Monday, February 29, 2016

Not Only a Children's Writer by Kell Andrews

My second grader was assigned a Great Americans biography project. To help her decide on a subject, we checked out biographies of Elizabeth Blackwell, Mae Jemison, Mary Cassatt, Victoria Woodhull, Sonia Sotomayor, and Maria Tallchief -- great American women who made achievements in medicine, science, politics, and the arts.

Despite reading those fascinating stories, the Great American my daughter chose to write about was Mo Willems.

My first thought was that he is "only a children's writer." And that says a lot more about me that about him.

Not only a children's writer -- he's a dinosaur too.
Willems has won six Emmys for his work with Sesame Street. He has three Caldecott honors. He won two Geisel Medals and Geisel honors five times. He has written and illustrated more New York Times bestsellers than I have manuscripts in my trunk.

He is far more accomplished in his career than I even hope to be in mine, so what does that say about how I value my own career as a children's writer, with one novel published and one picture book to come? It shows that I don't value my own career enough -- I have internalized that I am "only a children's writer."

Mo Willems is not "only a children's writer," and neither am I. Writing for kids is as important -- maybe more important -- than "important writing" for adults. Entertaining and educating children, making them think, laugh, and feel -- these things matter.

At the beginning of the school year, my daughter's teacher asked her who her favorite author was. She said, "My mom." She told me the story and I hugged her.

Then she said, "You're my favorite author as a person. If it's based on books, then Mo Willems, Nick Bruehl, and Bob Shea."

My daughter obviously hasn't learned yet that sometimes you need to know when to stop talking. But no matter how I made it on her list, it's a list I'm proud to be on, just as I'm proud to be part of the community of writers and book lovers that reads this blog.

My daughter says Mo Willems is a Great American. My daughter thinks what he does matters. She's right about him, and I should trust that she's right about me -- and all of you -- too. 

About Kell Andrews: I write for children of all ages. My middle-grade eco-mystery Deadwood  is out from Spencer Hill Press, and her my picture book Mira Forecasts the Future (illustrated by Lissy Marlin) will be released by Sterling Children's on June 14, 2016. You can also find me at or Twitter.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Attack of the SNI (Shiny New Ideas)

Me: *Stares at WIP on screen.*

SNI #1: Psst. Dianne.

Me: Go away. I’m busy.

SNI #1: It’s me. Your manuscript, XXXX, that you shelved two years ago. I was thinking, what if you changed me from YA to MG?

Me: That would be a major change. I’d have to practically gut the story and start over.

SNI #1: But it would address some of the feedback you got. All of the feedback, really.

Me: That’s a really interesting idea, but I’m working on something else right now.  *Stares at WIP. Types a comma. Deletes the comma.*

SNI #1: While you’re stuck, why don’t you make up a side-by-side outline – my chapters as they are now, and what would have to change to make the story MG.

Me: I’m not stuck. You’re bothering me.

SNI #1: Okay. I’ll go. But think about it.

Me: *Decides to re-read current chapter so far. Changes three words.*

SNI #2: Hey, Dianne, weren’t those two articles you read last night pretty cool? The one about gravitational waves and the other about turbulence and Van Gogh’s The Starry Night?

Me: Who are you?

SNI #2: You know who I am. Put the ideas in those two articles together and you get …

Me: You.

SNI #2: That’s right. Remember those 4 awesome adult science fiction books you read while you were laid up with a broken foot last month? If you were to write down your favorite thing about each of them, put that list together with the gravitational wave/turbulence thing, you’d probably have a really cool plan for a new story.

Me: But I’m busy with this other project right now.

SNI #2: Really? Doesn’t look like it.

SNI #3: And what about me?

Me: I remember you. I outlined you.

SNI #3: And then you never wrote me.

Me: You were boring. Like every other book idea I've tried to outline. I'm a pantster, and I need to accept that.

SNI #3: Maybe I wouldn’t be so boring if SNI #2 wasn’t hogging all the good ideas. Put the turbulence in my book! I want the cosmic turbulence!

