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Four Ways to Revitalize the Author Reading

Today I’m excited to welcome Laura Joyce Davis, a wonderful writer who has some great tips for turning the traditional author reading into so much more. Welcome, Laura!

Not Your Typical Reading: Four Ways to Revitalize the Old Reading

By Laura Joyce Davis

I’m a sucker for a good reading. Give me a front row seat, a fresh-off-the-press hardcover (yes, I still buy them), and an hour at the feet of one of my favorite authors, and I’m buzzing with contentment.

But as I prepare for Folk & Fiction—an AWP after-hours event that will feature an hour of music and performative readings—I find myself drawing from the elements that made my favorite readings so engaging.

I interviewed four authors who have mastered the art of lifting their words from the page, and offer four ways to turn a regular old reading into something remarkable.


Add a soundtrack: Nina LaCour (YA Fiction)


Nina LaCour’s second book, The Disenchantments, is named for a (fictional) throw-back Riot Girrrl band; when the book launched, LaCour invited female musicians to take part in the night for two hours of musical performance, reading, and a two-minute book trailer.

“I got to sit back and enjoy the evening, and when I did finally begin to read, I felt like the spirit of the book was already in the room because of the music we’d all just heard,” LaCour says.

LaCour admits that the preparation for the event was more involved than a typical reading—she had to line up the musicians, track down the right equipment for them, and bring her own projector and screen for the trailer—but the extra work was worth it.

“The night felt really special. I was blown away by the talent in the room and so grateful that these talented people were willing to take part in the celebration of my book.”

For those who don’t have the resources, contacts, desire, or energy to pull off something elaborate, LaCour suggests inviting one or two people to join in reading a scene. She’s also still an advocate of the traditional model of a reading, Q&A, and book signing (she did a traditional book launch for her most recent novel, Everything Leads to You).

“My advice would be to make sure that what you’re doing suits the work and feels like a natural extension of it.”

Nina LaCour is the author of three critically acclaimed young adult novels published by Dutton Books: Hold Still, The Disenchantments, and Everything Leads to You. Her novels have been Junior Library Guild selections and ALA Best Books for Young Adults and have appeared on many state and regional lists. Nina won the 2009 Northern California Book Award for Children’s Literature, was featured in Publishers Weekly as a Flying Starts Author, and was a finalist for the William C. Morris award.


Invite the Audience to Participate: Brent Weeks (Fantasy)

brent-weeks-credit-travis-johnson-photography (1)When Brent Weeks goes on a book tour, he aims to surprise. During one tour, he introduced his reading by quoting a study that showed that spoilers don’t decrease readers’ enjoyment of books. Then he read a selection from his work-in-progress—a scene that culminated with the death of both of the series’ main characters.

“I strung the audiences out for a while—including my editor at one stop!—before I revealed the deaths were a lie, and I’d written the whole scene just for my book tour.”

In his most recent tour, he wrote a Choose Your Own Adventure story using some of his characters and had the audience play the game with the stipulation that if they made a bad choice and died, the reading was over.

“About half of the audiences failed and died,” Weeks says. “It was awesome.”

Weeks recommends practicing your reading beforehand and picking selections that will work well for your audience; reading for family and friends who know your stuff is a different experience than reading for people who are new to your work.

“For most of us, doing a public event is a fish-out-of-water experience. But if you put in some effort, you can certainly do better than average. Readers tend to be very forgiving of an author who’s shy or nervous. Remember that you’re not there for yourself. You are there for your fans and for your host, the bookseller.”

Finally, Weeks emphasizes the importance of inviting local friends and family personally.

“No matter how much publicity you do and how many times you tweet or post on Facebook, if you go on a tour, at every city where you stop, a day or two after you leave, someone will send you a message saying they totally would have been there, if they’d only known!”

Brent Weeks is the author of six fantasy books published by Orbit Books, including the Lightbringer Series and the Night Angel Trilogy, and a graphic novel with Yen Press. His novels have been printed in fourteen different languages and have made the New York Times, USA Today, and Der Spiegel Bestseller lists.


Collaborate: Jamie Asaye FitzGerald (Poetry)

Jamie_Asaye_Fitzgerald1 (1)Jamie Asaye FitzGerald is a proponent of interdisciplinary art events. For “Breaking in Two,” she joined other writers, dancers, and visual artists to present a provocative vision of motherhood as part of the Pacific Standard Time initiative. For another event, she was asked to write a poem, which was given to a painter. The painting inspired by FitzGerald’s poem was unveiled at the reading/exhibition along with other writer-painter pairings.

“It was very cool for me as a writer,” says FitzGerald. “I love any kind of event that brings artists from different disciplines together. It’s always a really rich experience for everyone involved.”

As the Director of Poets & Writers California Office and Readings & Workshops (West) program, FitzGerald has experience drawing artists together. During AWP 2014 in Seattle, she hosted a panel that included Teresa Carmody, Karen Finneyfrock, and Joshua Raab to help writers explore thinking beyond the traditional reading model.

When asked about whether the pure voice of the writer reading was enough, panelist Teresa Carmody of Les Figues Press commented that there is really no such thing as the pure voice of the writer—that every performance is an adaptation of the text, and how you choose to translate the text into the material space of the room is up to you.

Carmody discussed curation as an opportunity for writers to take risks—but also stressed the importance both of making other writers comfortable with taking risks and trusting them to take those risks. Curators also need to accept the possibility of failure as an integral part of literary events that go outside of the norm.

Joshua Raab of The Newer York, another panelist whose events have included fake author biographies and audience participation through Mad Libs, said that the experiment is a success as long as it’s been completed.

