When I received the programming schedule for this year’s World Fantasy Con, I was surprised and honored to discover I had a 30 minute Reading slot on Friday at 2 pm. It would be my first public reading of my debut novel, THE SONG OF ALL.
And with that, I began to panic. 30 minutes? I couldn’t imagine reading aloud for that long. I emailed my editor and my agent. They reassured me:
“It’s a great opportunity.”
“You’ll make introductory remarks about you and the book, read for 15 minutes, then take questions at the end.”
Immediately, I began to obsess over what I should read, which meant I didn’t decide until just before the conference. Then I practiced reading aloud to get the timing and inflections just right. The first afternoon of World Fantasy, I attended three readings to see how other authors handled their 30 minutes. Just as my editor outlined: opening comments, followed by a 15-minute reading, and questions at the end.
By Friday, I’d practiced reading my selection another half-dozen times. My nervousness bounded between, What if nobody shows up? What if people do show up? Of the two, the former was the real fear. Ten minutes before my reading, I made my way to Executive Salon 3 where the neatly arranged conference chairs sat empty. I set my name placard up in front, poured myself a glass of water, and opened my bound manuscript to the selection I’d chosen.
I looked at my phone. 1:56 pm. I was alone in the room. I laid out my opening remarks, some of which I hoped were clever. 1:58 pm. I was alone in the room. 1:59 pm. I was alone in the room.
I texted my husband saying, “I don’t think anyone’s showing up.”
I was about to pack up and leave, the sting of humiliation flush on my cheeks. Then a woman walked in. I smiled and greeted her and resolved to do my best reading just for her. And then two University of Texas students walked in. They were fulfilling a class requirement. I welcomed them warmly, hoping my inner relief remained unremarkable.
With this quorum of three, I began my opening remarks, managing to keep going through a late arrival, even as I tallied silently. Four.
At ten minutes after 2:00 pm, I began the reading. I found my rhythm almost immediately. My voice resonated just as I had practiced. The words rose effortlessly from the page. Fourteen minutes later, I finished the chapter. I looked up at the neatly lined and mostly empty chairs before me, surprised to see my agent. Apparently, I had been so caught up in my reading, I had not heard him slip in to take a front-row seat. I silently tallied. Five.
The subsequent applause was generous, the questions forthcoming, and the comments complimentary. I had survived my first reading. Still, the shame of 1:59 pm clung like a burr as I stood in the corridor with my agent. He had just gallantly pointed out the challenges of the time and the location of my reading when the neighboring room disgorged a packed house of enthusiastic attendees. With a flash of envy, I looked to the room’s marquee.
2:00 pm reading David Mitchell
David Mitchell, Two-time Booker Prize nominee and New York Times bestselling author of CLOUD ATLAS, THE BONE CLOCKS, and SLADE HOUSE. Guest of Honor at the conference and charmingly erudite, with a lilting British accent.
The organizers had scheduled me opposite David Mitchell!
I’d been so focused on my reading, it didn’t occur to me to look at who else was on the schedule at the same time. It felt like such a rookie mistake. But I was glad I hadn’t known.
Afterward, each time I found myself in the elevator with David Mitchell, I had a surge of envy. But my jealousy would inevitably fade because David Mitchell was invariably gracious and charming, with that disarming accent. I thought of sharing with him this anecdote of my first reading pitted against his, but the elevator rides never afforded a private moment. And just as well.
It was my first reading. A starting point. My next reading will likely not be scheduled opposite a Booker Prize nominee and New York Times bestseller with a lilting British accent.
And besides, I had FIVE folks who chose me over David Mitchell.
Five Tips That Might Help You Survive Your First Author Reading
1. Practice. Practice. Practice. I’ve been to any number of readings where a fabulous author is monotone, mumbles, or speedreads. Reading aloud is a skill. It should not be taken for granted. Practice until it flows. Time yourself. For new authors, unless a specific time has been requested, shorter is better. Under 15 minutes.
2. If possible, scope out the venue in advance. The place may have poor lighting or no podium. It may not have a convenient outlet when your computer battery starts to die. It may be freezing or stuffy. Conference rooms are notoriously bad for temperature control. And it may or may not have a mic. Be prepared—at least as much as you can.
3. Stack the audience with friends. Or at least one friendly face. If you are reading in a bookstore, library, etc., tell your friends. Bribe, cajole, and call in favors. Do what you must to get an audience that will support you. As a new author at conferences, try to meet as many new people as possible. Let them know about your reading. Have some promo material to give them. It only takes one friendly face to make a reading a success.
4. Help your audience transition from passive listening to active questioning. As a new author, you may not have a fan base that has ready questions they’ve always wanted to ask you. But you can help the audience find questions. In the transition, you can suggest topics related to your book or related to your interests. For example, “I’m happy to answer questions about the process of writing, the setting of my book, my main character’s favorite food…or you could ask me about surfing and learning Italian by watching Bay Watch in Italy.” Clearly, those last two topics are specific to me, but I am sure there’s something about you that will spark questions from your audience.
5. Try not to be scheduled against David Mitchell.
Tina LeCount Myers is a writer, artist, independent historian, and surfer. Born in Mexico to expat-bohemian parents, she grew up on Southern California tennis courts with a prophecy hanging over her head; her parents hoped she’d one day be an author. She is a member of the Western Association of Women Historians, National Women’s Book Association–San Francisco Chapter, and a guest instructor for the Young Writers’ Workshop at 826 Valencia. The Song of All (February 20, 2018, Night Shade Books) is her debut novel.