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!

# # #

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!

Monday, September 19, 2011

End of Summer Milestone Monday Check In

One of my favorite commercials of all time was that Staples commercial that had the father dancing around the Staples store, loading up his back to school cart and singing, “It’s the most won-der-ful time of the year…”?


Honestly, September has always felt much more like the start of a new year for me rather than January. I am a big fan of those academic calendars that let me buy new versions in July or August, because for more of my life than not, my calendar has been ruled by school calendars. First as a student myself, then as a parent.

I suspect this may be true of the internet as well, because I’ve heard a lot of people talking about how they had cut back on their blog reading and interacting online over the summer. We’ll see if that changes now that September has rolled around.

Of course, that means that I will need to be online more as well.

But first things first! Because it has been MONTHS, let’s do a violet check in! I would love to hear what you all have been up to, what you worked on during the summer, what you didn’t work on, any milestones you achieved, epiphanies you had, or break throughs reached. All that good stuff. Also, if you are a regular reader and have a book coming out, please send me a jpeg and release information. I am WAY past due for updating the sidebar there at the side. [Note, if you sent it to me earlier, and it hasn’t appeared, PLEASE send it again as it is buried somewhere deep in my computer folders.]

And, to entice you, if you leave an update in the comments, you will be entered to win a copy of Donald Maass's The Breakout Novelist:  Craft and Strategies for Career Fiction Writers.  

As for me, I have had a very emotionally intense summer. I have been writing the second teen medieval assassin book, which is dark! Darker even than the first book. Plus, I’ve got an actual deadline now so I’ve been trying to trick the muse into thinking she’s had the same stewing, fermenting, and playing time she got with the first book. This was also the last summer before the last child leaves for college, so I’ve been doing lots of living in the moment, enjoying the last few weeks and soaking them up.

I have also been redesigning my website and creating a new one for the medieval teen assassin books. Neither are live yet, but it has certainly made me think a lot about internet presences and connecting to our readers and what they are looking for from us. Lots more on that in the weeks to come. Also in the weeks to come, some way cool interviews and guest posts.

Looking forward to hearing what all you've been up to!

Monday, September 12, 2011

An Autumn Muse


In honor of the changing seasons. And because I have muses on the mind, and Aunt Leaf seems like a most excellent muse... 
Aunt Leaf by Mary Oliver
Needing one, I invented her -
the great-great-aunt dark as hickory
called Shining-Leaf, or Drifting-Cloud
or The-Beauty-of-the-Night.

Dear aunt, I'd call into the leaves,
and she'd rise up, like an old log in a pool,
and whisper in a language only the two of us knew
the word that meant follow,

and we'd travel
cheerful as birds
out of the dusty town and into the trees
where she would change us both into something quicker -
two foxes with black feet,
two snakes green as ribbons,
two shimmering fish - and all day we'd travel.

At day's end she'd leave me back at my own door
with the rest of my family,
who were kind, but solid as wood
and rarely wandered. While she,
old twist of feathers and birch bark,
would walk in circles wide as rain and then
float back

scattering the rags of twilight
on fluttering moth wings;

or she'd slouch from the barn like a gray opossum;

or she'd hang in the milky moonlight
burning like a medallion,

this bone dream, this friend I had to have,
this old woman made out of leaves.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Tranformative Change

One of my very favorite writing books, which isn't really a writing book at all, is The Hero Within written by Carol Pearson. In it, the author talks about transformative change as we move through the different stages of our journey.

Transformative change. 

For some reason that phrase has really resonated with me, always in the back of my mind as I write. Probably in no small part because I've reached the point in the manuscript when everything is building to that big moment when my character sheds her old skin and steps into her new self. When she is truly and completely transformed by the events of the novel.

Then on twitter a while ago, I came across this quote by @Quotebelly:  

"The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails." - William Arthur Ward

And it hit me; the act of adjusting the sails is not just about being realistic; it is also about being open to transformative change. A mere realist would batten down the hatches and hold on. But the act of adjusting the sails, of preparing yourself to accommodate what life is about to send your way, is a much more profound act of acceptance.

For some people, those bumps on life's road completely derail them or make them bitter or cause them to feel victimized. And while I hate tragedy and mishap as much as the next person, one of the only ways I can put my head down and get through it, is to try and see the situation as an opportunity for that sort of deep rooted change. To extract the life lesson that the universe is sending me. In doing that, in finding some nugget of wisdom to take from the incident, I feel that no matter what I have lost, I have also won.

The thing is, no one taught me that; not my parents or a church or a therapist. I have managed to learn that concept though stories.

Which is why in fiction, as writers, it is so vital that things in our story make sense, that the events in our stories are pushing our characters toward this transformative change. That is one of Story's most important roles in our lives, showing us what that sort of deep change looks like, feels like, how to recognize and respond to the opportunities when they arise.