Most writers are introverts, and for some the prospect of standing on a platform and reading their work aloud is terrifying. But at some point in your writing life you will find yourself having to read your work to an audience consisting of more than your sister and the dog. It might be an open mic in the local pub, a bookshop event, a platform at a literary festival, an X-Factor competition before agents at a writer's festival, or the launch of something like Stories for Homes (in aid of Shelter, and it's a cracker. Do buy it).
Some authors never, really, enjoy it, but they do come to terms with it. Others clearly do, and that's not necessarily rampant egotism, or at least no more than we're all guilty of, in writing at all. As an ex-wannabe-actor, I enjoy it far more than I ever did acting, because it's so easy: no lines to learn, no corset to squeeze into, and most of the moves are pretty obvious. On the other hand, I know fearless actors and other professional speakers-aloud who find performing their own creative work excruciating. It is very personal, our writing, and normally we're insulated in space and time between our writerly self and our readers' reactions. And then suddenly we don't have any insulation at all.
Please don't feel daunted that this is a couple of longish posts. No one will feel that all of these points apply, but I hope most readers will find some are useful. First, I offer you a few reasons why it's worth trying to get comfortable on a platform.
- All the words you wrote sitting alone and trying to make the reader feel, will be felt in front of you. Live performing is, actually, the most rewarding place that our drive to be heard can take us. Like a transfusion straight into your veins, you receive the interest, the rustle of amusement and the louder laughs, the absolute listening, perhaps a tear, the silence at the end that's better than applause ...
- Audiences for writing meet us half way. They're not like theatre audiences sitting back and waiting to be convinced, and unless you really mess things up - are reeling drunk or demonstrably a complete arse (the book trade does have a few) - they'll like you, and be on your side.
- How better to persuade people that the world of your writing is one they want to spend time in? Reading your work sells books. Most times.
- Talking about your work sells this book but also you as the writer of books yet to come.
- Your event is yet one more bit of visibility for you and your book. It's not only the people who come, it's the ones who don't but buy the book later, the listing in the paper and on the website, the showcard in the bookshop window, the posts on blogs, the tweets.
- The chances are that you're going to have to do this kind of thing: it's part of the legal and informal contract with your publisher. Only the writer who has written a true bestseller and is mentally as well as financially immune to pressure from the industry, can refuse to do events and continue to be published. The self-publishers need to do everything possible to distinguish their book from the millions of others out there.
Good preparation will make all the difference to how confident you'll feel on the night. Here are some things to think about:
- Find out what kind of event it is, what sort of people the audience will be, how long you've got, who else will be reading, who your contact is. If it's a big venue, find out where to go and who to ask for when you get there.
- Fight like a tiger to make sure your book will be available to buy on the night. Fight like an intelligent cat to make sure that you won't have to be doing the selling yourself; you want to be chatting, signing and networking.
- Check your transport and leave gallons of time for minor delays.
- Decide on what you'll wear and make sure it's all present and correct. Ditto your glasses.
Prepare the reading
- Pick a dramatic scene - which may not be the beginning - which doesn't need too much explaining. Look for a vivid scene of character-in-action.
- Avoid accents you can't do at all, and scenes which are really long ruminations unless your prose is to die for.
- Work out a maximum of two sentences of introduction: characters, place, the situation which has brought them together, and that's it. Trust me, the audience will not be bothered by not knowing the details of the story. You're not explaining the story: you're just setting us up for this extract.
- Write your two sentences along the top margin, to make sure you don't ramble.
- Cut or adapt names or lines or even characters which aren't central to the scene, which don't make sense in this standalone chunk, or which are plot spoilers.
- Cut a chunk from the middle of a cracking but too long scene, if it's the beginning and end which are dramatic, and write in a line to explain what happens in the middle if you need to.
- Finish on a big line - cliff-hanging or dramatic in some other way.
- Add in a speech tag or two if you're not good at doing the police in different voices.
- If you've got more than ten minutes to fill, you'll need to break the reading up with a bit of talk, or the audience starts losing concentration. For example, if I have fifteen minutes, I pick one of the book's themes, and chose three four-minute extracts to suit it, with a little chat in between to link them.
- Mark those extracts with post-it notes sticking out, and numbered, so you can find them quickly. I am neurotic, so I also write the details out on a bit of paper.
- Consider typing up the extract/s and printing it out nice and big (14pt, say) with good leading (1½ line spacing, say) so it's easy for your eye not to get lost. This is a specially good idea if you've done a lot of editing, or you suspect the lighting will be bad.
- Remember that you need to read slower than in normal talk, but adrenalin and nerves will almost certainly make you read faster - I still have to write SLOWLY across the top of my readings.
- Practice going slowly. Practice trying to read with a relaxed voice and throat: again, nerves make you lose the lower frequencies that make listeners feel reassured and attentive.
- If you won't be miked and you know you have a soft voice, it helps to think about speaking to the back row - your voice will adjust intuitively. It helps more still to learn to speak with lots of energy, making the consonants very clear, and full vowels formed in the front of your mouth. That's what carries, and is the basics of how actors project.
- Read it aloud, at the slower speed you'll be using, and time it. Time it again. And again. Be ruthless in sticking to the time you're given; it's bad manners not to. And besides, it's not stealing extra minutes which will make you memorable, it's reading really well. Rehearsing will make you more relaxed, and more fluent, too.
- Feel free to mark up the text with a note or three about how to read it: speed, expression, emphasis, mood. Actors do it all the time. Churchill's speeches look like musical scores.
- Read to a friend who you can trust to be honest but kind. Confidence is as important to reading well as being told what's not working, so allow yourself to nurse your confidence.
- A book on voice production for actors will give you some good tips for warm-ups. Cicely Berry's Voice and the Actor is the classic.
- If you're crucified with nerves, or just want to make an impact, or have a genuine problem with speaking clearly, consider finding a local speech and drama or acting teacher to give you a session or two on the basics.
When you're used to readings
- Be willing to change your mind on the night if you want to: maybe the audience is restless and you want to stop a long piece early, chat, and switch to something else. Maybe the mood is different from what you expected, or the reading before makes yours feel less suitable. Maybe a really good question will prompt a very short example as an answer. To that end:
- Have several extracts prepped, with different moods, characters and lengths, and note them in the back of the book, with the page numbers and timings.
- Prep and mark up different-length versions of the same scene, either for different events, or so you can be flexible on the night.
- Maybe even bring a book you're not planning to read from, in case you want to change your mind.
Before You Leave Home
- Double check that you have books or printout, glasses, clock or watch in case there isn't one, phone numbers, details of how to get there, plus umbrella, and whatever makeup you might want for running repairs. And if I say that I'm a natural boy scout and always take a spare pair of tights, you'll know what I mean, won't you?
- If you're doing a talk and using images or powerpoint, double-check the stick or phone or whatever. I also use Dropbox, and make sure the images are there: if your memory stick fails, you should be able to download them on someone's computer.
- Will you need a snack? Performing using a surprising amount of blood sugar. If this is a full-on literary festival there should be a greenroom, with refreshments from the basic to the tasty - even wine - and somewhere to relax, get your stuff into order, and leave coats and things.
- Elsewhere, lovely organisers ask you if you'd like them to organise something to eat, but many others don't think of it. So factor in that there may not be anything to eat when you get there.
- Very occasionally there's somewhere safe to leave your handbag, but I wouldn't bet on it. If in doubt, bring a smallish one you can carry on stage, and any other clobber in a separate bag you don't mind parking somewhere.
Click here for Giving a Reading Part Two - On The Night.