This is the second part of a two-part series: click here for Giving a Reading Part One - Getting Ready. (newly expanded 6/2/14) .
I've given readings everywhere from a minute basement bookshop space to the Hay Festival, and of course the setup varies wildly, but here are some suggestions of things to think about, for you to pick and chose. If you have a publicist a good deal of the prep will be done for you, and she'll know the answer to a good deal of the questions. But it's worth thinking about what you need, and asking her to organise it.
But whatever the event, don't beat yourself up for still feeling that it's all very complicated and scary. We are talking about performing: a moment when you stand up and let other people see you, and think whatever they'll think about you and your writing. If you're wired to feel that people are judging you and probably finding you lacking, then you won't switch that wiring off overnight. It helps to understand that performing raises your adrenalin levels - your fight-or-flight response - which has various consequences. It heightens your awareness and makes your mind and your body move quickly and feel no pain. It's a legal high, in a sense. On the other hand it gives you raised blood-pressure, tunnel vision, shaking hands, dry mouth and the need to pee. So do respect the fact that you're nervous or scared, and try not to feel a failure if things don't work out too well. The most professional thing in a peformer is to know what you need to do your job properly, even if others look casual or don't seem to care.
When You Arrive
- Get there early and case the joint, or at least ask an organiser what the setup is. Will you sit or stand? Is there a lectern and is it an okay height? What kind of microphone is it? (pray it's not hand-held). How does it work? Try it out to get a feel for it if you can. Sort out who's selling books, and where they'll be.
- Quadruple-check any AV technology you're using - powerpoint or whatever. If it can go wrong, it will. Which is one reason I don't use it if I can help it. But some authors do, brilliantly.
- Meet the chair or MC if there is one, and your fellow performers. Even a minute or two's discussion of how they see the evening going will give you more confidence.
- Will you already be on when you're announced, or coming in from the wings, or up from the audience?
- If you're chairing yourself, can you see a clock to make sure the timings work out? If you're using your watch or small clock, can you put it somewhere you can read it easily? Looking at your wrist always makes you look harrassed or impatient .
- Don't be afraid to ask for what you need: a microphone stand, water, a chair, a toilet, a quiet room in which to get your head together.
- Don't be afraid not to join in with chair-lugging or table-shifting, if it'll hurt your back or your serenity. Remember: you're The Talent, in the showbiz sense. For the evening to work, you should have what you need to give of your best.
- On the other hand, everyone mucking in together to make it work can make it all feel much more studently and communal, which might be just what you need.
- If you have any say in how the room's arranged, try to make sure that you can see everyone without moving your head more than a tiny bit each way. The human angle of vision is 120 degrees - about what's encompassed if you open your arms to give a wide hug.
- Try to arrange things so you have your head higher than the audiences'. You can see more faces and eyes, and they can see you. Plus, singers know that your whole voice works better if you're standing.
- So, if you're given a table to sit behind consider coming out from behind it, and perhaps propping your bottom up on the edge of the table if you want to feel casual and chatty. Lecterns have advantages for papers, microphone, something solid to clutch. But they're also a barrier between you and the audience.
- If you're offered options as to lighting, check that you can see the page really well; many places think about lighting the performer but not the script. And think about whether you like to be able to see the audience or not. If you're scared, it might be easier to pretend they're not there. Or it might be easier to be able to see real people and feel that you're talking to them.
- If they say that the audience is small, think about abandoning the platform or lectern and sitting down among them, as if you're all round a fireside, telling stories. It can turn a problem (no one came) into a positive thing (it was just like sitting round the fire listening to a storyteller).
- If someone offers you a drink, it's up to you. I rarely have alcohol at this stage, because I find the adrenalin is quite enough of a high: one glass of wine has the effect of two.
- If you need or want to, find somewhere quiet and do some gentle deep breathing exercises, and a few moo-moo-moos and face-wriggles to warm up. It really does help to calm your nervous system.
- Don't be surprised if you need to pee, perhaps more than once. Just be careful of the hurried-last-minute-toilet-tights-knickers-tucked-up-skirt thing, or the male equivalent involving flies ...
- Do try to get someone to announce you; if there really is no one, think out your first line, welcoming and thanking the audience, and then introducing yourself.
- Whether you dance on from the wings to a fanfare, or the organiser just murmurs "Shall we start?", there's a moment which is The Beginning. I try to look full at the audience and think "I'm hugging you". That gets your mind and body language and energy going outwards towards them, and they'll feel it. It's easy to think that a reading is about the words on the page, but it isn't: it's about you giving these words to the audience. There's a reason some poets learn their writing by heart, as actors do.
