Giving a Great Reading at BristolCon
Writers write, and one of the reasons many writers like writing so much is that you can do it quietly, on your own, away from the spotlight. All well and good, but if you want other people to read what you’ve written you have to promote it; sooner or later you have to climb onto the stage and take the mic.
If that thought fills you with horror you’re certainly not alone, but don’t worry – giving great readings is a skill you can learn.
The worst readings, as a listener, are those where the reader is visibly nervous and hesitant. She stumbles over her words, reads in a monotone or an awful singsong voice, breathes in all the wrong places and finally squeaks to a stop, breathless and miserable. The audience shares every second of this ordeal and it’s excruciating for all concerned, so how can it be avoided?
Think about it – what’s the worst that can happen?
All of the above plus your flies were undone? You’re a writer – let your imagination run wild. Visualise the absolute most awful thing. Once you’ve spent some time figuring out how’d you’d escape the con hotel in the event of a temporal invasion of sentient ants from 3017, an open fly might not seem like the end of the world. Then think about how you’d react if it happened to a friend of yours. Would you point and laugh? No? Well be reassured; most other people won’t either. If you would, then frankly you deserve everything you get.
What’s the best that can happen?
Prepare properly, and everything should be fine. Some things are out of your control – a broken mic stand or a fire alarm for example – but try to imagine yourself standing behind the mic feeling confident and delivering an enthralling reading. What are you doing that makes it feel good? What are you doing that makes the reading really gripping for the listener? You may have seen other people give great readings. If you’ve ever seen Neil Gaiman read, or were lucky enough to attend one of the late Iain Banks’ signings, you know what a fantastic reading looks like – try to put yourself in Neil’s shoes (or leather jacket maybe?). If that’s a stretch too far, see if you can imagine yourself as an actor playing the part of a successful writer who really knows how to give a great reading.
Choose the right text to read
Pick a piece that is reasonably self-contained and entertaining. Action and dialogue are good, exposition is generally a no-no, and long descriptive passages had better be Hardy calibre writing if you want to keep your audience awake. It doesn’t have to be upbeat, it could equally be scary or sad, but it should pack as much punch as possible. If you’re reading an excerpt, ending on a cliffhanger is a good way to encourage sales! And pick a piece which fits within the allocated time slot (5 minutes), so you don’t get interrupted by people arriving for the next item in the schedule.
Introduce the piece, and yourself
Don’t just launch into your text without preamble. People are interested in you, as well as your work. The book they can buy later, but this is their chance to get to know you, and to discover something about your writing that they won’t get from the text alone. Share your inspiration, and set the piece in context if it needs it. If there’s a funny or moving story around the creation of the piece, all the better. If not, you can always make something up. We’re fictionalists: we’re allowed.
A serious note: If you’re going to read something that includes graphic horror or sex, is very frightening or contains a lot of bad language, warn the audience first. In particular you should warn people if you’re mentioning trigger subjects such as self-harm, sexual violence, torture or cruelty to animals.
Decide if you want to leave time at the end for audience questions. At BristolCon the reading slots are shorter than usual (FIVE minutes) so that we can timetable them in between panels instead of conflicting with them. A panel item will end, then there is 5 minutes to clear the room, 5 minutes for your reading and 5 minutes for your audience to leave and the audience for the next item to find their seats. With only 5 minutes allocated to introduce your text and yourself, give your reading and be ready for the following item, you may wish to concentrate on the reading itself. Consider inviting people to come and ask you questions during the rest of the convention.
Speak slowly, and breathe into your diaphragm. That means being conscious of where the breath is going in your body, and, rather than inflating your chest when you breathe in, inflate the area around the bottom of your rib cage as if you were blowing up an inner tube wrapped around your waist. A good way to practice this is by lying on the floor and seeing if you can feel your breath moving your lower back against the floor.
Have a go at counting as you breathe in and out, and see how quickly you can fill your airspaces, and how many beats you can sustain an outward breath for. See if you can breathe deeper, and increase the duration of your outward breath. Replace the counting on the outbreath with sentences, and try to keep the volume of the words consistent throughout.
Mastering this will allow you to get to the end of a sentence without getting squeaky. Just knowing how long you can speak for without breathing in will help you to improve the rhythm of your reading.
Most mics need to have the end pointed at your mouth to pick up your speech. Don’t hold the mic vertical against your lips. Don’t hold it so close that it makes popping and hissing noises, but don’t stand so far away it’s not picking you up. Don’t wave the microphone about as if you’re conducting the last night of the Proms, or wave yourself around relative to the mic so that you fade in and out like a badly tuned radio.
Make Eye Contact
Look at the audience as often as you can. If you can’t bear it, plant someone you know in the room and look at them.
Give it Some Drama
Put as much dramatic emphasis into your reading as you can without cracking up. If the passage is exciting, put the excitement in your voice. If it’s tragic, bring the sorrow. If you have lots of dialogue, try to give the characters recognisably different voices. When you’re giving a reading, you are performing a one-person radio play designed to show off your best work, not reciting a bill in the House of Lords. It’s all very un-British, but don’t be afraid to look silly!
Oh Arse I’m F*cking it Up
If you make a mistake, just take a breath and start the sentence again. Laugh about it and the audience will laugh with you. It’s no big deal; even newsreaders do it sometimes.
Last but foremost, practice practice practice. Practice aloud, and practice in front of the mirror and in front of the cat, and then practice some more. Time yourself, speaking slowly, so you know how long it will take to read your text. Make sure you can pronounce all the words and that you aren’t going to stumble over the sentence structure. It will make your reading better, but if you don’t already do this regularly, you’ll find it makes your writing better too.