Who knew that within weeks the words “viral” and “virus” would have such polarizing connotations? The year 2020 sure is a unique beast. As authors, we’re forced gifted lots of home time to create. The longer we’re home, the more (ideally) we’re writing. Hooray for opportunity.
One of my first thoughts has been, “I better make sure my stuff is good. With everyone else home with all this free time, writing and rewriting, there is going to be more competition than ever.”
My next thoughts are, “Wait…with everyone home writing, who is out there buying? Is it even worth submitting? Will it sell?”
I did some digging. Talked to friends and colleagues–authors, illustrators, agents, big publishers, small publishers. Researched a bit–the big picture international news down to smaller scope of our children’s book industry. I wanted to see for myself:
What is going on in the publishing world? What will it look like ahead?
I’m no expert (my Econ degree and MBA play no part in this post!). I’m just a curious author that likes research and is concerned about our future. I know other authors are wondering too. Here’s what I’ve found:
For those TLDR types, lemme say this: Yes, books are still selling (but they are slowing). No, it’s not horrific (changes will come about slowly, and even if the world is magically back to normal tomorrow, we will still see small repercussions down the line in a year or two). Yes, there is a big uptick in pandemic plotlines and both agents and editors are saying KNOCK IT OFF. No, there is no reason stop writing and submitting–as long as it’s your very best work. So no panicking, OK? Keep creating. It’s what you do.
Books are selling. Great! But of course numbers aren’t as high as usual. A study in Sweden shows a sharp decrease in March sales compared to last year (boo), but an uptick in online sales greatly softened the blow, and the LA Times reports the new ABA-backed online-only Bookshop.org has reported a 400% increase in sales since opening in February (*crowd cheering*). Marketwatch states overall book sales have been driven by juvenile nonfiction in particular, which are up 25% year-to-date, and up 65% for the six weeks ending April 11, according to NPD BookScan. “We definitely seeing an uptick in kids’ educational and activity book sales this week,” reports Kristen McLean, NPD books industry analyst. Sure, bookstores and libraries are temporarily closed, tradeshows (where many small publishers rely on sales) have been cancelled, and those free e-books don’t always cut it for parents and kids…yet people are still reading, and books are still selling. Publishers reiterate to me that most sales are activity books (understandably) and series (books they can rely on). Debuts–if an author/illustrator can hold a successful virtual launch–are doing OK but not as good as if they were live or on tour. [Side note: You can help your friends and indies by ordering ANYTHING from your local bookstore as they likely deliver; not only will they appreciate it but it might keep them from going under. Ask your friends to do the same.]
Agents and publishers are still buying. Work-for-hire is still assigning. But…likely not as much. One reason is, due to slower sales, many books they were going to release this summer or fall have been pushed to next year or later, so they won’t need as many titles in 2021 or 2022–the timeframe the title they’d sign today would be released. And if they think sales are going to continue to drop in the near future, they might not take on as many new titles…making them pickier than ever. And they’ll have to be choosy…agents are saying their inbox is fuller than usual (one said even though she is closed to both queries and submissions and only accepts via her website anyway, ever-eager writers are blatantly subbing directly via her email regardless)(not cool!), and The Guardian reports some publishers are seeing a three-fold uptick in submissions! [Side note: It doesn’t mean the pool of writers is better, but it does mean it’s much bigger. It’s harder to get noticed. How is yours unique? Better than the others? You don’t have to submit any or every thing you’re writing right now. Just keep writing. Maybe it’ll turn into something (better) down the line.]
Think you’ve got a great idea for a story that takes place during a pandemic? Well so does everyone else. Not only are publishers and editors already tired of seeing dystopian (especially pandemic) plotlines, the main issue is timing. As agent Jennifer Laughran points out, “publishing is a long game.” While the world may be changing overnight, our industry moves slowly. A book takes a good 2 to 5 years to get to market. The last thing a 12-year-old kid will want to do is relive the time their own 8-year-old self was quarantined at home. Without toilet paper.
Bottom line: like every industry in the world publishing is slowing–but all signs point to us doing okay in the long run. The future of publishing may be changed for good after this. Maybe even for the better. But it won’t change overnight. Stay positive. Keep on plugging away, giving it your best. And maybe happiest.
Seeing as we are now living in a real dystopian society, it might be time for ideal worlds to make a comeback. Let’s lighten up.
How to Easily Work the Camera and Adjust Your (Nervous) Attitude
With videoconference meetings all the rage (if not necessity), odds are you will not escape attending one. And odds are you’ll be attending more and more of ’em, even after quarantine guidelines are lifted. Yep, they are here to stay. Does that make you anxious? If you hate seeing yourself on camera, or were never a fan of meetings to begin with (let alone ones where people CAN SEE YOU AT ALL TIMES), well, suck it up, buttercup. Videoconferencing is here to stay.
It’s making introverts nervous. It’s making teachers–who are already used to teaching–nervous. It’s making people who have attended hundreds of meetings, and held hundreds of meetings nervous. It’s even making extroverts nervous.
The good news is even the most introverted of introverts can succeed–if not enjoy–Zoom. (Or any other videoconferencing app/program/website.) Even if you don’t know how to present yourself on video. Or how to manage distractions that are out of your control. Even if you panic at the thought of being on camera. Maybe you don’t want strangers peeking into your room? The good news is, these videoconference meetings aren’t so bad. They’re not hard to run, and honestly not that tortuous to attend. Even if you’re an introvert! Really.
