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. Hi! I never have a problem with public speaking except if any members of my family are there. Then my heart goes a mile a minute. Thankfully these instances have been few and far between. (No need to include me in the giveaway.)

  2. Sherry, what a wonderful blog! I also get nervous about public speaking. I do lots of preparation and a bit of practice. But once I am in the moment, the words flow. (Fortunately, I’ve got the four Sarah books, so don’t include me in the giveaway.)

  3. This is such a great post! Thank you for sharing. 🙂 I’m a teacher, too, but I teach high school English and Spanish. These 6th graders sound like they had an awesome class hour…and you, too! You were worried for nothing, and what a treat for them to be able to speak (and do a writing activity) with an author…so motivating! Great job! I love hearing stories like this! You definitely gave these kids something they will remember forever!

    Also, yes, please enter me in the giveaway. Keep up the great work! 🙂

  4. All kinds of things! But generally heading out to do whatever you didn’t want to do winds up alright. (parties where you don’t know anyone, etc!) I really enjoy C and R too, and hope those kids do send on their stories! Wonder if any will seek out the series to read!? Thanks!

    1. I think that are teachers were more focused on how to diagram a sentence that writing a creative one. Both are important, but kids have such great imaginations it seems like they should be able to use them more at school.

  5. Wow, I am currently reading In the Bleak Midwinter. That sounds like a great experience for all of you. They asked good questions! I used to help my son’s 2nd and 3rd grade classes during their creative writing block, and loved it.

  6. Glad you had a chance to spark the writing “bug” into the young minds of so many 6th graders. Never can tell one of them may be a great mystery writer some day. 🙂

    I love to bake and do it very often. I love to share the bounty of the kitchen with friends, loved ones or anyone I hear is down and out. When I do this entirely on MY timing, I have no problem. However, if I’m asked to bake something or the recipient knows they have something coming, I get nervous for fear it won’t turn out right or be a general flop with not enough time to remake it. In all my years of baking I can’t say I’ve really had such a thing happen (or at least not something that I couldn’t fix or correct). Why I have this fear I don’t know but it’s genuine and hits more often than I would like. Will I keep baking – YES because I love it but as I get older I realize I enjoy it more when it’s on my time schedule. Guess it’s like holding a job and then retiring. You might enjoy the same thing but you don’t have someone standing over you watching and dictating your timing on your skill.

  7. Oh wow – well done you! I would have been a gibbering nervous wreck (really hate public speaking)

  8. Speaking in public always makes me nervous when it’s a lot of people or just being around a bunch of people I don’t know. Usually all works out okay.

  9. On occasion I teach spinning on the spinning wheel and carding and combing wool and soap making and when I teach people who are not absolute beginners I think “You only have to know a little more than they do.” 😀

  10. I get nervous about going to social functions where I don’t know people. Small talk is hard. Thank you for the chance to win.

  11. That’s so wonderful you spoke with the school kids. It is surprising how much knowledge they have and the curiosity as well
    I was a shy child and always hated presenting in front of the class! I still get very nervous but plow through it. I admire my 3 kids,especially my shy one, because they all have no problems speaking in front of the class or presenting a paper. They were very lucky that our school system from kindergarten on had them doing it all the time and it became just another routine thing to do. My oldest is persueing her doctorate and is teaching. My “shy” middle child is an associate director of admissions at a college and my youngest is persueing his teaching degree. 😀

  12. I used to be in outside sales, not the best career choice for an introvert, but I did get used to speaking to both individuals and committees, so when I went back to school and was teaching a Freshman English course I just knew it would be a piece of cake. I was oh so wrong. Every quarter was a fresh new set of insecurities. But the students were, by and large, helpful. I taught the class as a big collaboration, we were working together to improve both their chances for success at school and in life and my teaching abilities. I think we succeeded for the most part.

  13. In college for one of my classes, I had to teach the class on a subject of my choice (a Middle Eastern country) and field questions from my classmates and professor at the conclusion. I usually have terrible stage fright, but thankfully I had a podium in front of me and was able to hide my hands so the class wouldn’t see them shaking. But I was also very prepared, so it wasn’t so bad — I actually aced it!!

