Public Readings from A to Z – Part 2 – What Material Should You Read?
Welcome to part two of my continuing series on how to do public readings of your work! You can find the video accompaniment to this post on Youtube.
- Part One: How Much Should You Read?
- Part Three: Preparing an Excerpt
- Part Four: Practice
- Part Five: Pacing
- Part Six: Intonation
- Part Seven: Character Voices
- Part Eight: Live Performance
- Part Nine: Digital Performance
The next question to ask is what you should read.
Choosing your material can be the trickiest part of the process. Sometimes you may not have much of a choice: if you’re participating in a group reading for an anthology, then you’re almost certainly going to be reading your contribution (or a selection therefrom). If there’s a theme going on, like the whole convention is about women in science, you may want to pick from among the pieces you have that are relevant to that theme, assuming you have any. But if it’s an open field, there are several factors to consider.
Short story or novel excerpt?
There are two schools of thought on this. One says that you should generally read from novels because you want to boost their readership and sales. The other says short stories are preferable, if you have one of suitable length, because then you can give your audience a complete experience instead of a partial one.
This is a question with no “correct” answer. (Unless you only write novels or only short stories, in which case it’s a moot point anyway.) Both can work; which one you choose may depend on other factors, like whether your audience has a lot of overlap with another event you did recently, or whether your novel has an excerpt that makes for good event reading. If I’m at a con right after a book has come out, I tilt in the direction of choosing that; if it’s months later, I lean toward a short story, because I like being able to deliver the whole thing, and I get tired of always reading the same bit of a novel.
Published, forthcoming, or in draft?
When I’m on tour for a novel in a series, I tend not to read from that novel. Why? Because it’s already on the shelves. Depending on timing, some of my audience may have already read it — and while they may not mind hearing it out loud, I like rewarding them for coming to my reading by giving them a sneak peek at something not yet available to the world at large. That means my tour readings are almost always excerpts from the next book. Assuming the excerpt stands on its own reasonably well, that’s going to be every bit as effective at luring new readers to pick up the series, so I’m still on-target with promotion, but avoiding redundancy. (There are exceptions. When I toured for for In the Labyrinth of Drakes, the penultimate volume of the Memoirs of Lady Trent, the fifth and final book had no good selections that weren’t also full of spoilers for book four. In that instance, I chose instead to read a short story related to the series — a good solution, if you happen to have such a story lying around.)
But tours are a special case. If I’m reading a short story, it’s almost always one that’s already been published, because short fiction is a fragmented enough market that the odds of my audience having already read that piece are low. I will sometimes read a story that hasn’t yet been printed, if I particularly love it; I almost never read an unsold draft. Some authors really enjoy reading from works in progress, but anecdotally, I feel like the people who do that tend to be well-established in their careers. They know their audience will love a glimpse of their process, and won’t mind the occasional rough edges. Me, I prefer to share a polished text, rather than an incomplete first draft . . . though admittedly that’s been changing a little, as I myself get more established.
Drama or humor?
All other things being equal, I say choose humor.
That doesn’t have to mean a story that is entirely comedic. The occasional snarky line will do nicely, in terms of how the audience engages. For the most part people react to drama silently, but they laugh at humor, which makes the response more active and communal, i.e. contagious. Plus you’re often going to be working against ambient noise — people wandering through the bookstore, clinking dishes in the adjoining café, or conversations in the hallway outside your convention room — which makes it difficult to build and maintain a properly tense atmosphere. It’s much easier to pull off something less emotionally fraught.
This also has to do with buildup, especially when you’re looking at a novel excerpt. Really good drama generally relies on the weight and momentum of the preceding narrative to deliver its punch; how often have you found the beginning of a story to be heart-wrenching? You may adore the scene where your characters declare their love for the first time, but in the absence of all the pre-declaration tension, it won’t come across the same to your audience.
Some authors like to choose an action scene for their readings. If that’s the type of thing you write and therefore what your audience expects, then go for it . . . but I’ll say that, despite my well-documented love for a good action scene, I think they often come off worse in performance than on the page. As with drama, if you lack the buildup to give it context, the action scene is often mere spectacle instead of gripping narrative — especially if it’s a fight, because you need the character conflict to give the punches meaning. And for those members of your audience whose imaginations don’t tend toward the visual, it’s frequently difficult to build a coherent picture out of your words when they can’t control the pace of delivery. For action to work aurally, my experience is that you need to pay close attention to your pacing and intonation — two things we’ll talk about in later installments — so that you’re cuing your audience as to which details are important, giving them time to digest each beat of the scene, etc. Action lures writers into reading quickly, because they want it to seem exciting, but the result is that the words smear together into an undifferentiated mess.
Beginning or middle?
As the previous section suggests, if you’re choosing an excerpt from a longer work, you don’t have to start at the beginning of the story. You can — and there are certainly many virtues to doing so. After all, in theory the beginning contains a compelling hook, something to lure the reader into wanting more. And if you’re reading a standalone work or the first in a series, then the opening requires no prefatory explanations at all, because the reader is assumed to know nothing about the characters or the situation. Even a sequel may include a lot of the necessary information within the first chapter, smoothing the way for your audience.
But that doesn’t mean the beginning is always a great choice for a performance reading. Maybe you’re reading from a sequel and the opening scene contains a howling spoiler for the earlier books. Or maybe that scene is just way too long for your time slot, and you’ll have to cut off at an arbitrary point to no good effect. Or maybe it’s a great, hooky scene . . . on the page. Out loud, not so much.
My thought is, there are certain qualities you should look for in your selection. If you find those at the beginning of the story, great! If you have to look elsewhere in the text for them, also great! The point is to end up with something well-suited to performance.
And for that, tune in for the next installment, where we’ll discuss the art of selecting and preparing a good excerpt!