Writing in the Time of COVID: Two Golden Rules of Word Count Goals
As our daily lives have been uprooted in the most unexpected if not the rudest of ways, I’ve been seeing A LOT about writing goals lately. Setting writing goals. Meeting writing goals. Not meeting writing goals. Adjusting writing goals. Changing writing goals.
With three school kids at home, and a husband who might as well be, it’s enough to make a gal want to panic. I’m going to put your mind at ease. Hint: there is no magical word count.
But first, some reasons why it’s not as easy as “don’t worry about it.”
I’ve been a huge advocate for setting goals. As a marketing professional helping business owners, I would always ask my own version of the Alice in Wonderland question: If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there?
In this case we know the ultimate goal: finish writing your book. As that is an intimidating goal, as scary as finishing a marathon when you’ve never run before, it’s best to take it one step at a time. Break it into pieces. No one expects you to stand up one day and run 26.2 miles; you’d train and run a certain number of laps/miles a day and eventually get there. Everyone has their own pace, it doesn’t matter how fast the person next to you is. They might be naturally-gifted runners. Or have a personal trainer. Or ran races for 15 years. You are running your race, they are running theirs. They finished first? Good for them. That doesn’t mean you can’t finish too! Your accomplishment is every bit as valid as theirs, regardless of how long it took. So let’s look at the first Golden Rule of Word Count Goals right off the bat:
Don’t compare your goals or progress to anyone else’s. This is your journey, not theirs.
As far as your ultimate goal is concerned, let’s not focus too much on that end result right now. You know what it is, we all know what it is. We don’t need to keep saying it. The world is hectic. Home life is weird. They are both unpredictable. Trying to eat a entire elephant right now just might not be possible. The last thing you want to do is set yourself up for failure. So let’s look at eating that elephant one bite at a time. As the great Judy Blume said at the #SCBWI conference this summer, you can write a novel spending two hours a day. Yes, two hours a day would bring great progress. But I can’t repeat that lovely nugget with a straight face. Who has two concentrated hours a day right now? We need to take what we can get, and eat whatever part of the elephant we can get our hands on. Don’t concentrate on eating the entire elephant by sitting at the table two hours a day right now. All that will do is set us up for failure. Let’s look at one part of the elephant and take it very seriously. Can we commit to the legs? One leg? An ear? OK, just the tail for now? It doesn’t matter if we eat it fifteen minutes at a time while the kids are zooming their hearts out, or a half hour before bed, or if it means we THINK about eating it while taking that weekly shower. Pick ONE thing, and do it. Do it well. When you’re done, pick another. I’ve got this bio idea in my head. First I need some research. So my goal is to interview people that knew her. Until I do that, I can’t get much further. So my part of the elephant is interviews. Back that up, and you’ll see I need to figure out who to interview, what to ask them, figure out how to get in touch with them, how I will approach the confidentiality of anything they may want ‘off the record,’ etc. So there is more to the goal of interviewing those people. It’s not a simple check mark. It’s not something I can complete two hours a day, especially since them getting back to me is not under my control. But with that as my goal, I can continually be working towards it. If I’m at a standstill, I can press a virtual pause and look at the next mini goal to start on in the meantime. Yes, that means all the steps/goals should be written out. Not having a word count goal doesn’t mean you don’t make yourself accountable for the steps required to meet your goal. It just means the number of words written per day isn’t on that list. That brings me to our second Golden Rule of Word Count Goals:
2. Word count doesn’t mean hooey.
Think quality, not quantity. You might make more progress with the sudden realization a side character or chapter has to be cut than any number of words you could have placed on a page that day. You might figure out a plot hole and spend time thinking through how to fix it–without a single word added to the manuscript. As long as you’re writing or thinking about solutions to what you’re working on, you’re making progress. Even if you end up scraping a day’s work, you now know what DOESN’T work; you’re still closer to your goal. I think it was the late and wonderful Sid Fleischman who used to say the only thing wasted on experimental writing is a piece of paper. Don’t focus on the number of words per day or week or month. All that will do is stress you out. It might force your butt in the chair, sure. But at what expense? Maybe you’re better off taking a day or two away from the ol’ laptop and giving your muse a mini vacation. (Make sure she’s earned it!) There is simply too much going on right now to worry about the number of words you are or aren’t cranking out. That brings me to the Bonus Golden Rule of Word Count Goals:
3. Be kind to yourself.
Don’t beat yourself up over missed opportunities or time away right now. It’s OK if you skip a day or two. Nothing bad will happen if a file is left unopened three days in a row, no curse will leak out of the USB port. It will all be there when you’re ready. Write a blog post (LOL). Send an email to an old friend with a fond memory. Call your parents or brother. Bake cookies for your sister or neighbor. Draw a tree. Or do nothing at all. Don’t force creativity if it’s not there. We know it’s a fickle beast. It’ll come back when it’s ready. In the meantime, let yourself know you’re doing the best you can. It’s all you can do. When it ain’t got than swing, numbers don’t mean a thang. I’m proud of you not matter what you’ve done so far.
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.
But those speaking engagements are still there. They are going to “get your name out there,” build your brand, and sell your books, remember? You can’t avoid them. Not if you want to sell books, that is.
I’m not trying to scare you off, but hey, people are strikingly more likely to remember HOW you said something compared to WHAT you said. That means you gotta work on your game. Think of a great speaker you saw. Now tell me what he or she said. You probably won’t remember most of the content, but you’ll remember the overall message or feeling they left you with. When it comes to remembering a speaker’s talk, a UCLA study showed that people tend to remember about 7% of what the presenter said (the words). That’s it. The rest, 93%, is the nonverbal impression the speaker made on the attendee.
The good news is 93% of what attendees walk away with is all under your control. Gestures account for 55%, tone 38% of the opinion/memory. You can affect that. Relatively easily (honest–I’ll show you). Another study by Management Science showed people are more likely influenced by the likability of a speaker that the quality of the speaker’s arguments. So…not to add to your stress, but instead of spending all that time on content, you need to spend time on delivery too.
Good thing you’re a peach.
I’m going to give you some solid ways to make sure your presentation stands out from the crowd, no matter how shy or nervous or a beginner you are. These 5 DOs and 5 DON’Ts will ease your mind and take you from a panicked mess to a well-informed presenter.
I’ve also included 3 extra of each, for the advanced presenter who wants to crank it up to eleven.
If you take it seriously and do your homework, you’re gonna do great. Realistically you might not hit a home run your next time at bat (sorry but IRL there are no shortcuts or instant successes, this isn’t a Hallmark movie), but you’ll get on base at least. You got this. Honest.
Or, you can, if you try.
1. DON’T Confuse your agenda with theirs
You are there to give a presentation, right? Wrong.
You are there to share information, right? Wrong.
You are there to make them a better speaker/reader/person. You are taking your expertise and sharing it with them so they can implement it and improve their lives/careers and therefore they can improve the lives/careers of others.
Isn’t that wonderful?
Not:“I’m here to talk about…” But: “Today you will learn…”
It may seem like a subtle difference but that change in perspective makes all the difference in the world. (OK, not the world, but big diff.)
Don’t be a writer but instead be writing…
2. DON’T Peddle your wares
No one likes a sales pitch. It’s icky. You’re not starring in an infomercial. Have your book(s) standing up on a table off to the side, and unless someone asks directly or you are quoting from them, don’t even acknowledge your titles. Let them speak for themselves. (It’s perfectly OK to point to them in your intro as you mention you are an author, tho.) If your presentation goes well they will be flocking over to buy or ask about them. Even if you think you’re being cute, the second you start hawking your stuff you lose credibility–as well as your audience. Don’t let them think you are only there to sell your books. Prove you are there to improve their [xxxx].
3. DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT NOT REHEARSING. Out loud. Repeatedly.
How do you become a decent presenter? The same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice practice. While most audiences will decide within seconds whether or not they deem a speaker credible, writer-ly crowds are rooting for you, so don’t sweat it too hard at writing conferences. You still have to practice; just know they aren’t out to judge you harshly–they really want to learn (and for you to succeed). Give them reasons to pay attention to you instead of reasons to doodle or switch sessions midstream.
There is no way around this: you HAVE to practice your talk. Out loud. In front of people. More than once.
Your audience isn’t expecting a TED Talk, but they want to know you didn’t wake up this morning and throw the presentation together as you walked down the conference hall. And they deserve your best efforts. I’ve heard presenters say “When I was working on this on the plane” and “Last night when I wrote the page” and it’s flat out insulting. They just admitted they only worked on this presentation, that I have paid hard-earned dolla-dollas for and have eager expectations on, on the fly. Not cool, man. You’re a professional getting paid to do this. Show it.
Yes, you will feel awkward talking to yourself as you rehearse. But you have to say it out loud before going live. The first “dry run” will give you an idea on timing: how long is it? Do you need more material or do you need to cut some stuff out? The second time you’ll be more likely to notice where you repeat yourself or where things are out of order. The third and fourth time you’ll get more comfortable and more familiar with the material, with what’s coming next, so you can focus more on the HOW you’re presenting instead of the WHAT. (You wrote it, how hard can it be to remember it?) You’ll get more comfortable walking around as you talk. [Repeat after me: I am not sitting or standing in one place the whole time. I am not a boring robot.] The more comfortable you are with the material, the more comfortable you will be onstage presenting it.
4. DON’T START OUT APOLOGIZING. Or apologize mid-talk.
Never start out with an apology. You only get one change to make a first impression, right? Start out strong. If the projector isn’t working, stop and quietly go over to your handler or whoever is in charge to get help. No need to announce “Oh this isn’t working, let me get help.” We know it’s not working. We are in the room. If a table is in the way, walk over and move it, without saying a word. None of this “Let me move this before we get started…” You need to control the room from the second you make eye contact.
When should that be?
Don’t make eye contact with the audience until you have things under control and are ready to go.
That’s not to say you don’t own up to anything if you have made a mistake (“Oh, sorry, I thought you said beaches”). I’m referring to if something technical/mechanical goes wrong before or during your talk.
Not: “Oh, wait, this needs to, um, let me fix, er, move this, bum-dee-bum, hi, oh sorry, I hate this, hang on while I juggle some furniture around, doot-de-doot-doo, almost there, one mooooore sec, OK, now we can get started.” Nope. Not: “Wait, that page isn’t supposed to be here, I thought I fixed that, hang on while I–dang it, I paged back too far, now I have to…doot-doot, bear with me here, folks…” No. Shut your trap and make it right. Without a sound. Without eye contact. You might think you’re making it less awkward or being charming by narrating, but what you’re doing is calling attention to the fact something is wrong. Or that you don’t have your act together. No sense announcing it. Fix it. If it’s a dreaded typo, don’t fawn over it, simply state “oh, that’s spelled wrong” and move on. Don’t be embarrassed. You’re human. If you can’t fix what’s wrong on the screen, calmly move on, talk from your notes instead of slides, or jump to Q&A. To me, this is the #1 way to tell a beginner speaker from a seasoned one.
Running late? Whether it’s your fault or not, own up to it–the right way. Not: Sorry I’m late But: Thanks for waiting
Missing materials? Not: I was going to have handouts but… But:I’m passing around a sign-up sheet; I’ll be emailing you a summary/worksheet/handout tomorrow. Or, The conference coordinators will get you handouts within a week. (Find a solution, stay calm and in control.)
Not: Sorry it’s so cold in here But: Thanks for bearing through this arctic room temp
On a related note, never throw anyone under the bus. Even if, say Thomas is to blame for the typo/missing docs/cold temp/etc, never call him out (“Ack, I told Thom to fix that”). You’ll look like a jerk, even if it was Thom’s fault. It’s your presentation. Blame no one.
Silence while you correct it, on the spot, like a boss.
5. DON’T GO LONG
Ending on time proves you rehearsed, are fully aware how much time you were given, and knew how to use it effectively. It also shows you respect the audience’s time.
Again, this is a difference between a seasoned presenter and a newbie.
1. DO Start BY ANSWERING ‘WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME?’
In addition to starting with who you are and why you’re qualified to be speaking either on the topic or at that event, tell the audience what they will learn (not “what I will talk about!”), and how it will make them a better writer/editor/artist/person–i.e., what’s in it for them.
Greeting followed by your name, spoken slowly and clearly
Two or three reference points on why you are the content expert and maybe a fun fact about yourself
Specifics on what people are going to learn/walk away knowing
Why they need this important information, if possible
“Hello! I’m Bitsy Kemper. I’m author of 21 books and have taught presentation skills for years, from beginners up to corporate vice presidents (talk about a tough crowd). Today you’re going to learn how YOU, you sweet introverts, can make your next author visit or book presentation shine, even if you hate giving presentations. How does that sound?”
Or: “By the time you finish reading this blog post, you will learn ways to make your author presentation better, in both content and presentation skills. As introverted as most authors are, these tips will not only ease the stress of future book signings or conference speeches, but give you insight into how to make talks successful regardless of how comfortable you feel in front of a crowd. Your future audiences will walk away with a positive impression of both you and your session.”
You don’t want to include background on yourself that isn’t relevant to that particular setting. In the first example above I stated I’m an author because I’m talking to authors. If it was a corporate setting, I know they are a tougher sell so would have started with “I spent 13 years in the computer industry, then consulted on marketing and branding for small businesses, have been on CNN/movies/TV, and as author of 21 books giving presentations across the country, now focus on helping others–like you–write and present. Today you’re going to learn how to take your presentations to the next level, whether you hate giving presentations or think you’re already pretty darn good. Who’s ready to start learning some secret intel?” In that case I gave some corporate experience so they know we have a common thread, gave quick acting nod as that always helps a presenter’s cred, and used being an author as my most relevant experience explaining why/how I know about giving presentations.
No humble brags. More of a brief resume recap that’s targeted to the audience. And speaking of audience…
2. DO Know your audience!
Who are you talking to? Are they fifth graders? PreK? PreK all the way through 5th grade? Teaching staff? Just like you wouldn’t write a book for fifth graders in the same way you’d write it for four year olds, you need to know who you’re talking to and adjust accordingly.
Your message won’t change, but how you get it across will.
There are times you won’t know in advance–whether the people that hired you never told you, or they don’t know themselves (hello, book tour!). There are times the info changes (“…there was a K/1 field trip today so we’re sending you to third grade instead”). I mean, how many of you have ever signed up for a session at a conference and then switched once you got there? It happens.
Even if you were told who they are–CONFIRM. After that great intro you just gave–ask some questions to get a feel for the room. Start with a questions they can answer yes to. It gets buy-in from the get-go. “We’ve got writers in the crowd, yes?” Then narrow things down. “How many are published? YA writers? Picture book? Any illustrators?” Don’t spend too much time here, though, or you’ll come off as unprepared. View this as confirmation of who you think is there, not a panicked blank stare. You know everyone there is there to hear what you have to say on the topic, so it’s not like a random crowd rounded up from the street. A few clarifying Qs should handle it.
3. DO Spend time on content
As much as you’ll want to practice HOW you’re saying it, you need to make sure WHAT you’re saying is a) factually correct, b) what they hired you to talk about c) WHAT WAS ADVERTISED (if you are at a conference, triple check this; almost nothing upsets a crowd more than a speaker talking about a subject that differs from the title or program summary. They will blame you, not the conference coordinators.)
4. DO Radiate
Be confident knowing you are a content expert. You are up there presenting because you know what you are talking about. Everyone has felt the pangs of Imposter Syndrome; don’t let it get to you. Sure, there will always be someone who knows more than you on the subject. Does mean that you don’t know enough, or are unqualified? Not at all. You were asked to present (or in some cases, did the asking) because you know what you are talking about. So let that shine through. Remember that statistic on importance of being likable?
If you’re not a confident person in general, pretend, just for today, that you are, and act like one. That’s why you are there. That’s why they booked YOU. They could have asked anyone, and they chose you. Own it.
I’m not asking you to put on airs or suddenly become someone you’re not. We don’t want to see fakers. We still want the see the real you. Just a confident version of you. I mean, if you don’t believe in yourself or your material, why should I as an audience member? I want you to use your same voice, chose the same vocabulary, dress the same way (OK maybe a little nicer, please–see #5 below). And the only way to get that confidence level up is to practice, practice, practice. (See Don’t #3, above)
5. DO Dress nicely
To use an industry expression, people DO judge books by their covers. Dressing up shows you are respecting the audience. Doesn’t have to be a three-piece suit. Doesn’t have to be high-heeled shoes. But it needs to be something that makes you stand out from the crowd, just a little bit. You’re not an attendee, you’re a guest of honor. Don something that shows you put effort into this. And be consistent, as it builds your brand. (“Oh, the guy in the bow ties” or “You know, the speaker who always wears polka dots”)
Let me caution away from three things. Please, nothing 1. way too low cut or 2. wildly LOOK AT THIS distracting. We want to look at your sweet face as you’re talking, not at your clothes (will there be a wardrobe malfunction?) or platform shoes (will she trip out of them at any second?). Also, 3. nothing brand new. You need to know how something feels and moves before you try it out in front of a crowd for the first time. You don’t want the itchies or to split a seam reaching for a visual aid. (I can, um, neither confirm nor deny any of the above things happening to me…)
Is that all? you’re asking yourself.
If you’ve got all that down pat and are ready for more refinement, here are 3 bonus DOs and 3 bonus DON’Ts.
BONUS DON’T #7: DON’T TALK TO “EVERYBODY.” Be specific. Talk to ME.
Think of this as a one on one conversation. With every member of the crowd. If you start out with “Hi, everyone!” it feels impersonal. Cold. Corporate. Like I’m one of many. If you say “Hello Cherry Avenue fifth graders!” you’ve made every fifth grader at that school feel special. Plus their teacher <shout out to Mrs. Fox!>. The crowd knows you are there for THEM, not for any ol’ group of kids. It feels personal. There’s a reason the crowd goes wild every time a rock star says “Hello, [insert your hometown]!” We feel special. Seen.
BONUS DON’T 7: DON’T DISMISS Qs
“As seen on page 10…” or “As I mentioned earlier…” are not great ways to answer a question. If they knew the answer was on page 10, if they remembered what you said earlier, or if the answers given were clear, they wouldn’t be asking. Don’t be an arrogant jerk. Answer as if it’s the first time you’ve heard it. [Caveat: if the 4th first-grader in a row asks the same question, recognize they might not be capable of coming up with other/new questions and just want to be called on to make you happy. State the answer and end with “Are there questions not related to [xx]?” or simply end the Q&A. With a smile.]
On the flip side, there is nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know” to a Q. If you truly can’t bring yourself to say those words, a) get some professional help and b) pause and answer with a genuine “Let me look into that. Other questions?”
BONUS DON’T #8 DON’T BRAG
State facts. Sure, tell us what went right. But include failure in your success story. We want to share in your humanness.
BONUS DO #6: DO ADD VISUALS
We like you. But we don’t wanna spend the entire time staring at your mug while you yammer on. Or listen to you read your slides word for word. Personally, I feel if a speaker doesn’t have a powerpoint-type presentation it means they didn’t take it seriously or didn’t put in enough effort. I really do. That’s my corporate background talking and I can’t shake it. If computer-generated presentations really aren’t your bag, baby, at least give me a few other things to look at. Think of it as Show & Tell. Any sort of visual will go a long way. Sprinkle them in, don’t give me one in your entire 90-minute session. Include, say, a prop. A sample product. Photos. A large flip chart. An audio or video clip. Artwork. Don’t pass anything around, though. 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. Speaking of passing it around…
BONUS DO #7: DO Bring a handout or giveaway of some sort
Yes, total suck-up move. But it works. People LOVE handouts–it’s like a follow up session with tangible information. It should have your name/logo/website on it, whether it’s a bookmark or session summary. Great branding opportunity! Wait until your talk is over before handing them out to keep the focus on you instead of the paper/trinket.
An example of an exception here is conferences or workshops for grown-ups. Maybe teenagers. To keep it interactive, often times I’ll bring a bag of candy (usually M&M Halloween-sized) and keep it hidden. The first time someone interrupts with a question, after I answer it I toss them a bag, thanking them for being bold enough to ask a question. I say it’s an incentive for the crowd to keep asking Qs, and toss one each time a Q is asked. They love it!
All handouts leave attendees with a positive impression, and a tangible piece of you. Win win.
BONUS DO #8: DO Ask your audience (yes) questions
Asking questions keeps them involved. It keeps them on their toes (“whoops, I wasn’t listening, what did she say? I need to focus back”). By asking questions they agree with, it gets them on your side. And it gets them invested in the outcome of the session. You can take it a step further by getting them active: “By a round of applause, who wants to get published?” [Ask a Q everyone will answer yes to, and therefore all applaud.] Applauding effects the brain. Happy people applaud. Happy people smile. When even one person smiles it makes everyone in the room feel better because they, consciously or unconsciously, are smiling with that smile-er. Smiling people set a positive tone for your presentation. A happy tone is a great start. Wouldn’t you say that’s worth clapping for? <—see what I did there? 🙂
I hope implementing these tips will help your next presentation be the best one yet. The links give a ton more help, in much more depth than one blog can offer, and are worth a quick click. There are plenty of tried-and-true classic books to review as well, by well-respected experts like Dale Carnegie and Decker Communications. Check back with me in a little bit. Let me know what you’ve improved on most.
*Yes, I did quote my own book. In this/that link you can find my (award-winning!) TEENS AND PHOBIAS book for as little as $5.95. I don’t profit from sales, so I’m not actually asking you to buy it. But it’s honestly very helpful for anyone, not just teens, with social anxiety or a phobia of any kind, especially ones they may be reluctant to admit.
Not everyone is comfortable sharing information online, even when it’s required.
If you’re self publishing and/or using Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) to print your books on demand (POD), you will notice that you have to hand over your social security number (SSN) or TID (Taxpayer Identification Number) in order to set up an account and get started. You also need to hand over your bank account info so they can pay you royalties (lots, hopefully!). In the age of cyber and identity theft, many people are uncomfortable sharing that precious information — as well they should be. Our friends over at the Northern California Publishers and Authors (NCPA), have suggestions.
EID: You don’t have to use your SSN, actually. What do you mean? you may ask. I have to give them a legal identifying number or I can’t sign up. Well, instead of using your SSN when you sign up for your Amazon KDP account, there is an option to provide an EIN, or Employer Identification Number. Do it. Use your EIN instead of your SSN or TID! It’s that easy.
But I don’t have an EIN, you might say.
Then get one!
Many people assume that to get or have an EIN you have to run a business or at a minimum, hire employees (hence the Employer part of the acronym). But no, you don’t have to be or have either. As a writer, you are a business.Gasp! And get this — it’s free to get an EIN directly through the IRS, online. Double gasp! Tell me more! Click here for the direct link on how to secure an EIN. You *will* have to give your SSN or TIN to sign up (they need some way to track you, it is the government after all)–but you’ll be giving it directly to the IRS.
Sharon Darrow, president of NCPA, cautions, “DO NOT waste time and money going through a third party, because they often charge and can take longer because your application has to be submitted through the IRS.” She finds the EIN page “clear as mud,” but it’s not too bad for government work (wow, two government burns, nice, Kemper). The app should take about 15 minutes to complete. And, Ms. Darrow feels, is worth it. “Using the EIN not only protects your privacy, but makes you look a little more professional.”
Uncomfortable with completing the form online? The bottom of the page has a form you can download to apply through the mail.
BANK ACCOUNT INFO: Kindle also requires your bank account. No, they aren’t being nosy, they need it in order to get you your moolah from book sales. Ms. Darrow has another suggestion that is “very simple and helpful for your tax records.” And I agree. “Set up a separate account for your writing business,” she says. “Even if you only have a handful of transactions a year, it protects your privacy and is more professional. Make sure you are getting an account with the bare minimum or no fees, and ask your banker if it’s connected to any of your other accounts in a way that an outsider could access. If you are especially worried, set up the writing account at a bank or credit union where you have no other accounts. This way, you can give the bank account information to Kindle with no worries.”