Dawn Finch offers advice on reading your work out loud to an audience, choosing the right passage, the right voice, and getting the right vibe.
I love stories. It’s not just my job, it’s my life and my passion. Stories are the reason I got into libraries, and the reason I write. For me it’s never just been enough to read them to myself, I have to share them. I love passing on books and matching the right story to the right person. This is a librarian thing (although you don’t have to be a librarian to do it) and it’s a compulsion.
Book people like us have to share books with others. Sharing stories out loud is a big part of that, and something that I enjoy a great deal. In my time as both a public and school librarian, I worked out I have organised well over a hundred author visits and seen and supported many more. I've read aloud more books than I can possibly count. As an author I’ve lost count of how many school visits I’ve done myself. I’ve seen some very good ones, and some very bad ones.
One of my favourite things is to share stories aloud. I am a passionate storyteller and I do think that there is a craft and art to it. I have seen some great books ruined by poor storytelling, and I have also seen great storytellers ruined by reading the wrong pieces aloud. I’m not talking about picture books here because they are all designed to be read aloud. In this piece I’m talking about longer novels.
So, what does make a great read-aloud story, and how can you pick the right bit from your book to read aloud?
Choose your opening
First off, let’s not throw out the traditional idea of reading the opening passage or chapter from your book. Many authors spend ages searching through their books for the bit that they like the most and avoiding the obvious opening pages, but don’t forget that when a reader first picks up your book, they are going to look at those all-important pages.
In my experience, you have around five minutes, and one page, to capture a potential new fan in a bookshop or library, so if your opening pages are not up to the task… well, I’ll leave that one up to you!
Next, don’t just pick a random section you are proud of. Think like the reader. Imagine you have never read anything at all from this book and you haven’t a clue who anyone is or what the story is – does the bit you have chosen still work? Does it make sense? If your listeners are puzzled, they are not following the story, and they are probably not relaxed enough as listeners to enjoy it.
Pick your strengths
What about the kind of things that work best as read-alouds? A lot of that depends on what kind of reader you are, and what kind of performer. If you are comfortable doing voices (and you haven’t noticed too much cringe from your audience when you do them!) then go for it and pick a dialogue piece. This can be confusing though, so try to keep it down to just two people talking at a time, and make sure it’s a conversation worth your audience hearing.
The best read-alouds are descriptive, but not too flowery. The language should be highly visual (I often get listeners to close their eyes) but the text should contain vocabulary that works for your audience. I find that many books that are highly descriptive leave an audience confused as the sentences are too long to hold onto when read-aloud. Pick a passage with punch, and power. Pick a few pages that have suspense or tension, and that demonstrate a clear stand-alone section of the text. This sounds obvious, but trust me, I have seen a hell of a lot of people get this horribly wrong!
Learn to rehearse
Now to your input! Obviously, you need to read with passion and expression. You need to absolutely put your heart and soul into bringing that story to life – but make sure you test your performance out on a critical audience. Not just your family – unless you have teenagers who will be brutally honest with you.
Like all performers you will need to rehearse. Gesticulate, but don't be a windmill. Don't be a statue, but don't pace like a caged bear either. Do some voice training. Learn to project and make sure you are not shouting.
I remember a particularly awful visit (I’m naming no names) when the author literally bellowed their story to a flinching group of eight-year-olds! Work on finding the balance that makes your storytelling look natural, as if the story has just come into your mind. Some people like to memorise the piece, but I find many authors prefer the shield that holding a book offers.
Stick to doing you
A lot of how a book comes across will depend on you. If you are not comfortable performing, do not put pressure on yourself to do so. When you do school visits, it is perfectly acceptable to not read aloud. There is no set formula for school visits and there is no rule about reading your work out loud. I often wished that some authors had not read aloud as I have seen some fantastic author visits fall at that hurdle. The author might have spent the whole visit being funny, charming, captivating and inspiring… but then really bad at reading aloud. If it’s not your thing – don’t do it.
The very best author visits are ones where the author is happy and excited about sharing their book and their own story. The very worst are the ones where the author is nervous or unhappy, or dreading that performance moment. If you are not comfortable reading text aloud, then the story you really need to tell is the one you completely own – the one about you!
It is perfectly possible to make an audience excited about your work without reading huge clumps of it. Tell them about the characters instead, bring them to life and place them in the mind of your audience. Tell them about the plot and give them teasers to make them want to read it for themselves. I’ve seen authors write jokes, or poems, or little plays (that they get the kids to perform), and even songs - anything that brings their story to the audience.
What really matters is the story, and how you bring that to your audience is up to you, but your methods should always play to your strengths, and the story you tell should always be real to you. Be real, be honest, be memorable, and be the story!
About Dawn Finch
Dawn is a children’s author and former school librarian. You can find her non-fiction in almost every primary school. She is also known for her work for national library and literacy campaigns and is a trustee of CILIP (the UK library association) and a member of the Society of Authors' Children's Writers and Illustrators Group (CWIG) Committee.