How to start a Live Literature night

Sam Hall, organiser of Medway-based live literature night ‘Write Now!’ and founder of 17Percent, an organisation for female playwrights talks you through setting up a new live literature night.

ME4 Writers at the Dickens Festival 2011, by Nikki Price

ME4 Writers at the Dickens Festival 2011, by Nikki Price

I have been organising and hosting live literature readings under ME4 Writers’ ‘Write Now!’ banner for two years. It’s an occasional live night of readings, fun activities and cupcakes, with the aim of introducing and showcasing a variety of genres of writer, with the emphasis on local writers. I have also organised showcase and discussion nights for female playwrights, and am developing a new playwriting night to start in Kent in Autumn.

Organising events can be stressful and hard work, it can make you feel uneasy (especially waiting for the audience to turn up!), but it’s massively rewarding and fun, once the event is in swing.  This article is to help you set up your own live literature event.

It gets easier really quickly
The first event I put on was a baptism of fire; though I had helped out at events and arranged fundraising parties for plays before, I had never really organised and hosted an event. But somehow I ended up organising and hosting four literary events in as many weeks. I was sick with nerves before the first event. But as soon as you’ve done it once, you know whether it’s for you or not. Fortunately, it was for me.

The key is planning and organisation. I’d also say you need a back-up plan and to be flexible as people always drop-out at the last minute. It’s all about what you can get done for free or very little money – you would be surprised how helpful people will be, once you explain what you’re doing.

Plan before you act
Think about why you are doing the event, what are its aims and where would be a good venue. I think that ‘because it’d be cool to do a literary night on a boat’ is as valid as ‘I want to introduce new writers to the community’ – as long as you can back up both reasons with solid planning. If it is on a boat – think about maybe giving it a nautical theme. If you do go for an unusual venue, check out that whoever owns it has the relevant public liability insurance.

Have a theme
When I became editor of a Camden magazine, the first thing I did was to introduce a theme to the issues. A random collection of articles doesn’t give the reader a satisfactory emotional journey, it’s more fun to dip in and out of. I think the best literary nights take you on an emotional journey, so think about the order and try to start and finish with your strongest writers. The theme could be very loose, and every writer will interpret the theme differently – at least, make sure they do, as no-one wants to hear five pieces of writing that are all of the same pace, and the same story.

Brevity is best
Keep individual stories down to 1000 words, or less (works out around 8-10 minutes when read). Unless you have a brilliant storyteller, listening to the same person telling a story becomes soporific – maybe this is due to where we are used to hearing stories, as children, at bedtime. In fact you want to try and get some brilliant readers involved if you can – a point I deal with later.
A slot for a poet should also be no more than 6-10 minutes. This could be as little as reading 1-3 poems – they can always do more later, if time allows, it is important to break up the sound of the reading voices and the styles of writing. Make sure you stick to the running order, so you don’t end up with writers who haven’t had a chance to perform as other people have run on.

Venues are the thing that cause me the most angst. Ideally you want the venue to donate the space for free in return for bringing an audience in to buy drinks and/or food. You also want a venue that can be shut off from other customers in some way – if it’s in a pub – a room above it is better than a space at the back next to the loos, where people who have just come in to have a quiet drink will be irritated by your literary venture. If it is a room in a pub, go to the venue at the same day and time your event will be held on, to check out the ambient noise. I once had a play performed in a pub where the men’s loos were right behind the stage. This meant at one point during a particularly emotional moment on stage, the actors were interrupted by someone in the loos having a loud argument.

ME4 Writers Alternative Picnic pic

ME4 Writers Alternative Royal Wedding open mic

What venue suits what you’re doing? If it’s a Halloween night – can you do your reading in a church crypt? If it’s a cafe – will they open after hours so that the coffee machine isn’t steaming away whilst your readers try to perform.

If the venue charges a fee for the space, then work out how much you will need to charge to cover your costs via an entry fee. Talk to the venue owner or manager, once they know what you’re doing isn’t going to make loads of money (sorry, but it isn’t), and will bring in new customers, they might give you a discount, or give you the venue for free in exchange for including their logo on your publicity. If it’s an unusual venue, check whether you might need permission from the owner, and think about insurance.

