[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
ROBERT J. SAWYER
Hugo and Nebula Winner


SFWRITER.COM > How to Write > Public Readings

Public Readings

by Robert J. Sawyer

First published in the November 1992 issue of
Alouette: The Newsletter of the Canadian Region of SFWA

Copyright © 1992 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved


Most science-fiction writers get called on from time to time to do readings of their work at conventions or public libraries. I've done a couple of dozen readings over the years; here are a few things I've learned. [As of April 2000, my public-reading count was up to over 150.]

First, it's a lot easier to read from a printout designed specifically for reading. I make a special printout in big type (I use 18-point Times Roman on 27-point leading). The advantages: (1) fewer words per page mean you're less likely to lose your place; (2) if you're reading from a podium, you can place the pages on the podium and read them easily without having to squint. Also, if you're so inclined, you can give the printout away as a souvenir to someone in the audience at the end — this is a little trick I picked up from S. M. Stirling; it makes for one happy fan. (Second choice: read from a regular manuscript, which at least keeps your hands free for gesturing. Last choice: read from the printed book.)

I always tell people how long the reading will be: "This is the first chapter, and it will take about thirteen minutes." Reason: there will be people in your audience who don't want to be there (dragged out to your reading by their significant others, etc.). I find letting 'em know how long it will take substantially cuts down on the "when will this be over?" shuffling.

Read dramatically, and don't be afraid to change volume. Nothing is more dynamic in a reading than the reader suddenly shouting an exclamation. Conversely, the absolute best reading I ever did was one that ended with the scene from my novel Golden Fleece in which JASON, the computer from hell, was trying to sleep-teach a human being into feeling guilty. I read the narration in a normal voice, but for the words JASON was whispering through the headboard speakers I actually did lower my voice to a whisper (albeit a stage whisper, so people could hear it in the back — it helps, by the way, to have a microphone if the audience is going to be more than a dozen or so people). The room was absolutely still, hanging on every word.

Make eye contact. Know your work well enough so that you don't have to be constantly looking at your manuscript. Look at your audience — indeed, at specific people in your audience (not just generally out at the room).

Don't be afraid to make subtle additions or changes for the sake of the reading. On a printed page, the alternation of speakers may be clear because of the way you've done paragraphing. If you have to add in a "Smith said," do so — but determine this when you rehearse the piece. Likewise, consider editing out unnecessary exposition: you may have cleverly put stuff into the scene you happen to be reading that doesn't become relevant until later in the book, but if the audience for the reading doesn't need to know it, think about chopping it out.

Old radio-person's trick: when changing pages in your manuscript, simply slide them from the to-be-read pile to the already-read pile. Don't bother flipping them over. Yes, when done, your story will be in reverse order, but you can re-collate the pages afterwards. The point is to cut down on paper noise. Also, doing it this way you actually have two pages face up on the podium at once — the one you're just finishing and the one you're about to begin. That lets you clearly see the transition over the page break, so your reading doesn't falter as you switch pages.

Take business cards to your reading. If you read well, someone may come up to you at the end and ask you if you'd be available to read at another venue, or to talk to a class or to a conference. Having a card makes it easy for them to get in touch with you later.

Here's a chart I've worked out to tell me how long it will take to read a piece out loud. This is based on actual timings of my own readings, with a certain amount of performance and flourish, and assumes a reading speed of 179 words per minute:


------------------------------------------------------------------ | Words Min | Words Min | Words Min | Words Min | Words Min | ------------------------------------------------------------------ | 500 3 | 2500 14 | 4500 25 | 6500 36 | 8500 47 | | 600 3 | 2600 15 | 4600 26 | 6600 37 | 8600 48 | | 700 4 | 2700 15 | 4700 26 | 6700 37 | 8700 49 | | 800 4 | 2800 16 | 4800 27 | 6800 38 | 8800 49 | | 900 5 | 2900 16 | 4900 27 | 6900 39 | 8900 50 | | 1000 6 | 3000 17 | 5000 28 | 7000 39 | 9000 50 | | 1100 6 | 3100 17 | 5100 28 | 7100 40 | 9100 51 | | 1200 7 | 3200 18 | 5200 29 | 7200 40 | 9200 51 | | 1300 7 | 3300 18 | 5300 30 | 7300 41 | 9300 52 | | 1400 8 | 3400 19 | 5400 30 | 7400 41 | 9400 53 | | 1500 8 | 3500 20 | 5500 31 | 7500 42 | 9500 53 | | 1600 9 | 3600 20 | 5600 31 | 7600 42 | 9600 54 | | 1700 9 | 3700 21 | 5700 32 | 7700 43 | 9700 54 | | 1800 10 | 3800 21 | 5800 32 | 7800 44 | 9800 55 | | 1900 11 | 3900 22 | 5900 33 | 7900 44 | 9900 55 | | 2000 11 | 4000 22 | 6000 34 | 8000 45 | 10000 56 | | 2100 12 | 4100 23 | 6100 34 | 8100 45 | | | 2200 12 | 4200 23 | 6200 35 | 8200 46 | | | 2300 13 | 4300 24 | 6300 35 | 8300 46 | | | 2400 13 | 4400 25 | 6400 36 | 8400 47 | | ------------------------------------------------------------------
2015 update: The tips above have stood me in good stead for over 22 years now (and my public reading count is now up over 350). The one tip I'd add:

Since March 29, 2003, I've been doing my readings from a hand-held device — first a Sony Clié (Palm OS device), and more recently from an iPhone.

Make sure you don't have to scroll, but can just flick pages so that you can hold the device in one hand — makes it easier to gesticulate. Both iBooks and the Kobo app let you flip by pages, if you've converted your manuscript to ePub via Calibre.

Use big type, and you'll have so few words on the screen that you can't lose your place even when you look up to make eye-contact with the audience.


More Good Reading

Letter to Beginning Writers
Rob's "On Writing" advice columns
Manuscript-format checklist
Rob's upcoming appearances (including any teaching gigs)
Notes for the copyeditor
Essay: WordStar — A Writer's Word Processor


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