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Tools of the Trade: Readings

(An occasional series in which I'm going to try and provide brain dumps about some of the more obscure aspects of the writing business.)

A friend, who recently sold her first novel, wrote to me (paraphrased): "help! I'm supposed to be giving a reading from my work at a science fiction convention! What do I do?"

Readings, like signings, are one of the epiphenomena of writing: not a central part of the business, but people give you funny looks if your first reaction on being invited to do one is to shriek and hide up a tree. Unfortunately, although there are plenty of books with advice wise and otherwise on other aspects of writing, I've yet to run across any advice about readings. So here's what I've learned about reading in front of strangers.

Rule #1 is that the audience is not your enemy.

Odd though this may sound, a certain subset of writers never quite get their heads around this concept. Writers are, almost by definition, unaccustomed to public performance: writing a novel isn't something you do live in front of an audience. (If it was, the audience would have to be so laid-back they'd make the spectators at a five day test match look as if they were in a mosh pit frenzy; writing books is slow.) So most of us, have no idea about how to behave in front of an audience.

To start with, people who turn up to your reading will be either friends, fans, or the randomly curious, in descending order of probability. (If it's your first reading and you're obscure, your friends will come along to give moral support, and that's about it. Once the fans and random passers-by who you don't recognize by name outnumber your friends, you're famous — but by then you should be used to the game.) They've come along because they expect you to entertain them for half an hour or an hour or however long you've got. And they are not your enemy. Unless you've been scheduled to give a reading on-stage during an interlude between stand-up comedians in a docker's club down in Leith — or something similar — you've got them all to yourself. At an SF convention, you've probably got a table and a jug of water in front of several rows of chairs, in a room with a door. Ask someone to close the door when you're ready to start, and you've got their undivided attention. Believe me, compared to the lot of a stand-up comedian, this is paradise. These people have turned up because they want to hear you. All you have to do is avoid letting them down and you'll be a hit.

I usually arrive five minutes early simply because there are things to take note of before giving a reading: are you expected to stand for the duration, or is there a chair and a table for you? If you're standing, is there a lectern or somewhere to balance your notes? Is there a microphone and sound system, or are you expected to fill the room with your lungs? And is there a jug of water and a glass so you can cool your throat?

Standing for an hour in the same spot is surprisingly tiring, although if there's a lectern and it's stable you can lean on it. Likewise, while it's usually possible to speak loudly enough to be heard clearly at the back of a room that seats fifty people, it can be quite exhausting to shout for an entire hour. (If you've got laryngitis and have warned the organizers in advance, I'd say that turning up to an event only to discover there's no amplification is grounds for canceling.) The water jug isn't an optional extra. I usually take the precaution of bringing along a drink of some sort, simply because my throat dries out after ten or fifteen minutes of speaking and if I'm scheduled late in a day of readings, the folks providing supporting facilities such as jugs of water tend to be getting a bit erratic themselves.

You probably want to start your reading by introducing yourself. At this point, there's no need to overdo things; for the most part your audience wouldn't be here if they didn't know who you are. But give them thirty seconds — someone will probably have come to the wrong reading, and may not realize it until you tell them your name. Give them time to clear out before you get started.

And here's the #1 novice mistake: to expect that what you're going to do is turn up with a book and read a passage from it.

Your audience are here to be entertained. Works of fiction are entertainment — but reading verbatim from a work of fiction can be as entertaining as copying it out longhand. Why?

When we write fiction, we're actually producing a work of art that conforms to certain stylistic conventions. We intersperse dialog with description and introspection (otherwise what we've got is a movie script), we construct long compound sentences -- like this one -- and we indulge in artifice that our audience is complicit in (narrative voice, tense, scene changes, and so on). These conventions are in some cases not conducive to a live reading. At a phrase structure level, sentences that run for more than about twenty syllables, or which are compounded from more than three clauses, are generally too long to read comfortably on a single breath. And at a broader level, we speak aloud rather more slowly than we can read. A fast reading speed is anything over about 350 words per minute, but if you heard me speaking at that rate you'd think I was babbling — speech falls in the 150-250 word per minute range.

