Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

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Microphone

Readings have a bad rap. If you haven’t been to one, you might think they are dry affairs, with slouchy authors mumbling into the microphone something incomprehensible, inaudible and just plain dull.

Here’s the thing: you might just be right.

Some authors’ readings are so painful that they drive audiences not only from the room, but away from the book entirely — a book that might be poignant and funny and suspenseful on the page; a story that could be wonderful to listen to if some other person were reading it aloud.

And that’s the problem: good writers are not necessarily good readers.

Yes, it’s unfair that we ask these two, very different things of our writers. No, your talent as a writer should not have to be matched by your talent as a reader.

You could just refuse to play the game, to tell people that readings are not among the things you do as an author. But if you are going to accept the invitation to read, then the audience has a right to expect you to do a good job. And bad readings aren’t just boring and a waste of the audience’s time. They can put people off your work, altogether.

OK, I hear you. That’s easy for me to say. Yes, I happen to love to read to a crowd. I love it so much that if you were to offer me your book to read on stage, I would gladly do your reading for you. This is what happens when a former drama student evolves into a writer of fiction.

Touring my story collection this fall, I was often on the bill with much more established authors (many of them very good readers). The audience was not coming to see me — I was just the warm-up act, the person they’d have to endure before the known writer got the stage. But time after time, I had people come to the signing table afterwards and tell me that they were buying the book because they loved the reading so much. How much direct research do you need? Good readings sell books.

Many people have told me that I am a “natural” on stage, but it’s not entirely the case. Yes, I do like being up in front of a crowd. But I also work hard to make it appear effortless. And the harder I work to make it seem easy, the easier it becomes.

And if it’s true that even someone who loves to be on stage can improve their reading abilities, it’s also true that someone who feels they are a horrible reader, who dreads the whole experience, can be a better reader, and maybe even a really good reader. The better you read, the happier the experience will become — for you, and for your audience.

So, here are a few key points to get you on the path to an improved reading.

Plan and practice. The time to begin practicing your reading is long before you are asked to give one. You need to get used to the sound of your own voice; learn how to use a microphone; find out whether you can see the page in front of you (is it time for new glasses?) and whether your hands shake. If you have the opportunity, get up at an open mic before your book tour begins; work out some of the kinks before the stakes get too high.

Reading vs. Talking. Readings have received such bad reputations that many organizers nowadays suggest that you talk about your book, rather than read from it. That’s fine. But even in a traditional reading format, you will probably want to talk a little too. How will your talk and the reading connect? Will the reading just illustrate the points you spoke about, or is the talk just an introduction to your reading? Consider what the balance should be, and then factor both these portions into your overall time.

And speaking of time…. How long are you being asked to read? Please, read for that long, and no more. Veteran writer and reader Susan Musgrave once wrote a piece for her students (I was among them) called “If You Go Overtime,” which threatened all sorts of terrible things if you took more than your allotted time. My favourite is: If you go overtime, your poems…will live forever in a sloop of despond, an endless cycle of births, baby tears, marriages and the sounds of weed-eaters, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, backing up buses and the voice of your inner-critic saying you have wasted your time, you should have become a dentist but you wanted immortality.

What more can I say? Only this: what feels like five minutes to you, is probably not actually five minutes. But this isn’t an excuse to run overtime. There’s an easy solution: just time it out before! And no fair doing it while you read it in your head. Spoken words and silently read words do not take the same amount of time.

Choose your selection with care. Pick something that can be tidily encapsulated, that can give a flavour of the whole book or story, but still stand alone. Something that has its own beginning, middle and end. And don’t be afraid to edit a passage specifically for the reading. You can lose the long back story. You can cut a character from the scene. You can nip and tuck so that it looks very different than what’s on the page. You don’t need anyone’s permission: it’s your own work. It’s a reading, and — like moving a book to film — some changes may be required to the original to bring out the best of the story for this new format.

Be nimble. Yes, I said to practice and be prepared. However, there are going to be times when you arrive at a reading and are told the timing has changed. Your twelve minutes is now eight, or vice versa. Or the radio interviewer might suddenly ask for a two-minute reading to close the show. And it’s live. Please begin. So, it’s best to have a number of selections from your book — different lengths and different feels — each of them carefully timed out, a whole variety that you can draw on at a moment’s notice and still keep your cool.

Be yourself. Some writers are great at acting out all the parts in the story. And some manage to have the audience laughing in the aisles. But that may not be your style. And that’s OK. What you need to do is learn how to put yourself in service to your story. To communicate it as clearly as you can. A well-chosen reading, crisply delivered, can satisfy an audience just as much as one in which the writer is performing a circus act of multiple parts, accents and facial tics.

Listen to your fellow readers. One of the things that writers dislike about readings is the sense that they are alone on stage. And sometimes it is just you and the podium. But if you are on a bill with other writers, it’s an opportunity to work together. Try to use the time during the other readings to really listen to your fellow readers. You won’t just be being polite; you’ll be picking up clues. What’s the room like? Does the audience want to laugh tonight, or are they more solemn? These observations can help you tweak your own reading to work better for this particular group. Or maybe you’ll be inspired by the passages your fellows have chosen. This can alter your selections, but also your delivery. And if the event includes a Q&A at the end, it can offer you an opportunity to reference and riff off the other writers’ performances. When a number of readers on the bill are really listening to each other, it can feel as if you are an ensemble, working together to provide a great show for both the audience and you, the “cast.”

Write to be Read Aloud. Long before you’re asked to come out and promo your book, and even before you do your practice runs at the mic, the secret to a really good reading rests in the writing itself. Writing that’s designed to sit well in the mouth and the ear, as well as on the page and in the mind, is writing that’s tailor-made to be spoken to an audience, big or small. You can help make that writing by reading your work aloud as you compose and edit, and by keeping the listener in mind, as well as the reader.


Miranda Hill is the author of Sleeping Funny (Doubleday Canada 2012) and the winner of the 2011 McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize. Hill offers “Page to Podium” coaching to writers who wish to polish their reading performances.

Hill is also the founder and executive director of Project Bookmark Canada. She lives, writes and reads (often aloud) in Hamilton, Ontario.

1 comment

I would add:

Mark the pages in the poetry book that you choose to read from. Nothing worse than waiting while the author flips the pages back and forth trying to find the poem he or she just thought of.

Watch other readers to see how far their mouth is from the microphone. Learn how to adjust the mic height so it doesn't visually block your face. Some mics are more directional and sensitive than others. And check for proper lighting both on you and for you to read from. Literary organizers often forget to consider such basics and leave you in the dark, or silhouetted in your own shade by a bright backlight. Ask!

Finally, if it's prose, I find the most successful, and the easiest, readings are those in which the narrative voice of the passage is of
a character I can sink myself into.

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