Back when I was an instructor, an administrative person opined that a good lesson plan is one where any instructor can pick it up and go teach the class effectively*.
I understand the concept as far as it goes and think it’s definitely worth keeping in mind. But my position was—and still is—that the teacher is an integral part of the process, and it’s reductive to think that any warm body with the ability to read and regurgitate a lesson plan can step in and do an effective job… at least for anything other than the most basic of tasks.
Sometimes, in order to really do an effective job, specialized knowledge is required, or perhaps experience or talent or training or skill or passion or… you get the point.
The teacher matters.
Because each of them brings something unique to the table.
Maybe I’m thinking about this today because, as I write this, I’m developing lesson plans for a workshop I’m giving at a conference in a few weeks. And the idea that another person could just take the lesson plan and PowerPoint and give the class seems wildly simplistic, because they don’t have the same personal experiences I do, nor my particular slant on things. (For that matter, they haven’t made the same mistakes I have either.) Not that someone else couldn’t teach a class on the same subject. They certainly could. And it might be great. But it would be a different class.
Which brings me to my point. Which isn’t really about teaching, but about writing.
As writers, we sometimes get hung up on basic plot mechanics. As though the specifics of what happens to who, and when, and where, is all that matters. (If that were really the case, all we’d have to write is a detailed plot outline, delineating everything that occurs within the story, and we’d be done. I did that once. With my OBFN. Writing that detailed outline bored me so much I hated writing the actual book.)
So I’m here to posit that not only are the mechanics of pushing characters through a plot like pieces on a chess board not the only thing that matters in a story, they’re not even the main thing.
Consider: Fully half the stories in the world are some variation on the theme of “X meets Y. X loses Y. X gets Y back.” (Or, as George Harrison so brilliantly put it, “Love lost or gained between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one.”) So if that’s the case, what separates a cheesy soap opera from something like The Scorpio Races or The Princess Bride or Flipped or…?
It’s not just what happens (or to whom, or when, or where). It’s how the story is told. It’s that special, intangible thing the author brings to the table that makes each of these stories unique and amazing in their own way, even though on the surface they’re all boy-meets-girl love stories.
Yes, plot certainly matters. And no, this isn’t a diatribe against crafting a tightly-constructed series of events which lead to a well-supported resolution. (Although sometimes we can take the concept of “Finding the Formula to Writing Success!!!” a little too much to heart. I’ve read how-to missives stating you’re supposed to have an “antagonist” who “wants something the hero wants, and fights the hero for it.” With this battle ideally starting 57 pages after the “inciting incident,” which is supposed to happen within the first 23% of the manuscript. And so on. What comes to mind upon reading such things is that many of my favorite books—including two of the three mentioned above—have no antagonist at all, in the traditional sense. Which is a subject for another day, but the lesson shouldn’t be forgotten…)
I’m typically against pontifications about how to write—and especially of the didactic “you must do this!” sort—as writing is more art than science, and we’re all a study of one. But one writing dictum I like is “Write the story only you can tell.”
This doesn’t mean write your autobiography.
This doesn’t mean write only about things with which you have direct experience, in a ‘write-what-you-know’ fashion.
It means tell the story in your head—and in your heart—in your own unique way. In a way no one else could. Even if it’s a “boy meets girl” story. (Or “girl meets girl.” Or “girl meets talking zebra.” Or whatever “X meets Y” makes your heart sing.) Because if you’re brave enough tell it in the way only you can tell it—even though that might feel scary, and even though you’ll be tempted to tell it the way you’ve read it a hundred times before—then you’ll have created something new and unique and fresh and original. Even though the so-called plot may be universal.
Which is really the best of both worlds.
Go be you.
*I think I replied with something like, “Okay, the final step of my lesson plan states: Teacher takes questions and provides meaningful, informative, in-depth answers based on years of experience and training in the specific subject matter. Could you follow those instruction ‘effectively’?”
Last time we discussed some not-infrequent issues arising during free school visits.
I suppose one answer might be to just Grinch-out and stop doing them, but that’s no real solution because school visits – free or otherwise – are really beneficial and big fun, if done right.
They’re beneficial to the kiddos (inspires them to want to read and write), to the teachers/librarians (helps reinforce things they’re trying to convey like the importance of revision in the real world, etc.) and to the authors (connects them to their readership, motivates them to think about and codify their process, etc.).
