Thursday, July 24, 2008

This Public Service Announcement Brought To You By...

Spent a lovely morning being the guest author at a summer creative writing course for middle graders. Creatures after my own heart! I would’ve loved to have taken a class like this when I was that age. Writing might’ve given veterinary medicine a run for its money years earlier…

This was the second presentation I’ve given this month. In August, I’m speaking to a women’s philanthropic organization; in October, at a school librarian conference; and I’ll be reading at Wordstock, Portland’s literary festival, in November. With the help of my publicist, I hope to line up several more gigs in the next year. I'm an inveterate introvert (say that five times fast) but oddly enough, I love talking to groups. Good thing, because public speaking is a great way for authors to raise awareness of their books.

Supposedly, more people are afraid of public speaking than death. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know lots of folks who would rather clean cat litterboxes ad infinitum rather than step behind a podium.

Much of what I learned about speaking in public came from ten years teaching part-time at a local community college. Lectures are, after all, a form of performance art; present them well, and you’ve got your students hooked. (I once briefly considered a career in veterinary epidemiology based solely on one professor’s lectures, which were mostly riveting stories about fighting pestilence the length and breadth of California. He made it sound like modern-day knight-errantry, and I was ready to snatch up the banner…until I found out it would take an additional two years of graduate school. That took the shine off the sword pretty quick). On the other hand, if you present your material poorly, you can actually hurt your cause. So if the thought of public speaking leaves you a-shiver, these tidbits might help:

1. First, foremost and always: Remember that your audience wants to like you. After all, who goes to an event hoping to have a bad time? You have their goodwill from the start; meet them at least halfway, and they’ll be pulling for you to do well.

2. Tailor your talk to your audience. Don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach. Earlier this month, I spoke about writing YA to a writers’ organization. In October, I’ll be speaking on the same topic to the school librarians. Two different audiences; two different sets of audience expectations; similar material, but presented two different ways to meet those expectations.

3. Keep eye contact. Don’t just gaze aimlessly in the general direction of the audience, but actually catch and hold individuals’ eyes for a second or two each. Never forget: you’re talking to them, not at them. Eye contact is huge.

4. Which means: you simply can’t read from notes. Practice ahead of time, and then practice some more. This doesn’t mean memorizing, because trying to recite from memory will kill your presentation. But know your main points. Certainly you’ll want to bring notes; I print mine out in 18-point type, one or two paragraphs per page (makes it easy to glance down if I need a memory jog). But be familiar enough with your material that you don’t need to read directly from them. Head up, eyes on your audience, and…

5. Please, for heaven’s sake, don’t speak in a monotone. Are you interested in your own material? I certainly hope so—because if you’re not, nobody else will be. Let your interest show through your voice and expression. Passion is contagious! Don’t be afraid that you might look funny. I’ve had pictures taken of me in which I look practically certifiable—hands thrown in the air, mouth wide open and eyebrows halfway to the moon—but people consistently tell me how much they enjoy my energy.

6. I learned early on with students, and the same holds true now: your audience doesn’t expect you to be perfect. But they do expect you to be genuine.

7. People love stories. Stories are gold. Funny stories (pertaining to your material, of course) are whole big treasure chests. If you’re not sure the story is funny to anyone other than you, though, try it out first on your most honest friend. Better to leave the funny out, rather than have to explain it to a bunch of confused-looking people.

8. When you’re practicing, time yourself. Know to the minute how long your presentation is. Another practice tip: visualize yourself giving the talk. Speak out loud to get used to the sound of your voice; use the inflections and gestures you’ll use during the presentation; practice your breathing. The more prepared you are, the more you’ll be able to…

9. Relax. You’re prepped, passionate, and rehearsed. The audience is on your side. Step up to the podium, take that first deep breath…and take it away.

Monday, July 14, 2008


OK, it’s been a little more than a week. And this post is not about public speaking, as I’d previously promised. Mice and men and gang agley and all that. It’s summer. Go with it.

The ins and outs of public speaking will be coming soon. But first, Melissa Marsh of Grosvenor Square has nominated me for a Blogging Excellence Award. I’m flattered, and really don’t think I deserve it. But—never one to turn down a pat on the back—I’ll take it!

Here are blogs that I nominate in turn:

Smart Bitches Trashy Books. I’m not currently a romance reader, although I’ve devoured a few in my day. But this blog is on my daily rounds, because these gals dish it up straight and are hilariously funny to boot. In addition to reviewing romance novels, they provide insights on pop culture, snarky analysis of romance covers (Warnings: Has Profanity. Not Work Safe. Do Not Read While Drinking a Beverage or You’ll Be Replacing Your Keyboard), and even, when warranted, investigative journalism into plagiarism and the mating habits of the black-footed ferret.

Pub Rants. Written by Kristen Nelson, a very nice woman who happens to be an up-and-coming literary agent. Her daily (or rather, nightly) take on the business of publishing is a must-read. Other literary agents’ blogs that are top of the heap: Nathan Bransford and BookEnds Literary Agency.

A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing. J.A. Konrath is a mystery writer, and no, I don’t read mysteries, either. But if you want to read about book promotion from an author who’s dived in feet-first and not yet come up for air, this blog is it. Konrath is the inexhaustible king of self-promotion, and he doesn’t just talk about it. He does it, and invites his readers along for the ride, whether he’s figuring out how to get on the conference circuit or engaging in a three-month, cross-country quest to personally visit 500 bookstores. He dispenses tons of information, his opinions are strong, the comment threads can go from fawning to contentious in the blink of an eye—all ingredients for great blogging.

barista brat. I don’t even remember how I discovered barista brat, but I’m a devotee. As a longtime Starbucks employee, her take on the world of the green apron is often amused, sometimes annoyed, occasionally bitter—but always fresh. On hiatus for three months, she’s back at last. If you’ve ever worked (or you currently do) in a service profession, and you’ve ever longed for karmic justice to be dispensed on an unpardonably rude customer, you must read this post.

The Heart of the Matter. Barry Eisler has been a lot of things: a corporate executive, an attorney, a covert something in the CIA (what exactly isn’t clear from his bio—I imagine that’s the covert part) and a writer. He’s the author of the John Rain series of thrillers (um, no…I don’t read thrillers, either. Stop asking me) but his blog is not book- or publishing-related. It’s about politics, and far from the ever-popular pasttime of slinging insults and reducing complex issues to soundbites, his blog posts are well-reasoned and insightful. I don’t always agree with him, but I’m always interested in what he has to say.

Up next: public speaking. Pinky swear, I promise.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Get on the Bus, Y'All--It's Adventure Time!

If there’s one thing that new or aspiring authors hear over and over again, it’s that we must actively promote our books.

But wait a minute, many authors say. Promotion is the publisher’s job, not mine.

It’s true that your publisher will put together a publicity and marketing plan for your book, just as it does for every title it produces. But plans vary widely, depending on—among other things—the subject matter of the book and the amount of time and money the publisher has to spend. At a minimum, your book will be included in the publisher’s catalog and sent out for reviews. The in-house publicist might be able to arrange some media coverage, maybe some local events. But if you’re a new author with no audience (yet), don’t start packing your bags. That national tour most likely ain’t happening.

So then what? The answer from most publishing folks these days is: take off the writer’s hat and put on the self-promotion one. Because now that your book is written, rewritten, edited, rewritten again, designed, and on the shelf…it’s time to get to work.

Not everyone is unanimous on this point. Well-known agent Donald Maass, for example, dismisses the notion of authors promoting their books. In his writer’s guide, Writing the Breakout Novel, he contends that the best way for a writer to sell books isn’t by going around tooting her own horn, but by focusing on writing the best damn books she can manage. Write a novel people want to read, he says, and the rest will take care of itself.

Donald Maass notwithstanding (and I love ya, Donald, really I do—yours is a refreshing, soothing voice, and lord I wish I could believe you), most of us grit our teeth and roll up our sleeves, if for no other reason than we believe in our books and we want to give them the best chance possible. The problem is, most writers—myself included—start out having no clue what to do. (If we did, we’d probably be in sales, and making a lot more money). The possibilities seem endless—and endlessly expensive, in either time or money. Should I spend $2000 on a book trailer? Another $1500 on a website? Scrape together thousands for a freelance publicist? Devote hours every week to MySpace and Facebook? Write a blog? An article for the local paper? Comment on other people’s blogs? Drive to every bookstore in a 50-mile radius to sign stock and meet booksellers? Should I bring cookies? Homemade or store-bought? What about milk?

Having now studied these burning questions for two years (and having actually done some of them) I herewith inaugurate another periodic series* on this blog: My Adventures in Book Promotion!

And just to kick the series off right: Watch this hilarious book trailer from author Dennis Cass (hilarious, because it is so painfully true...)

Next week: The One Thing People Fear More Than Death, and How to Deal (without actually dying).

*In case you missed it, the first periodic series was called From Manuscript to Finished Book. Click here for the first post in that series.