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Posts Tagged ‘public readings from a to z’

Public Readings from A to Z – Part 9 – Digital Performance

Welcome to part nine of my continuing series on how to do public readings of your work! You can find the video accompaniment to this post on Youtube.


When I first started working on this series, I envisioned it as advice for people doing readings at conventions or bookstores, or otherwise at a live event. But with the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve seen an abrupt surge in online events — and those, along with podcasting or recording for an audiobook, are slightly different.

Mind you, most of it is the same. Everything I said about practice and pacing and intonation still applies, the tricks for differentiating voices, and so forth. If you’re reading at an online event, you may still have a time limit, though you may not have to worry about “clearing the room” for the next reader. If you’re recording for a podcast or an audiobook, the odds are much higher that you’ll be reading the complete text, so you don’t have to worry about excerpting or providing some orienting details before you begin.

Best practices for recording are a whole massive topic on their own, and you can find much better advice than mine elsewhere online, but I can offer this much as a brief introduction: invest in a good microphone, and make sure the place you record is as quiet as it can possibly be. Even small sounds that don’t normally register on you, like the hum of a fan or the creak when you shift in your chair, stand a very good chance of being picked up by the audio. (You’d be surprised by the number of podcasters that actually record in their closets.) Also, if you make a mistake in your reading, you should handle it differently than in live performance. Clap your hands or make some other loud noise that will register as a sharp spike in the sound levels, pause, and then start again from the beginning of the sentence you screwed up. That spike will make the errors easy to find when the audio gets edited, and restarting at the beginning of the sentence will make it easier to snip out the offending text without a noticeable seam. Finally, if you’re recording a long text (especially a novel), recognize that vocal fatigue is a very real thing. It’s better to work in short bursts and take breaks in between, rather than trying to marathon the whole thing.

Best practices for online events are something we’ve had to invent rather suddenly, but a few basics are emerging. In addition to your personal appearance, you also have to consider the environment your audience will see. I feel that digital backgrounds are of questionable value; if you really don’t want people to see your surroundings, then by all means use one, but they produce weird clipping and can even eat parts of your image if you move away from the camera. (Plus the image itself can be distracting, depending on what you choose.) Authors are fond of staging themselves in front of their bookcases, but a relatively neutral backdrop is just as good — maybe even better, because your audience won’t be trying to read the titles while you’re talking! Definitely don’t sacrifice good lighting for the sake of an interesting locale. You don’t want to be backlit by a lamp or a window, because that will cast your face into shadow, and if the overall light is too dim, the image quality will usually be bad. If you want to get fancy, you can invest in a ring light to cast more even illumination on your face.

For the equipment itself, please, please do not use a tablet or phone if you can possibly avoid it, unless you have some kind of tripod or stand to brace it on. If you hold it in your hands, your every movement will shift the image . . . which is distracting at best, seasickness-inducing at worst. You’re better off using a laptop cam or peripheral webcam — the latter especially if your laptop is like mine and for some reason put the camera right above the keyboard and off to one side. Since I don’t want everybody looking up my nose while I talk, I’m using a webcam. And I’ve chosen to use a headset because it delivers better sound quality, with less background noise bleeding through, than the built-in microphone on my computer.

Online, basically everything about your interactions with your audience changes — and I’ll admit I find the experience vastly less satisfying. When possible, I’ve taken to requesting that anybody who’s comfortable with being on video activate their camera, so that I’m not reading to a grid of faceless names. But even then, that whole notion of “eye contact” gets mashed down to me looking at the camera, and I often see fewer reactions to the good bits of the story. Nor can I hear them: while you can (and if possible, should) arrange a quiet environment on your end, you’ve got no such control over your listeners’ surroundings. Because of this, it’s generally a good idea to mute everyone, so that you don’t have to contend with unexpected barking dogs or sirens passing outside. So an online reading basically has all the stress of an in-person performance, with all the isolation of recording for a podcast — the worst of both worlds, as far as I’m concerned. It’s possible that people who consider normal performance intimidating find this version easier, because they can pretend the audience isn’t there; in a way, I hope so. For me, though, a few messages popping up in a chat window when I’m done are no substitute for actual applause.

