EAT, PRAY…SCHOOL VISITS!

When my book first came out in June 2015 I knew I wanted to do school visits.  The only problem was, I had no idea how.  To be honest, I was a little scared of the idea.  On paper, it sounded great.  In real time, it sounded like a panic attack–me in an auditorium with 300 elementary school students?  The prospect sounded daunting.

Soon I received my first invite from a friend who taught 6th grade to come and do presentations for his students (four classes in total, around 120 kids).  Now I had a deadline and I had to deliver.  I needed to create content, craft a presentation, and make sure that I could speak in front of a crowd. I immediately scoured the internet to see what information could be found on school visits.  I don’t know if you know this, but there is very little on the internet regarding school visits for children’s authors.  I was surprised, and then worried, because I needed help, and fast.

Here are a few things I learned in my “Year of School Visits”.

IMG_2441

Jen and Bookseller, Alexandra Uhl—The Whale of a Tale Bookshoppe

Ask for Advice from a Seasoned School Presenter: After my internet search fail, I reached out to talented author, presenter, and friend, Julie Berry.  (Hi, Julie!)  She is amazing.  For the price of a delicious bowl of ramen she walked me through her awesome presentation, told me how to talk to schools about author and administration expectations, and opportunities for book sales.  Julie was a gem and helped me see in a very real fashion the logistics of creating a great school visit that would be beneficial to me, the students, and to the school.  From her example I was able to tailor a presentation fit to my needs.  At the end of our chat, she also gave me a great bit of advice: Do as many school visits as possible in my first year to gain experience.  So that is what I did.  I presented to whole schools, small classrooms, book fairs, book expos, book clubs, writing groups, elementary schools, middle schools, and to teachers.  It has been one of the best things I’ve ever done.

(Best advice, Julie!  Thank you again.)

Julie Berry

Jen and Julie Berry

Look-Act-Be Professional: Of course as authors, we want to look the part and like we know what we’re talking about.  So shower, wear clean clothes, perform basic hygiene, and don’t forget to smile.  Looking professional seems pretty straightforward. But something I hadn’t really thought of was if my presentation looked professional.  In my case, I created a PowerPoint presentation, with various pictures and videos, along with written content. Think of yourself as a logo or trademark.  What do you want to convey?  What kinds of books do you write?  What images or ideas do you gravitate towards?  Whatever it is, make it visual and place it throughout your PowerPoint so it looks cohesive.  In my opinion, a well-placed theme makes you, as the author, more professional.  Another important point is to create a document that outlines what you present and for how long, so the school can get an idea of what to expect.  You want to inspire the students, but that won’t happen until you get past the gate keepers (teachers and school administrators) and show the school how valuable you can be as an inspiration and a teaching tool.

IMG_4852

Lone Peak Elementary

Think Like a Kid: As authors for children and young adults, this probably isn’t very hard. But it goes without saying, that whatever your younger self would find interesting, would now interest your younger audience.  In my case, I wanted to show videos of various animals in their natural habitats and talk with my listeners about how to survive. (After all, my book is SURVIVAL STRATEGIES OF THE ALMOST BRAVE.)  The videos were a huge hit and a favorite of both teachers and students.  I loved talking with the students about survival strategies, Darwin, how humans have their own survival skills.  I also talked about the writing process, creativity, reading, my book, and my journey as an author.  Which brings me to my next thought….  think like a kid

 

1985_The_Monticello_4Corners_Trip_DSC6944

Jen with her sisters when she was young. Grand Canyon.

Get Personal…But Not Too Much: Of course you want to tell the audience about yourself.  They are interested in you as an author— what you were like as a kid, what books you liked then, what you like now, and maybe an embarrassing author photo or two, but don’t make the mistake of top loading your presentation with ME, ME, ME.   The students want to relate to you, but they also want to learn something about reading, writing, and your book.  If you’re too busy telling stories about yourself, you can’t convey the rest…which is really important, too.

 

IMG_4857

Indian Hills Middle School

Expect the Unexpected: In my “Year of School Visits” I learned that what can go wrong, probably will.  Sometimes you plan, prepare, check and double check, and things still go wrong.  All you can do in these circumstances is smile and work through it.   To help with any technology glitches, makes sure you carry whatever you need on an extra thumb drive.  Also, I always brought my own computer and ran my presentation through it.  This was helpful because the software I needed to run my presentation was already there.  One time the presentation on my computer wasn’t translating well into the school’s media and speakers, so I did the presentation without sound, but we rolled with it.  Be prepared for your media not to work.  What will you do then?  Do you need handouts?  An activity where the kids can get up and help you?  A game?  A writing prompt? Are you going to read from your book(s)?  I always suggest doing a short reading, it makes everyone in the room your instant fan.

 

Over Prepare: Sometimes you think you have your presentation planned out perfectly and then you end twenty minutes early.  Now what?  I always over prepare.  Before your visit ask the teachers to read a chapter of your book to the kids, or have your books on hand in the classroom and the library.  Kids and teachers who have read your work, are generally more excited to have you there.  Place your first chapter on your website so everyone has an opportunity to sample your work.  Also, plan extra content.  In my PowerPoint presentation I have extra quotes, writing activities, a game, and sections of my presentation that mostly go unused, unless, SURPRISE, I have more time than needed.  After presenting at a middle school and an elementary school, I now have two PowerPoint presentations:  one for elementary, and one for 7th, 8th, and 9th  You can tailor the same content for different ages.  You must have a bag of tricks to pull out when things don’t go as expected.  Consider it your SURVIVAL BAG.Felix

 

If You’re Not Having Fun, You’re Doing It Wrong: Have fun! If you don’t look like you’re having fun, the audience will feel it. Act like you’re speaking to some of your closest friends—they like you, you like them, and it is fun to be together.  A school visit should be the same kind of experience.  If you hate getting up in front of an audience, but love to talk about writing, maybe a smaller group is your best choice.  Figure out what works for you and then do that.

IMG_5571

Rancho Canada Elementary

 

IMG_3280

Vista Verde Elementary

I have to say, after I got over my initial nervousness, and built a great presentation with fab content, doing school visits is one of my most favorite things.  The kids are awesome!  How often can you interact with kids who have read your book, or who want to read your book, or who are just plain happy to see you?  I have made great friends– especially lovely librarians and booksellers who have, and still continue, to give me their best help and advice.  So get out there, people!  Share your genius.  School visits are a very good thing.

Fear, Creativity, and Courage…in Front of People

The first time I remember feeling a paralyzing, shameful kind of fear, was when I was twelve.  I had dreams and even bigger plans (as most twelve-year-olds do) to become famous. Well, if not famous, at least I wanted to be seen. I had my eye on an acting class at what I considered to be a prestigious community theater, but instruction was expensive. Really, really expensive. I begged, pleaded, and somehow managed to convince my parents to sign me up. I waited for the first day of class with bated breath. I imagined all of the wonderful things that would follow once I stepped foot on stage.  As I sat in cushy theater seats and waited for class to begin, I practically closed my eyes and wished for my fairy godmother to make me special.theater-seats

But what unfolded was not at all what I had imagined. An hour later I huddled in the back of our family car in tears, begging my dad to never make me return. I couldn’t bear to tell him what had happened. It was too awful. Too embarrassing. Too…revealing. In one hour I had learned this: I had nothing important to say. How could this happen in a short sixty minutes? I’ll give you a hint: improv. The class was working on improvisation, which essentially means, “winging it.” We were supposed to get on stage (in front of people!) and act out whatever the instructor desired, with other students I had never laid eyes on, or let alone had spoken to (in front of people!). In my whole “become famous” plan I had forgotten one small fact. If I wanted to act, I must get up and act (in front of people!). Almost famous

I wouldn’t call myself a shy kid. But at age twelve, I had already cultivated a healthy fear of looking stupid. I watched the other students get up on stage and easily make the audience laugh. They were clever. They were funny. And they were smart. In my twelve-year-old eyes, I was absolutely none of these things. When my turn came, I blurted out some sort of incoherent sentence and then bolted behind the piano and waited for the torture to stop. Afterwards, I slunk to the darkest section of the cushy theater seats and cried. It turned out, I wasn’t special at all. I had nothing to contribute. Fear had got a hold of who I thought I was. My dad, bless his fatherly heart, didn’t make me go back.

FearNow, thinking about it, I wonder what could have happened if I had faced my fear and tried again? As I got older I pushed back at fear in other ways….learning new skills, public speaking, writing, but I never ventured out onto the acting stage again. Steven Pressfield says in The War of Art, “Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.” It is in our human nature to face our fears. He goes on to say, “Mental toughness is a skill and like any skill it can be developed. Learning how to overcome fear is just like building a new habit.” Humans want control. Humans want to conquer and that includes taming ourselves. Some of us have had more practice at facing our fears than others. But I love what Pressfield says. Overcoming fear is creating a new habit; a habit of courage.

A few months ago I had the chance to rewrite my only “acting class” story. My eight-year-old daughters’ theater school sent out an email inviting parents to attend an open acting class reserved for adults. Even as I read the email my heart rate increased. For a moment I thought, just delete it. No one will ever know that you saw it. But, I couldn’t. The twelve-year-old in me whispered, “Come on. You can do it.”courage

Seth Godin says we need to practice overcoming our fears, even in inconsequential ways. He says, “What’s the smallest, tiniest thing that I can master and what’s the scariest thing I can do in front of the smallest number of people…?” This acting prospect seemed to fulfill the above requirements. I was determined to put my dramatic and traumatic childhood improv story to rest. I emailed a small group of friends and said, “Look at this opportunity! Doesn’t it sound fun?” I hoped they couldn’t sense my fear in the email. Luckily, I have very courageous friends. We went to acting class. And lo and behold, it was an improv class. We had to act stupid, and silly, and make people laugh…and we did it all (in front of people!). Let me add, it helped enormously to have friends who were by my side.

I'm clearly super excited to face my fear.

I’m clearly super excited to face my fear.

I’ve learned that fear and creativity are forever linked. What makes you afraid in your creative life is something that you must face and conquer in your real life. Years ago, the thought of writing a novel made me want to vomit. I hardly whispered it aloud. But that fear underscored what I had to accomplish. The more we practice facing our fears the braver we become. Surround yourself with people who inspire you and demand that you face your creative goals with zeal. And when you can’t muster zeal, surround yourself with people who have compassion but also tenacity. It is brave to live our creative life out loud. There is courage in choosing creativity, but we must surround ourselves with only the most honest, and bravest of innovative allies who help us, succeed or fail, in front of people.

(Additional sources: http://jamesclear.com/overcome-fear)

 

Jen White has a degree in English teaching and also earned her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in writing for children and young adults. SURVIVAL STRATEGIES OF THE ALMOST BRAVE is her debut novel and was born from the real experience of Jen being accidentally forgotten at a gas station with her younger sister and cousin.  Jen currently tries not to boss around her five children and husband in San Clemente, California.

 

 

Is Your Work-In-Progress Ready to See Other People?

Recently I attended an interdisciplinary artists retreat where I got to spend twenty-four hours with creative people representing all avenues of art: musicians, fine artists, film makers, actors, and writers. I was encircled by amazing people and I got to stare at these trees. It was a total win-win.

IMG_2727

Aspen Grove

While there, I learned from James Christensen that some fine artists, when almost finished with a piece, hold it up to a mirror to check for errors or inconsistencies. As the creator, your eye compensates for what is missing or uneven.  Sometimes you can’t really see what you’ve done until you look at it through a mirror.  It’s the reflection of that creation that shows you what it truly is.  This is such a profound concept.

Finding Your Fish by James Christensen

Finding Your Fish by James Christensen

 

I, myself, have gone “eye blind” while working on a manuscript.  Sometimes after working for months and months, it feels impossible to really see my work for what it is. I miss blaring typos and fail to notice that I’ve used the word probably about thirty-nine times in one chapter.  I have trouble seeing the problems in the plot.  It’s so strange how our brains compensate for our mistakes. After hearing about the mirror trick from Christensen, I wished writers had some sort of magic mirror we could hold up to our manuscripts and immediately see the flaws. Wouldn’t that be dreamy? Although, I’m afraid my mirror might turn into the Mirror of Erised, from Harry Potter, and I’d stand there for months…years even.

Mirror of Erised

Mirror of Erised

What can writers do after we’ve stared at a piece for so long that we’ve gone eye blind? How do we test our manuscript for flaws?  How can we know what our writing truly reflects?  We need a Writers Mirror. Here’s what I think it consists of:

First, you need to write your piece until you are completely sick of it. Only after you’ve spent a significant amount of time revising your novel, and are so sick of reading it that the thought of having to read it again makes bile rise to the back of your throat, are you ready to take a break from it.  Put it away and let your manuscript breathe.  Give your mind a rest.  I did this with SURIVIVAL STRATEGIES OF THE ALMOST BRAVE. I put it away for a long, long time and wrote something else.  Doris Lessing said, “In the writing process, the more a story cooks, the better.”  While writing a different book, I could slowly see the problems in SSOTAB and was able to go back and attack the pages with fresh eyes and a new brain.

rose colored glasses

Fresh Eyes

Second, give it to a trusted writers group (or reader) who understands your genre. If you don’t have someone, get someone. In my opinion, every writer needs a nice, healthy, critique from smart people who like you, but aren’t afraid to hurt your feelings.  Every writer needs a truth teller.  Actually, I need these kind of people in every part of my life. Right now, my fifteen-year-old thinks she’s my truth teller (but I fear her motivation is highly suspect). When writing a book, you need a truth teller. Preferably it’s nice to have more than one, so that when they both mention a common concern, you will be more likely to believe them.  It wasn’t until I heard from two different editors that SSOTAB should be a journey novel that I took it seriously. In the end, I re-wrote my entire manuscript.Jen Book Cover

Third, be brave and get smart.  Attend a writers conference or retreat where you can get feedback from professionals (SCBWI has a great list of resources). I know for many introverted writers, this sounds excruciatingly painful. You have to make small talk with people you don’t know and then are expected to talk about your work. No, thanks. But these kinds of events are really the place to be if you want to find success in traditional publishing. Not only will you get honest, industry-sound, feedback, you’ll also learn a lot and make great connections with other writers and professionals. I met my current editor at a writing retreat where she gave a lecture about the publishing industry and then agreed to read ten pages of whatever the attendees wanted to submit. It was there, during her ten page critique, that she asked to see my full manuscript. I would have never made that contact unless I had been a little brave. So, do it. Even if you don’t want to go, go. I promise you won’t be sorry.

Lastly, don’t give up. I cannot say this enough. Do you realize the amount of self-soothing and loathing that goes on inside my head as I work on a manuscript? Let me tell you, it’s a little pathetic. And I don’t think I’m alone. Writing is a hard, and sometimes lonely, business. Don’t give up. I have this quote at my desk:  A published author is an amateur who didn’t quit. It’s true. Don’t ever give up.  One of the common complaints from literary agents and editors is that a writer sends their manuscript too soon.  This shouldn’t be you. You’ll know you’re ready after you hold your WIP up to your Writers Mirror.  Give your manuscript a break, listen to great advice from trusted truth tellers, and attend a conference or two.  It can only make your work shine brighter and you’ll feel more confident sending it out into the world of publishing.

Jen White grew up in Southern California and had a mostly uneventful childhood except for the one time when her parents accidentally forgot her on a family vacation. Her debut middle grade novel SURVIVAL STRATEGIES OF THE ALMOST BRAVE was inspired by that experience.  She has an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in California with her family.  jenwhitebooks.com

Survival Strategies of the Best First Chapters

When you open a brand new book, the binding gives a satisfying crack. The pages smell of new ink and freshly dried glue. If you’re like most readers, you have hope that this book will be awesome. And you don’t necessarily want to put it down. But with limited time, most people are looking for an excuse to stop reading and do something more pressing. Studies show, that in books written for adults, the author has maybe an entire chapter to hook their reader. In writing for young adults and children, the author has an even smaller page allotment. If you’re a writer trying to get published, you have one page to hook an agent or an editor. The first chapter (especially your first page) is your golden ticket. golden-ticket-large

A first chapter is a contract between you and your reader. I thought I knew what that meant when I crafted my first novel, but I didn’t. When I wrote the draft of my newly released middle grade novel, “Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave,” the first scene began with two sisters sitting alone on a deserted road at the gas station waiting for their dad. I loved this first chapter. It had everything I thought a first chapter needed: an opening scene that began with a bang, drama, a great voice, a page turn…. But what I didn’t realize was that my first chapter was promising something I wasn’t aware of. After a few editors read my manuscript, it became clear to me that I wasn’t living up to what I had unknowingly promised in the first chapter. I will explain more about this later, but as I continued to write and revise my book, I learned a few things about writing a great first chapter.

First, you need a great hook. Everyone likes a hook. Everyone wants a hook, maybe they just don’t know it yet. As a reader you have great expectations. You hope that you are in skilled hands. Perhaps you want to like the main character. Maybe you want a distinct voice. You might like a mystery. Most of all, you want a book that you can’t put down. You want to be hooked.13161017971575791316fish-hook-md (2)

A first chapter is like telling a joke. It has certain expectations. A joke is like a little story. It has a hook, a dilemma, and a punch line. As a listener, we recognize this structure and are willing to wait for the punch line. A first chapter can be written in the same way. Here are four things I think a writer needs to create a great first chapter hook.

 

  1. Voice
  2. Empathy.
  3. A mystery.
  4. A promise.

Voice is difficult to describe, but when you read a book with a compelling voice, you know it. There are no doubts about who the character is. From their distinct voice you feel like you know them already. A great voice has a unique style and way of phrasing language. Just think of your mom, best friend, spouse or child, all telling you the same story. They each have a distinct way of speaking. Make sure all of your characters have a different sound. Listen. Eavesdrop and then read. Read everything you can. And lastly, Elmore Leonard said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” I say, good call, Elmore.

A few great books that have a distinct voice are: “Feed” by M.T. Anderson, “Wintergirls” by Laurie Halse Anderson, “Smashie McPerter and the Mystery of Room 11” by N. Griffin, and “Chime” by Frannie Billingsly.Feed

Empathy. A reader must care about the character. There must be some sort of emotion evoked while reading a first chapter. It doesn’t always have to be a happy emotion. Negative emotions can be a great catalyst for a page turn. No matter what you do, your first chapter must make your reader feel something. Write with enough emotion to make the reader want more. Create an emotionally charged scene where something is new, perhaps a turning point for the character or story. Create pathos. Khen Lampert said, “[Empathy] is what happens to us when we leave our own bodies…and find ourselves either momentarily or for a longer period of time in the mind of the other. We observe reality through her eyes, feel her emotions, share in her pain.”

Great books that show first page emotion are: “Jelicoe Road” by Melina Marchetta, “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White, “The Chosen One” by Carol Lynch Williams, and “I’ll Give You the Sun” by Jandy Nelson.

Next, a first chapter needs a mystery. Your book doesn’t need to tote the mystery genre to have it create a mystery. You want the reader to ask questions. What will happen next? What is going on? Is this believable? Is it plausible? Do I care? A mystery incites a page turn. I read this great advice from the writers of the TV drama, Scandal. I keep this list at my writing desk. “1. Everyone has their own story. 2. Everyone has their secrets. 3. Everyone lies. 4. You don’t know what you think you know. 5. Answers lead to more lies.” I think this is great advice for creating mystery in fiction. You don’t need to have all of these elements, but by using one or two of these, a writer can create a great first chapter.

Mysterybox

Books which exemplify a great first page mystery are: “Ink and Ashes” by Valynne Maetani, “Bones and All” by Camille DeAngelis, “Holes” by Louis Sachar, “We Were Liars” by E. Lockhart, and “Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester” by Barbara O’Conner.

A promise. As an author you promise to stay in character and to stay in genre. You promise to keep story threads alive and fruitful. The first chapter says: This book is about…(and then stay true to that statement). You want the reader to know you trust them because they are smart. If you keep your promises, the reader will trust you, and will be willing to go along for the ride.  Andrew Stanton, the creator of the movie Toy Story, said, “Your audience is a born problem solver. They want to figure out your story. Give the reader 2+2. Not 2+2=4.”

When I wrote my first draft of “Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave,” I had unknowingly made a promise to my readers. I set my protagonists on a road, but I didn’t let them use it. The first chapter implied that the main characters would go on a journey. But in the first draft, I didn’t let them. They stayed in one town for the entire novel. Looking back now, this was obviously frustrating to those who read my manuscript. They wanted to go somewhere. I had put the girls on a road and then left them there to languish.Empty desert road

When my (now) editor asked me to have my characters travel, I realized that I had to fulfill the promise I made in my first chapter and that I had to rewrite my entire book. I had promised a journey novel, now I needed to produce one. I could have rewritten the first chapter to match the rest of my book, but I felt very strongly that I wanted to keep my original first chapter. In the end, I kept seventeen pages of my first draft, and then I rewrote the rest of the book. It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do with the story, but eventually I figured it out. And my book is the better for it. Currently, my first chapter in, “Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave,” is still my original chapter from my first draft.Jen Book Cover

I think every writer wants to create a rabid readership. Every writer would love to author a book that readers can’t put down. Pull out your work in progress and weigh it against these first chapter survival strategies. Does it: have a distinctive voice, evoke emotion, create a mystery, and make a correct and clear promise to your reader? If not, you may consider a first chapter revision…and let me know how it goes. I have found that I’m a little bit of a first chapter enthusiast, these days. I wish you that shiny, golden ticket–whatever that may translate into for you. An editor? An agent? A book contract? An amazingly crafted sixth novel? Poof. May it all be there for you.