Why Most Readings Suck and How to Fix It
* [Dead End Follies] Editor’s note: Gabino came back from AWP shirtless and green this week, so I asked him “Sup’ bro?” and it turned out he had a chip on his shoulder about the public readings at the event, so I thought Angrybino was too good to pass up on and so, here here he is for you in all his glory in a new exclusive piece about people who suck at readings. *
I’ve been home from AWP less than 48 hours and I’m happy to report the conference was a great experience. Besides being surrounded by books and checking out some of what Los Angeles has to offer, I had a chance to meet a lot of talented authors with whom I’ve been friends online for years and hung out with old friends from the bizarre, indie lit, and crime communities. However, the experience wasn’t perfect because there was one element that bothered me while it was happening and still bothers me now: most of the readings I went to were as interesting as watching paint dry on a muggy day.
Dull. Unimaginative. Uninteresting. Incredibly monotonous. Painfully boring.Exceedingly awful. You can use any of those and still fall short of accurately describing the mind-numbing, un-fucking-believably tedious bullshit I had to put up with. I received my reading education at the School of Bizarro (aka BizarroCon), and thus consider readings a chance to perform my words in a way that hopefully sends people running to buy my work. For me, to read is to perform. When I read, I want to take over, to become the universe of those listening to me. Sadly, the readers I witnessed were apparently trying to get me to grab the nearest sharp object and quickly jam it into my jugular as many times as possible. Maybe the MFA crowd operates differently after all, but what they’re doing is definitely not working. Luckily for boring readers everywhere, I’m a nice guy when I want to and have decided to give you all ten tips, in no particular order, on how to keep people from yawning, checking their phones, leaving, and contemplating suicide while listening to you.
- Be aware of the implicit contract of a reading
When you do a reading, the event is between you and the audience. Don’t forget about them. When I go to a reading, I’m giving you a chunk of my time. I’m not reading, hanging out with a friend or watching a movie; I’m there watching/listening to you. Don’t fuck around with my time. Most authors are convinced readings are all about them. They’re wrong. Readings are about everyone involved, and you should respect everyone equally. When I read, I think about everything else those folks listening to me could be doing, and I make sure they have a good time as a thank you.
- Time is a thing, fuckface
Five to seven minutes. That’s usually what you get. Appreciate it if you get more and hustle faster if you get less, but respect the other readers and your audience. Every time a reader is given seven minutes and ends up reading for 18 minutes, I want to put kittens in a blender, freeze the resulting pulpy mess, and then beat the reader to death with the frozen kitty innards. Your damn phone has a stopwatch. A friend in the audience can give you cues. Whatever. The point is, you need to respect time constraints. If you don’t respect everyone else’s time, I don’t respect you. Also, get to know a thing called pace. If you have seven minutes and make four-second pauses between sentences, you need to speed things up.
- A two-line bio will do the trick
Don’t give the MC your fucking resume, you arrogant piece of shit. Seriously. Some of the readings I went to in LA had the MC reading for three minutes just to introduce a writer. A reading takes place in the here and now, so keep past stuff to a minimum. If you blow me away, I will remember your name and Google you’re ass later. Then I can read about your pieces in The Cloud/Flower Review or the flash fiction piece you once published in some blog. I don’t need to know you edited your high school paper or that you like long walks on the beach. Let your reading do the talking.
- Keep intros to a minimum
“This is a short story I wrote about my friend Jenny. I wrote it two years ago. We were living in a tiny apartment apartment on…” Fuck you! Get to the reading already. We’re on the clock, remember? If you waste four minutes introducing your damn story or poem or telling us about the way your novel finally came to be published, you’re basically sabotaging yourself. It’s easy: the MC introduces you, you get up, maybe you say hi and thank folks for being there, you read, you sit down. Anything outside of that is a waste of everyone’s time and you’re an asshole for doing it.
- A little thing called inflection
Okay, so here’s where I mess with the MFA crowd again and then get all the hate for it. I don’t care because the truth is more important than your opinion of me. Here’s the deal: apparently most MFAs have a class that teaches writers to read in the most monotonous, hushed voice possible. It’s as if modulation and natural rhythms are frowned upon. I have an accent, but I own that shit. Joe Lansdale has an accent, and he owns it and uses it. Brian Allen Carr yells until the hair in your arms stands at attention. CarltonMellick III turns into a beast. Laura Lee Bahr has a million voices. Rios de laLuz becomes la voz de la raza. Kevin Donihe erupts like a supernova every time he reads. Just like these folks, I try to read in a way that forces people to remember it, to remember me and my voice. Let your voice take off like a rocket. Let is soar and crash back down. Let it shatter like a bird made of glass against a brick wall. Let it carry your story and change with your characters. Make sure the guy in the back hears you. Make sure the lady checking her phone because the previous reader was putting her to sleep hears your voice and looks up. I don’t care where you’re from; go back to doing what you’re ancestors did around a fire a very long time ago and tell a story that captivates your audience. Scream, motherfucker!
- Your body is a tool; use it
Just like your voice, your body is a tool, a wonderful prop that can make your reading reach the next level. Move around. Use your arms. Let your hands tell your story alongside your voice. Standing there with your feet together like Dorothy getting ready to click her heels is just not gonna cut it. Dance around. Get on top of a seat like MP Johnson does. Walk away from the mic. If you walk up to the mic, look down at the piece of paper/cellphone in your hand and then read a story in that monotonous voice almost all readers use, you’re boring us to death even if what you’re reading is great. And if boredom is what I remember when they mention you, I won’t be buying your book.
- Learn to read the audience
Not every reading will be the best one of your life, so learn to read your audience. If you read a decapitation scene and no one leans forward, you got a tough crowd. If you crack a joke and it bombs, move forward quickly. Keep moving, feeling the crowd, paying attention to how they react to certain words. Some crowds will laugh at a story about a guy eating a rotting fetus, but other crowds will call the cops on you if you say fuck twice.
- Make eye contact
You wrote the thing, reread the thing, and then read it a few more times while editing. You don’t need to keep your eyes glued to the damn thing. Folks are looking at you, so look back at them. You’ll be surprised how much more engaged they feel when you make eye contact with your audience.
- Remember why you’re there
It’s okay to be nervous. It’s okay to feel a bit scared. However, treating readings like a chore is not okay. You’re there to read something you wrote because you needed to share it with others. That’s your chance to do that. If you keep that in mind, it’ll be easier to overcome your nerves.
- Leave no ass unkicked
Passion. That’s the word you need to focus on. Be passionate about what you’re reading. If you sound like you’d rather be at the dentist than reading your work, how the hell am I supposed to feel about you and your words? Passion doesn’t guarantee sales, but it guarantees a good impression. Fuck fear. Don’t hesitate to be funny or to cry or to show that what you wrote makes you feel vulnerable. Every reading is a war: you against yourself, against fear, against the audience’s need to check Facebook or reply to a text, and against the quality of other readers who may have put them to sleep or raised the bar. Tackle all of it with passion and abandon. Leave no ass unkicked.