Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tips for Better Literary Readings

• • • •
Author and audience members
at a recent reading
at Half King in Chelsea
• • • • •

Sitting through a literary reading when you can’t hear and the author isn’t really into it, as I did the other night at Half King in Chelsea, is more punishment than pleasure. I’m a bit of a literary event junkie. Readings are often free of charge and since I’m a book reviewer with a weekly deadline, it’s fun to scope out for myself what’s new and interesting. This accessibility to new books and authors is a genuine perk for those living in NYC.

I’m afraid that this style of lackluster presentation by authors is more common than you’d expect. A literary reading may be one of the last places where nose-thumbing at the all-mighty dollar is in full view. The anti-sell attitude, if you will, looks and sounds like this:

“I don’t need to notify friends and family of this reading. I don’t need to tuck in my shirt. I don’t need to think about what I am going to say. I don’t need to bookmark what I plan to read nor do I need to know what I will read. And I certainly don’t need to speak up or look up. Frankly I don’t need you people. I’m a published author, after all.”

That last sentence is, admittedly, mean-spirited supposition. I don’t actually know what compels authors to come to their own readings so unprepared and uninspired.

I’ve grown quite a bit as a reader, thanks in part to the honest feedback and help of friends. I’ve reversed my focus from putting my stage fright first to making it secondary to caring about my audience and wanting to entertain them. Luckily this effort was possible and my own way of managing is to dramatize the text as I wrote it and want it to be read by my readers.

On April 9 of this year I read briefly at my book launch in Rockport. It was — ta da — my first “Free Fall” reading. I barely looked up and I didn’t put energy into the reading. I heard about it afterward from friends. The basic message was: Try a whole lot harder.

A blogger who commented on the Half King reading Monday night (the performing author shall go unnamed here) interpreted the man’s demeanor as sincerely humble. How two people sitting in the same room could read a man so differently amazes, intrigues and delights me. This is proof that there is no truth, that there are a million stories for every second in time, that my well shall never go dry.

Some additional thoughts on reading out loud:

1. I need to get this off my chest. The Half King is a great venue for literary readings with one enormous caveat. They almost never invite women to read. Should I return? Should I give them my money for food and drink? Should I continue to review Sebastian Junger’s (one of the owners) books, as I have since he began publishing books? For me, this male orientation is serious bad business.

2. Now for the tips. Author: Look up. Take note of your audience. See who’s there and stay connected. Is someone getting antsy? Does someone dare look away from your scintillating story for even one second? Retrieve him! Read to him! Entertain that wandering mind till you have him safely back in the fold.

3. Apply due diligence to summoning the crowd. Consider filling the room your responsibility. Send out postcards, e-newsletters, news releases, emails, postings on Twitter and Facebook. Make fliers. The work is hard and you can never do too much.

4. Smile the minute you walk in the room and keep smiling. You can stop when you get to the passage about the baby seal being gutted by the great white shark. But when you turn the page, smile again. Let people know you’re happy to be there and happier still that they are there with you.

5. Do you tend toward unkempt appearance or physical ennui personified by slouching or a failure to shave? Take a hint from Lee Child, who has a furious reading schedule every year in the late spring. Buy one good shirt and one well-fitting pair of pants. Consider this your road show outfit and reprise it when called upon to address the public. It becomes something of a talisman that signals “Performance!”

6. Do you tend, as a jaded author, to wear a pall of ennui? Do you save your passion for the page or the sack? Give it up. Get lively for your tribe.

7. Use your finger, if necessary, to mark your place in the text so that you can LOOK UP. You need to know who’s listening and who’s not. You need to make genuine connections.

8. Read favorite passages that work. Read the same passage at other venues. Dramatize. People really enjoy being read to and entertained.

9. Don’t read for more than 10 or 15 minutes because people’s limbs start to fall asleep and their butts hurt. Also: Remember to start off by very briefly introducing your excerpt and explaining the characters and the setting.

10. There’s an odd whole-room pause the second you finish reading. If you want to take a few questions, wait for the applause and then wait a little longer. People need time to collect their thoughts and formulate their questions. I often try to help out by saying something like: One of the most often-asked questions I get is…. That always gets the questions coming.

11. Know in advance how you will inscribe the book. I now write: Enjoy the free fall. (It’s a line straight out of the book.)

12. Never forget that people have traveled to see you. Leave your humility at home and work for them.

13. If you are a man, and you happen to score a reading at Half King, here’s an extra tip: Authors must compete with a thunderously loud drinking crowd on the other side of the wall. And the sound system is not very good. Practice projection and articulation. Make good use of your manly voice.

14. Follow up with thank you notes to the bookstore or library, the person responsible for choosing to book you, and anyone who helped you make the event a success. Sometimes I even bring some wine and cheese when I know I’m going to have a crowd that’s made up of primarily friends and colleagues.

15. Finally, the reality is that you are one of the key hand-sellers of your book. Even seasoned, best-selling writers call up their regional libraries and ask for readings. You do this not just for the book, not just for your readers but for your long-term platform as an author worthy of consideration.

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