Back to School

By Sherry — I’m just back from spending time with the Wickeds in Massachusetts. We had so much fun doing a panel at the Milton Library with Hallie Ephron moderating.

For our Thankful for Our Readers giveaway I’m giving away a set of all four Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries to one commenter. Leave a comment for a chance to win!

Recently a Facebook friend asked me if I would talk via Skype to three classes of sixth graders in New Port Richey, Florida. They are taking a creative writing class. I said yes and then immediately regretted it because I was afraid I didn’t have anything interesting to say.

I gave myself a talking to (okay, many talking to’s). I told myself it would be fine, that I could handle a bunch of sixth graders. The morning of the event as it got closer to the time of the first class, I remembered the advice of author Linda Barnes at Crime Bake. She said pacing and twirling your arms around would disburse some of the adrenaline flowing through your body. I did that. Then I remembered something Julie said about voice exercises so I shook my jaw back and forth saying something like blub, blub, blub. It wasn’t pretty.

Minutes later, there I was, a big giant head via Skype and a classroom full of kids staring at me hopefully. I didn’t want to let them down. I introduced myself and the kids had a bunch of questions for me. So here are some of the things we talked about.

Who does the covers for your books? I told them that Kensington has an art department and that my editor asked me for input. I was the one who suggested having a tag on the cover. The art department did it beautifully.

How much money do you make? Enough to live comfortably in a cardboard box under an overpass. I explained that most authors either have a day job or a partner who supports them.

How did you get published? I explained that the usual process was to write a book, find an agent, and the agent would sell your book to the publishing company. However, in my case my editor at Kensington had the idea for the series. He went to an agent looking for someone to write the series. The agent went to Barbara Ross and asked her if she knew anyone who could write the series. Barb knew I loved garage sales. She knew I’d been writing and studying the craft for a long time. Barb asked me if I wanted to give it a whirl. I told her I’d think it over but when I woke up the next morning my first thought was: Are you nuts? Of course you have to try. Four days later I turned in a proposal for the series.

How long do you have to write your books? I had nine months for the first three and six months for the next four.

Who was my favorite writer and my favorite book? Oh, that one put me on the spot. But I went with Julia Spencer Fleming and her book In the Bleak Midwinter. I told them that her sleuth was a former helicopter pilot who was now an Episcopalian priest. We talked about how those two things created conflict. And then I paraphrased her first line to avoid swearing: It was a terrible night to throw out a baby. (The actual line is: It was one hell of a night to throw out a baby.) The kids gasped when they heard the line. The teacher planned to use the line as a writing prompt and promised to send me some of their stories.

We also talked about their favorite books and authors.

What advice do you have for us? Don’t give up. I have stacks of rejection letters and it took me a long time to get published. Read the kind of books you want to write. Study writing. I still take classes and read books on writing. When you are older join organizations like Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America.

Do you get writers block? I don’t believe there is such a thing, It’s fear, fear you aren’t good enough, fear this book won’t be as good as the last book, fear you have nothing to say – you do. When I get stuck I do what author John Dufresne recommended – look around – what does your character see, hear, smell? Write it all down to get them moving again – most of this will be thrown out.

We did a writing exercise that turned out to be one of my favorite parts of our time together. Who is your main character? What are three things they love and three things they hate? What is their favorite smell? Where would they go on vacation? Where do they never want to go?  When the kids finished they took turns coming up to share their answers. Then we talked about how they could take all those things to create conflict. One girl’s sleuth wanted to vacation in the Grand Canyon, but was afraid of small spaces. We talked about how her sleuth could go to the Grand Canyon and get lost in a cave. We went on with other students and what they could do with their answers.

As usual with these things, I worried for nothing. And I’m pretty sure I learned more than they did! Let me just add, god bless the teachers. I was exhausted after three classes — I don’t know how they do it!

Readers: Is there something that makes you nervous that turns out okay? Or just say hi if you don’t have a story to share!

132 Thoughts

  1. Thanks for sharing your class experience – it must have been challenging to do it on Skype! I had one of my books chosen as an intersession project by five high school students in Nashua, NH. they all read the book and invited me down to talk about it. They were a little shy at first, but we all relaxed after about ten minutes and had a great discussion. It ended up being one of my favorite talks!

  2. Thanks so much for sharing your experience with those six graders. I’m so happy that their school is offering the creative writing classes. Fifty five years ago when I was in school, those types of instructions were unheard of.

  3. It sounds like talking to the kids went great! What a fabulous experience for them. The idea of public speaking is something that makes me nervous. But my big thing is flying, it just has me absolutely freaking out. But while there has been some mishaps in the airports (delays, not being sure where I’m going even with the help of the airport employees, etc) the flights themselves have, as far as I can remember, gone just fine. (But the thought of crashing or something else happening still leaves me feeling sick.) Thanks for the chance to win.

    1. When I hear the weather is going to be bad, I get nervous before flying too! Just ask the Wickeds! It was very windy yesterday and I was a bit of a mess! Good luck!

  4. It was really have for you to take the time to talk to speak to a class of sixth graders. Sounds like they asked some pretty intelligent questions. Hopefully you inspired some future authors. Would enjoy reading your series. Thanks for the chance. Happy Thanksgiving!

  5. I used to be nervous. I’m a college math instructor and I stopped being nervous when I realized if the students knew more than me, they wouldn’t be in my class.

  6. What a great experience for everyone. My oldest is in sixth grade, and I know she would be thrilled to talk to an author about writing.

  7. Thank you for sharing this experience. My schedule is crazy right now and my writing time is on the back burner.
    I think of the times in college when papers were due. Sometimes it would be so difficult for me to start. I want my writing to be perfect. As the due date became closer I would just dog in and start writing. Once the first draft was done, then I could hone it. Lots of rough drafts before the final paper could be turned it.

  8. Loved reading your advice…and got a kick out of your mental excercises before speaking to the sixth graders. Almost made me miss teaching sixth grade!

  9. Loved reading about your Skype experience with 6th graders. They seemed like a great group of students. I’m sure they will remember this real-life experience for a long time. I’m a retired Reading teacher. 📚
    Thanks for the great giveaway.

  10. Sherry, you are a teacher’s dream speaker! I am in awe of you doing Skype with the class. The times we have done Skype with our son’s and their families, all I could think was how I looked so strange to myself. I really had to not look at myself and lose myself in watching the kids. As you know, I am a fan of your garage sale series and have bought all the books. So happy to hear that even more books are coming down the chute…as Dory says, “Just keep swimming”…in your case, writing. 😉

  11. How fun…well once you got underway with the class. I can only relate this to Student Teaching for several months all alone in a class… as I went into the Museum end of it. I wish that we had those sort of things (Creative Writing) Classes when I was in the sixth grade. I would have loved an Author to have talked to us. Good for you…

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