Here are six detailed ways to make the most out of your Zoom and Zoom-like videocalls, that even quiet-types can put to good use:
Making The Camera Love You
Worried about how you’ll come across on screen? The camera angle makes all the difference. Place your laptop or pc so the camera is at or slightly above your eye level.
Don’t have it on a desk or coffee table looking up or it’ll focus on your double chin—even if you don’t have one. Balance the computer on however many magazines, books and/or shoe boxes needed to get the right height (making sure it’s stable enough to last the entire call without a TIMMBERRR situation).
How close up is too close? I think you can answer that yourself. You know what size is comfortable to look at other people in the meeting, so follow accordingly. You don’t want to fill the entire screen with your face by leaning in too far, and you don’t want to sit so far away that you’re an indistinguishable dot.
Most people sit the same distance as if they were typing along their keyboard—OSHA suggests the best ergonomic position is about 20-40 inches from the monitor. Odds are you’ll need to access your keyboard/screen at some point anyway, so within an arm’s length is the safest and easiest way to sit.
If you want to get down to the nitty gritty on where in the screen you should be, the best ratio is to have your face in the upper one third of the screen, not centered. (Have you heard of the “rule of thirds” in the art world? Our brains naturally prefer to see things in thirds…https://digital-photography-school.com/rule-of-thirds/.) Don’t overthink it though, that top-thirds isn’t imperative. It’s more important that people can see you enough to recognize you, without your face taking up the entire screen.
Experts (Tom Ford and Hank Green among them) emphasize lighting. The recommendation is to have a desk or floor lamp next to you, aimed at the side your pretty little face. Make sure it’s not shining directly in your eyes in a “Where were you on the night of the 12th” kind of way, where you’re squinting. Yes, having it off to the side might make you feel like the moon where one other half of your face is in darkness, but unless you are blasting your car’s headlights, it won’t come across like a yin/yang symbol. (Even if it feels weird to have one side more lit than the other, it actually looks ok, honest, Google it.) For balance, place blank white paper or a white tablecloth under your computer—but Tom Ford suggests making sure the white isn’t visible in the camera frame. Picky, picky.
How fancy do you need to get? This, to me, depends on what kind of meeting, who is there, how well you know them, and whether you’re in charge or simply listening in. As with real life, your appearance can dictate the level of effort you’re putting into a meeting. I realize in the age of quarantine these rules have laxed quite a bit. But they haven’t gone away. People notice when effort’s been put in, and when it’s been blatantly disregarded.
If you are a makeup wearer, apply it a little thicker a darker than normal when on camera. Or not, your call. Have a look at yourself on your computers’ camera before going live to see what the others will see. At a minimum be sure to have foundation and powder, maybe a quick swipe of blush. I always use mascara. (If you wear glasses you’ve got a bonus: no need for eye makeup!)
If you’re not a makeup wearer, no need to start. In fact, please don’t have this be your first time in full foundation and cherry red lipstick, it might freak people out. A touch of powder won’t hurt, though, to soften a shine and even out ones (guys too). And don’t forget, there’s always the beauty filter! (Check your settings.) (Why that doesn’t default to ON is beyond me.)
Overall, makeup is for special meetings. No need to go full hog for Zoom Happy Hour with friends. They’ve seen you at your worst already.
Your hair? Tricky. If you throw a hat on, it will mask your face by shadowing it. Maybe you think that’s what you want. But others will find it frustrating. You can pull your hair back, but be aware that puts your smiling face even more center stage. Do your hair as you’d normally do it if that gathering was in person. Wet hair at least implies you’ve showered, which hey, these days is a win, but come on…
As for clothing, typically it too should be the same as if you were meeting in person…but again, that too carries less weight given our current sheltering-in-place. Do your best though. Skip the PJs, ditch the sassy t-shirts you would never wear in public, no bathrobes, etc. Even if you’re at home and under quarantine, you’re still at work, in a meeting. Studies show that dressing up (or at least not wearing sweats all day) helps you feel more professional and therefore act more professional. A recent Vogue article quotes isolation psychology professor Francis T. McAndrew as saying how you are dressed “…signals something about what you are prepared to do. If you are dressed professionally and you’re dressed up, in some ways that raises your own opinion of yourself, and you want your behavior and demeanor to match the clothes. So, if you’re dressed like a slob and you are in your sweat clothes, you’re either prepared to work out at the gym or clean out the basement, but you’re not doing anything professional or mentally challenging, and that spills over into your motivation and confidence.”
“How to” apply makeup, and what to wear dress tips will be coming in another post. Hint: it’s more than you’d do in person and a little less than you’d do for a TV interview.
Here’s an idea: have enough fun with your background image and no one will notice your face! There are all kinds of sites popping up offering anything from making it look like your living room has a 65th floor view of the city skyline to having it appear you’re sitting on the deck of the Star Trek Enterprise. Some people go so far as to make or buy their own “green screen” so the backgrounds look even more realistic, but it’s not necessary at all. A solid wall works best but anything, even a chair or couch and wall is fine. Open space behind you, like the kitchen though, won’t work–you need a solid background. Find and choose some super cool backgrounds from here, or here or here. Or, of course, choose any of your own images.
It’s easy to take that new image and change your background too; learn how with easy instructions here and here.
