Guest Post: Severely Limited Public Readings by Albert Wendland
Writers love to read their work to others—at conventions, conferences, lectures, “talks,” or even after-dinner get-togethers where authors share their latest. And we all ponder—or struggle—over what sections to read. But the criteria are fairly accepted: a scene not too difficult or obscure, one that’s complete and yet that promises more to come, something exciting and dramatic that won’t give too much away. For all these reasons, opening chapters are often good choices, yet any self-contained unit could do.
But a recent question about reading aloud suddenly floored me, a question I had never considered, and yet I immediately found it compelling.
What if you could read only a paragraph from your work?
And by paragraph, I mean a section of five to 15 lines. So it could be made up of shorter paragraphs, but the piece should not be longer than that.
What would you pick?
Maybe a well-crafted description of the hero-protagonist or a setting you worked hard to create. Or a piece of action—with suspense or confrontation, a climactic moment. Or a poetic scene, rich with subtle sensitivity or raw passion. Or a slice of dialogue, from an intense argument or a romantic seduction.
This was a challenge! It could even be a game. I imagined several writers sitting on a panel and each one reading no more than 15 lines, and then the audience could choose which offering is best. This might even happen several times with different criteria: most “well-written,” most interesting, most “different,” most persuasive for a listener to want to hear more.
I had to try this!
So I grabbed my latest novel, In a Suspect Universe, a science-fiction “planetary noir” adventure in space, and looked for possibilities.
I first considered one of the protagonists talking about the desert she loves (two paragraphs, but still under the limit):
“You don’t find much life during the day,” she said, “but you see traces of it from the night before: tracks of mammals, lizards, birds. Especially around water pools after rain. Nothing’s dead here, only hidden. There’s a reptile with webbed feet and a wide tail that swims through the sand, and another creature with transparent eyelids so it can see in a dust-storm.”
“Did you know your voice changes when you talk about this place?”
“I can’t help it. The desert holds too many stories. Piles of rock that look like tombs—that maybe are tombs. Drawings and paintings that can’t be explained. Intelligent life never existed on Homeworld, but the drawings don’t look Airafane. Some finds are like arrowheads or old tools, as if the desert was inhabited once and then suddenly abandoned. I’ve seen places resembling empty camps, as if nomads move across the dunes but are never seen. And I sometimes hear noises at night—like people walking, animals being driven, drums beating. I thought I saw torches out in the distance once.”
I loved the suggestiveness of this passage, and how its subject tied up with the material in the previous book from this series, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes. But I wanted something that hinted a bit more about the story and the problems that would be encountered. So this next passage seemed more appropriate:
“All right,” he finally said. “Listen to me then, but none of this will make sense. I’ve seen the impossible. I’ve seen things come to life that could never be alive, that defied all laws of physics. I’ve seen legends walk out of myths, become real and attack people and even kill them. I’ve encountered landscapes that were so much a part of me and so familiar that they made me think my mind had turned inside out, that I was falling into a labyrinth made from myself, from my worst fears, which I couldn’t understand or ever escape. I’ve seen longed-for fantasies come alive, but I’ve also seen monsters—miracles and disasters, the wonderful and the terrifying. I’ve been thrilled by new possibilities and then horrified they might come true.”
The hint of threats I really liked here. But I wanted a variety of emotions too. This next possibility gave me two people interacting with each other, and also with the setting around them, combining tone and dialogue with a touch of romance. (Remember that in all of these I was looking for the best lines to read out loud, offering several ways to reach an audience.) It takes place in an aircar flying over a wintry night landscape:
She flew further south so they wouldn’t be tempted to check more stations. They passed over forest and open tundra beneath the stars. The clouds broke up and the snow stopped. Then she swung west and finally north.
Time passed, but it didn’t exist. They felt they lived outside of it, though both of them dreaded sudden guilt. So much was happening elsewhere and yet here they were, amazingly happy. They held hands while looking into the night, their fingers alive in each other’s grip. “Soft-handed love,” he called it, a subtle intoxication of touch. The aircar seemed filled with their knowledge of each other.
The aurora returned. She noticed him looking at the landscape below, glimmering with reflected light.
“What do you see out there?” she said.
“You,” he said.
I loved the emotion here, the quiet yet suggestive mood. But I still wanted more—a strong sense of drama, of confrontation. This next section weaved together poetic imagery with a touch of horror:
Fear welled up in Ranglen.
The hill was all too clear now, too precise. It was surrounded by stone arches, or tentacles, like a hulking body entangled in the landscape, imprisoned, tortured. Slumped crevasses led to it like a spider’s web. Ranglen knew that a meteor hitting a caldera in the past would make a mess of geology—igneous flows, shock metamorphosis, fragmented rock, boiling vents, impact melt, all buckled into monstrous folds—but no such explanations helped. Nothing in his science protected him now.
It wasn’t the thing but the impression it made, the feelings it left. It seemed like a vile object from space, a spiteful god trapped on a planet it now despised, some massively engineered machine readying for apocalyptic battle, trying to right itself and break free. A half-sculpted Michelangelo “captive” imprisoned in stone but longing to howl, take to the air, attack, kill.
Pictures from his ultra high-strung nerves.
“Don’t go near it,” he cried.
Okay, those were my examples. But then which one out of all these would I pick? The imagined panel of authors, if reading more than once, could allow for more than one selection. But which passage would I lead with?
I’d choose the last, just because it provides more drama for a rousing oral presentation.
Yet—and this is so annoying—I know the exact section I would read, and it wouldn’t be any of these. I thought of it immediately when I first posed the question. A section that, when I wrote it, seemed to come into my mind already written, as if a lurking muse out there was just waiting for the right moment to plant it in my brain, to give me exactly what I wanted, gift-wrapped and complete.
It’s the last 15 lines of the book, a self-contained unit with even a break in front of it. When I wrote it, I wanted a true “Oh, yeah!” moment, something that would bring the whole book together and make a reader think, “There couldn’t be any other ending but this one.”
And yet . . . shucks . . . it’s the end of the book. And giving it away before anyone reads the story is probably not too smart.
Still, that is the section I’d pick. And if people in the audience at the panel reading were persuasive enough, or if it was late enough at night, I’d probably read it anyway. (If any of you out there have read the book, please go to the end, re-read the last 15 lines, and let me know what you thought.)
So that was my response to the challenge. I now pass the question on to you:
What five to 15 line section from your latest writing would you read?
Albert Wendland has made a career out of his life-long interests in science fiction--and photography, art, film, and travel. He teaches popular fiction, literature, and writing at Seton Hill University, where he has been director of its MFA in Writing Popular Fiction (the program famous for its exclusive attention to genre writing). His SF novel, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, was a starred pick-of-the-week by Publisher's Weekly, and the prequel, In a Suspect Universe, was published in 2018, describing a story from the protagonist's past. He's now writing a book of poetry supposedly written by the protagonist of both works. He's also written and published a book-length study of science fiction, a chapter in Many Genres, One Craft, a poem in Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books, and several articles on SF and writing. He enjoys landscape photography, astronomy, graphic novels, and the"sublime."
Connect with Albert on Twitter: Twitter: @albertwendland