Thursday, June 29, 2017

Introvert's Guide to Speaking at Conferences

Zestful Blog Post #218

I’ve been meaning to share an article I wrote for Writer’s Digest magazine of March/April (2017), as well as a revealing experience I had after speaking at a conference last year.

The article is my blueprint for being a successful conference presenter. The first part covers how to pitch your idea to the organizers, and then if selected, write a talk illustrated with PowerPoint slides. But I’m leaving that off here, because there's advice about that everywhere you look. What I want to share is the second part of the article: the other stuff you don't see anywhere, about what to do, how to act, and essential logistics to help you enjoy a successful, no-stress-added conference. Not that I love conferences; I tend toward introversion, which is why I’ve worked out these protocols to help smooth the way.

When you arrive at the conference, touch base with registration, check for messages, and try to say hi to the organizers, whom you’ve likely corresponded with but not yet met in person. Drop off your books (if you have a published title you plan to sell or sign onsite) at the bookselling venue, if there is one. It’s typical for authors to bring or ship ahead their own stock, which simplifies things for the bookseller. But even if the bookseller has promised to obtain and sell presenters’ books on their own, I try to bring extra stock just in case.

Allow lots of extra time to find your assigned session room, set up and get comfortable. Make sure the room is equipped with anything you need for your presentation (a laptop, projector, handouts you sent ahead to be printed, etc.). If there’s only a short break between the prior presenter and you, be ready to set up fast. Your room may have a staff member on hand to facilitate the end of one session and the beginning of another. If it doesn’t and the speaker before you runs over time, approach the podium and say with a smile, “I have to start in X minutes.”

Be prepared to introduce yourself. Few conferences have enough volunteers to provide intros for every session. I include a slide of my relevant credentials at the beginning.

[This is one of the least flattering photos of me talking I could find. Good for my vanity, which according to some, as you'll see, is extreme.]

Keep cool if something goes wrong. Power failure, medical emergency, missing property, disputes over seating—I’ve dealt with them all. Attendees will look to you as an authority figure, so if you stay calm, they will too. If a tech issue arises, send for an AV tech immediately; don’t spend more than a minute trying to troubleshoot it yourself. If all fails, be prepared to deliver your talk with just your script.

Unless the room is very small, use the microphone and speak into it consistently. Tell your audience, “If at any time you can’t hear me, call out.” It’s easy to drift away from the mic.

If you’ve brought a signup sheet for your email list, circulate it right away. I hand around a small paper shopping bag and ask people to throw in their card or a scrap of paper with their email address; I tell them they’re signing up for my newschats, and a chance to win this! (One of my books, personalized to them.) At the end of my talk I find the bag, draw a name and ask that person to meet me as soon as I’ve gathered my stuff.

Abide by your time limit. If you have a room monitor, ask that person to signal you when you have 10 minutes to go. Otherwise, keep an eye on your watch. Be prepared to skip material at the end if need be. Don’t talk faster to cram in your last bits of material. If you’ve built in time for a Q&A, you have some wiggle room.

Be sure to thank the organizers and volunteers at the beginning and/or end of your talk.

Clear out quickly when you’re done. Sometimes attendees will come up and want to talk; tell them you can chat in the concourse once you collect your things.

When “off duty” at the conference, remember that you might be recognized and approached for conversation. Smile and try to be generous with your time. It may sound obvious, but avoid gossip and vulgarity—which includes getting too drunk in the bar after dinner.

There is a lot of work involved with being a successful conference presenter. But if you do it well, you’ll achieve the dual goals of giving valuable information to your audience and piquing their interest in you and your work—beyond the podium.

That’s the end of the article. But some conferences extend your experience by sending you audience feedback weeks later, which can be helpful, delightful, affirming, depressing, and soul-crushing. I can never really come to terms with the diametrically opposed feedback I’ve gotten.

Here are exact quotes from feedback from one session I gave last fall. These people were in the same room as I, all together. Same time-space continuum.

“Excellent presentation, very informative and fun.”
“It was as if someone else had prepared the slide deck for her and she didn’t know what was coming next.”
“She dealt very well with the interruption of PurseGate 2016.”
“Perhaps interruptions rattled her but she never got over it.”
“Delivers a lot of information in a manner that is super personal and therefore we feel like intimates of hers, fun and comfortable.”
“Big commercial ego trip.”
“Great, could listen to her for longer, very good.”
My very favorite: “She knows her stuff but seemed to be on drugs or something.”

If only.

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Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Magic of Reverse Outlining

Zestful Blog Post #217

Before the magic happens, a couple of bits of business. I promised last week to reveal the name of the restaurant in the photo if nobody guessed. Not like it’s some super amazing thing, but it’s the 13 Coins next to the Seattle-Tacoma airport. It’s Marcia’s and my favorite place to eat when we stay near that airport, in spite of the slight hokiness of the coins being embedded in the polymer coating on the tabletops. We love the midcentury-modern ambience, and the food is good, although I watched the bartender water our Manhattans once. I complained, but the server argued that that was impossible. I let it go, but later saw the server whispering to the bartender, who avoided looking at us for the rest of the time. Don’t let that stop you from going there, though; just order wine or beer. Or coffee, if it’s breakfast time. We’re not degenerates here.

