Authors! Four Rules To Read Your Story So People Buy Your Damn Book.

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 4.824% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I have been lulled to sleep by many an author-friend.  I show up at their readings because they kept me up until two o’clock in the morning, laughing at their wild anecdotes, listening to their observations…
Then they start reading their story, and this vibrant personality becomes the world’s dullest newsreader, rattling off the words in monotone fury like they had a train to catch.
So this is the first rule of Reading A Story: The audience did not come to hear your story. They came to meet you.
Now, if you’re good at improvising in front of crowds, then you can do what Matthew Dicks did, and just turn your event into a meet-and-greet where you take questions from the audience.  But note that Matthew is a sixteen-time poetry-slam winner, so he’s a performer.  (Me?  I’m super-good in front of crowds because I emceed the Rocky Horror Picture Show for three years, which gives me the side-benefit of being super-comfortable in fishnets and high heels.)
Yet conventions usually won’t give an unknown author a slot on the schedule for “Author does random shit.”  It’s easier to sell them on “Give me an hour to read this story.”  And if you’re not comfortable in front of crowds, then having Something To Do is a good shield in case you don’t feel like vamping for an hour.  So reading a story is a good thing, for beginning authors.
So rule two: You are not reading them your story. You are telling them what you liked about your story.
“But didn’t you just tell me to read my story?” Yes, I did. But “reading your story” is not transcribing the words with your lips.
With every paragraph, you’re telling them why you kept this paragraph in the story.
Did you keep it in because it was exciting? Then read it like you were excited. Did you keep it in because it was snarky? Read it in a snarky tone of voice.  Is this the slow, lyrical section? Read it slow and lyrically.
(Or if you’re understated, be understated. My friend and fabulous author Kelly Link thinks she’s not good at reading, because she’s low-key. But her stories are dry and understated, just as she is often dry and understated, so when she reads it’s actually perfectly suited to her personality.)
Think about the reasons you loved this paragraph enough to keep it in, then find a way to convey that audially.
And note that you’re telling them what you liked about your story, which involves telling it in your way.  The audience came to get a sense of you, so don’t try to read your talelike some bad imitation of your favorite actor.  (Unless your personality is a bad imitation of your favorite actor – an embarrassing amount of my life is a terrible Bruce Campbell ripoff.)
If you’re snarky, be snarky in the way that you are when you’re bitching to your buddies.  If you’re reading dialogue, try to give it the rhythms that you have when you speak.  This is the Whitman’s Sampler of Who You Are, and people will be grateful to see that.
Which leads me to rule three: Slow down and give the audience time to process.
You know every word in this story. The audience doesn’t. In the excitement of the performance you may well barf out the entire tale in one breathless lung-emptier, but then nobody will know what happened.
If you read your entire story and nobody can tell, audially, where your paragraphs are, then you have not conveyed rhythm.
So slow down.  Speak about 30% slower than you think you need to (and about 50% louder).  When you have delivered a chunk of meaningful information, give the audience a second to process what that information means.
And don’t step on your own punchlines. When I first started reading, I was afraid of silence, so I’d read something funny and then fill that gap with more words before the audience realized I’d made a joke.  I’ve since come to realize that a joke is a gift you make to a crowd – and like any gift, you don’t give it and then walk away (or worse, give it and then eye them anxiously until they provide the obligatory squeeing). You hand them time to savor it, and hopefully they’ll laugh. Sometimes they won’t. Crowds differ.
I give the audience my punchlines like the sampler lady giving out little sausages at CostCo.  I put it out, give the audience a moment to recognize it’s there, let them pick up the funny if it’s to their taste. Some people don’t want it; that’s fine.  Move on.  But if they crowd in and start to laugh, let the laugh build until it’s done.
So how do I know all of these places to stop and swell?
Practice and time. Practice and time.
I read every story I write out loud at least twice.  That’s good advice for any author.  “Reading out loud” will pick out awkward phrasings in your story like you wouldn’t believe, and is usually my final step before story submission.
But before an author reading, I read my story out loud three more times, with a timer handy. Charlie Jane Anders gave me some great advice that a story can hold your audience for about fifteen minutes, and you should never go over twenty.  (I have gone past my time, and it’s gone well, but I like edgeplay.)  You should know precisely how long your story takes to read, which means you get to read about 2,000-2,500 words before you’re done.
(What if 2,500 words isn’t enough? Cut. I have stories I have slashed to ribbons to make them convention-readable, with black lines gashed through whole paragraphs. Or maybe start halfway through the story; better to have an exciting fifteen-minute reading with a two-minute explanatory introduction than it is to have a forty-minute reading that exhausts the audience’s attention span.)
And when you read it, that’s when you think about why you liked this paragraph.  Which each reading, figure out ways to emphasize that paragraph-love better, get at ease with the story so you’re not reading words, but instead channelling the essence of you that you put into this tale.  Each reading tells you the rhythm of this story – where you trip up so you need to slow down, where you realize this makes you sad so you need to speak as though it is a sad thing you’re discussing.
Is that a lot of work for a single reading?  Yes.  But it’s a lot better than boring an audience.  And knowing your precise run-time convenient for multiple-author readings, so you won’t step over someone else’s time and piss off another author.
(My reading from my novel Flex requires three minutes of explanatory setup, and eighteen minutes of very exciting magical drug-making.  A little over, but when you’ve got two characters trying to figure out how to condense dangerous magic into crystallized, snortable form, people are forgiving.)
You’re going to be nervous. Crowds do that. But you should not be nervous about translating your story into tongue-compressed waves of air, and reading it in advance burns off the nervousness of Can I do this? and changes it to the slightly-more-manageable Can I do this in front of all these people?
You damn well can. Good luck.
 

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