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Pete Johnson’s advice on holding successful author events

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Pete Johnson’s Diary of an (Un)teenager and Return of the (Un)teenager are out with a great new look this month. We are often asked for tips on holding successful author events – from both sides – and since we know Pete is a bit of an expert in this area, we caught up with him for some advice.

Over the years I have been lucky enough to be invited to hundreds – thousands even – of schools and libraries. They have been some of the highlights of my career, and I’ve learnt a lot. So here first are:

My top tips for schools arranging an author visit

1. Let the pupils do the work
Recently I was met at Winchester railway station by the librarian – and two pupils. ‘We picked you,’ they chorused, ‘so you’d better be awesome.’ The pupils had not only selected me, but also given talks in assembly about my books, and on the day introduced me. ‘I wanted the pupils to feel a real sense of ownership of the day,’ said the librarian. They certainly did and the atmosphere was tremendous.

2. Don’t be afraid to sizzle
‘We’re not just selling sausages, we’re selling the sizzle as well,’ is an old advertising slogan which I really like. I think it applies to author visits too. So, invite along the local press, parents, and other schools. Put up displays everywhere. Arrange for the author to be interviewed for the school magazine, etc. And let’s sizzle together!

3. Go with the flow
The question and answer session that usually follows the talk worries some teachers. They fear pupils will let themselves down, either by not talking at all or asking silly or rude questions. So they conscientiously think up questions for them. Then on the day of the event come the rustle of hundreds of pieces of paper as pupils recite, in their best speaking clock voices, the teachers’ questions. And yes, it’s deadly.

So do encourage pupils to brainstorm their own questions, but basically I would say, don’t over-prepare and go with the flow. Your class might well surprise you – in a good way.

4. Meet the author
Once I arrived at school and was mistaken for an actor. I didn’t realise at first. I was too busy luxuriating in the plush, sixth form block settings. It was only when the teacher said how much he was looking forward to hearing me read from Coriolanus, that I realised something was wrong. ‘I don’t think I wrote that one,’ I squeaked. We all had a good laugh about it afterwards.

But the point is, there was no one there to meet me in the school foyer. I know how insanely busy teachers and librarians are. But if you possibly can, be there to greet your author, and stop them being mistaken for someone else!

5. Keep the magic going
‘This has been such an exciting day,’ a teacher said to me recently. ‘I don’t want all the enthusiasm to melt away now.’

Neither do I. So I always answer letters, although you may need to explain to some pupils what letters are. Plus, I am very happy to judge the final four or five entries in a competition. Or read book reviews. Or answer extra questions. Or practically anything really. The experience doesn’t have to finish when the author leaves the school.

Together we can keep the magic going.

And now, my top tips for authors visiting a school

1. When does the event begin?
Authors can be shy creatures, happy to exist below the radar, until they leap onto the stage. But during a school visit, you are creating a vibe the moment you arrive. So yes, this means you have to be friendly (gulp) and lively (gulp again) from the very moment you roll up at reception. And you are ON all day.

2. Be nervous
‘Do you still get nervous?’ someone asked me recently. The answer is – emphatically ‘Yes.’ After all, every event is different. But nerves are good. They mean you care about what you are doing. They also generate extra energy.

Just before he stepped on stage, actor Jack Lemmon used to whisper to himself ‘Magic Time.’ I’ve borrowed this. And it does work.

3. Check the room
The layout will affect the atmosphere. So look at, for example, how the chairs are set out. Also, sometimes schools want to put you behind a lectern. I always refuse this. I do not like even standing behind a table. Check too that you can be heard at the back of the room. I also like to walk all round my stage, owning every part of it. But maybe that’s just me!

4. Dare to look at the audience
After one of my first ever events I asked the publicist what she thought. ‘It was … good,’ she faltered, ‘I just wondered why you stared at the wall the entire time.’

I was so nervous, I hadn’t even realised. But however terrifying they seem, immediately look straight at your audience. They need to feel your confidence and assurance. Once they sense you know what you are doing, they will start to relax.

Authors Pete Johnson and Meg Rosoff

Pete Johnson with Meg Rosoff.

5. Begin with an earthquake… and end with a climax
That was movie producer Sam Goldwyn’s advice to screenwriters. It’s good advice for speakers too. Grab the audience’s interest from the start. And don’t let your talk just dribble away either. Build – as you would in a story – to a definite ending.

Thanks Pete! Take a look at the Barrington Stoke site to read the first chapters of Diary of an (Un)teenager and Return of the (Un)teenager.

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