Tuesday, July 19, 2016

GUEST POST: "The Art of the Middle School Presentation" by Laura Martin

You wrote a middle grade novel. Good for you!

You found an agent (lucky dog) and got published (yippee!)

Now you have this bright shiny book in your hands…and it needs to sell. Insert an ominous cricket soundtrack here…

Problem: your target audience isn’t old enough to drive themselves to the bookstore yet. And even if they do manage to catch a ride there, they probably don’t have any of their own money to spend on your precious book.

Everything I’ve read describes the middle grade market as a “slow burn” and that books need to get popular by “word of mouth.”  These phrases suck, to be quite honest, because other than your mother and a few select friends who love you enough to read your middle grade novel, NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT YOUR BOOK.


Enter the school visit.

I taught seventh grade language arts for six years and during that time I saw the good, the bad, and the ugly when it came to presentations. Middle school kids are a breed of their own. They can be intimidating, rowdy, and down right mean if you let them, but they can also be the best possible audience for a writer.

Luckily for you I’m here to share some of my tricks of the trade, and most importantly what NOT to do when you make your school visits to a middle school.

1. Talking to middle school kids is NOT like talking to adults. Adults will sit silently and politely even if they find you incredibly dull. Middle school kids…not so much. Some of them have the attention span of Dori from Finding Nemo. Bless them. For that reason, plan on doing something other than standing behind a podium and talking. Move around the room. Use your hands, expression, inflection, and impersonations if you can pull them off. Basically, make your high school speech teacher proud. If you can bring some visuals into your presentation-do it. I have a book about dinosaurs so I bring in a tote bag full of dinosaurs to my presentation that I can use to keep the kids focused. I do NOT, under any circumstances, pass them around. This would lead to chaos and bedlam and someone getting wacked over the head with a plastic T-Rex. I also show up with a power point with high interest pictures and key points, and a few minute long video clips on the dinosaurs featured in the book. 

2. The majority of your audience might hate reading, and they probably hate writing too. It’s a shame, but it’s true.  Your job is to make what you are talking about resonate with them anyway. If you are talking about the publishing process, make sure you apply that process to other goals or dreams the kids might have. Throw in some pop culture references. Be funny. If they like you, they are more likely to want to buy your book. 

3. They have the middle school equivalent of “Mob Mentality”. Odds are that they are in a larger group in order to hear your presentation. They have friends around that they normally wouldn’t, and this offers more protection and anonymity than they’re used to. It’s like the perfect storm for chaos. Your job is to not let that happen. There was nothing worse as a teacher than having a presenter who cowered and looked terrified every time the kids started murmuring or talking during a presentation. An effective presenter keeps them focused. Even if you need to give one or two of them the stink eye and remind them to “stay with you.”

4. They think odd things are funny. I made a reference in one of my talks to “hitting brick walls” in my path to publishing. Now I wasn’t talking about literally hitting a brick wall. But from the way the kids lost it, I might as well have. I’ll never forget as a teacher I mentioned to my students that my little brother used to “get away with murder” when we were kids, and you should have seen their jaws drop. I quickly had to explain that my brother had not, in fact, killed anyone. When you prepare your presentation, try to think through it like a middle school kid.  If you can use one of these to get a laugh, do it. But no matter what, always make yourself the butt of the joke. There is nothing more mortifying to the middle school mentality than looking dumb in front of their friends. 

5. Bring something nice for the teacher or librarian that organized your visit. They went through A LOT of hassle to get you there-notifying parents, getting approval from the powers-that-be, reminding students to order your book, reserving auditorium space, shuffling schedules, reminding the students AGAIN to order your book because middle school kids struggle to remember things etc. etc. ALL of that is a huge headache. Reward them somehow. It doesn’t have to be big- a five-dollar Starbucks or Barnes and Noble gift card is perfect. But DON’T bring homemade baked goods. Teachers, especially middle school teachers, have developed a healthy wariness of the homemade baked good. I had a student one year who repeatedly used the excuse that “his cat peed on it” to explain his missing homework. He brought me a gigantic box of beautiful homemade fudge as a Christmas treat. I couldn’t bring myself to eat it…

6. Fake it till you make it.  Are you nervous? Hide it. Are you sweaty? Wear light colors and keep your arms down. Do crowds make you jittery? Get over it. Whatever you do, act like you do this ALL THE TIME. Middle school kids can smell fear a mile away. The very first group of students I ever taught didn’t know it was my first year of teaching until the very last day of school. Pretend like you are calm, cool, and collected…and they will believe you. 

Perfect the school visit, and you won’t have to worry about that elusive middle grade marketing mess. You’ll have made an impression on readers who will be loyal to you and your books for years to come.

Laura Martin believes in chasing her dreams and she brought that philosophy to her classroom for six years as a seventh grade English teacher.  Edge of Extinction-The Ark Plan is Laura’s first novel—and a dream come true. When she isn’t writing stories about dinosaurs and underground civilizations, she can be found in the Indianapolis area with her dashing husband, Josh, her adorable kids, daughter London and son Lincoln, and two opinionated bulldogs.

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1 comment:

  1. Great post Laura! I jumped into middle school visits last year as well. Good tip on not passing your props around. I have an interactive skit that needed tweaking. I left too much open for improvisation and quickly realized kids need exact instruction and choices - so I changed it to be just that while still allowing for them to have free expression. When it comes to skits simple and less is better! Thanks for all the great tips. Here is a post I did on creating your school presentation:

    Bet you have some great advice in that area too!


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