Sunday, September 29, 2019

May I Have Your Attention?

by Charlotte Bennardo

Who doesn't remember having to stand in front of the class to give a report? First it was Show and Tell, then a book report, and later, maybe reading or speaking on a subject chosen for us. For some, it's a terror, a nightmare. Some kids actually got stomach aches. My son panicked every time.

But thankfully he got through it.

I was never fond of public speaking. In fact, all through elementary and high school, I was shy. (You'd laugh if you know me now.) How did I get over the fear of public speaking? Not by parents telling me I'd do fine, or teachers telling me it's 50% of my grade, or friends saying 'Just do it.' Those are ways to confirm a child's fear of public speaking and it doesn't magically go away simply because you're an adult.

There are many strategies for conquering this fear; imagine the audience sitting there in their underwear. Focus on one or two people in the audience that look friendly. Practice in front of a mirror, then your family and friends. Take a public speaking class.

Photo courtesy of ICSA, Pexels

I've done them all. Didn't like any of them. Wouldn't recommend any of them. To overcome my fear, I had to start from within.

1- Not knowing the subject well enough to talk off the top of my head like I can do now was the biggest step. If I'm speaking about writing, the publishing process, or prepping for NaNoWriMo, I'm an expert and can speaking confidently about them. When you know your subject that well, you don't stumble to find your words or next thought. A simple list on a note card keeps me talking as long as I need. Preparation is the biggest key to successful public speaking. Audiences can pick out bluster and cow flops.

2- Whenever you're asked to speak, do it if you can. Keeping in practice is important. You can get 'rusty' because when you haven't it done it in a while, you start to doubt yourself, even if you know your material. Athletes always practice; they don't simply show up for a race or competition or game. You need to practice as well.

3- Update your presentation. New facts and figures, more advanced technology, maybe a new joke, will keep your talk fresh and you from being bored. Also, sometimes word gets out about your talk and if you constantly give the same one, without being current, you won't be seen as an expert (unless it's on your personal life) and you'll be dismissed as yesterday's news.

4- Be comfortable. Okay, so those heels are killer- but they're also a killer on your feet. Look presentable but be comfy. Nothing's worse than too tight clothing or pants that keep falling down. There may be lights blazing down on you, so layers that you can peel off make sense. A professional but fun style that's comfortable will keep you focused on your talk and not your fashion mistake. This comfort rule also applies to food. Don't eat gassy foods.... Or drink so much you're desperate to use the bathroom. Keep food light, and if you're hungry, maybe a power bar or such about 15 minutes before so your stomach doesn't twist and rumble.

5- As you're walking up to the front of the class, or the podium, or the microphone, take slow, deep breaths. Make them measured and even to calm down a racing heart, and keep you from hyperventilating. A count of 4 seconds to inhale, 4 seconds to exhale is a good general rule.

You won't be an expert public speaker overnight (well, maybe!) but these steps will help you conquer that uneasy, queasy feeling enough to give your presentation and survive.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Well-Behaved Children Seldom Sell Books (or Win Pageants)

“Well-behaved women seldom make history.” --Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

As I was thinking about Kids' Good Manners Month, this quote sprang to mind. If you apply it to protagonists in middle grade literature, we might say, “Well-behaved children seldom make good protagonists.”

In fiction, only trouble is interesting. Children who do as they are told rarely get into trouble. Therefore, well-behaved children won’t do much to move a plot forward.

Of course, that’s not to say that troublemaking children can’t have good manners, but a bit of mischief is required for a strong, feisty main character. (Personally, I love how Junie B. Jones combines mischief and manners when she turns on the charm upon getting caught: “Hello, how are you today? I am fine, only….”)

When I was about five or six years old, my parents entered me in a beauty contest (I’m still incredulous). Part of the process involved an interview session with judges. I don’t remember much about it, but I do remember going into a room with a partner, another little girl in the pageant. When the adults spoke to me, I replied with “yes, ma’am” and “yes, sir” and did not fidget. My partner, however, bounced around in her chair, giggled, and talked out of turn. I remember thinking that she would probably be in big trouble with her parents for acting so bold and familiar with adults. She was not a “speak only when spoken to” child.

And guess what?

