Public Readings from A to Z – Part 1 – How Much Should You Read?

I’ve been asked more than once for advice about doing a public reading of your own work. This is something authors will frequently be encouraged to do as a promotional activity, and yet most of us get thrown into the deep end without a lot of guidance; small wonder that it can be a source of anxiety. If we wanted to be actors, we wouldn’t have chosen a profession that mostly involves sitting alone at the computer talking to the imaginary people in our heads!

Actually, I love doing readings. And judging by the responses I’ve gotten, I’m fairly good at it: not a professional performer by any means, but good enough that I feel comfortable giving some advice. So I thought, “self, you should write a blog post about this!”

. . . ten posts that are (mostly) also videos later, it turns out I have a lot to say.

Welcome to my miniseries on public readings! Or maybe a not-so-mini-series — how many installments can you have before it isn’t mini any longer? But don’t worry. It isn’t nearly as intimidating and complicated as it sounds. I’m just verbose, digging into the rationale behind various decisions instead of simply dropping sound bites of advice on you. You can find the video accompaniment to this post on Youtube.


Let’s start with figuring out how much you’re going to read!


Step One: Find out how much time you’ll have for the reading.

It boggles me how many writers don’t seem to take this into account. I’ve been to group readings where one person hogs far more than their share of the time slot, or individual events where the author glances at the clock mid-reading and seems to be surprised by what they find.

Don’t be that author. Plan ahead. And remember that the time you get is not the time you get.

If you have a half-hour solo reading slot at a convention, do you have half an hour to read? Nope. Because it’s going to take a little while for people to clear out from the previous reading, and you want to make sure you’re not the jerk whose audience delays the next author in line. You also probably want to leave at least a little time for Q&A. So if you’ve got a half-hour slot, that means you want roughly a twenty-minute selection at most. If it’s an hour-long slot shared with two other authors, that’s twenty minutes apiece, which means your own offering should be fifteen minutes at most.

If you have an hour all to yourself, does that mean you should choose something forty-five minutes long? You can . . . but unless you’re really confident in your ability as a performer, I’d say not to risk it. Forty-five minutes is a long time to hold the audience’s attention with a single piece. Most of the time you’re going to be better off choosing two or three shorter bits, so that they get a few changes of pace along the way.

And if you’re not sure how much time you have? Ask. The con runners or bookstore manager will be happy to tell you what they expect, so you can plan accordingly.


Step Two: Pick something the right length for the time available.

Okay, let’s say you have twenty minutes for actual reading time. How much story does that mean?

The answer will vary somewhat from author to author, so the real answer here is that you need to figure out what it means for you. But my rule of thumb for my own events is that it takes me about five minutes to read a thousand words.

That isn’t really accurate, mind you. I’ve been told I read with very good clarity, which partially makes up for my tendency to go faster than I really should — but even then, if I get through a thousand word in five minutes, I’m probably reading too fast. But it has the virtue of being a number I can easily remember, so I use it as my upper bound, and then work downward from there. If I have twenty minutes, then I want something less than four thousand words long. Fifteen minutes means I’m counting down from three thousand words. Etc.

How do you figure out your own speed? By picking something whose length you know and reading it out loud. Time yourself. Do this several times, with several different texts, until you know what your own ballpark number should be. Of course this will also depend on how you’re reading, so it will go hand in hand with the stuff I’m going to talk about in later installments, but for now, just bear this in mind.


Next time, we’ll talk about how to choose your material!