Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Reading Rulebook

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I used to go to a lot of public readings of poetry and fiction. Then I had kids, and rarely went, but recently, due to changing circumstances, I've been out to a few more, and what hasn't changed are the fundamental laws of readings. And they are:

  1. Keep it short. The organizer tells you to read for ten minutes? Give 'em eight! No one will complain if you give less – in fact, they will praise you. Reading more of your work isn't going to make it, or you, more likeable. Read your best stuff, don't throw it out there and expect us to sift for it. I've seen brilliant readings that went on five minutes longer than they should have, and that's all I remember about them – too long, too long. Don't go on too long. The way this point has gone on too long.
  2. Plan. Decide what you are going to read before you get on stage. I know, it's a radical idea, but I really don't want to watch you flip through your entire book, trying to find "that passage" or "that poem." Plan, and bookmark. Flipping is not entertainment.
  3. Rehearse. You aren't just reading, you are performing. Who does a performance without practicing? Crappy readers, that's who. And it shows. Stumbling over your own words does not flatter them. And that word you really dig, can spell, but can't pronounce? Lick that before you spew it on stage. Or, less graphically: practice it before you read it aloud.
  4. Entertain. Again, you are performing your work, not just reading it. You wrote those words – lift them off the page and throw them at me with pride. Make them ring, shine, sparkle. Read them the way they're supposed to be read. But don't overdo it either. You are reading the words, not acting them out. You are carrying your words into the audience's ears, where they can go to work, pleasing the brain.
  5. Choose the right stuff. Face it: some of your poems or passages are better suited to reading aloud than others. What's great on the page doesn't necessarily translate into a good auditory experience for an audience. When reading prose, do not choose sections that require extensive preamble. You can find passages that stand fine on their own, and there's no need to explain every detail, every character's history. A little mystery about what's truly going on will pique an audience's interest. For poems, remember that it's challenging for an audience to concentrate on complex structure and diction. The best poetry for live reading has a music to it, a cadence, good fricatives, vivid imagery.
  6. Slow down. Most people read too fast. Listen to audiobooks for an idea of the ideal pacing for reading aloud. Audiobooks represent the science of great reading.
  7. Clarity. No mumbling, no bumbling, no mumbo-jumbo. Enunciate reasonably. What good are your words if I can't hear them?.
  8. Banter. Yes, banter. Engage a little with the audience – a little! If you can be funny, be funny. Readings can be so arid, a small burst of humour goes a long way to endearing you to the audience. But see items 2 and 3: plan and rehearse your banter.
  9. Speak into the microphone. The microphone is this remarkable object that takes your voice and amplifies it so everyone in the room can hear, but it only works if you direct your voice into it. Why is this so difficult for some readers?
  10. Wind down. For prose, that means finish at a natural place, where a sense of ending occurs not long before you finish. With poems, tell us you're almost done, that you have just two more. If you obeyed item #1, the audience will sit up and savour your performance until the end, because you are making yourself rare and elusive, because you are going to leave us wanting more. And that's the best thing you can do.
So there it is: your reading rulebook. If you follow all of these points, you will provide a great reading. It may even earn you a drink or two after your set. Bookmark this, and refer to it next time you're going to step onstage.
Anything I missed? Send me your suggestions and I'll incorporate them.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Brian Panhuyzen

Brian Panhuyzen is the author of the short-story collection The Death of The Moon (Cormorant, 1999) and a novel, The Sky Manifest (ECW, 2013).

Go to Brian Panhuyzen’s Author Page