Tuesday, November 01, 2016

So you’ve got to do a reading

by Rick Blechta

This Saturday is book launching day for Vicki and me. During our event, we’re going to do some short readings. This is my only BSP for this post because this week I want to talk about readings and share my thoughts on how to do them successfully.

I have a memory of discussing this topic in a post years ago, but I couldn’t find it, so I have no idea where I may be repeating myself and where I’m sharing fresh ideas. I’ve been to many launches and library readings over the years, and more often than I’d like to say, I’ve been disappointed by how poorly the readings were done.

First and foremost, the person doing the reading must understand this: you’re acting, just as if you were in a play. The reason I say this is that one must be aware of voice projection and reading speed. Both things are crucial.

Most people don’t know how to project their voice. You’re not having a conversation with a few people standing around with you. You’re speaking to the farthest corner of the room. Fill up your lungs so you’ll have enough breath support.

Most people also speak too quickly. Doing a reading, like acting onstage, requires slower, more deliberate speaking. Pauses should be added so that everything doesn’t run together. Pauses can also inject more drama into the passage. Give people a chance to imagine what you’re describing, see what you’re seeing.

Eye contact with your audience is very important. It helps draw them in. Don’t stick your head into the book and never look up. As a matter of fact, don’t even use your book. I’m sure you have an electronic version of the ms. Reformat that with larger type and greater line space so it’s easy to read, print it out and read from that. Nowhere is there a rule that says an author must read directly from his or her book and nothing else.

When reading dialogue (probably the most effective thing to feature in a reading) at least try to make some differentiation in your voice between the characters speaking. You have visual cues in written dialogue that makes it clear who’s speaking when. Audiences don’t have that luxury. Many times at readings, I’ve lost that crucial thread and consequently struggled to understand what is actually being said by whom. Pauses as voices change also helps.

You don’t have to read from the opening of the book. The best thing to read is something dramatic that you think you handled very well. It helps if you have to do minimum setting up of the passage by way of explanation, too.

Leave your audience hanging.

You don’t need to read everything you wrote in a particular passage. What I mean here is leave out any explanation or descriptive passage that is unnecessary to make the chosen passage understandable.

But here’s the most important tip: practise the section you’re going to read! I cannot stress this enough. It will help you keep stumbles to a minimum, help you to get awkward parts under control, help you control your nerves (if you’re subject to nervousness), and if you tape your practising, you will instantly be alerted to just how you’re doing and be able to correct it. Here I go back to my initial statement: basically, you’re acting when you read.

The reward will be that more people will feel inclined to buy your book. Case in point: the conductor of the Toronto Symphony, Peter Oundjian, read from my novel Cemetery of the Nameless for a celebrity event a number of years ago. Peter had obviously worked on the passage he selected because he not only read brilliantly (following many of the techniques I’ve outlined above), but he even did accents! One character in the passage was Viennese, one from Brooklyn and the last also American but fluent in Welsh (her parents were Welsh). He handled them all brilliantly.

I wanted to hire him on the spot to do all my readings in the future, but he declined because he already had a pretty good day gig. I have never heard a better reading, and it became clear that I had to up my game or be one of those authors who says, “And now I’m going to read something from my new book,” as those in attendance are thinking to themselves, “I hope he keeps it short.”

Don’t be that person!


Sybil Johnson said...

Great tips. I shall tuck this away for future reference.

LD Masterson said...

Our local writing group (a mixture of published and not-yet-published) has a deal with a local bookstore to do a public reading event every two to three months. We pick a theme and everyone who wants to participates writes a piece on that theme they can read in about 10 minutes. Then a small selection committee picks out eight or nine - our event runs about ninety minutes - and those people read their work. It's great practice for when we're all published and doing readings and book signings.

Rick Blechta said...

The heart of the matter when doing a reading is to PRACTISE out loud. Far too many authors just come into readings cold. They may have something great to read, but their performance comes across as unpolished and awkward -- or worse: boring.

Judy Penz Sheluk, author said...

As someone who has done exactly 2 readings (the first in Holland Landing with you), these points are so bang on. I just did a second reading this past Saturday, and it's getting better -- but by no means great. I have to learn to look at the audience more, and speak a bit slower (I'm a very fast talker, as most Torontonians are) so that's a toughie. But at least I'm not terrified any longer. Baby steps. One tip that really helped me -- you don't have to read from your book verbatim. Yes, print it out and make the font large, but you can drop a sentence or two that is great in print but slows down the spoken narrative. Once I had permission to do that, it became a whole lot easier. Good luck with your event.