March 4, 2015

What makes a successful reading: what one author learned while preparing for his debut


Over the years of working evenings at Porter Square Books, I have seen roughly 1.73263 shmillion events; some great, some good, some eh, and a few that made me want to spoon my own eyeballs out into a Red Italian Wedding Soup. (Swish.) As a result, I’ve developed a few opinions as to what constitutes a successful author event, and now, in a thrilling and terrifying turn of events, get to actually test out those opinions at my own readings. (Wait till the Internet hears that you can sometimes find out if opinions are true!) And I’ve got to be honest, I feel a sense of real pressure for these events. For most authors, especially debut authors, there is a learning curve with the entire publishing process including the readings, but if I stumble at the microphone, I can’t claim inexperience with book readings. I’ve introduced hundreds of events. I’ve offered advice and helped prep authors for their readings and I’ve talked to booksellers about what works and what doesn’t work. The long and the short of it, though not everyone who attends my events (Please attend an event. Please?), will know I’m a bookseller, I will feel like an ass if I forget to repeat the question. So, given that extremely long, somewhat anxious, introduction, here’s how I’m preparing for my events.

Selecting Passages: Not all passages in a book are appropriate for readings. There are beautiful sentences that don’t sound good out loud and if you get more than two characters speaking for any extended period of time, the required X and Y saids, can end up grating on the ear. And then, of course, some passages require context. The biggest problem with an author having to explain the context of a passage is that few will remember the context that’s just been explained when it becomes relevant in the passage. Sure, you’ll tell everyone that the “John” mentioned in the passage is the brother’s mechanic, but only so many people are actually going to retain that information and recall it when “John” is mentioned. And, of course, you don’t want to give too much away. You should leave the audience with questions that can only be answered by reading the book. So I needed to find passages that have the right amount of plot to raise but not answer questions, that don’t need an awkward context set up, that sound good out loud, that have a complete narrative arc and, since the dialog is an important part of the experience of the book, that include the right amount of dialog. The good news is that, my primary proofreading technique is reading the book out loud, so I was able to test run the whole book for readabilty.

Creating Reading Drafts: But even if a particular chapter meets the qualifications to be a reading passage, that doesn’t mean the entire chapter works in a reading. There are visual cues beyond the words that tell a reader how to interpret the words themselves, and since most people don’t read along with the author, most of the audience won’t have those visual cues. They won’t be able to see the paragraph breaks when a new character is speaking, or when a long pause is illustrated by an ellipsis, or whether or not the sentence includes an oxford comma. (It does!) Furthermore, pronouns, terms, and phrases that rely on some kind of antecedent are a lot easier to keep track of when you can just glance up at the preceding line, which you can’t do if you’re listening to a reading. So, after I identified the passages I wanted to read, I edited them all a little bit so they could communicate, as much as possible, without those visual cues.

It’s a Performance: The most common mistake I see authors make at readings is they just read. They forget that, when there’s a stage of some kind, no matter what you’re doing, you’re performing. That doesn’t mean all authors have to go all slam poetry, but we have to do something so it isn’t just us reading words from a book. When you read to a child, and the story you’re reading includes a speaking dog, when the dog speaks you read in the dog voice, (Heaven help you if you don’t read in the dog voice.) when the villain is speaking you read in the villain voice, and when there’s onomatopoeia, you do your best to replicate the sound itself. In short, you perform the book. And as anyone who was read to a child knows, it is an absolute joy to have a book performed for you. So, after I created the reading draft, I tried to find ways to bring the words to life, not, at the level of slam poetry, because my book isn’t slam poetry, but, I hope, with enough vitality to tap into that joy of being read to. What specifically, have I done to inject performance into the piece? You’ll have to attend. (Look! A hook!)

Practicing the Everloving Hell Out of It: I’m pretty sure my cat has my readings memorized. I’m pretty sure she judges me whenever I practice. I am certain she finds my efforts wanting.

Timing Passages: Human attention is a limited entity and all venues have their preferred performance time, so I timed every passage and noted that time in my reading drafts, to be able to fit a complete performance into whatever time frame is required. If I only have seven minutes, I have a set up and passage that’s about seven minutes long. If I’ve got longer than that, I can mix and match the passages to meet the requirement of the event. If the initial plan runs short or something changes, I can add or subtract passages and know how much time I have added or subtracted. The real goal of timing a reading is to prevent as much paper-shuffling, page-turning, and passage-selecting at the microphone, as possible, those moments when the author tries to say something witty to take up the microphone time, but really can’t, because the majority of said author’s consciousness is being used to pick out the best passage. It’s why, even when some tuning needs to happen during the set, musicians always do their sound check before the audience gets there.

Audience Interaction: To me, the other part of the joy of being read to as a child is your chance to participate in the reading. Reading the words you just learned at school, or guessing what’s going to happen next or demanding a certain passage be reread or skipped. Because of this interaction, you feel like you’re a part of the story. So, I’ve created a way for the audience to participate, in some small way, with the reading. What is that way? Well, it won’t involve a t-shirt cannon, (Um, Alex, Nick, Kirsten, can I have a t-shirt cannon? I swear I’ll only use it for good. Corollary request: If you give me a t-shirt cannon, can I have some t-shirts?) but you’ll have to attend to find out. (Another hook!) (Though, I will say that WORD is getting “Obfuscated Democracy.”)

Ultimately, I think of this amount of preparation as one-part “Jesus, I Hope I Don’t Embarrass Myself” and two-parts, “These People Could Be Doing Anything Right Now, I Mean, There’s Probably a Bruins Game On, but They Came to See Me,” with a dash of “This Is Part of Your Fucking Dream, Dude,” and a whisper of “You Could Even Sell Some Books Tonight.” It’s about repaying the bookstores who have given me the stage and making connections with readers in an otherwise solitary pursuit of truth through the written word.  And of course, there’s only one way to find out whether this work was worth it:

Here they are, with links to them on our site

March 5 – WORD – Brooklyn, NY

March 7 – Sherman’s – Portland, ME

March 10 – River Run – Portsmouth, NH

March 12 – Odyssey Bookshop – South Hadley, MA

March 14 – Books on the Square – Providence, RI

March 16 – R.J. Julia – Madison, CT


Josh Cook is a bookseller at Porter Square Books. His first novel, An Exaggerated Murder, was published by Melville House in March 2015.