The most recent issue of Poets & Writers magazine includes a lengthy piece by Kevin Sampsell on author readings, complete with an interview in which several writers offer tips and tales about their experiences at the mic. There is some good material here, and the interview makes for entertaining reading. But I want to counter an assertion made by one of the writers that the author at a reading is a sort of human sacrifice. To make the best of a reading, the argument goes, you must give yourself up to the awfulness of the audience-author relationship; you must make yourself a sacrificial lamb.
Of course the statement is partly tongue in cheek, but I hate to think that the numerous writers who already dread reading aloud will now see their fears vindicated. Because in fact, you are not the sacrificial lamb at an author reading -- though thinking of yourself that way will mar your performance.
The author reading is a natural and necessary extension of a writer's work -- even though it forces us from solitude into society. In fact, I would argue, because it forces us from solitude into society. It's an opportunity to engage, convince, and entertain potential readers. Reading aloud is no less an art than writing the words down in the first place. And like all arts, it has its tools of craft that you can learn and master. Here are a few key steps.
1. Choose a good section. This seems obvious, but you need to remember that what seems like a good section for you as a writer may not be a good performance piece at all. Resist the temptation to read from the very beginning of your novel. If that's where you set the scene for the book, consider whether scene-setting offers the most intrigue. A combination of dialogue and narration works best because it changes the rhythm for the listeners. For dialogue, keep the voices to a minimum. A party scene might work great in your story or novel, but your audience will have trouble keeping the characters straight. Your reading takes up just a little less than the time you've been allotted (hint: always find out how long they want you to read for). Don't worry about finding a section that represents the entire plot, or even all the themes of the novel. If it's entertaining or moving, the audience will buy a copy of your book so they can read the whole plot and experience all the themes on their own. This is what is called success. Pick your section with success in mind.
2. Like an actor, you need to prepare your script -- which is what your short story or the excerpt from your novel becomes. Think about how you want to play the scene, as it were, what kind of tone you're aiming for. Mark up those pages, with notations for places where you want to pause, speed up, slow down, or change the mood. Reading aloud is like Wayne Gretzky's vision of hockey: you need to know where the puck is going to be. You want to know where the emotions of a piece are going, and you want to reach those emotions at the right time. Many of us have had the experience of reading aloud to a child, getting caught in full voice saying "'Look over there!' she whispered." You don't want that to happen when you're at a bookstore reading from your latest novel.
3. Print your selection or photocopy it in very large type. Even if you don't need reading glasses, you'll be grateful when you glance down at your paper in mid-sentence during a bookstore event. You can also tape these papers into your copy of your book, so the audience can still see the lovely cover while you read your specially formatted pages. My copy of The Clover House has photocopies sticking out of it where I taped them over the real pages. I've used post-its as tabs to mark other sections of varying lengths; these come in handy when interviewers ask for a snippet. People tend to find the sight of my copy amusing, and many have remarked on the fact that I was clearly prepared. People like it when readers are prepared.
4. Then rehearse. Multiple times. Again, this seems obvious, but many writers don't seem to do more than a cursory run-through before getting up before an audience. As you read aloud, listen for places that don't make sense unless the listener knows more than you have time to explain. Explanations of context and character can be distracting to the listener, so, as you rehearse, cut those little phrases that will pull the listener away. Then go over the piece again, until there are numerous spots you know by heart, so you can look directly at the audience while you say them.
5. If you're still feeling self-conscious, think of reading aloud as a kind of karaoke (and pretend or remember that you love karaoke). Karaoke singers don't worry about emoting in front of strangers. When the song is over, they go back to their real selves. The same is true for you. Put your heart into it, and when it's over, enjoy the applause.
Fear, of course, is a powerful thing, and stage fright offers its own torments. I can't claim that treating your novel like a script is going to turn every nervous writer into an actor. But it will help. At the very least, these steps can help you hide your fear, and they just might get you closer to overcoming it.