Sunday, January 19, 2014

Tips on giving readings

I think it's a good idea for writers to practice giving readings early on. One need not be published to do this--there are always open mic nights. It's fun, and it reminds us that we're part of a community.

This post by Jennifer Nielsen on the Shrinking Violets blog opened my eyes to how flexible I could be when it came to readings. Especially the concept that you can alter the text a bit, if it's your own.

Before that, I had assumed that I had to read any passage verbatim. Once I realized I had the freedom to make changes, I began to tailor my readings accordingly. I take out any references to other parts of the book that the listener won't understand because they haven't read it yet. I minimize description, deleting passages that might sound slower in a read-aloud situation than when one is settled down with the whole book. In my readings for Until It Hurts to Stop, I actually took a few lines from one scene and stuck them into another scene, because it made the scene I was reading clearer.

Because of the alterations I make, I don't like to read right from the printed book. Instead, I type out the amended passage into a clean file and print it out. That way, I don't have to read through a marked-up text with cross-outs and arrows.

Using a separate piece of paper also enables me to do other helpful things, too: to enlarge the font so that it will be easy to read even if the lighting in the reading venue isn't great (and so that I won't have to hold the paper close to my face); and to leave extra space between the lines.

At the bottom or top of the page, I often give myself these reminders: "SLOW. BREATHE." A reading generally needs to go at a pace slightly slower than natural speaking speed, so that the listener can catch and process everything, and so that the author can be sure to articulate clearly. But with the adrenaline that comes from standing in front of an audience, the instinct is to talk faster. I fight that instinct by taking a deep slow breath at the beginning, and taking brief pauses throughout the reading (longer pauses at moments of emotional impact, or for dramatic effect).

Jennifer Nielsen recommends readings of 2-4 minutes. Typically, event hosts will say how long they want readings to be (and if they don't, definitely ask), but I agree that a default of 2-4 minutes is good. David Sedaris can hold an audience spellbound through an hour-long reading. Most of us aren't David Sedaris. Most of us will be appearing at events where there are other authors to be heard from, and/or refreshments, and/or Q&A to get to. It's better to leave people wanting more than to go on too long.

Jennifer Nielsen says to read with emotion and treat the story like a monologue. By the time I was reading from my third book, I realized what a blessing the first-person POV can be for oral readings. I began to treat my reading as a dramatic monologue; not just a reading but a piece of acting. I don't claim to be a brilliant actress, but since I created this character and wrote every word she says, it was totally doable for me to channel her, to let my voice rise and fall with her emotions.

Another thing I've noticed: humor works very well at live readings. When people go out to an event, they like to laugh and have a good time. If you have funny scenes, make the most of them. Cliffhangers work well, too. When I heard Sarah Darer Littman read the scene from her book Want to Go Private? where her main character goes off with a stranger, I knew I had to read the book, and bought it immediately.


  1. Fantastic tips! The few times I have read bits of my story out loud(to co-workers) it hardly ever went well... Too-fast reading, flub ups, etc. Practice makes perfect! =)

  2. Practice definitely helps. I even practice looking up from the page now and then, to make eye contact with the audience, and keep the connection with them.