Monday, July 23, 2012

Tips for Reading Your Writing in Public

Though my book isn't finished, I've read excerpts from it more than fifty times at venues in Boston, New York, and once while on a ski vacation in Revelstoke, Canada. I've also received instruction from a friend who is a professional performer.

At this story slam, I was terrified. I was there to video-tape a friend and wasn't expecting to perform. (Despite my jerky performance -- note the left hand flopping around-- I won.) Worth noting: I face different directions depending on which character is talking, and each character has a different accent and cadence. All things described below.

The Tips:

1) Choose Short, Complete Scenes that Stand Alone (This can work for fiction, non-fiction, and memoir)

A complete scene is like a miniature story: there's a beginning, middle, and an end. There's narrative tension, conflict, and some kind of resolution. If the scene has some dialog, all the better.

Ideally, you want to rewrite the scene for a reading so that any background is woven into the story. Nothing is more boring or tedious than listening to an author provide a laundry list of characters and background material before he starts to read.

2) Did I Mention: Keep Each Piece Short?

In my experience, seven minutes for a piece is probably the maximum. An ideal length is five minutes. An even better length is three minutes.

If you're doing multiple pieces, mix in pieces of different lengths.

Another reason for shorter pieces:
- At a poetry slam or a poetry open mic, you can read anything you want -- including pieces that are not poetry -- as long as the piece is under three minutes. If anyone asks, you're doing a "narrative poem." You don't need to win the slam, you just have to get up on stage and read your piece.
- At many story slams, your piece has to be less than five minutes in length. If you're over the time limit, you'll be penalized. Too far over and they may yank you off the stage.

3) Dialog

Attributions: Move them to the beginning of the sentence; this makes it clear for the listener who is speaking.

Better yet, use a different voice or accent or cadence for each character. For internal dialog or a character's thoughts, talk in a softer voice. Starting every sentence with "he said" or "she said" gets boring, fast.

Try a physical gesture to differentiate a character. If a character has a beard, scratch it when he's talking.

Also, the narrator should always face the same direction, while other characters can face the opposite direction. In my pieces, I turn my head to the left for the narrator and to the right for other characters.

Some easy voices options:
- quick and nervous for neurotic characters
- slow for confident for braggarts
- a Spanish accent
- a Russian accent
- a Southern accent
- a flirty woman's voice
- a deep man's voice for an authority figure

You also may want to avoid scenes with too many characters. Three characters in one scene is the most I've been able to pull off.

4) Rewriting a Piece for a Reading

- Simplify: Unless you're writing poetry -- which we aren't -- simplify or cut descriptions of scenery and people unless they're really memorable. The scene should focus on action. Instead of using three words to describe something use two. Instead of "a giant, three-headed snake," say, "a three-headed snake." Instead of "white, crusty stains," say, "crusty stains." (In the videos above and below, I used the three-word versions of these phrases, which I have since cut to two.)

 - Remind: If you have a detail or character mentioned early that returns later in the story, emphasize the detail on first mention and then remind readers when it appears later-- don't assume they'll remember something from three minutes. As a listener, you have less time to absorb the story.

5) Other Stuff to Remember

- If you're reading of a printed page, print out the text in a large font. (I use 18 point). If will make it easier for you to look up at the audience without losing your place.
- Mark in pencil on the page, when you're supposed to make certain gestures.
- Pause after jokes, or key lines, let them land, let people laugh. But start reading before the laughter has completely subsided. If no one laughs, take it like a man and keep going.
- Practice at open mic events, where nothing is at stake.
- Memorize a short piece or two -- you'll stand out from the other readers.

- Record video at one of your readings and post individual stories on Youtube or your Web site. (Useful when you're pitching yourself -- you can direct organizations to a recorded performance.)
- Stage fright: Yes, you will have it. Sometimes the day of a big performance, I develop flu-like symptoms, including aches, pains, a sore throat, nausea. I wonder why I'm doing this to myself, again. But once I start performing, it all disappears.
- You will bomb occasionally. An audience will be small, too politically correct, too politically incorrect. (I've read pieces to an audience one week who loved and the same piece to an indifferent audience the next. That's show biz.)

This piece went over well at the this Cambridge story slam, but bombed in front of a younger audience who found the title, "The Day I Almost Became Gay" offensive. (Before performing the piece for the first time, I ran it by a gay friend who said it was fine. Did I mention that's show biz?)

6) Where to Find Venues at Which to Read

- Open Mikes.Org
- Google: "Story Slams." Most big cities offer them.
- Walk into a small bookstore and offer to read. If person you're addressing is behind a computer, direct them to your Web site -- you did post a video of you reading at an open mic, right?
- Other venues: public libraries (they often pay), adult education centers (they also pay), art festivals, folk music open mics (they often allow a story-teller to tell a short story. You are a story-teller, right?)

For More Tips for Writers, See

- Easy, Sleazy Book Marketing Tips
Change you traffic measuring tool, join a Facebook Like-fest, and if anyone asks: "But officer, everyone else is doing it."
- Query Letter Confusion
When one agent says A and another says B  and a third says ... How I dealt with the situation and what I learned. Includes links to sample query letters. Oy.

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