Readers vs writers
Do you have any actor friends who might like to showcase their reading skills for the night? Sometimes writers are brilliant at reading their own work, but sometimes a reader can bring something extra to it. For the writer, particularly of drama, it’s often really helpful to hear someone else perform your work, so you can check out what works.

Most likely you won’t be able to offer your contributors a fee, but you could offer 2 free tickets if you are charging, and reduced price tickets for friends. They could also bring copies of their pamphlets/books to sell. And of course they will be promoting their writing. If you have a friend who is well-known or already on the live literature circuit – invite them as a guest and let them do a 10-minute guest slot. Make sure you put their name on your fliers and other promotional materials.

Always have a Plan B in case somebody is ill on the day or can’t make it. If you are a writer yourself bring some extra poems or a story, just in case.

Other fun
What else could you do to make the evening more fun – can you do a quiz or some sort of raffle?  We usually giveaway free cupcakes! Books are always good prizes, you could choose second hand books to fit the theme.

Have you got an artistic friend who can design you an eye catching flier? Think about unusual fliers – there are many online companies who will print 250 business cards very cheaply – could you use these as fliers? Do you have access to b+w printing at work? Printing black on coloured paper can be eye-catching. You need to start thinking about your fliers and posters about 6 weeks before the day, so that you can get willing helpers to plant them about.

Use all your social networks – set up a Facebook page and invite people to your event, Tweet about the event, make a blog – but don’t send out too many invites to the same event. It’s annoying. At the end of any email messages ask people to pass it on to someone who might like it – you’d be surprised how many extra people this will get your message out to. Make sure the venue has copies of your flier and lists the event on their website. If there are local writing and reading groups, let them know about it too. Libraries are a good place to put an A4 poster.

Find out the local papers contact info and get your event listed – this normally takes just an email, and a lot of listings websites have an online submission form. If your event is a bit wacky or topical you might even find yourself interviewed by the local paper, as I was for an ME4 Writers Alternative Royal Wedding Open Mic event!

Finally get your contributors to bring all their friends along! If you are charging entry maybe offer a pound off for contributors’ friends and family, using a guestlist. That way you can usually get a bit of an idea about numbers before the day – which can be quite reassuring.

Be early
On the day you have to get to the venue at least half an hour early – sometimes audience members will turn up early and you have to decide whether to let them sit there and watch you set up, or whether to ask them to go to the bar. If your venue has a bar or cafe, that’s great, but if not you have to decide if you want to risk sending that person away, as they might not come back. You might have to set up seats and move tables – so if you are concerned about spoiling your clothes – bring your best stuff to change into. Now is where it really helps if you’ve got some friends to share tasks with. Check audio is working if using a mic, (hopefully you will have a techy friend or group member who can sort the audio-visuals out for you.) Make sure you know where the toilets and the fire exit are and let people know in your introduction.

If there are a few of you – assign roles, one person to meet and greet, one person to collect entry fees, one person to look after the contributors and let them know where they are in the lineup and how long their set is. Let them know where and when they can sell their pamphlets/books if they’ve got some. If one of you is a good photographer, get them to take some photos of the event or video, and post them on Facebook and Youtube after. You should let people know that there may be photos/film taken of them and let them say no, if they don’t want to be on film.

In your intro make sure you let people know the format of the evening – eg, half an hour, followed by a break, followed by another half hour, and thank the audience and writers/readers for coming.

At the end thank everyone again and let them know they can join an email list to find out about upcoming events – have a book and pen ready at the back of the room!

So that’s the event done.
It doesn’t end there though! Now’s the time to collect some informal feedback and use it to make your next event even better. You can do this with a comment form, or just ask people what they thought and if there was anything they would like to see next time.

I really enjoy arranging live literature events because from the point of view of a writer, there is nothing like hearing your words read by someone and seeing the effect they have on the audience. It’s hard work but it is worthwhile, and I think it’s an essential way for new writers to get their work out there. Good luck with your event!

to do list pic

Don't forget!

Sam Hall is a writer, mostly of drama and short stories. Her stories have been performed at ‘Are you sitting comfortably?’ and are published by Ether Books.  She hosts ‘Write Now!’ events with other members of ME4 Writers, the Medway writing group she leads.

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