That moment with your audience

Every year I present to various schools that use my first novel, This Side of Normal, as a text within the Biology curriculum. I love these opportunities because I get to speak with teens I don’t work with, and have the opportunity to connect with them about storytelling. This past Friday I attempted this with an auditorium of freshman.

When I pulled up to Shaker High School I tweeted this:

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Little did I know just how prophetic these words would be.

I know how checked out students can be on a Friday afternoon, and this group came in riled up and ready for the weekend. I watched the cliques form along the rows, saw the unimpressed looks, the phones out, the boredom.

This is a fear-inducing moment, that instant when you realize the story about to be told had better be one awesome experience or the next forty minutes are going to be painful for everyone. That “A game”? Yeah, bring it.

And so I did. My presentation is on Prezi, so score one there. I didn’t tell the kids to put their phones away, because that’s like asking them to hold their breath–it’s only going to last so long. Another score. Then I asked them to relax and let me entertain them before the weekend hit. They eased back, and I began.

I tell my story of realizing I have type 1, how I handled that at home and at school. I tell wacky stories and bounce around the room. Literally. And on this day I did so with more gusto than I would normally. And the audience was into it. They laughed at my jokes, answered questions when I asked, and overall had a good time.

Then came the true test–No, not the pitch for my other books, that came at the end. I cannot talk about diabetes without discussing my daughter, Kaygan*. However, this was the first time I did so in front of a room of strangers, of teenagers who wanted to be into the weekend.

I pulled up the slide with the following picture:

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The room was silent as I explained. To their credit, this group of kids who had read my book, and may or may not have been interested in what I had to say, treated with reverence, what were, for me, some of the most difficult words I have ever uttered.

That was the moment. Not the one where I knew I had to earn this presentation, but the one where I knew they cared. Because, really, that’s what my presentation is about. Caring enough to share, to pay attention, and to tell powerful stories. They got it, and then I talked about Tap Out and gave them a sneak peek at Dare Me.

The presentation was nerve-wracking and painful and a little sad, but ultimately triumphant. Just like the novel they had all read. There’s something to that. And I have the freshman of Shaker High to thank. Here are a couple of their tweets to me:

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Keep it classy, Blue Bison.

*For those of you who have followed Kaygan’s diagnosis and adjustment: she’s now on an insulin pump and doing very well. She’s the same diva, but with one exceptional accessory. 

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Pitch Perfect

In Daniel Pink’s latest book, To Sell is Human, he offers updated suggestions for the elevator pitch (see a synopsis in the video below). Since I spent the weekend finalizing Dare Me, I started thinking about the need to begin pitching and marketing my work. Therefore, I’ve outlined the six pitches Pink suggests, and have completed each for Dare Me. Let me know which one you like best:

  1. Pixar:

Once upon a time _____________. Every day, ______________. One day _______________.  Because of that, _____________. Because of that, ______________. Until finally _______________.

  1. Subject line (as with an email)
  2. Rhyme
  3. Questions
  4. Twitter
  5. One word

Here goes:

Pixar: Once upon a time, three friends, Ricky, John and Ben were considering how to spice up their upcoming senior year of high school. Every day they hung out, Ricky had suggestions, as if he had a need, not merely a desire. One day he pitched the idea of year-long, anonymous, daredevil stunts, as an ongoing senior prank, and the boys envisioned an awesome future. Because of that, they began their adventures with death-defiance, and saw the popularity of their disguised selves skyrocket. Because of that, an offer of money arrived–a financier agreed to pay them for their stunts if they agreed to his dares–and the boys took it without regard for the consequences of signing on the dotted line. Until finally the dares went too far, and the point of no return had nothing to do with popularity or money, but whether or not the boys would live to enjoy either.

Subject Line: This video is f******* crazy!

Rhyme: A dare requires that you make men, or liars.

Questions: How much is your life worth?

Twitter: Pride goes before the fall, unless you’ve been asked to jump. #DareMe #Iaccept

One Word: Gamble

Expectations: Writing vs. Teaching

I have expectations as an author and I have expectations as an educator. One is not necessarily exclusive of the other, but I haven’t had the opportunity to see the two merge. That is until last Friday, when I delivered a presentation/lesson on plotting for fiction writing at a school different from my own (Queensbury for the locals).

