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Dana Norris of STORY CLUB: How & Why To Read Out Loud

by Heather E. Ash

Most writers are great at getting our words out… as long as it’s in a room, alone, and working with paper. But storyteller Dana Norris argues that it’s equally important for writers to get their words out in spoken form. People attend readings to make connections with authors. Showcase your personality without putting on a show, and you’ll have people leaving with a copy of your book and a happy feeling about their time… especially if you avoid many of the common mistakes that she’s seen as founder and producer of the live lit series STORYCLUB.

Preparing to read out loud

You have about thirty seconds to grab your audience, and you easiest way to do that is to appeal to their emotions. Choose a selection heavy on dialogue and action, not description. Norris recommends producing an edited version of your passage to read out loud that aims for maximum excitement – and even an introductory sentence or words that will help listeners understand context. No one’s going to be upset when they read the book if it’s not exactly what they heard you read. They’re going to be excited to learn what happens next, because you left them wanting to know more. “Be ruthless with cliffhangers,” Norris advises.

Time is also a factor. Err on the side of short – ten minutes is too long to sustain momentum with the audience. Remember that the purpose of reading is to give the audience a taste of your writing style, not a book report. You will want to work on your timing and pacing well in advance. The average reading rate is 164 words per minute, so five minute of reading time is approximately 800 words. It sounds longer than it is. Read slightly slower than you speak.

You know your characters better than anyone, their voices and their physicality, and it is absolutely fine to use that in your reading. This is especially helpful with dialogue-heavy passages, but do not overdo it – sometimes turning your head to indicate perspective is enough. If you’re a man reading female characters, a minor alteration in your voice’s pitch or raising your eyebrows will go a long way… never do falsetto! And if your character has an accent, unless you can sustain it believably, best not to attempt it.

If your work has profanity, consider the venue. Barnes & Noble in the afternoon is not the place, but a bar at night is fine for adult content. When in doubt, ask the producer.

As you prepare your passage, make notes on the paper for yourself. Places to breathe. Reminders to look up at the audience (at least twice per page). Notes on voices and pacing. There are no requirements for font or format, because no one is going to see this paper – and yes, you should use paper, because it’s too easy to lose your place reading off an electronic device. Your paper will go into a binder. Why?

The actual reading out loud

You’re going to be nervous, and that’s okay. Embrace the feeling, and remind yourself that the audience is selfish. They want to be entertained, they want you to succeed, they want to not work hard. If you establish yourself as the leader in charge of the ship, you’ll be fine. This is why you have the binder. If you didn’t, everyone would know that you are nervous, because the thin paper would be shaking. Already, success!

When you get up to the stage, “plant your feet in one spot, curl your toes, and do not move.” This is easier if there is a microphone: position yourself to “eat the mic” – close enough to lick it (but don’t), speaking directly into or above it, not to the side. If there is no microphone, then project your voice to the back row. It is okay to ask if people can hear you.

Then say your name, and start reading the passage. Do not give your bio, do not explain what you are about to read, and for heaven’s sake, do not apologize for what you’re about to read. Just read. If you make a mistake while you’re reading, go on. Probably no one will notice. If you do pause for dramatic effect, make sure you look up at the audience so that you don’t appear lost. Silence is powerful, and can underscore a tense moment in your narrative. If you do have a complete nervous breakdown, try to make it entertaining. And if your audience does laugh – either because of your breakdown or because you’re funny – then stop reading. The laughter will come in a wave, and you should resume reading once it crests the peak.

When your time is up, simply say, “Thank you” and walk away. It is also acceptable to ask people to take out their smart phones and subscribe to your Twitter feed or other social media account. But leave only the stage. Always, always stay and listen to the other authors. Do not be That Guy who reads and disappears. No one likes That Guy, and you won’t be invited back.

How do I get invited to read out loud?

StoryClubChicago.com has a calendar of live lit events around Chicago, though most tend to be nonfiction. For fiction writers, Norris recommends Fictlicious (http://www.fictlicious.com/) and Tuesday Funk (http://tuesdayfunk.org/). Others mentioned The Tamale Hut in Broadview (http://tamalehutcafe.com/html/blog.html), and Sunday Salon (sundaysalon.com).

Attend at least one of the readings as an audience member, and if it seems like a good fit, introduce yourself to the show’s producer. Norris generally invites anyone who’s interested, but a shocking number of writers never follow up their initial introduction with an email. If the producer asks you to send an email, send the email. Now is not the time for self-doubt. With Norris’ tips in hand, you already have a huge advantage over most writers who read their work out loud.

 

See MWA Midwest authors reading their work live at Murder at the Mic, April 17, 1pm at 57th Street Books, 1301 E 57th St, Chicago, IL. Hear new (and work-in-progress) from Sara Paretsky, Julie Hyzy, Robert Goldsborough, Susanna Calkins, Lori Rader-Day, Sam Reaves, Tim Chapman, Kate Hannigan, Cynthia Pelayo, Renee James, Bo Thunboe, Nancy Johnson, Julia Lightbody, Bridgette Alexander, and Hailey Ardell.