is enough to take them most of the way through a reading. Erm, well, I’m not so sure about that…
So, here are tips, in case you haven’t done a public reading before and wonder where to start, or hope to stop getting cut off before you’re done, would like to feel more engagement from listeners, or want to have more confidence and fun doing them.
SELECTION: Do NOT pick a selection of complicated choreography–it can be difficult to follow by ear if there’s too much action. I don’t mean action in general, but the kind where it really matters that he feinted clockwise on his heel then to the left, or that the tiny blue wire was affixed, just behind, but not quite out of sight of the barometric gangliwrench. If you’re going to read lots of action, read action that’s direct and easy to visualize, but I would make sure it has alternating moments of internal reaction to the action as well. People attach to characters first, so I probably ought to care about the guy who’s wrestling an anaconda, or I might want the wrong one to win.
In reaction to my caution above, do NOT pick a selection of extensive description or backstory where there’s no action at all, just exposition. There needs to be some arc and movement through what you’re reading to provide dramatic rhythm. Think about a hook-y beginning, an immersive middle. a breathtaking finish. Yes, even short readings should have that structure, because all of us campfire ghost story fans understand intrinsically how that works, whether it’s a joke being told or half of your Chapter 8.
Do NOT pick a selection where you think you’ll have to spend lots of time just explaining the context of the scene to make it comprehensible. Most often with this latter problem, you may think you need this, but clever listeners really can jump aboard a moving freight train with more agility than authors may assume. We do it all the time. Think of the micro-seconds it takes us to figure out the premise of a 15-second radio commercial. I don’t need to know these people’s names or backgrounds. There’s a dad with a lazy teen who keeps going overboard on his text messaging. I’m ready for what’s next.
Do NOT feel you have to do an early introductory scene, if it’s not the most easily carved into a dramatically-paced selection. Do NOT be over-concerned with spoilers. If you don’t give listeners some good stuff, they’ll never read your book to get spoiled at all.
DO try to pick a scene with one of your leading characters, because they’re likely to be the most richly developed, and it’s part of letting people know who you are as a fiction writer. DO try to pick a scene without crazy detail, but with some specificity that will help it stand out in the crowd. Miscellaneous talking heads on a street or over a table is usually less memorable than a conversation over a flat tire, while buying sixteen yards of duct tape, while hanging upside down from a bar. (But you know that, that’s why there are so many otherwise prosaic conversations over straight-razor shaves in barber chairs.)
DO try to pick a scene that’s easy to explain and inherently dramatic. I was reading a complete story, so it didn’t/shouldn’t need additional set-up, but if you’re reading from the center of a novel, think about setting up your premise for listeners in a single sentence. Hard? Sure, but you’re a writer. “The wounded detective returns to the station, only to learn the prisoner who stabbed her is loose in the building with a police uniform.” So maybe you’d begin, not with her thinking about her life and limping thoughtfully up the gray, granite steps, because it’s an introduction to her, but instead, with the detective’s profane yell at the sergeant in full voice as her blood drips on the floor. You might feel odd about beginning your reading with a yell, but if you’re brave enough to do it, people will remember (and I’d dare say enjoy) your reading, and if you’ve got a thriller, it’s perfect. What listener wouldn’t want to know more?
LENGTH: Now everyone is a little different, of course, and I’ve often heard (and even told people before now!) to plan on reading about one MS page per minute, so usually, around 250 words. However, over time, I’ve now decided, at least for my own work, to really deliver it the way I want, the speed is a LOT more like 150 words/minute.
Nervousness, once in front of a real audience, almost always makes readers speedier, and that can really impact the listener’s ability to follow the thread of the narration. Also, the occasional, deliberate pause is extremely important for effect and emphasis, as well as comprehension. Please take that breath!
In my case, I really thought I had the final selection done, but once I started practicing aloud, it was clearly way over my 10-minute allotment, so I went back to editing and editing until I had the right time. Finally, finally, it fell in at about 1670 words in 10 minutes. For me, that was almost 6 full, double-spaced manuscript pages in 12 pt font. If I’d already known how slow I was really going to want to read–and I won’t forget now that I’ll have this post to remind me–I could have saved myself some time tweezing at the margins while I still needed a machete.
In the case of my very-short story, which I was aiming to read in its entirety, I believe my repeated cut-downs made it stronger, because every word had to serve a purpose to be allowed to stay. Yes, I know we all hear that this should be our goal in every sentence, but let’s be frank, in a 90,000 word novel, there will be some prose that’s a little less purposeful and muscular, so to speak. All the re-reading during the revision process also made my reading smoother, so when I got to doing it live, I was more comfortable, having half-memorized it in the process.
By my lights, 10 minutes is about the maximum enjoyable duration for any single piece in a setting that’s not designed for performance. By that, I mean not in a theater, not by a voice actor, no paid tickets, stuck in the corner of the library’s reading room, that kind of thing. So, once my selection was appropriately whittled down, I printed out a fresh copy for the evening’s real notations.
PREPARING COPY: I love e-books, and if you have a lot of capacity in your reading app for markup, a digital copy may be fine, but for public readings, I really prefer having a printout, double-spaced, since that gives plenty of room for me to scribble. I also collate and staple my one-sided pages at the left corner. Once I’m reading, I don’t want to be shuffling pages, flipping back and forth reading duplex, dropping any sheets, or suddenly panicking that I’ve disordered something. Any of these fumbling misfortunes is only abetted by performance anxiety. Once I have my printout ready, I read it aloud with a timer and start marking it up with a pen and highlighter. (Some people prefer pencil, in case they need corrections.)
