05 August 2015

As long as a piece of string

by Robert Lopresti

If you catch me talking to myself, don't worry.  No more than you usually worry about me, anyway.  I am practicing - rehearsing, I suppose.  In a few weeks I will be doing a signing at my local bookstore, and I will be reading from my new novel.

Which brings up an old question: how long should one of those events be?  My feeling is this:
* Five minutes of introductory prattle
* 20-30 minutes of reading
* Half an hour of Q&A.
* Two hours of frenzied crowds standing in line for autographed copies.

Okay, the last bullet is sheer fantasy, but do the rest of them sound right to you?

When my book of short stories came out last year I picked out a few fragments that added up to twenty minutes and thought I had nailed it.  But a friend of mine said that he thought it had been too short.

Trust me when I say I am not used to people telling me I don't talk enough.  That is not the standard complaint.

There is another complication in this case.  My current book, being about the Mafia, features a good deal of violence, sex, and profanity.  And I ain't reading those scenes out loud.

I deliberately created a few key scenes at the beginning that are free of those three special treats, figuring that those are the ones I would read.  Turns out they aren't long enough, so I expect I will bowdlerize a few naughty words, warning the audience in advance that they are being subject to censorship.  Any thoughts on that are welcome.

Hey, maybe nobody will show up and I won't have to worry about it.  But, regrettably my friends are extremely loyal and I can count on them.  Terrible the way I suffer.

So, writers: how do you organize a reading?  And readers: what do you hope for at one?


  1. Rob, I think I'd go in the opposite direction. I'd read for maybe 5-10 minutes. Not necessarily from consecutive sections, but then each section would need to be set up. And I'd spend more time talking about writing, publishing, trying to be hilarious. Give the audience a tease of the book, but they can read that later. And let them get to know you while you're there in person. Just my two cents, which is worth even less today than it was yesterday.

  2. I think your timing is about right, but I always pick a couple of sections of varying lengths and after the first one, I judge the mood of the group. Some want to talk- about how they can get published etc- some want some more stories, some want reading. The last time I read was at a friend's store opening. This was in the back yard at night and I followed a very profane comedian so I did not have to worry about apologizing for Francis Bacon's habits. I did have to read by the light of a cell phone- but that's another story.

  3. I've done most of my readings at science fiction conventions, where I've always been allotted 30 minutes. I've never read excerpts from a novel. Instead, I've always read a complete short story. So, my time breaks down to about 5 minutes for introduction, including the story's publishing history. Reading the story--depending on which one I pick--takes 15-20 minutes, and the remaining time is for questions or follow-up comments.

    Having attended several readings, I don't mind listening to excerpts from a novel, but if the author is reading a short story, it's frustrating when they haven't timed their reading in advance and stop 1/2 or 2/3 of the way through.

    However you structure your time, enjoy yourself!

  4. I think the first question you should consider is how good a reader are you? Really? Some people could read the phone book and their charisma comes through and people want to listen. Others, they don't have inflection, they don't look up from the paper. They might have written great words, but they are not a great reader of those words. So are you a good reader? Do you have someone who'll give you an honest answer?

    If the answer is no, then perhaps you shouldn't read at all, but instead speak to the audience for however long they seem interested about the book and you and writing. If the answer is yes, ... well, I would do it, but not for long. Five minutes. Ten max. I'm afraid people's minds will start to wander after ten minutes, if they'll start to get inpatient.

    I wonder if it's regional about how long you should read. I've heard of other areas of the country where readers come and listen to authors read for a half hour. But here in the Mid-Atlantic, readings seem to be few and far between. If I listen to someone reading, and it's more than five minutes, I start to squirm. (Will the chairs at your reading be comfortable or hard? It really matters.) I think my other area writer friends have found the same thing. When our Sisters in Crime group has held readings, the turnout has never been great.

    So that's my advice: If you're a decent reader, read, but I'd still keep it short. The friend who said you read too little the first time could be an outlier. (Of course, so could I.)

  5. Rob, I tend to go shorter rather than longer, so I'd shoot for a twenty-minute reading. I agree that it's a good idea be aware of potentially offensive language. When I read locally I've had parents show up with my former students and then I really clean it up.

  6. Rob, I think shorter is better, with readings. I try never to read for more than 10 minutes at a time, and if possible only 5 minutes or so. I've found that an audience of almost any size is far more interested in hearing ABOUT the story, or about the writing process, than in hearing the story itself. (Even if the audience isn't made up of writers.) And I try to leave a lot of time for Q&A. My opinion only.

  7. Rob, I am fortunate enough to have had an extremely eccentric family, and by the time I finish the story about my Great Aunt Dewey, who entombed her dead Shih-tzus in roasting pans in the basement and kept her money in mason jars, people are laughing their heads off. Then I read them something, tell another crazy story, and then sign off.

  8. My thoughts strictly as a reader, I don't turn up to hear writers read. I prefer talk about their work and themselves in equal amounts and lots of Q&A. One small caution, though, with a contingent of regular supporters present, focus on the new faces.

  9. I don't have much experience with readings, but on the whole I agree with Janice. Maybe you could pick four or five passages of about five minutes each and then go back and forth between reading and talking: Introduce a passage, read it, comment on it (perhaps relating it to something about your writing process--how you struggled to get the passage right, revisions you made, and so on), perhaps give the audience a chance to comment or ask questions, and then read the next passage and go through the same process. That approach should keep listeners from zoning out during a long reading, and it would give you a way to sense whether the audience is more interested in reading or in talking. If they're feeling chatty and you don't get to all the passages you've prepared, that's okay; on the other hand, if they don't have many questions, you're prepared to fill more time with reading. Best of luck--I bet it's going to be fun, no matter what approach you take.

  10. Thanks to all of you for a lot of very useful suggestions! A lot to chew on here.


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