Your own wall and home is fine too! Don’t feel pressured to change anything. Be sure to look around and behind you before you hit the “start video” button. Keep in mind whatever you have in your background becomes public. Artwork, photos on the wall, books or food on the shelf, furniture style, family members walking by without pants, etc. If you’re a private person that doesn’t want to invite people into your world, or your friends and coworkers are jerks (looking at you, Karen), then move to a part of the house or room where there is nothing to see and no one can walk behind you. Sit on the floor in a closet if needed. Just make sure you prop the laptop up and you have decent lighting.
If you’re running the meeting and you’re nervous, RELAX! We’ve all had our first video call and we’ve all been there. What you DON’T want to do is belittle yourself the whole time. NONE OF THIS “ack, darn, how do I do this?” or “oh that was dumb, I hate this stuff” or “where is that darn button?” No. Shush. Calmly look for that button or fix what you’re trying to do. Can you tell the difference between, “Can someone tell me how to share a file?” and 35 seconds of, “Hold on, wait, dang it, I thought…no…ack this is…oh there it, no…one of…is it this, no, wait…I’m such an idiot, I give up, can anyone tell me where that dumb share button is?” In both scenarios the leader asked for help. One was a heck of a lot more professional about it. If you simply keep your mouth shut as you look for what you need, then matter-of-factly ask for help once you realize you can’t find it, it shows a completely kind of different leader than if you bumble and grumble around, doesn’t it?
Talk a little louder than a normal conversation—as if it’s a large meeting room and you need to make sure that jerk Karen hears every word you say. (Don’t give her any reason to call the manager this time.) If you’re using a headset with a mic, please for the love of everything that is holy do NOT place the mic so close to your mouth that all those plosive Ps and Ss come across scratchy like nails on a chalkboard. You’re not a pilot, I know you can hear yourself, you do not have the buzz of the engine for an excuse.
Smile. You’re on camera. The whole time. When Marco starts telling that same story he tells every gathering and you look over to Janice to roll your eyes like you normally do….well, not a good idea. Literally everyone can see you. And if it’s recorded, well…they can see it forever…
If you hate being on camera and are worried about being stared at, unless you are the presenter, relax. Everyone is NOT staring at your or watching your every move. (Don’t flatter yourself.) There is too much going on for anyone to be watching any other person for too long. You are one of many attendees. Listen and participate as you would a regular meeting.
If you are the presenter, yes, people will be looking at you almost the whole time. But they’ll also be looking at others in the meeting, their cat, the slides or materials you are discussing, etc. Don’t feel like you are under a microscope the entire time. You’ve held meetings before, right? This is barely different.
One more favor. Please. DON’T GREET EVERYONE AS THEY JOIN THE CONVERSATION. Would every single person seated greet every single person by name as they walked into the conference room? No. Don’t do it here either. It’s understood they can see you’ve joined. You’re on camera: wave. The meeting organizer can say “looks like Tavisha just joined, right now we are talking about xxx” and keep on topic without offering her the opportunity to say hello. If you’re in charge of the meeting, when you send meeting information let them know you’ll allow them time afterwards to chat and be social, and ask attendees to please refrain from greeting everyone as they join. Or, offer them 15 minutes prior to the call to sign in early to chat and catch up.
We get it, you’re at home. Distractions will happen. It’s not the end of the world. Try to get back on track quickly. No need to apologize or call attention to the fact your dog pooped or your kid is crying. That just makes the distraction all the more disruptive. Fix it and come back.
If you need to get up and answer the door or use the facilities, do it without announcing it. I swear not only do we not want to know what you are doing off camera; we don’t care…your life is not what the meeting is about. Come back silently and join the meeting in as if nothing happened.
The best way to get more comfortable with any technology is to keep using it. Take a trial run or two or three. Play around with the site/program on your own before your first meeting.
This may sound like a basic Q, but have you ever taken a tutorial? (Don’t be shy or embarrassed about it…for one, no one will know because you’re in the privacy of your own home. For two, there is no shame in getting help learning a new skill. You had to take drivers lessons, right?) If you’re nervous about the call, becoming more familiar with it will ease your mind. Try the “Getting started” or “Video tutorial” links offered on their own site. Zoom even offers free live training; watch the recording if you’re still too shy. You can Google “how to use [name of videoconference]” for even more help.
When you’re feeling comfortable, schedule a Zoom test meeting. Or call a meeting with friends or family to get used to it live. Check in with neighbors or relatives. Call some college buddies. Try any excuse to play around with and use the app. [I’ll offer specific “how to use Zoom” tips in another post.] This way you’ll knock out all those “am I doing this right” and “how do I share a file” Qs. The more you play around with it, the easier it gets. The easier it gets, the less nervous you’ll be.
Overall, treat videocalls just like you would any other gathering. Be nice. Pay attention. Unless you’re running the meeting, you don’t have to talk or participate in any greater way than normal–speak up if you want, be quiet if you want. No big deal.
Soon you’ll find it’s not that hard–and kinda fun. It’s been a while since we’ve seen each other. I mean, even introverts have their limits on being alone, right?
Taking advantage of all that time at home….Resources to get started writing that children’s book of yours
I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned I’m a children’s book author without the reply being, “Oh I’ve always wanted to do that.” (Well either that or the implications about how easy it must be but let’s save that for another time, shall we?) What better time to sit down and write that book you’ve been thinking about than in the age of quarantine? I mean, what better excuse do you have to tell your kids to get out of your room, you’re writing?
There’s an uptick in novel writing right now. Which means soon (if not already, according to The Guardian) there will be an uptick in submissions. Which means you need to make sure your work stands out from the crowd. Which means you gotta do your best work. Which means, if you’re just getting started, you need to get started on the right foot.
