Saturday, September 14, 2013

Book Readings at the Melbourne Writers Festival

At the recent Melbourne Writers Festival, Max Barry asked why do audiences sit around and listen to authors reading from their books at writer’s festivals? Shouldn’t they instead be watching authors write? A few years ago, he attempted to put that thought into action. He set himself up in the concourse at the Melbourne Writers Festival so people could watch on a big screen as he wrote. He said it was the worst writing experience in his life, as every murmur or giggle from those watching had him thinking he had made an grievous error. So he now much prefers to do readings from his books.

I heard him and a number of other authors reading from their books at the festival. Some of them had me wanting to buy their book, while others did a good job of convincing me not to buy their book.

Graeme Simsion

If you are an Australian writer and haven’t heard about Graeme Simsion and his book The Rose Project, then you haven’t been paying attention. Simsion has now sold his romantic comedy to 40 countries for around two million dollars. He is in negotiation with Hollywood studios to have it made into an A-list movie. The novel is about a scientist who sets out to find a mate, with a 32 page questionnaire. The main character, Don, has some of the characteristics of Asperger’s Syndrome.

At the festival, Simsion read from the start of the novel. He read very quickly to mimic the voice of his character Don. The section he read was very funny, getting many laughs from me and the audience. He put on a very energetic performance, and I have since purchased the ebook of the novel. 

Max Barry

 Max Barry is an Australian whose book, Lexicon, I had purchased the morning before I saw him read. Lexicon had been getting a lot of good reviews from my Facebook friends, and I had very much enjoyed Barry’s last novel, Machine Man. Both novels are science fiction. Barry choose a section from the start of his novel, where there was a lot of action happening. What struck me about his reading was his unusual descriptive word choices, for example:

He didn’t understand the question. He had run into a pole and all his thoughts had fallen out. He groped for them and found Cecilia.

Catherine Deveny

Catherine Deveny was on the same panel as Max Barry. The panel was appropriately called Dying is Easy, Comedy is Hard, because Deveny tortured her reading to death. She had selected a section from her novel The Happiness Show, but she spent ten minutes, at least, trying to set up the scene. She then interrupted her reading with more background explanation. Her reading, which I found neither funny nor memorable, was cut short by the moderator so the other authors could make a contribution to the one hour panel. If there is one thing I will take out of the festival it is that if I am ever doing a reading from a novel, I will choose a section that requires minimal backgrounding.

John Weldon

John Weldon is a first time novelist. He was on a panel with two other first time novelists. He had a big Aussie personality, much like the character in his book, Spincycle, where a man who recently separated from his wife. In the section John read, his main character needs to wash his underpants, but his wife took the washing machine. The section was humorous in a blokey way, not really my cup of tea. It also didn’t seem appropriate for an audience of 80% females. But if the rest of his novel was like his reading, then what choice did he have.

What I learnt about doing readings

Choose a section from near the start of the novel where the hook is, and where the assumed knowledge about the plot and characters is not that great for the reader/listener. Choose a section with humour in it, as laughter from the audience is great feedback. Mimic the voice of characters if you can. Put some energy into reading it, so you sound like you are proud of what you have written.   


graywave said...

I had to LoL at your example from Max Barry. I do this myself but I've recently been working with an editor who picks me up on it and encourages me to find less bizarre metaphors. For a comedy, it works fine but, for thrillers, I'm very happy to take her advice.

Anthony J. Langford said...

I've heard of Max Barry. I checked out his site a couple of years ago as he mentioned that a game he had designed drew more people to his writing site that those interested in his writing. He sounds very proactive in bringing people to his work. As for Catherine, sounds like she has no idea about audiences nor holding attention, so it makes you wonder as to the quality of her book, let alone how she got it published. No doubt friends in the business... some form of corruption isnt it?
ps I think the publishing/writing world is female-centric which makes it hard to break in and generally conservative. Good to hear though that people like John Weldon can still break in, even if the audience couldn't relate.