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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