Give your audience what it wants. And what it wants is less of you.
I went to my first reading in college and, wow, I was super bored. I don’t remember who the author was, but the writing was terrific — it was the delivery that sucked. The guy stared into his book, mumbled into the microphone, and…that was it. I kept thinking, “I’m going to publish a book someday, and I’m going to be so much cooler.” (I did. I’m not.)
I’ve gone to a lot of readings since then with mixed results. Some writers are pros. I went to Art Taylor’s book launch last weekend at One More Page, and the short excerpt he read had the crowd captive (it helps when your book is good; check out On the Road with Del and Louise and thank me when you’ve finished it). But a lot of writers, understandably, aren’t natural in front of an audience. We can’t all be Taylors or Oppermans.
Not that we have a choice. People expect readings and, honestly, I’m not sure what else authors could do for a crowd. Attendees could watch you write, but that usually involves a lot of staring at a wall and absent-mindedly scratching yourself.
Here’s the thing: We’re entertainers. A reading is a performance. So, with that in mind, I’ve come up with five tips on how to give better readings:
- Don’t Read. Your prose might be so beautiful that reading it feels like the first bite into a peanut butter and jelly sandwich laced with crack and eaten off an angel’s stomach, but shitty delivery renders even the best prose flat. Do something else. Bring someone in to interview you. Have a Q&A with the audience. Tap. A lot of people don’t actually go to readings to listen to a story — they go to meet the author. Give them what they want.
- Entertain. I tend to go overboard. My readings are almost always accompanied by a musician (like the super-duper-crazy-talented Sara Jones). I read a bit, and she sings — we go back and forth. Actually, that’s not overboard. Lena Dunham had opening acts for her book tour that included comedians, musicians, poets, even a sword swallower (probably). Some people might argue that’s unnecessarily splashy. It is. It’s also fun.
- Drink. I love Noir at the Bar, a recent popular phenomenon where a group of crime fiction writers gather at a bar and read short works (for a good description of these events, check out Jen Conley’s essay here). N@B works for a couple of reasons. Drinking helps. The audience is made up of other writers and fans of crime fiction, so you have a devoted, enthusiastic crowd. And the writers do a good job of reading their work (see: drinking). I’ve been to a bunch. People leave happy, as opposed to being happy to leave.
- Keep It Short. OH, MY GOD, KEEP IT SHORT. Ten minutes, max. Anything longer and everybody in the room starts to hate you. I went to a reading, and the guy read for 49 minutes. Forty-nine minutes! I could have spent that time staring at a wall and scratching. (Related Note: One time, I had to go to a mandatory safe-driving class because I had too many traffic tickets. The class was eight hours on a Saturday. The other terrible drivers and I had to go around the room and introduce ourselves, and this couple next to me explained that they were taking the class voluntarily; they’d just moved to the area and wanted to familiarize themselves with local driving laws. Eight hours turned to nine because, of course, that couple asked questions. And they were so cheerful! I wanted to stab them in the neck. I’m getting so angry typing this that I just broke the space bar. Butthatguywhoreadforforty-nineminutes?Ihatehimevenmore. Ten minutes, MAX.)
- Take Drugs. Yummy, yummy drugs! Pop a Xanax. Down St. John’s wort. Throw back a Prozac. A lot of people will tell you that you can do things naturally, and drugs only give you false confidence. Those people want you to fail. Drugs are science! And I don’t know about you, but I’d feel pretty dumb if I turned my back on science. So get more loaded than a Palin family barbeque. But make arrangements for someone else to drive you home. It’s called having a sense of responsibility to you and those around you.
Which is really the point of this essay. We’re entertainers. A reading is a performance. Keep the audience happy. It’s your responsibility.
(Speaking of Noir at the Bar, YOU are invited to DC’s second! Saturday, October 3, at Wonderland Ballroom (click here for info). There’s a great roster of writers on hand, including two mentioned here — Jen Conley and Art Taylor. You can also hear Sarah Weinman, Peter Rozovsky, David Swinson, Nik Korpon, Austin Camacho, and Dana King. It’s a massive lineup. I’m hosting, but I’m also going to read something, so you can watch me clumsily break all the rules I just established.)
E.A. Aymar's second novel, You're As Good As Dead, came out in June.