Consider a nice piece of description that runs for about three pages in your book — one in which your protagonists are going on a day trip through a forest, and you're describing what they can see. Three pages is about 1100-1200 words. On the page, a reasonably fast reader zips through such a passage in 3-4 minutes. A reader who isn't interested in sylvanian scenery can simply flip forward a page and skip the boring bit: thirty seconds. In constrast, when you're reading to an audience, those long descriptive passages tend to slow you down. At 200 words per minute, it's going to take you 5-7 minutes to plough through the section, while your readers are actually wondering what's going to happen to your characters at the other side of the wild woods. And the members of the audience who don't dig digitalis can't simply skip forward — you've cornered them, and they're trapped for five minutes that are going to feel like five hours.

I try to pre-select the passages I'm going to read. I aim for a thousand words per ten minutes, and no piece should be much over 30 minutes long — by the time I get to the end of it, I'll be tired and the audience will want a change. I abridge for reading: long descriptive passages get removed completely or cut back to a couple of sentences. Long sentences are shortened or split up. Difficult words and replaced with something easier to get my mouth around. And I make sure to put a pay-off at the end, either emotional or plot-based. The audience have listened to me droning on for half an hour: they want to get something out of it. Ending on "continued in chapter four" is not a climax.

And then there's the matter of how to select material for a reading. I tend to assume that (a) nobody wants to listen to a piece of fiction that takes more than 30 minutes to read unless it's absolutely captivating, and (b) nobody wants to sit and listen for more than 45 minutes, tops. So what I tend to do is pick a couple of pieces, mixed and matched for length to fit in the slot that's open to me. For a one-hour session I'd typically start with something I haven't read before, and a running time of 20-30 minutes. That means about 3000-3500 words, in practice. A good choice for this slot would be a self-contained short story that's newly published but that will be unfamiliar to most of the audience. Short stories have to pay off in a short period; it comes to a conclusion, which is more than can be said for most extracts from the interior of a novel.

Having got halfway into the session, it's a good idea to pause for long enough to drink a glass of water; by this point you'll probably be needing it. Then it's time to switch to a second, shorter piece, lasting for 15-20 minutes (or about 1500 words). Having given your audience a self-contained story, you've got a bit more freedom at this point; it's probably safe to try a chapter from that novel that's just out (as long as you've edited it for brevity and made sure that there's some kind of pay-off at the end). By the time you finish this second item, your audience are going to be restive, however much they've enjoyed the reading: it's time to relax a bit, and give the ones with weak bladders or short attention spans a chance to escape without making themselves look boorish by walking out on you while you're reading. (Remember, if they have to embarrass themselves they'll blame you. This is not a good thing.)

A good mechanism for lightening up a reading is to take questions from the audience — and they will have questions if they've been enjoying the show. Alternatively, if you can talk off the cuff about how you work or how you wrote the work you've just read, that's a good choice of filler. Finally, if it's a long reading slot (and an hour on-stage reading your own work is long, if you're not used to it), I try and bring out a 5 minute extract from something that's not yet published. Reading audiences love teasers and love the sense that they're getting something nobody else has heard before: if you do it right, you can work up to a climax just as your slot ends and you're asked to vacate your room.

As to technology ...

I tend to read off a laptop screen. This is long-standing habit; I've got sharp eyes for text and it lets me bring along a variety of work and call them up quickly. However, it works best at a table or lectern, with a small laptop with a shallow screen that doesn't block your face from the audience. Nothing's quite as unpreposessing as an author with their face hidden by a lump of plastic or washed out by a lurid LED backlight glow. And there's nothing quite as pathetic as a writer whose laptop's battery has died halfway through a talk!

I would not recommend reading from a PDA or smartphone on stage. Been there, done that, got the eyestrain to prove it. It's generally safest to read off paper. Reading from a book is not generally advisable because the typeface tends to be tiny, the margins justified, and it's not abridged for spoken-word delivery. Reading from a printed manuscript gives you a bigger page, clearer type, your own edits, and no battery problems or eyestrain. However, even this least-worst choice has its own pitfalls.

When printing a story for a reading, you need to use a larger than normal typeface, so you can read it at arm's length. Remember, a sheaf of A4 pages is just as good at hiding your face from your audience as a laptop. On the same note: ragged right margins and plenty of whitespace on the page help the eyeballs track smoothly, and when you're concentrating on not mumbling or mispronouncing your hero's name, anything that helps is good. It's also important to number the pages prominently — you wouldn't believe how often I've seen authors fumble and drop their material when reading on-stage. (It's a combination of performance anxiety and inexperience — as I said, authors aren't performance artists.) Use a fastener to hold the pages together that doesn't obscure the text or page number, doesn't get in the way when you flip pages, and doesn't fall out. (In my experience, staples are best.) Don't print on both sides of the paper. (I've known authors to do this. It doesn't work well when they're trying to figure out which side of the page to read from.)

