18 May 2018

Face the Music: Public Readings and How to Survive Them

Thomas Pluck
There are few terrors greater than being faced with reading your work in front of an audience, particularly when they are strangers, or not even fans of the genre. Public speaking is a skill, and I don't want to hear writers whinging that they are introverts and just want to stay at home with their cats. No one forced you to write your book. If you were so private, it would be sitting on a closet shelf like Emily Dickinson's poems. Cut the humble shy wallflower act. Being nervous about what people will think of your book doesn't mean you are a selfless monk devoid of ego in the temple just waiting for enlightenment to strike.

It's natural to be nervous about it. However, you are doing yourself, your readers, and your colleagues a disservice if you do not practice reading aloud when you're home alone with your bored cats, whimpering dogs, and headphone-wearing partners and children. We can tell when you show up having never read this story aloud before, unless you are very well practiced at reading in public in general. Some have the knack, the gift of gab, the desire to have an audience, willing or not. And good for them. I remember the first time I read poetry in front of the Rutgers-Newark English department. I gripped that podium so tightly I thought it would shatter into timbers. Before that, remember reading a presentation in 5th grade on deer, where I was shaking like a sizzling slice of bacon in a pan, having to say "urine" with a straight face in front of my classmates. I got a little hammy after that, the class clown act in middle school and high school, doing silly spoofs of Shakespeare. That confidence faded the moment I had to read something I had written in front of people who read books for a living.

Practice does help. "Noir at the Bar" readings, where you can socially lubricate if necessary, can be a good start as long as you don't let the drink in your hand become a crutch. Invite your friends, they'll mimic their rapt attention, or look at their phones and say they were posting a photo of you to Instagram to boost your social media presence. Join a writer's association like the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and so on, and you can ask to be a reader at their events, surrounded by friendly writers who know what it's like to be up there. I did all of that. I even hosted Noir at the Bar in Manhattan for the longest year of my life-- that's another column, but if you host one of those events, you suddenly become every writer's unpaid publicist-- and all those accomplishments helped:

Now I can say "urine" in front of a crowd of strangers and not even snicker.

I had a stealth strategy, helped along by some of my pub family. They like karaoke. Some of them even insist on pronouncing it like they're in Tokyo, where it's done differently, in a private room among friends. You can do this in Koreatown in Manhattan as well, and I'm sure in other cities with such neighborhoods, if you prefer privacy, but to me that misses the point. It helps to have grown up in and around bars. My uncle ran bars for the Jewish mob in Manhattan for thirty years. I never visited one, to my chagrin--I wanted to be a bouncer, like Sascha the Slovenian, who busted knees with his club and smashed The Infamous Urinal Pooper's face on a car hood--but it was not to be. I did sit on a stool at Grandinetti's next to my grandfather and drink a Coca-Cola before Sunday dinner, while he nursed a Pabst. And I've been to every tavern in northeastern New Jersey so my father could drink while we kids had burgers and fries. Bar patrons often have the blues, and when you have the blues, you want to sing about it.

So, American karaoke is more about flipping through a binder full of songs until you find the one that reflects your soul, and belting it out in front of a bunch of people who just want to drink and not hear your caterwauling. And what better way to get a thick skin about reading in public? So what if you can't sing, few can. Even the good ones can maybe belt out one song or singer, and know not to step out of their wheelhouse. Or should. I don't. I'm a tenor. I've sang everything from Elvis to Guns 'n Roses, growled out John Fogerty, flopped terribly trying to keep up with the Ramones, serenaded my wife with a gender-bent version of the DiVinyls "I Touch Myself", and done duets of "Love Shack" by the B-52's that brought down the house, and been hugged by strangers on their birthdays for my emotional rendition of "You Oughtta Know" by Alanis Morrissette.

Comedians know. Sometimes you kill, sometimes you bomb. More often, you face a storm front of indifference. That's the ugly truth. Even if you silence a room with your reading, it doesn't mean that they are waiting with bated breath for the climax. It's a better sign than the audience talking amongst themselves, but don't get cocky. Unless it's a book event for you, they may not even be there to hear you. Even if it is your event, they may only be there to ask how they can get their epic about their Uncle Oogie and his funny-looking foot made into a movie with Tom Hanks. Hey, you write the script, use my idea, we'll both be billionaires. But it's more likely for people to show up to your events if you are a practiced reader who respects the audience.

Some advice:
Keep it short. This is another reason you practice reading at home. A "short" story of 2500 words can take 15-20 minutes to read, which is an eternity. Read excerpts. Read the good parts. Give a short introduction and start where stuff happens.

