Anyone looking through the window of a first-floor room in Bloomsbury the other night might have been tempted to dial 999. Bodies littered the floor. Listening in, the observer would have noticed a strange noise: humming. Were these people the victims of a mysterious cult? An other-worldly sect? No – just writers. It was Bloomsbury, after all.
As one of the bodies I can explain: we were taking part in a ‘Reading Allowed’ workshop, with Miranda Roszkowski and Judy Marshall, to get ready for the Mechanics’ Institute Review Live reading events. Some of us had read in public before; some had not. The aim was to enable us to read confidently, but above all authentically. As writers we spend time crafting our work. It’s easy to forget that presenting it needs time and practice too.
Lying on the floor and humming was part of the preparation. Next we had to walk round the room, haphazardly, reciting the first line of our stories as we criss-crossed each other’s path like phone-reading commuters. A perfect exercise to practise in the rush hour. Then, Miranda showed us how to stretch and bend from head to toe. Even our faces didn’t escape: ‘Pretend your face is a toffee, being chewed,’ she said, helpfully. We gurned away obediently, like the best end-of-the-pier act.
All this was to loosen us up, to stop us feeling tension and reflecting it in our voices. Judy showed us how to find our pitch: to start high, and take our voices in a swoop, as low as we could go, then come back up again, to a comfortable level.
We were practising to read extracts, not whole stories, which in most cases are a few thousand words long. So what makes a good extract? Keep it simple: not too many characters. Humour is always good. Not too much dialogue. Leave your listeners wanting more. Choose a piece that’s self-contained, but feels like it leads on…
It sounded straightforward. Being writers, we had to make it complicated. What about foreign words? Accents? Only if you really can pull it off, said Miranda. No need to make unfamiliar words too pronounced.
We were aiming to speak for a minute or so: roughly half an A4 page. Everyone speeds up when they read, was the advice, so keep it slow. But vary the pace. And you can breathe half-way through a line, if you want to.
Then it was time to hear our words – in our own voices. ‘Readers love hearing writers read their work,’ said Miranda.
She was right – reading aloud added an extra dimension to the stories. It was also helpful to get colleagues’ feedback: where a sentence was unclear, or an idea too hard to grasp on one hearing.
It was powerful to hear each writer speak to the room. There was something magical about being invited into the world of the story. When I went back to the anthology, I could hear each unique voice.
The next MIR Live is at the Brick Lane Bookshop in London on 17 November, followed by dates in Birmingham and Manchester. Details will be on the MIR website: https://t.co/L6cIwcm4Vk or check out @Editors_MIR.
Come along and be part of the world of our stories! Just don’t look in the Green Room – there may well be bodies on the floor…
I really enjoyed this, Sarah. Lots of useful advice for any writer facing reading their work at an event. I’m going to try some of these next time I’m reading.
Thanks Tracy! The loosening-up exercises really helped. And reading at a slower pace was useful too. Thanks for commenting!