13 December 2014

Readings and Spellings

by John M. Floyd

A year or so ago, my wife and I were invited to attend a dance program featuring our granddaughter Susannah, who was at that time four years old. That afternoon, as we took our seats in the school auditorium alongside our son and his wife and family, our grandson Charlie (then six years old) crawled up into my lap holding one of his storybooks he had brought from home. Keeping my voice low (things had quieted down and everyone was waiting and watching the stage by that time), I said to him, "Charlie, why'd you bring a book along? Don't you want to watch your sister dance?"

"I might," he said, "and I might not. I think this is going to be B-O-R-I-N-G."

I'm not sure why he needed to spell it out, but I had to admire his foresight. He was prepared for anything. As it turned out, the program was entertaining, even for my grandson--but I later remembered that moment, when I was asked to do a reading from my new book following its "launch" signing at a local bookstore a couple of months ago. I decided that whatever happened that night, I wanted to try hard not to be B-O-R-I-N-G. And sometimes that's easier said than done.

King author and the signing table

I and others at this blog, including my friend Fran Rizer several weeks ago, have written about the good and bad and hilarious things that can happen at a typical bookstore signing. But what about other kinds of booksigning events, ones that include a reading and/or a speech? That kind of gig, my friends, can be a whole different ballgame. You don't want your captive audience to feel like captives.

Let me begin by saying something controversial: I don't particularly like readings. Not only do I not enjoy reading aloud from my own work, I'm usually not fond of listening to others read aloud from theirs. To me, the best way to enjoy a story or novel is to read it yourself, silently, at your own pace and in a location of your own choosing. I think that was, after all, what the writer intended when he wrote it. Besides, at bookstore readings, I've usually just finished standing in line and buying the book, which I plan to take home and read and enjoy later; why would I want to sit there and listen to the author read part of it to me now?

I know, I know: it's a chance to find out how the author expresses his writing, in his own spoken words. The truth is, though, that I don't find that very interesting. I also doubt that readers are interested in hearing the way I express my own writing, in spoken words. I'd rather read their words, and have them read mine. As a listener, I'd much rather hear authors tell us about the way they plot, and develop characters, and rewrite, and market their work. But maybe that's just me. (I should mention, so you'll know that I'm not completely insensitive, that I certainly don't turn down offers from those places that are kind enough to invite me to do a reading. I get up there and smile and soldier on, and I'm grateful for the invitation. But I make darn sure to keep the excerpt mercifully short.)

Okay, bub--close that book and step away from the podium . . .

How about those events that don't involve a reading? Maybe you're just asked to make a talk to the local Rotary Club, let's say, or to the Friends of the Library, or to a book club, or to a high-school class. Suppose the president or librarian or facilitator or teacher just wants you to tell the audience a little about yourself and your writing and your latest literary accomplishment. What's the best way to do that?

I think the wisest approach in that situation is to (1) keep your remarks brief, (2) make the audience laugh a bit, and (3) close with a question/answer session. The Q&A seems to work especially well. If what you've said is interesting to the group, there'll be plenty of questions, and if you run a bit too long it won't be your fault. But (one might well ask) what if there aren't any questions? Well, if there aren't any questions it means that what you've said wasn't very interesting, and you might as well shut up anyway. It's a lot better to finish early than to fall victim to the Baptist Revival Syndrome and drone on until your audience either passes out or walks out.

Thank goodness, you will probably find that most listeners in just about any venue seem to enjoy hearing about writers and about the process of writing. (I certainly do.) They also seem to like asking questions. (I do, too.) With any luck, you'll find that very few attendees have brought their own storybooks along with them to read in case you turn out to be B-O-R-I-N-G.

Q's from me to you:

Do any of you share my reluctance to read my own words aloud to a group? Do you enjoy hearing other authors read theirs? (I know many who do.) Do you find such readings inspiring? Enlightening? Nap-inspiring? Would you rather hear instead about how and why these authors write what they do? If you're asked to speak to a library or a class or a civic group, do you offer to do a reading as well? What advice would you give to a beginning writer, about addressing an audience?

I'll close with a sincere "Thank you!" to those who are kind enough to invite us authors to be guest speakers, and a sincere "Good luck!" to my fellow writers with any and all signings/speeches/readings that you perform. 

