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).
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:
- it should keep the audience’s attention (long enough to be interesting, short enough to stay interesting)
- it should stand up in its own right
- it should give a good taster of the book (characters, tone, themes; in the case of The Backstreets of Purgatory, Caravaggio’s art)
- it shouldn’t require too much explanation of characters or events leading up to it
- it shouldn’t give away crucial parts of the plot
- it shouldn’t be something that you have read loads of times before
- if reading more than one passage, there should be a good contrast between the two
- 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.
Scurdie Ness Lighthouse, Montrose by Oliver Paaske on Unsplash
Ozzy taken at Fidra Fine Art
Article from Montrose Review 20 Feb 2019