It’s your big day at the Emirates LitFest. You are an invited author and everyone wants to hear you reading your book. Are you ready to do it justice?
In his book Making an Elephant – Writing from Within (Picador, 2009), the author Graham Swift makes the point that “readings are the ‘purest’ form of book-advertisement: the book speaks for itself.”
Whether you like it or not, the time will come when you will be asked to open your book and read aloud to an audience from its pages. A bad reading, stumbling over the words, rushing the delivery, pausing in the wrong places, can lose you sales, and future readers. Learning to read aloud effectively is an important skill for every writer. It is also useful for other reasons.
I have read countless story drafts in which words were accidentally left out. The writers simply didn’t spot the omissions. In their haste to finish a piece of writing, many people fail to notice missing words and phrases, or those irritating grammar slips that occur when work is cut and pasted. This is less likely to happen if writers read their drafts out loud carefully during the editing process.
How to read, or not
If you belong to a writers’ group and have the opportunity to read your work to your fellow-writers, always read slowly and with feeling. English is a ‘stress-timed language.’ It has a methodical rhythm that can easily be imbued with meaning. If you rattle through your work like a bullet train, it becomes worthless. You give the impression that you are so dismayed or ashamed by your own writing that you want to rid yourself of it as soon as possible. So, read slowly. Make every word count. Your pronunciation doesn’t matter as much as your stress, intonation, pace, and pauses.
When you are writing, consider your punctuation. This is your personal guide to creating the rhythm of the language within your book. There are, of course, authors – Cormac McCarthy is one example – who sometimes leave out standard punctuation. My advice is don’t do it. You need to punctuate correctly in order to help your readers reproduce the cadence or rhythm of your work in their minds.
You also need to practise projecting your voice. A faint and limp delivery suggests to your listeners that you have scant faith in your book and its message. At a literary festival reading, you will probably have the benefit of speaking into a microphone. In a small group, you will need to do a ‘big voice,’ to ensure that your audience hears the story you are telling.
Writers as readers
If you have any doubts at all about the necessity for writers to be able to read their own work aloud, check in to The New Yorker. Every week you can read a story by some of the best writers in circulation today. And, supplementing the print version, you will find a podcast of those same authors reading their own work. Recent readers include George Saunders, Louise Erdrich, and Salman Rushdie.
Print or audio?
This brings me on to audiobooks. I am a big fan but, if you are a writer, remember that you have not ‘read a book’ if you have only listened to its audio version. Books are printed. Compare, for example, the printed pages of The Book Thief and A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. There is a world of difference in the appearance of the text on the page.
You need to see how the words are presented in print to understand better how the writer wants to convey meaning. How does the author organize his/her paragraphs? How do you know you are reading the protagonist’s thoughts? How do you know who is speaking? This is usually clear in the audio recording, but how is it shown on the printed page? How are specific words spelled or emphasized? All this you learn from reading the book as opposed to listening to the audio recording. A writer needs to focus on both form and content. An audiobook, however wonderful, focuses you on content alone. If you have the means, use both: read the printed book, and listen to the audiobook to hear how the words flow.
Be a secret reader
So, practise reading your work aloud in the secrecy of your room at home, or in the safety of your writers’ group. The act of reading, and of hearing your own voice will show you your mistakes, omissions, and any ugly or clunky writing. The more difficult your work is to read, the more likely it is that it needs revision. Do this often and you will be well prepared for your first LitFest reading.
Written by Janet Olearski
Janet Olearski is an author and writing coach. When her lips move, is she reading her work out loud, or is she simply talking to herself? Find her at: http://www.janetolearski.com