Jamie Asaye FitzGerald’s poetry is forthcoming in Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond, and has appeared in journals, including Works & Days, Mom Egg Review, Cultural Weekly and Literary Mama. She received an Academy of American Poets College Prize at the University of Southern California and an MFA in poetry from San Diego State University. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughters and works for Poets & Writers.


Tell a Story: Jeff Greenwald (Creative Non-Fiction)

Jeff_Greenwald (1)Jeff Greenwald’s readings are less about reading and more about storytelling. For his one-man show, Strange Travel Suggestions, he used light and movement to tell his stories in vivid detail.

“But even during readings I often improvise, go off book and just relax into storytelling,” Greenwald says. “My initial goal is to paint a scene visually and take people into that world with me. I think the best readings are the ones where I break the wall between literary reading and solo theater.”

Before every reading or performance, Greenwald reads a set of ten maxims that he developed with fellow performer/director Nina Wise of Motion Theater.

“I call them ‘The Rules.’ They remind me what to remember I’m on stage: what my responsibilities are, what my ultimate goals are, and how lucky I am to be able to tell my stories. And those goals—beautifully expressed in a pre-show note from my wise and lovely friend Kristina Nemeth—are to ‘relax as best as you can and open your heart to all the beauty, joy, wisdom, and silliness in your stories.’”

People love a good story, Greenwald says, and the most important thing to remember when telling a story is that you are always taking your audience with you—whether you mean to or not.

“People will feel what you are feeling. If you are nervous, they will become nervous for you. If you are apologetic, they will feel shame with you. If you are thrilled, they will echo and share your sense of delighted anticipation. And if you are moved and awed, they will be transported right alongside you. The people who have come to hear you are invested in your success. They’re totally on your side.”

For those wanting to host a storytelling event, Greenwald recommends rehearsing with the storytellers at least once—and let them know when they’re rambling. If you’re a storyteller, he says that the most important thing going is to know your ending line.

“Make it a good one. Commit to it, and end on it. Full stop.”

Jeff Greenwald is the author of six books, including Shopping for Buddhas, which was recently republished in a 25th anniversary edition (Travelers Tales, 2014). He co-founded the nonprofit alliance Ethical Traveler and has circled the planet over land (and wrote the first Internet travel blog) for his memoir recounting the events surrounding his brother’s suicide in Snake Lake (Counterpoint, 2010). San Francisco Bay Area locals can see Jeff perform at the Mill Valley Library on March 25th and at Fireside Storytelling on April 1st

LAURA JOYCE DAVIS won the 2013 Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange Award for fiction with an excerpt of her novel, The Low-Flying Dove, the product of a Fulbright scholarship. She was a 2014 Kimmel Harding Nelson writer-in-residence, a 2009 Pushcart Prize nominee, a 2006 Best New American Voices nominee, and a two-time winner of the Mills College Prize for Graduate Fiction. She is curating this year’s Folk & Fiction at AWP 2015, where she will be performing her work alongside musician Jake Armerding and writers Sarah Beth Childers, Kate Klein, Aimee Suzara, and Meghan Ward.

What about you? What are the most creative author readings you’ve attended? Which were your favorites?

27 comments to Four Ways to Revitalize the Author Reading

  • Great ideas here–at Portuguese Artists Colony we have a live writing competition, which always makes things interesting!

    • Shanthi, how does the live writing competition work? That sounds stressful! It also reminds me of Literary Death Match. I wonder if there's a way to turn an author reading into a Death Match. I guess it would work if multiple authors read together. In fact, that's something that I've heard of that sounds fun – a multi-author reading. Probably complicated to coordinate, though.

  • aditi raychoudhury

    As a person drawn to the visual arts, I would be most compelled to go for Jeff Greenwald's reading –

    • Aditi, I don't know that Jeff actually uses visuals. I think he describes them. But I'm curious now how he uses light. I'll have to ask him.

    • laurajoycedavis

      Sounds like you might enjoy one of Jamie's readings as well! She has done a great job incorporating the visual arts into her readings.

  • I think that Amy Sedaris (and David Sedaris) are good at engaging the audience at readings. I like the idea of inviting others to read.

  • Frances

    If a writer is a great reader, I don't think gimmicks are needed to engage an audience. Audiences at readings tend to be rather literary so a great piece read well is all that's needed. Having said that, knowing how other authors approach audience engagement is always interesting.

  • laurajoycedavis

    Frances, I agree! When a writer is a gifted reader, it is such an enjoyable experience to just hear them read their prose. But it does seem like this is the exception, not the rule when it comes to most writers. And it's always fun with the author has done the extra work to make sure that the reading experience is engaging for everyone!

  • laurajoycedavis

    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to write this piece and talk with these wonderful authors, Meghan! I got a lot of great ideas from hearing about their experiences, and it was a good reminder to me that readings can be good opportunities to take risks as a writer–and that everyone benefits when the experiment is complete!

  • Molly

    Thanks Laura! Lot of different ideas.

  • Thank you, Laura, for such a well-researched article about a subject many author dread!

  • Having been to both Brent and Nina's readings, I can confirm that they both had people totally engrossed and on the edge of their seats. Were both of them a ton of work? Of course. But both authors gave their fans something way better than the typical reading (face/voice time)–an unforgettable experience worth telling friends about. These lessons are worth noting, because for anyone producing any creative work, that's what it all comes down to: are you giving people something worth telling others about?

  • Carly

    These are fantastic tips! I particularly liked the note about the event being an extension of the work itself. I think any means of engaging a reader in the spirit of the story is a lovely exploration. Thank you for taking on this topic.

  • Thanks so much, Nate, for your feedback. It's good to know that all the extra effort that goes into turning a reading into a performance isn't for nothing.

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