If you write and share your written work with others in some form, you will eventually be asked to read aloud. Whether this is to promote a published work, or simply to practice in front of your (hopefully supportive) writing group or mom, you will find yourself before an audience in a coffee shop, bookstore, library, convention hall, living room, or meeting space, clutching papers and preparing to give voice to your words. For some this is a terrifying prospect, for others the easy part—the hard part having been the writing. But no matter which camp you fall into, it has to be done, and what follows are tips as well as an inspirational story
1. Select an excerpt
Two main factors will guide your selection: how much time you’ve been allotted and entertainment value. I tend to prefer short readings, and virtually always err on the side of brevity. Unless you are an exceptional reader, or what you’re reading is exceptionally interesting–or perhaps if you have a devoted fan-base–the audience’s attention will begin to drift after only a few minutes. Better to leave them wanting more than wishing you’d stop talking.
In terms of content, ideally your selection should be reasonably self-contained–requiring minimal context to understand–and also engaging in some way, whether through humor, suspense, emotional resonance, etc. It should also stop at a natural break, but one that piques the listener’s curiosity, inviting them to want to read on.
Other important considerations are the likely audience and the venue. You might choose one excerpt for a Sunday afternoon reading in a library, for example, and something else entirely for a Friday night reading in a lounge. Some material is suitable for everyone, and some isn’t (especially if it contains swearing, violence, and/or explicit sexual content). Give this some thought.
If you are reading from a published book, decide whether you’ll be reading from the book itself, or from paper or your laptop screen. The advantage of the latter options is that you can enlarge the font size for ease of reading, perhaps allowing for more eye contact with the audience without fear of losing your place. If you do choose to read from somewhere other than the book, make sure you still bring a copy so you can wave it around; it is a promotional exercise, after all.
Pretty self-explanatory. Read your chosen excerpt out loud numerous times before the actual event. You can time yourself, practice raising your voice or slowing down, look up once in a while, and will see where you stumble.
I’m by no means an expert reader, but probably the two most important tips are: read loudly and slow down. Nothing is more frustrating for an audience than trying to listen to someone mumble or race their way through a reading. They will tune out. No matter how unnatural it may seem to read at a snail’s pace while practically shouting, this is what you must do.
Aside from that, enunciate and try to add some expression to your voice (i.e. non-monotone) without overacting. There are people who are wonderful actors, and can get away with using different voices, accents, etc. but most of us aren’t gifted in that way and will only fall flat. You want the story to stand out above all.
One other tip I’ve heard is that if your reading is part of a series of readings, it’s nice to begin with a few introductory remarks. This gives the audience a bit of a break and acts as a sort of a palate cleanser between what might be very diverse readings.
If you are reading from a published work, you will very likely be asked to sign something. I have to say, the first couple of times this happened to me, I was completely flustered. I mean, why would anyone want my signature, and what in the world was I going to say?
Be prepared. Think about what you might write ahead of time. Are you going to go with something simple like, “Hope you enjoy! Thanks so much!” or something specific to your story or novel? Of course, before signing you must ask if the person wants the book personalized (some only want a signature) and where they want you to sign. It’s often nice to add a date and place (e.g. WFC 2010), so the person remembers where and when they met you.
I’d like to finish off by recounting a wonderful experience I had a month or so ago.
In August, there was a convention in Calgary for writers and readers called When Words Collide. The five guests-of-honor, Rachel Caine, Robert J. Sawyer, Jack Whyte, Walter Jon Williams, and publisher Brian Hades (EDGE), were invited to read at the Calgary Public Library. Brian Hades kindly asked me to read on behalf of EDGE, an amazing opportunity for which I am still very grateful; I mean, these were best-selling, award-winning, and highly respected authors! And me! I admit to being intimidated, but wasn’t about to pass up such a fantastic offer. The other authors were extremely kind, generous, and supportive.
We each read very different excerpts, mine being a portion of my young adult, fantasy story in Tesseracts Fifteen. After the readings, we sat behind a table to sign copies of our books. Thankfully my family members bought a few copies of mine, so I could cheerfully sign along with the rest of the folks who had actual fans.
But then something amazing happened. One of Rachel Caine’s teenaged fans, who I of course didn’t know, approached the table with Tesseracts Fifteen and Evolve Two in hand! She said she enjoyed my reading and asked me to sign both books.
I was flabbergasted and flattered that someone, and maybe especially a teenager, who rightly or wrongly I expect to be harder to impress than your average adult, had shelled out money for two anthologies based on my ten minute reading. I’m not sure who felt more shy and embarrassed—her or I—but we got through the moment with a polite exchange, smiles, and a couple of hastily written notes. It was one of the most rewarding and validating experiences I’ve had as a writer so far. I still almost tear up thinking about it. (sniff)
Anyway, that’s what I have to say on the subject of readings. I’d love to hear your tips and/or stories!