Me: Look, I don’t want to write you now. *Points at WIP.* I like this one. My critique partners like this one. This is what I need to work on right now.

SNI #3: So why aren’t you typing?

Good question! Why aren’t I typing?
Maybe because my mind looks like this inside?

What's keeping you from writing today?

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Downs by Robert Lettrick

If life is a box of chocolates then the road to publication is a roller coaster. A wild and sometimes stomach-churning ride full of ups and downs. I haven't always been prepared for some of the downs. I'd already written two books and met my agent before I learned of the wonderful online support group made up of information-generous people who had successfully navigated the pitfalls before me. It took awhile for me to see that the lows are just as valuable to the growth of a writer as the highs, possibly more so.

For those of you just getting started, I’ve compiled a list of five “downs” I experienced over the course of my writing career and some tips on how to make the most of them. 

1). Writer’s Block
When I wrote my first book, I was cruising along, hitting my goal of one chapter every week with no problem. And then came chapter eleven. Evil chapter eleven. I was stuck on chapter eleven for a whole month before finally finding the plot again.
So what did I learn from my torment? Well, two things, really. First, writer’s block is sort of like a tree with shallow roots. If you push against it every day without letting up, it will eventually give way. Second, writer’s blocks aren’t always a bad thing. Sometimes the ideas that come quickly aren’t always best for your story. Writer’s blocks can be your brain’s way of saying “Give me a minute, I’m working on something great.”

2). Naysayers
A few years before I wrote my first novel, I did part-time work for a housekeeping company. I was the weekend window guy. About a month into the job, I was told that the owner was upset with me. On occasion I’d have a story idea and I’d take a few seconds to jot it down in the notebook I carried in my pocket. The boss did not consider this a productive use of break time. It was fine for other employees to step outside every couple of hours to smoke a cigarette, but not okay for me to spend a combined total of ten minutes brainstorming book ideas. Now if you’ve surrounded yourself with supportive people then kudos to you. But maybe you have an influential person in your life who, for whatever reason, is pushing at the back of your knees. If your dream is to someday become a published author then you have to tune them out. Most writers already have the parrot of self-doubt perched on one shoulder, so you shouldn't allow more to roost.

3). Rejection
I didn’t sell my first book. Or my second. And several publishers passed on my third book. Eleven out of the twelve we submitted to, if I remember correctly. We’ve all heard stories of classic books that endured a ticker tape parade of rejection letters before finding a publisher and eventually a worldwide readership. And just imagine all of those amazing manuscripts sitting on shelves gathering dust like the Ark of the Covenant because they didn't get past the industry's gatekeepers.
Rejection is just part of the business. It’s inevitable and it sucks. The thing to remember is that you can’t wear rejection like an albatross necklace. You have to shrug it off. Writing is work. It’s hard, often thankless, but never fruitless. Bookstores are shrines to people who refused to quit on themselves when the going got tough.

4). Bad Reviews
My first Goodreads review for Frenzy was positively glowing. It’s still my all-time favorite. I wish I could say I didn’t let it go to my head, but I didn’t have a Han Solo in my life to say “Don’t get cocky, kid.” And that’s why I was completely unprepared for my second review which arrived a few days later. To this day it's still the harshest I’ve ever received. Imagine the havoc that can play on a neophyte writer’s psyche! I waited on pins and needles for additional reviews to come in so I could find out which reviewer had my writing properly pegged. I stressed because I didn't have a Yoda on my back saying “Train yourself to let go.” I wish I had, because now I realize that bad reviews will only cut you as deeply as you let them. 
We all get bad reviews. It’s bound to happen when you create a product for public consumption. I’m sure at some point Steinbeck received a review from a critic who thought The Grapes of Wrath was too grapy or not grapy enough. 
I’m not suggesting you should ignore bad reviews. It’s just best to think of them as panning for gold. Sift through the dirt, and see if you can find something valuable. And by valuable, I mean anything that will help you become a better writer.

