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Writing means learning — all the time — for the rest of your life.
And in the modern world of publishing, writing a great novel is only the beginning of the journey if you want your work to have a wide audience.
Public readings are a part of that journey. They’re a great place to build your readership and sell books — but they can also be incredibly daunting.
The first time I read out loud was intense. It was 2014, and I was nominated for the Audrey Jessup Award for short story crime writing from the Capital Crime Writers. Part of being nominated meant reading aloud before the winner announcement was made. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. I hadn’t read out loud before and had no idea how to go about it.
As luck would have it, I attended the Bloody Words conference in Toronto a week before the event and heard seven authors read there. Days later, I found myself at another reading, this time by three Scandinavian authors. That’s 10 readings I could learn from. Some of the readings were great and some could have used a bit of practice.
I watched and learned from these readings and thought I was ready. But not quite. There was a time limit of five minutes on the reading. I practiced and had my timing down perfectly, but I didn’t account for the time it took to be introduced and say thank you to my hosts. I was cut off about 30 seconds before I’d finished — literally. The hosts turned the microphone off. It stung a bit, but other authors were cut short too. (At least it wasn’t just me, and I didlearn from the experience.)
I won the Audrey Jessup Award, even though my reading wasn’t the greatest. After winning, I sold that story to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. My first sale!
Since then, I’ve read in some strange places. One reading took place in a senior’s residence. Another in a ski lodge. One in a bookstore — which you’d expect. Each time I do a reading, I get better at it and I’m less nervous.
I’m here today to help you get comfortable with holding an author reading of your own.
How to prepare & practice
- Don’t leave it until the last minute. Practice every day, even for short periods of time. If you can, read to an audience.
- Practice pausing for commas, periods, paragraph breaks, and starting new scenes.
- Practice until you can take your eyes away from the words and make eye contact with the audience. This will engage them in your reading. Reading to a mirror will allow you to see if you’re looking up.
- Don’t staple the pages. Stapled pages are noisy when turned and awkward to hold in place.
- Number your free pages in case you drop them.
- Ask how many minutes you have to read. Then prepare for a few minutes less, the exact amount of time and a few minutes more. If other readers don’t show up, you may be given more time. If the proceedings are running long, you might be given less time. Be ready so you can end with a cliffhanger or a dramatic spot that will leave people wanting more.
- If you’re reading from printed pages, print in font large enough to read. Remember: the lighting could be dark or there could be glare. If the font in your printed book is small, you can always print the pages you want to read and place your book in front of you while you’re reading.
- Ask what the setup will be. Is there a podium where you can set your pages? Will you be holding a microphone? Will you be standing or sitting?
At the event, before you read
- If you’re not first, watch the other readers for what works and doesn’t work. Standing with the microphone too close to the sound system can cause feedback, having the microphone too far or too close to you can make understanding your words difficult.
- Have your material ready. Don’t start looking for the section you want to read after you’re at the podium. This distracts the audience.
During your reading
- Once you’re on stage, thank the hosts of the event. This will make you look professional and give you time to let your voice and your nerves settle before you start reading your story.
- Breathe. This sounds obvious, but breathing will make your speech clear. During my first reading, I was so nervous that I couldn’t bring air into my lungs. At the end of the first page, when I had to flip to the next page, I moved the microphone away from my mouth and took a deep breath. This helped me calm down.
- Don’t explain your work in the middle of reading. Let your words speak for themselves.
- Only brief the audience about the story if you’re not starting at the beginning.
- Speak slowly.
Remember: the audience came to hear you and they want you to succeed, so smile and have fun.
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Thanks for reading.