Reader Request Week 2017 #6: Reading as Performance

Katrina Archer, who is a writer (and a former student of mine) asks:

Since you’ve recently been on tour, I have a question about the mechanics of preparation. Preparation for the *performance* not the travel.

As I’m in Canada I haven’t seen what you do on tour, although I have attended your readings at cons. Is a tour mostly readings, or are there other performance aspects? How do you select the reading and other material, and do you practice or mostly improvise? What do you feel is the most important thing to do to meet audience expectations? I’ve noticed many authors struggle to make the transition from solitary writer to performer.

First, I really do want to do a tour of Canada. It’s on my list of things to do.

Second, I do in fact think a lot of about the performance aspects of a reading, precisely because it is so very different from what writers usually do. The act of writing is usually solitary and silent and done with no one else around (or if they’re around, like in a coffee shop, incidental to the writing act). A reading, on the other hand, is meant to be social, and heard, and in front of (optimally) as many people as possible. Writing is an introverted act of creation, and a reading is an extroverted act of expression. Writing is a process, a reading is a performance.

Which takes a massive shift of gears, and not every writer is good at that, which is not a great thing when a writer who is not particularly good at it nevertheless does a reading or goes on tour. Those of us who have been to readings on a regular basis have been to the event where the writer hasn’t managed it, and it’s kind of deadly — the reading is flat, regardless of how good the text is, because the writer, as a performer, just can’t sell it. So the audience sits there, blankly polite, until they can get their book signed.

This is not to criticize these writers overmuch, I want to note. Performance is not a natural state of action for most writers, who again tend toward introversion as their default. Performance is draining and weird and it exposes you directly to the judgement of others, which is its own thing as well (and which can further affect the performance). You have to work at it to get good at it, and most writers don’t really ever have to start working at it until after they’ve published, i.e., they’ve created something people want them to read. Which is to say they’ve spent all this time learning to master one specific skill set, and when they get good at it, people want them to bolt on an entirely different skill set and take it on the road.

Which is why, in my anecdotal experience, the writers who are good at the performance of reading right out of the gate are often ringers — that is, the ones with some previous performance experience. Writers who have acted or played music or did presentations of some sort — anything which meant getting in front of people in some way, and getting used to the rigors of performance. It also helps if the writer is in fact extroverted, which is unusual but sometimes happens. Even “not actually extroverted but can fake it for a few hours” will suffice.

In my particular case, I did acting in high school and college and I can fake extroversion and I’m relatively quick-witted in real life. Also, for various reasons, for good and ill (which could be a Reader Request Week piece all in itself), I’ve long been used to the idea that when I open my mouth people want to listen. Put it all together and I’m a fairly ideal writer to do a reading…

… and I would still fail miserably at a reading without adequate preparation. Likewise, a writer who is not like me in terms of being used to being up in front of people can, if well-prepared, still offer up a presentation that hits the mark.

So, how to properly prepare? Well, this is what I suggest folks do, based on my own experience.

1. Recognize it is a performance. Which is to say that you can’t just go in front of a room, mumble your way through fifteen minutes of text, answer a couple of questions and go home (I mean, you can, but it won’t turn out the way you want it to). You actually have to be up and on, from the moment you get to the event until the moment you’re done. Which is draining, but can also be fun. When you read, don’t just read the text, act it. When you’re answering questions, don’t answer quickly, answer completely. When you’re signing, work to make it so the person you’re signing for feels like that those 30 seconds with you is a pretty good 30 seconds of their life. Know all this going in, and prepare.

2. It’s okay to role-play a little. If you’re not the sort of person is who naturally up and extroverted and ready to deal with public events, here’s a useful trick: Ask yourself “what would an up, extroverted version of me do in this situation?” And then do that. It’s called having a “public face.” I definitely have a public face — a version of me tuned for performance and dealing with the friendly strangers who show up to my events — and having cultivated that helps me on those days when I am just so not into being in front of people, or, alternately, when an event has gone on too long and my brain has clicked over from “socialized introvert” to “everyone in this building must die in fire.” If you see me at a event, you’re seeing me in what I call my “performing monkey mode.” It’s me, just on.

3. Plan your event. I mean, people are taking time out of their lives to see you, right? You might as well have a plan. When I tour, I plan specifically what things are going to happen, and how they’re supposed to work. Here’s my usual plan for my presentation, which clocks in at about an hour:

  • A primary reading (usually from an upcoming work, not the book I’m on tour for, on the basis that people who come out to see me should get something no one else gets) which will take 15-20 minutes;
  • A secondary, humorous reading (because people like to laugh) which takes about ten minutes;
  • Sometimes an additional piece (usually a Whatever post that’s on point), which can take another ten minutes;
  • If someone brings a ukulele, as they sometimes do, a short song (with patter, no more than five minutes);
  • Question and answer period, for the remainder of the hour.

And then I sign for however long it takes, and budget 30 seconds to a minute of time for each person in line.

I use this general outline because it works for me, although I tweak from tour to tour — this tour, for example, the primary reading runs a little long, so there’s no third piece, the ukulele bit comes and goes (it’s dependent on others bringing the instrument), and the Q&A sometimes goes a little longer this time around — which is fine, it’s often the best part of the event for the audience and me, because Q&A plays to my personal strengths as a performer.

The outline for each writer will be different — some people will read for a shorter amount of time, or stick to a single piece, or whatever — but I think it’s important to plan ahead so you as performer have fewer surprises, and so over the course of doing a bunch of readings you can get into a groove with the material you have on hand. Speaking of which:

4. Have some flexibility. I go on tour with a larger selection of stuff than I actually read, on the thinking that some nights, with some crowds, some material might be better than other material. Likewise, if I’m doing a reading at an event that’s being broadcast to the public, I’ll read from the newly-published book rather than the upcoming work, because I want to keep the upcoming work relatively down low. And for events where I’m teaming up with another writer, I may only read a short piece (so we both have time for reading) or we’ll abandon readings altogether and have a conversation, an idea that’s best when you have two people who can blather on and/or at least one of those people is willing to direct the conversational traffic. The point is to plan ahead enough that you have the ability to makes changes on the fly that will give everyone a better experience.

5. Don’t panic. Readings are work, and not every writer is going to be great at them right out of the box. But the thing to recognize is that when you go to do a reading, you’ve generally got a pretty easy crowd — these are people who actually went out of their way to see you and already like at least some of the stuff you do. They want you to succeed, and will give you leeway to do so. Remember that, when you’re up there, doing the reading. It makes it easier. And the more you do it, the easier it gets, most of the time.

With all that said:

6. It’s okay if you discover performance is not for you. Some writers will never be great performers and will never like being up in front of people, reading their work. For those writers, maybe other sorts of presentations (like an interview, or panel presentations, for example) might be better. Or maybe you just… don’t, and find other things that work for you, publicity-wise. There isn’t any one right way to do this stuff, you know. It’s just finding out what’s right for you.

So find out! You might be surprised.

28 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2017 #6: Reading as Performance”

  1. I’m glad someone asked this! I was wondering if you had theater/performance training since you see comfortable “on stage”. You also have a good singing voice!

  2. As a reader who travels to a lot of book events, I want to add that it is also a completely valid choice for authors not to do a reading at all, if that isn’t their thing. I’ve been to events where the authors just told anecdotes from their live, did a show&tell about research they did for the book, one memorable puppet show, and several events where the authors did just a full hour of Q&A, and all of these events were perfectly enjoyable. And at one event the author brought a friend along who was a professional narrator, which can be a valid choice at all.

    I would also like to mention that I usually prefer authors not to read from the specific book that they are selling at that tour. I’ve either just read it or am about to read it, so unless the performance is really good the reading doesn’t offer me much. Readings that I do enjoy: excerpts from upcoming/unpublished work, material specifically written for the book tour, or stories that have been published some time ago, possibly not received much circulation, and which I may not have heard of before.

  3. They make all the students
    read in front of everyone

    What the hell’s that got to do with writing? Writers write so that readers can read. Let someone else read it.

    You ever read your own book?

    In public? Hell, no. I barely read it in private. You know those things they do, that coffee shop reading shit? Do you know why they do it?

    To sell books, I guess.

    Because they want to get laid.

  4. Asimov wrote a lot (haha) on his great in-born talent as a speaker before live audiences. It was clear he completely understood the performance aspects. Well-worth reading.

    It always surprises me how many professors and scientists are completely oblivious to the performance aspects of their professions. They’ll speak to a wall, or their hand, and drone on in a deadly monotone.

    About twentysome years ago, a young scientist in my lab group was going to give a 5-minute poster talk on RGD proteins. (Poster talks, if you are unaware, are a dime-a-dozen, 10 or so posters, each on an easel, one per talker, sort of like scientific speed-dating, and at the time RGD proteins were all the rage, drowning in attention, due to a recent Nobel prize.) She rehearsed in front of me–it was her one shot for attention–and my only recommendation was that every time she said “RGD”, she was to slow down, enunciate each letter by itself, make her voice a bit louder, and let her Southern drawl get a bit thicker.

    She told me her talk was successful. Five years later, in some job interview–another performance venue!–I was asked about my non-resume talents and told the above story. One of my interviewers reacted strongly: “That was you? I remember that talk!”

  5. I attended one of your tour events and you read just fine, whether you faked the sincerity or not. My “reading” tends to be audiobooks nowadays. My preference is for authors reading their own works – Neil Gaiman is a favorite – but if the author is not the reader then they (or their editors or agents) darned well better have picked someone whom they believe does their vision of the book and characters full justice. Jim Dale on the Harry Potter series comes to mind here, and Gaiman’s books that he doesn’t read himself are excellent as well. I have heard duds. I once borrowed from the local library an audiobook of Ray Bradbury reading Fahrenheit 451. Didn’t make it out of the first chapter before shutting it down and returning it. Great author, terrible reader.

  6. Thank you very much for this, Mr. Scalzi. It helps us appreciate the work authors go through to connect meaningfully with their readers. It sounds like you have a great handle on this, and I can only comment on the public reading portion, because this is part of what I do professionally.

    Public reading is not about the printed page: it is about respecting the life that words have. A poor public reader can murder those living words, which can be a crime. But to let them live properly, the reader must let them live through themselves. That means being comfortable with your own feelings and thoughts because they are going to be on display in front of dozens, hundreds, even thousands. It helps not to fear public humiliation. Just go for it!

    I don’t prefer the word “performance” because that tends to draw attention to the reader. The excellent reader wants to draw attention to the material being read. But, that does include gestures, visual contact, facial expressions, variation in tone and pacing. It includes knowing that pausing before a thought builds suspense and anticipation; while pausing afterward allows acceptance and meditation. There’s going to be some part of the monkey brain that says, “Wow, they know how to READ!” But, more importantly, if done well, most of the audience’s mind will be on the work, what it said, meant, how important it was, thought provoking, etc. They will want to read the rest.

    So someday I hope to hear you read! Better be on your toes, Scalzi! I’ll be judging! (Not really. I’ll probably just be tickled to be there!)

    Tour on!

  7. I recently attended a reading where the author began by telling us that he was a terrible reader and didn’t think authors should have to do readings. And, yup, he read so quickly and so softly that we couldn’t really appreciate the work at all. I wish he had chosen to do a conversation or panel instead!

  8. I’ve attended several of your readings, and I have stood in line several times for you to sign a book for me, and I have to say that your public face is one of the friendliest and most welcoming I’ve ever encountered in such a situation. You excel at reading a piece in a memorable way (one of the reasons I was looking forward to TCE so much was your reading of the prologue at WorldCon last year), and you are incredibly gracious at being Up And On And Interested And Focused on the person in front of you, even when they are the 147th person in a line of 200 or more folks waiting to talk with you.

    Being a complete introvert myself, I am both in awe of and exhausted by your example. I’d be a basket case after that much interaction with that many people. It’s hard for me to imagine how someone can switch between that persona and the level of introspection and solitary thought that are necessary to write books. But I deeply appreciate your ability to do so.

  9. Please come to Winnipeg if you do a Canadian tour. Some authors jump from Toronto to Calgary or Vancouver and completely miss our lovely, friendly city. We love authors and some of my favourite writers have come to Winnipeg (Ian Rankin, Robert J. Sawyer, Diana Gabaldon) so it is not unheard of.

  10. I just finished reading AL Kennedy’s book, On Writing, where she has really interesting views on the connection between her own speaking voice and her ability to use it, and her voice as a writer. Her notion is that it’s a good thing for people to learn to speak up; this from someone like yourself and also me, ‘not actually extroverted but can fake it for a few hours’.

