Last Saturday I gave my first public reading at Whispers: a Queensland Writers Centre event for new and emerging authors. A pic on Twitter shows me almost purple, gripping the lectern in terror.
As nerve-wracking as it was, the reading was an invaluable experience in my journey towards publication. How?
A rehearsal for the main event. As a published author, there is some expectation that you do some of your own promotion—reading at launches, appearing on panels at festivals, etc. Giving a public reading gives you some experience for when you need to launch and promote your book. (When it really counts as you have something to sell.)
Build your fan-base. Well, maybe not fans… But people who will have at least heard of you when your book comes out. I know if I have seen a writer in person I feel a small obligation to buy their book.
Networking. People who come to readings love books, and are usually writers themselves. Get to know your local writing community.
Test out a new work. Actually, no, don’t do this. Imagine the anxiety of having someone read your work for the first time multiplied by public speaking.
So how can you prepare for a reading?
Prepare your extract.
Choose a passage that has some dialogue. This will give opportunities for character voices. Or at least some variety in intonation. Also, dialogue is more engaging than long paragraphs of description.
Begin with a hook. Grab the audience’s attention. If possible, find an opening paragraph which sets up the ‘world’ of your story. Quite often it takes an audience a few minutes to orientate themselves and by then you’re nearly finished.
End with intrigue or closure. Make the audience want more. This can also stimulate discussion when ‘networking’ after.
Word length. Check with the organisers. For the event I did, they wanted no more than 5 minutes. This was roughly 900 words. If you have longer, it is better to read two short pieces from the same work than one long piece that might lose the audience’s attention.
Prepare your performance.
Practise, practise, practise. With a timer at first so you know it fits the time limit. The more you practise, the less likely you will fall apart on the day. It’s kind of like an anchor.
Check pronunciation. If you find yourself stumbling over the pronunciation of any words, look it up on youtube. Then mark up your passage with phonetic spelling if necessary. You might need to put a dot over the emphasised syllable.
Change wording. If you think you might still stumble over the pronunciation of a word, change it to something simpler. This applies as well if certain words sound ‘sexier’ when read aloud.
Mark up voice changes. Nothing is worse than a monotonous reading voice. If you don’t want to do ‘character voices’, vary your intonation and modulate volume. I mark these on the passage with up and down arrows.
Prepare your audience.
Stack the audience. In the week leading up to the event, promote it on social media and enlist family and friends to come along. It’s better for you and better for your co-readers to have more people in the audience.
Give an intro. Provide a brief introduction to your piece on why you chose it, its deeper meaning, how you might have interpreted the event’s theme, or background context of the character. You might deliver this yourself, or, as in the case of Whispers, the MC will.
Give thanks. This is the one that is easily forgotten if you’re nervous (ahem). Thank the MC for introducing you and the audience for their time in listening to you. Thank the event organisers for their time in promoting the event as well as for giving you the opportunity. Thank the event space.
Make eye contact. Engage your audience when you read. Even if this is just a quick eye flick up and down at the end of a paragraph. If you have a short line of dialogue, with practice, you can deliver this directly to the audience. Also, any lines that have impact, create suspense, etc. This is a performance after all.
What opportunities are there to give a reading?
In other states, check with your writers’ centre, or local independent bookshop. Writers’ festivals often have timeslots for emerging writers to read their work.