7 Ways Public Readings Can Help Your Writing

photo adapted / Horia Varlan

It is 2002 and I am sitting in a packed audience at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference listening to Margot Livesey read the first chapter from her work-in-progress, Banishing Verona. We are almost 30 minutes in, and although that’s long for a public reading, I am entranced.

So far, we’ve learned that a pregnant woman has shown up at the door of a home being renovated by Zeke, an autistic handyman. Claiming to be the niece of the house owner, this woman charms her way into the house, dons a pair of coveralls to earn Zeke’s trust, and eventually shares his bed. He has gotten up early to go out and get them breakfast, and because he has given her his only key, he has to climb back in through a window. As he returns to the bedroom, he decides that however stupid it will sound at this point, he is going to ask her name.

Livesey has me. I’m hanging on every word.

Then she reads:

The bed was unmade, empty and cold to the touch, the suitcases gone. At the foot of the bed the rug was rolled up, and spread-eagled on the bare wooden boards lay the coveralls, neatly buttoned, arms and legs stretched wide, like an empty person. Only when he knelt to pick them up did Zeke discover the three-inch nails that skewered the collar, pinned the cuffs and ankles to the floor.

What??? Judging by the audible gasp—followed by groans when Livesey then closed her folder—I wasn’t the only one in the room who had questions.

Conclusion #1: Don’t sate the audience; readings that raise questions earn readers.

Once I got home from the conference, I looked for that novel in every single bookstore I entered until 2004, when Banishing Verona finally came out.

I had a similar reaction when hearing Ann Patchett read from her then-newest, Bel Canto, at the same event. I leaned toward the woman beside me and whispered, “This reading is extraordinary.” She leaned back and said, “And this wasn’t even one of my favorite parts.” After the reading, I went right to the campus bookstore and bought the novel.

And here I am, still talking about both of those readings 20 years later.

Such can be the power of a public reading.

Conclusion #2: A memorable reading can result in sales—even if the author hasn’t yet finished writing the book.

The Sewanee Conference is big on readings by novelists, poets, playwrights, and short story writers; they have a space devoted to it that’s fully booked. I was surprised to see there was always an audience and I aimed to find out why. After listening to as many readings as possible over the course of the conference’s 12 days, I came to understand more about myself as a person, a reader, a listener, and a writer. I learned what kind of opening tends to beg my interest. What makes me laugh, what doesn’t. What can, in rather short order, move me to tears.

As the readings accumulated I saw that in novel writing, as in my previous career as a dance critic, I needed to trust my experience and appreciate my subjectivity.

Conclusion #3: Exposure to a wide variety of public readings can help a writer identify what kind of novels they aspire to write.

Seeing the benefit of this, as president of the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group, I worked with a local theater company to bring in patrons on one of their “dark” nights to present a literary night out we called The Writers’ Soiree. Members signed up ahead of time for a limited number of ten-minute slots, and the evening ended with an open mic offering shorter slots to anyone present. We brought wine, and a nearby bakery provided treats that we sold at intermission. A huge bonus for our budding novelists was the immediacy of having strangers come up to them to say how much they enjoyed their reading.

Conclusion #4: Through public readings, even pre-published writers have something to offer their community, all while helping to raise that all-important awareness of their work called “platform.”

Sewanee attendees were also encouraged to gather informally to read their work aloud to each other for the purpose of feedback. It was after such sessions that I was repeatedly told that I tend to write one paragraph beyond were I should have ended a piece, which was such good advice that to this day I still watch for that tendency.

Inspired by this as well as the legacy of the great literary and visual artists that used to meet in outdoor Parisian cafés some hundred years earlier, I started The Writer’s Café at Borders in 2003, where those seeking books in the stacks would often listen in as our circle of writers practiced reading aloud from our works. Until that point, all of my critique experience had been on the page, where writing group critiquers could get distracted by typos and “correcting grammar.” At the Writer’s Café, which was open to the public, feedback went straight to the story level. (Could you relate to this story and its characters’ dilemmas?) This was so valuable that the program is still in existence today, and I encourage the practice at the retreats I host as well.

Conclusion #5: Public readings can create camaraderie and help feedback recipients focus on big story issues.

Before he moved to Austin, Philadelphia-area writer Lucas Mangum, as yet unpublished, rather brilliantly organized a series of reading events held at bookstores in the Greater Philadelphia area. Videotaped sessions allowed readers to assess their delivery. One I participated in was held right before my debut novel was released. Limited to five minutes, I chose an introspective excerpt, since dialogue can be hard for the audience to follow unless you have mad acting skills. The entire store was absolutely silent as I read. I sensed people leaning forward in their chairs—what a rush to know I held them in the palm of my hand. Afterwards, they burst into applause, an intensely affirming and gratifying experience that publishing into the void does not provide. After I took my seat, the woman in front of me turned around to compliment me—and to tell me that she knew (quite well) a (very famous) author who she thought was perfectly suited to blurb my book. She said she’d recommend that he do so, and his assistant got in touch with me. Due to his schedule, that ended up not working out, but imagine if it did?

Conclusion #6: Public readings can help you get to know local bookstore owners and open doors that could advance your career—and published or not, you can organize them yourself.

Here, I am reading to five people on an icy winter night in Boston: the store owner, my sister, an old woman who never looked up from her knitting, and a couple who made quick work of the wine I brought.

I’ve always attended as many public readings as I can, and I’m thrilled that after this two-year dearth that opportunities to do so are once again opening up. And if every now and then you find one that is woefully underattended, how lucky for you! A cozy interaction with a published author allows you to ask (or answer, I’ve been on both sides of this equation) questions and develop friendships that you can continue to nurture on social media for years to come.

Conclusion # 7: Public readings can extend a writer’s network and be a great source of insider tips. They are also awesome photo ops for social media. Mad PR skill: If you’re reading to a big audience, be sure to take a photo of them, and if applicable, holding up your book. If there are only a few people there, have a photo taken of yourself.

That’s seven solid reasons to do public readings, and yet I often hear authors say that they don’t see the point in them. There are legitimate reasons not to do them, of course. You may have a heavy accent because English isn’t your first language, or a speech impediment, or insurmountable social anxiety. Driving at night might be problematic. Just don’t hide behind vague suppositions like “they’re boring” or people “hate to be read to.” Many of us love being read to now just as much as we did when we were little.

If you offer your audience an enticing excerpt and deliver it well, your target listener will find it riveting, and you as well—enhancing your career in, oh, at least seven ways.

Public readings: yay or nay? Have you attended or given them? What was your experience?