Friday, November 25, 2011

Ever Talk to Three-hundred Sixteen-year-olds?

A few weeks ago I was asked if I would speak to seven classes of sophomores at a local high school about writing. I agreed and two weeks ago Friday was the day. For the weeks leading up to it, I spent most of my free time putting together what I had hoped was an interesting presentation. I felt pretty prepared. I used a mix of writing tips, stories about why I write, and a fire department tale or two in hopes of having something that everyone in the class could enjoy.

I'm not going to lie to you--I was pretty nervous about the whole situation. OK, so I wasn't as bad as the kid in the video, but you get my point. After all, I'm a firefighter/paramedic/author and nowhere does that say public speaker. Not to mention, I wasn't given any direction as to what the teachers wanted me to cover. All I knew was I had 45 minutes to fill.

The first class was for about 60 kids. In hindsight, I think I prefer the bigger classes because there seems to be more participation. That first class went pretty smooth and I thought, This is going to go better than I thought.

And then the second class of about 25 students entered. One kid put his head on his desk before I even started and slept through my entire presentation. None of the other kids participated and I was stuck on an island. About half way through my spiel, I was ready to quit. I was stammering my way through while they could care less. At the end I asked for questions and heard crickets instead. I was ready to run screaming for the door. With five more classes I was a wreck. But I stuck with it and started building confidence with each class.

By the last few classes, I was joking and interacting with the kids and felt a lot better, if not slightly fatigued. The teachers repeatedly complemented my presentation and thanked me for discussing topics that they struggle to get through to their students. You know, show, don't tell and revise, revise, revise--those kinds of things.

So, the question becomes, would I do this again? My short answer is yes. (It has to be, since I am scheduled to give my presentation to one-hundred and fifty thirteen-year-olds next month.) I guess you'd like to know if it was worth my time and effort. I suppose I'd have to say yes. First of all, anytime you do something out of your comfort zone, I think you grow as a person. And second, there are now 300+ teen-agers who have met me and have been exposed to my work.

Financially, I only sold six books, but my Amazons sales spiked a bit in the days after, so who knows if that was the reason. Overall, six books after speaking to 300 kids was a bit of a disappointment, but it quickly became obvious that my presentation wasn't the problem. If I had to put my finger on why I did poorly in sales, I'd point to three reasons. For one, they are teen-agers. Money is a rare commodity and at 16 years old, I doubt their parents were shelling out much cash for their teen-agers' entertainment. At sixteen if my parents gave me fifteen bucks for a book, I'd probably put it into my gas tank or something else. My second guess is that fantasy has a very particular and specific fanbase and doesn't appeal to everyone. In fact, a lot of kids showed more interest in my coming werewolf story than the fantasy I was there promoting. And the third reason for poor sales would be peer pressure. If several kids lined up, I think it would have been contagious.

I have heard that children's book authors do extremely well with school presentations, but it didn't seem to translate to the older kids. I'm hoping my presentation next month to the thirteen-year-olds produce better results since those kids might be more likely to be excited about meeting an author.

We shall see. I've got my fingers crossed.


  1. I found this very interesting, Doug, because I too have been asked to speak to a group of teens. I think my job will be easier though because they belong to a book club at their school library and according to the school librarian (who asked me to speak) they are all 'keen readers'. Whether that means they'll be easy to connect to or not, time will tell! Anyway, I think you were fabulously brave to take on six classes of kids all in one day - I admire your stamina! And even if you only affected the lives of the six kids who bought your book, I'd say that was well worth it.
    Good job!

  2. Cas, Good luck. I found that the 2 honors English classes were immensely easier and more engaged than the other 5 classes. You'll do great. You'll love it.

  3. Oh my gosh, how FUN! I want to do some school visits once my YA book is out in May. My mom works at a school library, so that will be helpful. Reading about your experience makes me excited! A little nervous, but excited. :)