5). The Day Job
Many published writers have sources of income beyond their advances and royalties. I know a few who live off their book earnings, but they’re in the minority. There are others who manage to squirrel away enough money to write for stretches lasting months or even years, but savings dry up, and people need to eat. I have a day job. I’m a crew foreman for a small roofing company. It’s hard, dirty work, but I’m okay with it because it provides me with the level of flexibility I need to continue as a writer. Appreciate your day job because it affords you the opportunity to do what you love without starving for your dream. 

Friday, February 19, 2016

Blue Birds winner

Congratulations to Kristin L. Gray! Kristin, if we haven't touched base already please email me your mailing address and you'll have your book shortly.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Marrying Story Structure and Character Arcs by Joanna Roddy

I'm a natural planner, but over the past year or two, I've been trying to loosen up and just write, as I've shared here before. But, at least for me, even when I'm letting the story lead me step by step as I'm writing it, I like to still have in my head the big beats I need to hit and where I hope to arrive at the end. I've also tried to press into character arcs as an equally important motion of the plot. 

As I've been working on my current project, I've discovered an approach that is giving me what seems to be the perfect balance between plan and discovery and between plot and character. I've been wanting to share this technique with you, and it makes a nice dovetail to Chris's post last week on layering plot and character in story. 

You may have heard about seven point plot structure before. It's kind of a hero's journey lite, if you're familiar with that approach. I heard about seven point plot structure from a writer friend, but when I looked it up, the blogs I found only confused me. Hook? Pinch Point? Plot Turn? The descriptions were vague and uninspiring. 

But then my friend directed me to the videos of Dan Wells presenting at a writing symposium using the seven points for story structure. If you want a quick master class on writing, I encourage you to set aside forty-five minutes and take yourself out to coffee with headphones, a laptop, and this link

In the case that you don't have time to go watch the whole thing right now, I'll give you the one paragraph summary in the order Wells directs you to plan the points (which is not the order they will happen in your story): 

1. Figure out how you want the story to end (Resolution). 
2. Create a beginning with an opposite status quo (Hook). 
3. The middle should be when your character makes the deliberate choice to pursue the Resolution (Midpoint). 
4. Set the character in motion from the Hook toward the Midpoint. Call them out of the status quo and introduce conflict (Plot Turn 1). 
5. Get the character the last and most important thing they need to accomplish the Resolution (Plot Turn 2). 
6. Apply pressure, force your characters to action, and create hurdles to their goals on either side of your Midpoint (Pinch Points 1 and 2). 

So now you have your seven points. This is the order they'll occur for your reader:

This is pretty straightforward stuff. It's a way to do it, and it pretty nearly encompasses most story-telling from a western worldview. What I like most about Wells's presentation is when he takes the character arcs, main plot, and subplots (using The Matrix as his example) and charts where each point of the the story structure occurs for each one and how they then weave together in the chronology of the story. 

This got me excited and it got me thinking about how seven point plotting takes shape for characters, something Wells doesn't have time to fully unpack during his presentation.

I understood the idea of a Hook to Resolution arc for any character, but the finer details evaded me. I had to dig a little deeper to understand what a Midpoint would mean for a character arc. That's when I discovered this excellent series of posts by K.M. Weiland

She argues that in the beginning of a story, the hero is operating from a lie about who they are, what they are capable of, or what the world is like. This lie shapes who they are and how they are. The Resolution for that character will be to reject the lie and learn, accept, and live out the truth instead. So, then, the Midpoint is when the character is able to finally see and accept the truth, but still has not rejected the lie or its effects on their choices. This enlightens the rest of the seven points for character arc. The Plot Turns introduce the truth, expose the lie, and give the character what they need to reach the Resolution. The Pinch Points refute the truth, reinforce the lie, and create barriers to the character's journey to truth. 

Brilliant stuff, right? To have this internally-driven structure woven into the externally-driven one allows for complexity, ingenuity, and well-rounded characters amidst a satisfying story. 

