7 Ways Public Readings Can Help Your Writing

From Writer Unboxed:

It is 2002 and I am sitting in a packed audience at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference listening to Margot Livesey read the first chapter from her work-in-progress, Banishing Verona. We are almost 30 minutes in, and although that’s long for a public reading, I am entranced.

So far, we’ve learned that a pregnant woman has shown up at the door of a home being renovated by Zeke, an autistic handyman. Claiming to be the niece of the house owner, this woman charms her way into the house, dons a pair of coveralls to earn Zeke’s trust, and eventually shares his bed. He has gotten up early to go out and get them breakfast, and because he has given her his only key, he has to climb back in through a window. As he returns to the bedroom, he decides that however stupid it will sound at this point, he is going to ask her name.

Livesey has me. I’m hanging on every word.

Then she reads:

The bed was unmade, empty and cold to the touch, the suitcases gone. At the foot of the bed the rug was rolled up, and spread-eagled on the bare wooden boards lay the coveralls, neatly buttoned, arms and legs stretched wide, like an empty person. Only when he knelt to pick them up did Zeke discover the three-inch nails that skewered the collar, pinned the cuffs and ankles to the floor.

What??? Judging by the audible gasp—followed by groans when Livesey then closed her folder—I wasn’t the only one in the room who had questions.

Conclusion #1: Don’t sate the audience; readings that raise questions earn readers.

Once I got home from the conference, I looked for that novel in every single bookstore I entered until 2004, when Banishing Verona finally came out.

I had a similar reaction when hearing Ann Patchett read from her then-newest, Bel Canto, at the same event. I leaned toward the woman beside me and whispered, “This reading is extraordinary.” She leaned back and said, “And this wasn’t even one of my favorite parts.” After the reading, I went right to the campus bookstore and bought the novel.

And here I am, still talking about both of those readings 20 years later.

Such can be the power of a public reading.

Conclusion #2: A memorable reading can result in sales—even if the author hasn’t yet finished writing the book.

The Sewanee Conference is big on readings by novelists, poets, playwrights, and short story writers; they have a space devoted to it that’s fully booked. I was surprised to see there was always an audience and I aimed to find out why. After listening to as many readings as possible over the course of the conference’s 12 days, I came to understand more about myself as a person, a reader, a listener, and a writer. I learned what kind of opening tends to beg my interest. What makes me laugh, what doesn’t. What can, in rather short order, move me to tears.

As the readings accumulated I saw that in novel writing, as in my previous career as a dance critic, I needed to trust my experience and appreciate my subjectivity.

Conclusion #3: Exposure to a wide variety of public readings can help a writer identify what kind of novels they aspire to write.

Seeing the benefit of this, as president of the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group, I worked with a local theater company to bring in patrons on one of their “dark” nights to present a literary night out we called The Writers’ Soiree. Members signed up ahead of time for a limited number of ten-minute slots, and the evening ended with an open mic offering shorter slots to anyone present. We brought wine, and a nearby bakery provided treats that we sold at intermission. A huge bonus for our budding novelists was the immediacy of having strangers come up to them to say how much they enjoyed their reading.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG will include three sacrilegious statements in his reaction to the OP.

  1. These days, author readings (typically in bookstores) are a waste of time and energy for most authors. If the author is already famous, lots of people show up. If the author is unknown, a handful appear at the time and place of the reading — not the best morale booster for an author just starting out. Author readings are a 1970’s marketing tool.
  2. As a group, writers tend toward introversion. For an introvert, reading her own creation in the presence of a bunch of strangers tends to be extremely stressful, especially when the same stressful experience happens night after night on a book tour. It’s something an extrovert might like, but it’s torture for many introverts to bear their writing souls and make themselves vulnerable in front of a group of people they don’t know. It’s also taking time away from their writing and the exhausted aftermath of one-night stands in store after store, may require a long, non-writing rest to recover.
  3. If a reading of a portion of a book is thought to be a good sales promotion tool for a bookstore and a book (not necessarily true), hire a trained performer to do the reading. The author can chat with visitors one-by-one and sign their books before and after the performance. A local actor/actress/speech teacher will do a better job of presenting the written word than an author who last recited anything for a school Christmas pageant when she/he was in third grade. Give the actress the task in advance to let her read the book and talk to the author via phone or email about which parts the actress thinks would work best.

PG would bet that an experiment with an author reading one segment of a book and an actress presenting another segment of the book would reveal the actress made more of an impact on the audience than the author did. The performance by an actress would also sell more books than the author could by herself.

Right after the War of 1812 ended, PG attended college with several students who went on to successful stage/television/movie careers. He’s seen people who had the ability to mesmerize an audience with their talent up close.

Plus, unlike most normal people, performers enjoy performing before groups of people; the larger the group, the better.

End of sacrilege.

3 thoughts on “7 Ways Public Readings Can Help Your Writing”

  1. Hiring an actress may be a great idea. In my college writing classes we would read our works aloud, and in the screenwriting class we’d read the parts for each other’s scripts. Plus I’d read aloud for my friends who doubled as alpha readers (or listeners, in this case). I got good reactions, and classmates would assign me parts to read for their screenplays because I turn into a voice actress when I read stories aloud.

    But, that made me a tad insecure about reading my own work. I wasn’t sure if the positive reactions were just because the audience liked how I “acted” the part of the characters. Anything will sound good if the right performer is performing it. Like the old Murphy Brown episode where the BBC newscasters smugly pointed out their smut sounded classier, because they said it with a British accent. They had a point. For me, positive reactions to my own stories just carry more weight if a reader gives it versus a listener.

    But yeah, I also look askance at speaking publicly in a room full of strangers. This would work for some — I loved listening to Terry Pratchett, and finding out he pronounced Angua’s name the same way I do in my head (AYN-gwa). Reading my own work in public? Nah. If someone pays me enough I might their work. But they’d really have to pay me 🙂

    Conclusion #3 sounds absolute bonkers. Surely the writer already knew what genre they were into before they got as far as public readings? What is this madness?

  2. This shark (after sitting in a dentist’s chair for three hours this afternoon) offers another bit of sacrilege:

    4. Those authors whose sales will be most helped by a public reading can do better than a bookstore. Most bookstores simply do not have sufficient space to support a reading with a large-enough audience to generate sales; in those that do, it’s often a temporary takeover of the coffee-shop area, seldom appreciated by the “regulars” who aren’t there for that author.† Save readings for conventions and libraries and such that have the space for them, and make other sale arrangements (like bringing your own stock, either from your “warehouse” or purchased from a commercial publisher using your author discount).

    † A few years back, I went as moral support (of highly, highly dubious morals indeed) to a friend’s reading at SF Bay Area Bookstore X. The grousing from some of the regulars whose space had been appropriated for a “special event” was audible quite near the presentation area.

  3. Indy author bookstore reading hack that “might” help your sales.
    1. Beg a store to let you do a reading.
    2. Have someone take a pic of you reading.
    3. Post on social media.
    4. Followers will think, “Oh, they’re a real author.”
    5. 3% will go on Amazon and buy your book.

    All kidding aside, I did a couple of these for my first book and posted on social media. I sold a handful at the store but three times that online that day. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

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