  14. What a memorable experience. You never know what effect your session will have on those kids. You’ve probably inspired a future best selling author.

  15. Public speaking’s not got me, don’t like all the attention. Love your books.

  16. This was a great post! I loved that the class will be sending their stories to you to share! Thank you for sharing this with us!

  17. Sounds like an awesome time. I always enjoyed hearing writers talk, even when I was in school, so I’m sure they loved it.

  18. That would have made me nervous too. I wonder how many dreams you dashed by explaining how writing isn’t bringing in the big bucks. Until then, they probably thought all writers experience the type of success that J.K. Rowling has! mbradeen@yahoo.com

  19. I enjoyed your story because I teach for a living (community college), and I remember all too well how I felt years ago in front of a class. It is daunting, but often rewarding. I feel certain those students will remember your talk.

  20. Those kids were lucky! As a ex teacher I know they were really digging you doing that. It is daunting but it was worth it.

    I have picked up one of the books at the store but haven’t bought one yet. It looks like a great series!

  21. What a great post & thanks for sharing. I always dread & agonize over any new thing I do, then all comes together & I survive to fear & dread another day! LOL

  22. What a great experience you created for the students. Even if none of them ever becomes a writer, they will always remember when a real author interacted with them and answered questions that they would have a hard time getting answered some other way.

    I learned how to speak in front of groups of people in college (at an advanced age!) and feel that that is the most important long-term thing I learned there. I now really enjoy it.

  23. Oh…I love Julia Spenser Fleming too. I have many favorite authors…..I would be at a loss to choose just one!!

  24. Great post. Isn’t it awesome that you can teach, face to face, now through electronics in such a great way? PS: Loved meeting you at Crime Bake!

  25. In high school we had to memorize a poem and then the next day stand up in front of the class and recite it. It’s my turn I get up there I can only remember the first line. Totally blank. I got a C- for effort. pgenest57(at)aol(dot)com

  26. This is the first I’ve heard of this author. Looking forward to reading them.

  27. I think there are always times in our lives we must give ourselves a talking to to encourage and rid ourselves of those not needed nerves. Sometimes it works and sometimes we have to get a little sterner with ourselves. For myself it is usually about our son who has Autism and all the hoops we have to jump through for his best outlook on his life. robeader53(at)yahoo(dot)com

  28. I would love to win this series. I don’t have big fears of public speaking, as I do it all the time, I just don’t like talking in small groups!

  29. I get nervous when I am trying to do something at work that I’ve never done before. I almost always end up learning from it, though! Thanks so much for sharing this story. It was wonderful to read.

  30. What a great experience! I love hearing authors talk. My son loves author visits at school.

  31. Public speaking makes me nauseated, as do job interviews and travelling. It’s always fine, though. Not sure why I get stressed out.

  32. It sounds like you have a great time with the class, Sherry! I am sure they will remember speaking with a real published author. As an introvert, I had to psych myself up to do public speaking and presentations at conferences. I knew the subject matter well but sometimes I did better than others. I definitely remember feeling more nervous if there were people in the audience who knew me. I wish I knew some of the tips you were given to lose the nerves!

  33. Actually, becoming a mom! I must have gotten the hang of it… I had 8 children, lol!
    Happy Holidays-
    Kelly Braun
    Gaelicark(at)yahoo(dot)com

  34. The kids asked some great questions. I’ve always been afraid of public speaking. I’ve never had a time that didn’t turn out okay, but it doesn’t stop the anxiousness for the next time.

  35. Hi! I get nervous when I have to go into a situation that might have some confrontation involved. I’m not very good at it! Have a wonderful week and a Happy Thanksgiving!

  36. I always get nervous meeting new people–small talk is just not my thing. I was even afraid of Crime Bake–but it was just wonderful and I got to meet you Wickeds and your accomplices! Thanks to you and so many others for making me feel welcome!
    Happy Thanksgiving!
    -Melanie

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