26 January 2017

Notes on Author Readings from Noir at the Bar Seattle

by Brian Thornton

So, as I mentioned in my last blog post, I read at Noir at the Bar Seattle, at the wonderful Sorrento Hotel, with a line-up of incredible writers a couple of weeks back. 

As promised, I put the question to several of these ace wordsmiths, asking them to share what, if any, rules/rituals they had for author readings. Strap in, because I’ve shared the resulting pearls of wisdom from four of these worthy scribes below:

1. Six to eight minutes seems to be the sweet spot. Any longer and you're likely asking too much of your audience.

2. Be comedically dense. You're asking a lot of an audience, to sit and listen to you and follow your narrative. Big broad unsubtle laugh lines are a sure way to keep them hooked.

3. Short stories written specifically to be performed seem to play better than novel excerpts. Settings like Noir At The Bar are not the best place to workshop your "serious" material that almost always reads better on the page. A piece shouldn't need more than a few lines of setup, in any case. 

4. Go "big." If your story itself isn't sufficiently outrageous and over-the-top on its own merits, help it along by acting it out.

5. No droning-monotone deliveries. Use an actor's arsenal: dramatic/comedic pauses, original voices/accents for each character, speeding up and going up in register as things intensify, slowing down or using a low voice as a counterpoint to high intensity, etc.

6. Always remember, the reading is about the audience, not about you. Never forget that your job is entertain the shit out of the people who showed up.

I couldn't say it any better than Jim has. I agree with every point. If I were to add anything, it would be to speak loud and clear. And don't have too many drinks before you read.

I used to read for the Braille Reading Radio Service and I learned a lot about reading aloud from them and from some professional voice actors I know. So here's some of the things I bear in mind:

Read about 50% slower than you think is reasonable--it improves your accuracy and raises the listener's comprehension--it also gives the impression that you're confident and in control of the reading, even if you're scared to death. A good read-aloud pace is approximately 300 words per minute, or about 3/4 of a hardcover page.

Select and prep your piece ahead of time. Record yourself reading it two or three times so you have an idea of the actual reading time you'll need and can find and smooth out any difficult areas--or change your selection entirely if needed. Some pieces don't come across as well read aloud as they do when read to yourself in silence, even if they are great pieces of writing. 

If you're good at it, use character voices, but if you're unsure or hesitant, don't--bad voice characterizations can ruin your reading. Also, select a piece with no more than three speakers, if possible, it's much harder to differentiate each character when you have more. You can also use your head or body position to indicate who is talking by turning slightly one way or the other as the speaker changes. This doesn't have to be a big change, but it should be consistent.

If you can, print out your selection in a large font, double spaced, or adjust the font size on your tablet/Kindle rather than reading from a book. Even if you have great vision, this trick makes it easier for you to read. And an added bonus: if you've printed out the selection, you can always offer to sign the reading copy and give it away at the end of the session.

If your throat is a little phlegmy, try drinking warm or hot (not cold) pineapple juice about 30 minutes before your reading; the acid cuts phlegm without encouraging more--unlike citrus juice--the warmth loosens your throat and vocal cords, and most bars have it on hand.

Personally I’m not into theatrics when it comes to reading in public, and I say this not only as a former cult movie impresario, but also as someone who is much better at improv than “acting” from a script, even my own. In fact, speaking strictly subjectively, I’d much rather read a piece quietly to myself than hear an author read it to me, so that I can imagine the voice of the characters for myself. But then I also hate sports and the sun, so I’m a trend bucker and no one should ever listen to me. Basically, in case anyone cares, I see live readings as advertisements not only for one’s particular book, but one's brand name. Your performance should be sincere and lucid, but the product should be able to sell itself. Select a passage that represents your body of work as a whole, not just the piece in question. 

*               *               *

And that’s it for this installment, boys and girls. Tune in two weeks from now for my own “Things to Do For An Author Reading” list, in addition to some final thoughts on the importance of authors doing readings in the first place.

See you in two weeks!


  1. Excellent advice. Humor and a slow clear delivery are what I find work best, too.

  2. Terrific post, great tips throughout. Just shared on FB and Twitter both!

  3. Thanks for sharing these suggestions, Brian. Very helpful!

  4. Great advice from the front of the room! Thanks for helping us feel as if we were there!

  5. Sounds good! Thanks for suggestions and help.


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