If you're nervous or inexperienced, at this point it helps to hole up in your working environment with a pet cat, or a mirror, or whatever it takes, and read through your script aloud from start to finish. Ideally, time it — this will help you fine-tune the event for length. Once you've done it once in private you'll find it a lot easier to do it in front of an audience. Thespians have a technical term for this activity: they call it a "rehearsal", and there's a jolly good reason why they do it.

Finally, a word on personal presentation. In a nutshell, it depends on your audience. Most people are aware that novelists don't go to work in a suit and tie: this is good (because I don't believe I actually own a tie). Conversely, turning up in either rags or riches will tend to distract your audience from what you're saying. My rule of thumb for readings, with a baseline set for science fiction conventions, is smart casual: emphasis on casual, modulating towards smart at more upscale events. (SF conventions are casual, believe me.) Let the choice of venue guide your choice of presentation and you won't look out of place.

I think that covers it. Anyone with other opinions can feel free to offer them in the comment thread.

Which reminds me: got to sort out the running order and editing for my worldcon reading! Just as soon as I finish this novel ...




"..writing a novel isn't something you do live in front of an audience."

Didn't Will Self actually write at least part of a novel in an art gallery some years back?


All good stuff -- although to me specifically not relevant, since people who write technical books about JavaScript don't get invited to read them out on stage -- but one more note might be useful to prospective new aloud readers: look up from what you're reading and make eye contact with the audience. It makes people feel like you're talking to them, it automatically makes your voice a bit louder without any extra effort because you're talking into the air and not into the bits of paper, and finally you get to see your audience who are there to listen to you, and that's a nice feeling.


Giles: any sentence at all in any way that uses the word "you" to refer to people generally implicitly includes the disclaimer "does not apply to Will Self", I suspect. :-)


Great stuff Charlie - having seen you read a few times I can see a lot of work goes into making it seem effortless.


Very nice bit of presentation about presentation, Charlie. I'd add one point, especially for people who are uncomfortable in front of large (more than 3) audiences. The hardest part is to start talking; once you're rolling, either reading or presenting some rehearsed opening lines, habit will take over, and your biggest problem will be that you may get too comfortable and forget you have to project your voice and make eye contact. This is why so many presenters start all their presentations with a joke (usually stale). It's something they've done many times before so they can feel confident while getting started and establishing contact with the audience.

Getting started can be hard. Very few people are comfortable the first time they face a large audience of strangers; many presenters are never comfortable with it. I've known actors who, after 20 years of live performance still throw up from tension every night just before the show. But once the first words or bit of business are behind them, habit and rehearsed memory kick in, and they're concentrating on saying the words, not worrying about what to say.

If oneliners aren't your style, you needn't start with a joke. If you're away from your home town, say something about your trip, or something you've noticed about the place you're in. The key is to have practiced the opening a couple of times in the previous day or so; it'll become familiar and you'll find yourself saying the words without a lot of conscious thought. If you seem assured at the start, the audience will accept some starting and stopping later, and even short pauses when you lose your place in the reading. And you will accept your own mistakes, or external problems (the PA system stops working, or the last good join in the lectern separates and it falls apart) better too. Starting a reading with a feeling of confidence that you know what you are doing, and that the audience is interested in what you say makes it more likely you'll project that feeling and hold onto your audience (and your own confidence) the entire time.

Many people like to record their voices or images while they rehearse, to see what they sound and look like afterwards. Be prepared, this can be a truly humbling and disorienting experience. You are not used to hearing yourself or seeing yourself from the outside, and you may be shocked at the differences. Don't do this for the first time the day before your first reading, or you may end up with the Caterpiller's Dilemma: not knowing which foot to move when because you've thought about it too much.


Another bit of "don't sweat it" advice: you will not be expected to excel. Because speaking is one of the skills surrounding the writer's art, instead of central to it, no-one will mind if you're only adequate (they'll mind if you're only adequate at writing!).

It's nice for your sales if you can be spectacularly good, because it gives people an excuse to gossip and namedrop OMG I saw X reading isn't he funny!? But it's still good for your sales even if you fumble it a bit. Perhaps you'll get better with practice, but don't panic when you're just starting, no harm will be done.

I'm not a writer, I say all this as just a reader who goes to see new writers perform their work, so you know I'm not making it up.

