What’s In A Reading?

Will Hindmarch is a freelance writer, graphic designer, and game designer. He also blogs at Gameplaywright and The Gist.

I admit it, I’m a little nervous.

Manuel's Tavern Event Poster

This coming Friday, at Jeff’s reading-and-signing event here at Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta,  I’m reading, too, alongside Jeff and J.M. McDermott. Now, I have hundreds of thousands of words in print in game books, but these guys are novelists. They’ve written, you know, real books. I’m just starting out on that path. Readings aren’t something people expect from game writers, so it’s not often that I get to flex this particular muscle.

It’s not quite the public-speaking thing that’s got me rattled, though. I’ve been on stage, I’ve been on the radio, I can be comfortable talking to strangers. The rub is this: What to read?

I decided early on that I’ll be reading an excerpt from my in-progress novel. I can think of lots of ways in which this is a bad idea. Talking about a work in progress can puncture it, deflate it, make it feel like it’s finished before it is. For me, at least, hearing that a story sounds good, or reads well in the first draft, takes some of the wind out of it — it’s validation or rejection without all that trouble of finishing the actual storytelling. Risky.

Reading from an unfinished work is tricky, too, because some of the material that might be great for a reading doesn’t actually exist yet. I spent some time last week rushing ahead in my manuscript to write one scene in time for the reading, because I think it might play well on its own. That’s probably what I’ll read.

In preparation, I’ve gone back and rewatched Jeff’s Boston reading a couple of times. I like how he puts different parts of Finch together to create a rich reading experience and a strong picture of Wyte.

But I want to ask you: What makes a great reading? What are some great readings you’ve been to, and what made them stand out?

Was it action? Was it dialog? Was it the rhythm of the prose or was it in the reader’s voice?

What do you hope for when you go to a reading? What do you dread?

16 comments on “What’s In A Reading?

  1. Not sure I have a solid definition of what makes a reading work for me, but scheduling it in a bar would definitely be a plus.

    That billing poster there is a very slick design.

  2. patricia santillan says:

    I believe what makes a good reading is the authenticity of the author. Be yourself! Choose an excerpt that you feel most comfortable reading and go for it!

  3. For fiction readings, the better ones I’ve been to were where the writer read from a section they were really excited or passionate about. Didn’t matter where it fit in the overall story, or what might NOT be in that particular passage. A brief setup for context, and jump right into it. Also, 10 minutes tops!

    Good luck! And great poster.

  4. Rob Donoghue says:

    If you’re going with something unfinished, do you have something else they can walk out with? Even something like a nicely designed flyer/postcard? If you don’t have _something_ for them to hook into then you’re counting on them to remember your name until sometime the next day and then go online and…do something. If that something is poorly defined, then they won’t do it. So what’s the takeaway, and what’s their next step in your mind? Can you help that happen?

    In terms of actual reading, if you’re going with an unfinished work, do NOT go with anything like a cliffhanger, unless you do so in the middle, nonchalantly walk away from it, then get back to it. Leaving the readers dangling is a dick move even when they can pick up the book.

    Unless you’re about to thrust the rest of the book into their hand right then and there, there’s no benefit in getting them to care about what happens next. Even if they’re really engaged, they won’t be by the time they might actually read the book. But if you can get them to care about _what else_ is happening, then there’s less immediacy, but more likelihood they might come back to it in their thoughts.

    Weirdly, this is something where gaming writing is probably a big help. Gaming material, done right, excels at only showing enough of something to intrigue the reader, but leaving him to either fill in the gaps or wonder. This is not to say I would go so far as to think of it as thinking of your reading as pitching a setting, but it’s definitely in the same ballpark.

    However it goes, good luck!

    -Rob D.

  5. Guy’s got the right angle here. Find something short that *you* get excited about when you read it. Find a passage that makes you genuinely laugh or smile, because that’s what you’ll do in front of all those people, and they’ll join in with you!

    Authenticity is king, I think. See Wil Wheaton reading to a con audience the passage about a Star Trek cruise — there’s a clip where his younger self swears that he’ll never be a burned out Trek causality, riding his scant fame through his older years to the delight of dorky fans… The look he gives to his audience at that point is priceless. It’s because he’s being genuine in the guise of playing it up a little.

  6. Kater says:

    I kind of like cliffhangers, myself.

    Only one reading I really disliked, and that was one where the author read too fast. She slurred over her words like an auctioneer, and I had to zone out, not following any of it.

    Readings are kind of like pizza: even when they’re not that great, they’re still pretty good.

  7. Dan Read says:

    FWIW, my pet peeves for readings:

    when the author spends more than a couple minutes setting up the background–if it needs a lot of setup, choose another passage…i’ve seen readings by top authors where they spent 15 or more minutes explaining a big setup;

    when the author clearly has not read the passage aloud before and as a result has a hard time reading it clearly, without stumbling, or with any inflection;

    when the author goes too far trying to do voices for the characters

    Everything else tends to take care of itself–that is, unless you’re really trying to turn the reading into a performance. Putting on a performance is great if you can pull it off, but I don’t think it’s necessary in order for me to be satisfied and entertained as a member of the audience. If I’m there to hear David Sedaris or someone like that read, I might expect something of a performance, something that will make me laugh, etc. But I think most people who come for a “reading” have fairly basic expectations. I think if you can eliminate things that are distracting (see above), a clear reading of good writing is plenty good enough.

    I’m looking forward to hearing you read, Will! :-)


  8. Reading this I kind of feel sorry that you’re going on after me.

    Good luck with that.


  9. Will Hindmarch says:

    Thanks for weighing in, y’all. I’m fairly sure that I’ll read all right, I’m just not sure I’ll pick the right bit to read. JM has me imagining him giving a Olivier-worthy reading at the top of the evening and getting the room primed for something brilliant… only to get me taking up space before Jeff’s grand final reading of his mega-tour.

    No pressure.

  10. The story I’m reading is going to be in the next issue of Weird Tales.

    No pressure.

  11. Sounds like I should be opening for you, Joe.

  12. I’m confident in my ability to read, I just think a Weird Tales story trumps an unfinished novel. :)

  13. I’ll just have to do an awful job, then. I’ll drink three shots of whiskey right before I go on stage and slur my way through.

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