May all of them be F-U-N.

NOTE: I'll be away most of today at an out-of-town booksigning. (Not a reading, just a signing.) Wish me luck . . .


  1. Hi John, you've given us an interesting column, as always. I prefer talk with Q&A to reading my own work, but a lot of libraries and book clubs ask for reading, short talk, and then Q&A. I do, however, prefer to read my own excerpt than have someone else do it. And yes, I always start with something funny. Have fun at the book signing!

  2. Dang, John! A lot of good food for thought.

  3. Thanks, Fran and Leigh. It occurs to me that I might enjoy doing readings more if I were really good at it--but I honestly feel a little uncomfortable reading words aloud that were never really intended to be read aloud. Dialogue written for plays, screenplays, etc., are a different matter. And yes, Fran, you're correct--a lot of book clubs and libraries ask for readings, and I always comply. But I'd much rather just chat with the group about writing.

  4. Good luck with the book signing.
    I must say I do not mind either speaking extemporaneously or reading- but then I started out teaching 9th graders- talk about an upfront audience.

  5. Thanks, Janice, for your take on this. I admit that it's a great feeling to get a good reaction from an audience when/after reading to them--I just feel more in my element when I'm speaking ABOUT writing rather than speaking the writing.

    I know I'm firmly in the minority here--I suspect that most of my writer friends/colleagues enjoy reading from their work.

  6. John, I write comedy, so it may be different. But I have found one thing: If I read from my work at books stores/events, I sell books. If I don't read, I don't sell near as many.
    Now, I did standup when younger, so it may be a question of delivery. But it has gotten to the point (with me) that I am reluctant to appear anywhere where I can't read at least a page. The trick I've found: keep your reading to to 2 minutes. Three at most.

  7. I'm like Janice, as a retired history professor, believe me, I can talk for 50 minutes on just about anything, and I always make sure there's enough laughter to keep people's attention. So I don't mind talking, reading, or even Q&A, although in a small town what people ask is often WAYYYYYYY off topic. Last time I presented, I had someone ask me - repeatedly - about my living arrangements (my husband and I live in an old school building). Whew...

  8. I've been to many readings where, sadly, the writer was a poor reader. (I've been told that I read too fast, which is something I need to work on.)

    I think the key is to think of it more as a performance than a reading. That might mean reading an edited version of your work, eliminating material that looks good on the page but detracts from the performance of the work. It might also mean practicing several times before ever reading a piece in front of an audience, making notes on where to make dramatic pauses, where to raise your voice or lower your voice, etc. In short, make your material more script-like.

    Like you, I prefer to chat about writing--how, why, when, where, etc.--working from a loose set of notes or relying heavily on interaction with fellow panelists or audience Q&A.

  9. Michael, Melodie, Eve… I'm taking notes.

  10. One more tip: Always have back-up material just in case the audience you expect isn't the audience you get.

    For example: Some years ago I did midnight readings of erotic Sf/fantasy at science fiction conventions. The conventions made it clear in their schedules that these were adults-only events.

    Then I was scheduled to do one of these readings at a convention that a) didn't make it clear what I would be reading and b) scheduled it in a room that the hotel locked us out of about an hour before my reading so that the two writers with readings preceding mine did their readings to a mixed audience in the hall outside the room.

    When my turn came, I found myself facing a mixed audience in a pubic place, and no back-up plan. I tried to edit on the fly, skipping the most graphic material, but it was no use. The reading was a failure.

    Had I planned ahead and had other material with me, things might have turned out different.

    FWIW, I've done other readings since then, but I've never again offered to do a midnight, adults-only reading.

  11. Melodie, I, for one, would love to hear you do a reading. And I can't say I've never enjoyed reading from my work, but it's not my favorite thing to do. Again, though, I think most people do like doing that--and like hearing others read--more than I do.

    I agree: always, always, keep it short.

  12. Eve, I too have fielded some of the craziest questions you could think of. But I really, really like Q&As.

    Michael, I read aloud too fast, as well. And I also have gotten into situations where I have to edit as I go--mostly just to make it "sound" right. Again, I think written words were ideally meant to be read and not spoken.

    Leigh, I'm taking notes too . . .


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