The Art of the Live Reading

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As with most things writing-related, live reading is a skill acquired through practice, and doesn't come easy.  In fact, the ratio of how much you write compared to how much you read your own stuff aloud is probably completely slanted. But that’s okay.  That’s what we're here to discuss.  So let’s start off by getting the obvious part out of the way.

Why do you need to know how to do this?

First and foremost, because it’s expected of you.  That is to say, if you’ve signed a contract in which royalties are paid out to you, it’s obligatory that you, the author, participate in certain aspects of marketing.  That includes getting up in front of an audience of people and reading your work.  Turn your nose up at the idea if you want, but this is a competitive game, and there are always going to be writers willing to do the things you won’t.  The ones that put themselves out there get noticed.

The other reason is that live reading is an example of two-fold marketing.  Wave one is the reading itself: you perform, you sell some books, you talk to the crowd and dish out some business cards.  Simple.  The second wave is the supplemental marketing of the reading: the pictures, the podcast, the video—these are all things that you can post on Twitter, Facebook, and wherever else so your social media circles can see you’re out there doing stuff.  I’ll tell you right now, this is a way better alternative than those “buy my book” tweets.  You know that show vs. tell rule I throw out in workshop all the time?  You can apply it here too.  Show people you’re an author.

Still with me?  Okay, here comes the scary part. Public speaking, even the idea of it, is terrifying to some people.

Glossophobia:

An estimated 75% of people suffer some degree of anxiety or nervousness regarding the act of public speaking, so being scared pretty much means you’re normal.  Yes, even I, the person who is writing this article gets a case of the jitters before a show.  I’m right there with you, so let me take the liberty of throwing out some food for thought on calming down.

You’re getting the best kind of audience: My last reading was at Literary Death Match to a crowd of about sixty people.  They were loud, some of them drunk (or at least tipsy), but when the authors got on stage to read their work, you could hear a pin drop in that place.  In fact, I’ve never had a reading where the crowd wasn’t totally attentive and respectful, and this is taking into account that I read mostly in bars instead of libraries.  Believe me, the crowd won’t be an issue.  They want to see a good performance just as much as you want to give one.

You’ll always know what to say: I think the biggest fear regarding public speaking is that it’s essentially interacting with a group of strangers, and you’re the center of attention expected to lead “the conversation” so to speak.  Some people don’t like the idea of that—more specifically, the uncertainty of it.  Fear of the unknown, and all that.  Live reading, however, is about the farthest thing from “the unknown” as it gets, especially when you compare it to something like comedy or stage acting.  There should never be a point where you don’t know what to say because your story, your script, is going to be right there in your hand.

Look before you leap: Attend a reading as an audience member.  See how it’s done and that it’s not nearly as terrifying as you think it is.  The fear and uncertainty—some of that is going to leave you once you see for yourself how easy it is.

There’s always the bar: They call it liquid courage for a reason.  I’m not telling you to get sloshed out of your mind before a show, but a couple drinks never fail to calm the ol’ nerves down.  That’s just me, though.  Find the pre-game ritual that works for you.

Finding a Gig:

There’s a few ways to go about this.  The first is to find the local reading series going on in your area.  If you live in someplace like Chicago or New York for example, there are going to be tons of them, and they usually perform on a bi-weekly to monthly basis.  Even if you can’t get in on the next one, you can at least show up and talk to the people that run it.  Introduce yourself, and then inquire as to how you can get in.  Sometimes a series will actually have a way for you to sign up online or an email to contact, so be mindful of that.

Local/independent book stores are great for readings.  When you’re dealing with a chain like Barnes & Noble, you have to deal with all the corporate bullshit that comes with it, and most of that is going to be between your publisher and the branch.  You don’t have a say in it.  Local bookstores are different in that the chain of command is going to be small and you can talk directly to the person that makes the decisions.  By and large, these places are highly receptive to setting up events and readings because it promotes traffic to their business.  Visit your local bookstore and see if they’ve got anything coming up.

If the first two options don’t strike your fancy, you can always set up your own event.  Bars are good.  Locally-owned boutiques work well too.  The thing you have to keep in mind is that by taking control of the event, you take on all the promotional work that comes with it.  Look forward to spending a lot of time coordinating everything and whoring it out online.  I would not suggest doing this if you haven’t read live more than once or twice.  Get the basics down first.

What to Read:

Novel excerpts: If you're promoting a novel, an excerpt makes sense in the "try before you buy" kind of way.  What you're trying to do is hook the audience in a way that leads to a sale, so either read chapter one or read something that showcases what you believe to be the best sample material.  Always remember to preface what you're about to read with the short version of your synopsis.

Short stories: Short stories are great in that they don't require a lot of background info and you can dive right into the actual reading.  Try to keep these in the seven-to-ten-minute range.

Poems: Since poetry tends to run on the short side, feel free to perform multiple pieces.  Again, the seven-to-ten-minute range is what you want to aim for.

Content: A few variables need to be considered when choosing what to read: the venue, the audience demographic, how much time you have, etc.  Obviously, there's a difference between reading at the public library at noon and reading at a bar during happy hour.  The piece you pick for an audience in their mid-forties might be different than the piece you perform for a group in their early twenties.  Decide what's going to be most effective once you've gauged the audience and your surroundings.  In my experience, plot-driven pieces usually hold up well as does anything with multiple comedic breaks.

Preparation:  

Rehearsal: Give yourself at least a couple days to rehearse, and that's bare minimum.  If you're finishing the story the day of the reading, you're setting yourself up to flub and fuck up a lot.  You're going to be even more nervous because you're walking up with material you're not entirely comfortable with.  Again, two days at the minimum, and when you rehearse, do it exactly the way you plan on doing it: out loud.  Mumbling quietly to yourself isn't the same thing as reading live, so rehearse it like it's the real thing.  After enough rehearsal, you're going to notice a couple things.

