10 Tips for a Superb Reading
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Here are some facts I won't argue about:
- Book covers matter and sell books
- Professional editing and layout matter
- Reading your work in public can help you sell books
Especially that last one. It has worked for me time and time again.
That said, readings are considered boring by many, and a lot of people won't go to them because they're not as exciting as watching something on Netflix. Unfortunately, most of the blame for that falls on us writers. When I go to a reading and people are yawning and checking their phones, the person on stage is usually not doing what needs to be done.
Besides writing about reading publicly, I've spent the last few years trying different approaches, and taking notes on what works best. I've been traveling a bit with Coyote Songs, and I've had a chance to read from it in bookstores, bars, restaurants, and even a packed auditorium. Every reading has been a success. Evidence of how much folks have enjoyed those readings is all over Twitter.
I'm writing this from a hotel in Grand Rapids. I'm here for StokerCon. I will step on stage and do a reading before A.E. Siraki interviews me at an event during Librarians Day. I already know what I will read and how I will read it. This takes the nerves out of the equation. I also know I will try my hardest to make it the best, most memorable reading those in attendance have ever seen. That should be your goal every time you read in public. Here are ten tips to help you achieve that.
Don't read; perform
It starts with this and usually comes back to this. Reading your work out loud can be boring for the audience, but performing your work isn't the same as reading it. Most of the tips that follow tie somehow into this one. Don't be a reader, be a performer, an entertainer. You know how your words should sound. Make them sound as explosive as they sounded in your head when you wrote them.
Make eye contact
Eye contact makes people feel present, in the moment. Too many readers look at the book, paper or phone in their hands and never lift their eyes to the audience. I perform the same four or five parts of a book, so I really get to know them. This means I'm not afraid of messing up or getting lost, so I can look at my audience. It helps create a connection. It makes them feel acknowledged. It can also help you get your point across.
Doing a lot of readings serves as practice. However, if you haven't had a chance to perform yet or don't get to read too often, you should definitely take the time to read your work out loud to yourself. Pauses affect how you read. Sometimes conversations look great on paper but don't sound natural when you read them to others. Trying out a piece or a chapter by yourself can help you identify little things that can be fixed before you do it in front of an audience.
Use the space you're given
Here are two things I dislike: podiums and microphones. I feel like they create a barrier between the reader and the audience. I rarely step behind a podium. The same goes for a microphone. I'm loud, and that works in my favor. Scream if you have to. It also helps break the routine. The audience is expecting you to take your place behind the podium, put down whatever you're reading, and not move for the rest of the time you're up there. Fuck that. Use the space you're given. Approach the audience. Walk around. Move to the rhythm of what you're reading. Use your hands. Own the space you occupy and that will leave an impression.
Monotone is awful
I think this one has been on every list/essay I've written about this subject, yet I still see it all the time. Apparently there is a class they give to MFA students titled Inflection is the Devil. Nothing brings out the yawns and phones quite like a reader who never changes his or her tone. I usually equate that to a lack of passion. You know what you do when you're on a plane? You tune out the sound of the motors. The same thing happens at readings. Don't be afraid to add dramatic pauses or get angry or sad. Don't be afraid to scream if whatever you're reading demands it. Do whatever it takes to break away from that killer monotone that's present at all bad readings.
Keep it short
First rule: respect the audience's time. Second rule: respect the other readers. If you are given seven minutes, don't read for fifteen. That makes you an asshole. Time yourself at home. Read faster. Whatever. You can get up there, explode, and walk away leaving them wanting more. That can't happen if you go on and on, no matter how great your performance is. A reading is like giving someone a bite of something you've cooked. Want more? Get the book. The chances of them wanting to check out your work diminish with every yawn.
Read the audience
I recently read in two places on consecutive days in Denver. The first reading was a Noir at the Bar. I read about death. The next day I planned on reading the same thing, but the reading was earlier in the day, at a bookstore instead of a bar. There were kids in the audience. I wasn't going to read a piece about children suffocating to death in front of children. Reading your audience is crucial. I remember doing a reading with Bobby Hilliard once in Austin. We were opening for a literary fiction author. The audience was made up of older white women who enjoyed literary fiction. Bobby read a story about a gay orgy in Chicago. I read about a marero decapitating a man with a serrated knife after cutting off his fingers and feeding them to something in a bucket. We cleared that joint out pretty quickly. Makes for a funny story, but not for a great reading. We didn't sell any books.
Pick something that will leave a mark
Too many writers step up to the microphone and talk for five minutes about the things the audience need to know about what they're going to read. That's awful. You should be able to get up there, thank people for coming out, and start reading. You have a couple of minutes, not an hour. This is a reading, not VH1 Storytellers. Pick something that stands on its own and is memorable. I know this is tricky, but you know your work better than anyone, so there are no excuses.
Okay, so this one is incredibly hard and I have no secret trick for you. I cringe whenever I sit down and watch/listen to nervous writers with cracking voices and shaking hands. It makes me wish I could inject them with a good dose of confidence. You are there reading something you want to share with the world. You are the center of attention. You have a few minutes to make people remember your name or your book. Being confident tells them you are good at what you do. Being confident translates into a happy audience. Is it hard to develop that confidence? Sure, but you can do it. Having a persona helps; you are no longer you, so you don't have to be nervous. Try it out. Being loud and using the space you're given, both of which I discussed above, will help you project that confidence.
Think of your favorite band. They are on a stage. They look at each other from time to time. They are moving around, banging their heads, smiling. They make you smile, tap your feet, sing along. That's the feeling you should exude. That's the kind of energy you should be projecting when you're reading. If it's something that makes you nervous and you hate it with a passion, then try to find a different way to share your work. If you decided to participate in a reading, always give it your all. Crack your chest open and give the audience your heart. Read your words and let your soul come out of your mouth with them. This is the best gig ever, folks, so make sure you have fun. I'm going to read today, and I already know I will scream, walk around, squeeze my fists, get angry, sing, and pound my chest. I will love every second of it.
I hope these help! If you have any other tips you'd like to share with us, do so in the comments.
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