Welcome to part three 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 Two:What Material 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
- Coda: The Confidence Game
Let’s talk about the art of excerpting, i.e. picking out just part of a longer text to read. (If you’ve chosen a short story and have enough time to read the whole thing, you get to skip this step.)
Put your frame around a selection that stands well on its own.
I think of this in terms of “frame” because of photography, I think, where your frame is the edges of your picture. When you’re pointing your camera at something, you have to decide what to include and what to exclude for best effect, and where you want the “point of interest” for the image to fall. In choosing a reading selection, the same thing is true.
And as with a photograph, I think it helps to consider what your “subject” is. Don’t just read an arbitrary section from the text; find something vivid, a cool set-piece scene or really representative section that will say “this is the kind of book it is, and if you like this, you’ll like the book.” (Or the short story: though I don’t personally do this very often, sometimes you’ll want to read a selection from a shorter work that is still too long for the time available. This especially happens if you have only five or ten minutes to read.)
In picking your subject, you want to make sure it stands alone reasonably well. If it comes three-quarters of the way through the novel and you have to spend five minutes explaining who the characters are and what they’re doing, you should probably look for a better selection, because that’s five minutes you aren’t spending on the actual reading. You also don’t want to give too many spoilers for the earlier part of the novel, or previous books in the series — which is why reading from the fifth book of the Memoirs of Lady Trent turned out to be impossible; all the good, vivid sections had at least one and usually more major spoilers in them.
Once you’ve found some candidate subjects, then it’s time to think about time again. If you have 3000 or 3500 words to play with, is that enough to get the whole scene in, or a sequence of shorter scenes? Where would it be best to start and end?
I tend to approach this from the end first. Cliffhangers are great for performance readings; your audience will groan in frustration, but that’s pretty much the goal. Ending with a revelation, a twist, a question, something just at the moment of kicking off — anything vivid, anything that will leave your listeners wanting to know what happens next. (One of my favorite novel readings, from Voyage of the Basilisk, ended with the line “and I began to drown.”) Count backward from there, and then hunt around in the vicinity for a good starting point, something that will let your selection feel like it has good, clean boundaries. Don’t run over your alloted word count, but feel free to run under, so long as it isn’t by too huge of a margin — remember, you need time for Q&A, changing out the room, whatever. If one candidate selection just doesn’t have good boundaries, or its natural boundaries are well past what you can fit in, then discard it and try something else.
But you can also work from the beginning. This approach prioritizes hooking your audience right out of the gate, presenting them with a memorable introduction that will grab their attention, and worrying less about where the selection ends. Find a good starting point, count forward from there, and cut off your excerpt at some suitable place that’s at least vaguely coherent as an ending.
Ideally, of course, your excerpt should be strong at both ends! That isn’t always an option, though, and the question of whether you should put more weight on the beginning or the ending is, I think, a matter of personal taste.
Don’t be afraid to edit.
You don’t actually have to read what’s on the page.
Sometimes it helps to make a “performance text”: not exactly what has been or will be published, but better-suited to being read out loud. One obvious example is if you want to read two short scenes from a novel . . . but in between them is another scene that maybe cuts to another character or involves your protagonist doing something else before they get to the fallout from your first scene. Skip that intervening bit and focus on the part that makes a good excerpt — it’s totally fine.
This works even if what you’re cutting isn’t a separate, demarcated scene. You can elide digressions to make a shorter, more condensed version of the actual text. Maybe there’s a spoiler; reword it or cut the line entirely, maybe with a little bit of polishing at the seam to make it less obvious that you removed something. Or, if necessary, add something in: if there’s a key piece of contextualizing information the reader would be expected to have from earlier in the story, like the fact that one of the characters in the scene is your protagonist’s sister, you might look for a graceful place to insert that detail.
Don’t go hog wild with this, of course. If you have to massively rewrite the selection in order to make it work, then it’s probably not a very good selection for reading out loud. But it’s fine to tweak things here and there to make for a stronger performance.
(Oh, and it’s totally normal to find yourself thinking “this sentence would read so much better if I changed it a little.” I wound up doing a fair bit of prose-level revision on the selections I read during my book tours from the Memoirs, because reading out loud is a great way to polish the text. If the piece is already in print, though, you’re out of luck.)
And that’s it for the “choosing your text” portion of this discussion. You have your reading; now it’s time to work on your performance. Next time, we’ll start talking about how to do that!