What Writers Can Learn by Attending Author Readings

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Writers are always looking to improve their craft. Their journey is one of continuous professional improvement, and they’ll look everywhere to boost their knowledge and understanding of publishing, and to be the best writer they can be. That learning can come in various forms – conferences, webinars, classes, self-study courses and writing groups.

But there’s one resource that can easily be overlooked: the author reading.

Author readings are live in-person events held at libraries, bookstores, schools and coffee houses where authors read from their latest works and answer questions from the audience. The events can attract hundreds of fans or as few as a dozen interested observers.

For the aspiring writer hungry for learning, author readings can provide insider knowledge of the publishing process that they may not get anywhere else.

Of course, with the current pandemic, these live events have gone virtual. But that doesn’t mean writers can’t participate in them and learn something about the writing process. While the experience is better in a live setting, you may be able to gain the same benefits with virtual readings. After all, authors have to practice speaking their selected passages no matter how or where they deliver them. They have to learn to read for the audience’s ear, not just their own.

Hearing someone read their own published work to understand their story requires a different process. According to the writer’s platform Clear Voice, how our brains process meaning from what we hear differs from how we read. We recognize words on a page, visualize words as pictures and hear them spoken aloud in our heads. But when we listen, all the visual cues littered in the pages we read don’t hold much muster. Something gets lost in the translation.

Here are a few tips for taking advantage of this educational resource.

1. Treat the event as an educational experience.
See it as an opportunity to soak up the atmosphere. Bring a small notebook to take notes – whether it’s describing the experience for yourself, jotting down sample language from the text, or making a list of questions to ask the author. If possible, chat with the author afterwards and ask about their writing process, how they come up with story ideas, and how they overcome writer’s block. While they may not have all the answers you’re looking for, and their answers may not be suitable for your situation, you can learn what worked and what didn’t for them.  Then you can decide if it might work for you.

2. Listen to the reading as a writer, not just as a fan. That means learning to develop a writer’s ear. According to communications coach Karen Friedman, a writer’s ear “can’t rewind or replay what a speaker has said…” While our eyes can browse through detailed information or re-read something that is complex in meaning, our ears need simpler language to grasp the speaker’s meaning. 

“When we talk with people, we don’t read to them. Rather, we have conversations. Our sentences are shorter, sometimes spoken in phrases and we naturally pause between thoughts. Our pitch, tone and pace automatically vary,” writes Friedman.

3. Pay attention to how the passage is presented. Listen for the way the author delivers the passage. Do they speak dramatically, or do they mumble? Remember poet Amanda Gorman who spoke at the presidential inauguration? Her poem “The Hill We Climb” was powerful because she made it powerful. She used her vocal expression to match the power of her language to make a huge impact. She enunciated words clearly and spoke with passion and emotion. If she had mumbled the words, the meaning of the poem would have been lost. When done well, presentation can be a powerful thing.

4. Listen for narrative descriptions. Close your eyes and see where the author’s writing takes you. Can you see what the narrator sees in the story? Do you feel as if you are right there at the scene with them? If you can, then you know the descriptions are spot on. On the other hand, there may be descriptions that get lost in the spoken word; they may be better by reading it than hearing it.

5. Listen for dialogue. Like the narrative descriptions, you can pick up nuances of language when you listen for dialogue. Can you tell which character is speaking? Does the author’s tone change with each character? The vocal styles of each character should be as distinct as their personality.

6. Pay attention to the author. How does the author conduct themselves in a public setting? We need to remind ourselves that they are human beings too, prone to having bad days just like the rest of us. They may be shy, retiring souls who would rather be at home doing their laundry rather than speaking to a room full of strangers. Be kind and respectful to them. Remember, they worked hard to get their book published.

The next time you’re looking for inspiration or an extra dose of education, consider hanging out at an author reading. You never know what knowledge you’ll pick up. Use the time well and be open to listening and learning from others who have gone before you.

20 Literary New Year’s Resolutions for 2020

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Happy New Year!  Hope the year ahead is filled with exciting opportunities.

I love the start of a New Year. It’s always filled with great promise and hope, just like the start of the school year or the first day of spring. I’m eager to start new projects and try new things. I even try to make resolutions, and though I might fail to achieve them, I believe making them sets the tone for the year.

Yes, I know. Resolution is a dirty word for some people. Perhaps we should call them goals, plans or challenges. I’m always looking for the next challenge though, and I also remind myself that I have a full 365 days in which to achieve it.

