Reading in public: learn from my fails

I’ve attended a lot of readings, and been on both sides of the podium.  It can be nerve-wracking to look out at the crowd; it can be ennervating sitting in that crowd and realizing you’re in for a dire presentation.  I make no claim to being a “good” public reader, but I have learned some things from both reading and listening that might help the next new author/reader avoid my mistakes.  Here, then, are my tips on reading your book in public.

Me at a recent reading. I appear quite lost without a podium.

6) Practice.  It’s a basic, but I think a lot of authors skip it.  Sure, they’re your own words, but the rhythms of speech are different from those of reading in your head.  It’s embarrassing to stumble over something you’ve written, then look back at it and realize even you don’t know what the hell you were trying to say.

5) Don’t be afraid to edit your own text.  As I said above, reading aloud is different.  Sometimes modifiers are unnecessary, since your tone and inflection do the job.  So if you wrote, “‘The hell you say,’ he said angrily,” you can eliminate the attribution and do the job with tone of voice.  it makes things go faster, and believe me, that’s always a benefit.

4) Don’t read sex scenes.  Sure, you may have an all-adult audience, but even then, everyone in that crowd will have a different idea of “sexy,” and you probably don’t want to discover just how far outside the mainstream your own ideas may be.  The same goes for excessive violence or strong language.  You’ll never sell a book to someone who’s been embarrassed at your reading.

3) If it takes more than three sentences to set up your excerpt, it’s too obscure.  It’s death to spend ten minutes trying to explain your world, your societies and your characters, all because you’ve decided that a scene from the middle of the book is the only possible thing you can read.  Remember, if you bore your audience, they’ll never buy your book.

2) Read the first chapter.  Sure, you may be proudest of the scene two-thirds of the way through, but the first chapter is (or should be) the one that makes readers want to get to that great scene.  It should also pull them in to your world, your characters and your situations.  In fact, unless you’re reading to an audience that’s already heard your first chapter, this should be your standard modus operandi.

The only thing that supercedes rule #2, and even then not always, is rule #1:

1) Read the funny parts.  Getting a crowd to laugh together means they’ll all remember your book as something they enjoyed.  Ideally your first chapter will have a couple of good laughs, which to me is the perfect reading source.  If not, if there are any jokes, find them and use them.

I’m open to additional rules from people who have attended readings; leave them in the comments below.  And in my next post I’ll have some suggestions from other authors.

5 Comments on “Reading in public: learn from my fails”

  1. I agree- read from the first chapter!! Although I recently heard a reading from a middle chapter of Peter Carey’s next unpublished novel, and it was a fantastic reading. I think rule #1 applied. Also, a little angst was thrown into the mix, which always helps.

    I might add a rule about using voices- it’s not necessary to use a different one for each character, but it sure is important to at least differentiate using intonation and tone!

  2. Also, don’t go on too long. Short is better than too long. You don’t want a restless audience shifting in their seats! Time your presentation and see what’s comfortable.

  3. Great advice Alex; thanks! Hopefully I’ll have a chance to put this advice into practice soon…

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