I’m here to help.
You’re going to need some assistance, even if you’re pretty sure you don’t.
Writing children’s books isn’t as easy as you think.
For example, most writers assume an editor reads the manuscript and decides from the email if they’ll want to publish it, replying by saying they’ll be sending out a contract. Ah, yeah, no. Here’s a peak into the lengthy acquisition process from one publisher, First Second Books (spoiler alert: they have nine steps, meetings, dozens of people and lots of math before any final decisions are made). And that’s just whether or not to send a contract. Even more people get involved after that.
Another probable assumption is timing. It takes longer to get the book in a bookstore than you think. Way longer. About 2-5 years for a picture book to hit the shelves, not including how long it took you to write it–which, if it’s good, might take many months, or years. [I know an author whose publisher waited for a particular artist to be available and it took SIX YEARS to get published from the time she got her contract. An exception, but still.] Maybe two years for a teen YA (young adult) to get to market, according to agent Steve Laube. In this stay-at-home environment that may slow down things even more, since no one’s at the ol’ printing press to make it. Or bookstore to buy it. Or school to read it. So sit down Sally, there’s no rushing here. You might as well take the time to write the best possible work you can.
Just about every picture book writer assumes they need to submit illustrations or photos. I thought I did, when I first started. But you don’t! Do NOT ask your neighbor or friend to create sample artwork for it. It’s not only not needed, it’s not wanted. Send only the words if you’re a writer, and only samples of artwork if you’re an illustrator. If you do both really well, though, it’s okay to send in a mock up.
I could go on and on with random facts. I want to focus back on helping you kick off your manuscript.
The good news is there are hundreds of tools literally at your fingertips to help you set started. The bad news is that there are hundreds of tools literally at your fingertips to help you set started.
Why a mixed bag? Everyone and their brother has started a school or class or webinar on how to get published. And it’s their business, how they put food on the table. I’m not saying a for-profit group or people aren’t helpful! Is Magnolia Bakery‘s icebox cake not the best d*mn cake in the world because they sell it instead of giving it away for free? Of course not. It’s a business and they are experts. The very reason they do it for a living is what makes them the best (shout out to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outlier’s principle). But people online may not be the experts they appear to be…so be careful, and choosy, my friends.
The only way to get traditionally published is to have great material that’s sent to the right person or place (and now,”at the right time” might be more important than ever. Who knows?). So let’s get crackin’ with some things to consider as you get started.
Make sure any resources you pay for, or heed, are experts too. For example, one YA best-seller doesn’t make them an expert on the industry per se, but it does show they know how to write a great book for teens. They might not be your best bet for picture book advice. And their path to success isn’t necessarily the right formula for you (it’s certainly not the only way) so don’t try it copy it. Almost all authors will recognize this and dole out assistance accordingly. We’re a good lot. But these are the kinds of questions you want to be considering when you look at “Get Published in Five Days! We show you how!” kinds of pitches. Who are the sellers of this information? Are they out to help you–or help themselves?
There are lots of things to consider. If they are offering marketing advice, for example, ask about their own sales numbers and how active a role they personally played in their own book sales–was it based on their idea or the publisher’s? If they offer a course on writing, are they themselves published in the exact genre or age range they are talking about?
Don’t pay for a program or e-book because it’s ON SALE NOW, OFFER EXPIRES AT MIDNIGHT; pay for it because it’s a resource crafted by an expert you can’t find elsewhere that will help you move forward. You didn’t save $100 on $119 download on sale for $19 if you never use it. You lost $19. Think carefully about whether you’ll put it good use.
I’m not saying everyone is out to get you. There are so many great people out there that truly do want to, and can, and will help you. That’s what makes this industry so great. I hope I didn’t scare you away. The number of GREAT sites & resources waaaay outweigh the ones to be wary of. So don’t shut down that laptop yet. You’ve been thinking about this book way too long to give up before you started.
This home-bound time is almost a gift to you to start writing that dang book, so let’s get to resources. We’re gonna start at the very beginning (which is, after all, a very good place to start). Try looking at nonprofits and author websites first, you’ll be amazed at what’s available for free when you google the right “how to” phrase.
A “how to write picture books” search might bring you here (weird that it’s my own video, right?):
Here are a few other resources to look into when you’re getting your feet wet. These are for the true kidlit beginner writer that has just sharpened their pencil and isn’t sure what to do next.
I can’t possibly list every great beginner resource, but this is a start…for your start:
Kidlit411 offers manuscript swaps, writing challenges, all kinds of how-to writing resources from picture book to chapter book to middle grade and YA, giveaways, articles, blogs, and more–all free! (donations accepted) With soooo much content it can be a bit overwhelming so maybe check this after you have your first draft.
scbwi.org offers current listings of editors and agents along with contact information, monthly news, awards and grants, a great community of writers and illustrators that probably live in your immediate area no matter where you are, free or $10-$25 webinars and more (membership required for most resources)
Writers Digest (not as much kidlit stuff but solid writing help, they also offer classes and crits for pay)
There are of course a ton of other general writing resources not dedicated to children’s books. Good writing is good writing but I suggest you center your efforts on kidlit resources as our needs/requirements (such as word count) and formats are slightly different. If you’re not up to snuff on the right way to submit, you’ll be placing yourself at an immediate disadvantage. After all your hard work you don’t want to do that.
If you’ve got other great (free or free-ish) beginner resources to suggest, lemme know!
Writers tend to doubt themselves, amiright? “I’m not a real writer if I’m not published yet” or “Sure, I’m published, but compared to so-and-so I wouldn’t really consider myself a writer.” Knock it off. If you write, you’re a writer.
In Feb (2020) I held a “You’re Still a Writer If…” blog event at WriteOnCon. In honor of that event, I’m giving a quick preview list of the opposite…ways you can tell if you are NOT a writer. Hopefully you do not check any of these boxes, my friend.
You’re NOT a writer if…
You’ve posted a FANTASTIC blog/tweet/chapter and are waiting to go viral (or be discovered)
Yeah, sorry. No one is going to just happen upon you, discover your brilliance, and offer you a million-dollar book deal. That’s not how it works. Publishing isn’t a passive sport. You need to get off your duff and hit the virtual pavement. You need to find THEM. You need to seek out the best editor or publisher or agent for your work. Chronicle Books, for example, gets over 1,000 kidlit submissions A MONTH. You think those hard-working editors have time to proactively scour the internet looking for a diamond in the rough? If only. You are the captain of your ship, the coach of your team, the driver of your bus, the director of your movie, the beater of your drum. You can’t sit there and wait.
Wanna call yourself a writer? Then don’t just sit there, man. Go out and get ‘em.
Let’s say you now submit your story, but you’re not a writer if…
You cranked out a story in record time
I always say writing a picture book is easy. Writing a good one is hard. There are formulas and formats and industry standards and protocols…things you can only learn by putting in your time.
Can you wake up one morning, never having run a day in your life, and win the Boston Marathon? (Uh, correct answer is No. Nice try, optimists.) Writing is the same way. You have to train: do your homework, hone your craft, edit, rewrite, edit some more. Perfection can be simple, but it’s never easy. Writing crappy stuff doesn’t make you a writer. Not to me at least.
After a talk I gave about how to start writing children’s books, a young man and his lady friend came up to me. Or should I say he swaggered over and she quietly followed. He proudly announced he had just written a children’s book, how he had never written one before, and how excited he was about it. His lady friend was duly impressed. I congratulated him. He told me he knew it was good because it took him “only about three minutes.” I tilted my head, paused, and said something about how that’s a great start and encouraged him to consider spending some more time on it, maybe joining a critique group and getting feedback before going any further. He shook his head and waved his hand at me as he said “No need,” and proceeded to tell me because it came to him “just like that” <with a snap of the fingers>, that meant it was good. Finished.
Now you have to understand, in the hour-long presentation he had just attended, I talked about reading 100 (current) children’s books to get a feel for the industry, how you still need a solid plot, the importance of word choices and word count, to set aside your first few drafts for a few weeks, etc. But this guy here, having perhaps (I’m guessing) read his last children book 13 years ago when he was five, was convinced he wrote The Next Great Picture Book in three minutes.
I wished him well, and he swaggered off into the proverbial sunset.
I am sure he was well intended.
He was not a writer, though. He was a poser.
Let’s say you now take time to edit, but you’re not a writer if…
You listen too hard to other people
Heck, maybe that person is me. I never saw that guy’s manuscript, maybe it IS genius. <insert shrug emoji lol> Writing is subjective, sure. What works for you might not work for me or someone else. Just because I don’t read magical realism, for example, doesn’t mean there isn’t value in it. But you’d be best off getting a critique partner that knows (and likes) the genre rather than someone unfamiliar with it.
There are certain aspects and styles and formats and rules that we all need to follow to some degree, though. I always say follow the rules the first time, and once you’re “in,” break all the rules you want. Even that advice might not work for you. Remember when I said you’re the captain of your ship, the driver of your own bus, etc? You still need to be in charge of your own writing and editing. It’s yours!
OF COURSE other people’s opinion’s matter—that’s how books are sold (how any product is, really—people need to like or want it). You need to listen to the right people. I know, I know, that’s the tricky part—figuring out whose advice can best steer you in the right direction. It’s been said that a critic suggested F. Scott Fitzgerald “get rid of that Gatsby character,” and we’ve all heard how many times the Harry Potter series was rejected because it was too long, not kid friendly, considered not commercial enough, blah blah. Clearly those writers knew well enough to toss those kernels of advice. When you ask for feedback, such as at critique groups or a paid conference critique, please keep an open mind when people give you feedback, especially in the beginning, and consider what other people have to say; I’m not saying to toss all of it. (I do listen to unsolicited advice from well-intended friends that aren’t in the industry, because almost all readers are potential buyers and they might actually be my target audience one day, but just like taking parenting advice from someone that’s never had kids? Please.) The longer you’re in the industry, the better you get at discerning valid feedback (“Wow, I never thought of that, thanks!) vs opinions that are not in line with your vision (“Gee thanks, I’ll try to keep that in mind…”).
But if you listen too much and change TOO MUCH (your style or genre or main character’s motivation or whatever), then you’re not a writer. You’re a robot.
Let’s say you now have a solid story, but you’re not a writer if…
You don’t read
Read, read, and read some more. It’s not about knowing what your competition is up to (they aren’t your competition anyway, this industry honestly isn’t like that, they are your colleagues). It’s staying on top of what’s trending, what to avoid, and knowing who is who. You’re educating yourself on the book industry overall, the one you plan to play a large role in some day. Don’t you want to know what’s going on? You gotta stay educated.
Reading can give you inspiration. It can offer effective roadmaps that you don’t have to (re)create from scratch. It shows you tricks like layering or effective use of metaphors or good old distractions that allow for a spectacular twist ending. I mean, you can read a How to Write a Mystery manual, but there’s no better teaching method than reading an actual mystery that’s well done and watching it unfold before your own cute little eyes. Can you imagine taking your driver’s test having only read the DMV manual, without ever being in a moving vehicle or having seen a car? [Wait, in that case I’m saying you can’t just read a book and then do it but I think you see what I’m saying…] You have to experience it, not just hear someone tell you about it.
You can’t be a writer without being a reader.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
Let’s say you now read lots, but you’re not a writer if…
You don’t write
“Writer” is a verb, not just a title.
Stop making excuses! Taking a break is fine, but breaks have end points. Stop spending so much time finessing your bio about how you’re writer that you’ve left no time to actually write. Stop surfing social media. [Seriously. Give yourself a window, and ONLY check in at those times. I try to check in midmorning, AFTER I’ve done some work, and later in the afternoon. Sometimes at night too, but never late b/c it tends to agitate me and disrupt my sleep (there’s so many distractions!).]
Yas needs ta write to be a writer! If you’ve stopped, start again. If you are just getting started and are frozen in fear, dude get over it. Start writing. Anything. Outlines. Summaries. Notes. Story ideas. Character names. Backstory. A list of potential future titles (I have a friend that has written TWO books after a cool title popped into her head). Anything that will get your pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard. You don’t need an arbitrary daily word count or daily number of minutes/hours toiling at your desk; not every successful writer has them. You don’t need to write every single day; not every successful writer does. You don’t need to feel like writing; not every successful writer is magically inspired at every given moment. But you know what all successful writers have in common?
I can’t believe I have to say this…but you’re not a writer if you don’t write.
End of story.
Are ya with me? What you need to do RIGHT NOW is stop reading this, and get back to work.
Every year I go to annual Oscar party (yes I know annual means every year, shhh, let me finish). People get all dolled up like the real thing–hair, makeup, gowns. We have our own red carpet, ante up to cast ballots to win cold hard cash on the winners, and sit back to enjoy the show. Someone might wear a prop from their favorite nominated movie, another might show up in shorts, some bring their visiting relatives that don’t know what’s going on. They all come happy. There’s usually theme foods connected to a nominated movie (gimlets for Once Up A Time…), or to awards (red velvet cupcakes ala red carpet), or the film industry overall (fancy popcorn). It’s really fun.
This year, I realized a few things.
1. You can’t control everything
There are lots of things in this world we want to control. And only very few we can’t. Weather is one of them. Other people is another.
This year there were literal record-breaking winds in Northern CA (200 mph anyone?). That red carpet of ours wouldn’t stay down for a millisecond. It could have been made of lead and still spun off in a twisty helix down the street. Some years it rains (can you BELIEVE it? in CALIFORNIA? I want my money back). Some years it’s been waaay too hot for the red carpet; after mere minutes hanging out in the sun, makeup quickly gives you an Alice Cooper look (talk about wanting your money back).
Since we can’t control the weather, only our reaction to it, on weather-imperfect party days we move the red carpet inside. Less fun? Not at all. Whenever someone wins a category on their voting ballot, they get to (ok, HAVE to) walk the red carpet while the rest of us cheer. If they don’t walk it, their win doesn’t count! Yes, I will admit by the end of the night if anyone is in the lead by a landslide they get fewer and fewer cheers but still, it’s an added layer of fun we’d never have if the weather didn’t suck force us to adapt.
The lesson here is other people can rain on our parade if they want. We can’t control that. But we can move the parade inside, leaving them outside, and have the time of our lives.
Don’t let others decide your happiness.
2. Trust your instinct
Filling out the ballot can be a crap shoot. Even if you’ve seen every movie, and memorized every SAG win which tends to foretell the Oscar win, how can you possibly predict the outcome? You can either pick the winners you think will win, or the winners you want to win. Whichever you choose, stick with your first choice, your gut feel. If I hear one more time “I had that then changed my mind!” or “I knew it! I only picked the other one because so-and-so said…” I’m sure you remember your multiple choice test-taking days. The lesson here: always stick with your first answer.
And I’m not just saying that because I lost by one this year…
3. Free champagne is good champagne
If you go to a party expecting them to serve you a certain food or beverage, especially a certain brand, you’re an entitled jerk unnecessarily setting yourself for disappointment. Even if the host knows your favorite food or brand or that you hate onions, that doesn’t mean they will cater to your fancy. They don’t owe you anything. For example: I love champagne. It fits in extra well with the ambiance of the evening so it’s almost like I HAVE to drink it, lol. Hedging my bets, in case there isn’t any (or they drank it all before I arrived) I bring a bottle or two of my favorites with me–TO SHARE. This “Oh, you don’t have any xxxx?” is bull****. It’s rude and disrespectful to the host. And I’ve done it too many times. I shouldn’t need one special kind of food or drink to enjoy myself. None of us should. It’s a party! Let’s broaden our scope. Be adventurous, try something new. (Get your special stuff on your own dime, and time. Or host your own dang party.) Remember how you can’t let others decide your happiness? The lesson here: choose to enjoy yourself with whatever’s there.
4. Take pictures of the party. Then put your phone away.
You’re at the party. BE at the party. Engage. Participate. Talk–as in, genuine live conversation, not snapchatting with people that aren’t there.
Don’t take so many selfies documenting the party that you miss out on the party.
Don’t take so many selfies that you forget to take pictures of the party itself, or the people you’re there with. [ahem…notice there no party pix posted here…I don’t have any!]
One guy (looking at you, son) was so focused on his phone he might as well have stayed home. I honestly don’t know why he even came (except yes his mom made him but shut up that’s not the point I’m making). We’ve all seen people like that, yes? Yet when my guy walked that carpet each time his ballot answer was right, and we all cheered, his face lit up and I just know he was enjoying himself. He smiled and made eye contact and interacted. Then he turned the corner off the red carpet…and…back to his phone he went. Will he remember this party? Not a chance.
I can’t tell you how many parties and concerts I’ve been to, yet missed–missed because I was so busy trying to get just one more shot–oh this is perfect or consumed with texting someone about some inane thing that had nothing to do with the event. I mean, I literally can’t tell you…I’ve forgotten them all.
The lesson here: be present. I’m almost begging you. (And by you I mean myself.)
Funny to walk away from a fancy party thinking about how the wind can’t dictate your fun-o-meter, and then reflecting on what else you learned. I need to remember all this.
Try not to curse the weather. Try to not second-guess myself. Don’t complain if the champagne isn’t one of my faves or there isn’t enough chocolate. Be aware of the times my focus is on my phone instead of my friends. Flip the camera lens to point outwards…I’m kicking myself for all the pix I didn’t take of parties long gone…of the people no longer with us, of the little kids now big kids, and of course, of those ridiculous outfits we all wore.
Can’t wait to look back and make fun of myself wearing this one.
What to Include in Your Presentation (and how to best include it)
If you’ve read my post on Presentation Skills, you may recall that people care more about how someone talks to you more than what they say (a UCLA study shows an audience judges 93% of a presentation on the speaker’s nonverbals–the how of your presentation). If that just made you clench, go back and reread that post to set your mind at ease. Even the most introverted of introverts can still successfully present, and I show you how.
If you have a presentation coming up and are ready to start tackling content (the what of your talk), I’ve got some kick-butt tips for you. Obviously I can’t tell you what facts to include or graphics to omit because I have no idea what topic you’re speaking about. But there are certain things all effective presentations have, and I’ll list what I think are most important–especially in the writer’s world.
I’m mostly imagining you at a writers conference or an author/ school visit. But these tips fit almost every scenario.
I’m assuming–nay, begging–you have an actual presentation ala PowerPoint or Canvas vs speaking from notes the whole time. You’re cute and all but no one wants to stare at your mug the whole time. (And c’mon introverts, do you really want people staring at nothing but you the entire time?)
Hmm, maybe you want to read this what part first, before you focus on that how. Your call.
The Classic Format:
I’m sure everyone has heard the standard old format “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.” Well honestly, it still works. It’s actually kind of magical. So I’m not going to spend time explaining that. Just know you don’t have to repeat yourself word for word or be formal about how exactly you outline, explain, and recap. It’s the best method to use, IMHO, so stick with it.
The Before You Start Part; Speaking Their Language:
You need to know your audience and cater the presentation to them, at their level. (Or should I say at the level they are, regardless of where you’d like them to be.) You wouldn’t create a presentation to teachers the same way you’d present to second graders. Choose graphics, words, phrases, and examples that speak their language. Think about how they will best respond to what you’re saying, and what techniques you think they are most likely to pay attention to (and therefore learn from).
The Before You Start Part; Thinking Visually:
Try to think visually. Where can you add a graphic, a photo, a colorful pie chart, do it. Audio clips, video clips.
Think even more visually. Add show & tell items that you hold up or point to behind you. Any sort of prop. Books, stuffed animals, art work, flip charts.
What if there was a part where you stopped and wrote on a whiteboard? What if you started drawing on it? Doing math?
Can you introduce someone in the audience and have them stand up to wave hello?
One note of caution: as mentioned in the Presentation Skills post I keep talking about, don’t pass anything around while you’re speaking. If people are looking at something in their hands, or distracted by the rumble of it getting passed around, it means they aren’t listening to you. Hold it up, then keep it up front and wait until you’re done to let people manhandle it. (And know it might get dirty, broken or stolen.)
Getting Down to Business; The Outline/Preview Part (Tell them what you’re gonna tell them):
It’s great to start out with a bang. A funny story, anecdote, fact. No need to stress over this, though, especially if you’re not funny or if humor doesn’t some easily for you. Many people default to a quote that summarizes the overall topic or feeling of the workshop. Simply google your topic and “quote” or “fact” (“bee facts” “quotes about bees”) and something useful is bound to come up. See “The Now-That-It’s-Written Part; Your Live Intro,” towards the bottom for more details on how to kick things off; it includes how to start your intro as well as what else to include.
Getting Down to Business; The Meat (Tell them)
For every point you make, back it up with examples and data. You don’t need to have first-hand knowledge of everything. But it should all be factual.
Have smooth transitions from one point to the next. Make it clear it’s a new section.
Along the way, ask questions! People like knowing you care about their feelings or opinions. Have people raise their hands by saying “Show of hands [then raise your own hand], how many people have…?” It keeps things interactive (and keeps people on their toes if they know they might be put on the spot. But don’t put any one person on the spot, keep it a group Q). Questions that people can answer YES to are great because it gets buy-in and keeps them invested in what’s going on.
