SCBWI's First Pulse Boot Camp

SCBWI authors Sara Grant (Chasing Danger), Mo O'Hara (My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish) and Candy Gourlay (Tall Story) organised a day-long Boot Camp for debut SCBWI authors, both indie and traditionally published. Sara spoke on marketing strategy, Mo on school visits and Candy on social media and the internet. The venue was kindly provided by Goldsmiths University. Here's a post-mortem with Candy and five of the 24 participants: Camilla ChesterElizabeth Ezra, Jo Franklin, Olivia Levez and David Robertson 

Candy Gourlay:  Sara, Mo and I had been brainstorming ideas for some kind of mentoring scheme for newly published members under SCBWI's Pulse programme. We realised that between the three of us: Sara was formerly in PR, I was a web designer and early adopter of anything to do with the web and Mo is a professional stand up comic, we had the expertise to actually run a seminar together. We were insecure about combining both published and indie members, because the three of us were traditionally published and oh my god the entrepreneurial challenges of indie publishing are beyond our pooled knowledge base. But we decided to go ahead anyway because inclusiveness is so important to SCBWI's ethos, doors will be opened and barriers crossed. And on the day we were thrilled to find everyone got along so well and every attendee had something interesting to share.

Our roomful of authors.

Elizabeth Ezra: I won this year's Kelpies Prize, and my first children's book, Ruby McCracken: Tragic Without Magic, is coming out next year. As a not-quite-yet-published children's author, I found the whole event incredibly useful. I had found the thought of school visits really daunting, so it was especially helpful to learn about some tried-and-true techniques.

Jo Franklin: Although I've been published in other countries, it will be my debut in the United Kingdom with Help! I'm an Alien! I was a little wary about signing up to this event as I have done a lot of SCBWI seminars over the years and I'm beginning to find that I have heard what has been said before. However I found the day really useful. I need to go through my notes and then see what I need to apply to my website, school visits and promotion plan. As the session was about I'm a Published Author - What Do I Do Now? It didn't matter what route we each took to get there. Which is different to a How to get Published talk.

David Robertson: I'm self published by Matador and Dognapped! — published in April — is a finalist in the 2017 People's Book Prize. I attended the Boot Camp because I needed advice on promoting my books to schools and giving author talks. It gave me exactly what I needed and slightly scared me to death at the same time — the last time I was at school was nearly fifty years ago!

Olivia: I'm Olivia Levez, author of The Island, which was published by Oneworld last March. I'm currently editing my second book, The Circus - out next year. I went to the bootcamp because I didn't want to miss out on any gems from Candy, Mo and Sara! I already structure my books based on workshops from Candy and Sara from SCBWI conferences, and I found Mo's talk on school visits last year very useful and enlightening. I've taken the promotional plunge and set up Lost and Found, a collaborative debut author tour with fellow SCBWIs Kathryn Evans, Sue Wallman, Patrice Lawrence and Eugene Lambert, so wanted any tips on how to proceed.

Camilla Chester: I've just published my debut children's novel, Jarred Dreams for ages 9+. When I saw PULSE advert for Boot Camp I was very excited as it was exactly what I needed: advice and support for newly-published writers. I often feel slightly like a fraud as an Indie writer as I haven't had the same intense hoop-jumping and excruciating waiting as a lot of traditionally-published writers. I was worried I would be the 'poor relation'. I would say, however, that almost everything that was discussed at Boot Camp was relevant to me as it was focused on self promotion as a children's author, which is what we all are. I felt confident and comfortable enough to contribute and learned a great deal, not just from the fantastic hosts but also the other writers attending the Boot Camp.

Candy: You contributed a lot of valuable insights, Camilla — thank you! Going the Indie way requires entrepreneurial tenacity. It is not an easy option. And your roller banner! Most photos from the event have your roller banner in the background. We invited participants to bring examples of their marketing materials and the ubiquity of Camilla's banner in the photos is a real testament to how to get exposure.

Sara Grant in front of Camilla's famous banner. Sara has just launched the second book of her Chasing Danger series. 

