I’ve attended quite a few readings in the last three weeks. I’m not going to name specific events, but here are a few thoughts:
1. Set a timetable, let your audience know what it is, and keep to it. An audience gets unsettled if it doesn’t know when the readings are going to start, or how long the break will be.
2. For the majority of readers, ten minutes is enough. Unless they have a story that needs to be told in full, and can tell it well, and you have comfortable seating for all your listeners, don’t go beyond ten minutes. Keeping people standing still and silent for twenty minutes is likely to lead to someone fainting at the back of the room.
3. Keep the number of characters in a piece to the absolute minimum Rewrite the piece if necessary. Make sure it’s clear which are the main characters, and try to remind the listeners of their identity at least once. Do not give characters more than one name; in a book readers can flip back and reidentify them, but during a reading they can’t.
4. Try to keep to a single plotline; don’t have too many changes of scene; think carefully about paragraphs of description – are you painting a picture or boring your audience to sleep?
5. Don’t mix poetry and prose unless you really know what you’re doing. Poetry, strangely, can suck the power from a piece of prose.
6. The reader must be above the eye level of the audience, even if only by a few inches. They have come to see someone read; otherwise they would have stayed at home and listened to the radio or a podcast.
7 Prepare your introductions, learn them and speak directly to the audience. DON’T read from a piece of paper. ‘Tune’ the introductions to your audience. And try and balance them if you have several readers. Listing twelve publications, an award and a degree for one person, and then introducing the next by saying ‘she lives in Hounslow and likes cats and this is her first short story’ is not fair. If you have to, put this information in the flyers that you hand out at the event, and then keep the introductions brief for everyone. NB – Do not give out a flyer of mini-biographies and then read from it as the introduction. What is the point of telling the audience what they’ve just read?
7a Tell them how many readers there are going to be, so they can plan a getaway.
8. Make sure your readers have their papers in the right order. Losing your place while reading because you haven’t clearly numbered the pages is an insult to your audience. Haphazard scattiness in this situation is not endearing, only irritating.
9. Funny is good. Plot-driven is good. Ask yourself – what do I want my audience to remember of this story by tomorrow morning?
For more about book readings, see Kay’s blog: choosing-material-for-reading-its-not-rocket-science
However, despite all this book readings are fun. If nothing else, you can convince yourself you have some association with the literati, and sometimes seeing famous writers in the flesh is fascinating – not so much for the way they read, but for their behaviour before and after. And you never know…you too may end up on a sofa getting pissed with John Banville.