School visits

Or ‘what you want vs what they want’

Every now and then I’m invited to do a school visit, usually during National Literacy Week, Childrens’ Book Week, or one of the other events where kids are encouraged to pack up the Gameboys and Xboxes and pick up a slab of papery goodness instead.

First, I don’t see these visits as an opportunity to promote my books. Sometimes I wave one of my novels around to establish my credentials, but I’m not there on a pitch ‘n’ sales trip. Usually I’ll talk about writing and being an author, but I don’t bother to explain plots or tell them about the characters. In many cases the kids I’m talking to are too young to read the things anyway.

Second, before the visit I like to ask teachers whether there’s anything in particular I should talk about. Sometimes they’re happy to leave me to it, but occasionally they’ll tell me about a class project or a book the kids have been reading, and even if I just mention it in passing it’s something for the kids to hang on to.

Kids also love stories, so I’ll often throw in an anecdote or two, something from my past which proves that I too was once their age. (I know, tricky one that.)

It’s not easy to speak for forty minutes, so I’ve come up with a batch of 50-60 prompt cards which have a sentence or two printed on them. If I get stuck I grab a card at random, glance at it and start talking.

One thing I never do is talk down the kids. I speak to them as equals, treat every question seriously, and try to make the visit useful to them all. Sure, you get some who’d rather be outside kicking a football around, but that’s where it helps if you know your sports too ;-)

You can still do school visits even if your books were written for the adult market (as mine were.) Obviously, authors of erotica are out of luck here, but as long as your books are clean enough you can still do an author visit to talk about writing and publishing.

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  1. 1. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    So what are some of the examples of your prompts?

    Di

  2. 2. Simon Haynes

    Here are a few at random. If I don’t feel like talking about one at that particular moment I just shove it to the back and take the next. Also, if the kids ask questions I go with it. These are just for the moments when they’re all staring at you, willing you to say something.
    Before the talk I usually go through the cards and pull the ones I think will suit. E.g. younger groups aren’t that interested in publishing, stories about working with an editor and so on.

    “How do you come up with your characters?”
    “Are you worried about copying from other authors?”
    “How much money do you make from each book?” (They’re often interested in this one. Most thing authors get the entire sticker price.)
    “Where does the rest go?”
    Comment on reviews, good and bad. And reviewers.
    How many words a day.
    How many words in a novel (and how long is a piece of string!)
    Anecdote about an intro I once got before a talk.
    “Where do you get your ideas?” (They’re going to ask that one anyway …)
    Favourite authors, books. Discover what theirs are and why.
    The futuristic technology they’re using right now. What other tech would they like to see?
    Plotting, planning, outlining.

  3. 3. S.C. Butler

    In connection with your comment about kids asking how much money you make from your books, I often find them somewhat incredulous when I tell them I gave up a financial job for the relative penury of writing.

    But then the teachers love the fact that I’m encouraging the kids to look beyond the cash.

  4. 4. Stephen Dedman

    I’ve done a few school visits, and even though they’re not the group I mostly write for, I’ve found upper primary classes (4-7) to be the most fun. Year 8s are too self-conscious, Years 10+ too fixated on exams. Most discouraging response I ever had was from a Year 9 who hissed as she left “We COULD have had a video!”

    The trick I use most often to keep the kids involved is to say that if they run out of questions to ask, I’ll make them write something.

  5. 5. Simon Haynes

    I totally agree on the years 4-7. My kids are roughly in that age group, which helps, and I always ask for that range if I have a choice.

    I’ve spoken to other groups with more or less success, and individual classes can all be different, but I think years 4-7 still find the idea of writing exciting where older kids have been forced to read one too many classics. (In other words, we get the same reception as the author of a text-book.)

  6. 6. Maria V. Snyder

    Hi Simon! I found with school visits that even if the kids are too young to read your book, their parents aren’t. I will talk a little about my books (but mostly about writing etc.) and give all the kids a bookmark to take home. Later, during school events, I always get one or two mothers who come up to me and say they heard about me from their child and bought a book.

    I also like to bring in my 500 page manuscript to show the kids – I’m a bit of a show-off and do a skit where I pretend to type on a cordless keyboard and then say, “…after 9 months of hard work here’s what I have…” Then I slam the thick wad on the floor. The kids jump a foot, but they love it (a grown-up making noise in school).

  7. 7. Simon Haynes

    Yep, I’ve done the manuscript trick. However, I tell them it’s my speech, and today I combined it with Stephen’s suggestion and said I’d read it if they stopped asking questions.

    8 groups down, one more to go tomorrow. Sore thoat now, but it’s been fun. One teacher even handed me 15-20 sheets with a question on each from all the kids. I just spent a couple of hours hand-writing individual replies. Deadline? What deadline? (I’m supposed to hand my latest MS in next Monday.)

Author Information

Simon Haynes

Simon is the author of the Hal Spacejock series, featuring intergalactic loser Hal and his junky sidekick, Clunk. His website contains a number of articles on writing and publishing, and he's also the programmer of several freeware apps including yBook, BookDB and yWriter. In his spare time(!) he helps to run Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. Visit site.

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