Camilla: I love my banner... it adds the wow factor to events and really draws attention. When I saw it was featured in most of your photos I had that feeling of 'OMG I'm trying to take over and bombarded the whole event' but actually it has been great as lots of people were interested in getting one themselves and it has brought my book cover to lots of people's attention — which is what the banner is for after all!

David: I would just like to say that I got a banner too! I couldn't face lugging it along the Underground! 😃

Candy: So all you guys who have already been on the promotion and school visit circuit, did you learn anything new?

Jo: The skills we need to develop as published authors are as new and difficult as the skills we needed to develop right at the start, when we were trying to develop our amorphous ideas in a book with a cover, spine and ISBN. So it is good to focus on these skills for a day, take away some tips, inwardly digest, try and apply and then look at them again. What I love about being a professional author above all else is that constant personal development is built into the business model. I'm thrilled to be learning and crafting new skills all the time.

Elizabeth: I came away with valuable insights and ideas for structuring the visits, and also for creating activities and supplementary materials for a website. I feel I really benefited from the experiences both of the organisers (who were FANTASTIC) and the other participants, all of whom were extremely generous with their ideas and their time. I am so glad I made the effort to travel down from Scotland — it was well worth it. Thank you so much!

Mike Thexton is about to launch a four part fantasy series. Kathryn Evans's young adult novel More of Me has just been released.

Candy: Can you guys share some lightbulb moments?

Olivia: The importance of search words on blogs and websites. Candy's activity of making us soul search for the key words which describe us as authors and pinpoint the 'one line' of our book, was useful both for maximising our online presence and for fine-tuning our pitches.

Elizabeth: One of my big takeaways from the event was the importance of interactivity, whether on school visits or on an author's website. It made me realise that there are lots of ways to open up the world of your writing to both children and teachers, giving your ideas a life beyond the book.

Camilla: I've been struggling to get into schools so when Sara said it had taken eighteen months before schools contacted her rather than the other way around I was really happy as it made it feel like I was on the right track and just had to keep going.

David: Having a presence on all social media platforms even if it's only a page to tell people where to find you on another list. I'd never thought of that and will be implementing that as soon as my schedule allows.

Olivia's book The Island is out now. Jacob's first children's novel Hyacinth and the Secrets Beneath will be published next year.

Candy: Sara Grant discussed making short-term and long-term goals and creating a realistic marketing plan. Does this seem a daunting prospect?

Camilla: Sara's talk was so insightful and the thing that made me feel most 'on track'. It is important to be realistic and work out what is achievable and what you deem to be success. All writers dream to be published, of course, but it doesn't and shouldn't stop there, we want as many readers as possible. Sara's talk helped me clarify in my head what it is I am aiming for and how to get there in a practical, real-life way. I'm always struggling to sell books, so to hear figures about traditionally published 'best sellers' was really interesting. It made me think about how few authors may even sell out their advance and therefore how I am part of the same club in so many ways.

Candy: I thought Mo's method of 'chunking' — breaking the school visit programme and performance into chunks that you can add or drop according to the school schedule — was genius. Time keeping is such a pressure on a school visit!

David Robertson's book Dognapped came out last April, Nicki Thornton, winner of the Times/Chicken House Competition, will see her book The Firefly Cage published soon, Suzie Wilde crowdsourced her novel The Book of Bera on Unbound, and a hardback version will be published by Random House in 2017.

Camilla: I do this, but wasn't aware that I did! I do it in almost exactly the same format as Mo, so I guess I must've learned a good deal from the school visits workshop at (last year's SCBWI) conference. I loved the A3 laminates — going to have some of those done. I also thought Candy's input was really useful — story telling and making it personal to you. That stuff about linking geography and mythical legend was genius and I loved thinking about how else I could 'sell my skills' to librarians/schools.

Candy: Ha ha I don't even remember talking about that!

David: Chunking was really helpful. Another thing I'd never thought of.  Got a whole strategy planned around that now for future events. Laminates, another great idea. And bringing cuddly toys ... my book has five dogs and I thought of getting a cuddly toy to represent each one. Maybe giving a really large Alsatian to the smallest child. But — would I get them back?

