March I attended FOGCon in Walnut Creek California. One thing I always attend
at FOGCon are author readings.
In one session, I heard a writer named Matt Maxwell read from his independently published novel Queen of No Tomorrows. I hadn’t seen the book in the dealers room (because it wasn’t there). I was intrigued by the section he read. I bought a signed book from him after the reading.
Matt Maxwell made a sale he would not otherwise have made, because he participated in a public reading.
big fan of public readings.
You’re probably not, because if you love writing and reading, you are probably an introvert. You probably love to attend other folks’ readings, but the thought of reading out loud to a group of strangers gets your mouth dry, your heart racketing around in your chest like a bird trapped in a closet, and your neck muscles tight. And that’s perfectly normal.
And you can get over it.
I recommend reading your work in public when you can.
See Paragraph Three above. Maxwell sold me a book. He would not otherwise have sold me a book, because I hadn’t seen it, and I would not necessarily have found it on Amazon because I wouldn’t have gone looking.
We may be introverts, but these days any creative act contains a growing element of performance. The public expects more than a wonderful story from you; they expect to see a bit of your process, to know what you think about things. They may not have the right to those things, but it’s what they expect. A public reading gives them a bit of that.
You get a perspective on your work that you don’t normally have. (Frankly, reading parts of your work out loud to yourself is a great idea, just to hear how it flows. Or doesn’t flow.)
Readers and potentials buyers of your work can now put a face with the name, and they have probably decided that they like you. This means they are predisposed to buy your work.
You’ll meet other writers and make friends.
Where to read?
Any writers workshop, conference or convention that offers “open mike” readings for emerging writers is a good place to start. You want a place with an audience who wants to hear you. Writers conferences have the benefit of being filled with other writers who are as nervous as you are. Unless you already like performance and are competitive, things like poetry slams are probably not a good starting places, although they are fun events in themselves.
Some conventions, like FOGCon, have three people read during one session. This gives you benefit of reading with other writers. That way you’re not up there all alone.
Some NaNoWriMo local groups host readings, in December, to celebrate people’s November achievements. Clubs like the California Writers Club host readings, usually limited to members for obvious reasons. NaNoWriMo readings are usually not limited.
If your local independent bookstore has a writing group, they may also offer reading events. It’s worth a call or a visit to their website.
Find out if the place has a time-limit (most do). If they do, honor it. First of all, that’s just respectful. Secondly, some places are strict to the point of meanness in enforcing the time limit, and you don’t want to get gonged off the stage. Lastly, and probably most important, you won’t like it when another participant hogs the mic and cuts into your time, so don’t do that to someone else.
Practice your work at home. I practice in front of a mirror and with a timer. This allows me to look up from the work now and then to make eye contact with audience members. It lets me decide where the pauses and inflections go, and it drains away some of the nervousness.
You can also practice on your writers group, which should be about the safest place to practice after your bathroom mirror.
Decide on your media in advance. If you’re reading from your phone, let your text-happy friends know the date and time, so they don’t text you in the midst of your performance. True story: N.K. Jemisin was reading her acceptance speech for her second Best Novel Hugo from her phone and finally she looked up and said, “Stop texting me!” If you are reading from paper, and you are at all near-sighted, print it out in a larger font. Give yourself a break, in other words.
Know your equipment. (Easier said than done, sometimes.) If you are expected to use a microphone, make sure you can turn it on/off and hold it easily while holding reading media in the other hand. Juggling a microphone and a tablet, swiping down when you need to, isn’t that easy. Does the venue have a table or a podium? Do a mini sound-check if you can. The others reading with you will probably appreciate this too.
If you know who you will be reading with, reach out to them and introduce yourself in advance. You’ll all feel more comfortable. If you are all inclined, you can even do some planning and decide who’s reading first and other nuts-and-bolts details.
Some Stray Thoughts:
Here’s a weird one; you don’t have to read every word on the page. I don’t recommend wholesale editing while reading, but for example, I write a lot of dialogue. On the page, I’m very comfortable with “said” because the human eye slips over it. Read aloud, it’s brutally monotonous. Reading aloud, I can skip those, and you can too.
Do you need to create different voices and accents for your characters if there is dialogue? I don’t think so. If the writer is good at that, it can be fun. If the writer is not as good at that as they think they are, it is terribly distracting. Ask your friends who’ve heard you tell stories what they think. Here’s a tip. Do not say, “Do you think I’m good at accents?” Instead ask, “What do you think about me doing a French accent for Gigi in my reading?” This allows them to be honest without possibly hurting your feelings.
I have a friend who grew up in North Carolina. She’s been in California for decades and in regular speech her accent is a mere wisp. When she shifts into storytelling mode, it glides back into her words. It is great. I would love to hear her read from her fiction with that honeyed accent.
If you know the people you’re reading with, avoid (if you can) those rare souls who are cutthroat competitive. Do not choose to read with the person who makes jokes at the expense of their co-readers, or who takes it upon themselves to offer a critique after another person has read. That’s not the purpose of a public reading.
You probably can’t do anything about that person in the audience who feels compelled to give unsolicited feedback, but that’s the way it goes.
What if no one shows up? That happens to big-name, established writers at bookstore events sometimes. Things happen. Weather, outside events, or location confusion all have an impact. It’s not personal.
If you have one person in the room, you have a chance to make a new friend and a new fan. If there are three of you reading and three audience members, you’ve achieved parity. Congratulations!
On the other hand, pack the reading with friends and supporters if you can, just as you will go to their readings to support them. My first time reading at FOGCon, one writer asked to go first. After she finished about six people politely, quietly stood up and left. We, the readers, all knew why. They had come to hear her, but there was a panel they wanted to attend at the same time. That’s completely fair.
Don’t worry about being nervous. These audiences understand that.
Have a good time.