There are all sorts of events that authors do: festivals, conventions, bookshop talks, school visits. Since Liz and I are both somewhere on the scale of ‘mildly introverted’ all the way through to ‘completely introverted’, standing up in front of strangers and talking to them isn’t our most favourite thing to do. Still, in the spirit of ‘learning by doing’, when we were asked to fill a last minute slot at an event a couple of weeks ago we obviously said yes please!
The event was a careers fair for primary school children, held with the idea of opening their eyes to the variety of jobs out there, raising their aspirations and ambitions. In the course of two hours we had to convey to six groups of children (aged from 9 to 11) a little bit about what it’s like to be writers. We knew we couldn’t talk to them in detail about The Witch’s Kiss – it’s not out yet, and the children were the wrong age group in any case – and a lecture on the rocky path to publication was hardly likely to engage them. Instead, we decided to focus on the fact that being an author isn’t primarily about agents and publishing deals and book reviews; it’s about telling stories.
We asked each group of children to come up with the basics of a story: a hero, a villain, a setting. We asked them to think about what the hero and the villain might both want, and how this could lead to conflict between the two characters. And the children rose to the challenge brilliantly. They were particularly imaginative in coming up with some great villains. Our favourites were Bob the Martian, a mischievous purple-green alien with four arms; Victor Blood, a planet-ruling vampire; and Dr Banana, a WW2 German scientist who has been genetically-modified into a giant piece of homicidal fruit.
After each story had been established we were able to talk the children through the various ways in which it’s possible to for a story to find readers. They seemed to enjoy the process; we certainly did.
Our take-away points from the event?
- Have a plan. We sought advice from other authors about events (I particularly recommend the excellent Guide to Author Events run by Non Pratt and Robin Stevens). We made a short slide show to guide both us and the children through what we wanted to do, and that made us feel a little bit more in control. But also…
- Be prepared to deviate from your plan. If the audience wants to talk more about one aspect of writing than another, go with it. But don’t let one person drag the discussion completely off topic. We had to cut short what was turning into an interesting but lengthy discussion on how to kill vampires.
Other than that, we emerged from our first event in awe of the stamina of teachers (talking non-stop for two hours is exhausting) but with a feeling that we’d survived. We can do this. And in a little while, with practice, we might even stop feeling nervous about it.