The first is that certain lines are going to look better on paper than they sound out loud.  Or you're flubbing a certain area of the piece on a consistent basis.  Make changes as needed, and believe me, the more you read the more you're going to find.  This is why it's important you give yourself enough time to practice.

The other discovery is that certain lines of the piece will become imprinted in your memory.  These are the lines you should pay particular attention to because they're your opportunity for eye-contact with the audience.  You should be making eye-contact about three times per page, so make sure you either highlight or bold these lines.  An entire reading with your face buried behind the page won't bode well.

Final hardcopy: Make sure the font of your print off is at least 14-point and double-spaced.  You may even go bigger if your eyes have a hard time with that, but this is to keep you from losing your place when you make eye-contact with the audience.  If your venue is dark, you might even go with pink or yellow paper to make the print pop more.  Bend the corners so you can shuffle through the pages quickly.  Make sure your pages are in order before you go up. Functionality is key.

Final prep points: Cell phone needs to be off. Wear what you want to be photographed in because you're more than likely going to be photographed or recorded. Print off your bio. Spit that fucking gum out of your mouth. Write down what you want to plug at the end of your piece, either your website or book.  It's very easy to forget to do this in the wake of a finished reading.  Also, make sure to have business cards to hand out after you're done.

Right before you go on: There's probably going to be a period of about five minutes of unbearable anxiety.  That's normal.  Ride it out, take a deep breath, and it'll be gone once you hit the stage.

The Reading:

Intro: The emcee will read off your bio and bring you up.  In the event that there is no emcee, you can say, "I'm the author of such-and-such and I'm from such-and-such."  Keep it brief.  Always remember to thank the audience for coming out.

Set-up: Give a brief set-up to what you're about to read.  If it's a novel, read a short synopsis.  If it's a short story, give a two sentence pitch. Again, keep it brief so you can get right to it.  If you don't think you can wing it, there's no shame in writing this down on a notecard.

Reading: If you've rehearsed, this should be no problem.  Remember to make eye-contact.  Go at your own pace.  If you flub a line, don't even think about it.  Keep moving along.

Ender: Lowering your piece down to your side and saying "thank you" should tell the audience that the story is over.  A round of applause should ensue.  After that, give a brief plug to either the book that you're selling or a website they can visit.  Exit.

Post-exit: Wait until everyone has read before you start throwing out cards and mingling.  After that, it's game on for networking.

Media: Again, after the event, you should now have some stuff to share on social media. Post video, audio, and pics of the reading. This is your second wave of marketing.

Conclusion:

You may have noticed that the majority of my advice pertained to everything before the reading rather than during, and that's because most of what a reading is takes place in the days prior to the event--not the seven minutes you're on stage talking.  It's a game of preparation, yes, but it's also the ability to talk yourself up there in the first place.  If you can do this even once in any capacity, you should be able to do it again. Your nerves will calm down.  Your performances will get better.  Like writing, you'll begin to recognize your strengths as they pertain to performing live the more you do it.  

Reading live not only presents you with the opportunity to sell books and make some contacts, but it's also preparing you for the big leagues of publication.  It's an important skill, and one better learned earlier than later.  So get your mistakes and jitters out now while you can.  Critique yourself and identify what you can do better.  Performing live follows the same logic as the written word: the more you do it, the better you'll become.

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Comments

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words December 21, 2011 - 12:52pm

great advice - I have a friend who reads his poetry on occasion - he's lucky that his wife is a drama major. she forced him to rehearse and does it ever show.

amongthegoblins's picture
amongthegoblins from North Carolina is reading Among Others, The Three Musketeers, Bindoff's Tudor England, and Les Sortceliers December 21, 2011 - 5:23pm

Thanks! This is really helpful.

Chester Pane's picture
Chester Pane from Portland, Oregon is reading The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz December 21, 2011 - 9:17pm

I had to take a Xanax just from reading this.

Good stuff Brandon. Scary stuff, but good.

Hetch Litman's picture
Hetch Litman from Ojai, Ca. is reading Father and Son by Larry Brown December 22, 2011 - 12:41am

This right here is the reason that i love this site. Thanks for the great article.

aliensoul77's picture
aliensoul77 from a cold distant star is reading the writing on the wall. December 22, 2011 - 5:14am

I used to host poetry readings when I was first in college and I remember how unnerving it was to get up on that stage. It is scary to make yourself vulnerable to other people but its not as bad as being a stand up comedian. Just read your writing as intended and if people don't laugh when you think they should or react how you want, ignore it and move on. It is a personality building experience.

.'s picture
. December 22, 2011 - 10:39am

Also good places to read: To bums on park benches, trains, busses, Starbucks during rush hour, at your best man speech for your brother/sister's wedding, in a porno theater, the alley behind Barnes and Noble.

EricMBacon's picture
EricMBacon from Vermont is reading The Autobiography of a Corpse December 22, 2011 - 1:03pm

I knew I wasn't the only one that did a public reading for my best man speech during my brother's wedding, which was in a porno theatre built in the alley behind Barnes and Noble. 

Macgowan's picture
Macgowan from New Jersey is reading House of Leaves December 22, 2011 - 10:58pm

I find I read aloud better after a few drinks. Whether it's a lack of inhibition or just because I slow down, I'm not sure. I read awful quick on my own, so it could easily be either one.

Jenny Hanniver's picture
Jenny Hanniver from Wyoming is reading everything she can get her hands on as a general rule December 27, 2011 - 11:45am

Now this was some useful excellence.  Larger font...ashamed I didn't think of that.