Readings: A Guide

empty roomSo, as mentioned in my other post, I did a reading the other night at KGB Bar in New York. Great bar, great venue, and the event was run very well by local MWA honcho¬†Richie Narvaez. I’d rate my performance an “A” for the evening, because I was reasonably well-practiced, excited, and articulate, and I think I chose my material well (a chapter from¬†Chum). My reading performances are generally all over the place; I’ve stammered and stumbled through them, and I’ve rocked them. This was one of the Rocked ones.

Still, readings are awful, aren’t they?

Writers are interior people, as a rule. That doesn’t mean we’re socially inept or incapable, it just means that we tend to be people who like to sit and tinker with words and get them right, and public performance as a rule isn’t our specialty. Some of us are better than others, of course, and you can learn a bit about public speaking to get better at it. Few of us do. IN fact, it’s rare that I’ve ever seen authors – even fairly successful ones – bring more than a few intimates to a venue.

So here’s a typical author performance at a reading: Head down, staring at a sheaf of papers. Reading in a monotone with very little inflection or variety. Stumbling over the occasional word, speaking too quickly, and diving in media res into a work – published or not – with insufficient back story for people unfamiliar with your work. In other words, who in their right minds thinks this is entertaining?

There are ways. Here’s my quick Idiot’s Guide to Readings, for both the idiots who attend them expecting entertainment and the idiots (like me!) who give them, expecting to sell books.

  1. BE DRUNK. This goes for both audience and reader. Holding literary events in bars is the best idea anyone will ever have, and both audience and performing monkey should definitely get drunk. If the reading ends with everyone singing along to The Leaving of Liverpool then you have won.
  2. PRINT IT OUT. The moment I see a nervous author cracking open their own paperback, a part of me dies. The paperback is a great tool for reading on a train, and a terrible one for reading at a reading. Print that sucker out. A Kindle or similar device is okay as well – but isolate the section you’re reading, and
  3. EDIT. I don’t care if you revised that section 1,057 times already. Read it out loud a few times and edit – remove things that don’t sound well spoken, and make sure it flows as a performed piece. No one will ever notice, or care, that you edited it from the published version unless you are famous and studied, in which case you are not giving a reading at a bar in Brooklyn on a Wednesday night.
  4. PRACTICE. Sweet lord, if I have to hear another author stumble over their own damn words I will set the place on fire with my mind bullets, I swear. Once you’ve chosen your reading material, read it out loud at least three or four times. And, see #3 and edit any areas that don’t lend themselves to your velvety voice.
  5. KISS. Keep It Short, Stupid. Five minutes is an eternity for people listening to you monotone your way through a short story. Ten minutes is the absolute high end. Get in, get out, keep drinking.
  6. EXPECT NOTHING. As an audience member, don’t expect your author friend to have any performance skills. Laugh at their lame jokes and stroke their egos a bit – unless you want to see a grown adult cry.
  7. AT LEAST PRETEND TO BUY A BOOK. Sometimes there are books for sale at the reading – the least you can do is feint at one, then realize you forgot your wallet. If you can’t even pretend to buy a book, fuck you.
  8. DON’T HECKLE. One downside to reading in bars is the drunken heckling you get from people pissed off that they can’t play 27 Rush songs in a row while getting shitfaced. Don’t do this, authors will burst into penniless tears at the drop of a hat. Although –
  9. IF YOU ARE HECKLED, HECKLE BACK. If you get some lout calling you names, stop reading and lace into them. Ignoring them won’t work. Get the crowd behind you. If that doesn’t work, smash a small bottle of gasoline on the floor and toss a match, shrieking expletives.
  10. IDENTIFY YOURSELF. You’re not humiliating yourself in public for fun. Show the cover of one of your books, state your name and the title, and urge people to buy a copy or at least visit your web site. If you don’t do this you are basically the same as homeless people who recite the bible in the street.



  1. Loretta Ross

    A friend just asked what I was reading. I said, “Jeff Somers wrote an idiot’s guide to public reading.”

    She stared, blinked and said, “breeding?

    “No,” I said, “although come to think of it, rule number one *would* work for either …”

    Thanks for the advice!

  2. jsomers (Post author)

    That’s a good idea. Thirty seconds with the ole’ search and replace and I have a whole new blog! The efficiency pays for itself.

  3. JanetReid

    My worst fear realized: my authors are conspiring together.

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