- Always thank the audience for coming. If you're doing more than read a chunk, explain a little about the shape of the next X minutes: that you'll talk about how you came to write your book, and read some of it, and there'll be time for questions at the end. Or whatever.
- Take your watch off and put it where you can see it without moving your head too much.
- Pour out some water beforehand or at the beginning, glass not more than half-full: mid-reading is no time to be fumbling with bottle tops, specially if the damn stuff is fizzy.
- Read more slowly than you'd believe possible. And then slower again.
- Get your head up, and out of your book as much as possible. Don't be afraid to pause while you do. It's easier if the print is big (one reason for printing it out), and you can hold the text up and out, the way professional classical singers do. Your voice works better.
- Any performance is a collaboration: get the audience to collaborate. Ask if they can hear you, make a small joke, or talk about the rain or the room in a way which joins them in. If you're confident (and you've got your book well marked up), ask whether they'd like another battle scene or some sex. If the group is small you can give permission for them to ask things along the way, and maybe read an appropriate bit.
- If things go wrong or there's an interruption that you can't ignore, then acknowledge it with a laugh. An unacknowledged problem makes both you and the audience distracted and uneasy; acknowledging it defuses that. If latecomers are discreet, ignore them. If there's a tremendous kerfuffle, then smile and welcome them. Same goes for misbehaving water or dropped papers; try to deal with them calmly, as if you were at home and the audience your oldest friend.
- If you lose your place badly, say, smile and say so. You're much more likely to find it now you're not trying to pretend it hasn't happened.
- In other words, this event doesn't have to be perfect; you are only all human beings coming together to share some words, and some of those words might be, "Goodness, listen to that wind/hammering/coffee machine! Just as well we've got such a great a sound system. Can you hear me at the back?" Just don't let your nerves make you keep saying it.
- Events can peter out, fading rather than finishing, so try to finish with confidence: close the book, say clearly, "Thank you very much," and stay there for the applause. Then step back and walk firmly off-stage - even if that's only really moving away from the microphone. It's over.
- Questions are great when they're great. Some audiences are just quiet, others are worrying about catching the last train. Whether there are any questions, and whether they're interesting, is probably nothing to do with your performance.
- When you say, "Are there any questions?" don't be afraid to let a silence run for a bit: people take a while to get out of listening mode and then find courage to ask something. If they really have nothing to say, laugh, say, "I've obviously stunned you into silence" and move on to the next bit of the evening.
- Hopefully whoever's chairing or organising will help you to handle the questions, and ideally he or she has got a couple to get the ball rolling.
- If someone asks a question which is very particular to them, and the question doesn't seem likely to interest the rest of the audience, you could answer very briefly, and then say, "Can you stay afterwards? Come and find me, and I'll give you the details".
- If you get someone whose "question" is really a statement, or worse still a grumble, you may just have to say, "Yes, that's right". Or even, "I think that's a topic we'd need a whole evening to tackle. There was a question from the lady in blue, over on the other side?". Another very useful phrase, if they look like coming back at you, is a firm, "We need to move on."
- Consider planning to finish off with another short reading, to "send them out singing". It means you've got something to do if the questions run out early, or don't happen at all. And it makes a better finish than the tailing off of "Any other questions? No? ..." It reminds them, too, that all this talk is only a poor substitute for the real thing, which is the words in your book, which they'll of course now be wanting to buy.
After the Reading
- Boy, do you deserve that drink.
- You also are trying to look approachable and friendly, be nice to people who do approach, sign books, deal with the person who you promised to talk to later, and keep an eye on the time of your train home. With luck, euphoria will carry you through. And, dammit, this is when your readers - the real people, the people we all depend on - get a chance to actually talk to you, and you to them. Don't short change them, and don't short change your own pleasure in their existence.
- Have some business cards or postcards or bookmarks to hand out with your website or blog address on one side and a cover image on the other, (I use Moo) and make sure that the website has some way of getting in touch with you.
- One thing that adrenalin does is release sugar into your bloodstream, the better for fighting or flighting. And like any sugar rush, it wears off abruptly. Be prepared to feel suddenly exhausted. That's when you need doughnuts and deserve them. Just make sure you don't neck five units of alcohol in half an hour: you've still got to get home.
- Sometimes, no one buys a book, no one wants to ask you anything, and the organiser is busy lining up the next act. So be it. Again, it's nothing to do with how well you performed. Coming out in the limelight has always been followed by going home in the rain.
And that's it. I hope that all this has helped, not daunted you. Most of us get to be reasonably comfortable with this stuff, but not everyone does. For more for the people who go on hating it, have a look here, at what This Itch of Writing's agony aunt Jerusha Cowless said to novelist Jenn Ashworth. You're not alone, and there are things that can help. Break a leg!