A few months ago, Michigan State University contacted me with an invitation to speak at their Michigan Science Fiction Writers series. "I found your home page, and we'd love to have you do a reading," the woman told me. Then, before my ego could swell too badly, she added, "We've been running out of local science fiction and fantasy authors."
It wasn't the most flattering of invitations, but I said yes nonetheless. Who am I to turn down free publicity and the chance to see how a live audience would react to my work
On the night of the event, I was bubbling with excitement and anxiety as I made my way up to the 4th floor of the MSU Library. Once I tracked down the correct room, I introduced myself to the organizers and the audience, poured half a bottle of water down my suddenly-dry throat, and gave my very first reading.
It was a delightful experience: fun, encouraging, and motivating. It was also educational. I made a few mistakes, and I learned a number of things that will help make my next reading an even bigger success.
1. Do your own publicity. The more you can publicize your own event, the better the chances of people actually showing up. MSU did a nice job of putting out flyers and announcements, but if your organizer doesn't do that, design your own flyers. Send announcements to the newspapers - most papers will have a contact number for local events. E-mail your friends and family. Mention your reading to coworkers. Create and promote a web page where people can learn more about you and your writing. There are no guarantees. You might do everything right and still have an audience of two. My reading was scheduled for Good Friday. I had no control over the date, but I imagine even more people might have attended if it hadn't been on a holiday. Still, my efforts seemed to pay off. The largest audience to attend a reading at the Michigan Science Fiction Writers series was fifteen people. By taking the time to do my own publicity, I doubled that number.
2. Talk to the organizers about copyright details. I was so excited about the reading that when an "Author's Agreement" arrived in the mail, I made a serious mistake: I signed and mailed it back without stopping to read the whole thing. Only later did I re-read the details, at which point I realized that the university planned to record the reading and make it available on the Internet. I called and explained that two of the stories I wanted to read were currently unpublished. For many markets, once a story has been posted on the Internet, even in audio format, it is considered published. I had effectively signed over first rights to my stories. Fortunately, the organizers were very understanding. We worked out an arrangement where I would read my two unpublished stories, and then an excerpt from a novel. They would publish the novel excerpt, which would provide some nice publicity, and I would keep the rights for the two stories. The lesson? Always read before you sign anything. Better yet, any time you get a contract, set it aside for at least a day. Twenty-four hours isn't going to kill the deal, but it may save you from serious trouble down the line.
3. Read everything aloud at least once before the day arrives. I was told I would have forty-five minutes to read, followed by a fifteen minute question and answer session. In the months beforehand, I sorted through my stories, published and unpublished, trying to choose what to read. I ended up choosing four stories and a novel excerpt. The afternoon of the reading, I sat down to review my selections. As I read through the first story, I realized that, to finish all four stories and the excerpt (roughly 15,000 words), I would need to hold my audience hostage for nearly two hours. It takes about seven or eight minutes to read 1000 words out loud. For a 45-minute reading, you'll probably be able to read about 6000-7000 words of fiction. I cut two of my stories and still went fifteen minutes over my time. Fortunately, nobody seemed to mind too much. Reading your work will also refresh your memory about the piece. There was one story I was unable to read beforehand, and I stumbled when I came across a scene I had forgotten. I recovered quickly, but it was an embarrassing moment in an otherwise smooth evening.
4. Show up early. This is always good advice. It gives you a chance to examine the room where you'll be reading, check the sound equipment (if any), grab a glass of water, talk to the organizers, and greet the audience as they arrive. If nobody has posted flyers about the reading, take a few minutes to post your own. If you're like me, you'll probably be nervous, especially if this is your first readings. Anxiety is normal, and arriving 15 to 30 minutes early should give you a chance to try to relax. You'll still be nervous, but less so than if you're racing through the parking lot, frantically sorting through your notes so you can find out which room to go to because your reading starts in two minutesá.
5. Look at the audience. There are two types of public speakers: those that talk to the audience, and those that talk to themselves. Try to make eye contact with members of the audience from time to time. Glance up at scene breaks or between stories. If you have friends or family in the audience, it might be easier to look at them. Paying attention to your audience encourages them to pay attention to you. This is also a way to check the audience's reactions. Are they smiling at the right parts? Are they looking at you? If you've got their attention and they seem to be reacting appropriately, you're doing great. If not, ask yourself why not.
6. Try to add zest to your reading. Anyone can pick up a story and read the words on the page. That's not why most people go to a reading. They go to hear the author's interpretation of his/her own work. Do your characters have different voices? You don't have to do full-blown imitations, but even a change in intonation or pacing can convey a great deal about a character. I found myself adding gestures as well. If the text read, "I pointed toward the woods," I would point at the window. When a character swore at the villain, I shook my fist and scowled. This is another reason to read your material beforehand; it gives you the chance to try different gestures and voices, and to decide what works best for you. Don't overdo it. You're a writer, not an actor (unless you happen to be both). Overacting can be as severe a crime as underacting. Practice beforehand, and go with what feels comfortable.
7. Leave time for questions. Even if it isn't built into the schedule, try to leave at least a few minutes for the audience to ask questions. Answer honestly, and to the best of your ability. Don't pretend to be "bigger" than you really are, and remember that it's okay to say, "I don't know." Many of these people will have probably listened to big-name bestsellers, so they'll know if you try to fake it. More importantly, there's no reason to pretend. These people came to hear you. They're not expecting Stephen King. Be yourself!
8. Thank the audience. Remember how your parents used to tell you it was important to be polite? They were right, especially when it comes to giving a reading. Those people in the audience are your readers. They've chosen to take time out of their day so they can listen to you read your work. They're the ones who may someday go to the store and spend their money on a magazine with your story in it, or a book with your name on the cover. Or, if they've been treated poorly, they could be the ones who go home and tell their friends, "I wouldn't read anything by that author. What a jerk!" I thanked the audience as a group when I finished. I also stood near the exit so I could talk to people individually as they left the room. Many people gave me some nice feedback as they left, telling me how much they had enjoyed a story. I got the opportunity to connect with my audience, and they got the chance to chat with a "real" writer.
9. Thank the organizers. It's equally important to thank the people who invited you to do a reading in the first place. They've put a lot of time and energy into making this happen, and that's worth some gratitude. I even invited the organizers to come along to a Post-Reading Party my friends had put together. One declined, but the other joined us for several hours. Not only did it give us a chance to relax and to talk about the reading - what had worked, and what hadn't - but I learned about another Michigan Writers series put on by Michigan State University. When I said how wonderful the experience had been, she said she would pass my name along to the man in charge of that other series. If I'm lucky, this will lead to another reading next spring.
10. Celebrate! Congratulations, you've survived your first reading! Maybe it was a success and maybe it wasn't. Nothing guarantees a successful reading, and nobody can control every potential problem. Flyers might list the wrong room number, other events might draw your audience away, sound equipment might fail... but a reading doesn't have to be perfect to be successful. No matter how things went, you deserve to celebrate. Go out to dinner. Buy yourself an ice cream sundae. Better yet, make your friends buy you an ice cream sundae. Invite the organizers. Invite the audience, if you're comfortable with that. Above all, enjoy yourself! Then when it's all over and you wake up the next morning, tell yourself to get back to work. After all, you're a writer. You'll want some new material for your next reading.