A Mysterious Affair & the Ur-Story

chalk outline, body

(image: pixabay, creative commons license)

Last Saturday the Princeton Arts Council hosted an afternoon conference featuring an impressive gang of mystery and crime writers who ply their trade between New York and Philadelphia. A first of its kind, in my memory at least, it drew around a hundred writers and readers and fans.

Panels talked about writing stories set in a region—does it matter whether you’ve actually been there? Or, when is Google Earth not enough?—and stories where the author can’t have been there, because they’re set in a different historical time—how much research do you really need? Even stories set in the future, in the case of some thrillers—is research even important? Don’t you just make it up?

Audience members asked the burning question: how do people react when the find out you write about murder? And, while this prompted some humorous replies, in fact, most people are fascinated. They often say they would like to write a mystery themselves, though few end up doing it. Panelists encouraged them to. As to how they manage writing, other jobs, families, and so on, panelist Jeff Cohen (who writes as E.J. Copperman) had the best reply: “If you can swing it, it helps to have a wife with a full-time job.”

Guest of Honor S. J. Rozan, a mystery writer with 15 novels, more than 60 short stories, and  multiple awards on her c.v., gave the keynote. She talked about how genre writers—crime (including mystery and thrillers), romance, Westerns, science fiction, and she’d include coming-of-age—are still disparaged as “not literature,” yet remain wildly popular.

Why is that? She said genre writing can be distinguished by having an ur-story, a fundamental story line. Readers (and moviegoers) expect and take comfort in those ur-stories and in their very predictability, and writers violate the established genre conventions at their peril. The ur-story in the romance genre is “love conquers all”; in science fiction, it’s “what it is to be human.” Mysteries and thrillers, despite their uncountable variations, have ur-stories too, she maintains. In mystery, it’s “here’s why this happened”—attractive in a world where so much seems inexplicable—and in thrillers, it’s “is there time?” This last manifests itself in the frequently encountered literal “ticking clock” that thriller protagonists are trying to beat.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell maintained there is a single ur-story underlying all fiction, ancient to 21c. This has led to the “hero’s journey” school of story construction, in which a protagonist is marched through a call to adventure, begins a quest, overcomes trials, brings home the goods, and so on. That fundamental storyline can be detected in Rozan’s more descriptive genre-specific ur-stories. Whatever it is, however it’s aggregated or subdivided, we love hearing and seeing the ur-story over and over in books, on stage, and in the movies.

The event, sponsored by Princeton’s Cloak & Dagger bookstore, was co-hosted by the local chapters of two organizations I belong to: Mystery Writers of America, and Sisters in Crime.

The Next Generation of Mystery/Thriller Readers

Nancy DrewThe fiction that appeals to teen readers follows certain general principles (notably, lack of adult supervision) that will sound familiar to adults who grew up with Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. In retrospect, these stories of mystery and adventure may seem weak broth alongside the themes popular now.  Today’s teens seem mired in a world of hurt: dystopian novels and series, like the Hunger Games and Divergent, vampires and werewolves, and, more recently suicide narratives.

Atlantic commentator Heather Horn suggests such books, rather than fostering a dark view of the world, reflect the view our youth already have. “The young are attracted to the genre because it so perfectly mirrors their experience of the at once vibrant and sinister world of middle school and high school.” There’s a chilling thought.

Since people sat around campfires listening to stories, they’ve taken pleasure in tales of mystery and adventure. Today’s teens are reading less and less, availing themselves of fewer narratives of success and accomplishment to pattern their own lives on. Can they be drawn back to reading with good stories? With plucky protagonists who figure things out, who solve problems, who cleverly elude dangers here in the real world?

I’ve read two new novels lately that I think manage this.

****League of American Traitors

Written by Matthew Landis – This debut YA thriller is set in the modern day, with one foot firmly planted in American history. The promising (but ultimately rather far-fetched) idea underlying the story is that the descendants of American heroes (from the Revolutionary War, Civil War, and World Wars I and II) belong to a shadowy group called the True Sons of Liberty, while the descendants of history’s notorious traitors belong to the equally shadowy and eponymous League of American Traitors.

