06 May 2008

Reading your writing

Today in class, I did something I do most years in my Novel 2 class: I started reading James N Frey's "Seven deadly mistakes" that a writer can make (from his book How to write damn good fiction). The first mistake is timidity, and he talks about the different types of timidity a writer can experience or exhibit. One of the things that often comes up in such sessions is the fear of public speaking -- I mean, writers in their garrets and all of that, right?

Yeah. We wish. (Or I do, at least.)

Like it or not, these days writers are expected to promote their books -- book tours, interviews, readings, writers' festivals, conventions etc. I used to suffer terribly from a fear of public speaking -- so much so that in my first six weeks of teaching, I didn't sleep for three days before each class. By the time I got in there I was so exhausted I needed the adrenalin-kick of the fear to keep me upright! These days I've learnt some modicum of control over it, and enjoy walking into my classes. I don't know that I'll ever be entirely comfortable in front of strangers, but it's not the incapacitating experience it once was. I have teaching to thank for that.

However, I'm always aware of reading aloud and how nerves affect readers. On my twenty-first birthday, I had to give a speech at school on the affects of lead on haem synthesis. I was worked up over it (vomiting beforehand and all), and annoyed that I had to do it on the day of my twenty-first birthday. Afterwards, I sat down and leaned across and said to my best friend, "How did I go?", and she told me that it was probably okay but that I'd spoken so quickly she didn't understand one word. Not one!

So, that's always my first piece of advice to anyone who wants to read their work: read slowly. No matter how slowly you think you're reading, you can probably read it even more effectively by slowing it down more.

My second piece of advice is about diction -- about pronouncing your letters clearly, really biting out the consonants. My daughter sings -- she has a great voice and range, but she sometimes slurs her letters. I see it with some of my poetry students. It's something you have to be constantly thinking about. Pronounce each letter. Practise. Read your story or poem out loud and anticipate any problem words. Write them on the page phonetically. (Don't forget to use double spacing for prose!) Record yourself reading your story and then listen back to it. Was it clear? Did you stumble over any words? Can you replace them with something easier?

Thirdly, run your finger or thumb down the page as you're reading. This helps you keep your place if you look up at your audience -- and you should look up at your audience. The more people you can make eye contact with, the more you'll have in your bag.

Fourthly, warm up beforehand. Some poets like to do vocal exercises first -- just like singers warming up with scales.

Fifthly, time your talk -- especially if you are time-limited. Nothing worse than a five minute talk that runs for fifty. Yes, I've been to some! Have your introductory patter prepared and written out, and include this in your dry runs.

Sixthly, don't just practise alone. If you can, get some friends to listen in. You may feel self-conscious, but it will be worth it for the insights they can give. Listen to any advice they give!

Seventhly, if you're doing an interview, you can ask for a list of questions or, if your interviewer isn't prepared to give you one, at least the likely topics so you can have something prepared. Having said that, bear in mind that some level of spontaneity enlivens a talk. Go ask Jack Dann how to give a great talk, and he'll tell you he just goes out there and gives schtick! It's great if you can do it, but I, personally, like to be prepared! If you can't be, though, just chill out and take the time you need to answer questions. I know plenty of writers who will answer questions with a stock sentence like "That's a really good question" just to give them a bit more time to think.

Having just attended the Beyond Cuisine dinner, with actors reading works of fiction -- see Ellen's blog for a report -- I took great notice of how the actors read. There were a few notable points: the main difference was how much they varied the pace -- mostly reading slowly, even more slowly than I ever have, but with occasional bursts of speed, especially in the dialogue or in direct thoughts. These bits were much faster than I would have ever dared. Of course they all had superb pronunciation, so that the words were clear, and their great clarity meant that the sped-up reading was still easy to understand.

They also were more animated, which of course I'd expected, but the other thing they did was use pauses to a much greater degree, and for a much greater length of time than I ever have. And it worked. It was as if they were reading a story to kids they wanted to engage, but they exaggerated things even more. Well worth going to see some actors do it, just to get a feel for how better to perform your own work. Oh, I'd love to do some acting classes to develop this even more!


Leah-Mae's Scribbles said...

Thanks a million Tracey for Directing me to Sheryl's blog, AND for the advice in this latest post- a lifesaver; I just haven't been able to string two words together latley, now I know why!

To answer your question, I'm still in High-School, but when I'm done I do intend to further my education with something to do with words.

Words are gorgeous don't you think?

Things are looking up,I hope that the colours stay luminous for you too.

Tracey said...

Hi, Leah-Mae. No worries about the direction, and glad the post struck a chord with you. That dreaded writers' block can be a terrible thing, but when I've had it I usually come out with screes of words. Doesn't quite make up for the frustration of not being able to put words together though.

Good luck with your studies. Yes, I love words and can spend hours perusing the dictionary, which some friends find rather sad. lol. The writing ones all understand though.

Thanks for the good wishes. I'm glad things are looking up!

Lorraine said...

Tracey,I don't see anything sad, although you did say lol, about reading the dictionary. I love going through the thesaurus and am constantly amazed when I find I can't find a suitable word I'm looking for in all the words laid out for me. Words are always intriguing and it's a great challenge to find the right one.