Monday, February 15, 2010

Reading with your lips moving

I'm getting ready to do a reading this week, down at the KGB Bar in New York, and Matt Staggs at Suvudu asked me if I had any advice for new writers on how to do these things. Now, I'm an ex-Theatre major, and so maybe I approach these things differently than other folks, but for me, there are two things I keep in mind: (a) the spoken story and the written story are two different things, and (b) you have to treat it like a performance.

It starts with the editing. Here's the bit from the interview on how I edit:
After I finally decide on a scene to read, I begin editing, and try to make it work as much as possible as a standalone piece. I cut out exposition that doesn't matter outside the context of the novel, and then trim other distracting details. I've cut entire characters, added descriptions from earlier in the book, and combined scenes--any hack to make it work.

Then I print out the pages in a big font and practice reading it aloud. I always have to line edit, deleting repeated words, or altering near-rhymes I didn't catch when I wrote the scene. If I've really marked up the page, I'll make the changes in the file and print again. I practice a couple more times. Even after all that, when I start reading it live, I usually realize that there are yet more changes that I should have made. If I'm feeling jazzy and confident I'll make those changes on the fly.

So, is that overkill? Underkill? What do the rest of you Clockworkers do?

A couple of things I didn't mention in the interview, and those related to the performance part of the process. One, I always read standing up. It keeps my energy (literally) up, and I can move around. I don't act out the scene -- not by a long shot -- but I do move my arms, and I do things like pause and look at the audience when the character is pausing and looking at another character.

Also, I deliberately move to address one side of the room, then another. Part of this habit comes from theatre, but mostly it comes from my three years as a high school teacher. I'm a little bit paranoid about boring people, so I like to move in on them. I think this will be harder to do at the KGB, because there's a podium with mikes, and the place is supposed to be crowded. I'll report back.

The second thing I think about is character voices. This is tricky. My first advice to a new writer is, if he's a guy, don't attempt a "woman's" voice, and for a gal, vice-versa. And for God's sake, don't do some ethnic dialect. Your only way to get away with that is Meryl Streep-level accuracy. Anything short of that will be heard as an embarrassing stereotype. The one exception? Pirate. Even Pirate-Americans find their accent funny.

I have to admit, though, that I'll be breaking the dialect rule. See, my book is set in the Smokies, and I am sure as hell going to throw down some southern accent. This is why I have 10,000 cousins all over East Tennessee -- so I can do their voices in this story. (Notice, though, how I deflected critique by claiming insider status? This is the "I can do the voice because I'm from there" defense. This strategy does not work on the internet, though. It's the fastest way to start a Race-Fail flamewar.)

But you can't not do something with your voice. I try to concentrate on emotion and tone. If I get the tone of the character right, whether they're male or female or Moldavian or nosferatu, the audience will usually meet me halfway.

That's the theory, anyway. If you're in NYC this Wednesday, Feb. 17, stop by the KGB Bar and see how it goes down. Oh, and there's this guy named Peter Straub reading too. I hear he's good.

See y'all later.


  1. I commented on this, but my comment seems to have been eaten by blog-mites. What I basically said was that this notion of preparing the reading as a spoken word thing was a new concept to me, and the next time I have a reading I'm totally going to do it.

  2. I do performances, too. I don't cut for length. But my stage training comes out and I tend to give spirited readings. I think that your approach is solid. Part of the hucksterism of a reading is enticing people to want to buy your books. I have fans who have heard me read enough out loud that they say they can "hear" my voice when the read my stuff. That's all good, in my opinion.

  3. Follow-up:

    The reading went well, according to non-objective sources at the bar, such as my editor and my wife. (Trust me, my wife would tell me if it went badly. She's not shy.) It helped that this was a science fiction crowd, a drinking science fiction crowd, some of whom I knew from cons, who were ready to have a good time and think well of the readers.

    And what a crowd. The place was packed, thanks in no small part to Peter Straub's presence. My editor and other folks were forced to listen from the hall. I read two scenes, one 13 minutes long, the other about 7, and splitting my time between two pieces seems to have helped, especially in this bar setting. It seemed to give people a chance to reposition, reset, take a drink, and focus again.

    As I suspected, I read from a podium, and there was little room to move around. The mike volume was too low, and it was one of those mikes that is very narrowly focused, so you practically had to swallow it if you wanted the PA to pick up your voice. I ended up going acoustic, trying to project to the back of the room (and the hallway) as best I could. Thank you, theatre training.

    One other interesting tidbit. When I got to my hotel room the afternoon before the reading, I still could not decide on which scenes to read. I practiced four different sections, and my wife said that it sounded flat, and that I every sentence seemed to follow the same pattern and have a similar tone. (I told you she wasn't afraid to criticize.) And she was right. The problem was that I was practicing for timing and still marking edits, and not practicing the performance. When I read in front of the audience, however, two things changed: my energy level came up, and I started concentrating on communicating, focusing on the meaning of the words. I know that sounds corny, but it really helped me to forget where I was and who was out there and just concentrate on the words.

    Long story short, I met some great people, sold some books, and hopefully didn't bore anyone. And afterward all the SF people went out to eat at the best Chinese restaurant I've ever been to in my life. Seriously. The best.

  4. By the way, Ellen Datlow, one of the co-hosts of the KGB series with Matt Kressel, posted photos: