Surviving that First Reading

I’ve had twenty-mumble years to get used to reading passages of my books aloud. I still remember the very first one at a bookstore in Vacaville, sadly now closed. I had the flop sweats from minute one but managed to get a laugh reading aloud a passage I thought was witty but didn’t realize could get real chortles out of folks.

Once I got that laugh I was hooked on the experience. I enjoy readings immensely, and one of the most common requests for advice I see from new authors is how to make that first reading work.

First piece of advice: If you can, attend a similar event before yours is scheduled to occur. Watch how someone else does it and ask yourself what did and didn’t work. Sometimes that’s not possible, but in the way back when time, I went to several events at different women’s bookstores just to learn the boundaries.

Pick the Right Passage to Read

  • Choose something that’s within your confidence and competence level. For example, the worst thing of my own I ever read aloud was a very funny scene (usually a good thing) that had 5-6 different speakers. I don’t have a knack for different voices and the humor got lost in the audience trying to follow who was talking – clear on the page, not clear aloud. Now I stick to two voices max. I do have good comedic timing so I tend to pick something with at least one good punchline. Play to your strengths.
  • Pick a scene that’s earlier in the book so that there is less need to give the audience backstory, which is almost always dull and time-wasting. It is perfectly okay to end on a cliffhanger.
  • Be aware of the surroundings for explicit content. If you’re reading in the afternoon at a general interest bookstore it’s probably best to ramp back the F-word and the sex with toy scenes because of the possibility of kids nearby; don’t cause trouble for your bookseller if you can avoid it. If it’s the LGBT center erotica night, ooo baby, let it all hang out.
  • Don’t read the big dramatic scene in the story! You’ll spoil all the tension for the reader who was intending to buy it and it will probably fall flat anyway. That scene works in the book because of all the work you did to bring the reader to an emotional readiness to take in what happens. A live audience won’t be ready to go with you down that road without a lot more time and work.
  • It’s not a rule that what you read is exactly what’s in the book. If a great passage has something right in the middle that will confuse your audience, skip it. They won’t remember later that you did so. Add more tags for the dialogue and first names if they’re needed for audible clarity. I copy out the passage I’m intending to read into a new document and edit it for speaking aloud. Add spaces where I need to remember to breathe, change out words that turn out to be tongue twisters. etc. If you’re not sure of your audience age, swap out the R-rated words for PG ones.
  • Practice, practice, practice. If you have the technology, record yourself at least once and listen to it all the way through, painful as it may be. I still haven’t conquered my squirrel voice tendencies, but I am aware of them and do try to lower my timbre by pausing for a good breath now and again.
  • Time yourself. This is vital. See next section.

Don’t Overstay Your Welcome

If you’ve been told to read for eight minutes, then read for eight minutes or less. This is particularly important in group readings. The authors are usually told an explicit time frame to allow every one their share. Don’t go over. Readers might not remember that you’re the one who blew the timing of the event so that last person lost several of her minutes, but believe me, that author will never forget it was you and it could be why you’re not asked to play reindeer games down the road.

Readers can notice when someone is out of sync. For example, one reading we’d all been warned repeatedly that the space we were in had to be vacated on time and there were at least sixteen authors on the roster for a two-hour spot. If the author knew when to show up and what order she was to be in, then she knew about the time limit. We each had five minutes, including all introductions. This particular author took seventeen minutes and forty-two seconds, and I wasn’t the only one keeping track. The last person on the roster – one of the big names, which was why she was batting clean-up – didn’t get to go at all. All around me in the audience the readers were grumbling, and they knew exactly who’d hogged far more than her share. Even worse, that meant there was even less time to sign and sell books when we’d moved to the reception area.

If you’re going solo for the event, take your timing cue from your host. If there’s no host, ask a friend to introduce you and give you some time signals so you’re aware of how long you’ve been chatting. (You should already know how long your reading took, right?) When the audience starts shifting around in their seats it’s time to wrap up. You don’t want to eat into the time they need to do something, like, say, buy your book.

Questions and Answers

Most of the questions fall into general categories. Think of one or two things you’d say to each of these and you’ll be 95% prepared for anything:

  1. How do you do research
  2. What’s your writing schedule, do you write every day
  3. Do you outline or do it seat-of-your-pants
  4. Where did you get this idea
  5. What are you working on now

Managing an audience can be tricky. If one person wants to chat extensively, and you have other people looking eager to ask their own question, ask the chatty person if they’d like to talk once the formal part of the evening is over.  Don’t let one person hog the time. Now if only one person wants to ask questions, thank your lucky stars at least one person is willing.

Because, sometimes, no one wants to go first. So be prepared to ask yourself a question to get the ball rolling. Sometimes the audience does want the answers, but they don’t want to be the one to ask. So it’s okay to break the ice with, “One question that nearly always comes up is…” If after you’ve asked and answered one question no one wants to follow-up, it’s time to move on.

The awkward overly personal question? “What’s in the book – is that how you like sex?” Yes, I’ve been asked that and other questions I felt were off-limits. My most successful response is, “What answer will get you to buy the book?” The audience will laugh, giving you the room back. Look elsewhere and ask, “Anyone else have a question?”

Request an Action to Close

Last but not least, you took the time to prepare and get to the event. Finish with the whole point of the event: ask for an action. Practice saying, “I hope you enjoyed that – I certainly did! I have a free excerpt on my web site, me.com, and go check that out if you’re curious about more.” (Your excerpt has a very easy to follow buy link at the end, right?) Or if you’re fortunate enough to be at a real bookstore, something like, “It’s great to have this store and I hope you’ll buy my book here — or any book for that matter — to say thank you for the space they’ve given us tonight.”

Think through the various aspects of the event and you’ll do just fine, even if you get the flop sweats. On that topic, have a tissue handy, bring your own bottle of water because not every venue will provide one, and whatever you do, breathe.

Breathe.

It’ll be okay.

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