And again, they’re just plain fun and rewarding to do. Writing is predominantly a solitary activity and it’s good to know there are actual readers somewhere on the other end of the equation, and meeting those readers and taking their questions is always nice.
And finally, there’s nothing like students seeing a living, breathing writer, in person, to drive home the point that yes, real people actually write books… and they can too if they put their mind to it.
So yeah, the benefits of school visits are legion. And it’s also rewarding to be able to occasionally help out a school or district that maybe doesn’t have the resources to swing a typical author visit. (At its best, the concept of giving should be a win for both the giver and the recipient. If it’s not, something’s askew on one end or the other.)
With all that in mind, we want to avoid the types of issues we talked about last time. In general, most of them can be prevented by good communication between the author and the school.
Good communication… before the event.
Here are some strategies that may be worth consideration. (And if you have others, feel free to put them in the comments.)
1. When donating your services, make it clear that your normal honorarium is $XXX but you’re waiving or reducing your fee to help the school out. (In other words, make them aware of your value, and that they’re getting something of real value—something schools usually pay for—even though you’re not charging them for it in this instance.)
2. Ask what the visit “might look like.” Get them to give you a detailed rundown of the expected preparations, as well as the activities on the day of. If nothing else, making them state it in writing or out loud will make them more likely to follow through on it. (And yes, it’s okay to ask if lunch will be served if they don’t bring it up!)
3. Ask what exposure the kids will have had to your work prior to the visit. I’m not saying they need to buy every student a copy of your book (as at least one well-known one author requires for “free” visits) but they should have read at least some of your work in class—whether for assignment or SSR—and be somewhat familiar with you and your writing in general. This alone will make the presentation much more successful, as the students will have both interest and questions from the exposure.
4. Don’t be afraid to politely decline if it’s clear from their responses to the above that they don’t really value you and your presentations. This can be tough—most kidlit authors consider themselves allies of schools, teachers, and librarians. I know I do. So maybe use something like, “I can only do so many free visits per year, and I’ve learned that the students get the most out of them when the school’s willing to do some preparation beforehand.”
5. Be wary of places that contact you asking outright for free presentations. I’m sure there are exceptions, but it seems like most venues that contact authors asking for gratis presentations are shotgunning their requests, looking for whoever’s willing to bite. Sometimes it’s clear from their query they don’t know your work at all… you’re just another name on their list. This sort of spamming isn’t likely to result in a meaningful author day for either you or the students. (It’s a slightly different topic, but this can also apply to conferences, festivals, and workshops.)
6. Consider making them do some legwork, similar to applying for a grant. Maybe send them a form and have them fill out and return it, listing what they’ll be doing in advance of the day to ensure a meaningful presentation. (In a sense, it is a grant. You’re asking them to delineate the reasons their school should receive free educational services.) I heard an author on a podcast (it was “Kidlit Women,” IIRC) talk about something similar: She does two free visits per year. She has schools apply and she chooses what she thinks are the most deserving ones. And yes, she definitely has more meaningful visits after the schools go through the application process—they know the value of what they’re receiving and they really appreciate her choosing them.
7. Have the name and contact number of your host at the school (the person coordinating the visit) and a back-up if possible. All your communications should be through them, and they should be on hand during the visit. (Yes, sometimes situations change and life intervenes, and if you do this long enough then sooner or later you’ll end up dealing with a “substitute host.” But—assuming they’ve been briefed and the schedule of events decided upon beforehand—things should still go well.) This is par for the course with paid events, and there’s no reason to skip it just because you’re doing your presentation pro bono.
In the end, it’s not really about the dollars and cents. It’s about feeling like you've made a positive impact on the kiddos, and the best way to ensure that is to ensure they’re familiar with the work and—more important--engaged in the exchange that happens during an author visit. After all, you’re not there to speak at the students. You’re there to inform and inspire in an interactive manner, creating an experience they’ll take with them going forward.
And the way to ensure all this is to ensure the school values you.
And the way to ensure that is to value yourself and your work.
It’s funny, yet empirically true:
1. The more someone pays you, the better they treat you.
2. The less they pay for your work, the less they think it—and you—are worth.
3. No one will value you—or your work—more than you value yourself.
Not funny in a “haha” way. Funny in a “wow, that’s strange and illogical” way.
If someone does a professional job and charges a professional price, that’s to be expected, right? But if someone’s willing to do a professional job and charge a reduced price as a favor (or even do it for free), you’d think they would be treated even better. But so often it’s the other way around. Which is the ‘funny’ part. I’ve seen this dozens of times, with myself and with other writers I know.
