A GUIDE TO GIVING GOOD READINGS
I hate readings, I really do.
Well, maybe I should say “I hate the traditional idea of readings.” The concept of a writer standing before a silent audience reading from a book or manuscript fills me with dread only equitable to high school math – “how the hell am I going to stay awake for this?”
When writers have public appearances they frequently choose to read from something they already have had published or will be published. The idea is that it is what the audience wants to hear – like a band playing their hit singles. But while music is designed to be heard and nothing is lost from the transition from recorded to live, books are meant to be read. Most writers do not design their work to be read out loud but to be read in private where the reader can allow themselves to be sucked into the literary world.
One time I saw Brian Lumley (world famous horror author) read. I was excited because I had heard much about the man and his writing but had never been exposed to any of his work. I thought seeing him read should be a nice introduction. He’s been a professional writer for decades – surely he knows how to keep the audience entertained.
I sat front-row center and Lumley introduced the short story of the evening. Then he started to read in a dry, old-man monotonous voice. Within five minutes, I was passed out in my chair. Forty-five minutes later (forty-five fucking minutes of that!?! I don’t know who Lumley thought would be interested in hearing forty-five minutes of boring monologue), I woke up to Lumley finishing. I sheepishly fled the auditorium.
Moral of the story – many pros don’t even know how to put on a good show.
What should my goal be for a reading?
Before we go too much further, let’s address what the goal of a reading should be. I’ll be upfront with you – I’ve never sold enough books at a reading that made doing it a financial benefit. Normally my profit (and much more) is drunk away during celebrations later that night. But just thinking in financial terms is so small.
I think of live events not as money-makers but as fan-makers. Every time I have performed (except for the time cops shut me down, but that’s another story), I came away with at least one person who was blown away by my performance. Those people, even if they don’t buy a book from you, are your real pay. They will talk about you to their friends, they will post about you on the internet, and – when they see your books in the future – they will buy them. They are your real fans and they are the difference between being just another small press writer and being an author with a cult following.
What makes for a good reading?
Your performance should be an extension of your writing. The main idea you should be trying to relate to your audience is what does it “feel” like to read your work.
For my book Super Giant Monster Time! I host a live “game show” where I dress members of the audience up as giant monsters and have them smash cardboard buildings. Mykle Hansen has a bear safety slide-show for Help! A Bear is Eating Me! Kevin Shamel does a puppet show themed around Rotten Little Animals that plays with the cuteness and violence of the book in a live setting. You don’t even need to specifically reference your book. Carlton Mellick does the Brutally Evil Satan Show that is nothing but non-stop retarded evil and Cameron Pierce has done performances where audience members battle with raw meat.
What all these performances have in common is that they relate to the audience, in a live environment, what reading the books are like. The performances are funny, shocking, and in-your-face – just like bizarro books.
In the early eighties there was a UK punk band named Crass. They had a philosophy towards their live shows that every performance should be a unique event – it should be something that every audience member would remember for the rest of their lives. To achieve this they wore “uniforms” on stage, had elaborate video/light shows, and never played in clubs or bars but instead played in squats and public parks.
You don’t have to be that strict (I don’t recommend performing in public parks) but Crass’ basic idea is one you should take to heart – approach every reading as an opportunity to make an impact on the audience. Blow their minds. Make your performance what they’re telling all their friends about for weeks to come.
Make an impact.
OK, that’s all well and good, but do you have any specific advice?
Keep it short – Ever hear the concept “always leave them wanting more?” Take it to heart. It is much better to keep your performances as short as possible while still packing a punch. Ten to fifteen minutes is a good amount of time to introduce yourself, put on a show, and leave with the audience feeling both satisfied and wishing it lasted longer. Once you get to the half-hour mark, unless you have a really mind-blowing performance, you’re going to start to lose the audience.
Design your performance with the audience in mind – Not all audiences are equal. The crowd that shows up to a night of performances at a dingy bar is going to have different expectations than the crowd that shows up for an art gallery opening. Some artists believe the audience should adapt to the art but that philosophy is for people who don’t know how to be interesting. You should know how to be interesting (and if you aren’t interesting – fake it). Use that to the best of your advantage.
Ideally you should come up with several performances that you can pull from depending on the environment you may be performing in. Bars and house parties should have fun shows that aren’t serious and don’t require too much concentration from the audience. Art galleries can support shows that are more avant-garde and challenging. At bookstores, the audience is going to want to hear more about your book than a silly performance.
Make it multi-media and/or use props – Engage as much of the audience’s senses as possible. Remember you have a captive crowd. You can use sound, slide shows, cardboard props, puppets, costumes, “plants” in the audience, video you made beforehand – the possibilities are endless. The more of a show you make the more it will stick in your audience’s mind.
Get out there in front of people – We all know that authors appear at bookstores and libraries but you can also perform at house parties, bars, comedy clubs, art galleries, concerts, street fairs, coffee houses, conventions, etc . . . Perform in front of crowds that have no idea who you are. A good live show can win over an amazing diverse set of people. You want to be a cult author? Well, you’re going to need readers out there and form your cult!
Have a drink before – Or two or three. Seriously. You’re a writer, so chances are you have some kind of social anxiety (don’t worry, we all do). A few drinks before a performance can loosen you up and get you a bit relaxed before being in front of the public. Hell, Carlton Mellick and myself make drinking part of our actual shows.
Don’t get fucked up before – Know your limits. It’s good to be a little loosened up but it’s bad to be drunk. There are few things more embarrassing than having to watch a performer that is too fucked-up to be in front of crowd. Don’t put your audience through that. Save it for your after party.
Be Prepared – Have something prepared in advance and get feedback on it if possible. Having a small audience of friends or family respond to your performance ahead of time can yield helpful criticism. Don’t overcomplicate things. Make sure you have control of all of your props and sound, it’s always better not to rely on other people for stuff unless you are dealing with other professionals. Be aware that things might not go over exactly as you planned and just have fun with it.