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SFWRITER.COM > How to Write > Public Readings
by Robert J. Sawyer
First published in the November 1992 issue of Alouette: The Newsletter of the Canadian Region of SFWA
Most SF writers get called on from time to time to do readings of their work at conventions or public libraries. I've done a couple of dozen readings over the years; here are a few things I've learned. [As of April 2000, my public-reading count was up to over 150.]
First, it's a lot easier to read from a printout designed specifically for reading. I make a special printout in big type (I use 18-point Times Roman on 27-point leading). The advantages: (1) fewer words per page mean you're less likely to lose your place; (2) if you're reading from a podium, you can place the pages on the podium and read them easily without having to squint. Also, if you're so inclined, you can give the printout away as a souvenir to someone in the audience at the end this is a little trick I picked up from S. M. Stirling; it makes for one happy fan. (Second choice: read from a regular manuscript, which at least keeps your hands free for gesturing. Last choice: read from the printed book.)
I always tell people how long the reading will be: "This is the first chapter, and it will take about thirteen minutes." Reason: there will be people in your audience who don't want to be there (dragged out to your reading by their significant others, etc.). I find letting 'em know how long it will take substantially cuts down on the "when will this be over?" shuffling.
Read dramatically, and don't be afraid to change volume. Nothing is more dynamic in a reading than the reader suddenly shouting an exclamation. Conversely, the absolute best reading I ever did was one that ended with the scene from my novel Golden Fleece in which JASON, the computer from hell, was trying to sleep-teach a human being into feeling guilty. I read the narration in a normal voice, but for the words JASON was whispering through the headboard speakers I actually did lower my voice to a whisper (albeit a stage whisper, so people could hear it in the back it helps, by the way, to have a microphone if the audience is going to be more than a dozen or so people). The room was absolutely still, hanging on every word.
Make eye contact. Know your work well enough so that you don't have to be constantly looking at your manuscript. Look at your audience indeed, at specific people in your audience (not just generally out at the room).
Don't be afraid to make subtle additions or changes for the sake of the reading. On a printed page, the alternation of speakers may be clear because of the way you've done paragraphing. If you have to add in a "Smith said," do so but determine this when you rehearse the piece. Likewise, consider editing out unnecessary exposition: you may have cleverly put stuff into the scene you happen to be reading that doesn't become relevant until later in the book, but if the audience for the reading doesn't need to know it, think about chopping it out.
Old radio-person's trick: when changing pages in your manuscript, simply slide them from the to-be-read pile to the already-read pile. Don't bother flipping them over. Yes, when done, your story will be in reverse order, but you can re-collate the pages afterwards. The point is to cut down on paper noise. Also, doing it this way you actually have two pages face up on the podium at once the one you're just finishing and the one you're about to begin. That lets you clearly see the transition over the page break, so your reading doesn't falter as you switch pages.
Take business cards to your reading. If you read well, someone may come up to you at the end and ask you if you'd be available to read at another venue, or to talk to a class or to a conference. Having a card makes it easy for them to get in touch with you later.
Here's a chart I've worked out to tell me how long it will take to read a piece out loud. This is based on actual timings of my own readings, with a certain amount of performance and flourish, and assumes a reading speed of 179 words per minute:
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