From the front lines: Readying your book reading

Boring readings don't sell books. Here's how to make the crowd hang on your every word.

Book reading
Follow this advice to have a successful book reading. Photo by ISOVECTOR/Shutterstock

Each year, Tahoma Literary Review puts on two writers’ weekends. At each of these events, we host two nights where each attendee is encouraged to read. I’ve attended a number of readings myself and have also been “the talent” at several readings. And the MFA program I attended, which doesn’t exist anymore, made a big deal out of making every single student read from their work at least once or twice a year.

Why is reading such a thing? Why did my MFA program insist on it, and why do we insist on it? Why do we have a SoundCloud feature as part of our content at Tahoma Literary Review, where you can go online and listen to writers read from their works?

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The answer is singular: There’s nothing quite like it. Hearing the way a writer expresses his or her own words can take you away from your own interpretations, but it also provides some framer’s intent: You come away knowing what the writer meant you to infer.

As a writer, you may gain some insight into your own stories or essays or poems: What’s working; what isn’t. Where the crowd appreciates you; where you may fall flat. (This is also why I ask my writing coaching clients to read their own work aloud to each other; your ear picks up things that your eyes may not.)

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Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time choosing my own work to read and helping others to select pieces for the reading. I’ve seen people make the same mistakes over and over again, and I’ve seen enough great readers to know what works. I’ve honed my own skills as well, and I’m pleasantly surprised to come to the conclusion, finally, that it’s not just the actual reading itself that makes a literary event great: It’s also the work you do beforehand.

This might sound like a no-brainer. Like, duh, you have to choose what to read, sure. But your preparation should go beyond that.

I’ve put together a list of handy tips for both before and during the event that will help to make your next reading a terrific one.

Before the reading

Don’t just practice: Time yourself.

Aim to go under the time limit. You will always read faster when you are reading to yourself. Respecting the time limit isn’t just about keeping an event on schedule; it’s about demonstrating respect to your fellow readers. How would you feel if you found out you got only 15 minutes for a job interview, say, while the next candidate got 35? Yeah. Not good. So try and be fair. Practice your piece, sure, but keep an eye on the time.

Don’t choose to read something you have to explain.

Some of this is respect for everyone else, sure. (If you ever read for me, I will count the time you have to explain something as part of the amount of time you’re allotted. Time is time, regardless of whether you use it explaining or reading.)

The other part of this is that the audience is there to get a sample of your writing and your voice. They don’t need to know the entire plot of your story or novel.

Respecting the time limit isn’t just about keeping an event on schedule; it’s about demonstrating respect to your fellow readers.

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If you must explain, keep it short and sweet. Your sample should be self-explanatory, but maybe you might need something like a brief explanation of who the characters are, if a lot of them appear. Beyond that, ask yourself: Does your listener really need to know the reason your heroine is being chased? Or the whole background of a couple’s relationship, if you’re just going to read a passage describing their brief love affair? Probably not. The literary reading audience lives in the here and now. Even if you think you have to explain it, you probably don’t.

Ask your fellow readers what they’re reading.

If you’re reading with some other folks and have a selection of works you can choose from, you might consider reading something that complements or offsets what your colleagues are reading. Recently, I was in a reading that was a nice mix of poetry and nonfiction, with a piece of fictional humor at the end, but the first five selections, including my own, were mostly really, really depressing. Or very think-y. If I had asked my co-readers what they were reading, it might have helped break up the initial dourness, resulting in something the audience actually enjoyed as opposed to something that left them feeling exhausted.

During the reading

Practice just enough so that you know the stuff cold, but not enough that you’re tempted to drone.

This is a tricky balance to strike. The idea is for you to know what follows on from at least a few phrases in your work, so you’re not stuck having to look at the page or screen the whole time you’re reading. (The lectern does not have ears. It does not care what you’re reading.) Your audience will appreciate the eye contact. Don’t do the thing where you just flick your eyeballs up and away from the copy. People can tell when you’re not even trying to make eye contact. You’re not aiming to stare people down, but you shouldn’t ever underestimate the value of making the audience feel like you really, really see them – and appreciate them.

Calm your nerves by sharing them.

At the last reading I attended, one of the readers had a little tremor in his voice. Another cried. They both fessed up immediately. “I’m really nervous!” said the former, doing a little sweet jig behind the podium to let off some energy. And, “Oh, gosh. I don’t know why I’m crying,” said the one whose own words caught him off-guard.

The audience was already fans of these writers, but hearing them confess their insecurities to us put us forever in their corners. If you are a nervous reader, or if you’re reading something you’ve never shared with anyone before, it’s totally OK for you to tell the audience that. Remember, they came here to see you.

Don’t take yourself too seriously.

The best reading I’ve ever been to was back in the late ’90s. I haven’t found anything to top it, even though I’ve seen people I care about, whose books I’ve beta-read, read many times since then. I can’t even remember the name of the book or what it was about, but I remember the guy read for maybe five minutes from his book and then closed it and said something like, “I’m really not very good at reading from my own work. But since the book has a lot to do with blues music, I thought I’d play a little for you.” And then he pulled out his steel guitar and proceeded to play for us.

At my last reading, a writer who’d just read a passage describing a terrible boudoir-like photo she’d had taken of herself in a young-and-insipid phase of her life stepped out from behind the podium and said, “Visual representation,” and then struck a pose lampooning the one in the photo she’d just told us about.

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Moral of the story? Have fun. Enjoy yourself. After all, we writers are in the business of entertainment.

There’s an apocryphal quote attributed to Julia Child: “Serve it proudly.” The idea is, no matter what it is you’ve made, put it forward with gusto. I think this applies to readings, but I’m also reminded of another quote from Child: “The main thing is to have a gutsy approach and use your head.” For readings, this sentiment can be a guiding star.

 

Yi Shun Lai is the fiction editor and co-owner of Tahoma Literary Review. Read about her writing coaching and editing services; her novel, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu; and her daily adventures at thegooddirt.org.