So even if you don’t believe in making New Year’s Resolutions, maybe there’s some small goal you’d like to achieve in the coming year. If you can’t think of anything, never fear. I have a few ideas, all related to literary pursuits.

In honor of the year 2020, here are 20 resolutions for the New Year. Choose one or two to pursue, then see how your life unfolds.

1. Read the dictionary or thesaurus front to back as if you were reading a novel. What better way to build your vocabulary.

2. Choose one author whose books you have wanted to read and read every book they’ve written. Select someone who has written at least five books, but no more than twelve. You still want to leave room for other author’s works.

3. Attend a writer’s conference. Immerse yourself in the culture, build your network and rub elbows with authors and editors. Find a conference that matches your genre, like romance or science fiction or screenwriting. Bring along your manuscript and have it critiqued. Attend as many of the sessions as you can handle. You’ll walk away eager to put into practice what you’ve learned.

4. Attend an author reading in your town once a month. Brownie points if you ask the author questions afterward about their craft.

5. Participate in your own reading challenge. Set a goal for the number of books you’d like to read in the next 365 days. For example, I usually set a goal of 32 books because that’s what I’ve averaged the past few years.

6. Same as number 5 above but with a twist. Each book you read is a different genre – from light-hearted romance and detective stories to cookbooks and politics. Each fiction genre opens you to a different style of writing and storytelling, while the non-fiction books can provide background information for your latest work.

7. Start a writer’s journal. Keep track of story ideas, scenes, character descriptions, the humble beginnings of a poem – you get the idea. When you’re ready to start your next story, browse through your journal and see what inspires you.

8. Finish that story, poem or essay you’ve been working on for the past few years. Pull it out from the bottom of your desk drawer and dust it off. Keep working at it until you feel satisfied that it is your best work. Bonus points if you submit it to an editor for publication.

9. Volunteer to be a literacy tutor. There are plenty of organizations that provide reading and writing tutoring to children and adults. Share your love of reading and writing with others.

10. Clear out your bookshelves. Donate the ones you no longer want to worthy organizations. Or if you have a lot of books, host your own book sale, then donate the proceeds to a worthy organization. Either way, you’ll be clearing the shelves for more books.

11. Get up half an hour early each day and use that time to write. You can easily write a couple hundred words during that time. Do that every day, and you will have one or two chapters written within a month.

12. Select a place in your town that you’ve never been to – whether it’s a university campus, a public park, a landmark or even a coffee shop. Then write about your experience. What did the place look like? What kind of people visited the place that day? How did you feel walking through the place? The experience might inspire a short story or essay.

13. Participate in a local write-in. A write-in is a day set aside where visitors can use the time and space to simply write with no interruptions. Universities, writing studios, even some libraries host write-ins. You don’t have to stay the whole day. You can spend one hour or four. Either way, it’s a great opportunity to immerse yourself in the writing process surrounded by other people who are doing the same thing. If you have trouble sticking to a daily writing schedule, attending a write-in can be just the thing to jump start your progress.

14. Write a review of a book you’ve completed or a movie you’ve just seen. For example, if you saw the film Little Women, how did it compare with other film versions? How did it compare with the novel? Even if you’ve never written a book or movie review, trying it once or twice is good practice to develop analytical skills.

15. Visit a different bookstore once a month. Even if you don’t buy anything, browse the current releases to see what is being published.

16. Visit the library once a month. Even if you don’t have a library card or borrow books, there are plenty of resources to browse through. Read the newspaper or a magazine, do some research, or bring a notebook to write with little interruption.

17. Find a writing buddy and meet with them once a month. Having someone along on your writing journey can keep you motivated.

18. Join a Meetup group of writers or book fans. If you’re working on a screenplay, for example, check your local Meetup to see if there is a group for screenwriters. Or maybe you prefer poetry or non-fiction. Whatever your passion is, find like-minded individuals to share it. If there isn’t a Meetup group that meets your interests, start one of your own.

19. Learn about a different writing style or genre. If you’re a business writer, maybe you want to transition into doing personal essays. Find a class or two about writing essays or stock up on books about that topic.

20. Volunteer for an organization that provides reading services to the visually impaired. Many students and seniors have difficulty reading because of their impairment. Organizations like the Blind Service Association in Chicago

need volunteers to read and record everything from textbooks to magazines, whatever is needed. Check to see if there’s a comparable organization in your area.

There you have it – 20 ideas for resolutions for literary types. Hope you see one or two that you’d like to try. You may find it opens up new opportunities in unexpected ways.