Be entertaining. If you want to read a nuanced and powerful piece, by all means do so, but read the room. If you're not alone, and the writer before you just read about a puppy who died defusing an atom bomb, you might want to chat a little bit about your book or what inspired the story so they can finish wiping their eyes and put away their tissues. Bring a backup story. I didn't do that for my only reading at Noir at the Bar D.C., where Josh Padgett brought in a great crowd. An older crowd. I had read host Ed Aymar's stories, Nik Korpon was there, they both are a little raunchy. So I brought my story "Gunplay," a hilarious poke at gun fetishism. (It went really well when Hilary Davidson read it at Shade in Manhattan, for our story swap.) I'm no Hilary Davidson. I read it to be funny, but the groans from the audience told me that a couple who cosplays as Union soldier and Scarlett O'Hara with live ammunition in the bedroom wasn't their cup of sweet tea!

I finished anyway, took a bow, and lost the audience favorite in the voting. But they will remember my name. It's not always so bad, I've had many readers come up and tell me how much they liked a story at a reading. It's a great way to introduce yourself to a new audience. It's part of the job. Even if you never do readings, chances are you will be on a panel, flanked by witty and seasoned writers, and you will have to hold your own. Or worse, you'll be next to That Guy who hogs the mike and bullies the moderator into making it a one-man show, and you will need the chutzpah to interrupt and grab the wheel of the bus so you and your fellow writers can get a word in edgewise. To some people this comes naturally. For the rest of us, practice makes passable. Read to your cat. Sing to your dog.

And be thankful for the printing press, or we'd all be reciting our stories like Homer. Maybe we'd be so good the king would pluck our eyes out so we couldn't wander off.


  1. Excellent post. Only thing I can add is to READ SLOWLY. We tend to rush to get it over with.

  2. Great column, Thomas. Very few writers (me included) seem to enjoy reading their stories aloud. I agree that one of the most important things is to keep it SHORT! Also, try to inject some humor, no matter what the subject is. Too much angst gets old fast.

  3. Thanks both- and yes O'Neil, that is key! It's okay to stumble as long as you go back and read the phrase or sentence from the start so listeners can parse it.

  4. Excellent advice, Tom. And O'Neil, DOUBLE the slow. I still do vocal warm-ups before readings, especially to get those final consonants crisp.

    I like smaller gatherings where I can do lots of conversation and Q & A so the "reading" is less formal and more connected to the audience. I limit myself to five minutes for an excerpt. I time them and cut unnecessary description and backstory in advance. I also print material out in 16 point font double spaced.

    I was shy growing up and one of the most valuable courses I took was public speaking...when my major was still pre-dentistry! I changed my major and became a teacher and did lots of theater, so I'm comfortable in front of audiences NOW, but humor helps a lot, and only experience can help you think on your feet, which really endears you to a group.

    The other thing to remember is that you can be brilliant and if your book isn't what people want, they still won't buy it. You have no control over it, so pass out your bookmarks and keep smiling.

  5. One of the best ways to overcome fear of public speaking—at least, it was for me—is doing stand-up comedy at open mic nights. If you can survive that, and especially if you can make a room full of drunks pay attention to you long enough to laugh at a few of your jokes, no other public speaking event will seem at all daunting.

    Stand-up proved not to be my calling, but I did once win second place in a stand-up competition, and I still remember much of my routine.

  6. Mr. coolstelizabeth sings & plays piano & trumpet. I don't do any of those things but he & I used to go to karaoke quite often. The quality of the KJ, karaoke jockey, makes a huge difference. We found a great KJ who worked at different clubs four nights a week. Word got around, he attracted the really good singers & they followed him to whichever club he was working in that night. Those were fun times.

    I haven't read my own fiction at a reading but I did present a paper at a conference. I was scheduled for the last day so I had a chance to get to know the other ppl before my turn came. I had practiced reading aloud at home with my hubby & by myself in my motel room. I got it down to 35 minutes of reading out loud & 10 more minutes for questions, which turned out to be just right.

  7. Advice a very good teacher gave me long ago was to always rehearse/practice anything you are going to do on stage. This has served me well in many situations, including the few public readings I have done. To all of you plunging into the public waters of public readings; "break a leg!"

  8. Wanted to add I've been practicing and your comments will help me. Practicing by going to an open mike reading once a month at the coolest coffeehouse in the small town I live in across the lake from New Orleans. So far I'm the only fiction writer doing readings. Lots of poets and musicians, singers. Haven't been booed off yet.

  9. I teach this stuff, and you're dead on about how long it takes to read a short story. I insist that my students time themselves before they go on stage. And - 1000 words max. I usually say 4 minutes is top, and 3 minutes is better.
    Michael, I also got my start doing standup, in the 90s. Nothing trains you to watch an audience, better. That's so much of it: sizing up the audience to see what they would like to hear. And for Gawd sake, don't read a scene that takes place in a northern strip bar, to a bunch of fifty-something women from a United Church book club, as I saw one writer do.

  10. An open mike is a great way to practice, thanks for all the comments. I think stand-up comedy would be even more terrifying than reading something I wrote in high school, but whatever works for you!


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