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Professional speaking is a core part of my business these days, but I am still scared silly about reading my own fiction aloud. I am hugely impressed by performance poetry in particular, and it is something I aspire to do one day.
Today's article is from Dan Holloway, novelist, performance poet and spoken word artist. Dan is someone I respect a lot for his creativity and proudly independent approach.
Performing your work: The whites of their eyes
There is all sorts of business speak I could reel off about interfacing and sticky contacts but as I want this piece to sound less like a 50 Shades parody and more like practical, hands on advice to help you get the most out of talking direct, in person, right at the whites of the eyes, to your readers, I'll leave the ‘business case’ for going out and giving readings at this:
Nothing cements your story, and you, in someone's mind quite so much as hearing it straight from your mouth, read with every ounce of the passion that drove you to write it in the first place.
That love for your story as you read from it and talk about it is what makes all those lights of connection go off in a reader's head that mean not only do they feel they must have this book, but they must read it and they must tell everyone they know about it.
Now, OK, that “with every ounce of the passion that drove you to write it” bit is something that sends many writers scurrying for the nearest curtain to hide behind. But that's the bit I hope I can help you with. I am as shy a person as you could meet. Put me in a party and I will run for the corner and surround myself with an aura of “don't come near me” until the whole sorry experience is over. But, even though I still go through a cycle of overwhelming nerves before any kind of reading, I have both learned to manage and direct those into my performance, and come to love being in front of an audience more than pretty much anything else in my creative life.
I want to look very briefly at three sets of considerations that I hope will help you to give readings that you love and through which you gain readers who will stick with you for life.
What kind of reading?
Not everyone is suited to the same kind of reading. You need to read somewhere that's suitable both for you personally and for the kind of book you have. Fortunately, there are more kinds of reading springing up than ever. Of course, the staple remains bookshops, libraries, and schools. But for those of you who write genre fiction, probably the best places for you to approach are conferences and festivals specializing in your genre.
There is also an increase in spoken word performance nights that embrace prose as well as poetry. The trail is being blazed by events like Literary Death Match, Book Slam, Grit Lit, and Short Stories Aloud but reaches down through all levels to the open mic nights that run in almost every town. In fact, I would wholeheartedly recommend anyone to begin with an open mic night. You will get used to the mechanics of reading to an audience, you may well make some new fans, but the spotlight won't be on you.
And if you can't find something suitable, don't be afraid to approach a venue and ask to set up your own event. That's how I started, with a pleasant conversation with my local bookstore, politely asking if I could hold something there. Within weeks, I started approaching galleries and cafes, two months later I was standing on stage at Rough Trade Records in Brick Lane, and less than six months after my first reading I somehow wound up in front of more than 100 people in Shoreditch winning Literary Death Match (Not Safe For Work). The door for readings, in other words, is as open as you want it to be.
What do I read?
Now, I started off by saying that the best thing about readings is making an audience fall in love with your book. This is where I go back on that a little. One of the best literary events is Short Stories Aloud. Each event features two well-known authors who write a short story which is then read to the audience by a professional actor. It works wonderfully, even though the writers are usually novelists.
The reason is that the very best reading will do three things:
• hold the audience's attention from start to finish
• make the audience desperate for more
• showcase all your talents
The inconvenient truth is that very few passages from a novel will do all three, or even two, of those.
A great reading, to do all of these should:
• Be short. 8 minutes is the longest you can possibly keep an audience rapt. 5 minutes is about right for prose. You can, of course, do more than one 5 minute piece during an evening.
• Show all your talents – however experimental your style, the best readings have a clear narrative arc, and will demonstrate your skills at pacing, description, and dialogue.
A short story will usually accomplish these better than a novel excerpt.
What do I do?
So, you have a reading lined up, and you know what you'll read. You have the right audience and the right material, so how do you ensure that they will come away inspired and wanting to be a lifelong fan?
The best piece of advice I was ever given came from a writer friend who's also a professional actor. She told me, “figure out in advance what to do with your spare hand“. The following tips will all help you to perform to the very best of your ability.
• Rehearse. Lots. And then more.
• Go to the venue in advance. Stand/sit where you'll be standing/sitting for the reading. Get to know the layout of the room so you feel comfortable there.
• When you do that, pick an object in the room, close to where the audience will be, to read to. That way you won't be distracted by not knowing where to look.
• Figure out in advance what to do with your spare hand. Holding a book in one hand really is distracting in a way that you won't realize until you get there and feel this thing waving around by your side. Practice an action, hold something, even put it in your pocket, but plan what you'll do.
• Learn to breathe from your diaphragm, and learn breath control so that you only ever have to breathe on the commas and full stops.
• If you only invest in one thing, make it an acting lesson.
