I love to read from my books in public. I love the silence that descends as the audience grows rapt. More than that, I love to hear the crowd react to my words, noting when they gasp or if they laugh. Best of all, I love to gauge the enthusiasm of the applause at the end.
The chief thing to keep in mind when you are asked or volunteer to do a reading is that – while the audience comes to be entertained – YOU are there to sell your book. Whatever you read, make it the best advertisement for your book that you can.
I try to tailor what I read to its intended audience. If I’m reading in a bar, I choose something sexy. If it’s a bookstore, I read an action scene. If I’m reading to science fiction fans, I pick something that’s undeniably SFnal. If it’s a horror convention, I read something bloody. I don’t try to stretch their tastes because I want them to buy the book.
It’s important to find out in advance how long your reading slot will be. It’s rude to exceed your time limit, because you’re stealing time from the other readers.
I’m a strong believer in reading a complete scene, whenever possible. It’s good to end on a cliffhanger or some other place that will leave your listeners wanting more. In my experience, it’s better to read one long piece, rather than too many short pieces, because it’s much easier than most readers realize to overstay the audience’s good will.
I always practice before I perform, not only to time my selection, but also to see how it feels in my mouth. Are some names tricky to pronounce? Are there words I’m uncertain of? I’d rather make mistakes at home instead of in front of people. Also, as I’m practicing, I sometimes add extra commas, so I remember to breathe or leave space for laughter.
Reading to a live audience can teach you a lot about your own work. Sometimes what looks good on a page doesn’t sound good in performance. Maybe the sentences are too long or convoluted. Scenes full of dialog can be hard for listeners to follow. Long descriptions or info dumps can sound awkward out of context.
Another element that should be considered when you’re preparing for a reading is how you will introduce yourself. Usually you will be expected to provide the host, if there is one, with a short bio. Crafting the perfect bio is a whole ‘nother essay, but briefly, this: Give your name, the title of the book you are selling, and your web address. If there is more information that your audience will find useful, mention it. Highlight your authority as an author and what you have in common with your listeners. Keep it short. You can be funny, if that comes naturally, but don’t bring up your cat or your marital status – or any other personal information, for that matter – unless that’s what you’re reading about. Otherwise, it’s obvious filler that erodes your audience’s patience.
Once you get up in front of the crowd, think about how well you can be heard. If there’s a mic, lean toward it. If there isn’t, pretend you’re talking to someone at the back of the room. My voice tends to be soft, so I begin my readings by asking people to wave at me if I grow hard to hear.
Of course, that means that I have to occasionally glance up from my text. Even after all the readings I’ve done, I’m still self-conscious enough that it’s hard to tear my eyes off the manuscript. To get around that, I mark places in my scene to look up. I try not to meet anyone’s eyes, because that would distract me from what I’m doing, but I want to get a brief glimpse of the audience to see if their eyes are on me, or if they’ve glazed over and I should wrap things up. The glazing-over has yet to happen, but I always worry.
The (almost) final thing to think about is how to end your reading. When I reach the end of my text, I let the words run out, take a breath, and then say thank you. I feel it’s important to thank the audience for their attention. I try to thank the host and the venue too, if there’s time and it’s appropriate. Write what you plan to say on your text, so you don’t forget it.
Lastly, stand still a moment to enjoy the applause. It can be surprisingly difficult to face your audience after you’ve done your bit. It can feel like you’re hogging the attention, especially if you’re reading as part of a lineup. I try to stand still long enough to make some eye contact with the crowd before I rush off the stage. After all, the applause is why we do this. Well, that, and the book sales.
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