My markup includes highlighting any word that I wouldn’t naturally emphasize, but which ought to be in this selection. For example, I’d naturally tend to emphasize a word in italics, but what about that weird name of a Rottweiler when it’s called across the park? I’ll highlight things like that, even underline them for max effect. When you highlight this way, your eyes will catch it as you’re working down the page and you’ll be ready for whatever kind of vocal expression is called for when that bit comes.
I also scribble pronunciations next to any difficult words. Pronunciations are especially good to have in the margins if I’m reading work that’s not my own. Perhaps there are foreign words I had to look up, or words I’ve only seen written before and just learned to say (or say differently). Is the philosopher Pliny pronounced more like PLINNY or PLEINY? I don’t want to decide wrong on the fly, or worse, freeze up in confusion when I get there. Not sure what’s going to be difficult? Read it aloud. Again. (This is the cure for almost any problem.) Any place that trips you as you read, no matter how dumb it seems that you stumble there, is a place for you to give yourself some guidance. The Future You will send her fervent appreciation from the podium.
Note the many additions and underscores. Good enough for JFK should be good enough for any speaker.
I had a sentence in my recent story that I just couldn’t say without mangling. Yes, I wrote it, but there was something about the way the consonants fell. I kept screwing it up in my classically dyslexic fashion. In this case, I had the ability to edit those words into something I could actually say, preciousness of my own prose be damned. If I can’t change the words, I can at least put in a note to Slow Down just before that part. (This, too, is practically a miracle cure for difficult sections.)
Long, complex sentences with big words (hello, Henry James) may have several emphasis points within their phrases, and in that case, I like to use a highlighter on any word I want to be sure to hit plus slashes to separate the text into logical phrases, and even double slashes or brackets where I want longer than usual pauses. This is my personal, bastardized way of marking up copy, something I learned and then forgot the proper way to do for radio copy in the distant past. If slashes don’t tell you to pause, put something else in. Red dots, tall X’s, unhappy faces. It’s your personal lexicon and the more effortlessly understandable it is to you, the more instantly and helpfully it will speak to you when you’re in the limelight.
DELIVERY: You’re on! So you’ve practiced reading aloud–and you have, right? And your copy’s well-prepared–and it is, right? Once you’re in front of an audience, it’s STILL Very Important to read More Slowly than you think you need to, and to emphasize with More Dramatic Pitch and Rhythm Changes than feels natural. Form the words More Deliberately than you do in conversation. All this, because nervousness makes monotonic mumble-mouths of us all.
Stand in a relaxed pose, one where you won’t need to weave, because lots of fidgeting or swaying can be distracting. But don’t lock your knees. (Many a high-school choir concert has seen fainting off the top riser from locked knees.) Try to keep your shoulders down, your chin up and your chest open, so you have plenty of air for your biggest moments. If you can, hold your copy in front of you, not flat. It’s pretty natural to want to hold the copy like a tabletop, then to curl your neck and head over to read it. However, your listeners are probably in front of you, not in the floorboards with the termites, and for the sound of your voice to get to them, it’s much better if you aim it in their direction, and the occasional bit of eye contact is always appreciated. The second issue is that crunching your windpipe like a shepherd’s crook isn’t very conducive to deep breaths either, the breaths that keep you calm, help pace your work, and provide support for dynamic range in your reading.
Feel it and see it! You know what it’s like when you tell someone something unusual, and they seem unmoved, so you respond by repeating it in a more emphatic, amped-up way to persuade them to get it? “I said he married the dog!” That second, more intense form of the communication is exactly what we’re listening for, so let yourself feel the emotional tides of your selection. That doesn’t mean you have to twirl an invisible mustache when you say “He was a bad man,” but if you can let that lousy ratfink appear in your mind while you’re telling us, he’ll come across. Really! That’s reason number infinity for advance preparation, because if you know the material well, your mind has enough spare wattage to visualize what you’re saying, and that really does help your delivery immensely.
I’ve never heard anyone call out “Read it with less feeling!” Also, no one will ever complain you’re too slow, as long as you’re within your time–and if none’s specified, think 10 minutes–it’s magic. The only thing better than a great 10-minute reading is a great 5-minute reading, seriously. You’re there to tantalize with a sample of your work that makes them want more. Boring them or overstaying your welcome is never in the service of that cause. (Also, I’d like to recommend a special cul-de-sac of Hell be assigned for writers at a group reading who chew up everyone else’s time and wear out the audience by going way over, because they didn’t bother preparing and tried to wing it.)
When you’re comfortable with the material you’re presenting, you feel confident, you can express dramatically, but still naturally, not stiffly, reacting to the listeners in the audience as they react to you. And when you have prepared great material, don’t be afraid to use it again, because those people in the crowd who’ve heard it may enjoy the encore!
Hard to believe there’s more to talk about, isn’t it? But I’ll have to save the rest for another post–this one’s enormous already! So, look for more later–I will not promise when–on reading with mics and sound systems, for the cases when you have that capacity. I’ll talk about what to DO with mics, what to AVOID, what can be easily ADJUSTED by you or someone else, and what you may just have to SUFFER through.
Hope this was at all useful. Happy Reading and Knock ‘Em Dead!