Choosing material for a reading

It's not something that gets taught anywhere, as far as I can gather, and yet for most writers a reading is both a terrifying and an important experience. Out there in the audience are friends and family, but also people who may well have influence - editors, publishers, agents, arts body staffers and so on, let alone booksellers if you're holding your reading in a bookshop. To do well in front of such a gathering is important, but nobody seems to tell you how to go about it.

My own experience is varied. When you're reading a complete work; a flash or short story, you can relax into the process and at least know the narrative should be coherent to the listener - all you need to do is focus on your delivery and body language. But when you're reading an excerpt from a longer work you have to achieve much more. Here's what I've learned:

  1. It's best to leave the audience wanting more - cut every word possible from your excerpt to make it sing - the audience will NOT complain that you didn't read exactly what was in the book!
  2. Setting the context is as important as reading the section - do not assume you can improvise this bit; write down your introduction to the story and what the listener needs to know and either read it or learn it by heart.
  3. Read it aloud until you are sick of it - it always takes longer to read a piece than you think. The more you relax into it, the longer it takes because you're confident about using pauses and gestures to bolster your text. Read, cut, read, cut. Your audience will thank you.
  4. You don't have to be an actor but you do have to prepare. It's an insult to the audience if you can't find your place in the book or turn up with a dozen messy pages. It's offensive if you say you didn't bother to prepare for the reading you thought you'd 'just turn up and see how it goes' - how would you feel if a waiter said he hadn't bothered to check the menu, you could just order and random and he'd go and 'see if the chef felt like cooking'? If you really want to improvise, take a hint from stand-up comics and rehearse your ad-libs! Spontaneity is very hard to pull off and takes as much rehearsal as preparing a piece to read, so you might as well prepare one anyway.
  5. It's painful if the reader loses their way, but most listeners will be rooting for you to do well if that happens - don't panic and remember we are all human, most of us listening are also writers and we have all shared your experience - take a deep breath and start again.
  6. As for practical hints - don't try to read from the book unless your eyesight is brilliant and you are very confident; the layout of the printed page is inimical to good performance - that's why actors work from scripts not galleys. Use a BIG CLEAR font. If you need to, give yourself instructions in the text (breathe) is a good one, as is (slow down) - and put them in red ink or highlight them. I love readings when I'm doing them, but my hands shake like stink - to get round this I print my excerpt and paste it into a big heavy book. The advantages are threefold: 1, the book weighs down my hands so their shaking doesn't show; 2, I'm familiar with the book and the layout I use, so my confidence is boosted by remembering how many other nice readings I've taken part in with this book in my hands and 3, if I ever get asked for an encore (it's happened twice now), all my other readings are pasted into the book so I can choose one and launch right in.