Last night the Clerkenwell Writers Asylum hosted our first ever event – a launch for the collection of short stories published earlier in the year (find it on Amazon here). As part of the event a couple of Asylum inmates, including me, did readings.
When I have previously spoken in public, it’s normally a presentation for work about some political geekery. Normally I’m able to speak in part off the cuff, in part from notes.
But reading my own fiction at a public event? It was an entirely different matter. On the way there I felt sick with nerves, and I after I had finished I developed one of the biggest sweats I’ve ever experienced. But when I was up there it seemed to go well – people certainly told me I did okay, so I’ll chalk it up as a success. We certainly managed to fill the room we’d booked. But here is what I learnt:
1. It’s good to try and keep readings to about ten minutes.
This advice was given by someone else reading at the event and it was useful to use the ten-minute rule as a guideline as well. Wardens, the story I chose to read, clocked in at around 7,500 words. Doing the whole thing would have been much – for me and the audience. Ten minutes felt about right for people to have to listen to the sound of my voice. But next time I might find something that is a little over ten minutes when practicing, on the basis that delivery at the real thing is always quicker.
2. The build up to a cliff-hanger is important.
Reading an extract meant that I had to find a moment to end which would leave the audience wanting more. I really wanted to go “dun dun durrrrr” when I reached the end of my extract. Sadly, I felt unable to go through with this, but hopefully managed to build up to a climax.
3. A public reading means that the editing process has to start again.
It would have been nice to think that having previously read the book, the audience will have memorised every word that I was reading, ready to exhibit some Potter-fan like outrage if the text was deviated from in even the smallest way. Sadly, this wasn’t true. Wanting to keep my reading to ten minutes meant that I had to start editing my work again. I really wanted to start my reading at the beginning of the piece, which sets the scene but I think is quite funny. I also knew where the best cliff-hanger would be. But that left me with around 2,500 words to get through. So out came the red pen again, to strike through stuff that wasn’t needed.
Mainly this meant cutting out characters who would only appear once in the reading, or taking out scenes that didn’t help to build up to the climax I had chosen. These were relevant within the full length piece but not needed to get me to my designated finishing point. Getting rid of characters meant that I had to create fewer distinct voices to read in and made the narrative easier to follow for the audience. Wardens is by far the longest piece I have written and I’m still pleased with the amount of space that I’ve been able to give my characters to breathe. But this breathing room needed to be sacrificed on the altar of public performance and there was no point getting precious – even if it did mean me taking out some of my favourite dialogue. Unfortunately it has also made me think again about whether the piece could have done with another edit.
4. I wish I hadn’t picked something with a complicated word in it.
The extract that I wanted to read had the word “conspirationally” in it. Now, it looked fine on the page. But the troubles I had when I started to read it. “conspi… conspiracyily… conspirantially…” I spent two days going round saying “conspirationally” over and over. Having mastered the pronunciation it did seem a shame that by the time I got round to the reading, the passage had been excised.
5. Half a pint helps clam down any sense of impending terror.
Anymore, though, and I’d possibly have become overconfident or the words on the page might have started dancing around.
6. I really should have checked the microphone stand before we started the event.
The bloody thing kept dropping down during my performance. After I stepped off the stage, someone tightened it for the next performer. In a way, it was a bit of a blessing because it slightly distracted me from my nerves. But my efforts to hold it up with the folder I was reading from didn’t go unnoticed.
7. I enjoyed it (I think) and would do it again…
…but you’ll have to wait a while for me to recover my nerves before there’s another opportunity to hear me read my work out.