When you get asked to read from your novel, or novel-in-progress, at a public event, do you see it as an opportuntiy to shine, to really show people what your work is about? Or is it an opportunity to mess up, to reduce what you see as a complex and intricate piece of work to a bunch of words, rendered meaningless either by flat delivery or by the general lack of context?
Do you fret over how much background to give, whether the scene itself should hang mysteriously in space like a black hole and draw the listener in?
The trouble with giving context, of course, is that you’re creating work for the listener, a list of things they will have to remember for your reading to make any sense. The trouble with not giving context is that your listener will feel lost, will not have a clear idea of what is expected of them, intellectually or emotionally.
One ruse novelists sometimes resort to is reading only from the first chapter of the novel. Novel openings are often designed to be self-explanatory, or at least to provide the reader a fighting chance of guessing what’s going on; mysteries within openings are enticing rather than confusing. The trouble with this is it’s not a trick you can resort to too many times without being aware of the repetition and getting very dry (and is an especially bad idea if there are people in the audience who have seen you read before).
One complicating aspect you might suffer from as a writer is a sudden feeling, descending fatally while you are in front of a microphone, that the thing you are reading from has no connection to yourself. Suddenly you feel like Dr. Frankenstein responsible for a rampaging monster that claims you as its own but that — you protest — is not really of your making.
Well, sorry, Dr. Frankenstein, you did indeed create this and you have a responsibility not only to own up to your creation, but to love it. And that is quite a daunting responsibility.
So is there a way of getting over all these self-alientating problems? If so, I haven’t personally found them yet, but here are some notions:
1. Read something completely new every time, even if it means not reading from your latest published work but reading instead something you wrote yesterday, last week, or last month.
2. Be as chatty as you can be with the audience (much easier said than done if you are unsure of an audience or unsure of yourself in the setting).
3. Tell yourself beforehand you are using the text as a performance guide, that you will depart from the text if feels right, chopping sentences, making unscheduled additions. This carries the obvious danger that you might well end up misrepresenting your own work quite badly. But, then again, as you own copyright you are the only person in the world who has the right to do this, so taking charge could also be fun.