last Saturday afternoon I had my first public reading of A Biased Judgement: The Sherlock Holmes Diaries 1897.
The venue was a bookshop / cafe on Market Street in Kells. It was a cosy environment for my debut and big part of the reason why the reading went so well. I was fortunate that the event has good attendance with locals from Kells arriving as well as friends and family whom I had invited.
It was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed it. Here’s what I learned:
It’s like getting to Carnegie Hall
You remember the joke? Tourist to New York policeman: “Hey, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?” Policeman: “Practice!”
Before the event I rehearsed my reading multiple times. I decided what ‘voice’ I wanted to use for different characters. I opted to make my reading a performance because that is more entertaining for the audience. So I practiced reading. I repeated phrases and paragraphs that weren’t smooth until I’d worn down the jagged edges. And I practiced looking up frequently and making eye contact.
Eye contact is important. Not only does it help you connect with your listeners, but it helps you project your voice. That’s hard to do if you keep your head bent down over the book.
I read to my friend Jane. She’s done a lot of public speaking and her audience can run into the thousands. Her encouragement helped build my confidence.
The Five P’s
Do you know the five p’s? Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance. So I planned. I figured out what I was going to wear, how many copies of my book I would bring with me, and what part of the book I was going to read.
I also researched. I had originally decided to read the prologue and the first chapter, but that came to 22 minutes. Most experts suggest to keep the reading to the 10-15 minute mark. So, instead, I gave a brief overview of what was contained in the prologue and read all of chapter one. It came to around 11 minutes.
One good thing about reading from your own work is you (theoretically) know it so well. That gives you some fluency. It’s not like you’re trying to read Shakespeare or the King James’ Bible. These are your own words. If you can’t get them right no one can.
Onions. Know them.
Yep, you’d better know your onions. That is to say you’d better know your subject matter really well. We had a Q and A after my reading and I was amazed at some of the questions. Fortunately, I know my own book inside out and I’m passionate about the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle so I think I did OK. Some of the questions included, Did Sherlock Holmes really exist? This was my cue to discuss Dr Joseph Bell and his influence on Doyle. Another question was what draws Holmes and Watson to one another. I talked about the study of contrasts. And a question I think any writer should expect: How did you research the book? That’s one I had to try to keep to the basics because I could really talk your ears off on that subject. I tried not to waffle (only the people present can tell you whether I succeeded or not); and I tried to keep to my subject.
Depending on your novel, you should be prepared for left-field questions too. But one thing I learned from my years as a corporate teacher: It’s OK not to know the answer. Take the contact details of the questioner, tell them you’ll find out, and get make sure you follow up when you do.
One thing you really need for a public reading is an audience. So let people know what you’re doing. Spread the word via social media. Tell your friends and family. Invite people.
By the same token, keep your expectations realistic. Unless you’re Stephen King or Neil Gaiman you’re probably not going to get thousands of people to show up. I had around a dozen and that was just right for my virgin voyage. (Steady!) We couldn’t have comfortably fit many more into that cosy space. Now if you really do want to fill an arena you’ll have to advertise, appear on the radio or television, and / or write a book that’s controversial or topical. I might get to that point but I’m not there yet.
Mind Your Manners
Another probably obvious thing I learned from teaching is to be gracious. The aforementioned eye-contact is great, but take time to thank people for coming. Smile and acknowledge that they’ve given up time in their busy schedules just to hear you read.
Tell people what to expect. I started by explaining I was skipping the prologue — though I summarised it — and that I’d be reading chapter one. I told the listeners how long I’d be reading for and that I’d take questions at the end. This gives the audience some idea of what to expect and knowing you’re only reading for around ten minutes or so helps them to focus more readily than if they thought you’d waffle on for an hour.
I’m really glad I did the reading. It helped that the environment was one in which I felt comfortable. It helped that I had some supportive family and friends to cheer me on. Also big thanks to Jess, at The Book Market, who was hugely helpful and supportive.
So, how did I do? Well, here’s an excerpt so you can make up your own mind: