Mike Underwood on Reading Your Work

I have been privileged to see a lot of writers who read their work well. I also know that it’s hard for a lot of writers to read their work. We are, after all, in large part introverts. 🙂

At Wiscon, Mike Underwood read a new piece from his upcoming novel Celebromancy, and his performance blew me away. He did a lot of variation in his character voices, actions, and…humor. Mike has generously let me interview him about reading. I may steal some of his techniques. ;P


Writer Tamago: I was very impressed by your reading at Wiscon. You told me that you think of reading as a performance. What is your philosophy behind that?

Mike: Before I was a serious writer, I was a singer and a gamer. Live performance is, arguably, in my blood – my parents met doing musical theater in college. And so, I’m very practiced at performing live, be it in a band, a choir, or in a tabletop or live-action role-playing game. I’ve spent a lot of time learning how to modulate my voice, how to find the right timing, how to create distinct character voices, and when to go for the throat with a performance. A lot of what I do as a performing reader goes against some of the wisdom I hear commonly – the biggest one being “read slow” – I don’t. I want to grab my audiences and run with them, and when I’m narrating action, I want that momentum to come across to the audience, and reading fight descriptions in a slow, even tone will not cut it.

My other main reason for viewing reading as a performance is that I want readings to feel like there’s an added value – that there’s a reason to come to a reading instead of just waiting and buying a book when it comes out, or buying and reading in private, without the author present. I love oral storytelling, and live readings are a way for me to take my prose and re-present it through the lens of that ancient tradition.

Writer Tamago: What do you do to prepare for your reading?

Mike: It depends on how long my selection is, and how much time I have to prepare. The first task is selecting an excerpt. I try to pick something that doesn’t require much context, since every bit of time you spend explaining is time you’re not spending performing. I think the most important parts of selection are picking where to start and where to end, not at all unlike writing itself.

If I’ve got a good chunk of time to prepare, I will print out the selection and go through to highlight individual character voices, make notes on tone, timing, and inflection. Notes look like this:

“She doesn’t believe what’s she’s saying.”

No matter what, I try to rehearse ahead of time, reading the selection aloud at least twice to re-familiarize myself with the excerpt, to brainstorm timing and settle on the voice for each character present in the scene, and figure out if I’m going to do any special gestures (running a hand through my hair, looking over my shoulder, banging a wall or the table, etc.). I also try to time myself so that I can check and make sure my projected time for the selection matches what I’m actually doing in practice. I tend to bet that when I perform live I will be a bit faster than in practice, just because my natural inclination is to speed up when I’m in the moment.

Writer Tamago: Do you have a background in drama? If you do, what from it do you use to bring your readings to life? If you don’t, what techniques help you in your reading performance?

Mike: My background in drama is kind of sideways and around the corner. My dad has a Masters’ in Theater, my mom a Masters in Music – so the make-believe I grew up with may have been a bit more rigorous than some. I’ve been playing tabletop RPGs since I was about nine, and singing in choirs since I was seven. I never took formal acting classes, though I did some graduate coursework in Theater Arts for my interdisciplinary M.A. in Folklore.

As far as technique goes, I think my best tools are voice, gesture, and presence. Voice and gesture I’ll touch on below, so right now, let’s focus on presence:

For me, presence is the thing that separates a technically good performer from a truly memorable one. Presence is that inner light, the ability to reach out and grab an audience, to hold them spellbound. I can’t claim any great talent in terms of presence, but I try to do my best with what I have – I think real, palpable presence is very rare, and tends to take many long years to develop your skills and be able to project it on command.

But I believe that anyone can walk through the steps that produce presence.

· Try to spend more of your time looking at the audience than at the page.

· Make eye contact, and tell the story directly *to* the audience, not just at them.

· Bring the audience in with your words as much as you can, make the story present to the situation, not something apart from it.

· Tell the story like it matters to you, and to them.

Writer Tamago: I notice that you use a lot of actions as you read. Why do you do that?

Mike: The biggest reason for that is that I’m a gestural talker. It helps me sort my thoughts, and since I like to think through talking, it gets pretty important.

The other reason is that gestures are a performance tool, so I’m going to use them. I find it far easier to connect with an audience if I’m moving – that means standing and walking around when I perform, or at least standing and moving in place. It means gesturing with my free hand, and even with my manuscript. It means matching my facial expressions to those of the characters as much as I can, and so on.

What that does is makes it easier for me, as a performer, to feel like I’m both inhabiting the story, living inside it, and that I’m bringing the story into the world through my actions.

Writer Tamago: Do you use character voices when you read? Why or why not?

Mike: I do, because I think it’s an essential part of an emotionally-invested performance. I figure out what the narrator voice of a story is (if I haven’t already, since I wrote the story). Then I pin down the character voice, focusing on how they’re distinct from one another, and do my best to make all of them as engaging as possible while bringing the writing to life. Since I have a male-type voice, I can’t produce voices in upper registers that don’t sound dumb. So when I’m performing characters with higher register voices, I use the higher part of my comfortable speaking register, and create a contrast.

For me, voice technique also includes modulating volume (dynamics), pacing (tempo), and tone quality as is appropriate for the story. The flow of the story will suggest when to be soft, when to get louder, when to change the vocal tone (growling, staccato speech, elongated speech, over-enunciation, etc.) A drunk character should sound drunk. Someone who’s angry might not get louder, but they start over-enunciating everything, speaking in a very staccato manner. Voice specificity is another way of adding value to a work through performance, bringing new dimensions to a character or revealing what you’ve always intended to convey in text.

Writer Tamago: Have you ever read with props, or seen writers do so?

Mike: I haven’t done so, save for maybe using a drinking cup/can if it’s appropriate in a scene. I have seen/heard authors use background/mood music for a reading, which I think can be very cool. In fact, my very first published story was set, in my mind, entirely to the Otros Aires recording of tango classic “Milonga Sentimental.” I’d love to do get an acoustic recording of the song and play it during a reading of that story.

Writer Tamago: Who are your favorite readers of their own work?

Mike: Neil Gaiman, Mary Robinette Kowal, Emma Newman, Geoff Ryman, Gregory A. Wilson, and others. I’ve actually been collecting narration/performance role models, since I spend a fair bit of time thinking about readings as performance. I view spirited readings as something I can bring to the table as a writer that sets me apart, that can help develop bookstore and reader connections, and more. And for anything I want to improve, I try to find people who set the bar high, who are operating at the level where I want to be.

So I seek those writer/performers out, try to see them at their best and figure out what they’re doing that I could be emulating or riffing upon. I can’t do Neil Gaiman’s accent, since it’s *his* accent, but I can learn to appreciate the way that he gives time to phrases, how his writing and his manner of speaking are completely one and the same, totally integrated. I can marvel at how Mary Robinette Kowal breathes she creates completely distinctive, consistent character voices in any narration that she does, across a range of personality types. If you want to hear what a single-narrator audiobook is supposed to sound like, listen to Shades of Milk & Honey.

Writer Tamago: What sorts of things would you advise writers to do who want to jazz up their readings?

Mike: If I can give only one piece of advice, it’s this: stand up. I think the simple effort of standing up in front of your audience for a reading does a lot – it opens up your body language, it lets you put your printout/tablet/etc. out front, so you can minimize the visual pan-and-scan distance between looking at your paper and looking at your audience. And it’s for me, the first step on the path of embodied performance.

Now this is purely based on the way that I like to do reading performances. Everyone has their own style. The most general advice I’d give is to practice more. Figure out ahead of time what you’re going to read, what the core of the scene is, emotionally, and try to build to it, with whatever tools you have.

Writer Tamago: The piece I saw you read was a funny piece. Would there be any differences in your approach to a dramatic scene?

Mike: To me, drama is just comedy putting on a fancy suit and trying not to screw up.

Okay, that was mostly about being pithy. *puts on fancy suit of seriousness*

When I’m reading a piece that’s not intended to be comedic, I do almost everything the same. I still look for the right pacing, dynamics, the character voices, any appropriate gestures and so on. The biggest difference is probably that I don’t plan ahead on when I might need to take a break for laughter.

And in a dramatic piece, I try to focus on what the emotional landscape of the scene is, and shape my performance to fit it. With a comedic piece, I tend to have comedy as my vehicle for getting at the emotion, and in drama, I have to use other tools, so it’s a bit more about bringing out the character, making sure my inflection and my pacing and everything are all building to that climax of the scene.

Writer Tamago: What other opportunities will your readers have to see you read this year?

Mike: I’m attending WorldCon in San Antonio, but I don’t know yet if I’ll have a reading slot. I’m also going to be at the Baltimore Book Festival in October and the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton (UK). I hope to get a reading slot at least one of those events. And who knows, there might be something else that pops up between now and then.

Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.

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