How to Give a Book Reading

This post isn’t based on my experience as a writer giving a reading. I’ve never done one. It’s based on my experience as a member of the audience listening to writers give readings.

What is wrong with the last sentence of the above paragraph? I was a member of an audience at a live event, and I was listening. Not watching. Not participating. Nope. That is what is wrong with it, and with 95% of the readings I’ve attended. As a graduate student, I attended many readings, from well known writers to fairly prolific poets. With one exception, they were all boring! That one exception was Sherman Alexie.

My thinking today is that if I share my observations with you, they will be more a part of myself when it’s time for my first reading.

You’ve no doubt attended concerts. Which was more worth your time: the one where the band stood on stage and essentially played the album as it was recorded, or the one that lasted for hours, the band changed the songs a bit, and the members told you stories and engaged with you? Probably the last type of concert. It is the same with a book reading or poetry reading. The people in the audience spent money on you, or they will. They keep food on your table. You owe them. More than that, they all spent time out of their day to come hear you. So, give them the best you that you can. Make it worth their time to be there, and make sure they keep talking about your reading for months to come. In good ways, of course.

I heard Sherman Alexie in 2012, and I’m still talking about him.

The other writers and poets I heard all did the same thing. First, they stood behind a podium. That immediately separated them from us. They came across as professors delivering a lecture. They simply read from their books, with no gestures or inflections or change of voice in dialogue. They read for a mere thirty minutes, then vanished to the cocktail parties. I could have stayed home and read the book for that.

Not Sherman Alexie. He stalked the stage. He acted out the scenes. He told jokes. He told stories from his past. He made himself relatable, vulnerable, and connected with us as a person. And he did it for three hours! I was the last one in that long line for his autograph, and he still found time to stand up, shake my hand, and tell me a funny story.

Granted, Sherman Alexie has experience as a standup comedian. And granted, if we writers wanted to speak in public, we’d be actors. But neither is any excuse for us to not give the audience the best we can give and make it worth their time to hear us.

I do have experience in dramatic interpretation of stories, poetry, and plays. It isn’t the same as a book reading, but it should be. Think of a radio drama, in which one person portrays all the characters. That is what we did in my college forensics team (public address, not criminal pathology). It’s easy to apply the same techniques to a book reading. Here’s how:

You wrote the book. You know how it should sound. Don’t just read it. Act it out. Let your voice rise and fall with the sentences. Speed it up and get loud for action. Slow it down for pastoral moments. For women’s voices in dialogue, raise yours. For men’s, lower yours. If you can’t maintain an accent, don’t try. Until then, listen to accents on Youtube and practice copying them. For a good example of how to present a reading, listen to this: it’s Neil Gaiman reading Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” from Dicken’s own public reading copy.

Don’t remain anchored to one spot. Get out from behind that podium. Buy a 6×9 three ring binder, and print out what you’re going to read to fit it. Make it 14 point double spaced Times New Roman so you can read it at arm’s length. Then, do what Charles Dickens did. The copy that Gaiman read was heavily annotated by Dickens, reminding him of pronunciation, emphasis, inflection, and even gestures. So, don’t just rely on your memory. Now, with the binder in one hand, your other hand is free to gesticulate. Have fun with this. The more fun you have, the more fun the audience will have.

Heck, if you’re brave, get off the stage and wander around the audience. Use a prop or two if they fit.

That brings me to the next part. You. Mostly, what to wear.

In Your Book, Your Brand by Dana Kaye (as many times as I refer to that book, you really ought to go buy it, you know), suggests dressing for your genre. Sounds reasonable to me, so I’ll stick with her recommendations. Essentially, her recommendations are to appear to be a member of your audience, but also an authority for them without ever being an authority over them. The exception is Young Adult.

Literary Fiction/Historical Fiction: You probably have an academic background, and so does your audience. So, dress like it. You want to come across as intelligent, but not stuffy. This is a good place for a tweed or corduroy jacket. Jeans or slacks. Women can wear dresses; not too colorful but also not to dour. A good genre for earth tones. Forget the suit and tie.

Mystery/Suspense/Thriller: You want to exude cool and confident, as if you just stopped that nasty cabal from taking over the world. Most writers in this genre, men and women, wear jeans and a sports jacket over either a tee shirt or button down. Dark colors, no patterns. Again, forget the suit and tie, although it would be so tempting to wear a Tom Ford suit like James Bond’s.

Romance: Most romance writers are women and most of the audience is women. This is the place to be elegant. You want to look like you are the goddess of love. Wear colors, patterns, and different styles. Feel free to break out the lace. If you write dark romance, I think this is a good place for a velvet dress with angel sleeves. If you write Victorian, wear Victorian. If you write erotica, how about a touch of dominatrix? Just a touch. No need to be arrested here.

Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror: The audience is full of geeks. We’re geeks. Let’s have some fun! Moreso than the other genres, writers of speculative fiction do not ever want to appear as being above their readers. We are just as fanboy and fangirl to other writers, so let it out. This is the place for uniforms. We all know if we see George R.R. Martin, he’ll be wearing his driver’s cap and suspenders, and that Jim Butcher will be in black. Heck, why not a touch of cosplay? If you write steampunk, wear Victorian garb. Writers of supernatural stories can get Gothy. Chainmail might be over the top.

Western: Ms. Kaye doesn’t address Western, but I will. It does still exist as a genre, and will probably make a comeback. If you write Western, dress western. Don’t look like Gene Autry in rhinestones or J.R. Ewing in a suit with a yoke back jacket. Dress like you know how to ride a horse. Jeans, ranch style shirt, and cowboy boots for both men and women. For women who prefer skirts, the broomstick skirt would be optimal. Of course, a nice Stetson, but remember to take it off indoors.

Young Adult: Ms. Kaye says this genre is tricky. It’s easy to see why. Most of the audience will be in junior high or high school. You want to gain their respect. Do not try to dress as cool as they do, or they won’t respect you. Besides, what is cool to a 16 year old girl is not cool to her 14 year old brother, so you’ll go mad with all those costume changes. You want to be an authority figure, but not as distant or unapproachable as their teachers. Strike a balance in between the kids and the teachers. That will change from year to year, and even location to location. Ms. Kaye recommends one or two items, like a particular ring, that you wear all the time as identifying emblems.

Going back to Sherman Alexie and the other writers I’ve heard. Mr. Alexie wore jeans, a button down shirt, and a blue sports jacket. He looked like most of my English professors. It fit for the literary fiction genre in which he writes. The others all dressed formally, in full suits, pants suits, or dresses. They appeared a bit distant to us students. We were en route to being peers with them. Yet, the feeling I got was a slight cold shoulder. It’s understandable. Most people who write literary fiction and poetry do not make enough from their writing to live on their writing. So, they teach college classes to pay their bills. As teachers, they develop the boundary and separation required between them and the classroom. These other writers probably couldn’t make the transition from classroom to audience, from educating to edifying.

Don’t make that same mistake. The audience is made up of your peers. Dress like it. Act like it. Read like it.

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