She won the pageant.

She also would’ve won the “who’s the better protagonist?” contest.

If I were writing the story of a little girl in a beauty pageant, I wouldn’t tell you about Ginger, the well-behaved, timid girl who minded her manners—unless she were there to serve as a foil to the main character. I’d tell you about Little Miss Personality, who had so much to say she was bubbling over, and so much energy that sitting still was not an option.

Or maybe a little girl who resented the whole thing and wasn’t afraid to engage in some interesting sabotage. Now there’s a premise.

I’ve often said that I hope my own life is too boring for a book. Trouble is fun only when it happens to fictional characters....

And beauty pageants are not for the faint of heart!

Ginger Rue is the author of the Aleca Zamm series from Aladdin and the Tig Ripley series from Sleeping Bear.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Don't Ask Me (Holly Schindler)

In a way, I feel like I’m the absolute worst person to give public speaking advice. In the first place, I was the shyest kid on the planet growing up. I used to cry at the thought of talking to other kids when my parents took me to the playground. 

I have always been more introverted, and I will never, never, never relish public speaking. I will, for the most part, always dread it. 

And it’s not just the shyness. I think most writers are actually revisionists by nature. I happen to love the revision process far more than the drafting—but even if you do love the drafting more, there’s just something wonderful (or at least comforting) about the non-permanence of a draft. Of knowing that you have a chance to get in there and tinker with it. 

I think that’s what makes so many authors cringe at the idea of a public performance. There’s no delete key for it. You can’t tinker with it. 

In many ways, it really does feel like hanging a rough draft out for public consumption. 

And it does not in any way have to be a performance in front of a large library group, either. Some of the most frightening “performances” can be the one-on-one sort. In the beginning of my writing career, I would quake in fear at the idea of a call from an agent or editor. The night before a scheduled call, I wouldn’t be able to sleep. 

But something started to happen, over time:

I found myself picking up the phone to call my agent cold, when I needed something. I suggested conference calls with editors to hash out ideas for a book in development. I started Skyping with reader groups. Tons of them—all over the country. Doing in-person and radio interviews…

It’s not Madison Square Garden by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s funny how those things I mentioned in the previous paragraph don’t even bother me anymore. Does the fear subside with exposure? Is it that you’re more likely to forget your fears when you’re going after something you really want? Do we become more confident with ourselves the longer we’re in the industry?
Maybe it’s all those things.
I do not in any way have the key to success with public speaking. I only suspect that it, like the path to publication, depends on the much of the same: persistence, persistence, persistence. And never letting a little bit of fear keep you from a great big dream.

Monday, September 23, 2019

The Best of Smack Dab in the Imagination by Dia Calhoun

“Why does imagination frighten me?” And why does it frighten our culture? I asked this question on this blog two years ago. Because the world has grown more frightening since then, I think it is time to consider this again.

Imagination can be frightening because:

1. Imagination breaks boundaries.

2. Imagination is lawless.

3. Imagination leads to places, ideas, images, and feelings we don’t understand.

4. Imagination can change the world. I’m talking revolution.

Consider Copernicus. His proposal that the universe was heliocentric rather than geocentric shook the foundations of the human psyche. The idea didn’t change much about day to day life. It threatened how we saw our place in the universe. Darwin and evolution kicked this up another notch.

Imagination can bring earthquakes of the psyche and soul. We do need containers and boundaries for the powerful archetypal forces within us. And imagination can be an arrow that pokes a hole in the vase and lets the unknown burst through. We aren’t educated about this process, so we don’t know how to handle the beauty and terror of  the “Tyger, tyger burning bright.”

We can imagine horrors. As our world has grown more dangerous and more out of our control, we’ve had to shy away from imagination just to get out of bed in the morning. We let imagination atrophy because we don’t want to face unimaginable horrors like WW3; nuclear winters; wars over water; mass migrations away from the deserts we’ve created in our bottomless hunger for energy.

But if we allow imagination to atrophy for fear of looking at the “unimaginable” that might come to pass, then we also diminish the possibility that imagination can save us. Because it can. Imagination can create alternatives, solutions we haven’t considered. Ways of solving problems, ways of thinking, images we might rally around.

So my answer to the question, why do we fear imagination is this: We fear imagination because it is powerful. It is one of the ultimate powers of the individual. Authorities have always known this (one reason artists are persecuted). Imagination cannot be taken away from us by any government, law, political leader, religion, or corporation. And in that lies our greatest hope against what faces us today.

So embrace imagination, and cultivate it with all your heart.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Teaching Vs. Speaking and How It Relates to Writing

I'm a teacher at heart. I've taught elementary school, middle school, and been a school librarian; so for me, teaching is kind of what I do.

Getting up in front of a group of students to teach them something? No problem. But "speaking" to a group of students? Now that's another story.

If I have to stand in front of adults or young people, large group or small, when I think of it as "speaking," or giving a speech, the task becomes nerve-wracking and daunting. I think about all the details of effective public speaking; and, because those aren't necessarily second nature for me, I become distracted by myself and my delivery. On the other hand, if I embrace the speaking opportunity as a time of teaching, since teaching is so much a part of me, I forget about myself, think more about the content that I'm excited to share with my audience; and as a result, I get lost in the moment, relax into it, and enjoy. It goes without saying that I do a much better job of teaching than "speaking."

In thinking about this post, I pondered over all this, and as often is the case, it reminded me of my writing life. When I'm creating a story and writing a rough draft, if I focus on things like the mechanics of writing, my plot points, and my characterization, I become distracted. My delivery becomes more important than the characters I'm trying to develop, and my story ends up becoming a slave to all those confining guidelines all of us have learned about writing. But, if I embrace the opportunity the page gives me to tell a story that's inside me, I forget all the confines of writing perfection, and I get lost in the moment, relax into it, and undoubtedly produce writing that is far superior. Then, once I've captured my story, and I have it down on paper, I can polish it toward perfection as I pay attention to all those writerly ways our English teachers taught us to make our writing shine.

For me, the transferrable truth in all this is that when we focus on our passion, no matter what that might be, we're likely to do our best work.

Happy Reading & Writing,

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Public speaking and writing

The two really shouldn't have to go together. I like to joke I went into writing so I could tuck myself away in a corner of my home and write by myself, just a cat on my lap and a cup of hot tea eternally going cold at my side. 

However, that is not the case when one enters publishing.

Life in general did not prepare me well enough for public speaking as an adult in publishing, though I suspect this is more of a personal character flaw than anything. In elementary school, for example, I recall my inaugural experiences with public speaking assignments. It was usually something simple, like the obligatory show-and-tell. 

Simple. Ha.

I lost sleep.

A shy kid without much socialization, and a crippling fear of anything attention-bringing to myself, the thought of having a classroom of my peers and teacher watch me stand there and talk brought me into fits of not eating or getting much rest. I’d agonize and worry, fuss and consider methods of which to feign sickness so my mother wouldn’t send me to school that day. 

Yet, somehow, I survived those years and the two to three minute public speaking endeavors that were sprinkled throughout. I can still recall, with startling clarity, my fifth grade book report of The Secret Garden. We were to speak on the book, why we enjoyed it or didn’t, and bring a brown paper sack including five items that brought to mind the book and its themes. I had an ornate key, a packet of seeds, a small plastic spade, a rose and a necklace. Apparently my items did not convey the book well. A boy in my class asked, “So, in general, what was the book about?” It was the first time I’d been asked a question during a public speaking event and I froze. I stumbled over my words, “It’s…it’s about a girl…who finds a garden.”

Frances Hodgson Burnett would be ashamed of me. 

In junior high and high school, we had entire classes dedicated to public speaking. It got easier. One course would follow in college. I recall making it past sophomore year and thinking I was finally in the clear of those graded speaking engagements. 

I was not. 

As part of my major - geology, if you’re wondering - regular public speaking reports were the norm. We would be in front of the classes several times per week. I actually got remotely good at it. Even in my job at the time, I was able to give speeches for a community awards banquet we hosted.

As graduation passed and I eased into a new job - publishing and small-time authorship, my world became smaller again, however. It wasn’t until my debut book release put on by the publisher that I’d have to speak in front of a crowd again - about my writing of all things - several years past those days in college. I recall getting to my book party and immediately bypassing the room to the bathroom where I dropped out of my heels and dry-heaved for a good 15 minutes. My best friend covered for me until I was ready to come out. I’d hold a reading that evening, and several more in the months to come. While I’d like to say it got easier, it was still hard. Talking about writing or my pathway to writing are still difficult subjects for me, albeit ones I love. 

The first book award I won, I recall sitting at the awards banquet, my lunch in front of me untouched, while I wrung my hands and swore I’d never publish another book again just so I could avoid the public speaking aspect. 

That did not hold true, thankfully. 

I’d like to say it’s gotten easier as I’ve gone - but I still have a hard time with public attention. There was a time, however, when it was okay, in college, as I mentioned. So it can be done! Practice makes perfect, and gaining confidence, and speaking with conviction on whatever topic it is at hand are all tips I think helped me at that time. And of course, pretty well being forced to. 

Every now and again, it is worth it to push our boundaries and step outside those comfort zones. Who knows. You may even find a secret garden. 

Happy reading!

A.M. Bostwick

Source: Literary Gardner

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Power of Saying Thank You by Claudia Mills

Today I'm saying thank you to this wonderful blog for giving me this opportunity to celebrate the importance of saying thank you.

It's such a small and easy thing to express our appreciation to others for all they do for us, and yet so often we (that is to say, I) fail to take that tiny bit of extra time to do so. My church has a new pastor who has stunned the congregation just by constantly sending notes to thank the ushers for their faithful service, the musicians for their beautiful music, the trustees for their care of our buildings. Wow! A handwritten note, sent by actual snail mail, to thank people who have never been thanked in this way before!

So here are some ways we as authors can say thank you to those who have helped bring our books to readers - and as readers, thank our fellow writers.

1. As you work on your books, keep a careful list of everyone who should be listed on the book's Acknowledgments page and get their addresses now if possible. For recent books, I was glad to be able to thank all the people who read earlier drafts, the friend who answered a Facebook plea for a saag paneer recipe that could be made by third graders, a classroom of kids who told me about their favorite comics and graphic novels, a coding teacher who let me sit in on her after-school workshop, and a sixth-grader who tutored me in how to choreograph a dance party. Then, when the book finally comes out, send each person a signed copy.

2. If you are lucky enough to have published a lot of books, dedicate a few of them to these helpers. I've been amazed at how thrilled people are to have a book dedicated to them. One librarian told me (jokingly, I'm sure) that she was going to tell her family to have the dedicated book buried with her!

3. Send grateful notes to anyone who invites you to speak, or who lets you sign at their bookstore, or talk to the kids at their school. (It's nice if they send you a thank you note, too. We can all thank one another!)

4. Also give shout-outs on social media to these folks.

5. Review other people's books on Amazon and other booksellers' sites, and on Goodreads and other review sites. NOTE: you don't have to spend hours crafting the most exquisitely worded review. It's better just to do it now before you forget. Just write a few sentences sharing what you loved about the book and send it off!

6. If you're in a bookstore or library and see friends' books on the shelves, take a picture and post it on social media.

7. Don't forget to thank editors for their revision letters, even as you're gnashing your teeth about how you can possibly do all the things they want you to do. Just send off an immediate email thanking them for their fabulously insightful suggestions, knowing that when you've calmed down and given yourself time to figure out how to address these challenging comments, you'll actually mean it.

8. Thank critique partners, even as you're gnashing your teeth here as well. Critique is a gift! Don't insult the givers by tossing the gift back at them, explaining why you prefer your book exactly the way you wrote it. You don't have to take all the advice given you. But you do have to thank the person giving it.

All of these are things I need to work on more myself, which is why I am writing this.

Mystic Meister Eckhart is quoted as saying that if the only prayer you ever said in your life was "thank you," that would be enough.

If the only piece of professional etiquette we ever followed was to to say "thank you," that might be enough, too.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Harvest Moon, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

This fall marks the first year that I haven't had a child go back to school. After twenty-one years of unpacking school supply kits, helping with homework, washing smelly P.E. clothes, and going to parent-teacher conferences, not to mention moving my kids in and out of college dorms and apartments, it feels strange not to be shepherding someone back to school. It feels bittersweet, and a little empty, like some necessary tasks are missing from my day. Shouldn't I be sharpening some pencils and making lunches? Answering their texts about class scheduling issues and roommate problems?

My youngest graduated from college this past May, and I now have three adult children, all of them employed, and all living on their own. I admit that feels a little strange too. Definitely good, but strange.

See, there's that September moon to contend with. A full butter-cookie yellow one; the soft, melancholy kind that signals the change of season -- the end of long, lazy summer afternoons and the beginning of crisp, cool nights.

The passage of time kind of moon.

There's an ancient name for every month's full moon, and in September, it's the Harvest Moon, or the Full Corn Moon -- related, of course, to the corn being ready to harvest. I remember my parents singing an old tune: Shine On, Harvest Moon.

So shine on
Shine on harvest moon
Up in the sky
I ain't had no lovin' since January, February, June or July...
At this point, my parents would stop for a kiss (much to my preteen embarrassment), to give each other some lovin' apparently. They didn't sing any more, and that was all I ever knew of the song. 

To this day, when I see the September moon, I can still hear them singing "shine on harvest moon" over and over.

Some things just stay with you about this time of year -- my parents' smiles and off-key voices, the perfect points on that box of new pencils, or when I was in elementary school, the smell of worksheets fresh from the mimeograph machine.

To reference another song -- Earth Wind and Fire's "September" -- in which the opening line asks: Do you remember? evoking a yearning feeling of days gone by.

I hope you find some moments this month to sit back, look at the moon, and remember.

Visit Michele online at Her fifth middle grade novel, Hello From Renn Lake, publishes next May from Wendy Lamb Books/Penguin Random House.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

For the Love of Aunt Pearl

This month, we are discussing good manners. I offer that good manners are a function of empathy: when we engage in good manners, we are thinking beyond ourselves to consider our companion (our child, our teacher, our supervisor).

Building an understanding of what others are feeling, how our own actions impact others is a valuable life skill. Learning to empathize helps to build a sense of security and stronger relationships with others. It encourages tolerance and acceptance of others. And in so doing, it reduces the likelihood of bullying.

And while studies suggest there are different strategies in teaching empathy, such as talking about feelings, one of the best ways of all to help children develop a sense of empathy is by reading books. Children (and adults) learn to associate feelings and actions with their favorite characters. Remember when Atticus Finch, said to Scout , “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

 Stories are the closest thing we have to “Walking around in someone else’s skin.” They make us more human. Stories allow a child to navigate complex emotions, looking at diverse perspectives, and learning to leverage relationships for collaboration and progress.

We are homo narratus, story animals, suggests Kendall Haven (Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story, 2007). We have told our stories for over 100,000 years. Not every culture has developed codified laws or written language, but every culture in the history of the world has created stories.

A recent book that epitomizes empathetic engagement is Monica Kulling’s exquisite new book, Aunt Pearl. This powerful and poignant story brings a welcomed sensitivity to themes of homelessness and family, beautifully illustrated by the incomparable Irene Luxbacher.

When Aunt Pearl arrives pushing a shopping cart full of her worldly goods, siblings Dan and Marta discover a creative, if troubled, free-spirit in their aunty. “Normal people scare me,” reads one of Aunt Pearl’s buttons. Aunt Pearl teaches the siblings about second chances, about accepting others on the own terms, even as they learn to accept themselves. As with life itself, the book doesn’t offer answers to a challenging question. As the narrative implies, sometimes some things can’t be fixed. But everyone deserves second chances, understanding and acceptance, and everyone deserves love. 

What were your favorite books that taught you to climb inside another's skin, to peek into a life that is different from yours, that allowed you to reach a new, deeper understanding of the other’s experience?

--Bobbi Miller

Friday, September 13, 2019

Turkey Talk, by Chris Tebbetts

My husband is a terrific cook. 99% of the time, the meals he puts on the table are restaurant quality. Lucky me. But the point is, once in a while, he misses. And the point there is, per his advice, it’s not always something you need to advertise to the people at the table before they’ve even begun to eat.
In our house, the shorthand for this idea—one that we apply elsewhere—is to avoid telling people “The turkey’s dry” just as you set said turkey on the table. 
What’s the point, really? I mean, I know what the point is. It helps to make sure that everyone else knows that you know what’s wrong with the thing you're giving them. It’s also a kind of apology. It releases the tension.
Fair enough. But on the other hand, there’s an argument that it’s best to simply set the turkey down and  let everyone decide for themselves what they think about it. Quite often—maybe not always, but often—we are our own worst critics, and what seems like a dry turkey to us (literally or figuratively) is just fine to someone else. Or maybe to everyone else but you. 
I’ve been working hard for a while now at not similarly disclaiming my own manuscripts and other pieces of writing that I submit to my editor, agent, or critique group. It used to be nearly impossible for me not to point out  my work's (supposedly) glaring flaws ahead of time, so whoever read it wouldn’t think that I thought it was perfectly okay. It’s a strange compulsion, and also a hard habit to break.
But again, as with the turkey analogy, how many times have I sent in a manuscript with a note to the effect of, “I know the beginning is rushed and the dialogue feels stilted in chapter 2. I’m working on it,” only to have my editor reply that the beginning feels just fine and that the dialogue reads perfectly well? In which case, all I’m doing is predisposing my audience to seeing flaws they might not otherwise see—and also making myself seem a bit neurotic, or even needy, if these disclaimers become a discernible habit over time. 
Same thing with public speaking. One of the things I have done in the past several years is to stop telling audiences how nervous I am just as soon as I get up to speak. The urge to say these kinds of things comes, for me,  again, from the not-crazy idea that talking about anxiety can help alleviate it. But at the same time, it's also started to feel as though that initially valuable crutch had turned into something that was holding me back. (Although, for the record, I was sorry to give up this slide that I used to always put at the beginning of presentations, only because I like it and it feels so humorously true….)

If I find myself in a particularly nerve-wracking public speaking situation, or lose my place in the middle of a gig, or whatnot, there’s nothing to stop me from more spontaneously (and organically) stopping to comment on that situation. But why plan on it? Why anticipate the nervousness and memorialize it right into my prepared comments? 
Every situation is going to be different, so I'm not keen to make any sweeping generalizations about this one. But for what it's worth, my advice to myself is this: Present your best self. Don’t sweat the small stuff. And I’d even say that “fake it till you make it” can be a valuable piece of guidance here—not because I want to go through life as a faker, but because sometimes that confidence I want to have starts as an outside job.  
Meanwhile, if the turkey (or my speech) is dry in the end, so be it. The audience will figure that out soon enough on their own.
But, pssst….guess what? It’s probably just fine.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Are Etiquette and Good Manners a Lost Art?

In keeping with this month's theme of good manners, especially as it applies to young people, I decided to post some of the norms of etiquette and manners that were taught to children in the early Twentieth Century. Children were often taught manners at the dinner table. Are we less mannerly than previous generations? If so, is it because we struggle to even sit down at the dinner table as a family because of our busy lifestyles?

Here are some of the “Rules of Etiquette” young people were expected to follow at the turn of the Twentieth Century.
General Rules of Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen

13 Mannerisms to be avoided by all: 
1.     Whispering or pointing in company.
2.    Giving attention to only one person when more are present.
3.    Contradicting parents, friends, or strangers.
4.   Laughing loudly.
5.    Making noise with hands and feet.
6.   Leaning on the shoulder or chair of another.
7.    Throwing things instead of handing them.
8.    Crowding or bumping elbows.
9.   Contempt in looks, words, or actions.
10.  Drawing attention to self with dress.
11.   Lending a borrowed book.
12.  Reading when there is company, or when others are speaking.
13.  Laughing at the mistakes of others.

Manners appropriate for all:
1.     To be gentle and patient with others.
2.    To remember that while speech is wonderful, it is sometimes better to be silent.
3.    Speak with a gentle tone and never in anger.
4.   Learn to deny yourself and put others first.
5.    Give applause only by clapping hands – not by kicking or stamping feet.
6.   Rise to one’s feet when an older person or dignitary enters the room.

All this makes me wonder: How many of these rules do any of us consider important today?
Perhaps there is a case to be made for bringing some of them back? I'll leave that decision to you.