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When Bad Readings Happen to Good Authors

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It's a common occurrence: We love an author, we've read all her books, we can't wait to hear her read at a local book store. And when we go, the reading's anywhere from a letdown to a total dud.

What goes wrong?

Most authors I talk to, whether they're newbies or veterans, don't understand that readings are performances and a complete break from their routine. Writing is solitary, even if you do it on your laptop in a coffee house. And so is reading a book.

But reading aloud to an audience is theater. The dynamics change completely and everything's more complicated. A text that is easy to follow on the page might not work so well when it's read aloud. I've done hundreds of readings on three different continents and what I read from my book is never the identical text that's been published. I break up long sentences, repeat things for emphasis, add a word or two when necessary for clarity. And the emotion and focus of the reading are always shaped by the energy in the room, by what people are responding to -- or not responding to.

I rehearse my reading over and over, so that I know it almost by heart, and don't feel obligated to keep my eyes down on the book. Sometimes I don't even bring a book, but print off the pages in a larger font to make the reading easier, or do that on my iPad and read from that. Why? Because eye contact with the audience is crucial.

My new book Writer's Block Is Bunk talks about author readings, and I wrote the book to make the world of being a working author more accessible. I was lucky when I started doing readings from my work because I'm an extrovert and I had theater background. But anyone can learn the skills you need to do a good reading, one that turns your audience on, not off.