Kidlit authors often do “school visits,” where a school will bring in an author to give a presentation to the students. Broadly, the authors talk about things like writing and reading and the value of persistence, etc. But there’s usually a lot more to the overall presentation than that, and a lot more behind-the-scenes prep work involved as well.
The schools pay the author to present to their student body. And if it’s an away gig, they cover travel and lodging, they have someone pick up the author at the airport, they have someone shuttle the author between schools then back to their hotel, etc. It’s a fairly standardized thing. The author is paid per day, with a “day” typically consisting of perhaps three presentations at one or more schools (sometimes schools share an author to spread out costs) and often also including signings and lunch with staff and/or students and occasionally an associated evening library program for adults.
The students get a lot out of it—both inspirationally and educationally—and the staff are usually super stoked to have an author come and talk with their students. To make the most of the author’s time on campus, they’ll often make sure the kids have read at least some of the author’s work and are familiar with them, etc. (This is really helpful, by the way, as it’s much easier to keep the attention of five hundred middle grade students if they know you and your work!)
And the authors get a lot out of it, too—they get to interact with their readership (perhaps the best part), they get to spread the word about not only their work but about the value of books and creative work in general, and they get to inform and inspire the students regarding the writing process. And they get an honorarium. (In a field without regular paychecks and no set salary, this is more important than one might think.)
This is all good. But once in a while you might run across a school without the budget to bring in an author… maybe it’s a smaller local school… maybe an under-served school in another district… maybe you’re acquainted with the staff. So for whatever reason you decide to waive or reduce your honorarium for them. And sometimes, everything goes wonderfully. Especially if the school knows and likes your work and the kids are familiar with your books.
(There was a high school in our state which had all their incoming freshmen read my book. They couldn’t afford an author visit but contacted me about maybe doing a Skype chat… less costly but also less impactful. They were some distance away but drivable round-trip in a day, so I said I’d do it in person for free since they were featuring my book in their curriculum. Turned out to be a wonderful experience. I did three presentations to reach all their freshmen and those kids were prepared. They’d done detailed language arts projects on the book and gave really well done presentations on them to me. The students and staff were super appreciative and attentive throughout, there was a nice lunch provided, and on my way out I was given a check for travel costs, which was totally unexpected and really nice.)
But this only happens if the host has done the appropriate prep work.
And this is where free visits can get tricky. Because if the school isn’t invested financially it can impact how they invest other resources… like time and attention. You arrive only to find out the person who coordinated your visit somehow isn’t available. You’re turned over to someone who doesn’t know who you are. No librarian or language arts teachers in sight, let alone the principal. No one introduces you to the crowd, so you do that awkward ‘Hi guys, I’m so-and-so and I’m here to talk to you about writing!’ self-intro. To a bunch of blank stares. Because the kids have no clue who you are, what you’ve written, or even why you’re there. Afterward the person who was sent to fire up the AV equipment for you sort of mumbles thanks, then you pack up all your stuff and load it back into your car, looking for a Taco Bell as you start the long drive home because there was no mention of food. And as you sit there eating your spicy tostada from the value menu, you wonder, Why the heck did I even do that?
Of course they don’t all go like that but in my experience this isn’t uncommon, and I’ve heard several authors relate similar tales, with “Free visits just aren’t worth it,” and “Half the time I end up regretting it,” being frequent comments.
Here are just a few classics…
And now for the punch line: When they’re paying you, those things virtually NEVER HAPPEN. The staff is engaged and super happy you’re there. The librarian and language arts teachers and principal or vice-principal are almost always in attendance… and frequently a bunch of other staff, too. The students are familiar with your work and engaged in the presentation, and they’ll have some great questions afterward. There’s almost always some sort of festive catered staff lunch, often attended by a select group of students who have a special interest in writing and/or have excelled in some relevant way. And they frequently send you off with a cool gift basket along with a check for the honorarium.
And yet if you give the exact same service for free, they act like they’re doing you a favor just letting you in the door.
So the lesson I’ve learned is, they don’t value you unless you value you.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t do free author presentations. I did one last week as I write this, and I’ll absolutely do more. I’m just thinking that perhaps there are some strategies we can use so the visits are effective even though provided at no charge. We’ll discuss these next time.
Until then, please value yourself.
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.