When a traitor descendant turns 18, he or she will be challenged to a duel and must accept the challenge or go into a lifetime of hiding. Descendants who choose the duel and survive are free to live in peace thereafter. Author Landis keeps the teens’ interactions at a slangy and superficial level; further, some of the adult portrayals are overly stereotyped and the dialog is a touch Hollywood. For the most part, there’s little exploration of the backgrounds of the characters’ ancestors, which seems like a lost opportunity. Perhaps it will interest teens in delving further.

The book nevertheless raises thought-provoking and unexpectedly timely issues. When discussing the impact on the duelist of actually killing another person, one of the hero’s friends admonishes him, “Don’t rationalize it. That’s what the Libertines do—use honor to make murder okay.” My longer review of this book is available at CrimeFictionLover.com.


By Dick Lehr – Inspired by the true case of a Boston preteen’s murder and the false imprisonment of a young African-American father for the crime, this compelling first-person narrative recreates the efforts of the convict’s teenage daughter to exonerate her father and vividly portrays the allies and enemies she makes along the way. A highly engaging character, Trell has grown up without a father in her life, but by sheer willpower and a growing mound of evidence convinces a has-been reporter and a dogged lawyer to join her fight. Author Lehr is a former reporter for The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team (yes, that Spotlight team), which took on the case. The father was no saint, but he wasn’t a murderer, either.

Why Crime/Thriller/Mystery Novels Fall Short

reading, book

photo: Kamil Porembiński, creative commons license

Over the past 21 months, I’ve read and reviewed 62 crime novels and thrillers for crimefictionlover.com. While a number of them rise to greatness and many effectively get the job done, a surprising number were not ready for prime time, and a tiny number should have gone straight to the landfill. Many works fall short because author s believe their book is “done,” and it isn’t. Too often, I find myself saying, “Damn!—With a little more effort, this could have been soooo good.”

As a writer myself, I take into consideration the author’s hopes and effort, knowing it’s hard to see the flaws in one’s own children. That’s what editors are for. Yet, the acknowledgements pages of poor books often heap extravagant praise on their editors, whom I envision curled up under their desks, weeping. Authorial intentions aside, my primary obligation is to potential readers. Will readers’ limited reading time be well invested if they pick up this particular book?

The common problems in crime/thriller books I’ve read recently fit into two overlapping categories: pitfalls in thinking (mostly related to plot and character), listed below, and pitfalls in writing. Thinking and writing problems are mutually reinforcing, since poor writing makes poor thinking more obvious. For those who respond to examples, I’ve included a few from “actual books.”

Thinking Pitfalls

  • Using increasingly gruesome torture and death methods (or a surfeit of comely young women/child victims) in the hope of sustaining reader interest. Bloodletting is easy; creating complex, unique, and engaging characters with grounded, understandable motivations is hard.
  • Mechanical problems—Where and when did stuff happen? Chris Roerden calls lack of clarity about the story timeline “crazy time,” and it drives readers crazy.
  • Galloping unreality—Example: after a big-city police chief spoke at a news conference, “several reporters broke into a round of applause.” Not any journalists I know. Another: two undercover CIA agents are scouting a computer research lab on a busy Chinese university campus. “‘That’s the building the lab’s in,’ XX said, pointing.” Pointing? And I don’t know how many times a bad guy has used a chloroform-soaked cloth to disable a victim, when a single moment of fact-checking would reveal this doesn’t work!
  • Technological non-fixes—Either using technology when it’s not needed just to sound cool, using it wrong (weapons, especially), or not using it at all–say, not picking up the phone to ask a simple question that would solve everything.
  • Lack of engagement—Some authors just want to sell books, often choosing the method describe in the first bullet, not provide the reader with a deeper, emotionally engaging experience. Crime/thrillers often appeal to the head, but the best ones capture the heart too. “When a plot resolves, readers are satisfied, but what they remember of a novel is what they felt while reading it,” says Donald Maass.
  • Cheesy theorizing—When characters come up with premature but enthusiastically adopted explanations of what happened or whodunnit, readers know they are being misled.
  • Failure to answer all the plot questions—Did the author just forget a main character’s spouse mysteriously committed suicide? Did he forget the police psychologist dropped the case’s murder book on a city street? For that matter, why was he carrying it out of the office anyway? Big questions need answers.

Further Reading for Authors

Best of the Best in Crime Fiction – 2016

chalk outline, body

(image: pixabay, creative commons license)

Been accumulating a list of year-end lists of “Best Mystery/Crime/Thriller Novels of 2016.” A total of 75 books appears on the eight lists I researched. More than 60 of them appear only once, suggesting not only the tremendous volume of good writing in these genres but the wide range of reviewers’ personal tastes.  I’ve read and reviewed 30 new crime books in 2016, and my favorites aren’t on any of these lists. They are:

  • Dodgers by Bill Beverly – Los Angeles teenagers embark on a murder mission and much, much more
  • The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock – ne’er-do-wells in the early 1900’s South meet the inevitable; not for the squeamish
  • The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott – local law enforcement in Big Bend country fighting (or is it helping?) the Mexican drug cartels

Below are the books that appeared on three or four lists; tomorrow the books appearing on two and where to find these lists, if you want to investigate further.

For reviews of great new crime/mystery/thriller releases year-round, bookmark the U.K. website CrimeFictionLover.com. I’m one of the site’s reviewers, and the team there does a fantastic job!

Four Mentions

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott – a book that surely benefited from exquisite timing. This story of an elite gymnast and the sacrifices she, her teammates, and their families must make coincided with the summer Olympics and enthusiasm around the gold-medal-winning U.S. women’s gymnastics team. The story is told mostly from the point of view of the young gymnast’s mother, and it’s full of teen-age angst, parental fixation, and gym-rat rivalries. But are they strong enough to precipitate and cover up murder?

Three Mentions

Disclaimer: I’ve not read any of these. Note to self: get busy!

Charcoal Joe by Walter Mosley – Mosley is in his element here, writing about Los Angeles in the uneasy aftermath of the deadly 1960s Watts riots. Says the New York Times review, Mosley’s protagonist, Easy Rawlins, is “an unconventional hero who’s unafraid to lower his fists and use his brain.”

A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny – the twelfth outing of Penny’s popular Chief Inspector Gamache (I’ve listened to two of the audio versions and every time the narrator says “Gamache,” I hear “Ganache” and must go eat a piece of chocolate). He’s ensconced with his pals in Three Pines, Quebec, and charged with searching out corruption within the police academy, an investigation soon confounded by murder.

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware – The blurbs make this sound like Agatha Christie’s classic train case, The Lady Vanishes. In this story, a passenger on a luxury cruise ship thinks she hears and sees the body of a woman hit the water and sink beneath the waves. She swears she met this woman in Cabin 10, but no one believes her.

Have you read any of these “best books”? Were they among your favorites of 2016?

Tomorrow: the ten books that received two votes and how to find mention of the 60 others.

“Killer Women” and “Sisters in Crime”


woman writing

photo: Nick Kenrick, creative commons license

Don’t for a minute think the only books women want to read—or write—are chick lit and romances. London’s first crime-writing festival, organized by the all-female writing collective Killer Women, was held recently at London’s Shoreditch Town Hall. This creepy Victorian building was picked for a reason: it’s where the inquest for Mary Kelly was held—you know, Mary Kelly, Jack the Ripper’s last victim.

Killer Women (whose tagline is “criminally good writing”) was started a few years ago for many of the same reasons women writers in the US launched Sisters in Crime in 1987. SinC’s mission is to “promote the ongoing advancement, recognition and professional development of women crime writers.”

