Sharing your work at readings is a great way to get your work in front of an audience and network with other writers. Dead Rabbits Reading Series host M.K. Rainey shares 12 tips on how to make it happen.
Reading your work in front of an audience is vital to promoting your work, connecting with other writers, and propelling your career forward in positive and meaningful ways. I know several writers who have found agents and published their work simply by reading their writing aloud at an event. Many cities across the country are home to a variety of reading series that are always looking to host new and exciting voices at their events. If you’re looking for ways to take your writing career to the next level, performing at a reading series is a great avenue to accomplish such goals.
However, in my experience, many writers are unfamiliar with the process of submitting to reading series, aren’t sure of where to find them, or have trouble giving themselves the best opportunity to capitalize on an appearance upon being accepted. I run a reading series in New York City called the Dead Rabbits Reading Series, one branch of Dead Rabbits Books, a small press that aims to publish work that matters in ways that matter. We’ve been running the series for five years and have hosted nearly 300 writers and artists in the process. In my time as co-curator (alongside the versatile poet, essayist, and fictionist, Devin Kelly), I’ve seen the good, the bad, the weird, and all of the above combined. Our series aims to cultivate a positive literary community; with this vision in mind, I’ve created a list of tips on how to find series to read at, what to submit, and how to gear your performance toward gaining fans and followers.
Submitting Your Work:
- Find a series that fits your work. Obvious, right? Wrong. You’d be surprised by how many people submit work to series they know little or nothing about. For example, you don’t want to submit fiction to a poetry-only reading (though obvious, many people do it!). To get started, a simple Google search of “Reading Series in [insert your city here]” will turn up a number of places you might not have heard about.
- Follow the guidelines. Please don't send us your whole novel (it won't get read), and please don't send us a press release of your current chapbook or novel without a sample of the work (apropos of our mission to cultivate a positive community, we care less about your accolades than the work itself). So, follow submission guidelines just as you would when submitting to any publication.
- Send engaging, lively work. Do send your wild, energetic, and/or hilarious words. Anything engaging, entertaining, and fun will have a better chance of getting accepted. Far from denigrating deliberate, reflective, and thoughtful writing, we’re merely emphasizing that reading series hosts want engagement with their audience, which certainly can include quieter passages so long as they’re packed with fraught feelings and experiences. Most series give readers around 10 minutes to share their work. So if you send a submission that has seven minutes of description before the story even begins, it won’t get chosen. Think about what would energize you and go with that.
- Wait a few weeks to a month before following up. If you haven’t heard anything following your submission, it’s OK to send a gentle follow-up about a month after. Don't get upset if you don't hear back. For instance, at Dead Rabbits, we get over 50 submissions every month. With only two people running the series, we’re sometimes forced to focus our attention on things that keep the lights on.
- Don't get bogged down if you don't get selected! Again, we get over 50 submissions each month—yet only take 6 readers. Many reading series are in the same boat. If you don’t get picked the first time, try again with something new. Some Dead Rabbits alumni have submitted up to six or seven times. Not because they weren't good, but because we had too many good readers and couldn't accommodate them all!
- Don't send the same piece over and over again. If we didn't take you the first one or two times, it’s most likely not going to happen with that piece. Send it elsewhere, and if it gets accepted, then you’re further affirmed in the fact that this is a highly subjective art form.
- Go to a reading. The best way to get an idea of what a specific curator wants is to go to an event. This way, you’ll get a clear view of what the event is like, what kind of writing they take, and, most importantly, you’ll help support the event simply by showing up. Also: Introduce yourself to the curator! We love meeting new people and are always interested in meeting our audience. This will get your foot in the door during the submission process as well. It’s OK to also ask the curators what they’re looking for in terms of submissions. Just don’t corner them and ask why you weren’t picked!
Before & After the Event:
If you’ve been accepted to read for an event, congratulations! However, the process doesn’t stop there; in many ways, you have only just begun. I’ve watched countless writers ignore basic elements that help ensure they will perform well, which I decided to include here.
Reading Your Work:
- Read your work aloud to yourself. I cannot stress this one enough. Many people don’t practice before the event, and it shows. Make sure you nail your pronunciations, fix any grammatical mistakes, and practice your cadence. You don’t have to be Marlon Brando, but make sure you bring your brand of energy to your reading. Softer or subtler readings certainly have their place, but you don’t want to be monotone—that’s a sure fire way to make your audience tune out.
- Be faithful to your allotted time. When the curators give you a time limit, stick to it! Going one or two minutes under or over is fine, but not 20! It’s rude to your fellow readers, your audience, and to the folks who have invited you to share your work with a wider audience.
- Don’t leave after you’re finished. If you’ve been invited to share your work at an event with other writers, you should absolutely stay for the entire event. I’ve seen several writers get up and leave right after their set is finished. Though extenuating circumstances can excuse an early departure, ducking out after your slot is unfair to the other readers and to the host. If you have a conflict, let your hosts and the other readers know ahead of time, but do your best to clear your schedule for the event. Sticking around and supporting other writers is integral to being a positive member of the literary community!
- Network! This is huge. Before and after reading your work, try to avoid succumbing to your introverted tendencies. Get to know your fellow readers and the host of the series. Follow them on social media and keep in contact afterwards. You never know where these relationships will lead. My co-curator Devin Kelly found his agent through our reading series and I’ve been published because of it. Reading series are great places for writers to network and build their community.
- Thank your hosts! Hosts of reading series are likely working voluntarily, spending their spare time curating a lineup, writing personal bios, booking venues, and promoting the literary community. After reading, thank them with a personal email, and follow all of their social media handles. This requires little effort and will help promote the literary community as a whole.
These, of course, are just a few insights from someone who has run a reading series for many years and read at countless others. Reading series are unique and everyone runs theirs differently, so you should put some time into getting to know the ones in your area. It’ll not only make you a better reader and writer; it’ll also help foster community and uplift your career.
Don’t have a reading series in your city? Reach out to Dead Rabbits. Our press is in the process of growing our community and establishing sister readings across the country. You could be the next host of a reading series in your town.