Novel Readings and Book Events: Is Anyone Else Winging It?

Scurdie Ness Lighthouse, Montrose

I admit, I’m winging it. And I have been for some time now. I’m talking about events. Before the launch of The Backstreets of Purgatory, I had never even been to a book launch, not to mention spoken at one. Literary festivals weren’t on my radar when I was a research scientist, and I left the UK to live in France before I started writing seriously which meant I haven’t had many opportunities to attend book readings or festivals in the last few years. What I do know, I’ve made up or gleaned from other writers when we’ve done readings together.

Which leaves me with some gaps to fill and I’d appreciate your help. On Saturday 2 March, I’ll be doing a reading in Montrose Library. Montrose is the town that I grew up in. I’m excited and nervous to read in front of a home crowd. There will be people in the audience for whom this will be their first encounter with The Backstreets of Purgatory and there will be those who have heard me speak a few times. There will be folk who know nothing about the novel and those who have read it several times (at least, so my dad claims).

Montrose Review article about Helen Taylor and The Backstreets of Purgatory
Article from Montrose Review

Writers, here’s where I need some advice.

When you are doing an event and reading from a novel, how do you choose which passages to read?

There are several criteria that I keep in mind, but the more events I do, the harder it is for my selected passages to meet all of these. Here’s a rough list of what I think an extract should do:

  1. it should keep the audience’s attention (long enough to be interesting, short enough to stay interesting)
  2. it should stand up in its own right
  3. it should give a good taster of the book (characters, tone, themes; in the case of The Backstreets of Purgatory, Caravaggio’s art)
  4. it shouldn’t require too much explanation of characters or events leading up to it
  5. it shouldn’t give away crucial parts of the plot
  6. it shouldn’t be something that you have read loads of times before
  7. if reading more than one passage, there should be a good contrast between the two
  8. there shouldn’t be too much swearing/sex/violence especially if your parents, their pals and possibly your former school teachers are in the audience

Number 8 aside, it is 6 in particular that is giving me a headache. That and 5: the worry about giving too much away to the people who don’t know the book. How do you get the right balance between passages that work, that don’t give away too much and that you haven’t already read a zillion times before (very slight exaggeration)? I have several favourite passages that work well but some of my audience have already heard them and I don’t want them drifting off and snoring. (If the worst came to the worst, I could request to borrow Ozzy the Dog who spent one of my events rolling about on the floor in front of me, stealing the show and generally distracting my listeners. However, cute as he was, he didn’t help me sell many books).


Okay, so if you were me, would you stick with what you know, where the timing works, the laughs come in the correct places, where you don’t stutter or stumble over tricky parts (is anyone else rubbish at reading aloud?) or would you try out an untested passage or two? And does it matter if you give away crucial parts of the plot?

What about your own experience? Do you read the same part each time you do an event, or do you choose something new? If you are in the audience and you’ve heard a writer talk before, does it matter to you if they read the same section of their book again, or does that make you turn off?

Any tips, advice, experience or loans of Ozzy or similar gratefully received.


Image credits:

Scurdie Ness Lighthouse, Montrose by Oliver Paaske on Unsplash

Ozzy taken at Fidra Fine Art

Article from Montrose Review 20 Feb 2019






Author: Helen M Taylor

Author of The Backstreets of Purgatory

4 thoughts on “Novel Readings and Book Events: Is Anyone Else Winging It?”

  1. I’m (mostly) a poet so it’s slightly different. It annoys me to hear the same poet read the same poems at different events in a short period of time. Over a longer period of time I may want to hear my favourite poems from that poet again. In terms of reading, I like to feel comfortable with the poems I’ve chosen, to feel that I can read without having my eyes glued to the page all the time (though I don’t memorise) and to feel I know the rhythm of the poem. I avoid reading poems that include words that I may stumble over and I avoid reading out poems that I might get emotional about reading in front of an audience.

    Good luck with your reading, hope you enjoy it!



    1. Hi Juliet,
      Thank you for your tips. They make perfect sense, especially the part about stumbling over words or reading poems that make you emotional. It is also useful to hear that it bugs you to hear the same thing over again within a short period. I think I’ll do one reading that I’ve done before and one that is new to me. (Off the practice…)


  2. Hi Helen,
    I’m the least likely person to be advising you, as I’ve not read any parts of my novel to a crowd, but as one of your readers I have a few ideas and they may help.
    Firstly, enjoy the heck out of this time. I’d be grinning ear to ear if it were me. Your book – you wrote the words – published – sold worldwide – great reviews – and you’re on home turf to introduce it. Drink it all in. It’s a chance for people to meet your characters and connect with them.
    So that’s my first piece of advice – introduce your wonderful characters to the audience. Some pieces I felt were lovely moments that brought the characters to life were everyday ones: Finn and Lizzy helping Maurice out of the rain, Finn and Maurice mending the pipes (Maurice is fabulous fullstop), Finn laughing over Tuesday’s name in the chip shop, Tuesday asking Rob for the tattoo. Those scenes bring the environment of Glasgow into light as a character in its own right and the home crowd will love that you’ve captured that. You could do the scene where Kassia starts to ‘out’ her friend’s occupation at Xmas but stop short of the spoiler and watch the crowd dig for their wallets.
    Secondly, I recommend reading a part that really means something to you. Having done a lot of public speaking (recently crucified my husband at his 50th but quickly whipped the crowd back to my side with a heartfelt denouement) I’d say if it is special to you (and they need not know the reason) then you will filter the life into the words and they’ll feel it/get it/absorb it. One of my favourite parts of the book, you could say. Oh, they’ll think, we are so special she’s sharing one of her favourite parts.
    Thirdly, no animals or small children. They always upstage, the blighters.

    Let us know how you get on in the next blog please.
    Best of luck


    1. Hi Christine,
      What a fantastic response to this post. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. Because you know the book, you ideas are especially helpful. Usually I read a couple of longer passages based around one of Caravaggio’s paintings but I might rethink for this event. I really like the idea of sharing my love for the characters (even poor Finn who everyone seems to despise). You picked out some of my favourite parts too. Whatever else the novel is about, it is first and foremost about the people.
      Thanks again
      H x


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