Saturday, March 26, 2011

Rules for Reading to an Audience

I really enjoy listening to writers read their work out loud. There are a few really great reading series here in Chicago that consistently feature writers who not only have strong, engaging voices on the page, but also have a knack for giving that voice new life through the spoken word. I try to attend at least one reading each month, more if I can.

What I've taken from attending so many readings is this: there are great readers and poor readers, and the gulf between them is vast.

Now, it's true that some are more naturally predisposed for public performance. I do not count myself in this group. In fact, this is why many writers write instead of acting or playing music; we're not comfortable on the stage. But when I find myself fixating on some of the more irritating, cringe-inducing, or downright disrespectful habits of the poorer readers, I always think: this could have been avoided. The question that always comes to my mind is why? Why are they doing what they are doing?

It occurred to me that there are plenty of guidelines for good writing, but no guidelines for giving readings to an audience. So I was inspired to start this list. This will be a running feature of the blog. I'll add to it as I attend more readings. Think of it as a comprehensive list of to-dos and to-don'ts on the skill and etiquette of reading to an audience.

Rules for Reading to An Audience

  1. Read an actual piece of your writing. You're probably thinking, "No shit, Arthur Conan Doyle." And you're right - it's so obvious it should go without saying, but then I attended this reading and realized that no offense is too obvious to omit from this list.
  2. Your introduction/apology/pre-reading spiel should not be longer than the piece you read.
  3. Don't turn the reading into an extended commercial for you.
  4. Adhere to the rules of the event.
Rules 2, 3, and 4 were inspired not only by the same event, but by the same writer. This happened at a regular reading series that features about a half-dozen writers per event. All the readers came up to the microphone when it was their turn, gave a great reading, and then sat down.

Except for one - the writer with an agenda. He came to the microphone and spent no less than three minutes talking about his novel and the publishing company he had started with some friends, and then spent no less than three additional minutes apologizing for the fact he was reading from his novel, which of course was fictional (this reading series features non-fiction) and setting up the story behind this particular scene in the novel. By the time he began to read (for a total run-time of 5 minutes; fine by me, he was easily the least engaging of the evening's readers) he had sucked every last bit of energy and momentum out of the event, and, probably, pissed off the event coordinators and the other people he was reading with. (On top of all that, he offered to give half the proceeds from the sales of his novel that evening to the really awesome charity that this particular reading series benefits, which may seem like a redeeming gesture on his part, but really just made me feel like a dick for not buying his shitty novel.)

Breaking any one of these rules will alienate you to the audience:
  • The longer your apologia, the faster the audience's attention wanes. 
  • The more shameless your self-promotion, the more guarded the audience will be toward your work. (The best way to promote yourself at a reading? GIVE A GREAT READING. If people think it's good they'll seek it out. It's kind of like buying a car. The salesman can push and push and push, but it all pretty much comes down to the test-drive.) 
  • If you break the guidelines that the event coordinators give you, then they are less likely to invite you back and the other readers will feel resentment towards you. And, heaven help us, certainly enough people feel enough resentment toward us already.
Breaking all these rules together is a disaster so epic it has the power to inspire some codgy bastard to blog about you.

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