A while ago, I was asked if I’d like to do some author training. Author training? I already knew how to be an author (Step one: boil kettle…) But this was training to do author events. I’m pretty terrified of doing author events, and glad of any help to soothe those nerves. So I attended the 21stCentury Authors programme, run by the National Literacy Trust in partnership with Author Profile and Arts Council England.
The idea was to equip us with some basic skills that authors (particularly children’s authors) might find useful when doing events for their readership. As with the rest of the writing career stuff, I’d sort of assumed that I’d have to make this up as I went along. The idea of getting formal training to talk about my book seemed a bit bizarre, but when we got down to it, I was surprised that this sort of course doesn’t seem to be more widely available to authors. It gave me a huge amount of useful, practical advice, that I think most authors would find both helpful and confidence-boosting.
The first workshop was about creating an event – we were asked to think about why we might like to do events, and what an audience member might hope for from us. We had to consider the idealistic, educational and business aspects of events, then we had to think about which ideas from our books we might like to discuss, and pick a single one to stand and enthuse about. We had to plan the phases of our event, down to the minute. While this might not suit the author who is a natural at giving entertaining speeches completely ad hoc, it’s very useful for those of us who prefer something to lean on if we’re standing in front of a room of restless but eager kids. The idea was that tight planning gives you a structure from which you can deviate if you want to, but which helps you keep the basic core of an event clear and easy to follow.
The second workshop was on performance techniques. That was something I’d never given any thought to – nobody had ever pointed out to me that if you put your book between you and your audience, it actually gets in the way (I think I tend to do this purposefully, in order that I can hide behind the book). But put the book lower down and turn sideways, and your audience gets the story, straight from you. Prepare. Gargle. Warm up your voice. Make eye contact with your audience when you enter – it’s all stage stuff, for actors. But it makes a huge difference to how well your audience connects with you, so whatever you’re talking about – books or astrology or the ingredients of a fidget pie – if you’re warm, relaxed and confident, they’ll probably find you more engaging.
The last workshop was about how to manage your events – how to negotiate with the people who are hiring you, how to work with groups of different sizes, how to structure your visits, legal stuff, etc etc... All very technical, but to be taken step by step through the whole process – what bliss!
Equipped with our new skills, we were given the opportunity to do a gig – I was lucky enough to be sent to Leicester City FC, to do one of their ‘stadium days’, where groups from local schools come in for author talks and tours round the stadium. It was my first insight into the work of the brilliant Premier League Reading Stars programme. I wanted to do writing workshops slightly based on my first book – in my head I just assumed that the kids would find this fun (who wouldn’t find writing fun?), and it would show them that not all writing was work. Was I right? The majority of the kids took pity on me and gave it a go. And they came up with some great stuff – llamas fell down chimneys, people fell down toilets, and a couple of the teachers came up to me afterwards and said that they’d done the exercises and enjoyed them too.
The whole author training experience was overwhelmingly positive for me – they were effectively saying, if you are an author nowadays, a good way to make a career is also to think of yourself as a performer. But they recognise that people who want to sit and write books aren’t always naturals at getting up in front of dozens of people and proclaiming how great their books are, hence the idea of specialised author training.
I wonder why it hasn't been more widely available before. Probably because this is a new world for authors, in which they need new skills to survive. And although that sounds a bit doom-laden – it’s actually, I think, a wonderful thing that authors are being pushed out of their turrets and into the hands of their readership. I find it terrifying to contemplate doing events, but as I make my characters face terror and walk through fire all the time – it’s probably a good thing to keep reminding myself what fear feels like!