Writing is, by its nature, a lonely business. There may be the odd freak of nature who can tap happily away on their laptop in a crowded cafe with half a dozen strangers peering gormlessly over their shoulder, but for most of us, quiet and solitude is essential. For me, certainly, it's all part of getting inside the heads of my characters; to "become" them, I have to forget that I have a life outside of them, and create a vacuum for myself. It's a strange, internal process, but one which most of us perform without even thinking about it. There's only one problem: if you manage to get published, you have to start sharing your work with the world. But that's what we want, I hear you cry. Of course. I totally agree. Let thousands of people read my novel, if they so desire (and I hope they do) - in the comfort of their own homes, on the Tube, in the bath, wherever takes their fancy... as long as I don't have to read it to them.
The awful truth dawned on me a few months ago. In order to help try and shift a few copies of my book, I was going to have to stand up, in front of people - REAL people - and read it out loud. Not the whole thing... that would be madness. In a way, though, I would actually prefer that. At least then my audience would be able to judge the book in its entirety. If they didn't like it, fine - well, not fine, obviously, I'd probably lock them in the room and refuse to let them leave until they had written a four-page essay on their reasons why not, but at least I would know they were making an informed decision. But a mere couple of pages? A couple of pages, chosen almost at random by me, taken totally out of context and declaimed to a load of strangers? Not bloody likely. But of course it was likely. It was unavoidable. I had made my bed, and now I had to lie in it.
I did my first set of readings in November, to various assorted sixth formers as part of their A Level English lessons. As I sat there and read, knees knocking with fright beneath the table, trying and failing not to hate the sound of my own voice, it struck me that this was actually a peculiarly effective form of torture. I wouldn't be surprised if it had already been taken up by some of the murkier militant organisations. Forget putting your victim on the rack - if you really want to make them suffer, get them to pen a few couplets and then read them out loud to the guards. As I stumbled through the pages, I must admit that I wasn't too sure how my words were being received, largely because I could hardly look at my audience. Speaking the sentences I had written, they suddenly seemed cringeably juvenile and inane. It was a disaster. I was a failure. I would never write another word.
At least, that's how I felt during the first lesson. By the fourth, it was a different story. No, I hadn't suddenly become the last of the great orators, but somehow, it all started making sense. This was my book. I had written it, and they were damn well going to listen to it. They weren't pelting me with rotten tomatoes; in fact, mostly they looked quite interested. And afterwards, they crowded round and asked me if it was going to be made into a Hollywood film. OK, I had to say that as yet there were no firm plans on that front, but even so... Overall, I found reading my work aloud to be much like the experience of jumping into a freezing cold lake. Difficult to gear up to, a shock to the system at first - but the more you splash around, insisting that the water is lovely, the more you start to believe it.