As I'm drafting a novel right now, the seven plot points are really helping. Some of the story points will happen simultaneously with character points, but some will occur separately. Many of the points are already clear scenes in my mind. But there are so many other scenes and so much happening between the points in order to get the story there, they serve more as guideposts than outline. It's definitely pacifying my inner Hermione Granger who needs to have answers, but it's giving spaciousness for the story to open itself to me as I write it. I'm loving that balance.

Have you used seven point plot structure before? Have you applied it to character development? Have you encountered other teachers/bloggers/writers who have an approach to it that you've found helpful? Please share in the comments below!

Monday, February 15, 2016

Blue Birds: The Evolution of a Cover + Giveaway

As I write, sometimes an image for a book’s cover starts to form in my mind. Back in 2014, when my editor told me cover discussions for my historical novel, Blue Birds, were underway, I took a moment to get on paper the idea I that had been with me almost from the start. It wasn’t meant as direction for illustrators Elena and Anna Balbusso, it was simply a chance for me to record what I had been picturing for months.

Because Blue Birds tells the story of friendship, I knew both girls needed to be on the cover. But how to do this was complicated. Kimi wore only a skirt -- the clothing typical of the Roanoke Indians in the summer months. This sketch was my simple solution.

I set it aside, having shown no one. So it was with great surprise and a handful of goosebumps that I saw the cover art for the first time.

I was struck with the similarity between the ideas: my two characters, Kimi (on the left) and Alis (on the right) holding the wooden bird they share. Even details about which girl was on which side, whose hand was above and whose beneath -- they were exactly the same. If you look closely, the pearls I included in my sketch are also present in the picture. And with gorgeous depictions of local flora (the white flowers are the "star-centered beauties" Alis picks for her mother), the Balbussos were able to place both girls front and center.

When the cover was revealed at The Nerdy Book Club the summer of 2014, Art Director Irene Vandervoort shared her "aim [for Blue Birds] was for art that spoke to the book and felt classic and timeless... I wanted there to be no mistaking that this was/is a book of historical fiction. The most important aspect of the cover to me was to show these two very different girls and their unlikely friendship and bond."

The Balbussos said "The central idea of the cover is to communicate the meeting of the girls of two different cultures and their friendship through their mutual gaze and the union of their hands (one with light skin and one with dark-skinned). We chose the path of symmetrical composition to show both girls very similar but of a different race, without privileging one girl but equal representation. Their eyes meet for communicating friendship, equality, complicity."

Friendship. Equality. Girls who are similar, even in their difference. These ideas were everything I hoped the cover art would tell about the story and are exactly what the Balbussos so beautifully created.

This January the paperback version of Blue Birds released with a different cover, one that's both new and entirely familiar. I love the way it comes full circle, echoes the idea that started as I drafted, stayed with me as I revised.

I'm giving away one paperback copy to a Project Mayhem reader. To enter, simply leave a comment below. The contest closes Thursday, February 18 with the winner announced the following day. U.S. residents only, please.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

In Praise of Silence by Michael Gettel-Gilmartin

Margaret Forster, an English novelist, died on February the 8th. Never heard of her? Neither had I--although in her obituary I read that she published 25 novels and 14 biographies, including Georgy Girl, which inspired a movie and a song by The Seekers .

Why am I telling you about Margaret Forster? Well, her obituary noted that she refused to do book signings and gadding about the place, because writers are "solitary creatures and not performing monkeys."

Writers may indeed be solitary creatures, but nowadays there is a way to be very social: social media. From the comfort of our garretts, we can engage with the whole wide world on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and blogs like this. If we want to, we can fill our days with noise and chatter.

Noise and chatter are everywhere. Let me tell you a story: I'm a great fan of acupuncture. Here, in Portland, Oregon, I've found a low-cost clinic called Working Class Acupuncture, which practices group treatments. About a dozen recliners fill a long room. Soft music hums, and the acupuncturist goes from patient to patient, talking quietly about the needed treatment. Once needled, people often doze off--as I did yesterday, when I was woken by the noise a smart phone makes when a text message arrives.

