I am not an introvert, and have presented at many local and international conferences in the past. However, reading my own novel in public is a first, an interesting but challenging experience. A major fear: "What would people think of me and my writing?"
Well, here are five lessons I learned from my reading tonight at The Moat in Melbourne, Australia, as an official conclusion to my 10-week Hot Desk Fellowship at the renowned Wheeler Centre. I hope they will be of some use to you.
1. Pick something you are comfortable with.
I need to prepare a reading of about seven minutes. Based on my own public speaking experiences in the past, this is about 1,000 words. (I used to prepare 3,000 words for a 20-minute academic presentation.) I find this to be appropriate, as it allows me to speak slowly and clearly, with a suitable number of pauses and/or changes in tone and rhythm to create the kind of dramatic effect required for the reading.
I need to pick a chapter I am comfortable with, instead of something I truly love. While there are sections in my writing that I am really proud of, that really showcase me as a writer, I want something that showcases my writing and teases the audience into wanting more of it. This needs to be an independent section, or can exist by itself with a minimum amount of background explanation. Ideally it should feature a sense of humour, something that evokes emotions, or imagery so vivid that the audience can “see” it. Less ideal are highly literary descriptions and complex dialogues.
2. Practice and adjust.
Sentences on paper become alive when I read them out loud. With enough practice, I realise that some parts of my writing are suitable only for reading visually, instead of verbally. These need to be changed so that I can express them confidently and comfortably in public. Then I keep practicing until I can memorise the structure of my content and some of its phrases and shorter sentences. This allows me to read them fluently while having eye contact with the audience from time to time during the reading.
3. Arrive early.
Murphy’s Law is a law for a reason. Things ALWAYS happen, from a punctured tyre (which requires at least 16 minutes to get it off and put on a spare one in rain) to difficulty in securing a parking spot in the city’s central business district at peak hour, and, in my case, to a group of public-minded people deciding to hold a protest against the former Minister of Immigration who happens to be speaking in the building I am about to enter. Arriving at least half an hour early is a useful strategy. I can sit there sipping a drink (and observing the police trying to keep the crowds in order), instead of worrying myself to death in a desperate rush to be there on time.
I am fortunate to have other authors reading before and after me. And I listen, with my eyes closed and a sense of awe in my heart, to the power of words conveyed in their voices. It has an amazing calming effect, leading me to concentrate on their stories, their languages and styles, the grace and beauty of their literary characters. It gives me faith, as a reader, that words will live on. It makes me proud, as a writer, that I am one of them, the creators. And it soothes me that they, too, can make mistakes like I am about to do in public.
5. Turn it into a family event.
There is nothing more wonderful than having my loved ones there, listening to me reading, finally knowing what I have been doing, crouching in front of the computer day and night, mumbling something like “MY PRECIOUS” while neglecting all the chores I am supposed to do around the house. It feels great to have them knowing that other people like me, enjoy what I do, support what I write, and appreciate my clumsy but sincere attempt to present myself. They get to know me not only as me, but also as part of this world. It is a truly humbling experience to have members of my family saying “I like your story!” or “I want to write a book too!” – or my favourite, “You should finish it!”