If you are reading this blog between the dates of June 22 and June 26, 2017, I wish you would pop over to Amazon and snag a free Kindle copy of I am Calico Jones. It’s a collection of four short stories by yours truly, led off by the title story, which is a personal account of an adventure by the very Calico Jones about whom Lillian Byrd loves to read in the cheesy novels she gobbles up at every opportunity. And wow, when I just tested that link, I see that it's at #4 in LGBT short reads, edging out the tons of erotica that make up most of that list. Go, literature.

Not long ago during a conversation with one of the few private clients I work with on writing fiction, I gave an impromptu piece of advice she found very helpful. She mentioned it in a comment a few weeks ago, and now I’m motivated to share it in this post today. (Thanks, Bev.)

It has to do with the revision process. Now, this can be during chapter-by-chapter revisions as you go, or while you’re revising a manuscript that is more or less complete.

[It wasn’t easy to come up with a photo for this post. Can you find reverse in this image? It’s my car; the plastic of the gearshift cover is delaminating, but it is 22 years old, so gimme a break.]

The technique very simply is this: Write down a little summary of each chapter. OK, that’s it. Now, most of us like to do at least a little bit of outlining in advance of writing fiction, and that is a good thing. But as we write, things don’t always go as planned, and that may be all very fine too. But then what?

Writing a little summary of each chapter does several things:

·       It helps you keep track of your threads of plot and theme as you go, and it helps you distinguish the two.
·       It helps you spot problems that need fixing, like plausibility gaps or plot gaps, or simply unfinished thoughts that require further development. It also will help you spot redundancies or nonessential material that should be cut.
·       If you listen to your gut as you review this summary, you’ll also notice where and how your emotions are triggered, and then you can work to emphasize or deemphasize appropriately.
·       It builds an accurate working outline. This alone makes this tip worth his weight in gold, if you ask me. (How much does it weigh? That’s the key question. I believe at least a pound. My mailing address? Just ask.)
·       This working outline will eventually become your completed outline, which you will use when pitching your manuscript to agents and/or publishers.
·       If you self publish, your outline or summary will be helpful to you when writing promo and cover copy for your book.

When I practice this, I write my summaries on a yellow pad off to the side as I’m working on the digital manuscript on my computer. Just a few sentences are all you need.

Have you ever done this? If so, tell us how it works for you. If not, and you decide to try it, ditto!

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Extrapolation for Writers

Zestful Blog Post #216

If you’re still with me after reading the title of this post, congratulations and thank you. I appreciate that there are so many serious writers who follow these posts. What you get here, and here alone, is my perspective on how to write well, how to avoid crappy mistakes, and how to arrange one’s life as a writer.

Back in the 1980s I worked in the human resources department of a large financial institution. One of our tasks was training bankers on how to sell bank products—checking accounts, credit cards—to retail customers. My boss bought an up-to-the-minute sales training program on video and we decided to try it out on our bankers.

The videos followed a salesman with a product called a transporter, which (oddly) looked like an ordinary microwave oven, but was supposed to transport whatever you put in it from one place to another, as if by magic. Obviously this was a dummy product; the product itself was unimportant; the point of the video was to demonstrate effective, customer-oriented sales techniques.

The salesman in the video demonstrated all the right stuff: questioned his customers as to their needs, discussed characteristics of the transporter, elicited objections, overcame objections with further discussion and questioning. In the end, the customer agrees to buy a transporter. I thought the videos were fun and effective. To those of us in HR, it was an easy jump to think of ways to use those sales techniques to sell all the different sorts of bank products the company offered.

But the first time we showed the video to a group of front-office employees, they sat there impassively through the whole thing. When it was over there was silence, until one guy finally said, “But we’re not selling transporters.” These front-office bank folks were utterly baffled as to why we would show them a video on how to sell transporters. They were incapable of extrapolating from the video to their own frame of reference. (And that was the end of the transporter videos.)

Understand that there are millions of people just like those bankers. And they read books. Most writers have an intuitive feel for extrapolation, but I think it’s worthwhile to talk about explicitly. The word extrapolation is not the precise right one here, because it means to extend an application of something. If there was a word that combined extrapolation with adaptation, then I think we would have it, but it seems that even the vast, agile language of English has its limitations.

For writers, extrapolation means looking past the literal. It means making leaps of imagination. You cannot trust your reader to do it. The reader craves the experience of you doing it. And I believe the most important element in this is to give yourself permission to do it.

