Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t going to read your novel (or How To Give A Great Author Reading)

This is Benedict Cumberbatch reading Little Red Hen.

Unfortunately you did not write Little Red Hen.

Unfortunately Benedict Cumberbatch is very unlikely to attend your next book event.

Unfortunately you’re going to have to do the reading yourself.

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But fortunately, even though you aren’t Benedict Cumberbatch (if you are Benedict Cumberbatch please leave me a comment) you can give a great author reading.

But.. but… but… many author readings aren’t great. Some stink. Forget that. Your reading can be wonderful. It isn’t hard. It just takes thought, preparation, and practice. Without further ado here are my tips for a successful author reading:

1)   There’s really only one hard and fast rule.  HONOR YOUR WORDS.

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Be proud of your accomplishment and share your pride with your audience.

How? Speak loud. Speak slow. Lift your chin and occasionally establish occasional eye contact with your audience. Enunciate. Read like you mean it.

While you’re at it, ham it up a little. Ordinary gestures look small when viewed from the audience. Ordinary enunciation sounds a little flat. Pump everything up, a little or a lot. Perform. You won’t seem ridiculous. You’ll be enchanting.

Don’t believe me? Video yourself reading with every day mannerisms, then repeat with a bit of exaggeration. The more flamboyant one is way better, isn’t it?

2)   But Also Chill

You aren’t giving the soliloquy in Hamlet. Just be you.

Watch J.K. Rowling read from her first Harry Potter book, H.P. and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It’s a great reading but she’s not doing anything crazy. She’s just reading calmly, with color and enthusiasm, honoring her story (even when little kids run around, ignoring her.)

Some people calm down by imagining their audience in underwear (EEEWWWWW) Some people take a stiff drink (tempting but not recommended) Do whatever you need to do to settle down, whether it’s deep breathing or running in circles or shouting at the top of your lungs. Of course the best way to stay calm is to be very very very very well prepared.

3) Chose your text wisely.

Pick a lively section of your work- a section where interesting characters are doing interesting things. Make sure the scene you read is a grabber.

And here’s a secret. You can edit what you read. You can cut and paste. You can skip bits- words, sentences, paragraphs, whole chapters-  to create the ideal read-aloud portion. A story read on the page is different from one read out loud. When you read aloud your voice supplies the white space and transitions. If you need to make alterations to deliver the best reading possible go for it. Nobody’s going to sit in the audience with your book on their lap checking for deviations… and if they do you’re giving them a little “insider” thrill.

3) Two Words (okay three) Short And Sweet. Many excellent authors read WAY too many pages in the mistaken idea that they’ll impress an audience with a heaping load of steamy words. It does not work that way!

Keep them begging for more. Chances are you’re hoping to sell books, either at this event or somehow, some day, somewhere. If your audience feels stuffed and exhausted by your reading they won’t want to read the rest. Keep them hungry for more by serving a tempting morsel of your delicious work. They’ll clamor for the whole thing.

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4)   Practice. Read aloud. Read aloud in front of a person. Or a dog. Or a person with a dog. Get your mouth around multisyllabic words. Test pauses and pace changes. Consider when to raise and lower your voice.

When you’re practicing time yourself. Make sure your reading fits comfortably into the time allotted. Then cut the amount you’re reading by about a quarter so you have no reason to feel rushed at the actual reading. The more you practice the better you’ll feel when all eyes and ears are on you and your book.

5)   For goodness sakes PLEASE don’t read with a dialect. Ever. Assuming you’re not Meryl Streep (who, like Benedict Cumberbatch, is not going to read your book) any accent you try is more likely to offend or, at least, distract your audience than enhance your reading.  No exceptions for dialog by hillbillies, people of color, elves, or anyone else. Do Not Do This. REALLY. DON’T READ IN DIALECT IT’S ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS WITHOUT EXCEPTION AWFUL I mean you, sort of famous author. Stop it!

6)   Don’t let other authors get to you. If you’re reading in a group some writers before you will tuck their chins to their chests and speak in nervous whispers, and for a minute you’ll be tempted to copy them. Because standing proud with your eyes on your audience and your voice raised high is….. showing off! Isn’t it? No. It’s honoring your work and your words. Even more it’s honoring your audience with the reading they deserve. Don’t cheat the people who’ve come to support you. Read it like you mean it.

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7) Which brings me to my final point. Shy has nothing to do with a good reading. Good public readings are orchestrated. You don’t have to make spontaneous small talk. You don’t have to be cool. You read words off a page… and they are words you already know- you wrote them!

Practice until reading your passage feels like second nature, then pretend you’re happy to be reading in a room with a dozen or a hundred people. Or pretend you’re all alone in your bathrobe at home. After you leave the podium you can run out the back door.

Which authors do you think do a great job reading their work?

~tami lewis brown

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Tami Lewis Brown lives in one of the oldest houses in Washington, DC. It is (mostly) ghost-free. She escaped from a career as a trial lawyer to obtain an MFA in Writing For Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. And she’s the author of the forthcoming RADIANT MAN along with SOAR, ELINOR! and THE MAP OF ME, all published by Farrar Straus and Giroux Books for Young Reader.

6 thoughts on “Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t going to read your novel (or How To Give A Great Author Reading)

    • I think this depends on the venue/situation. In general, at bookstore type events I personally believe an audience gets very antsy after ten minutes of reading, at the outside. They like a bit of a presentation and Q&A in addition to a taste of the writing itself.

      If you’re reading with a group of writers you’ll be given a set amount of time and NEVER EVER EVER go over your portion, even by one minute. The other authors will hate you and so will everybody in the audience who’s not a blood relative. Some writers approach a group reading as if it was some kind of pie eating contest and try to cram in as much of their own as they can. Big mistake.

      Given my druthers, I read two pages (or 4-500 words) at those sorts of things, even if others are reading twice that. Of course, if everyone is set to read for twenty minutes I don’t sit down after three or four minutes! Bottom line- I want to deliver an engaging performance and leave the audience wishing for more.

      If you’re the one and only featured writer at an evening booked as “a reading” then follow your host’s guidelines, but your selection and your delivery better be absolutely on-the-edge-of-your-seat compelling to last a half an hour or more. (That said I’ve been to readings I wished would go on and on. That’s when I always buy the book!)

  1. An excellent topic. I’m one of those lucky people that feels more comfortable speaking/reading to a crowd than individuals. Okay, that’s a coin toss on whether it’s lucky or not.

    I think the PRACTICE part cannot be overstated. It’s why actors rehearse. When you know the material really, really well you develop a comfort, and a confidence, that the audience will respond to.

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