I do also want to note one wrinkle that has less to do with the performance itself and more to do with outside considerations: if your reading is recorded rather than only being live-streamed, that may constitute use of your audio or dramatic rights. Novel excerpts may be safer in that regard (because they’re only part of the whole), but I recommend not reading a short story that hasn’t already been podcasted, unless you’re comfortable with only selling those rights as a reprint later on.


Whether you’re reading over Zoom, recording for later use, or delivering your story to an in-person audience, I hope this advice was useful to you! And may you enjoy many future readings.

Public Readings from A to Z – Part 8 – Live Performance

Welcome to part eight of my continuing series on how to do public readings of your work! You can find the video accompaniment to this post on Youtube.


Your performance is more than just the words that come out of your mouth. It’s everything about how you present yourself to the audience, and thinking about that ahead of time can make the performance as a whole come off better.


Public Readings from A to Z – Part 7 – Character Voices

Welcome to part seven of my continuing series on how to do public readings of your work! You can find the video accompaniment to this post on Youtube.


We’re on the seventh installment of this series, and I’m only just now getting to character voices.

There’s a reason for that. Many people leap to the conclusion that since they can’t do a bunch of different accents and pitches, they’ll never be good at reading. But the truth is that character voices are really just the icing on the cake. All the stuff I’ve discussed in previous installments — picking your text, practicing it, attending to questions of pacing and intonation — are the cake itself. And you can have really tasty cake even if there’s no icing on it at all.

But if I want to give advice for readings, I should address this. So let’s dig into it.


Public Readings from A to Z – Part 6 – Intonation

Welcome to part six of my continuing series on how to do public readings of your work! You can find the video accompaniment to this post on Youtube.


Intonation is probably the hardest part of reading out loud to get good at, if it doesn’t come naturally to you.

By “intonation,” I basically mean “the opposite of a monotone.” If you’ve been to author readings, you’ve probably seen one or more instances of the latter: a writer who just drones out their text all on one note, maybe with the occasional lift or fall randomly thrown in, as if they know they’re supposed to liven it up but have no real idea how to do so.

Or — as with pacing — they err in the other direction, and WIND up SOUNDing like they’re READing to a CHILD, overly and unnaturally expressive.

The good news is, pacing and intonation go hand in hand, so working on one will (I suspect) help improve the other. Remember how I said those micro-pauses help group your words into coherent units of meaning? The same is true of your intonation, as an arc of rising and falling pitch signals “these words go together.”


Public Readings from A to Z – Part 5 – Pacing

Welcome to part five of my continuing series on how to do public readings of your work! You can find the video accompaniment to this post on Youtube.


Now let’s talk about pacing.

If there’s one piece of advice that gets handed around for how to do a reading, it’s usually “don’t read too fast.”

This is good advice. If you read too quickly, you don’t allow time for the audience to react; in an extreme case, they won’t even be able to follow what you’re saying. And since nerves often make people rush, this is a particular hazard to watch out for.

But “don’t read too fast” is kind of vague and insufficient. How fast is too fast? How can you tell? Should you read at the same speed all the way through?


Public Readings from A to Z – Part 4 – Practice

Welcome to part four of my continuing series on how to do public readings of your work! You can find the video accompaniment to this post on Youtube.


Now we’re ready to talk performance. And the first step of performance is . . .



Don’t just print out your reading or load it up on your electronic device of choice and go. Not if you have the opportunity to rehearse it first.

I really can’t stress this enough. Practicing beforehand by reading your piece out loud is the #1 thing I recommend to people who want to improve their readings. Also the #2 and #3 things. Because it brings so many benefits, nothing else even comes close.


Public Readings from A to Z – Part 3 – Preparing an Excerpt

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.


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.)



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.


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.



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!”

. . . nine posts that are 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!