This past Saturday, I had the honor of delivering an author reading from an excerpt of my work during the Science Fiction session at LitQuake San Rafael.
I was both the local host and the first author to read.
I prepared myself as best as I could.
I chose an appropriate science fiction excerpt. I made sure that the selection was within the 12 minute limit. I practiced it in front of a mirror and with my daughter.
Then I read. I didn’t pass out. I didn’t drop my pages. The audience did not get up and leave.
So, on that level, it was a success.
But more importantly than being a success it was a learning experience.
I was fortunate enough to be followed by two more experienced authors – Hannu Rajaniemi and Ransom Stephens – and, in addition to enjoying their material, I learned a lot about how I can deliver a better author reading next time.
Here are the 4 most important things I learned about how deliver a better author reading.
1) Engage with the audience right away
It’s too easy to just smile at the audience and then immediately duck into your pages and begin to read. But as authors we are trying to create a shared experience with the audience.
And in order to do this, we have to find a way to break the ice.
Hannu did this right away. Unfortunately, he was not able to join us by person and instead participated through a Skype connection. So to help break the ice, he told a story about someone attending WorldCon as a computer-controlled robot. We were immediately engaged.
2) Frame the material that you are going to read
I made the mistake of just giving the title of my work and describing it as Heart of Darkness meets outer space. Then the reader was plunged into my story. A little too abrupt.
Ransom had a different strategy. He gave the audience an idea of what his book was about and even read from one of the original news stories about a polar bear that helped inspire the story.
Then with the stage set, he let the audience into his story.
3) Carefully select your material
I had about 12 minutes for my time on the podium. So my strategy was to find and edit an excerpt under that time. I was able to manage an excerpt that was a little over 10 minutes long: the beginning of the work.
But, as I learned from Ransom and Hannu, a more careful selection of the material for the author reading would have been more engaging to the audience.
Ransom, after his framing, read a short excerpt from his novel The Sensory Deception, then talked a little more, and then read a longer excerpt that showcased his writing and was dramatic.
Hannu chose not to read from his most recent novel, Causal Angel, and instead let the audience know that he was going to read from two short pieces and one longer piece, and that all of this material was harder to find. (Notice the framing there that immediately engages the audience.)
My take away from this is to select shorter excerpts and to leave room for story telling around the reading of the text.
4) Read with the passion that made you a writer
Public speaking is not my strongest suit. I can get up there and read what is on the page before me and even improvise a little bit.
But an audience wants to be entertained – and not just with words on a page. An author needs to bring his or her work to life before an audience.
I really saw this with Hannu who read his stories with passion and joy. The words truly jumped off the page when he read with different voices for his characters, paused for dramatic effect and showed expression in his face and eyes.
One of the parts of the writing life that I love above all else is that every day I am learning something new – whether it is how to improve my prose, design a book cover, or engage a live audience.
Now I can’t wait for my next author reading so I can put into play the things I have learned and to see what else other authors are doing that I will want to try out.
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