Yes, the woman next to me, needles all over her head, hands, and feet, was carrying on a text message conversation "Yikes!" I thought, "can some people never relax?"

I don't think you can disagree with the fact that writers need solitude and quiet (as do acupunture patients.) To burrow deeply into our creative minds, we need to shut that figurative--and possibly literal--door, and have the time and leisure to think. 

In August 2012, Junot Diaz, who wrote the stunning The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was interviewed by The Guardian. Here is part of what he said:

Author Junot Diaz
Time for Reading 'Should Not Be an Unattainable Thing'

"Books are surviving in this intense, fragmented, hyper-accelerated present, and my sense and hope is that things will slow down again and people will want more time for a contemplative life. There is no way people can keep up this pace. No one is happy. Two or three hours to read should not be an unattainable thing, although I hope we get to that stage without needing a corporate sponsored app to hold our hand. The utopian in me has my fingers crossed that we haven't quite figured out the digital future just yet. After all, the one thing we know about people: they always surprise."

(Junot, I'm trying to prise out my eye-teeth for those two to three reading hours you mention. I'm lucky to get thirty minutes before nodding off to sleep at night. Still need to work on that!)

Then, from a longer piece from an Oregon writer, Matt Love, who's a great essayist:
Commentators frequently place the primary blame on cellphones, but really, fault lies with the addicts who habitually wield them. I say all this with a unique perspective because I live near the No. 1 tourist attraction in the state -- the Oregon Coast -- and routinely see tourists on the beach allowing cellphones to conquer their solitude. And I'm not talking about using them to take photographs or write poetry. I'm talking about willfully abandoning a temporary isolation to engage in what the Sex Pistols called "blah, blah, blah." 

(I tell you, the "Smart Phone" has taken over the known universe. I may be an alien life form: I don't have one. But I've certainly watched enough parents ignoring their children at playgrounds and swimming pools in favor of staring at mini-screens.)

It's easy to sound holier than thou, but I really think a writer can benefit from taking a detour off the information super highway--even for just a couple of hours a day. Do you agree? What steps do you take to usher in the sounds of silence?

Monday, February 8, 2016

Plot-Driven or Character-Driven? Why Not Both! by Chris Eboch

Author Chris Eboch
This post is adapted from You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, from Chapter 5: Characters.

Some authors prefer to start with a plot idea, while others start with an interesting character. Either can work, but ultimately the plot and character must work together. Let’s start with a look at character development, as it intersects with plot.

A strong story needs conflict. Without conflict, you have one of those “slice of life” episodes that isn’t a real story. But conflict doesn’t just come from dramatic things happening. It comes from the character – what he or she needs and wants, and why he or she can’t get it easily. Conflict comes from a character with a problem or a goal.

Let’s start with a premise: a kid has a math test on Monday. Exciting? Hardly. But ask two simple questions, and you can add conflict.

·     Why is it important to the character? The stakes should be high. The longer the story or novel, the higher stakes you need to sustain it. A short story character might want to win a contest; a novel character might need to save the world.

·     Why is it difficult for the character? Difficulties can be divided into three general categories, traditionally called man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself. You can even have a combination of these. For example, someone may be trying to spy on some bank robbers (man versus man) during a dangerous storm (man versus nature) when he is afraid of lightning (man versus himself).

For our kid with the math test, here’s one example: It’s important because if he doesn’t pass, he’ll fail the class, have to go to summer school, and not get to go to football camp, when football is what he loves most. Assuming we create a character readers like, they’ll care about the outcome of this test and root for him to succeed.

Our football lover could have lots of challenges – he forgot his study book, he’s expected to baby-sit a sibling, a storm knocked out the power, he has ADHD, or he suffers test anxiety. But ideally we’ll relate the difficulty to the reason it’s important. So let’s say he has a game Sunday afternoon and is getting pressure from his coach and teammates to practice rather than study. Plus he’d rather play football anyway.

