Doing your first reading – the deflowering of an author
…and why it gives you a boost on several levels!
The best day of 2015 was, for my writing self, the 27th of December, 5 pm. The day it all came together.
I was SO scared. I never knew stage-fright, not at school or university, when I had to do lectures in front of students, with my professor watching…never a big problem. Slight nervousness, yes, but never fright. This may be because lecturing is less personal, more neutral than reading aloud from your own work, which is as personal as it gets and in a way intimate. You not only reveal your work, your words, the way you read and speak. You reveal yourSELF, what you hold dearest and struggle with on a daily basis. The story you created, by pouring your inner self into it.
Writing is never objective, nor neutral, writing is always revealing a lot about yourself, and creating fiction means you are using your own experiences, thoughts, fears and strengths to invent that story world.
Your mind and your craft are laid bare for the listeners, one-to-one.
That’s damn scary. I could hold a speech or do a lecture any day. But a reading? Even though it was by invitation from me, to celebrate the success of my first German historical novel “Tilda & Leo” – knowing the guests didn’t make it less frightening. One could argue that a reading to strangers is less scary than reading to friends and family. I felt most comfortable with the distant friends and acquaintances there. Strange that, but human.
How did it all happen?
I wanted to wrap up my amazing writing year and celebrate “Tilda’s” warm reception, with the people that mean something to me. I wanted to give my work centre stage, and know how it feels to read my book aloud. I love giving myself a challenge and overcome the fear, and wanted to just enjoy it, if possible.
I had been asked by the bookshops in the Eifel that are stocking my book to do readings in their premises. Of course I was excited and agreed, from January on, so this very first reading should not only be a celebration, but to test-drive as well, to see what it was like “to read”. I thought if I managed that, I’d be less scared of the proper, public readings that are to come. Which might in fact be less scary, because that’d be mostly strangers.
A celebration with friends
I invited everyone who was involved with the book in one way or another, my biggest fans and supporters, and those who had bought signed copies from me directly, from my own printrun, and also given them away as Christmas presents or birthday gifts. I had a guest list of around 40 people. And some even threatened to bring their friends etc. *gulp*
I knew I wanted this reading, and before the end of the year. As a proper wrap-up, to round it all off. I had just received my “baby”, in paperback and hand-bound hardcover. The sales were better than I thought (at one early point it started at Amazon around #700 in historical fiction!) and the feedback was phenomenal. I can’t find the words to describe how amazing people’s reactions were. I have 13 five-star reviews as it stand on Amazon, and every single one seems to be heartfelt, there is no disagreement (yet… ;-)) that the book was “unputdownable” and very moving as well as funny. What more could I want?
I wanted THE location. It had to be perfect, I had fought for it and wanted to do the event justice. And I was lucky, one evening out dining with friends in a lovely decorated restaurant, I asked to see the “back room” and BANG – that was it. I was sold, I had to have the reading there. It was decorated in a book-theme, with book-wallpaper, antiques, fireplace, piano, Christmas lights and bulbs, these amazing lamps and lighting…I struggled to convince hubby that no matter the cost, I wanted to make this memory, there. He argued money, I argued memorable. I won, it was my money and my memories. And he was very supportive after we settled that 😉
So I booked the room, along with drinks for the late afternoon. I chose a date right after Christmas, to make sure the atmosphere was still there (and their lovely decor). Look:
So 27th it was. Christmas went by quickly and on the 26th I became nervous. Very nervous. And I still had to choose what to read, and how. I sat down late that evening with pen and paper, old-style, and went through my book. I knew one scene I wanted to read, but the others..?
What parts to choose?
I asked for the help of fellow authors. They gave good advice: pick a piece from the beginning, to set a tone, an atmosphere. Then one or two more gripping scenes that make listeners want to read it all. I had a list of five or six scenes, and was able to decide on three.
- One of my character Leo’s first scenes (“the flight from the cloth factory”), where he chooses to run away and leave his old, brutal life behind. It’s important to see who he is, his circumstances (child labour), and why he ran.
- One scene where Leo and his new friend Tilda act together (“the spilled milk”), so people see their different backgrounds, pressures, and personalities, why they clash, and why they were meant to be companions, too. Both these scenes are intense, moving and quite dark, as were the times, and they explained the circumstances of the times and of my characters.
- One uplifting scene from the middle, which doesn’t reveal too much, but lifts the spirits and shows the funnier sides of my book. It had to involve the dry-humoured character of my priest, Pfarrer Nußbaum, and I wanted it to be a chore-scene, so I chose the moment everything changes for my protagonists, in a funny, but disturbing way (“the mysterious bell-ringing”).
So I had three scenes, and their introduction by me, as well as some sketching of what happens between them.
After having chosen my scenes, heavily marked in my “reading book”, I practised. I set a timer, and read to myself, recording how long each scene took. I tried to be slow, because when nervous I tend to speed up. Then I wrote five pages of notes around those scenes, with all the things I wanted to say to my audience, from Hello to Goodbye, to not forget an important Thankyou or piece of background information I wanted to share. I internalised these, so at best I would be able to speak freely.
At last I prepared my “reading kit” to take with me on the day, it looked like this, with, most important, the marked book, the five pages of notes, bookmarks to give away and signing pen. I also brought more books, paperback and hardcover, of course, and my purse with some change 🙂
Make it interesting!
