Reading in public: advice from the pros

Charles Dickens reading. Bet he followed Kelly Barnhill's mom's advice (see below).

Last Monday I posted a few things I’d learned from doing readings in public.  I asked some of my writer friends for their suggestions as well, since many of them have much more experience than I do.  Below are their comments.  Thanks to all of them for pitching in.

“I have a lot of stage and comedy background, so I’m somewhat in my element when I do a reading of my work. Here’s what has worked for me, and might help you. 

“First of all, breathe. Take a moment at the podium or microphone. Say something to personalize the event, like, ‘Thanks for having me, it’s great to be here in the breakroom of the local library.’ Humor helps! Set up or introduce the reading if it’s not the first chapter, or needs some context. But make sure your setup or introduction is concise. Practice making eye contact with your audience or looking at your audience as you introduce and conclude the reading. It’s fine to focus entirely on piece as you read it, but having that connection with the audience at the top will really help you. Take your time. More often than not, when one speaks before an audience, one rushes. So slow down. It will feel like you’re going at a glacial pace, but you’re not. Practice. Practice the reading so much that you know that piece inside and out. Record yourself and listen to it. Painful, I know. Or do it for friends and/or family so you know what it feels like. If you’re going to be doing a lot of readings, and you want to be terrific at it, I suggest an improv, beginning acting, or standup comedy class. It can really develop a lot of confidence. Most of all, have fun. Seriously. Enjoy the work that you created, just like, I presume, you enjoyed it when you wrote it. The people there to hear you will respond to that, trust me.”

Mary Jo Pehl, writer and cast member of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Cinematic Titanic

“Teach yourself to look up as you read. Your audience will appreciate seeing more of you than the top of your head. You don’t have to make eye contact with anyone, but you do want to be sure you look toward everyone in the audience.”

“The way I do it is, I look down as I reach major punctuation: periods and semicolons. I get the next chunk of text in my head and look up again. (The other method I know of is to look up when you reach major punctuation.) I don’t do this constantly throughout the whole reading, but I try not to go more than four or five sentences without looking up.”

Sarah Monette, author of The Mirador and Melusine

“Most useful thing I do is read through the section out loud beforehand with a highlighter and mark difficult sentences to remind me to read them slowly and clearly. I also use those same highlighted points as reminders to look up at the audience, because they provide a visual anchor, so I don’t lose my place.”

Kelly McCullough, author of the Cybermancy series and the upcoming Broken Blade (which I’ve read and which rocks–AB)

“Read slowly. Twice as slow as you think you should. Never go over your time, it’s rude to the audience and the other readers. And watch your audience, make sure you’re not boring them to death. Plus I almost always bring a flash piece and do a quick, short reading at the beginning of time to allow for latecomers.”

Jay Lake, author of Mainspring

“Relax. You’re among friends who want you to do well and be entertaining. No one shows up to an author reading hoping to see a car wreck.”

Matt Forbeck, author of Amortals and Vegas Nights

“Don’t read for more than 15/20 minutes…for your own sake, as well as that of the audience; Don’t be afraid to speak in different voices…the audience may be amused, but that’s why they came. Think to yourself…when I wrote this, I wrote it so that I could share my ideas with as many people as possible…now I’m doing it. So don’t lose your nerve now. They came to listen to you. Don’t let them down. Every author is an actor, too.”

Graham Masterton, author of Fire Spirit and Demon’s Door

“Pick 2-3 short sections and arrange them so they flow well. It’s not unlike stand-up. You have to move swiftly and humorously. Short readings with a q/a always sell more books than a long reading.”

Dean Bakopoulos, author of Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon and My American Unhappiness.

And finally, perhaps the most practical advice of all, courtesy of Kelly Barnhill’s mom:

“Arrive early, chat up the staff, charm the pants off ’em, (well, not literally), and buy a sh*tload of books so they appreciate you and ask you back.  And pee before you read (That was my mom’s go-to advice for pretty much anything).”

Kelly Barnhill, author of The Mostly True Story of Jack

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