We now have a situation full of potential tension. Let the character struggle enough before he succeeds (or fails and learns a lesson), and you’ll have a story. And if these two questions can pump up a dull premise, just think what they can do with an exciting one!

Fears and Desires

As that example shows, conflict comes from the interaction between character and plot. You can create conflict by setting up situations that force a person to confront their fears. If someone is afraid of heights, make them go someplace high. If they’re afraid of taking responsibility, force them to be in charge.

For example, my middle grade fantasy The Genie’s Gift is set in the fifteenth-century Middle East and draws on the mythology of 1001 Arabian Nights. It could have been simply a magical adventure tale, but the main character gives the story depth. She is anything but the typical swashbuckling hero:

“Thirteen-year-old Anise, shy and timid, dreads marrying the man her father chooses for her. Her aunt tells her about the Genie Shakayak, the giver of the Gift of Sweet Speech, which allows one to charm everyone. Anise is determined to find the genie and ask for the gift, so she can control her own future. But the way is barred by a series of challenges, both ordinary and magical. How will Anise get past a vicious she-ghoul, a sorceress who turns people to stone, and mysterious sea monsters, when she can’t even speak in front of strangers?”

Because Anise is so desperate to reach her goal, she tackles challenges far beyond her comfort zone. This makes the dramatic action even more dramatic, while providing a sympathetic character and a theme about not letting your fears stop you from achieving your dreams.

You can also create conflict by setting up situations that oppose a person’s desires. Sometimes these desires are for practical things. In my middle grade mystery set in ancient Egypt, The Eyes of Pharaoh, the main character is a young temple dancer whose one goal is to win an upcoming contest. When her friend disappears, she has to decide if winning the contest is really more important than helping a friend.

Perhaps your character simply wants an ordinary life. In my Mayan historical novel, The Well of Sacrifice, Eveningstar never dreams of being a leader or a rebel. But when her family, the government, and even the gods fail to stop the evil high priest who is trying to take over the city, she’s forced to act. The reluctant hero is a staple of books and movies because it’s fun to watch someone forced into a heroic role when they don’t want it. (Think of Han Solo in Star Wars.)

To build conflict:

·     Start with the character’s goal. Create conflict by setting up situations which oppose a person’s needs and desires.
·     What does your main character want? What does he need? Make these things different, and you’ll add tension. It can be as simple as our football player who wants to practice football, but needs to study. Or it could be more subtle, like someone who wants to be protected but needs to learn independence. (Or the reverse, someone who wants independence but still needs to be protected. Those two characters could even be in the same story. Life is complex, with many shades of gray, and books can explore that.)
·     Even if your main problem is external (man versus man or man versus nature), consider giving the character an internal flaw (man versus himself) that contributes to the difficulty. Perhaps your character has a temper, is lazy, or refuses to ever admit she’s wrong. This helps set up your complications and as a bonus makes your character seem more real.
·     Your character may change or grow as a person during the story. This is called a character arc. A character who changes is usually more interesting than one who does not. However, growth does not always mean a reversal of attitude. The growth can come from reaffirming what the character already knew. For example, a child could know what is right but struggle to do it. In the end he does what is right, growing by following and reinforcing his beliefs.
·     A character’s growth can reflect your theme, by showing what the character learns.
·     Before you start, test the idea by considering different options. Change the character’s age, gender, or looks. Change the point of view. Change the setting. Change the internal conflict. What happens? Choose the combination that has the most dramatic potential.
·     The conflict must be important enough to sustain the story, and it must not be too easy to solve. This will vary by story length and readership age group.
·     It should take more than one attempt to solve the problem – three tries works well for shorter fiction. For longer fiction, add more attempts, or have each attempt made up of several parts.
·     To build original plots, brainstorm 10 possible things that could happen next. Pick the least likely, so long as it makes sense for the story.