As the festival report points out, “women dominate crime fiction.” Women buy 80 percent of the 21 billion crime books sold annually. They outnumber both male writers and readers in the genre. So, what’s the problem? Why are groups like these needed?

Are Women Good Crime Writers?

Writers are attracted to the genre, one Killer Women founder says, because it “allows you to say almost anything and explore emotions that—particularly as a woman—are not acceptable to explore . . . and it allows you to give the bad guys their comeuppance.”

Scottish crime writer Val McDermid has said that women writers may actually be better at scaring us, because “since childhood we have learned to imagine this”—the possibility for violence in our lives. We’re the ones careful when walking at night, watching the shadows, lying in bed listening for the squeaking stair tread. We read about violence as a way of processing that fear and, perhaps, preparing ourselves for the worst, as well as that satisfying bit of revenge (need some fMRI studies here!). Like the line from the Chicago’s “Cell Block Tango,” “if you’d have been there, if you’d have seen it, I betcha you would have done the same.”

Three-Dimensional Characters

Women writers are in a good position to create more believable female characters too. It’s a long-standing concern that too many women in crime fiction (and film/tv) are present only for titillation—as one Shoreditch participant put it, “running around in their panties, chased by a serial killer.” Their only role is become the victim of a grisly crime or to have (always steamy) sex with the male protagonist or both. Killer Woman member D.E. Meredith calls this sexualization of murder “morally dodgy.” And boring, I say.

Women as calculating protagonists—actors, not victims—has become a standout trend with the growth in popularity of the “domestic thriller.” The success of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Megan Abbott’s recent You Will Know Me, and numerous variations on the theme have opened new territory.

The Year’s Best Crime Fiction: 2016

police car

photo: P.V.O.A., creative commons license

Why deal with poorly executed [!], formulaic, airport quality crime fiction, when there’s Best Crime? Booklist’s longtime crime fiction reviewer Bill Ott has combed reviews of the amazing spectrum of books in this genre—from “crime caper novels, psychological thrillers, and history-mystery blends,” to police procedurals, and every kind of crime, white collar to noir, to come up with his top 10 crime novels of the year, 5/1/15-4/15/16.

An end-of-year summary of Best Crime/Mystery/Thriller fiction of 2016, is here.

And, the 2017 update of Ott’s list is here.

Every time the award-granting groups publish their nominees for the year’s top books in this genre, I’ve usually not read (and often not even heard of) any of them. This, despite reading some 70 books a year, heavily weighted toward the new and the criminal.

Booklist’s Top Picks

Mexico, drug cartels

(graphic by Christopher Dombres, creative commons license)

I was delighted, therefore, to see at the very top of Booklist’s review two novels I not only read and reviewed, but found absolutely spectacular—Don Winslow’s The Cartel, a cri de coeur for greater understanding of the clueless U.S. War on Drugs, its spectacular failures, and its deadly impact on the people of Mexico.

The other is Bill Beverly’s Dodgers, a terrific debut novel about a young black man growing up in Los Angeles, how race and crime affect his worldview, and so much more. While I’m not usually a fan of coming-of-age novels, this one will knock your socks off. Says Ott, Beverly’s characters “all live, breathe, and bleed.”

These two books are beautifully written, with convincing characters and engaging plots, and I wish that all the thrillers I read had the same moral significance. The other eight on Ott’s list—which I now want to read to see whether they meet the standard set by Winslow and Beverly—are:

  • Forty Thieves, by Thomas Perry—says Ott, “irresistible” comic capering
  • House of the Rising Sun, by James Lee Burke—“a quest of Arthurian proportions” and, since it’s based in Texas, a must-read for me—hey, those are my kinfolk
  • Is Fat Bob Dead Yet?, by Stephen Dobyns – uproarious, says Ott, who invokes my favorites Elmore Leonard (in his comic vein) and Donald E. Westlake; “loosen the reins of realism,” he advises
  • Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye – “Reader, I murdered him.” Jane Eyre devotees need know no more
  • King Maybe, by Timothy Hallinan – “one of the best in a sinfully entertaining series” involving crooks in LA, their perfect setting
  • Little Pretty Things, by Lori Rader-Day – A Mary Higgins Clark award-winner, atmospheric and suspenseful
  • The Passenger, by Lisa Lutz – a dark psychological thriller about a woman fleeing the consequences of her husband’s death (What, no sticking around for the insurance?)
  • The Whispering City, by Sara Moliner – an evocative historical, set in Barcelona in the early 1950’s, where General Franco’s security police are everywhere and a newspaper reporter is investigating a death best left alone.

