Despatches from KSP – Day 11: Top Five Tips for Public Readings
Last night I had the pleasure of attending the KSP Literary Dinner and talking to people who are passionate about writing and reading. We were fed lovely food and I had the opportunity to read “The Badger Bride” (which was shortlisted for the Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Short Story for 2014- but was beaten by “St Dymphna’s School for Poison Girls” by some hack) aloud. I was scheduled to do three readings between courses, about 10-15 minutes each. That’s usually a long time for a reading – most events only want about 3-5 minutes, and that’s what I’ve trained myself to do, but I was up for the challenge. The story had natural breaking places and was well received – huzzah! – so I thought I’d give my Top Five Tips for Public Readings.
1. Choose an event-appropriate piece
You need to consider your audience and venue when you’re selecting something to read. It’s an unwise choice to debut the profanity-laced decapitation scene from your new spy thriller at a children’s books festival – just saying. Who will be listening to you? Are they likely to be genre readers or more on the side of Big L Literature? Are you going to be reading at a festival, in a bookstore, in a bar (dingy or otherwise)? Choose your piece to suit the audience, the occasion and the vibe of the venue. Also keep in mind whether you’re going to have a microphone or will need to use your best projecting voice.
If you can, read a short story that fits into your time limit – this gives the audience a nice sense of completion. If you’re reading an extract from a novel-length work (maybe your new book is coming out and promotion is foremost in your mind) then choose carefully: you don’t want it to be too slow, you don’t want it to give too much away (don’t read the end!), and you don’t want to have to spend too much time on an introduction to the piece that is longer than the piece itself so the audience will understand the context.
If you’re a second-stringer – an up-and-comer at, say, a salon evening which has a big name as the drawcard – then choose something snappy and complete. You’re not there to compete with the star, you’re there to be an able support act until you hit the big time. Give a good performance that people will remember for the right reasons.
2. How long is a piece of string?
As I said above, usually I’ve been asked to read 3-5 minute pieces, and that’s what I normally prepare. It’s a good length of time: less chance of an audience getting restless, less chance of you running out of breath, and a goodly span to tell a tale, whether it be a whole short story or an extract from a longer work. Make sure you always check with the organiser as to their expectations. If you know you need to do a longer reading – some writers festival spots are thirty minutes long – then you must prepare.
3. Practice makes perfect
You need to read your chosen piece aloud. You need to read it more than once. You need to read it before you have to perform it. The reasons for this are several-fold.
Firstly, so you get to know its rhythms, so your tongue isn’t getting tripped up as if it’s meeting the words for the first time – there are few things more uncomfortable for an audience than listening to an unprepared reader, and few things more terrible for a reader than hearing the shuffles and coughs and whispers of a bored audience. Or worse still, the sound of a chair being pushed back, of someone making excuses as they exit from the middle of a row of seats, tripping over audience members too polite to leave.
Secondly, what looks perfectly lovely on the page does not necessarily sound perfectly lovely when spoken aloud. Sentences might not have the same rhythm on the tongue and to the ear; when you’re practising, keep a pencil handy and cross out any lines that strike you as superfluous or overly long or complicated, likely to cause tangle-tongue. Don’t cross out important details the audience needs in order to understand the tale, but perhaps reword things for easier articulation. Know where the pauses need to be, know the cadences of your sentence so the words sing from your tongue, rather than sounding like a parent at three a.m. stumbling over a floor covered with Lego.
Thirdly, listening to yourself read will help you get the voice right, the tone you want to deliver the story in – the pitch that will do it justice. That will make the listening experience for the audience all the richer – and keep the number of shuffles, coughs and whispers to a minimum. You will also hear whether you’re one of Life’s mumblers – if you are, remedy that immediately. Don’t chew on your words, don’t let the nerves get hold of you and make you vomit them out at speed. Take a deep breath before you start; it’s calming, it helps you feel in control. Not to mention that doing a few run-throughs will help you control your breathing whilst reading, and the words will stop feeling so terrifying when you’ve got used to them.
Fourthly, you need to get your timing right. You might be utterly certain that those thirty pages equal five minutes. They don’t. Trust me, they really don’t. It’s agonising to hear a reader panic and speed up, or stop mid-sentence and leave the stage apologising because they realise they’ve been going on for twenty minutes in a three minute slot.
4. Always give your all
No matter how many or how few people turn up to your reading, always give the same performance. You may well feel disappointed that only two blokes and one chicken wearing an eye-patch have turned up to hear you – that’s only natural – but the important thing is not to act that way. Give the same level of performance as you would to an arena of cool kids and celebrities. Why? Because the folk who’ve bothered to turn up will go away and tell others about you and your work – what you want them to say is “It was a great reading! Look out for this author!!!”not “Total douche-canoe, bro, don’t ever bother reading their stuff.”
5. Save the best for last
Finally, I know it’s nerve-wracking to stand up and speak in public, and it feels so much worse when you’re doing something creative, but consider not drinking beforehand to settle the nerves. Sure, alcohol loosens inhibitions, makes us relax … but sometimes it loosens inhibitions so much we think, “Yeah, three drinks of the cheap and nasty wine will be fine, I feel great, I’m confident!” But by then you’re slurring; the words move around on the page; maybe you trip up the stairs to the dais/podium; you’re talking too loudly, too quickly, you’re not funny. I have been in audiences where the author is sloshed – I have paid to be there – and I’ve not been happy or impressed. This isn’t based on any Temperance League objections to booze, just a preference for professional behaviour. “There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip” as the saying goes – don’t get caught out saying something you probably shouldn’t because you’re too relaxed. Or worse: unintentionally ending up as the newest YouTube sensation.
Save the drink for afterwards, for the celebration, when no one cares if you’re a bit messy, in fact they think you’ve earned it.