Getting Down to Business; The Recap (Tell them what you’ve told them)
Remind them of all the main points you talked about, and bring at all home with a grand conclusion. “Now you know how to best prepare for your next presentation.”
Leave them with a Call to Action. “I want everyone here today to give themselves a deadline to when they can start practicing their next presentation. I’ll give you 30 seconds to write it down.”
The Conclusion Part
End with a bang. Another great place to have a quote, inspirational story, or joke. At a minimum, leave with a fun-but-relevant graphic on the screen that in large font includes your contact info, where you might be presenting in the near future, book titles/product info, and website. Keep it up until you walk out of the room.
“Thank you for letting me be here today. I hope you learned more than you ever expected about presentations. My name is Bitsy Kemper. Thank you.” (Ideally there will be applause or at least some head nods.)
The After Part; Q&A
Yes, you should leave time for Q&A. Spend some time trying to predict what kinds of questions you’ll get so you can either a) go back and include that content in the presentation, or b) have answers ready so you’re not caught off guard.
You’ll still have people raising their hands afterwards, even if you don’t officially include a Q& section. You are the content expert and people will understandably want to pick your brain. Yeah, sure, there might be a few chomping at the bit to prove they know more than you, but keep your cool. Control the room.
If questions were asked during the presentation that you are going to cover, do no answer the question. State “We will answer that in about two minutes.” Then move on.
If questions were asked that you don’t cover, don’t answer them right then either. You are in control, remember. “I don’t cover that here, but let me write that down and we can go over it in Q&A after the talk.” Use a flipchart or whiteboard if avail so they know you are taking it seriously.
Question that came out of left field? “That’s a great question but a little off topic for what we’re learning today. I can talk to you after for a little bit.” That’s it. Move right on to next slide, Q, or point.
If someone challenges you or picks apart your facts/presentation, be gracious. They just want attention. You typically don’t have to challenge them back. “Thank you for your feedback. [pause] Anyone else with questions?” seems to be very effective. That lets them know they’ve been heard.
Have I mentioned “Control the room” enough? It’s your show. Not theirs. You have the mic. You get the last word. Just make sure it’s a kind one.
The Now-That-It’s-Written Part; Your Live Intro:
Kick off your talk by pandering to the audience. It works Every. Time. You know how rock stars shout out “Hello Sacramento!” and the local crowd goes wild? The crowd feels seen. Special. As if this concert is only for them and hasn’t been done exactly like this on tour all 147 times earlier this past year. Do the same thing. Unless you’re not in Sacramento. Start with “Hello, Cherry Avenue Second Grade!” or “Good morning, writers and illustrators!” They will know you are there–for them and only them.
Next, slowly and carefully state your name (don’t assume everyone knows you!) as well as the name of the session/workshop/talk or topic. “I’m Bitsy Kemper and this is Presentation Skills Part II: Content.” This allows an early and fast exit to anyone that is in the wrong room.
Start your slide presentation after you say your name and after the title of the talk. Don’t have it up before you talk, or the second you start talking. You want people to get used to focusing in on YOU, not watching the screen.
Give a sentence or two on why YOU are the content expert and why you are uniquely qualified to be giving this presentation. Toss in a fun fact if you’d like. “I’ve been presenting professionally for years. You may have seen me on CNN or on one of my regular TV news segments in Sacramento, Portland, Phoenix, or Albuquerque, heard me on national radio, read my syndicated newspaper column, or seen me in any of literally hundreds of media outlets across the country. Maybe you’ve driven by me on the freeway and didn’t even know it!”
Dive right in with “Today you are going to learn…” (see the important reason why you don’t lead with “Today I am going to talk about…” in DON’T #1 here)
The Now-That-It’s-Written Part; Handouts
PEOPLE LOVE HANDOUTS. Please do yourself a favor and create something, anything. The audience will not only love you extra for it, but they’ve got a tangible piece of you they can take with them. It’s the best marketing tool!
As with visuals, don’t pass them out while or even before you’re talking. It’s a distraction; people look ahead or read instead of listen. Let them know you have handouts and will be distributing afterward. It helps ensure people stay until the end 🙂
Don’t include proprietary info or anything that would prevent someone from coming to your session next time. Give them just enough to remember what you were saying and how great you were; not the whole presentation.
Make SURE you have enough for everybody. This is ESPECIALLY important at schools. Don’t give away 60 bookmarks and leave 42 kids without. If you realize you’re shorthanded, don’t sweat it. Mail 102 to the school afterward. This goes for anything when it comes to kids: HAVE ENOUGH FOR EVERYONE. I learned the hard way. After a school visit a kid asked me for my autograph. I said sure, and grabbed the one piece of letterhead I had handy. Big mistake. Another kid came running over. “Can I have your autograph?” I didn’t have any other paper. I tore off a piece of scrap paper from my school-visit contract, the only other paper I had. The first kid gloated. A third kid came running over. I tore a scrap of paper even smaller. Fourth kid. No paper left. I asked if he had any paper or notebook that I could sign. He did not. First kid gloating even more. Kids that were dismissed from the assembly started running back in and lining up. I had no paper. At all. Kids wanted autographs. “It’s not fair so-and-so got one.” The teacher Was. Not. Pleased. Lesson learned.
I promised you kick-butt tips on creating the content of your presentation and hope I delivered.
Let me know if you learned anything. If you use them. If you have other tips.
Now stop reading and start preparing. You’ve got lots to do. And you’re gonna do great.