Edgar Winners 2016

While I’m at it, I’ll mention that the Mystery Writers of American recently announced its 2016 Edgar winners. None of the nominees for “best novel” were in the list above, with the winner Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy (“a hybrid of mystery, coming-of-age and Southern gothic,” says the LA Times). MWA’s award for “best first novel” went to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (a cerebral spy thriller about the Vietnam War and winner of the Pulitzer Prize).

Be sure to check out the “Reading . . .” tab above to find more book reviews, many in the crime/mystery/thriller genre.

Princeton Literary Inspirations

Elvis, Fort WorthYesterday, poet Ciaran Berry and novelist Nell Zink read from their work as part of a series of author presentations at Princeton University, open to the public (that’s me!). On Friday, Man Booker Prize-winner and Ireland’s “first fiction laureate” Anne Enright will read excerpts from her most recent novel, The Green Road. I’ll be there!

The series of readings is conducted by the University’s Lewis Center for the Arts, with Enright’s presentation sponsored additionally by the Fund for Irish Studies. (Last year’s fantastic presentation by Belfast author Glenn Patterson was under the Fund’s aegis also.)

Ciaran Berry

Coincidentally, award-winning poet Ciaran Berry also is an Irish poet and grew up in County Galway and County Donegal. He now directs the creative writing program at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He doesn’t have the full-out accent, though.

Berry read several of his poems from various periods, including The Death of Elvis and Liner Notes. His particularly lovely poem For Shergar, Neither Ode nor Elegy, is a tribute to the legendary race horce Shergar, kidnapped and killed by the IRA, and includes this: “the past tense entering its perfect form.” It’s one of those, “wish I’d thought of that” lines.

Nell Zink

Nell Zink grew up in King George County, Virginia, but for many years has lived in Israel and Berlin, and has become a recent literary phenomenon in this country. She was introduced by faculty member Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex, The Marriage Plot) who said the classic “Nell” and its assertive “Zink” is “a name just waiting to be famous.”

Zink’s debut novel was The Wallcreeper, from which she read a passage about a married woman who plunges into an affair with a gas station attendant named Elvis—acknowledging the nifty segue from Berry’s poem. A New Yorker profile of Zink by Kathryn Schulz said The Wallcreeper “sounds like nothing you have ever read, and derives its bang from ideas you hadn’t thought to have.” Smart, funny, insightful. Likely to come to a bad end. In this setting, it’s hard to get a sense of the whole work, but the voice was terrific.

Her second excerpt was from the more recent novel Mislaid, a scene in which two gay men eating dinner in a crab restaurant make observations about other diners and themselves. The novel is notorious for its Caucasian main character Peggy, who reinvents herself and her white-blonde, blue-eyed daughter by claiming they are African Americans—“a high comedy of racial identity,” Schulz says, and not easy to pull off. About such tectonic plot shifts in her books, Eugenides said, “You cannot call them plot twists, because that implies some underlying straightness.”

In short, the subjects she takes up and the unflinching way she renders them make her, he said, “a bull in the china shop of contemporary American fiction.” More to read, more to read.

Asian Immigrants’ Tales

suitcase, Asian

adapted from Roger Wagner, creative commons license

The recent success of the movie Brooklyn has reminds us of the universality of immigrant stories in American history (even as anti-immigrant, anti-refugee positions characterize the political discourse). While the immigrant experience is a common thread running through our national character, and the experiences of Irish and Italian immigrants relatively well known, each country’s immigrant story is in many ways as unique as the person and family who dons this new cultural garment.

