On Reading In Public

photo by Sam J. Miller
NYRSF reading, 2013. Photo by Sam J. Miller

Imagine yourself in a room filled with chairs, all pointed right at you. There’s a table with a sweating pitcher of water and an empty plastic cup, a box of leftover cookie crumbs, and, if you’re lucky, a table-tent with your name on it.

Welcome to your reading – one of many, you hope. What are you going to do now?

Actually, the first time I read my work aloud was nothing like this. Then, I clutched a handful of my poems in a crowded basement bar in Baltimore while the person who read before me duct-taped a self-help book to his head and set enough things aflame that the fire department came. The packed house was there to see the band up next – my friends – and I had decided that if I could read here, I could read anywhere. Even if the microphone was stuck at the height of the 6’2″ self-help-fire dude.

Years and years later, when I read my fiction for the first time — at a Worldcon, no less — I had to knuckle through the whole thing again — the fear of screwing up (valid, but you keep going), the worry that no one would come (not true!), and the very pressing time limit that a con reading offers. All without fire engines to distract anyone.

So, as convention season rolls on, with World Fantasy Con fast approaching, I’m posting some reading tips, links, … and encouraging you to share your tips too… what do you do before and during a reading that makes things easier? What’s your favorite thing to do after a reading?

Fran’s Flame-Proof Reading Tips (with help from her friends):

  • Stand in front of the table, don’t hide behind it. (A James D. Macdonald tip) Yep. It’s hard and you’ve got nowhere to put your reading material, but you’ll notice your audience is better connected. If you can’t stand for that long, bring a chair out front, or (not authorized) sit/lean on the table. If you’ve been given a podium with a mic, you’re talking to a bigger room, anyway, and using that is a good idea.
  • Move around. Use the space you’re given. If you don’t trust your feet, try turning and gesturing. Interact with the audience. My friend Wes Chu throws in action moves sometimes and wow does that make a reading more lively. Try not to hurt yourself. Or others. (Not recommended: setting anything on fire.)
  • Bring friends and return the favor. If you’ve been given a long reading, see if you can share the time with a friend. If not, having someone in the front row to make faces at you can make the whole thing easier. You go to their reading in return, because that’s what we do. Sometimes, especially if they are Kelly Lagor, they bring you treats to get you through.
  • Keep an eye on the time. (Everyone. Ever.) This is important. Your reading is your time, but the room is scheduled for the next reader too. If you go over, or if you hold your ground like someone defending a fortress of the best book/story ever, you’re going to put the next group out. And you could have a whole bunch of people at the back of the room remembering your name for the wrong reasons. If you go over, stop where you are. Do not take the extra few seconds to pitch your book. Really. Don’t. If you aren’t reading from a tablet, which has a handy built in clock, find a watch or phone with a quiet buzz alarm you can set and put that on the table.
  • Practice. Practice in a quiet room, practice in front of a few friends. Practice with a timer so you know how long your reading is. Fifteen to twenty pages is usually about twenty minutes. Build in five minutes for introducing yourself and thanking your audience at the end. Practice again.
  • Mark up your manuscript. This works on paper as well as on a PDF – mark points in your manuscript where you should look up and make eye contact with different places around the room. While you’re doing that, you can take a breath so your lips don’t turn blue. Mark points where you want to emphasize a word or phrase. (Thank you again to Scott Kennedy for this, a few years back when a post discussion about pitching novels veered into reading territory. It’s a great hack.)
  • Carry Treats. If you’re up for it, bring a treat to share with the audience. Bring some business cards or postcards for your next book (but don’t linger in the room to hand those out, go outside). Writers like Michael Swanwick sometimes offer to sign, date, and give away the paper manuscript they read from, marking the occasion. This is pretty cool.
  • Don’t be afraid of funny. Live readings are a great opportunity to bring out your more energetic work, or at least give the audience a chance to laug. Seriously. IMPORTANT: Check with friends to make sure your funny actually is funny before you commit. Check again. … and then check one more time.
  • Read more about reading. Mary Robinette Kowal has a great series on the topic of Reading Aloud.

So. You’ve got the mic now. What are your favorite tips for reading in public?

Like this kind of thing? There’s more. Including the ever-popular literary bio mad-lib maker and how-to.

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