    I’m only starting out in getting my fiction published but I’ve been performing my poetry for a bit over three years now, and I took advantage of every performance class and, eventually, masterclass that I could get to. It’s only in the last year that the stage fright has not been crippling, and even recently that friends who have been following my performance have said that it’s more confident. So, yeah, if you can get it, training is good and preparation is essential. But if you know that you are going to have to perform, getting up there to perform is beaten by nothing else. For me at least, the way to learn confidence at the mic, was there at the mic.

  11. Just so you know, this has been my favorite reader request and answer from you in a long time. Great perspective and information!

  12. From the booksellers perspective, I always tell authors “This is your time, do what you want to do.” I want both the author and the audience to have a good time. Sometimes it involves a reading, sometimes questions and answers, and sometimes sitting in a circle on the floor playing games (that’s usually children’s authors!).

  13. One of the most memorable signings I attended was one for Tad Williams, who used to be a DJ. He asked US questions! We had a lovely chat about drop bears, skull-sucking monkeys and banana slugs. The signing with a certain John Scalzi where I managed to be the only person who noticed he’d arrived was pretty cool too — yay for Hawaiicon.

  14. How much do you think the tour impacts sales? Also poor quality tour more harm than good?

  15. When you say you budget 30 seconds to a minute for signings, do you actually time this? Or do you just do it mentally, and think” Yeah, that’s about right”.

  16. Great question. I just saw Elif Batuman give a reading of The Idiot at Politics & Prose in DC, and she was wonderful. Projected an air of naturalness, but boy, was she prepared.

    Went to a reading of Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, but it was totally ruined by the miserable acoustics in the venue. Neither I nor Marcia nor her daughter Anne could make out a word, and yet he was clearly on form (the book is terrific, by the way).

  17. Mike M:

    No, I don’t measure it precisely; it’s just a heuristic based on experience. Some people take more time, many take less.

  18. I was an introvert growing up. Went into the USAF, and starting in AFROTC in college had lots of training in how to give briefings. That training has stood me in very good stead. I give several presentations to various groups on subjects like the Battle of Turtle Gut Inlet during the RevolutionarybWar, the US Sanitary Commission in the Civil War, and the 42nd “Rainbow” Infantry Division in WWI.

    If you are going to be reading, whether it be from a book, magazine article, or a prepared speech, in addition to reading the material through, also read it through OUT LOUD to yourself several times before you do it in public! If I don’t prepare like that, I find myself stumbling over words, etc. And if you have read the material through several times out loud, it is a lot easier to get inflections, etc in your voice so you aren’t reading in a boring monotone.

  19. Read this, read Ann Leckie’s thoughts on it and realized – There is a great difference between acting and performing. Although I did High School drama, I CANNOT act. I CAN, however, perform. When I sing, I perform. Not well perhaps ( usually off-key) but I let the audience know I am having fun. Acting, you make the audience feel what you, as a character feel. Performing, you let the audience know that you are enjoying interacting with them.

  20. Thanks for this. I love these peaks behind the scenes of how you do your work.

    I am curious though—and terrified as the I ntroverted, anxious, social phobic that I am—about how you deal with the unexpected in these performances. I mean things like someone loudly eating chips while you read or maybe an actual heckler. Have you ever had those? What do you do?

    As well, Quebec City. You have to come here on your Canadian tour.

    Note to self: find a ukelele

  21. I think a key thing for a writer to remember during a reading, a public talk, or (in most instances) a panel discussion or public appearance is that audience WANTS you to do well, they’re ROOTING for you, they are there to enjoy themselves. Whether someone in the audience is a big fan of your work or is someone just saw a sign somewhere 5 minutes ago “author reading” and thought “hm, maybe I’ll sit down for 5 minutes there,” I think most writers doing a reading or a talk have a very receptive audience–and should remember that. The audience will pull for you if you’re a little shy or make a mistake or have a moment of blankness. Get comfortable with them–they want you to feel comfortable.

    Being a writer in a public appearance is, for most of us, a WORLD APART from being a stand-up comic facing a crowd of inebriated hecklers at 1am. (Comics are the bravest of all performers, IMO.) Most people in your audience as a writer want to have a nice time–and want you to have a nice time, too. Keeping that in mind helps, I think.

  22. I did my first reading a couple months ago, and it went pretty well. I’ve done a lot of music performances (lots of band, symphony, and piano recitals when I was a kid), and I found it super helpful to channel that performance mindset.

  23. On your point 2, even someone as experienced as Beyonce does it. She calls her performance alter ego ‘Sacha fierce’, so it’s not an uncommon strategy.

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