• Don't worry if you're nervous. You will be. You certainly should be. That's because you care and want to give your audience a fabulous time. If you have done all of the above, you will have maximized your chance of being able to work through the nerves and channel them into giving a great performance. This is why you need to do all these things in advance (and especially learn your breath control), because when they confront a nervous you they can send your mind in a hundred directions. If you know the space, and are comfortable with your actions and your material, that won't happen.
• Ensure that you have water. Ask the venue but bring your own in case.
• Always have cards/bookmarks with you.
• Bring enough books, and check the sales arrangements with the venue. Bookstores may want to check your books in as stock and then take their discount. That, after all, is how they make their living, and doing what the venue likes is courteous and the key to a long-term relationship.
• Bring a piece of paper for your mailing list and actively pass it around the audience.
• Have a friend in the audience that you trust to be honest to give you feedback – and ideally to film you so that you can learn for next time.
Most of all, enjoy it.
Do you have any questions about performing your work? Or experience with performing or reading live? We'd love to hear about it. Please leave your comments and questions below.
Dan Holloway is a novelist, performance poet and spoken word artist. He has read stories in venues as diverse as Rough Trade East, Modern Art Oxford, Brighton Fringe, and Afflecks Palace in Manchester, and is a multiple slam-winning poet whose one-man show, Some of These Things are Beautiful premiered at Cheltenham Poetry Festival.
He is the MC of the spoken word show The New Libertines which has toured literary festivals and fringes across the UK. You can keep up with all his events and download his books from his website.
Photo Credit: Wyaland Thor Badger
rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris says
Shy person here, waving from the darkened corners of a room! Thanks so much for sharing your expertise here, Dan. I did my first public reading a year ago, and had to figure most of this out for myself. Having done singing training, I had no problems with the breath control – but can definitely agree that it’s part of the performance you need to rehearse. When I used to sing, I’d pencil on the manuscript where I was going to breathe – and it might help authors to do that too.
Also, I have terrible eyesight and my contact lenses aren’t as good for reading as my glasses are, but vanity dictates that I want to perform specless. I was terrified the venue might have dim lighting and I’d be squinting and umming my way along. So I printed my excerpt in 14pt to be sure I could read it!
Lastly I’d echo your point about putting the love and enthusiasm into the reading. Echo it loudly, because that is the reward – we write to communicate, and this is one of the ways we can do it. Read the piece with authority and expression. Be a storyteller. You know that what you have in your hand is confident prose; while you wrote it, you showed off to the page. Now all you have to do is read it out. There came a moment in my reading when I realised the room was utterly quiet and they were all listening to me. What a buzz.
Dan Holloway says
Excellent point about marking your breathing on the manuscript. Marc Nash annotates his manuscripts so hey look like a hieroglyphic wall before readings, and he’s one of the most accomplished readers I know. And yes, great point about the enlarged script!
Rob Biesenbach says
As a writer, actor and speaker, I can offer this tip. It’s very easy when performing our own work, something we’ve read many dozens of times, to go on autopilot and just recite it robotically. But you can’t afford to tune out like that — your audience will spot it immediately and become tuned out themselves.
So the suggestion of taking an acting class is a good idea. Among other things, it will teach you to invest every word, every line with meaning and intention, to be completely present. That means seeing your character’s face, visualizing the setting, painting a complete mental picture in your mind, and opening up and letting yourself feel what’s going on.
It takes a lot of energy and focus, but that’s the job of performing.
Dan Holloway says
yes! That’s one reason why having nerves is never anything to worry about as such – it shows you’re not on autopilot. I went through a stage of worrying that I needed to perform something different every time I appeared, but that’s just not possible. It’s actually been very helpful speaking to musicians, who perform – and are expected to perform – the same things night after night (and of course the same with actors, although musicians, rock musicians at least, have the additional connection of performing material they’ve written).
Tom Evans says
I can see what a tough call that is for fiction – what with all that dialogue & action and all that – and also to do this live on stage.
I hope this isn’t too much off topic but I thought I’d share my recent experience on all things audio.
I’m currently doing an audio version of my latest book (non-fiction) and finding the whole process so illuminating. Not only am I spotting tiny errors that escaped me, the proof reader and sample readers but something else of more value is emerging.
If I can’t read a sentence in less than 3 takes out loud, it’s because the reader will struggle reading it “in loud” – hence some last minute revisions coming in too.
So for me, the new sequence of book production is:
1. A few draft copies not available to general public to see if it scans and for initial proofing
2. A Kindle version
3. Produce an audiobook version
4. Update the Kindle version and then go to print
I also get a version that is much easier to perform live with should the occasion arise
p.s. the tip about diaphragm is crucial, as it having both feet on the ground and being well hydrated
Dan Holloway says
very good point about reading in 3 takes – especially for non-fiction I can see that it would be an excellent measure of whether things are in too complex chunks
Jonny Gibbings says
Every reading I’ve done so far has ended up like a stand-up comedy skit. My book is a comedy, so that’s okay. It is also okay for horror, fantasy or prose to have a laugh too. I think some forget it is a celebration of a shared love of words, it isn’t an interview, what matters is you enjoy yourself, that is what folk want to see. If you make a mistake – laugh.
