How to Give a Good Reading

Signing books after a reading at the Lithgow Library in Augusta.Prior to this spring I had given just three public readings in my life. I had, however, attended more readings than any human being should endure. In my old job as executive director of Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance it was my responsibility to organize literary events, and I probably sat through hundreds of lectures, poetry slams, short story readings, dramatic monologues, and screenplay read-throughs. Also, my wife is a poet who does a number of readings throughout the year, and I wouldn't be much of a husband if I didn't warm a chair at those events. 

So when the time came for me to embark on my book tour for The Poacher's Son I had already formulated a few theories about what makes for a successful reading. Here are five of them:

  1. Readings Are Sales Pitches. I don't mean this in a cynical way. If your only goal is to hawk copies of your book, you are doing a disservice to your audience who has shown up to be entertained and/or edified (and I doubt you'll be successful). If, however, you are promoting a novel, you should understand that your audience will usually include people who haven't read your work yet and are attending the event to decide whether they want to do so. These individuals are often persuadable—if they like your reading enough, or even just like you enough, they will often purchase a copy of your book. 
  2. Always Leave Them Wanting More. Too many writers read for too long. In this age of shrinking attention spans, fifteen to twenty minutes usually suffices.
  3. Readings Are Performances. You might not be Alec Baldwin (I'm certainly not), but novelists need to recognize that they are storytellers first and foremost. That means you need to enact your prose. I'm not talking about jumping all over the stage, but I do believe you should inflect your dialogue to represent the speech patterns of your characters and give appropriate emphasis to your sentences. Merely reciting words on the page is no fun for the audience. Don't be shy!
  4. Leave Time for Questions. If someone has read your book and decided to show up to one of your appearances, you can safely assume that he or she wants to make a personal connection with you. Many people prefer to converse privately while you're signing their book, but others like the give and take of a public discussion. A Q&A segment also affords you a chance to show off those charming aspects of your personality that might not have come through in your reading proper.
  5. Perfect Your Routine. If you go to a comedy club two nights in a row, you'll hear a comedian tell the same jokes. Sometimes he or she might mix it up, but usually it's because a joke is falling flat and the comic wants to work out the kinks. It's unlikely that your audience will include repeat members, so during the question-and-answer sessions you should feel free to repeat particularly good lines, especially if they make people laugh.

This post by Thomas A. Williams offers lots of excellent tips for authors speaking to groups. It's targeted at poets but applies equally to writers of fiction.

What advice would you give authors on tour?