I’m ambitious and self-confident, or at least it looks like it to others. I knew I could do this, be good at it. So I focussed and with my notes at hand felt calmer on the day. Worst case would be, I forgot who I was and why I was there, and would have to read all my notes out loud. It would still be a reading! 🙂 I actually saw way more successful authors do this. In my notes I had the following agenda:
- Welcome, general thankyous, brief outlook on the afternoon
- introductory acoustic song by my friends Syl ‘n’ Dan
- background: how it all started, with the magazine asking for a story etc.
- How I approached the challenge, researched, organised myself
- How the writing went, the time-scales and work
- Why writing fiction is so personal, what it says or doesn’t say about its creator
- Which funny details really come from me, like the pipe-smoking father in the book…
- introduction to the first scene, reading of “flight from the cloth factory” (5 min)
- what happens next? Why the next scene?
- reading of “spilled milk” (7 min)
- acoustic song with guitar and voice by my wonderful friends
- aftermath and how the story develops, with funnier scenes as well
- reading of “bell-ringing” (9 min) and the aftermath
- acoustic song with guitar and voice, fitting the story-theme
- questions from the audience, first was: when does the next book come out? *blush*
- special thankyous to my helpers, biggest fans, professional team, to my lovely hubby
- short look at the hand-bound hardcover, with thanks to bookbinder and initiator
- wrap-up, thanks, invitation to get signed copies etc.
- hopefully: applause – and deep breath! YAY!
Timing and music
Then came Sunday, and with it the long wait until 5pm. I had chosen the late afternoon, late tea-time, to make it more casual and relaxed. People should sit with a cup of coffee or tea and cake and just enjoy my reading. It worked out brilliantly, especially in that cosy, Chrismassy room. The big Christmas hassle was over, everyone was dressed up and smiling, looking forward to some relaxed entertainment.
Right before the event I briefed the acoustic guitarist and the singer Syl ‘n’ Dan (friends of mine), who would accompany the reading with their music. They are brilliant and lovely and I was so happy to have them by my side! That way I didn’t feel as exposed. They are the true professionals and also equipped me with microphone etc. We chose which song would fit which scene and when to play it. I can only recommend this combination, if the songs fit your scene’s atmosphere! People were so moved and really enjoyed the guitar and singing, which perfectly fitted the themes of my chapters.
Also, the short break while they took over gave me a moment to relax, gather my thoughts, rein in the nervousness and prepare for the next part!
All in all, the event lasted about an hour, maybe a little more, because people stayed long after I finished to chat and talk and enjoy the lovely afternoon. Some explicitly said the length of about an hour was just perfect, even for the six or so kids that were there!
Joy beats nervousness!
Of course I was nervous, but it was fine. I shook hands and there were very tight hugs, some surprise-guests blew me away, and everyone was relaxed and happy to be there and witness my attempt. I had my brother in first row, who gave me huge confidence and calmness. Everyone was enjoying themselves, and so did I! This was the most amazing thing of the evening: not only did I manage to create a decent reading and enjoyable afternoon, I enjoyed it as well! What more could I ask for for the upcoming readings? I feel well-prepared now.
People laughed at the right places, I didn’t have to use my notes much, I managed to appear confident and spontaneous, and talked freely most of the time. I was complimented for the funny, interesting insights into the writing-life and background. I should definitely keep these elements for every reading, I think listeners enjoy the background an author gives, the little anecdotes and mishaps during the creation of a novel. I enjoyed looking at the amused faces and picked up the laughs and also the moved silence where it was intended. It couldn’t have gone any better, really.
After the reading-part was over, I left the second half of the novel to the readers, and didn’t give too much away. I did my special thankyous at the end. The feedback was warm and lovely, really touching and unforgettable. I got so many compliments, for the afternoon as such, the book itself and the writing, for my openness and insight, and for how relaxed I, ahem, appeared 😉 People came to talk to me, chat, buy books, have them signed, and even talk Eifel history. I didn’t want it to end. Even my wonderful kids were brilliant, they had listened intently to what their mummy had to say, and afterwards came up to me hugging and being just adorable. They also wanted to play “selling books”. Haha. It sure gave them a better idea of what mummy does when she says she’s working in her mysterious room, typing away, or talking to herself late at night…
And now that the first time is over, and was such a success for everyone involved, I can’t wait to plan the next readings in the Eifel region. In book stores, museums, or cosy small venues. We’ll see, it will all reveal itself after I had this damn knee operation done, which is at the moment hindering my drive…just a little. But all this limping and being stuck indoors is a great excuse for even more writing, don’t you think?
Now I’d love to hear from you, authors AND readers, what’s your experience with readings, what was the first time like, what was great or what a disappointment? What do you love or dislike in a reading? How do you do it, basically, or experience it, as a reader? Let us all know in the comments below!
Darius Stransky 14.03.2016 at 11:32
Excellent post and well done.
Rae Cowie 13.01.2016 at 14:10
A room with book-themed wall covering – every restaurant should have one! Congratulations, Sarah. 🙂
sarah 13.01.2016 at 14:32
Thanks so much, Rae, YES, the moment I walked in, I knew it was meant to be! And didn’t disappoint at all 🙂 All the best to you and thanks for commenting here.