The first time I read in public (a Grub Street open mike event at Johnny D's in Somerville, Mass.), I sucked.
Years later (no more experienced) with my debut book launch looming, I had to do better. Pre-publication months were spent attending bookstore events with a notebook (and money*) in hand.
Many of the 'rules' below I learned from either the awful readings I attended or the great ones. My first lessons in how-to-not-bore-people-to-death came from listening to and watching Boston (and Grub Street) authors Steve Almond (enormously funny, edgy, and self-deprecating) and Jenna Blum (extraordinarily entertaining, honest, and generous.) Learning by watching was invaluable.
From those visits, from reading the terrific book Naked at the Podium, and from my strict sister, husband, and writer's group (who listened to my first efforts) I came up with this list:
1. Shorten Your Reading.
Don't fall in love with yourself. It is a rare author who can read from their book for more than 8-10 minutes without engendering a tune-out from the audience. If you think you're the exception to that rule -- that you are truly the gifted one -- than I challenge you watch a videotape of yourself reading.
Sharp, focused, and specific is better than droning, descriptive and general. What's that I hear? Your work is totally brilliant? Each word a gift to the audience's ears?
Only to you and perhaps your mother.
I spent hours searching for the right passage to read, seeking a scene I could excerpt to have a beginning, middle and end. I write "excerpt" because that's what I've learned to do. Hearing a passage aloud is different from reading. Audiences tune out at long description, and a host of other non-aural-friendly words (again, go forth and visit other author's readings.) I hone and hone (telling the audience that this is a cut-to-the-bone version.)
Slicing away the frills, I can come up with a 5 - 7 minute (or less) read that has a narrative arc. (I did once have an audience member ask me if what I did was 'legal' -- a question that tickles me to this day.)
2. Practice, practice, practice.
I cannot stress enough the difference this will make. Read aloud endlessly, until you are on automatic. This way you can spend your energy on delivery.
And practice in front of someone honest.
3. Start with an interesting presentation.
I spend over half of presentation talking about what I consider to be the interesting backstories of my book. You can't convince your audience your book is great by saying it: "Hey, my book is so funny! So heart-warming! So literary!" Be funny, heart-warming, and/or literary.
(And for goodness' sake, never read aloud your own reviews.)
4. It's your job to do at least one of these:
If you are incapable of any of the above, pick a relevant-to-your-book topic and do some research.
5. Be humble. No matter who heck you are.
I listened to a bestselling author who, after his reading, shared stories of his fame. Then he warned the audience that he had to leave very quickly, so please not to talk to him as he tried to leave.
I know there was a better way to present that information.
6. Pick out your reading passage well in advance.
Few writers entertain, enlighten, or excite while stumbling their way through unfamiliar territory. Leafing through your book, obviously letting the audience know you are seeking something to read, only says, "I didn't care enough to prepare."
7. Smile, for God's sake!
If smiling is against your belief system, please find some other way to let the audience know you are happy to see them. They are your bread and butter -- not vice-versa.
And please -- don't forget to look up. I always look for one person to be my 'safe' person; there's always one kind face out there. Talk to them.
8. Don't whine.
Don't say any of the following:
"I hate readings!" (Then don't subject us to it.
"This is the worst part of writing." (Then stay home.)
"I'm exhausted!" (Then go to sleep.)
9. Be concise.
Do not ramble. Make your point once. Do not restate your points. (See how I just said thrice what I should have said once?)
Double your brevity when sharing the stage. Writers who step on the toes of other writer's time -- on panels, in bookstore dual readings, at events -- embarrass themselves and enrage the other writers.
10. No drinking to excess
In my case, this means no drinking at all. Know your capacity. (I have none.) I have cringed -- along with the rest of the audience -- when subjected to an obviously drunk author's pointless slurring.
11. (Bonus advice!) Coping with bad readings.
When you have a bad reading (we all have off nights) shrug it off. Don't turn to the audience for sympathy. You can't undo what's been done.
I remember (ugh) my worst reading -- I was hot, sweaty, and nervous. I was surrounded by two authors far more experienced, interesting, pretty, thin, funny, and entertaining than I could ever be.
Plus they had prettier jewelry and were better dressed.
And I hadn't prepared properly for the audience.
It was like a bad date. I just wanted to go home.
This is when you have that overflowing glass of wine.
Conversely, when attending a reading of a fellow author who is off her game, only give advice and/or critique if invited. (And even then, judge the request. Rule of smart-thumb: when asked at a party "does this make me look fat," the answer is always "no!")
And there is a special place in hell for unsolicited advice. I still smart from the fellow writer who, in line at a bookstore book signing) that for personal reasons had been particularly nerve-wracking) in the guise of friendly help, leaned over the table to say (as 25 people stood behind him), "You sounded nervous! I thought you'd do better. You know, you should be less nervous when you speak! Were you okay?"
Not anymore, I wasn't.
** Sidebar: When attending other writer's readings it's always noticed whether you do or do not buy books. And you can imagine which action invokes which feeling. My personal side caveat? At dual readings, I buy the other author's books. Call it karma, call it good manners -- either way, reach into your wallet. And when you tell yourself you 'can't afford it,' please remain truthful and ask yourself these questions:
How many Starbucks or other over-priced coffees did I buy this month? How much wine or beer or other alcohol did I consume, and how much did it cost? Is my reputation with other authors worth as much as coffee or booze?