Shawna Yang Ryan, writing for LitHub (“From There to Here: Five Essential Tales of Immigration”) says “Immigration is anything but pedestrian. To displace one’s self in adulthood, to uproot, to leave behind ways of speaking, moving, being that are second nature is a feat of true grit.” She tells of her own mother’s move to the United States from Taiwan after marrying an American GI, which helped inspire her novel Green Island. Among the tales from other immigrants that she recommends are:

  • Carlos Bulosan’s autobiographical America Is in the Heart, about the struggles and prejudices faced by Filipino farm workers. They worked in America legally (and, by the way, served in the U.S. military), but, says Ryan, were barred from citizenship. His book has been called a brown-skinned Grapes of Wrath.
  • The Namesake, a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, about the Ganguli family’s move from Kolkata (Calcutta) to Massachusetts and the inter-generational rifts that creates. Pulitzer Prize-winner Lahiri has now taken displacement one step further, living part-time in Italy and writing in that language
  • The “graceful essays” by Andrew Lam, collected in Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, not only examine what it’s like to come to American, but also the experience of a return visit to Vietnam

On this  theme, I would add these classic award-winners from my bookshelf:

  • Anne Fadiman’s non-fiction The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, the tragic consequences for a Hmong family, whose child is afflicted with epilepsy, when their traditional beliefs collide with modern medicine. (National Book Critics Circle Award, 1997)
  • The unforgettable memoir, The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston, relates her “girlhood among ghosts”—both her female relatives’ ghosts from China and the New World ghosts she encounters: Policeman Ghosts, Social Worker Ghosts, Garbage Ghosts, and Wino Ghosts. (National Book Critics Circle Award, 1976)
  • Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker—one of the early books selected for community-wide reading—about Korean American Henry Park, the “perpetual outsider.” (PEN/Hemingway award for best first novel, 1996)
  • Asian American Dreams, by award-winning journalist Helen Zia describes the transformation of Asian Americans from a small and largely invisible minority to a presence in virtually every facet of American life.
  • In the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Korean American businesses were especially targeted for destruction, with some 1500 looted and destroyed. Blue Dreams, by Nancy Abelmann and John Lie, explores the reasons Koreans were singled out and what happened in the aftermath.
  • The classic Strangers from a Different Shore, by historian Ronald Takaki, lays out the successive waves of Asian immigration in American history, with each nationality’s experience taking place in a different context.

Reader Question:

What favorite books would you recommend that tell the immigrant story?

Polishing Your Instrument: Your Voice


(photo: Pete on Flickr, public domain)

Last Friday actor and writer Alex Adams led an informal seminar for local writers on reading their fiction aloud, effectively and entertainingly. He described ways to create meaningful vocal variety and illustrated his points with excerpts of recordings created for “Selected Shorts.” As an avid reader of audiobooks, I appreciate how much a reader contributes to the impact of a tale.

Alex writes specifically for live audiences and regularly presents his stories and sketches in various venues in New York. As a member of the writing group I belong to, he helps us get ready for our own much less frequent public readings (see yesterday’s post about the benefits of reading your work out loud).

Over the years, he’s developed a method for marking up his copy that helps him achieve the most effective read. By practicing the marked-up copy numerous times, these vocal changes become as integral to the piece as punctuation. He suggested that authors mark up the copy they’re going to read to indicate:

