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Stand up and be Heard

Erinna reading at the Small Wonder festival

If you are serious about being an author there will come a point when you will need to read your work out to an audience. Authors are by nature generally solitary beasts, they spend most of their time sitting at a desk with only Twitter for company, possible a cat or two but when their book comes out they are expected to come over all thespian and perform for their keep. This idea may well fill you with terror, bad enough that you bare your soul in print let alone actually stand in front of people and ask them to love what you have written.

As the co-founder of a spoken word event (Rattle Tales) I have met many authors but I have yet to meet one who hasn’t suffered from some form of stage fright. Many of us shudder at the thought of reading out. This isn’t necessarily to do with being on stage, I have always been able to read other people’s work well with no sweaty palms or shaking legs but the first time I had to read my own work I was a wreck. My first public reading was almost exactly two years ago; I read a short story at Brighton’s Grit Lit event. I was absolutely terrified, the couple of glasses of wine I had didn’t even take the edge off, my heart beat fast, my throat went dry and the first few sentences felt like agony but then something weird happened, I looked up at the rapt audience and I began to enjoy myself, they were hanging on every word, they were laughing (when they were supposed to) and at the end they applauded. My leg still shook (in fact my leg shakes so much I’ve had therapy to try and cure it) but no-one seemed to notice, and at the end people came up and complimented me on my reading.

Shaking leg syndrome is very common. I’ve spoken to loads of authors who suffer from this particularly nasty affliction, often to people who I’ve just watched read and I must say I have never noticed. I think that the audience isn’t interested in how you stand or what you look like or even if your paper is flapping like a boat sail, all they really want is your words.

Katy Darby (who runs Liars League London and wrote the gloriously gothic novel The Unpierced Heart) gives her creative writing students a set of guidelines for reading their work to audiences. I have added a few bits I have learned from my time at Rattle Tales.


Practice before you are in the position of have a novel to promote, send your work into short story events and poetry nights, start off with a bit of flash fiction if that’s all you can manage. Look for events near you and contact the organisers.  Many events get actors to read your story for you so you can hear your own words read professionally. Practice again, anything you are going to read, preferably in the mirror, until you are comfortable with every word. This will also mean you can take it off the page, look up occasionally and engage with the audience. They like that.

Don’t fret about it

There are things you can do to minimise the effect of your nerves. If your hands shake don’t read from a piece of paper use a clipboard or a lever file. If you are promoting your novel read from that no one will see it shake, and make sure people can see the cover. You would be surprised how much this will stick in their mind next time they are in a bookshop. People are there to be entertained and will listen so try to relax.

Speak slowly

Read slower than you think is too slow, it won’t be. Speaking slowly and evenly allows listeners to absorb the words and understand the story: listen to Radio 4 if you don’t believe me.

Speak up

Unless you have a microphone people at the back won’t be able to hear you. Don’t shout; just raise your voice a little. If you do have a microphone remember to get close enough and don’t keep moving back and forth so your voice drifts.

Introduce yourself, and the writing

Say who you are and what you are reading, make a little joke, smile, NEVER apologise for your writing ‘it’s a bit silly, you probably won’t like it’ that’s not what people want to hear.

The joy of hindsight - and republication

The newly edited edition of The Other Half, available as an ebook now

When asked what an editor does for an author, Iain Banks apparently replied, ‘an editor does what an author could do, were they able to put their novel away in a drawer and not look at it for ten years’.

Most writers don’t have that luxury – our publishers demand a book a year, we have bills to pay, or maybe our drawers simply don’t have enough storage space.

But recently I was afforded that opportunity.

Back in 2001, my first novel, The Other Half, was published by Orion. A year later came its follow-up, Getting Even. They went through the usual editorial processes – I revised them to reflect my editor’s feedback – which was fulsome, trust me – then they were line edited, proof-read, the works. By the time they were published, I honestly thought they were the best that they could be.

Ah, the arrogance of youth!

Both novels sold respectably, were translated around Europe, and I was pleased with their performance. However neither did well enough for me to give up the day job, so I continued with that, and it wasn’t until several years later I was moved to set my hand to a third novel, which, because I was older and slightly more battered, was somewhat different in tone. That novel was One Moment, One Morning, and was published by Picador in 2010, and soon – to my astonishment – became a bestseller. Inevitably, people started to ask where they could get hold of my first two novels, but sadly much time had elapsed, and they’d fallen out of print. Eventually demand grew great enough for Picador to offer to reissue them, and once we’d firmed up a contract, I set to work updating them.

‘Oh, I’ll just change a few bits – tweak the technology so they’re Instant Messaging one another not phoning, that sort of thing,’ I said to my agent. I planned this would take me a week per book.

Five months later, I submitted the manuscripts. Because when I revisited them, that’s how much work I could see they needed. Yes, there were elements that clearly dated the books – the Twin Towers were still in New York, for instance – but that wasn’t what took such ages. What I’d thought would be a quick trim of several dozen sentences, turned out to be a full root and branch pruning. I could see such hideous examples of overwriting that I made myself blush. I said everything twice, sometimes three times. I moved my characters around like puppets, not going inside their heads nearly enough. Next I put both books through the Autocrit editing software and found even more glitches – repetition, hackneyed phrases, the lot. I didn’t change the plot of either story (in fact, I was rather impressed by my younger self’s ability on that score), nor did I change the essence of any of the characters. Both books still remain very different from my two recent novels, One Moment, One Morning and its follow up, The Two Week Wait. They’re lighter, sexier, and (without wishing to blow my own trumpet) funnier. By the same logic, neither is likely to make you cry, so readers expecting similar tearjerkers might be surprised.

To give you an idea, I’ve just done a word count. The original of Getting Even was 100,000 words, and the new version is 79,000. The Other Half likewise. A fifth of each novel – that is a LOT to lose. And my editor, Francesca Main at Picador, cut and tweaked and helped me hone them further. Nonetheless, because I no longer had such attachment to either story, I could be objective, and with objectivity came ruthlessness.

I was proud of those earlier novels. But I’m prouder still of the revised versions.

Should anyone feel inclined to read them, I’d love to hear what you think. Both, as of today, can be found on Amazon, Waterstones etc., and downloaded as ebooks right away. They’ve got beautiful new e-covers, and they’re not too expensive either.

Available for download as an ebook now

Get the ebook now

Beach Hut Writers in sellout event!

Last supper or police conference called for a missing child? Beach Hut writers, (l to r) Emlyn Rees, Julia Crouch, Sarah Rayner, Lizzie Enfield, Mark Barrowcliffe (MD Lachlan), Kate Harrison, Simon Toyne. Photos by Susannah Quinn

On Thursday 29 November, we launched Beach Hut Writers with our Writer’s Journey to Publication event, hosted by Brighton Waterstones. Six of us shared our stories of the publication process – writing well, writing to sell, finding an agent, pitching your work, working with your editor, and coping with criticism – to a standing-room only audience.

It wouldn’t be boasting to say the event went very well indeed. We allowed ourselves seven minutes each on our individual subjects and the evening was expertly chaired by Lizzie Enfield. The talks were followed by a lively question time and not a little mingling and book signing as we polished off the wine.

Many people attending asked us if we were planning anything for the future, and we are. So watch this space for details of events coming up in the new year.

Thanks to all at Waterstones for working so hard to make the evening such a success.