Monday, November 25, 2013

For the Love of Food Writing Exercise

It is Thanksgiving week--my girls are off of school, and they have cooking on their minds.  We have already been to two grocery stores to get supplies for major baking.  I was thinking about my books and how food has played such an important role in the stories.  In JANE IN BLOOM, food becomes Lizzie's enemy.  And it becomes Jane's comfort.  Ethel, Jane's babysitter, shows Jane that cooking can show someone how much you care about them (her recipe for Mac & Cheese is on my website in case you want to try it).  In my new novel, food also plays an important role in bringing people together.  And baking is the language of love.  I know that it makes me very happy to cook for my family and to present them with a healthy meal that they will enjoy.  The ability to do that is something I am truly thankful for because there are so many places in the world where a mother cannot do this for her family, even if she wants to.  So this Thanksgiving week, if you have time for a writing exercise, think about food.  What role does it play in your work in progress?  Does food bring your characters together or tear them apart?  Is food plentiful or lacking?  What do your characters eat and how do they feel about it?  If you want a break from your work in progress, write a scene where food is the central character.  How is the presence or absence of food driving your scene and what feelings does it create in your characters?

I want to wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving surrounded by people you love.  I give thanks to you for reading my blog!


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Suzanne Morgan Williams Talking School Visits

Today, my good friend and fellow middle grade author Suzanne Morgan Williams is here to talk about school visits.  Suzy is the author of the acclaimed novel, Bull Rider (Simon & Schuster) and numerous non-fiction releases for middle grade students including the recently released China’s Daughters (Pacific View Press).  Suzy, thank you for talking to me today.  I know how much you love visiting with students and I think you’ve done hundreds of school visits.  That makes you an expert.  So tell me—what do you love most about speaking at schools?

Suzy: I get an energy from being with students that is uplifting and inspiring – really. When I talk to kids, I am face to face with the audience for my work and I’m reminded of their concerns, how they think, what makes them laugh and cry. I’ve also found I love speaking no matter what the age of the audience. The give and take between the audience and me is a bit addictive.

Debby:  Do you script your presentation or is it free form?
Suzy: I almost always work with a power point for my presentations and with specific lessons for my writing workshops. I know what I intend to cover for each slide or part of my workshop. That said, I have certain stories I tell and points I can make, but I don’t have a script. I talk to the audience in front of me, respond to their reactions, and often riff on some thought that comes to mind. It’s not uncommon for me to give unique presentations to each group, skipping back and forth in my power point slides to illustrate whatever it is I’m talking about at the moment. So the answer is yes, I go in prepared, often over prepared, but once I’m with the audience, I follow their lead and my heart.
Debby:  How interactive do you get with your programs?  How do you involve the students with your presentation?

Suzy:  This depends totally on the age of the group, the desires of the school, and the points I’m trying to make. Obviously, writers’ workshops are very interactive and work more like a class than a presentation. For large group presentations, my rule of thumb is, the younger the kids the more interactive the presentation. I always try to present in a variety of ways interspersing readings with stories with information. Sometimes I work with student or faculty volunteers or ask the group questions. When I give my Chinese Inventions presentation (for Made in China) I demonstrate concepts with science experiments and use a number of student volunteers. Sometimes with Bull Rider presentations to large groups of teens, the presentation is all me – until the end when I invite questions from the audience. When I meet with kindergarteners and first graders I’m sure to have one or two stories that all the kids can interact with.

Debby:  Let’s talk props.   I remember you telling me once about the props you bring when you are talking about your book, Made in China.  Can you share a little bit about that here?
Suzy: Again, this depends on the presentation and the desires of the school. For Made in China, I carry all the materials I need for science demonstrations – these fill a suitcase and include a Burger King hat, several glasses of various sizes, a bag of mud, a Pyrex casserole dish, a sushi roller, a silk scarf, a photo of a silk worm, empty 2 liter soda bottles (sometimes I ask the school to provide those), an ice cube tray. The list is long and each portion of my presentation is illustrated by a demonstration of how the science works. For a large group presentation on Bull Rider in a middle school, I may arrive with only my power point (has some very cool photos) on a thumb drive and a copy of the book. If the group is younger, I have some signs for an interactive quiz. Sometimes with elementary school audiences, I bring in a suitcase full of the gear I’ve worn on my research trips to the Arctic for my book The Inuit. This is pretty impressive – unless the kids are from Wyoming or North Dakota!

Debby:  What if you have an audience that seems to be zoning out and not connecting with you?

Suzy: Honestly, I’ve got a lot of experience and at this point I’ve honed the presentations to where I’m only using my best material. I’d suggest before giving a paid presentation that an author practice with Scout groups or your kids’ classes or a local Boys and Girls Club – whatever. Then if a part of the presentation doesn’t work, you can take it out before you give the next one. These practice sessions can be billed as just that. If you need to, stop from time to time and ask the kids what they are thinking. Are they bored? What else do they want to know? If the group is smallish, they will get into this and give good feed back before you have to go in front of a big audience. Second hint – if in doubt, tell a story. If the kids are spacing out, you can make some transition and tell them a great story. Everyone loves that, and that’s what authors do best. Just be sure you’ve thought of a couple in advance and you know how you’ll tie them in with the theme of your presentation.
Debby:  What about give-aways?  Do you bring postcards, bookmarks?
Suzy: Yes, I bring postcards which I will sign if asked – either at the time or later and leave them with the librarian or language arts teacher. That way every kid can have a memory, not just the kids with money to buy books. And every postcard includes the ISBN and suggestion to order the book(s) from a local bookstore or online.

Debby:  As a follow up to my last question, do you give books away—or sell them in advance?
Suzy: I don’t give books away unless there is some special reason that moves me. I can’t give a book to only one child and not the whole school. Sometimes I leave a librarian a copy of one of my books as a thank you. But the point is to sell books, not to give them away. I ask schools to pre-sell books although many don’t and some aren’t allowed to sell books. Then I ask them to buy a few to give away in a drawing on the day I’m there, and to announce the places where the kids can buy the books. I always try to get a book signing at a local store following my presentations. Sometimes the schools invite the local stores to come in to sell books, or they’ll order books in advance from the publishers. Sometimes the librarian will get a grant to buy books for the kids in the school. That’s very cool because so many kids are able to leave with their own copy of my book.

Debby:  How about some thoughts for authors that want to do school visits but aren’t huge bestsellers.  Is there a market for them to visit schools?  And if so, how do they go about getting the visits scheduled?

Suzy: Yes. There’s a market for author/presenters who offer content to schools. Most schools want the biggest bang for their bucks and many have been burned by authors who show up, essentially say “This is me and this is why writing, especially mine, is cool.” Then they collect their check and leave. Authors need to familiarize themselves with state standards and Common Core standards and create presentations that can be connected to those (hopefully without the kids knowing J). Offering tips on writing, revising, speaking, researching or creativity will work for most authors.  If you can move beyond those subjects you’ll further enhance your presentations. But you need to do it in an engaging or entertaining way. Be sure to work before and after with teachers to prepare the students and to follow up with any questions or lessons. This will get you good buzz and recommendations for your next school visit.

As for booking visits, that could fill a chapter in a book. I’ll just say that I generally make the first contact. Schools rarely come to me and yet I end up with a lot of jobs. A couple of tips – make yourself available at conferences where you’ll meet teachers and librarians. You can put in proposals to give sessions at these conferences and if you’re accepted, you’ll demonstrate your speaking skills and can hand out your school visit information. I occasionally hear from people I’ve met at conferences as long as two years after the fact. Second, if you are traveling in an area, ask any friends or contacts you have there for recommendations of schools you might contact about speaking. Better, ask if they can make the initial suggestion to teacher friends and you’ll follow up. Local folks are most likely to know which schools invite authors and perhaps which teachers are the types to actually plan and carry out a visit with you.

If you want more ideas, I’d be happy to arrange a consultation. E-mail me at  

Debby:  Last question—Skype.  You and I Skype all the time and I know you use Skype regularly.  How do you change your presentation when you are Skyping as opposed to being there in person?

Suzy:  I prefer to present in person and let schools know that. If they are set on a Skype visit, I’ve done it a couple of ways. They may be able to show a power point while I’m talking. Then we can do a shortened version of that, followed by Q and A. I ask that they set up the web camera so I can see at least a dozen or so students while I talk. That way I can gauge the audience’s reaction to the session.  I’ve also done straight Q and A with kids coming up to the camera to talk. Some computer programs allow for kids to type in questions as I present and that can be useful. This varies, but I try to keep Skype sessions to 35 minutes and they are generally less formal than in person presentations. I think they are a thin substitute for person to person interaction but sometimes it’s the best we can do. And yes, I charge for Skype visits but it’s a lower fee.

Thank you so much, Suzy, for all your advice today!  For more information about Suzy, visit her at


Sunday, November 3, 2013

Writing Challenge for November

Hi there.  I can't believe it is November already!  My daughter and I were in the grocery store Friday morning, and we were shocked to see that holiday items were already being stocked on the shelves.  It seems that the moment Halloween is over, we roll right into the holidays.  I always feel like November and December fly by with so much to do.  And this makes it so much more difficult to find time to write, especially if you are juggling kids and a day job.  I think the thing that helps me the most is remembering that I write because I love it.  Writing is an escape.  It's the present I give myself. 

So my challenge to you this November is to write.  Even if you only have a few minutes--write something.  Anything.

Here's a November exercise:

Change is in the air.  You can smell it, taste it, feel it.  Write about someone making a change.  Maybe it is a welcome change that brings hope with it.  Or maybe it is a change that signals defeat and loss.  If you have a work-in-progress, try bringing a change into your plot.  Something the main character wasn't expecting.  See where it takes you.

Happy November!