Telling Tales

Personally, I’d rather run with the bulls of Pamplona than read in public.  It takes me back to my school days where every pupil in the class had to read a passage out loud from the current class book.  Since I’m dyslexic, this was torture.  Needless to say, these were not my finest school hours.

But now as a writer, I don’t have a choice.  Reading passages from my books or short stories is expected.  I put this task off for as long as possible.  I could adlib and riff off a question for ages, but read a prepared statement—Danger, danger, Will Robinson!  It got to the stage where some bookstores demanded in their best Tony Soprano voices, “You will read.”

With the gauntlet thrown, I got my act together.  I never read from the book.  I print out the passages first in a big, bold, friendly font.  I tend to make fewer screw ups that way.  Smaller fonts mean too many words, which makes it hard for me to read.  I rehearse my passages.  I don’t learn them all by heart, but I know it well enough that I know how things flow.  With my reading issues, I have a tendency not to read what is on the page and read what I think is on the page, so if I know where the passage is going then I won’t to stray far from the actual story.

Now these things sound like useful tools for me, but they are also good tips for any author who has to read to his/her (hopefully) adoring public.  Reading aloud is all about preparation.

The above tricks got me only so far.  Reading is one thing, but making it entertaining is another.  I attended author readings to get ideas about what worked and what didn’t.  I went to some good ones and I went to some dire ones that made me think, “Oh, God, do I sound like that?”  From these readings (the good and bad ones) I learned a lot that I’ve incorporated into mine.

Always read something that’s going to be intriguing or interesting.  A reading is a hook that you hope to snag readers with.  Read something that will grab the listeners’ attention.  This doesn’t have to be your opening chapter.  Pick a passage or scene that gives a feel for the book’s tone.  And if you aren’t going to read from the beginning, don’t forget to fill the listeners in on the back story.   

Read something interesting!  This might seem like an obvious tip, but you’d be surprised how many authors forget this.  I can’t tell you how many authors read passages where nothing happens.  At the end of it, I’m left wondering, “Why should I buy this book?”

Less is more.  Don’t read too much.  I know people can listen to audio books for hours without a break, but that’s at the listener’s discretion and comfort.  When your reader is stuck in a store, unable to do anything, it’s amazing how short their attention span is.  I estimate that I can get away with 15-20 minutes of reading at a stretch.  After that, listener attention wanes.  So don’t read a 40-page chapter.  Instead, read two 10-page passages and in between give the listeners a flavor of what they’re missing.

Don’t give away the ending.  I know you don’t have to read the beginning, but don’t end your reading with the unveiling of the killer.  It’s a surefire way to kill your sales.

Voice.  I find this is a tricky area.  Very few authors have the ability to read as well as a professional reader or actor.  It is difficult to pull off the various characters, accents and inject real energy into a reading.  If you can’t pull it off, then read the piece straight, putting the tone and voice that you put into the story when you wrote it.  A lot of people like hearing the author read because they want to hear it the way the author wanted it to sound.  Any author can do that.  You wrote the piece and you’re passionate about it.  When you read, your natural voice will carry the tale.  Warning: You can’t be timid.  Too many authors read too quickly, too quietly, or overcompensate by being overly dramatic.  This will come with practice and time. 

You may never feel 100% comfortable reading aloud, but with a few tips and a little effort, you’ll get a lot closer.

Simon Wood

8 thoughts on “Telling Tales

  1. Louise Ure

    Great post, Simon. But I’d reduce the total amount of reading time you’re recommending. Maybe a total of 10 minutes (or two 5 minutes sections). It’s amazing how quickly that “listener discomfort” kicks in!

  2. Naomi

    I can never figure out what to read. I need a second party–usually my husband–to make a selection. A trick I’ve used from acting: feel free to edit your reading selection. Sometimes a person or situation will come out in the dialogue or narrative that your audience will not be familiar with. I also add other clarifying phrases–“his wife,” “his daughter,” etc.–to help things along. You can’t go wrong with humor or conflict.

    Some authors like Lee Child opt not to read at all. I think that some books that require advance knowledge of relationships and situations would not do well in brief readings.

  3. simon


    It’s a fair point about what to read. I different approaches to different books. Some stories lend themselves to different things. Personally, I find something works as a nice little appetitizer. A reading should be viewed as an opportunity with to tell the story with a broad brush stroke. You’re trying to get across a flavor of your storytelling style. Also I find readers want to hear the writer read.

    Lee Child–well, he’s just too tall for his own good. 🙂


  4. Elaine

    I hate reading – thus – I don’t anymore. I tried it once – then finally told the audience (yes, I actually had an audience!)that I hated doing it, just knew I was doing a terrible job, and would they mind if I simply gave them the highlights? That approach went over very well, got a round of applause (don’t know if they were glad I’d given it up, or they didn’t like readers either!) and we had a hell of a time thereafter. The moral of this story is-be honest with your audience-they’ll appreciate it and most likely give you their undivided attention. Well, it works for me, anyway.


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