“If you think you’ve written something good, read it out loud . . . and then you will know.”Jason P. Reed
A few weeks back I made the difficult decision of postponing my trip to visit family and friends in Louisiana over the Halloween/All Saints Day period . . . a trip which also included a New Bayou Books party at the Blue Moon in Lafayette. What a bummer. The party would’ve been today, 1 November. All Saints Day. A nice little tie-in for my second book, All Saints’ Day of the Dead.
But since I am “stuck” here in Belgium, where I currently live, I decided to do the next best thing, which was to make friends with the librarians who run the first class libraries around the NATO installations in the area. Long story short, I held a small book reading at the library last week, and I learned a couple things that I’d like to pass on to you.
Before I get into my own take-aways, let me just say that I’m sure there’s tons of good advice online about planning and putting on a book reading . . . and I have read exactly none of that advice. Not for any kind of philosophical reason, but simply because I had a lot of other stuff going on last week, and I didn’t want to “crowd” my mind unnecessarily with a bunch of outside advice on the subject. So I have no idea whether what I’m about to discuss squares at all with the conventional wisdom, if there is any on this subject.
I’m going to keep my advice here on a short leash: just three big observations.
- If You Haven’t Read Your Whole Book Out Loud, You’re Not Ready to Publish. Even though I’m addressing this advice to “you”, really, this is a new rule for me. The other day I heard an old interview with David Foster Wallace, and it was the very first time I’ve ever disagreed with something he said. He was talking to the host of a literary radio show in Boston (I think), and on the subject of the length of many of the sentences in his masterpiece, Infinite Jest, he said the book was not meant to be read out loud. Now, having read all thousand-something pages of that book (a book I actually ended up stealing from the New Orleans public library before Katrina, the act of thievery which I subsequently describe as a rescue, since the library flooded during the storm) I can say that he’s absolutely right. Wim Hof couldn’t summon the breath necessary to read those sentences out loud, since many of them literally go on for pages.
But anyway, I’m not talking about David Foster Wallace. I’m talking about mortals like you and me.
To prepare for the book reading, the first thing I needed to do was identify the sections of the book I wanted to read. And so I practiced (I actually filmed myself reading, which was very useful . . . though I’m not going to count that tip as one of my three). And in the course of practicing, I discovered a spectrum of little things about the text I wanted to change. Now, this was a problem, of course, because the book was already out. The imperfections I noticed ran the gamut from a flat-out error/mistakes on one hand, to things that I’d classify as “judgement calls” . . . stuff like commas or contractions that doesn’t quite sound right. The point is, as I’ve said before in previous blogs, reading the thing out loud is absolutely critical. And it led me to creating this rule for myself. Going forward, I will not publish a book until I have had a chance to read the entire thing out loud. No exceptions. No excuses. Reading aloud is a key quality control measure that I am now committed to incorporating as part of my post production process.
- Choose Your Favorite Parts, and Read Them Like You’d Read to a Friend. By the time I got done preparing for my little event, which I knew was going to be small and informal, I had basically marked up every part of my book, essentially trying to select readings that would present a comprehensive picture of the narrative. Once I finally realized this was a losing proposition, I had wasted many hours.
A better way to go, I think, is to select a very limited number of pages that you really enjoy, and then go from there. “Practice” reading them a few times out loud, but try not to overthink it. Don’t try to be perfect. Instead, just try to get into the words and read it in a way that feels good to you. Use your hands, if that comes natural. Play the characters. Have fun. People respond to authenticity, and so if you dig what you’re reading, listeners will tend to dig it too.
- Plan to Talk as Much As You Read. I’m not sure what the oracles of the internet would have to say about this piece of advice, but I think it’s sound. It’s based on the premise that when people engage with the author of a book, they tend to be curious about the creative process and the context from which the book emerged. As a reader, you can always take the book home and read it yourself . . . but you only have that one interaction with the author. Know what I mean?
So, based on that general idea, what I attempted to do was basically tell a narrative about the “story” of the book, interspersed with 5-7 minute readings of the actual text. I’m looking forward to future readings so I can test out this theory a little more. Especially as an unknown author, I think the main thing you’re trying to accomplish is to establish some kind of connection with readers (and potential readers). You want people to come away feeling that they are invested in your success. And that’s part of what the “behind the scenes” stories help to do—they give readers a view into the person behind the book. Of course, what the fuck do I know? At this point my entire literary career involves having read to six adults at my first reading . . .
Which I think is probably as good a place to leave this as any. The last few weeks have been rich with opportunities for learning from experience. Mistakes have been made, which is good, because mistakes are how we learn. That’s how it works for me, at least.
Above all, the main thing this whole experience of being an “authorpreneur” has taught me is the value of experience. You absolutely have to get in there and mix it up for yourself. It’s good to read up on distinct elements of the publishing process so you can learn from other people, but the most intense learning happens when you actually do the thing. So let that count as my final piece of advice to other emerging authors: if you really want to learn how it works, do it yourself.