Another thing about hiding your face behind a manuscript. It's not good enough if they can see your eyes, some of your audience may be hard of hearing, so they must see your mouth and chin as well. rysmiel, I'm looking at you :-)

(it's an understandable nervous tic, we often want to hide our face when people are staring at us. Resist it, remember the audience is not your enemy)


I've never really had an issue with public speaking, but then again I both had speech and drama lessons while I was in school, and I've taken part in plays in front of 1000+ people. I'd say these things really help.


Great stuff, Charlie.

Mary Robinette Kowal wrote a bunch of terrific articles with hands-on advice on the mechanics of reading aloud. I think they're required reading:


Now if only you'd do a reading in Edinburgh we could see how well you put this advice into practice!


"..writing a novel isn't something you do live in front of an audience."

Asimov, a notorious agoraphile, was apparently notorious for preferring to write in crowded noisy areas.

But it would be understandably harder for a ninja writer who depends on stealth and concealment.


I wish I'd seen this before my one and only reading, which was such a storming success that I still break out in a cold sweat when I think about it. As do the audience, I expect.


In your O P you referred to writing as a performance art and I was reminded of the Monty Python sketch in which Thomas Hardy�s act of writing �The Return of the Native� is recorded as if it was a football commentary with statistics, summaries etc

I�m not sure it would be all that popular on TV though!

Would definitely be A Good Idea to hear you in the city you�re domiciled. After all it is, I think, the inaugural UN �City of Literature�


Very true about the different impact of descriptive passages when read as opposed to done aloud. I often clip on the fly when doing a reading.

BTW, reading aloud is a good way to test what you've written, especially dialogue.


Treasury tags are what you need - staples make page-turning slightly too much of a hassle.

Aside from that, the processes of pruning, delivery, belta-and-braces text, and timing that you've given above are all very similar to my standard 'This is how you give a research paper' speech to postgrads. Get the generic presentation stuff right, and the content can get to work. Or not.


It occurs to me that an author might need to add some speaker cues: an extra "he said", because there aren't the layout cues that text has, and putting them in a different voice, even just shifting pitch a little, isn't easy.

And if you want to try a different voice--highlighter pen?


Something you might also try is teleprompter software. There are a few shareware products out there for cheap, and you can set the computer a few feet away and control the scroll speed with a mouse.

They're usually set for inverse text, which gives you a good high-contrast view (and minimizes that "face glow" you get with a black-on-white display).

You also get things like color text markup (for characterization and notes).


As one of the audience, I would also suggest selecting a piece that opens itself up to questions at the end - much as the subjects of this blog do. For SF, this means selecting a passage that highlights an interesting technology, a situation that has a novel resolution, etc. It is more comfortable for me to be able to think of a question or two to ask at the end than not. This clearly falls into your "entertainment" stipulation, but it is surprising how many mainstream authors forget this and leave the audience struggling to be able to think of something reasonably intelligent to ask about the reading. And that is important, when you, as the author, are trying to connect with the audience and engage them.


Personally, if my 'magnum opus' ever got published, I wouldn't do readings. English isn't my first language and I'm far from being a thespian. So it isn't for everyone.

It doesn't matter so much for presentations, but for readings, delivery is all.

I'm looking forward to seeing you at Worldcon :)


1. Try to discover before travelling to another continent without laptop or a copy of your book that you are in fact meant to be doing a reading. This saves you having to track down a PC to get onto the web and print off the sample chapter from your web site, and thus having to navigate the arcane rules operated by the Boston public library system for sending anything to one of their printers.

2. Try not to discover, during the reading, an absolute clunker of a sentence that somehow survived the copy editing and proof reading stages. A random example plucked from thin air: "the volley echoed round the valley."


Top tip: speak to the people at the back of the room. Even if you have a microphone. Also, if you're going to be doing this kind of thing more than once, learn some of the basic voice exercises that actors and singers use: not only will these improve your voal quality and ability to project, they will also, much more importantly, help you avoid damaging your voice. Speaking publicly for an hour will make you hoarse at best.

On the subject of those long descriptions of scenery, I suppose it depends what kind of writer you are. I've read The Lord of the Rings aloud, and the long passages about mountains, woods and skies work a lot better when spoken than they do on the page.


Ah, reading SF or Fantasy novels out loud. This is an activity I've done a lot over the years, which is a somewhat unique activity. There are some authors that are better at writing speaking material than others.