Dan Holloway says
brilliantly put as always, Jonny. And yes, it’s easy to convince yourself that if you go wrong some massive tsunami of disaster will sweep you away but actually if you laugh the audience will laugh with you and be a little endeared to you along the way
James Moushon says
Great post. I think more authors should take a shot at this using Youtube. I am hearing mixed thoughts about book trailers and their impact on sales but an author reading to his audience lets the reader fill the book and the author. Just an idea.
Dan Holloway says
I agree – I’m unconvinced about book trailers, but as a poet a YouTube channel is essential (http://www.youtube.com/user/lastmanoutofeden/videos)
Garry Rodgers says
Excellent article, Dan. Just a tip on settling butterflies. Putting a bit of pressure on the solar plexus, just below the ribcage, gives a relaxation to the diaphragm and quickly relieves the stomach jitters as well as trembling. This also looks very natural and can be done with the ‘other hand’.
Dan Holloway says
Excellent tip. I use a mindfulness technique, the “three minute breathing space”, which is very similar, using focus on breathing to take you away from your anxious thoughts – it also uses a hand on the solar plexus
Daniel Escurel Occeno says
I am not a public performing person. I could not even read one of my short stories for children to an eighth-grade class without stuttering and stammering. It was probably my asthma. I prefer novels today. I can only imagine at a public library filled with children or Barnes and Noble children section just to sell one of my picture books, reading out loud. I do however read my writings out loud when editing because I find more mistakes and corrections needed when I hear myself read it, over and over.
Dan Holloway says
yes, that’s an excellent way of proofing – I find it especially useful for commas, as you can hear where you need a beat or a breath
Daniel Escurel Occeno says
It works for me.
Thomas A Fowler says
I graduated with a BA in Theatre so for me, as I’m fleshing out chapters and moments, I almost have to perform them. 60-70% of my iPod is filled with movie scores. I’d imagine that there have been at least 100 people who have seen me acting pretty weird on my commute to and from work.
Dan Erickson says
I teach public speaking at the college level as my day job. Your tips and advice is all very good. If your readers want some more insight on public speaking, I have a series of detailed podcasts and posts on public speaking at http://www.danerickson.net.
This is great advice, I have a public reading next week and I’ve been worrying all week about it. Perfect timing, Thanks!
Dan Holloway says
Thomas – I’m sure I’ve done that on the bus to work!
Dan – thanks for the links 🙂
Josh – good luck!!
Steve Vernon says
I’ve performed my work before thousands of kids and a few grown-ups as well – right across this country.
One of my key secrets is to take my glasses off. Now that won’t work for EVERYBODY. It just works for me because I have to take my glasses off to read – but that means that the audience becomes a gentle gray blur before my near-sighted fifty-four year old eyes – and I can get on with what I started out to do – namely, reading my words aloud.
It helps to practice in front of a mirror. As stupid as that sounds it really helps. Warn anyone within earshot before you start practicing what you intend to do – before they send out for a riot squad.
If you’d like to give a listen – here it is.
Thanks for these tips. I’m fortunate to have been invited to read from my memoir-in-progress manuscript. I won’t have a lectern, and hadn’t thought of what to do with my spare hand. Or to keep water beside me. Or many of the other tips you mention. Thank you for the heads up!
Jo Nicoletti says
Brilliantly helpful site. thank you.
But will I be struck off because I am a woman? Why are there no women commenting.
Joanna Penn says
There are plenty of women commenting here? Plus, I’m a woman and it’s my site 🙂 I’m not sure where you got that idea from.
Jo Nicoletti says
I did miss two, sorry. Roz Morris and Lynette but even that’s not many..
It’s possible that others fell off when the list expanded.
Not to worry, it was interesting readingt
Mary Ann Back says
Great article, Dan! Here’s my 2 questions: I am female and will be reading a piece that includes the dialogue of 2 male characters. My voice is midrange for a female. I’m concerned about how to read the male dialogue. When I drop my voice to a lower register, it sounds bizarre! How should I approach this?
My story is told in first person. Both my MC and narrator are female. When I read a line of male dialogue, is only the dialogue read, as opposed to any dialogue tags? In other words, do I read the dialogue in a male voice and cut out the tags completely, or read the dialogue in a male voice and read the tags in the narrator’s voice?
Thanks so much for your insight,
Mary Ann Back
Mary Ann Back says
Argh! Sorry for the grammatical error! Here ARE my two questions: