Make an Impression with Young Audiences by Optimizing for the Q&A
Our readers are often curious about the process of writing and publishing books, and we’re happy to provide access to the experts. In this entry in our Publishing U series, author of middle-grade novels Kate Milford offers tips on connecting with young audiences and getting discussions rolling during school visits.
Kate Milford: I’m not one of those people who enjoys the promotional aspect of authorship. Specifically, I used to be really scared of visiting schools. If I’m honest, I’m nervous in most social situations, but schools are a special kind of difficult. The class may or may not have read your book. (Odds are, they won’t have.) Yes, they’re probably glad to be out of whatever class they’re getting out of, but that doesn’t mean they care in the slightest about the story you came to talk to them about. So how do you structure a visit to give yourself the best chance of getting and keeping your audience’s attention and facilitating a meaningful discussion?
I’d much rather know that the session has been
meaningful to the kids than useful to the adults.
Obviously, I can only speak to what works for me, and there are as many ways to approach visits as there are ways to approach writing a book. Some authors, for instance, focus on tying their books to curriculum, which is great for teachers and might help you get in the door at a school but doesn’t necessarily help you connect to students. Personally I’d much rather know that the session has been meaningful to the kids than useful to the adults, so that’s what I optimize my visits for. I gauge success in making it meaningful by the Q&A, and in every event I’ve done since Greenglass House launched, the discussion afterward has overrun the allotted time.
My basic school presentation runs about 45 minutes and involves no AV components. It looks like this:
- Short reading
- Something different
Of all the components, I think the actual reading is the least important, although obviously you’ve got to do it, and it’s important to choose a good excerpt and practice so you read it with a minimum of stumbling. Pick a section that doesn’t require a ton of setup and keep it short. Five minutes is great; ten is kind of pushing it. Optimally, end on a joke or a gasp.
The “Something Different”
I guess if you’re an illustrator, this is where you’d draw. Some authors do PowerPoints. Me, I tell one of the stories told by one of the characters in Greenglass House, and invariably, this is the part where I hook my audience. It works in part because of the novelty of the oral storytelling format and in part because it gives the audience the satisfaction of a complete tale. At the same time, it leaves some questions unanswered, which sometimes helps to kick off the all-important Q&A.
I refer to this as the Choose Your Own Adventure portion of the visit, and I transition to it with something like, “What we do next is up to you. We can talk about writing and publishing, I can read another section or tell another story, or I can answer some questions, possibly about my very glamorous life as an author.” I’m always prepared to be asked to do the other stuff, but the audience always chooses questions. How you answer the first one is key.
The most important thing you can do to facilitate meaningful discussion is to be completely open, honest, and real. No visit persona; no teacher voice. Don’t be afraid of giving lengthy, detailed answers, or of working out your answer in the moment if you’re lucky enough to get a question you haven’t gotten before. Speak as you would to an audience of adults, whether you’re talking to first graders or college students. Honesty is critically important. I’ve decided that no questions are off-limits, and that I’ll answer truthfully pretty much anything—and I tell the audience that if I think they need to hear it. Once students hear you answer the first question honestly and openly, treating the asker as an equal in a conversation, more questions will follow.
Be completely open, honest, and real.
No visit persona; no teacher voice.
For instance, I love writing more than anything other than my family, and I want that joy to come across, but I don’t romanticize what I do. When students ask if I make a lot of money, I tell them I get royalty checks twice a year with which I can usually buy a tank of gas and sometimes take my husband out to a nice dinner or pay a bill (though probably not the phone bill), and that one glorious May I actually paid a month’s rent. How specific I get depends on the audience, but in every case I emphasize that I write because I love to do it and I’m not happy if I’m not writing, not because it’s a great way to make a living wage.
When students ask when I knew I wanted to be a writer, I tell them about the third grade essay I wrote on our school balloon ascension and how I knew I’d arrived because it was in the paper; I tell them about how in middle school, despite being unable to play music, I was sure I was destined to write songs for New Kids on the Block; I tell them about how I moved to New York to write plays and screenplays only to discover I was pretty bad at both. I tell them about the truly terrible romance novel I wrote right before my first middle-grade book. I tell them that I learned something from each of those dead ends, and that each one helped make me the writer I am now.
When they ask what inspired Greenglass House, I tell them about how the prompt came from my critique group, which leads me to talk about how every writer needs people to tell them when something isn’t working and how the first draft of everything is pretty much guaranteed to be bad—but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fantastic with hard work and time. I also tell them about how the character of Milo, an adopted kid in a transracial family, came about because my husband and I were considering the complex feelings our future adopted child might experience in thinking about his or her birth family, no matter how good a home we made for that child. I’ve lost my composure more than once while answering that question. One time, I found out afterward that the kid who asked about it was herself adopted. Another time a kid came up to me afterward and told me she’d had similar feelings to Milo’s, and we had a little hug and cry together.
There are other examples I could give. But the point is, when kids sense that you’re willing to open yourself up and risk looking uncool or uncollected in front of them, they are exponentially more willing to open themselves up, too, and the questions they ask may turn out to be more important than anyone realizes at the time. This is why I optimize for the Q&A. The better the discussion—the more open, the more honest, the more personal on both sides—the better your chance to not simply connect with the audience, but to accomplish something truly meaningful for everyone involved. Which is kind of what I think writing for kids is really all about.
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Kate Milford is the author of The Boneshaker, The Broken Lands, and Greenglass House. She has written for stage and screen, and is a regular travel columnist for the Nagspeake Board of Tourism and Culture. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. To learn more, visit www.clockworkfoundry.com.