I’ve just done an interview for Structo magazine and was talking a little about book readings and how irritating I find it when authors don’t prepare. I don’t mean when you’re on a panel with them and they haven’t read your book – we’ve all got far too much to read and I certainly don’t expect everyone I’m on a panel with to read me* – I mean the far less time-consuming (and far more polite to the audience) matter of simply preparing for the event.
Because the audience DO matter. Often they’ve bought tickets, and yes, it might be one of the very many book events that charge admission and don’t pay writers (still not sure how that one works!), but even so, if people have bothered to leave their homes, made the effort to get to the venue, to buy a ticket or simply to take a seat, then we (the turns) owe them (the audience) the best show we can give them. We owe them our effort in return.
I fully accept that not every writer has the benefit (as I did) of coming to writing from theatre, and that not every writer enjoys reading their work aloud, I also understand that not every writer is going to be especially good at reading their work aloud, we’re not all Simon Callow, nor should we aim to be, but …
We CAN all prepare.
We can all work out, beforehand (not as we sit on the panel!), what we’ll read.
We can all have a few passages, looked at in advance, with pages marked, just in case they suit the discussion better.
And better than that, we can actually rehearse.
Rehearsing : yes, this does mean finding the piece and reading it aloud, preferably with a stopwatch to hand. If you’re asked to read for five minutes, read the piece you’ve chosen out loud (which is always going to take longer than it does in your head), to yourself, that day, and make sure the piece you want to read and have assumed is five minutes, actually is five minutes. I occasionally host a books and short films gig near my home and am stunned how often writers, when asked to read five mins MAX, take that to mean anything from ten minutes to, on one occasion, almost twenty. The problem is, on the same bill as a well-made short film, no reading is going to have the same impact. But a fifteen minute reading will drag when compared to even a badly-made short film. If you’re asked to do short, then do short. Generally the people running the gig know their audience better than you do, always best to trust them.
So – time your reading and read for as long (or less than!) you’ve been asked. In book readings less is almost always more.
Editing : It can be very useful to edit what you’re going to read. Not because you should have edited it in the book in the first place (although that may be true!), but because what works well on the page, reads well on the page, in the mind, is not necessarily the same as what works well in the mouth, at a reading.
Here’s a two-pager I have been reading at events for Theodora, it works well as it’s a self-contained piece, and (unlike most of the novel) is in present tense, so there’s an immediacy to it as a reading. It’s also dialogue-free which helps (more on that later) :
Yes, I could read it just as it is on the page, but the (very minor) edits give slightly more context where necessary and I’ve cut bits that will only be relevant to a reader who has read the previous 18 pages – or will go on to read the rest of the book.
Yes, we want to entice the audience to buy our books (you think we do book events merely for the hell of them??!!), but we also want to give the audience a good time, we want to make our readings as accessible and enjoyable for them as possible.
Dialogue – with the best will in the world, and the widest array of accents/vocal tones possible, try to avoid reading too much dialogue. As a reader you have to do way too much acting and it’s invariably confusing for the listener. Unless you can get someone to read with you, in which case go for it, because a well-read (and rehearsed!!) piece for two or three voices can make all the difference to an otherwise staid event. This has worked brilliantly with several writer mates (eg John Harvey, Jake Arnott and Lauren Henderson, all of whom are also good performers). I’ve also asked actor friends to read with me in the past, and that’s always worked really well too.
And if you have no actor friends and no performer-writers, it’s always possible to contact a local drama school or am-dram group. You’d be surprised (or maybe not!) how keen people are to perform.
Note for actors – when doing a book reading you want to underplay. It’s not like a show, it’s not even like a rehearsed reading, the audience are there to hear the text and the writer (not you, sorry) play it lightly and it’ll be great.
Mostly though, try to have a good time. It can be exhausting doing event after event, and it can feel as if there’s nothing new to say and certainly nothing new to answer to the “where do your ideas come from” question (the ideas shop, I steal them, twitter – all the answers have already been given), but as one whose life was changed by a touring theatre company coming to my school (when I suddenly realised real people, people like me, had those astonishing jobs), who was thrilled the first time I met a real live author in the flesh, no matter how fed up we are with tarting ourselves and our wares, the book event is still the only place where reader and writer can actually connect, beyond the virtual worlds of our books and our online interactions. And the more the book becomes a thing of the ether, the more vital the living, breathing connection between human beings. Worth just a little preparation, surely?
* I used always to read the books of every person I was on a panel with, especially if it was a two-person event – and I was constantly surprised when they hadn’t bothered to do the same. Now I accept it as standard. I read other panellists’ latest book/s if I have time – or if their publisher has bothered to send it to me! – otherwise I make sure to look them up in advance, find out a bit about what they do so I’m not going in totally cold, and then wing it, as politely as possible – while actually listening to their reading and not flicking through my own book …