I didn’t do many readings at SF conventions, because I wasn’t going over well, and I didn’t know why. I had done good readings before. One time, at Disneyland, I read the captions for my daughter on a Cinderella’s Palace walk-through, and I was applauded by several young women following behind who had overheard. But a friend told me that my readings at conventions sounded just like everybody else’s — my voice was flat, I was reading too fast, and there was no feeling. Especially no feeling.
I wanted to do better, so I began to practice, and I discovered that a dramatic reading revealed clumsy phrases, problems in paragraphing, passages or paragraphs that read like non-fiction, and other problems, all of which my readers would notice, but none of which I had found while reading for the story. So I decided to use “reading as a performance,” not only as a practice for a live reading, but as a final draft as well. Here’s how I do it.
First, I must always have, in the back of my head, the idea of giving my (imaginary) audience, all of them SF readers, a reading that they will enjoy. I have to keep them entertained, and hold their attention, so that they will want more.
I have to read what I actually see on the page, not what I “know” is there, or think is there. That means I have to read slowly, word for word, as if I were proof-reading; I have to articulate carefully, so that I will be understood; and I have to put enough feeling into the words, carefully not overdoing it, so that my audience can share it.
I pay attention to the punctuation, to find where there is too much, or too little, or it is serving the wrong purpose. I have to think of punctuation as a guide for delivery, not just as markers for grammar. After all, the original purpose of punctuation was so that people reading aloud would know when to pause and for how long.
When I do it right, the pitch of my voice drops. If my voice gets too high, then I’m reading too fast, and I’m not paying enough attention. I have to back up a paragraph or two, and try again. If I find anything that makes me hesitate, even for a second, or that just feels rough, or wrong, I take whatever time is necessary to fix it, whether it’s ten seconds, or ten minutes, or two hours, until it feels right. When it is right, it’s a pleasure to read it, no matter how many times I’ve read it before. And when it’s a pleasure for me, then it will be a pleasure for my readers too.
I didn’t make this up. I just had to apply some proofreading techniques, as told to me by an editor, and adapt some of what I learned in Toastmasters to what I am doing now.
I was a member of Toastmasters International (http://www.toastmasters.org) for twenty nine years. It is an oraganization devoted to helping people learn how to speak in public, in as professional a way as possible, and techniques have been developed and perfected ever since Toastmasters was founded, in 1924. I also did theater in college, and use some of what I learned there.
Public speaking of any kind, for entertainment, for giving information, for persuasion, or for playing a role, requires certain skills. Which I used to have, but forgot about. Listen to recordings of Martin Luther King, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, for some examples. Listen to live conversations when you’re among people at conventions, and compare them to conversations as performed in a movie, or on a stage, or on TV. You can easily tell the difference. Clergy who give sermons know that they have to acquire these skills, if they want their congregation to stay awake. Actors who don’t acquire these skills never get to perform.
Most of us may never read as performance, but we do want our readers to keep on reading. And by reading aloud, as if for a performance, we can discover all those little roughnesses that make our readers pause, and perhaps stop, and put the story down. And then we can fix them.
And storytelling, whether by page or picture or voice, really is theater after all.