Here’s what I’m talking about. You come across a suggested writing prompt somewhere, like, “A disgraced celebrity flees high society.” You could come up with something rather literal, like a Park Avenue heiress gets busted for heroin and goes to the Betty Ford Center. Perhaps there she meets a humble laborer who will introduce her to a life of honesty and simplicity. Or perhaps to a life of exciting dirt bike racing. Or not. You could venture further and make that character a track star who gets caught filing his spikes or something, and he’s suspended from the sport. What might happen next? Maybe he coaches a junior team for a while, and learns from the kids the true meaning of integrity. You could invent a charismatic faith healer who is exposed as a phony, and who decides to exile herself for a while, and goes on a quest to test herself and to make atonement. Those are skeletons of whole stories right there.

[Extra credit if you can name this restaurant, located near the shade of many large evergreen trees.]

You might observe someone across the room in a cafĂ© who piques your interest. Don’t stop there. Maybe that person is watching another person. You then observe the third person. What’s going on? You decide. Who are those people? Pay attention. What are they wearing, do they seem happy or sad or something else? Maybe you can’t say why a person piques your interest. (Beyond, OK, pheromones.) That right there is reason to study that person more, and delve into your own feelings and reactions. When uncertain emotions come up, pay lots and lots of attention, and give yourself lots and lots of permission to extrapolate, generalize, adapt, and individualize.

Speaking of individualization, I once read in a manuscript, He went ballistic. Nothing more. Well, hell, don’t tell us he went ballistic. The bankers won’t know what’s going on. Tell us:

He grabbed Mike by the head and threw him to the floor, then slammed a chair into the model of the new building, smashing it to pieces. The second chair went through the window, followed by the poly-acrylic achievement award and everything else on Mike’s desk.

I hope I’ve given you another angle of insight into how to mine and refine your raw material. Go further, go deeper, go detailed.

I love comments. Has there ever been a stranger who has somehow strongly attracted your attention? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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Thursday, June 8, 2017

Remember the Writer who

Zestful Blog Post #215

Remember the writer who quit?

Nobody does.

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Thursday, June 1, 2017

Dynamic Plot & Theme Demo

Zestful Blog Post #214

Authors often get confused by the subjects of plot versus theme, and I don’t just mean aspiring authors. I’ve seen established authors get things mixed up, and their fiction turns out much less powerful than it could be.

Here’s how to make magic: Consider a plot thread and a theme together. Here is an example, or actually, I guess it’s a demonstration.

Recently I set out to write a short story starring my alter ego, Lillian Byrd. I wanted to give Lillian a problem to solve. And I wanted the problem to involve a friend of hers, and I selected her animal loving friend, Billie. Billie calls Lillian and tells her that her car has been towed and impounded by the city, and she doesn’t have enough money to get it out of jail. So, problem.

Lillian offers to lend her money, but Billie doesn’t want to borrow. She asks instead for Lillian to come over and help her sort through her collection of vinyl records so that some can be sold to raise the money for the fines. Because Billie’s record collection is the stuff of legend, Lillian can’t abide the thought of it being dismantled. OK, so this situation is getting more complex, and it becomes a plot arc. One way or another, we know that Billie’s problem will be solved by the end of the story, because that’s how stories work.

And there we have a theme, and we can call that theme any of a number of things: friends helping friends, the quality of friendship, the plight of low-wage workers, the hazards of not saving money for emergency situations.

Very soon after creating this problem for Lillian, I realized I needed more plot, and it stood to reason that another plot line would be just the thing. Lillian must take it upon herself to solve this problem of Billie’s, but she’s not sure what to do. The second plot thread appears when Lillian’s phone rings, and it’s her rich friend Flora Pomeroy, who wants her to drop everything and come out for a boat ride with her and some other rich friends. Billie urges her to go (they can deal with the record collection later), and we know that the boat ride will furnish some delectable action.

As soon as Lillian gets aboard, Flora tells her that she wants her to investigate a member of the boating party — while they’re out on the water! — in order to settle a bet Flora made with another friend, who also happens to be aboard. As soon as we hear about a bet, we know cash is lurking around.

What develops is another theme, along with the plot line, along with a significant plot arc. We could call it the theme of friends helping friends, just the same as above, or we could call this theme human ingenuity, or we could individualize the theme and call it Lillian’s willingness to take drastic risks for the hell of it. (That theme seems to crop up repeatedly in my Lillian fiction.)

You can see that both plot lines and both themes will come together and make for a satisfying outcome. At least, that is what I’m hoping readers will think after they’ve read the story! It is as yet unpublished, because I have to create an e-cover for it and run it by my beta readers. [Would you like to become one of my beta readers? Send me an email—addy is on my web site under contact—telling me so. You’ll also become a member of my Newschat list, if you’re not on it already.]

So, what’s the point of considering plot in light of theme? Simply that when you consider your plot lines along with the themes that relate to them, you create an awareness in yourself, an energy that makes your story add up to more than the sum of its parts. You might be moved to create dialogue where your characters discuss their feelings about specific things—or avoid talking about specific things. You might notice ways to build on themes by ramping up risk or reward or trouble. You might see weaknesses you can easily fix. These are subtle elements and distinctions—perhaps even ineffable—but these are things I love to think about and want to help you love to think about too.

Comment, question? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever. [Photo by ES.]

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