Terrified of Reading Your Work in Public?
Terrified of Reading Your Work in Public?

Terrified of reading your work in public? You should be. You’re a writer, not an actor!

Unless of course you’re both. In which case you can stop reading now and do something else.

There are many intimidating moments in a writer’s life. Getting the first feedback on your novel, hearing back from agents or editors. Reading reviews. The horror!

Or having to stand up in public and read out your work. More horror!

While author events are more associated with the mainstream publishing industry, indie authors too can read their work to a live audience.

Some authors thrive in the spotlight, enjoying the opportunity to interact with readers or potential readers.

But for other authors, standing in front of an audience represents death by a thousand cuts.

It’s true that actors and musicians can be introverted in their private lives, then miraculously switch on for an audience. Prince would be an example of this – extroverted on stage, introverted and quiet-spoken in private.

It’s easier of course when you’ve had a lot of experience performing, or even some training.

Writers tend not to have any training in acting or performing.

Is it worth taking acting classes ahead of a reading? Possibly.

However, there are other ways to approach a reading. The obvious one would be to avoid reading in public altogether! But not so fast… You might want to scurry back into your author’s burrow, but that doesn’t get your work out to the public.

Plus, if you attend an author’s event as a writer, the audience has made the effort to turn up. So you might as well make the effort to entertain them – and no, I don’t mean by falling off the stage or giving the worst reading in the history of worst readings!

If you’ve been avoiding reading events, it’s time to develop some decent reading chops. No more sorry excuses. No more turning up to read, and quietly droning into the microphone until you finally get the damn thing over and sit down… hoping you didn’t humiliate yourself too much.

There is an answer to this problem and it comes in two words:

Anthony Hopkins

Yes, you’re going to get some important tips from a master of acting. And you don’t need to become a master of acting yourself to benefit from this advice.

In interviews, Anthony Hopkins has revealed he memorises his lines 250 times. He’s absorbing the text, ensuring that he really really knows it well. He describes 250 as a magical silly number. Yet something happens when he goes over the text so many times. By knowing the text so well, he has all the information he needs and his brain can relax.

He goes on to say in one interview that once you’re relaxed, you can go on the stage and improvise within that text. He describes ‘becoming so free you get into the zone‘. Once he’s memorised the script, he puts it aside. He also advises putting ego aside if possible, and managing emotions and remembering that less is more in a performance.

I’ve added some links below to interviews he’s given if you want to explore this some more. But the bottom line is that his advice can also apply to reading your own novel to an audience.

How to prepare for your readings in advance

This is very important. You should not start preparing just before a reading. Instead, you should start before your novel is even published. Going through the final draft, begin selecting passages you’d want to read to an audience. Most likely your opening pages, but you might have one or two other passages you also want to read.

It’s worth remembering that these passages should act as a hook to reel in potential readers in the audience.

Your reading is partly a marketing effort and it’s always worth remembering that.

Begin memorising the final draft of these passages. Follow Hopkins’ example and do it over and over it again, many times.

In the case of Hopkins, he’s absorbing the words to the point where the words are second nature, and this likely helps bring his facial expressions, body language and internal emotion into line with what he’s saying.

An author doesn’t need to memorise to the point where they go on a stage and recite without the novel in front of them. In the case of a reading, it’s about absorbing the language until the words become second nature.

You will be less likely to trip over words, lose your place on the page, and you will also likely become more immersed in the story. This in turn can help with feeling self-conscious.

It can also ward off the kind of physical tension that can kick in and restrict your voice. Nerves and reading in a formal setting can lead to tension in the throat. This in turn can lead to a tendency to drone.

But if you really know your material and can relax, you should find it easier to modulate tone and emotion in your voice.

There’s a difference between reading text that you’re just scanning from a page, and reciting something you know so well that you get swept up in it and your voice can better modulate emotion.

Rhythm, pauses, emphasis

Once you’ve really memorised the passages you’ve chosen, to the point where you could recite them in your sleep, play with pauses, word emphasis, speeding up and slowing down speech.

In a video essay on Anthony Hopkins, relating to a particular scene from Westworld, there’s an analysis of speed and pauses in his speech. I’ve linked to this video essay at the end of this blog post, so you can check it out for yourself.

You too can experiment with how to break down your text and where to emphasise a word, include a pause or even a gesture, etc. And you can use highlighters or underlines to help you remember, if necessary. Look also for rhythm. Try tapping it out where it’s important in a text, then use it as a guide to how you might read that line.

Costume

Of course the reading itself is only part of the deal. What do you look like? Are you like most writers – ie, do you look like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards?

You might be tempted to buy new clothes for your reading. (Let’s face it, any excuse to buy new clothes is an opportunity not to be passed up.)

And there’s nothing wrong with splashing out on that eighteenth century dress in red silk brocade for your historical bodice ripper reading. In fact, the audience will never forget the effort you made.

Never.

They will remember it for years to come.

But remember that if you’re wearing uncomfortable new clothes or clothes that leave you feeling self-conscious, you are making things harder for yourself.

You can wear something different, including period costume, but make sure you walk around in those clothes (and shoes) a bit before you do your reading.

Wear them to the point where you hardly notice the way they fit on your body. Make sure they’re also comfortable enough for the reading.

It’s like costume rehearsals. The more comfortable you feel in your clothes, the less awkward you’ll feel on the stage. Own your costume, even if it’s just your usual jeans and sweater.

And another thing…

Own the stage

When you arrive at the venue, see if you can visit the stage and walk around it a bit. Get a feel for the space. Don’t be afraid of it.

Also, don’t huddle tightly into a small space behind the microphone or lectern when you’re performing. And stand up straight – body posture impacts emotions and your ability to project your voice.

Video and audio readings

Of course, you don’t have to turn up in person to do a reading. You could make a video – again, make sure you really know your text beforehand. If you’re camera shy, you could go straight to audio or use images that match your story to accompany your voice. This allows you to get more creative.

You can also post readings to social media – be aware that if you have Twitter verification, you can post much longer videos. The algorithms like video content.

Still terrified of reading your work in public?

While reading in public for the first time can be a frightening experience, it’s not unusual to get a post-reading thrill. You might even wish you could go up and do it again. It all depends on how it went.

And how your reading pans out will depend on the amount of preparation you put in.

Don’t leave things to the last minute and wing it.

Don’t see it as a painful rite of passage you have to go through for each book.

Learn your text, prepare, and give it your best shot. This is your chance to win over the audience – especially if you’re appearing alongside other writers.

Some of the audience will be there to see and hear someone else.

Make sure that when they leave, it’s YOU they’ll remember and talk about.

References

Anthony Hopkins about his acting philosophy – particularly look for the section 10 minutes in called ‘Working on the text’.

Westworld: What makes Anthony Hopkins great – video essay by Nerdwriter1

Other IndieCat blogs you might find useful

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