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My new novel, Killing Daniel, has just been released, which I realise should be an occasion for joy, but it also reminds me just how difficult it is for me to read my work in front of people. I’ve studied on an MA course, where my work was critiqued intensively; I’ve sat before a viva panel to defend my PhD; I teach, so I’m okay at being in front of people… except when it comes to reading my own work.
I’ve been to some bad readings (probably my own included). One of the reasons, I think, is that they sound too much like Jackanory. The writing might be beautiful and it might describe really intriguing events and scenarios, but the tone and voice and rhythm when read out loud just aren’t compelling.
As someone who doesn’t write poetry (at least, not for human consumption), I’ve really noticed how much more performance-oriented poets are. The voice they use in their reading is different from the one they’ve just ordered a cup of tea and a sweet-potato burger with, and the effect, sometimes, is transformational. The other thing they can do really well is become someone else. They are actors—with their gestures and movements and mimes—turning in performances, not readings. So what I’ve learnt from poets is that even as a prose writer you need to find the poetry in your sentences. There is a rhythm to prose, too.
As part of the Manchester Literature Festival recently, I went to an evening with Iain M. Banks. He didn’t read any of his own work, but he was certainly compelling and took questions with wit and charisma for about an hour. I wondered whether this was his on-stage character, or whether he was just being himself. I bought a book that I’ll never read (it’s a Christmas gift) on the back of this meeting, simply because he had seemed so interesting, open and likeable. So I suppose what I’ve worked out is that it’s okay to perform—to be, perhaps, the opposite of the writer cliche.
So here are some little things I’ve figured out along the way. Some of it will sound pedantic, I know—perhaps most writers are much more experienced in this than I am—but the importance of a good reading cannot be overstated.
- Record yourself. I started a blog, audiostories.tumblr.com, to help me get better at reading. I got used to reading my words aloud, first just for myself and then to a pretend audience. I don’t really know who listens to the blog, but I know people do. In doing this, I found the clunky bits that just didn’t work, the moments where it would be good to pause and wait. This helped me in future readings, but also in writing.
- Rehearse. Benjamin Wood (The Bellwether Revivals) read at our university recently. He said the more you read your work, the easier it is to accomplish that tricky looking-up-from-the-novel-at-the-audience bit. Obvious, but true.
- Readings. Go to them. Nick tricks from people who are better than you, then do them yourself. Go to the open mics, there are plenty around. I went to watch Cath Nichols at the Dead Good Poets Society based in Liverpool recently. She had a whole two-part set that was themed and structured really well. The little jokes and commentary between each sequence, poem, or story were noted on a piece of paper. So consider what you’ll say beforehand. What do the audience need to know?
- Set up right. For my second reading, I had a lectern and a microphone. These things are good—they hide the shakes. So if you have any opportunity to get involved with your set-up, find out what’s comfortable for you. Some people prefer to stand, others sit. If the set-up is different than you would prefer, it’s good to know this in advance so you can imagine how it’s going to be and be prepared.
- …Drink (too much). If you suffer from dry-mouth, this exacerbates the case, as I also found out recently.
The Manchester launch of Killing Daniel is on 13 December, and I’m hoping to put all this advice into practice myself, and like to think that it’ll help you, too, if you’ll be reading to an audience soon. If there are any more practised readers out there, please pass on some insider tips in the comments below.
Think you’ve practiced enough and want to have a go at reading your work? The Litro Lab podcast takes standalone story readings. Submit here.
Sarah Dobbs is a lecturer in English and Creative Writing. Her novel, Killing Daniel, was published by Unthank Books in 2012. Previous work has been broadcast by the BBC, published by Flax, SWAMP and Step Away Magazine. She is currently editing a textbook for English and Creative Writing students.