As a panelist on the WriteOnCon session “We Were All New Writers Once: Growth on the Journey,” I spent some time reflecting, of course, on my own writing journey.
Here’s the thing: I honestly never thought I’d be a writer.
My daughter disagrees. She says from what I’ve told her, at every turn I was a writer…from the boxes and boxes of saved handwritten letters (each one means I wrote to them first), to papers I claimed to have loved writing in school (including my dissertation), to comedy & theatre sketches, to the way I somehow always ended up writing at work whether it was news releases or ghostwritten technical papers or business plans. She even mentioned the mock Christmas newsletters I used to send out, like when I claimed she toured Europe in sold-out piano concertos (she was 7) and one son had unlocked the secret to the Dead Sea Scrolls (he was 5) and the other had been banned in the Midwest for his expert ninja skills (he was 3). [I guess I was always creative if nothing else.] Yes, I had stints as on-air and newspaper reporters too, but they came as a result of a corporate job where, to make a long story short, I ended up co-writing a syndicated newspaper column on a fluke.
Or was it a fluke?
Did I unknowingly will it to happen? Have I always been a writer?
My daughter’s accusation, if you will, really caught me off guard. But OK. Maybe I really have always been a writer even if I didn’t realize it until this week. Maybe it’s that I never thought I’d be an author. But honestly, aren’t they really the same thing?
I realized I have always been drawn to — what…places? work?… — where writing plays a large role. What a great creative outlet! And you’re in control the whole time. Don’t like what you’ve written? Go back and fix it. Get feedback that what you’ve written isn’t right, or good? Well it’s not like math–right or wrong. It’s subjective. So you don’t have to like what I’ve written. I do! It’s the perfect loophole, lol.
Surely that “you can’t tell me it’s wrong” caveat gets tricky when it comes to being published. The other person HAS to like what you’re writing in order to publish it, unless you are self publishing. Even then, there are grammar rules, punctuation, etc. People have to like your writing in order to buy it. It’s not exactly a free-for-all. But as a writer, I am in control of everything! I write when I want. What I want. I certainly take what others say into consideration. I honor proper English and don’t go rogue on spelling or manuscript formatting or query protocol. I have several critique partners that I couldn’t live without. I definitely do my research, attend conferences, and listen to experts. I learn and adapt. I feel I improve a little every day. I don’t do it for anyone else, any more than someone who practices free shots in their driveway over and over does it for any one other than themselves. (Are they trying to impress the neighbors? Get an NBA contract? No. They just want to get better at free throws. They earn a sense of accomplishment, of work well done.)
My daughter had a point. Maybe my journey started before I even knew I was on board, and all that time I spent writing earlier in life helped land me where I am now.
And my journey isn’t over. Far from it.
Maybe your journey started years ago too. Maybe it’s starting right now. No matter when it began, your writing journey can go wherever you want it to! You are in control, my friend.
Your writing is yours. Only you can write what you write, from your perspective, with your voice, with your knowledge base. And so too is your writing journey. Only you can decide where and how to map it out. Only you decide how often you write, how often you edit, how seriously you take professional feedback and direction. It might be up to another person to say yes or no as far as a contract, but its up to you to get your work to the point where they simply can’t say no! Write once in a while? Great. Just don’t expect grand success if you’re not hammering away regularly. Even the best natural writers won’t succeed unless they–wait for it–SIT DOWN AND WRITE.
It takes time. Probably more time that you’re gonna want it to take. Other people will succeed before you. But that’s their journey, not yours. Keep at it. You might not have all the time in the world right now. No one does. It might be really hard to see how to get from point A to point B if you can’t even make it through the day. We’ve all been there! If you can only afford a few hours a week for now, that’s okay. Relish those few hours a week! Work smarter so those 20 minute a day can be even more productive than an open day where “let me just finish this last email” leads to three hours of wasted time. It’s your time, respect it. It doesn’t have to be strictly in front of your computer. Block off time on the calendar and temporarily cut off the internet. Eat lunch alone outside under a tree and speak your notes into your phone. Brainstorm while folding laundry. Find a pen-pal to swap ideas and manuscripts with (note: be upfront with what you are looking for: do you want ongoing positive reinforcement or true honest feedback?)(not that they are mutually exclusive!). Try to do one thing every day to move your path forward, even if it’s one tiny step…but don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day. Or three.
Your journey can only move forward if you’re in motion!
Mainly: take yourself seriously. Allow yourself that daily distraction-free time, even if nothing immediately usable comes of it. Nothing creative is wasted anyway. You’ll reuse it in some form, either by learning from it (finding out it’s not a direction you want the story to go, for example, is great progress!) or from the positivity you just allowed yourself to embrace.
Don’t forget the “journey” part of the writing journey means it’s a process, not a one-time event. The journey might be spotty and frustrating at times, but it will also be rewarding and wonderful. Stick with it, even if it’s just for fun. Not everything we write has to have the ultimate goal of being published. Some of our best writings never have to be read by anyone but ourselves. We can be proud of our work no matter where it sits. The important thing is that we’re writing–present tense.
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?
Whether you’re headed to your first conference or your fifth, you’re gonna want to plan ahead. Most writers are introverts, and panic at the thought of being in a room with strangers. Relax! You’re going to be fine. The children’s book industry is wonderfully welcoming and supportive. (I’ve attended and presented at conferences across the U.S., from local to international events, and never cease to be amazed at the kindness.) To help maximize your precious time, and all that coin you’ve already dropped on the event, here are some tips I’ve found most helpful:
Have an overall goal in mind. This might change for every conference. Most people assume they are they are there to get published. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. You’re not going to get a contract at the conference (seriously, toss that thought right now). Be realistic. Let’s assume you’re there to figure out how to get published. Try to break that down into measurable steps.
Maybe your goal for that one conference is to find an agent, or to find out how to get an agent, or simply bust out of your comfort zone. OK. Can you make it even more specific? If you’re looking for in an agent, for example, what qualities or skills are important to you? Figure that out before you go so you know what to look for in the agents that are there, and you’ll be able to better size up and decide if anyone there is right for you. No sense submitting to an agent you don’t want to work with, right? If you want to break out of your comfort zone, list out two or three specific actions–like initiate a conversation with two strangers, attend that awards banquet by yourself, and/or refuse to sit in your room doing email every night.
Center all your time/schedule decisions around that one overall goal. Attend only those sessions that fit your goal, for example. It will help you manage your time AND challenge yourself to achieve that specific goal. (Next conference you can attend the other sessions that sounded equally good–odds are you’ll have a difference goal by then.)
Get ready to smile and say hey. I hate the slimy connotations of the word networking, but conferences are really about the people. Otherwise you’d stay at home. What I mean by that is don’t just focus on the workshop topics,look at who’s teaching them. Read their bios. Try to read the book of the keynote speaker and/or whoever you’re taking classes from beforehand, so you know their background and you’re not coming in cold. That’s how you feel like a insider! By doing your homework you’ll feel like you already have an edge. Odds are you’ll be eager to meet the presenters. When else will you have the chance to meet them, and see what they’re really like? You can take just about any class online these days, but meeting these professionals in person? That’s why you’re there.
Have your “elevator pitch” ready! You’ll be using it throughout the conference, that is, if you’re taking the conference seriously and are out there meeting people. (Here’s a good primer to get yours shiny.)
Pack with a theme in mind. Not as in 1800s or hippy, but something that is consistent. It not only helps make packing easier, but makes it much easier for people to find and remember you every day, as well as afterwards. “I’m the one in polka dots” or “I was the one with pink striped hair.” You won’t be in the same thing everyday but people will start to recognize you by how you dress.
Get your class act together. Speaking of clothes…at writer’s conferences you don’t have to dress to impress, but c’mon, this isn’t your mom’s basement. Make an effort. Dress like you’re going out to eat, not like you just woke up. If you look like you’re taking this seriously–others will take you seriously too. (But skip the heels, ladies, that’s one fashion item that’s just silly at a conference.)
A simple trick: stick business cards (people still use them!) in your badge holder, so they’re handy. Make sure your website and whatever social media handles/hashtags you use are included–if not, write them in with pen. Consider adding a QR code to your card that allows a cell phone to take people directly to your contact info, including your website URL, without them ever having to type a thing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WS7jdYZomu0 tells you how to create a free vcard. https://blog.4colorprint.com/great-designs-for-business-card-layout-inspiration has ideas for unique looking biz cards. [Note: I have no affiliation with either of them whatsoever]
You never know who you’ll be sitting next to so be nice to everyone you meet. Author and illustrator Debbie Ridpath Ohi has some great conference tips on “making the first move” – you need to suck it up and introduce yourself around! Remember the part abut people being the reason you’re there? [See more of Debbie’s advice, including charming comics about being an introvert, at her website here.] Since most of us will be attending the conference alone (even if we traveled with a friend), it can get nerve racking. Wracking even. Take some “survive attending a conference alone” tips from themuse.com here. [Again, no affiliation]
Be open to learning. If you’ve attended a hundred conferences before and find yourself saying “I already know this” at every session/workshop, then you’re preventing yourself from learning anything new. I mean, if you already know everything, why are you there? (<— remind me of this one, ok? I’m always the one rolling my eyes saying I knew that, when, hmm, maybe I didn’t)
Prepare ahead of time. Review the schedule. Figure out why the keynoters are keynoters and not session presenters. Plan your day(s). Choose your workshops carefully so it’s not a last-minute choice made in haste. (They need to support your goal, remember?)
Speaking of preparing…if you’re a true beginner, and are looking for basic tips on writing your first children’s book so you don’t feel out of place at your first conference, check out a video I made for the beginning picture book writer. It’s fun. Really. https://bitsykemper.wordpress.com/2014/03/19/179/
I joke about lotion-ing up so you’re not remembered as the hand shaker with the rough skin. But bottom line: do your homework. And get ready to smile. You’re going to have a great time!