How to read a novel for an audience

Image credit: Jon Tyson on Unsplash

As my novel hasn’t been published (yet), it took me off guard when I was asked to read an excerpt to an audience in September.

I was excited to be one of the six shortlisted writers of the Novel London prize. But I hadn’t performed publicly since way back when I was a performance poet, touting my verses round the pubs and clubs of London usually in a glittery evening gown.

Now, a fustier, middle-aged me with a far less dazzling wardrobe, would perform again. And I have to say I loved it.

So here are some thoughts and tips about reading in public and how to approach it.

Which bit of my novel should I read?

It would have to be from the first chapter, that much I knew. And it could only be five minutes.

I tried various bits of the first chapter, timing myself on my phone. I wanted to allow for audience reaction, a smattering of laughter perhaps. And I wanted to leave the audience wanting more, curious about my novel.

Eventually I settled on a page and a half anecdote which fitted comfortably into the time allowed. It was just over four minutes long when I timed myself reading aloud. And, as I practised, it became clear where to leave pauses for effect.

The master of this is David Sedaris, whose stories come to life when he reads them. So, I pretended to be him as I stood in the bathroom reading out loud from a printout.

Reading from the novel

Reading from the manuscript soon emerged as a problem.

Back in the day of the evening wear, I had great eyesight. I didn’t wear glasses and even if I’d needed them, I knew all my poems off by heart. I was used to addressing an audience or, sometimes, fixed points around a sparsely filled room.

There wasn’t time for me to learn the excerpt off by heart before the reading. In any case, I wasn’t sure I could.

But to see the page clearly I’d need to faff about with my good glasses and they’d make the faces of my audience blurred and terrifying. Or I’d have to peer over the top of my specs at the audience, who might then think me disapproving.

The solution was to wear my older, weaker glasses and print the page in a large font. I put a blank coversheet at the back so no one need ever know, unless of course I was foolish enough to blog about it later.

The more I rehearsed, the more I found myself treating the text a little like a prose poem. So, I took my large print doc and filled it with extra line breaks and punctuation to suit the rhythm of my reading. This made a huge difference to how I performed.

Dealing with nerves

I knew I’d worry about the performance on the day. I was scheduled for the late afternoon so there was a risk anxiety would hover in the back of my mind – occasionally prodding and tormenting me.

To avoid this, I planned ahead and arranged to go out for the day. Luckily, Novel London had arranged a literary festival so I went to that and met some amazing people at a bookswap. Also lucky, the weather was beautiful and I had time for a calming walk in Regents Park before the reading.

That way I was able to trick myself into not worrying about the performance until the very last minute. And because I’d rehearsed so much, I was bored of my piece and the nerves worked in my favour. I used the adrenaline to add energy to the performance.

In any case, everyone was very welcoming, the audience was lovely and it was great to meet the other shortlisted writers. A big thanks to Novel London for arranging such a great event and helping us all feel at ease.