Monday, September 26, 2011

Guest Blogger Jennifer Nielsen: The Rules of Readings

When my kids were little, long before I was published,  I used to volunteer in their classrooms and read out loud. More than once, other adults stopped, thinking they were listening to an audiobook or tape recording. However now that I have books of my own?  My reading-out-loud skills seemed to have gone the way of the dodo.

Truly, I suck at reading my own stuff out loud. Which is why I was so thrilled when Jen Nielsen offered to share some tips for this most critical author skill!

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Last spring, I was invited to do a reading from my forthcoming novel, The False Prince, to the sales and marketing team members from Scholastic. I was nervous, but reminded myself that I’d done plenty of readings before, and that after all, I was a theater major. And yet as I practiced in my hotel room, I stumbled over words, gave pauses where it made absolutely no sense to hesitate, and convinced myself that babbling incoherence was an inevitable part of my future.

Remember the rules, I told myself. You know what to do.

And thanks to those rules, the reading went well.

Doing a public reading can be challenging to every author – not just shrinking violets. Some people are naturally better at oral reading, some have stronger voices, and some are more comfortable in front of an audience. But regardless of where your talents are, everyone can give a good public reading. Here are some tips that can help.

1.  Choose the right passage.  For any audience, it’s best to choose an excerpt that’s heavy on action and dialogue, or emotional weight, and light on description and backstory. Be careful not to choose something that gives away spoilers.
You’re also looking for something that will run a total of two to four minutes. That may not sound like a lot of time, but you’re going to put a lot of energy into it, so that’s plenty.

Finally, from beginning to end, it should be a complete scene, including conflict, rising action, and a great climax (Hint: Some authors end the reading right at the climax and tell people to read the book to find out what happens).

2.  Treat the manuscript like a monologue. For your audience, listening to you is much like listening to a movie that’s on in the other room. They can hear the dialogue and the action. But they can’t see the scenery or follow the movement of the characters. All of that is meaningless to them.

So prepare for some surgery on the excerpt. Eliminate anything that doesn’t add to your reading, even if it’s an important thread to the overall plot. This includes long descriptions (of anything), and backstory references irrelevant to this excerpt. They’d feel like moving through mud while you’re reading. It also will include dialogue that may make sense within the total context of the story, but that is extraneous within the small passage you’ll be reading.

3.  Narrow your characters.  Remember that the excerpt should be a complete scene in itself. Very often the chosen passage has a line or two of dialogue that is vital to the scene, but that is spoken by a character who doesn’t matter in your excerpt. Unless the audience is already familiar with all of your characters, if you can attribute that dialogue to another character just during the reading, it will be less confusing to the audience. Sometimes to accomplish this, you may need to make a slight adjustment to the plot. Go ahead. Unless you’re JK Rowling and the world is paying attention to every syllable you utter, it won’t matter.

4.  Practice aloud. Forget about “reading” and focus on the emotional center of the story. Your reading should capture the emotion, not the plot. Each word can be a tool that reaches inside the audience and holds them captive. To do this, say the words as what they are. “Cold” should be spoken as if your breath was made of ice, and “warm” would be the opposite. If your character is hurrying, read it faster. If your character is hiding, your voice may become softer.

This is a technique known as “coloring words,” and it is the biggest difference between an ordinary reading and an unforgettable one.

Feel free to mark up your excerpt as you practice. I underline words I want to emphasize, put slash marks between places I want to pause, and draw arrows to show where I want to go faster. They work like stage directions for me as I’m reading.

5. Prep your audience. Part of every reading is first orienting the audience to the scene. The setup should be brief and clear. The audience needs to have a basic idea of who the protagonist is, a general idea of the book’s plot, the more specific circumstances of the scene, and finally, a brief introduction to the other characters they’ll meet. Rehearse this orientation so that it’s just as fluid as your reading.

6.  Read with your whole heart. A good reading is a little bit of theater. Dive into it, holding back nothing. It’s the people who keep one foot in the safe zone who end up looking ridiculous. Don’t worry about overplaying it. You don’t have the benefit of costumes, scenery, or fellow actors, so all you have is how you read. Pour everything you have into it, bringing the scene alive.
And have fun. Because even if your reading isn’t perfect, if you’re having fun, then the audience will too.

The second book in Jennifer Nielsen’s Underworld Chronicles series, Elliot and the Pixie Plot, was recently released with Sourcebooks. She will also release the first book in the Ascendance Trilogy, The False Prince, with Scholastic in April 2012.  Learn more about Jennifer and her books at

Thank you so much, Jen! I have some upcoming school visits and I cannot wait to put these tips to the test!

Also, thanks so much to all of you who weighed in last week! It was great to hear what everyone has been up to. And ::drum roll, please:: the winner of last weeks comment drawing is Susannah Leonard Hill! (See? You weren't too late at all!) Email me with your address and I will get your prize right out to you!


Anonymous said...

Great tips -- thank you! One question -- do you print your excerpt in a larger type size? (It's amazing how small 12 point can look when you are standing in front of a room...)

Glen Strathy said...

Great tips. Also, I like your blog. As someone who writes children's novels with introverted heroines who triumph despite their anxiety, I appreciate your introvert bill of rights.

Kimberley Griffiths Little said...

Very helpful, Jen, thanks so much! Will definitely be looking at my future readings in a whole new light! And I have several coming up in the next month.

Of course, we're all jealous that you have past dramatic training! :-)

Jen said...

Anonymous - I do print out in larger type, but try to balance that with limiting the number of pages. Each page turn is a pause, so I force a page change in a place where I'd naturally pause.

Kimberley - the past dramatic training is great, but there's nothing so magical about it. Anyone who's willing to dive into their text in front of an audience can be great with readings! Good luck with all your upcoming ones!

And thanks Robin and Mary for hosting me here. What an honor!

Alexander said...

Interesting post!! I really like this site, and hope you will write more, thanks for your information.

Susanna Leonard Hill said...

What a great post! Someday when I have a novel published this will be VERY useful information :) Meanwhile, the advantage of writing/reading picture books is that you get to read the whole thing - no need to choose excerpts. The hard part is making sure you doing it so you entertain 50 Kindergartners at once :)

Thanks so much for The Breakout Novelist! Maybe that will help me attain the publication of the novel I'll then be able to do a reading from :)

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

This is great advice. I'm fabulous at reading aloud, if I do say so myself, but I've never thought about editing the text I'll be reading so that it's more effective as a stand-alone scene. That will definitely be helpful for future readings. (Of course, most of my reading aloud is reading entire books to my own children...) Thanks!

Anne R. Allen said...

Fantastic tips. Especially about editing for just the essentials. And remember you're there to entertain.

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