As an author I expect to nail the nuts and bolts when writing. At this point I should have an easy ability to construct a story premise out of thin air and see how the foundation for it will emerge to support the rest. Once the foundation has been poured, I trust in my ability to design as I see fit. The story that rises will hopefully not be a cookie-cutter model, but rather, a distinct and intriguing dwelling. This can often take an extensive amount of revising, but that is fine, because everything stands on a firm base. I can tear down and begin again until it is complete.

As an educator, the goal is not about me. It is about what I can extract from my students. The constant thinking is: What can I do to tease out their knowledge of the topic? Along the way I facilitate this extraction and fill in the spaces where gaps in understanding exist. In short, I make them work in order to understand. If the following adage is true, this approach makes sense: “We remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, 50% of what we see and hear, 70% of what we discuss with others, 80% of what we personally experience, 95% or what we teach others.”

Therefore, on Friday, I approached a Creative Writing class hoping that I could provide them with a way to build a foundation for story-writing through a lesson that centered on the higher end of the percentages.

It was intriguing, because I was not Mr. Devine. I was Eric, and I was there as an “expert” someone who has written multiple novels and short stories. This lent a credence to the lesson that I otherwise would not be afforded as a teacher. The irony, though, is that I don’t think I could have pulled off as good of a lesson if I only wrote and did not teach.

Regardless, my blend of advice from Anne Lamott and  her ABDCE structure, combined with Jo Knowles’s storyboarding, mixed with one of my short stories and then the students’ own designs, made for one fantastic class. Every student in the room walked away with the bones of a fully formed story–the structure.

I left feeling very accomplished, because as an author, I knew it was sound advice I had given, mostly because it wasn’t all my own. However, as an educator, I had no idea if what I did had any impact, because the time for feedback from the students was limited. Even though the majority of the lesson was focused on the 80-95% realm, I had no idea if it would stick.

I checked my work email on Sunday and found a message from a student in this class, who offered thanks for my appearance and then discussed his writing and shared links to his work on a popular teen writing site. He wanted feedback. He wanted to know if the structure was sound. He had worked his way through my lesson and then viewed his previous work in a different light. He had taken what he had learned and applied it.

Moments like this are few and far between for an English teacher. It’s difficult to know if students fully “get it” because comprehension and communication are processes that continue to develop through adulthood. But this was evidence that I had succeeded on both fronts.

I could not have been happier. My two expectations converged with success. Maybe I know what I’m doing? At least I did in that moment I did.

That’s an expectation I can live with.

The Anticipation of What’s Next

For the second year in a row I have had the opportunity to work through the dark and cold of winter, to emerge into spring with the anticipation of my novel’s publication.

This past week, while in NYC, I had the opportunity to meet my agent, Kate McKean. She’s sold two of my novels and has helped transform me into the writer I am today, so it made sense to finally talk face-to-face. We had lunch and the opportunity to sit and discuss. Meeting Kate was more like talking to an old friend than it was having a business engagement, which was ideal. This is a weird, artistic, and very personal field. Yet, it’s still business. So for this to work, a lot of pieces need to click. And they did. So, thank you, Kate.

However, during our conversation, one question affected me more than the rest: “So what’s next?” This wasn’t a cautious curiosity. Kate wanted to know what I’m working on, because the expectation is that I am working on something. Because that’s what writers do. And even though people ask me this question all the time, it has never felt as profound as when I was seated across from someone with the power to turn the answer into reality. So I was happy that my response was greeted with laughter and then intrigue. Yeah, I’ve got some interesting things coming down the pipe, and I have no doubt Kate will keep asking the same question.

Then, on Friday, I received word that Dare Me is scheduled for publication on October 10th. Pre-order is available, and the cover image will be released soon. I know I teased before, but seriously, the reveal will be worth it.

With this news in hand, I immediately examined the calendar, strategizing for when I should hold a release party and signings. It’s six months out, but I’m already getting excited. And I hope all of you who are reading this are as well. Because the fun for me is the process. Write, release, and celebrate. Without you, this isn’t nearly as exciting.

I like this cycle, this building anticipation. And I like that its reach has expanded. Because, who knows what’s next?

The Big Apple

I haven’t updated this week. Here’s why:

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We took the girls to NYC and I barely had time to catch my breath, much less post. But we’re home now, and the girls are thrilled with their American Girl dolls and their memories of our trip.

I’ll report back next week, when break is over and my feet aren’t so sore.