  • Pauses. Alex uses a check mark in the places where a brief pause will allow a moment of dramatic tension, time for a joke to settle, or the chance to take a breath—you don’t want to run out of air!
  • Pacing. You may want to read some passages—for example, explanatory words and phrases—more quickly, and others—such as the introduction of an important new character—more slowly. “Change-of-pace” is synonymous with preventing monotony!
  • Emphasis. He underlines critical words and phrases one, two, or even three times to make sure he gives them the attention they need. You can emphasize words by rising volume or pitch or both.
  • Special attention. He circles words that are important, need very clear articulation, are easily misunderstood, or that give him trouble in practice. Taking the trouble to say a few words extra clearly helps it stick in the listener’s mind.
  • Dialog. While amateur readers don’t need to go overboard in trying to mimic various characters’ speech, some differentiation helps the listener know who’s speaking. Jessica Woodbury in Bookriot recently complained about audiobook readers (male) who pitch the female characters’ voices too high and make them all sound breathily the same. This is not only unnatural, she says, but “They become inferior characters in the telling of the story.” Alex edits his manuscript to look more like a play script so that, as he’s reading, he doesn’t lose track of which character is speaking.
  • Freestyle. Any additional annotations meaningful to yourself and the piece you’re reading.

Alex’s presentation made me think of audiobooks that exemplified his points. One is Herman Koch’s The Dinner, narrated by Clive Mantle, a story in which the first-person narrator is deeply jealous of his successful brother. Because of the way Mantle always carefully articulated the brother’s name—Serge Lohman—loathing just dripped off it.

Another good example (and another terrific book) was Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, narrated by Oliver Wyman. At first I thought the reader wasn’t doing much, but he grew on me, perfectly capturing the main character’s puzzlement, sadness, hope, fear. This book isn’t about a larger-than-life hero, it was Billy’s ordinariness that made it so heartbreaking.

In total contrast to these insightful narrations, imagine my bafflement when I listened to a post-recording interview with Ralph Cosham, audiobook reader of Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries. He said he likes to discover her books along with the listener. As a result, he never reads them before sitting down in the recording studio! Totally winging it may work for him, but the rest of us have to practice in order to mine the rich possibilities inherent in our own voices.

9 Keys to a Successful Reading

road sign, rough road

(copyright Elvis Kennedy, creative commons license)

Reading your own work aloud—even without an audience—is a helpful exercise for any writer. The sentences that seem to flow so smoothly across the page will reveal themselves to be scarred with rough patches, poor word choices like potholes, and cracks in logic.

Members of my writing group do a public reading twice a year. Not only does preparation for the reading improve the writing, the audience feedback is strongly energizing (since so often, submissions to agents and publishers evoke no feedback at all).

An audience isn’t necessary for diagnostic work; you can read a draft aloud at any stage it’s in. But if you have the chance to do a public reading, the route to success is simple: practice! The more run-throughs you do, the greater your confidence and the smoother your performance.

Key hints are:

  1. Lighting: If you’re over 40, you may need extra light. Maybe you’re thinking, I’ll use my laptop, no problem. Consider whether the laptop screen not only casts an unflatteringly cold light on you, but also sets up a perceived barrier between you and your audience. You may decide old-school is better.
  2. If you use paper, print your manuscript in a BIG font. The less light you have, the bigger your font should be. I generally print mine in 20-point BOLD, after an embarrassing episode when I couldn’t see what I was reading.
  3. Be sure you understand time constraints, and when you practice, time yourself. If you consistently bump up against your time limit, cut something. You don’t want to notice the clock and start rushing.
  4. Stand up when you practice. Even if you’re offered a chair at your reading, you’re better off on your feet. Your voice will carry farther and your breathing will improve.
  5. Plant your feet firmly, a little apart to prevent weaving (you don’t want your audience to get seasick), and use natural hand gestures. Practice them, too.
  6. Whenever you stumble over a word, circle it, so you know it’s coming and can anticipate it. If a word or phrase is too much of a tongue-twister, or you consistently read it wrong, consider changing it.
  7. Mark up your copy to indicate variations in intonation, speed, emphasis. If your piece has dialog, differentiate the voices.
  8. On performance day, have a small bottle of water handy.
  9. Smile and make eye contact!

If you’re like me and tend to yawn while reading aloud, you may need more oxygen. You probably won’t have the problem if you read standing up. I don’t. And you might also want to take a few deep breaths before you start!

Tomorrow: Polishing Your Instrument–Your Voice for a public reading.