Some writers start with plot ideas and then develop the character who’ll face those challenges, while others start with a great character and then figure out what he or she does. Regardless, remember to work back and forth between plot and character, tying them together with conflict.

You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers offers an overview on writing for young people. Learn how to find ideas and develop those ideas into stories, articles, and books. Understand the basics of character development, plot, setting, and theme – and some advanced elements, along with how to use point of view, dialogue, and thoughts. Finally, learn about editing your work and getting critiques.

You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers is available for the Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.

Note: If you order the print or large print version from Amazon, you can get the Kindle version as a free add-on. You Can Write for Children includes many links to additional resources; in the Kindle version you can click to go directly to the websites or blogs listed. If you don't have a Kindle, download a free Kindle app for your computer.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Some thoughts on Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate (by Paul Greci)

I was intrigued by one of the themes in Crenshaw, families who fall on hard times and find themselves homeless. As someone who has been in the field of education for 25 years I’ve seen this scenario many times.

Two of the many things I loved about Crenshaw were the emotional realism of the main character, and the way we are allowed into his world through his quirky, contagious, voice. Even if homelessness isn’t high your list of topics to read about like it is on mine, you’ll want to read Crenshaw for the voice.

Jackson is still a kid even though he has to deal with things that might make a kid grow up faster than what is ideal, and that comes through in his voice. 

The excerpt below is from the beginning of Chapter Two:

“Here’s the thing: I am not an imaginary friend kind of guy.
Seriously. This fall I go into fifth grade. At my age, it’s not good to have a reputation for being crazy.
I like facts. Always have. True stuff. Two-plus-two-equals-four facts. Brussels-sprouts-taste-like-dirty-gym-socks facts.
Okay, maybe that second one’s just an opinion. And anyway, I’ve never eaten a dirty gym sock so I could be wrong.”

From the Jacket Flap:

Jackson and his family have fallen on hard times. There's no more money for rent. And not much for food, either. His parents, his little sister, and their dog may have to live in their minivan. Again.

Crenshaw is a cat. He's large, he's outspoken, and he's imaginary. He has come back into Jackson's life to help him. But is an imaginary friend enough to save this family from losing everything?

Beloved author Katherine Applegate proves in unexpected ways that friends matter, whether real or imaginary.
Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Deliver a Successful Author PowerPoint Presentation via Skype by Donna Galanti

I was excited to conduct my first Skype visit in January. I had planned to do just a Q&A but thought it would be a good test to try a shortened version of my in-person PowerPoint presentation. It worked wonderfully and the students really enjoyed it. I’m sharing what I’ve learned from this fun process! 

How to Run a PowerPoint via Skype:
  • My presentation has several animated GIFs (a huge hit!) and video so I wanted to ensure they worked. Testing it with the school beforehand confirmed that it did.
  • Have your PowerPoint presentation open in edit mode and ready to go in slide show mode. Make sure all other programs are closed on your computer.
  • Video call your contact in Skype (make sure the video icon at the bottom is on so you can see each other).
  • Click the + sign at the bottom of your screen and choose Share Screens.
  • Click Start and your presentation will come up on their screen with a thumbnail window of you.
  • Start your slideshow and walk through it.
  • When done click Stop Sharing and the presentation will close and you will be full screen again.