One of the problems I've run into is the problem of voice. A very few authors I've heard read do give their characters very different voices when they read aloud. Most will inflect differently to indicate a different speaker. Because of this natural tendancy, it can be a rough thing to be tripping along a long passage and realize you've just read the last whole paragraph as the breathy pre-teen, rather than the gruff seargent protecting her who just interrupted a dialog. Oops. Because of this, if you do have a chance to prepare what you're reading (which if you're an author doing a reading you by definition do) it is a good idea to mark areas where the voice changes suddenly. Otherwise, I find myself taking very quick glances ahead while I'm reading in order to see who is speaking next.

Also, when reading out loud, it is a good idea to put how the person is speaking before the actual words. A lot of authors put this after a shoe-pounding paragraph and it works, people just mentally tag the previous words with the emotion signified at the end, and go merrily on their way comprehension unimpeeded. When reading out loud, this sort of instant-revision is much harder to carry off.

And yes, extensively recursive sentences are hard to read out loud.

Lord of the Rings is something that is easy to read out loud. It's almost as if Tolkein wrote it specifically to be read out loud. Or perhaps he orated to the aether, and wrote out the good bits.


Something that nobody seems to have mentioned is the question of what one does with one's hands during these readings. I find myself gesturing a lot when I lecture, but then, I give most of my lectures at 8:00 am these days and a bit of capering about seems to help my audiences stay awake (or completely awaken). Not the same thing as a reading, granted, but has anyone found that moving about and gesturing a bit gingers things up for the audience at a reading?


Great advice, the reading you did I got to at WorldCon a few years ago was great, so the abridging/selection process definitely seems to work. :)


Chris @14: you let postgrad students do talks off written notes? Shame. There's nothing more painful than going along to a presentation that's read verbatim off notes. It seems to be the done thing in humanities, and it makes me wonder why I bothered to come along. Seriously -- the printing press is established technology now, people don't need stuff read to them from the "master copy". Sarcasm aside, I hope you know what I mean.

corwin @21: I believe LOTR was read aloud during the writing process. At the pub. To C S Lewis, amongst others, who tried to tell Tolkein that it was too wordy. Good man!


Written notes are good. There is something more painful than hearing someone reading their paper verbatim, and that's someone who etemporises without their notes and cocks it up. I've seen it, and it's not fun to watch.

Something that's also worse is 'Powerpoint because I could' - not to be confused with 'Powerpoint when it helps'.

Ideally, of course, we'd all be AJP Taylor, talking without notes, dead on time. I can do this for about 10 minutes, but more is beyond me. But given that we're not, reading a paper that's been re-scripted to read well is better than reading a raw 'written' paper, and working off notes is better yet. But these things take time to learn. Remember also that a research paper isn't a lecture or even an (entertaining) reading. The point is to deliver an often highly structured set of information to an audience who needs to know it. It's work. As long as they keep listening, they don't need to be entertained - although this is a welcome bonus.

And as for paper, paper is great. It doesn't break down. No need to plug it in. No batteries. Nobody wants to steal it off you. It's automatically compatible with you. You can highlight bits, scrawl notes on it, update it in response to your audience's comments, etc. Then that evening, when you type the comments up into version 14, you can work out which ones were useful, and which irrelevant and/or tedious.


I hope to use the info; it all seems good. "Own the room" is what I boil it down to. I listen to a few writers that also like to read their stuff, like David Sedaris. He can sell his books and his audio books. I don't know about you, but I think a writer should always read his/her book outloud just to hear the words and how they flow. And if you want to do some acting, you can change your voice for the different characters, which can be fun. I've heard you speak and I think you could easily read your own stuff for an audio book.



Good author readings are about my favorite part of a sf convention. I greatly enjoyed your reading in Boston in 2004.

Some of the best readers-aloud-of-their-work I've heard include Connie Willis, James Patrick Kelly, Kelly Link, Harlan Ellison, and the late George Alec Effinger.

Chris Williams @14: "Treasury tags"?


These things:


My #1 stationery item, as it happens. I should get out more.


To the commentors who said that this advise isn't that useful to folks who write tech books about Javascript.

If you write an interesting and engaging enough book that your book or your work becomes "known", its not hard at all to score a session at a geek conference, especially the ones run by O'Reilly.

At which point some of this advice applies. And some does not. But my experience with it, is that when it's done well, he's a heck of a lot of fun.


"because I don't believe I actually own a tie"

Thought this was funny, I'm right there with you, I've never worn one in my life (at all!). Cheers