Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Tailoring Your Work for a Live Reading

by Holly West

Reading my work aloud remains one of the best techniques I've found to tighten up my prose. Mind you--I don't always do it--but when I do, the work is better for it. Cleaner, more concise, and much less "fluff." As a writer whose tendency is to write more words than are necessary to get my point across, I need all the de-fluffing I can get.

I was reminded of this recently when Eric Beetner invited me to read at a Noir at the Bar event in Los Angeles. There were a lot of readers so he limited our readings to two minutes--daunting at first but it really kept the evening moving. It was probably the best Noir at the Bar event I've ever attended (and I've attended quite a few).

So there's a hint for all of you Noir at the Bar hosts out there--consider limiting the readings to two minutes but adding more readers. We had ten that night and it didn't drag at all (well, if I'm being honest, it did, but only because one of the readers went well over their allotted time. Don't be that person).

Normally I like to read my flash fiction at Noir at the Bars because the form is perfect for it. But in this case, even my existing flash pieces were too long. Instead, I chose an excerpt from my second novel, MISTRESS OF LIES. My aim was to give the audience a taste of what the book was about and to make them want to read more. I had to find a short vignette within the greater novel, something with a defined beginning, middle, and if not an end, then a hook. That's not easy to do, especially when you've only about 375 words to do it in.

Though the passage I chose was short--about 500 words--it still put me over the two minute limit. I couldn't just chop off 125 words off the end because it would've ruined that my vignette. I decided to edit the whole passage from start to finish and ended up adding sentence to the end that doesn't appear in the original novel for my hook.

Just because you're reading from an already published novel doesn't mean you have to adhere to it word-for-word when you're reading it aloud for an audience. Often times, what works in a novel for regular reading isn't going to work as well for a live reading. Having now heard dozens of authors read their work aloud at various events, I can say with confidence that my attention begins to wander after about two minutes, maybe three if they're particularly good. While some of that might be the result of what I call my "adult-onset ADD," I have a feeling I'm not that different from the average audience member.

Once I edited the passage, it read more smoothly. I didn't trip over as many words. Stripped of much of its fluff, it was just better in general. Sure, I'd taken out some things that provided context for the the larger work, but for a reading like this, those things didn't matter. In fact, it's entirely possible that they don't matter to the novel as a whole, either. That might be a subject for another blog post.

In the meantime, don't be afraid to tailor your already-published manuscript for a live reading. It can give your work--and your performance--just the pop it needs for your next event.


Scott D. Parker said...

I constantly read my text aloud, especially dialogue. I find that if my mouth starts saying certain words that are not on the page, I add them. Additionally, if what I wrote some character to say is too convoluted, I get out the red pen and excise.

Dana King said...


Good advice. I don't care for the really short short N@B format, but I understand why they need to do it. When invited to such an event, the best the author can do is to give the reader a taste of his or her style and get out. Carefully selecting and editing a brief passage is the best (only? way to do that effectively.

Dana King said...


I read aloud a lot, at various volumes, depending on the passage and which draft I'm on, for all of the reasons you stated. I also read aloud to The Beloved Spouse. It's somehow different when reading to another person, as I hear things I missed reading it aloud in an empty room just a few minutes before.