Thoughts on Giving a Reading

Many years ago, when I was still new to the writing profession, I was put on programming at a DeepSouthCon.  I was flattered, nervous, excited — but mostly nervous.  In part, my anxiety stemmed from the fact that the programming committee, in addition to putting me on several panels, had given me a reading, and I had never done a public reading before.

I remember going to my wife and asking what she thought I should read — I had a book out and another on the way, and I knew that I should choose an early chapter from one of them, but I didn’t know which one.  Anyway, I asked my wife, “What should I read at the convention?”  And she looked at me, totally deadpan, and said, “Well, Guy Gavriel Kay has written some good stuff . . .”  Funny woman.

I bring this up because I am preparing to give a reading here in my little home town, and I’m not certain what to read.  More to the point, I have spoken to many young writers as they prepare for their first-ever readings, and I have seen in them the same fear and uncertainty I recall from that early convention.  And so I thought it might be helpful to share some thoughts on putting together a successful reading.

First, let me say that at this point in my career I have done literally dozens of readings, and I have been told that my readings are pretty good, so I come to this subject having enjoyed at least a bit of success. Yes, I still find readings somewhat intimidating, even after all these years, but I also enjoy them a great deal.  More, they offer me the chance to try out new material, to get instant feedback on selections of my work, and to connect with readers in a unique way.

Audiences for readings tend to be pretty small (unless your name happens to be George R.R. Martin or Guy Kay — perhaps my wife was onto something after all . . .) and most reading venues are tucked away in a corner of a convention hotel.  I have done readings for one person.  I have done readings to standing-room only crowds.  In many ways, for me at least, the readings for tiny audiences are harder because the experience is far more intimate and I’m far more conscious of trying to hold the attention of that small group.  But I know that others might feel differently in that regard.

Readings are usually either half an hour or a full hour.  This may sound obvious, but you need to tailor your reading selection to the length of your reading slot.  I have done readings in which I had to stop just a handful of pages shy of the ending because I thought I could squeeze in more material than the time allowed. It was embarrassing, and I felt that I had let down my audience.  If you have a half-hour slot, choose something that you can read comfortably in fifteen or twenty minutes.  You’re going to start a bit late, because you need time to introduce yourself and the work.  And you want to end early to entertain comments and questions.  If you have a full hour, you can choose something that will run about thirty minutes.  That’s the longest I ever dare to go with a single reading.  Beyond that, I have found, I start to lose my audience.  You can also bring a couple of shorter readings — two of about fifteen or twenty minutes.  Again, you want to leave time for questions and conversation.  But I would also suggest that for an hour-long reading you bring a second (or third) selection of perhaps five or ten minutes.  That way, if your audience wants more, you have an encore of sorts.

I usually will read the opening chapter of my next book.  Generally speaking, I don’t like to read from a book that’s already out, since many in the audience have probably already read it.  The opening of an as-yet-unpublished book gives your listeners the sense that they’re experiencing something special, something that makes their decision to come to the reading worthwhile.  Reading from books is a nice way to make your audience feel invested in your current series; it serves as a teaser in a way.  That said, I will also sometimes read short stories, and in this case I am more willing to read something that has already been published.  Short fiction markets often have less reach than most books, and so people at readings are far less likely to be familiar with the material than they would be with something from a published novel.  Short stories are good choices because they are complete; they give the listener a finished story arc.

In either case, whether you’re reading from a chapter or a short story, do yourself a favor and practice in private before the reading.  I have often found that syntax that works fine on the printed page, can be awkward the first time I read it aloud.  It’s not necessarily that the passage doesn’t work, but rather that it doesn’t translate as well to a public reading.  After I decide how best to read it, I will make a note to myself in the text — a mark, an accent, an underlining; anything to remind myself of how the passage needs to be read.  I do not try to do different voices for different characters; some authors do, and they are quite good at it. I do put just a bit of passion and drama into my voice as I read, emphasizing those moments I know are the emotional touchstones of a given scene.  But of course, you will find your own way of making your readings entertaining and effective. It may take a while — a bit of trial and error — but you will find your reading voice.

Finally, let me offer this one bit of advice:  Slow down.  Most first-time readers will rush through their material, tripping over lines and blasting through punctuation. These mistakes make them more nervous, which speeds them up even more.  Take a deep breath, read slowly, trust in your work.  You’ll be fine.  And if not, I hear that Guy Gavriel Kay has written some great stuff . . .

David B. Coe
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://www.dbjackson-author.com

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  1. 1. Southpaw

    Great advice. It makes sense to read unseen material. The concept is still terrifying.

    Hey, you’re wife is hysterical!

  2. 2. David B. Coe

    Southpaw, I totally get that. As I say, I still get a bit nervous before every reading, and I’ve been at this for a long time. But it’s also fun, once you’re past the terror. And yeah, my wife is pretty cool.

  3. 3. Jessica

    On of many useful things my parents did for me was sending me to speech and drama lessons when I was little. It was really useful for me in my day job and in my writing.

    The lessons included reciting poems, choral speaking and reading out sections from books. It helped me a lot because I can look at a section from one of my books and know whether or not it will work well read out. A section with a lot of dialogue will be very difficult (unless you’re good at doing voices) because people can’t see speech tags.

    It also helps with nerves. When you’ve stood in front of an audience of a thousand people reciting a poem when you were eight, it’s a lot less terrifying to stand in front of a small library and do a book reading.

    What I often do with readings is have a few different sections that have different feels to them. I’ll read out a fast-paced action section and I’ll also read a contemplative or description section. It lets me showcase different aspects of the book(s). Plus, if I do readings from a couple of different books, it cuts down the chance that people will have read it all already.

  4. 4. David B. Coe

    Jessica, I do like the idea of doing small passages, though I find audiences sometimes prefer something more coherent. As to the rest, that does sound like great preparation. My parents encouraged me at an early age to get involved with theater at my schools, and I know that my stage work helped make me a more confident and competent reader.

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Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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