The Scarlet Files Series by Tamsin Cooke (left) is published by Oxford University Press. Imogen White's book will be published by Usborne in 2017.

(Left to right, seated) Illustrator Anya Kuvarzina's book Make a Face will be out in 2017, Lucy Rowland's first three picture books will be out in 2017 published by Bloomsbury and Macmillan, Cath Jones has picture books coming out in 2017 and 2018, Penny Joelson (aka Penny Kendal)'s I Have No Secrets is coming out in 2017.

Candy: I also loved the fact that we were not just lecturing but sharing information. There was a lot of fascinating stuff about what works and what doesn't. It was great to learn about the experiences of the authors who got together for the Lost and Found book tour. Tell us more about it, Olivia?

Olivia: Lost and Found is an initiative designed to bring five debut authors together to 'cross-pollinate' (Candy's words) our promotion. Joining forces on a book tour means that we can support each other, pool ideas, and work with local bloggers (who chair our events for us) to put together our panel events. We share what it's like to be published, as well as pitching our very different books and discussing writers' tips and techniques. It's been a real learning curve in terms of promotion, and I found feedback from other SCBWIs at the bootcamp invaluable.

Camilla: That little snippet from Olivia about workshops — so useful. I could've done with an hour just on that!

Candy: What was your To Do List like after attending the event? What are you prioritising?

Olivia: On top of my to do list after bootcamp is to MAKE A WEBSITE!!! I already had a blog, but now that Candy and Tim Grahl have told me it should be top priority, I am now spending each evening playing with different themes and fonts on Weebly!

Jo: I already make some attempts at SEO but will do more. I think I may have cocked up because I don't get Google Alerts when I blog on my website but I do when I blog elsewhere. I also want to offer more additional material from my website as that combines promotion, author appearances and driving traffic to my site. I want to be more focused in the run up to my next book. I carved out a large slice of time but didn't have a strategy how to fill it so hopefully Sara's tips will help me be more organised.

Elizabeth: I realised I needed to sort out my social media presence (which is close to zero at this point), and start thinking about what I would put on my author's website, especially in terms of games and activities to go along with the new book, both for readers and for teachers who might want to make use of the book. Even though my book is a comedy and not at all didactic, I came away thinking about how I could use activities both on the website and in school visits to bring out the more serious themes (embedded, of course, in an entertaining format)

Mo discussing school visits. Her Big Fat Zombie Goldfish series  has been on the New York Times Bestselling list and her new series My Epically Evil Vampire Kitten has just been announced

Candy: My subject (social media and the internet) was so enormous when I was preparing my talk, it was really hard to hone it down to what was essential for a children's author. There was a mountain of stuff I could still talk about. Can you think of other areas we can address in the future?

Jo: I would find it helpful to have masterclasses or critique groups where we share strategies and try out our school visits or look at our websites and discuss.

David: Would it be an idea to put together a scheme of what works and what doesn't? I agree with Jo about strategy master classes to perhaps hone our own techniques.

Jo: In theory there should be a direct correlation between I do x and the result is y. This may work occasionally but most you try x, y, z, k, l and m and have no idea whether any of it pays off. So I think you have to plug away at everything you can do and hope. Meanwhile write the next book because if — a big IF — you get a contract that does pay something, you can quantify the return.

David: You're right of course, Jo. Who knows what works? If it were that easy we'd all be doing the same thing.

Candy: I am constantly hopeful that my next book will raise interest in my earlier ones. And that is why our number one priority should be: WRITE ANOTHER GOOD BOOK! Thanks to all the people who came and shared so many insights into this great job. As well all the fun gossip about your experiences. The Cone of Silence was trembling all day!

SCBWI is always on the look out for great ideas for its Pulse programme for published members. Are you a published member with a big idea for Pulse or who would like to volunteer? Get in touch! Contact Natascha or Candy and Mo

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing about this great event! It is fabulous to see so many published authors as part of SCBWI. We need your ideas for how we can help you! Please get in touch and volunteer if you can.


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