My Skype Presentation Tips:
  • Friend the teacher on Skype and conduct a test sharing your PowerPoint presentation. The school will want to project it on a screen or SmartBoard.
  • Be prepared for the presentation to crash. I’ve heard from some authors this can happen especially if the school’s internet is not strong. I decided that if this continually happened I would end the presentation and switch to Q&A. I also let the teacher know this as well.  Alternate choice: go through your slides without being in slideshow format. This may reduce issues. However, the audience will see the edit mode of your presentation and your video/animation won’t play unless you click to play.
  • Practice your presentation beforehand and time it. My 4th grade period was 45 minutes long but it took the teacher a few minutes to settle them down before she called me. I took my full 50 minute in-person presentation and cut it to 20-25 minutes allowing for 10 minutes of Q&A at the end. I think even a 15 minute presentation plus Q&A would be fine as well.
  • Beforehand, ask the teacher to have the students push their desks back and sit in rows of chairs to make it easier for them to get to the microphone and ask questions.
  • Limit the Skype visit to 50 students or two classrooms combined.
  • Set up a spot for your computer screen and clear the space behind you to create a presentable backdrop when on camera. Especially if you mean to scan your office to show the students!
  • Make sure your speaker volume is turned up! This will ensure you can hear the reaction of the students and their answers to any questions as you go along in your presentation.
  • Ask the teacher to turn the computer to face the students so you see them and their reactions and not you on the big screen. Otherwise, it’s very hard to gauge the student’s interest and reactions!
  • Take a screen shot of your Skype presentation in the middle of it to save as an image to use for social media later.
  • Plan ahead for the class to purchase your books. I have an arrangement with the representative of my local bookshop and we’ve created a new process for Skype and in-person visits. For both visits she sends the teacher an order form weeks ahead of time (so be sure to schedule your visits 4-6 weeks in advance). The teacher collects orders with checks made out to the school and the school sends the bookshop one check. For in-person visits I sign and take the books with me and they receive a 20% discount. For Skype, the bookshop offers a 15% discount to cover the costs to ship the books. This new process seems to be working out!

Keep in mind students will be excited during your visit and want to order your book, if they didn’t do so ahead of time. I let them know they can still order the book via my local bookshop and the bookshop coordinates that with the teacher.

Giving a Skype visit was very similar to presenting in person as I engaged with the audience throughout my presentation and ended with Q&A – but of course, did not have to leave the comfort of my home!

Additional resources:
Want to add fun animated GIFs to your presentation?
I use where you can search by topic or add your own clips to create an animated GIF.

Want to grab video to use from any source? I recommend Bandicam (okay, really my 12-year-old son did and showed me how to use it). You can download the program for free and use it to record any video snippets to use in your presentation. 

How to use Bandicam screen recording software:
  • Download Bandicam to your computer.
  • Open it from the icon on desktop.
  • A window will pop up to record.
  • Open the video you want to capture. If it’s a portion of the video make sure it’s paused right where you want to start recording.
  • Once you open your video, a blank window in Bandicam will pop up with a REC button in the upper right corner.
  • Move the blank window over your video. You can click the borders on the top and bottom to frame the video exactly where you want.
  • Click the REC button.
  • When the video ends where you want it to then click the square STOP button next to record.
  • It will record all within that window so make sure you don’t move your mouse through it as it will record that as well.  
  • You can also use this program to just capture an image and not video. Click the camera icon next to the REC button for capturing an image only.
  • Click on your Bandicam icon on your computer screen at the bottom and the window will pop up again with selections.
  • Choose the file folder icon at the top and this will show you where your video file is. Copy it to whatever folder you want.
  • The selection window is where you can also choose Settings before you record your video to make the file smaller. I discovered this when I did video for my website as it wouldn’t let me load over 50mg file so I had to reduce the video. Just click Settings to see choices.
Note, the video you create will have titled at the top unless you pay for their service but I don’t think it takes away from the presentation. Check out a website with an educator's guide on copyright, fair use, and creative commons using video for education purposes.

Insert Video into your PowerPoint Presentation: 
  • Open your presentation and the slide you want video in.Click Insert and then Video (all the way to the right in the top menu).
  • Then click Video from File.
  • Select your video from the folder you have it in.
  • When inserted then click the video image still for Video Tools options menu at the top.
  • Click Playback.
  • Make sure the box Start Automatically is checked if you want it to start once the slide opens in the show – or if you want to click the video to start during your presentation then don’t check this box.
  • In Video Tools you can also choose for the video to loop or fade in or out.
A great website resource for creating school visits is School Visit Experts.

Have you ever done a Skype PowerPoint presentation or other kind of Skype visit? Did you use video as well? Share your advice and tips here!