(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 ...