A few months ago, soon after I’d finished writing my memoir, Raw: A Midlife Quest for Health & Happiness, I had the opportunity to share five minutes of my work at a reading. While combing through my manuscript for excerpts, I found myself thinking, Hmm, maybe this writing isn’t as strong as I thought. The writing felt flabby and slow. I found myself tinkering with passages so they’d read better in a shorter timeframe, and wondered if that was okay. In past readings, I’ve mostly read my poems, complete works, each one featuring a beginning, middle, and end.
But my memoir is different. It took time to develop stories in that longer format—time I wouldn’t have in a five-minute reading. I wanted to give my audience the best bang for their buck, to make my reading worth their while. I wanted them with me from the first word to the last. I have been to too many readings where restless audience members pick cuticles, scrimmage inside purses, check iPhones, or stare out windows, all overt cues that they’re desperate for the reader to just finish already. This sucks for writers, but it also means it’s our responsibility to ensure that doesn’t happen.
Every time you stand up and read your work, you’re pitching it. If you don’t grab your audience, and keep them with you, they will not buy your book. I’ve given several readings from my memoir since that first one and here’s what I’ve learned: presenting an edited excerpt of your novel or memoir is a gift for your audience as well as your book! In order to most effectively share part of a long-form story in a short-form (time) venue, you will need to compress, collapse, or cut. You may also need to compose transitions, connections, or endings to create a satisfying, standalone experience.
The key is to view a time “constraint” as a container. Make it work for you in the same way specific poetry forms, such as the villanelle, shape a poem. If you honor the requirements of your reading venue and deliver a complete experience, if you craft your work with a particular reading in mind, you have a much better shot of connecting with and entertaining your audience. If you leave them laughing, crying, or nodding their head, they are with you.
I have a three-ring binder with ten edited excerpts from my memoir, along with a list of others I want to develop. At the top of each page I’ve jotted down how long the excerpt takes to read. Please note: read slower than you think you should. Take your time. Plant your feet on the floor. Let your voice rise from your belly.
Edited excerpts will serve you well even if you’re giving a featured reading and have thirty or forty minutes. Remember to consider your audience when choosing passages. Your excerpt filled with sex and “colorful” language, however well edited, might not go over so well at a conservative ladies’ luncheon. This may sound obvious, but I’ve seen authors fall into this trap. You may want to share several edited excerpts that feature different flavors of your story, rather than one or two longer selections. Sadly, attention spans are shorter than they’ve ever been, and while a passage might be perfectly paced in your book, it might not hold a listener’s attention. Consider crafting ten or twenty excerpts of different lengths before it’s time to promote your book. You will be surprised what you can do with five minutes, or less. Being ready to go with as many great, edited clips as possible will make the reading part of your job successful and fun!
I’d love to hear your thoughts about this. Have you grappled with the problem of reading a passage intended to unfold more slowly in your novel or memoir? Were you resistant, as I was in the beginning, to edit your excerpts? Did you do it anyway? If so, what was the result?