Before I get into the real topic, here’s a question – am I insane for even considering publishing a literary journal? You know, the whole accept submissions, get subscribers, go to press kind of literary journal?
So more and more often I’m going to readings of things that people, myself included, have written. And more and more often I’m less than impressed with the way that writers present themselves when reading their work in public. I know, I know, it’s supposed to be a solitary pursuit full of staring out windows and empty whiskey bottles and perpetual gazing into navels, but folks, if you’re going to read your stuff in public, please take a little time to work on the craft of reading just like you worked on the craft of writing. It’s a set of skills – develop it! So I decided to put forth a few tips on how to improve your reading, based on my years in theatre and performance.
1) Stand up. Most untrained readers will benefit hugely just by standing up, or at least sitting upright on a stool. This opens the airways down to the lungs and diaphragm and allows you more access to air. More air = more volume with less strain. The chest is a big resonant cavity that serves as an amplifier to the voice, use it. Sitting, and especially sitting slouched over like a shy little mouse, compresses the esophagus and makes it harder to get to your Air Supply (and I don’t mean the “guilty pleasures” playlist on your iPod). So get off your ass, or at least, sit up straight like your mama told you.
2) If you don’t have much personality, don’t try to force it. You’ll know pretty quickly if you don’t have any personality, count how many time people look at their watch when they’re talking to you in a normal day. If the answer is EVER, then you’re probably boring. If you’re boring, don’t try to tell stories or jokes, just read your shit and get it over with! You might be the greatest writer since Shakespeare, but painful to converse with. Not necessarily your fault, but there’s no point in standing in front of a room full of people boring the crap out of them when they came to hear you read, rather than tell stories anyway. Now, if you’re a storyteller and still boring, then you’ve got bigger problems.
3) Pay attention to the guidelines of the show. If the producer/host tells you to keep it to five minutes, don’t read five pages of prose text. A page of prose takes several minutes to read, and even longer to read well, and that time is inflated by the size of the page, too. So don’t run long. If an audience is told to expect five minutes and you run fifteen, you’d better be brilliant. If they’re told to expect five minutes and you’re done in four, they feel like you’ve paid attention to the guidelines and have given their time some value.
4) Learn a little bit about technology. In some rooms there will be microphones. Sometimes, you’ll need them, sometimes you won’t. Either decide not to use them and move them aside, or learn enough to use them well. Standing in front of a room full of people fumbling with a mic just makes you look uncomfortable and stupid. It’s less high-tech than your TV remote, take a few minutes before the event begins to figure out height adjustments and how to tighten the mic on the stand. It will make you look like a pro, even if you’re not.
5) Practice. Really. I’m not kidding, practice. I have a very good friend who is an excellent actor, but can’t read in public worth a damn. He has a slight case of dyslexia, and even with text he’s very familiar with, this sometimes bites him in the ass. He has that excuse, and doesn’t read in public often, if ever. You don’t get that excuse, because you are choosing to read in public. So if you have a reading problem, memorize your text. If you stutter, get speech therapy. If James Earl Jones can get rid of his stutter and become who he became, so can you. And be familiar enough with your material to look up, meet someone’s eye in the crowd, and go back to the text without losing your place.
I don’t expect writers to turn into professional actors overnight, but these tips should help you present yourself better when you’re reading in public, and that should help you book more readings and sell more books.